When my father arrived at the accident scene, I was huddled in the back of Mom’s Nissan King Cab 4×4, head between my knees, just about managing not to cry. My sixteenth birthday present, a slick, five-speed Datsun/Nissan 200SX hatchback, was broken nearly in half and skewed across the middle of Ponset Street. The parked car I’d hit, a Nissan Stanza, had been launched up the curb, past two houses, coming to rest in the lawn of the third house down. We didn’t know to call it drifting back then. We called it powersliding, and I’d been determined to master it on my first legal day behind the wheel. I’d been doing nearly sixty miles an hour, full opposite lock, in some vague control of the two-tone Datsun, when I realized that it was legal to park a car right where I was headed, and that somebody had done so.
The old man appeared in the window of Mom’s truck. I couldn’t look at him.
“You okay?” he inquired.
“Yes, Sir.” There was a pause.
“Don’t expect to drive again. No time soon.”
“No, Sir, I don’t.” And, in fact, it was a year and a half later before I got another car. That car was a 1980 Marquis Brougham Coupe. Blood red on the inside and out. White Landau roof. Two thousand, two hundred, and ninety-nine dollars was what Dad paid. There wasn’t a straight panel on the car, and it ran down the road as crooked as the dealer who called it “a clean, two-owner example.” Maybe we got ripped off, but without the Marquis I wouldn’t have known Tanya.
That summer of 1989 I was recovering from a broken neck and crushed legs suffered in a bike accident. I was six foot two, down from six foot three thanks to leg surgery, and I weighed one hundred and twenty-five pounds. During the day I worked downtown at David Hobbs BMW, driving the parts truck and eating the forty-nine-cent hamburgers at the McDonald’s down the street. When the day was done, I drove to the housing projects on the West Side of Columbus to hang out with my old BMX pals who lived there. We’d drive around, look for trouble, look to meet girls.
I met Tanya at a dance club on Sullivant Road, next to a meat packing plant and a refinery. The clubs didn’t care as much about age then. She was five foot eight. Red head. Big eyes. Neither she nor her body possessed the slightest bit of naivete. She danced with me, told me stories in her rural Ohio accent. Lived in a thirty-thousand-dollar house with her grandparents. Mom and Dad were long gone. She was out of school, working at a Rax fast-food joint. No plans for the future, not really.
Well, I couldn’t bring her home to meet my folks, but I could just not go home myself, so that’s what I did, night after night, taking her out for dinner, parking somewhere, dropping her off to the waiting grandparents, then sleeping on a floor in somebody’s subsidized apartment before returning to work in the same clothes. Mom left messages for me with my friends. Dad said that when he came back from New York he wanted to talk to me. He reminded me that I was leaving for school in a month and that I had promised to save my paychecks for my expenses.
The Marquis had problems. The Variable Venturi carburetor wouldn’t run much more than thirty minutes at a time without stalling out and requiring a cool-off. Nobody would fix it. The Mercury and Ford shops in town wouldn’t work on VV carb cars. The fuel tank was full of dirt and I learned how to change a filter by the side of the road. Kept two spares in the glove compartment, along with the wrench and flatblade I needed to change them out.
Tanya was free with her body, as much as I expected her to be anyway, but her soul was locked somewhere I couldn’t reach. She wouldn’t take any gifts. Wouldn’t admit to being my girlfriend. She told me to stop coming in to Rax to see her. She said she and I weren’t traveling in the same direction. Said that I should go to school and never think about her again. The dome light in the Marquis didn’t work so I didn’t see her face when she got out, closed the door, and ran up the steps to her house that last time. I know she was covering her eyes with her hands.
I was driving down the dark two-lane home to the suburbs when the alternator light went on and the big Merc came to a halt by the side of the road. No further to go. And before I knew it, I was beating that shiny plastic wheel with both hands until there was dark red blood on the bright red velour. I screamed and screamed but there was nobody to listen. I opened the glovebox for a replacement fuel filter and realized I’d used my last one two days back. Curled up and went to sleep on the passenger floor. In the morning I walked to the auto parts store, bought a filter, and fired up the 302 again. Might as well go to work.
Old McKinley Road by the Columbus quarries is marked forty-five but I was running that Marquis at eighty, full-throttle in the empty oncoming lane, steaming past traffic with all the fury I could muster, thinking about that girl and my job and the mess I’d made of my life, when a pickup truck pulled out from a side road and faced me head-on. I stepped on the coupe’s brake pedal and she turned right around, locked up on all four corners. I entered the ditch at full speed backwards. Took my hands off the wheel and folded them across my chest. This was more a time for prayer than for further steering.
I saw the pickup flash past my drivers window and then the Marquis bounced backwards out of the ditch. Spun a few times. Came to rest in the middle of the road, facing the right direction, straddling the double-yellow. All the traffic around me was stopped. I waved apologetically at everyone and continued to the dealership. A BMW 528e followed me all the way in. He’d seen the big roundel on my back window. He went in and complained to the service manager, who listened to the story and smiled in polite disbelief. Didn’t matter. I had already turned in my notice. Worked my last two weeks. Saved every dime. Sold some stuff. “Go to school,” my father said, “and forget about that tramp.”
It was nineteen years later when I walked into a hair salon and this sassy redhead bounded up to take my name. Five foot eight. Big eyes. Neither she nor her body possessed the slightest bit of naivete. And her name wasn’t Tanya, but I didn’t expect it to be. She rides in my Town Car as careless and free as I could want. It’s okay with me. In real life not all the loose ends wrap up nice and tight, and that’s okay with me, too.
In memory of Gordon Baxter.