The dream is always the same.
The day is ending. Cool evening breezes riffle across the sun-scorched furze and set dried leaves a-rustling in the trees, their sibilant hiss like the restless fluttering of a thousand small birds. Long and dappled shadows stretch flickering fingers across the hot tarmac of the final corner.
There is a crowd and they are silent, expectant and indistinct: faces like the smudged soft-focus colours of an impressionist oil-painting amongst the flapping flags. Insects hop and buzz in the long grasses; gradually, slowly, their hum is blended, enhanced, and finally supplanted by a rising crescendo.
The pack is coming, and Kaida is leading them.
She awakes to heavy rain drumming on her roof and splashing muck up onto her flanks. It’s barely dawn, the sky dull and sullen. Today it will clear, but brighten only to the dingy grey of an old bedsheet and no further.
Kaida feels her age. Shocks blown, bushings cracked, headliner sagging, once-beige paint fading and blistered. A crack bisects her grimy windshield, her headlights are yellowed and an inexpertly repaired wound is now an obvious and unsightly scar. Her heart is clogged with the plaque of neglect and she is shamed to see that where the water flows beneath her, it shimmers with a rainbow of dropped oil.
Soon, her current owner will call upon her and, with a single cough, she’ll rise gamely to battle the mid-morning traffic. Until then, she rests.
Chapter One – A Journey
Kaida was born in the way of all mechanical things. One moment a pile of assorted components, the next a whole. An unsmiling salaryman examines her, checking his notepad, oblivious to her questions.
“Where am I?”
“What am I?”
“Who are you?”
These and other soundless queries go unanswered as she joins the long queue exiting the factory’s womb and makes her way into the holding yard. There are others here, like her and yet not; their vacant, placid stares indicating a will to wait ’til the end of the world if need be.
Kaida is different, eager and antsy. Perhaps a fragment from a long-forgotten warrior’s katana has found its way into the steel that makes her chassis. Perhaps the factory worker that assembled her powerplant momentarily felt his fingers dance with the genetic tug of an ancestry of craftsmen; a family born and raised beside the heat of some hillside forge.
Whatever the case, she feels like a horse in a herd of cattle – packed tightly in the immense rectangular Ro-Ro vessel that will take her East to the West. In the damp gloom belowdecks, cars shift unhappily on their suspensions as the carrier shatters the Pacific with its bluff, broad prow. Kaida sleeps, and dreams.
California is sunny and bright with the raucous calls of circling gulls. They shit on the gathered rows of cars like endless squadrons of grey-on-white B-17s, layering guano on every imaginable shade of dirty, once-bright paintwork. Most don’t notice. Kaida hates it.
Then the railway. Endless swaying from depot to depot as the train snakes its way deep into the heartland. Shunting, rattling, delays and dust: the suffocating heat of a Texas rail-spur; the industrial despair of a rustbelt ghost town. And then, one day, the train moves on, but Kaida stays behind.
Loaded up front in a truck transporter, the driver figures her gold colour will hide any rock chips, tucking a black-on-black MR-2 safely underneath. They pull out on the interstate and Kaida gets her first glimpse of the American road.
It’s broad and smooth, an unbroken line stretching out to the horizon, and beyond. It speaks of freedom, sings of adventures to be had, whispers promises that are only the more enticing for all their vagueness.
She sits up high, watching cars stream past, loaded up with people and things. A lone motorcycle blurts its baritone raspberry. A dog barks at her from the open bed of a pickup truck. Endless fields spread out on either side as the traffic thins. A big country, wide open with potential.
At the dealership, a crowd gathers. Not for Kaida, or her other hum-drum travelling companions, but for the MR-2. Salesmen squabble over who will be first to try out the mid-engined car, right up until a florid manager arrives.
The law is laid down: no joy rides. Cleaned up and rolled right into the showroom for the weekend. The MR2, a green Camry, and – he points at Kaida – that one.
The lot boy – with his usual careless hurry – scrapes her belly while careening over a speed-bump, jams her transmission into park from a roll, and then proceeds to drop the wash-mitt on the ground and not bother to rinse it off. By five o’clock she’s backed into the far corner of the show-room, scarified and somewhat non-plussed by the rough treatment.
A small showroom, in a small dealership, in a small town, but it does have a crown jewel: a bright red twin-turbo Supra. It squats smack-dab in the middle of the showroom, reducing everything that surrounds it to mere background noise. Even the MR-2 shrinks by comparison; a minor noble in the presence of the king.
That night, Kaida neither sleeps nor dreams. She is in the company of greatness; titans with whom she will soon be sharing the road. She awaits the dawn anxiously, patiently, nervously, quietly.
Saturday is sunny, and the sales staff come trooping spiritedly out of the morning meeting, amped on caffeine and spiffed with cash, ready to greet, grin and grapple, shake hands and cajole. By eleven, four names are scrawled on the board in bright marker, and a jocular, festive mood fills the air. It’s going to be a good day.
Richard Hedley buys Kaida at 11:30, without test-driving. She is the last car to sell that weekend – he has that effect.
Chapter 2 – Richard
He comes in a cab on the Monday morning. No trade-in, his previous car has died on the hoist and been sent off for scrap without a twinge of regret at anything other than the expense of the tow-truck. The salesman flattens out his old license plates, bolts them on, and off Richard goes, without even adjusting his mirrors.
Mr. Hedley teaches, or rather, he lectures. Every day, he looks out at a herd of upturned, bovine faces and quietly despairs. His tone is dry, his tie knotted carelessly, his endless sports-coats frayed not by poverty, but ennui.
Like all kids, his students are no fools. They feel the waves of contempt radiating off this disheveled man and reflect it right back to him with surly unruliness. In the very first week, Kaida is awakened from a pleasant afternoon nap in the teacher’s parking lot by the cold sharpness of a key scoring a jagged line down her flank.
When he sees the damage, “Dickheadly” doesn’t utter a single staccato curse, nor clench his fist or jaw, nor harbour sudden red-tinged fantasies of revenge. He just sighs: in a sea of disappointments that laps at the shore of his life, this is but a minor wave.
The years pass and Kaida trundles back and forth from high school to home via the liquor store and the library. Her unpatched wound turns orange with iron oxide and her corners collect the scuffs and scrapes of an incautious parker: the kind who doesn’t leave notes.
The miles mount slowly, both in tally and in the speed at which they’re traveled. Mr. Hedley is as bumbling a driver as he is a wooer, cautious to a fault, yet not without a certain self-centered recklessness. Her tires wear and crack, her brakes began to squeak, but she is yet in her prime. Tucked away in the driveway at night, she dreams of hot tarmac and the sprint for the finish line.
For Richard, the same can not be said. He has swollen noticeably around the middle and sagged everywhere else. His life has become a sea of beige: beige textbooks, beige folders, beige papers, beige desk, beige trousers, beige meals, beige car. The only colour left in his life is the red to be found in his glass on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening. But then, she comes.
She is an English import, but not in an unapproachable, prim-and-proper sense. Miss (definitely not Ms.) Simmons is a South Counties maid, dark-haired, red-cheeked, plump in all the best places and merry-eyed. She teaches well. She likes a laugh. She likes a drink. She touches his arm when she talks, and laughs, and winks, and swirls away in a cloud of vanilla scent.
It takes a month to rouse himself from his long-habitual stupor. He drives faster to work and slower away from it – Kaida notices and is glad.
He becomes gradually less rumpled, less weathered. His shoes shine and his shuffle becomes a stride. His colleagues notice, and they smirk behind their hands– Miss Simmons touches everyone’s arm when she talks.
The road home leads past a little corner lot, coloured triangular flags fluttering in the breeze like the twinkling of a fish-lure above the hook. He’s passed this way for years, never noticing, but on this day a gleam of red catches his eye, and before he realizes it, he is turning in.
The red turns out to be a BMW 3-series cabriolet – “a real pussy-magnet” the salesman leers, with the sort of offensive manner that he knows is expected of him. A deal is struck. Papers signed.
Richard rolls out of the lot in a fog, out past the school, past the mill, past the liquor store, on past his house, out and down to the main drag where milling crowds fill the sidewalks in the warm air of the coming summer holidays. He sees her there, and she is with another.
To his credit, Richard doesn’t just sigh. He curses, and pounds the steering wheel, and speeds off into the night, eventually slinking home in the early hours of the morning to open a cupboard, crack a seal and pour himself out a cup of oblivion. In her new home, Kaida sleeps beneath the fluttering pennants, and dreams of apexes.
Chapter 3 – Michelle
Michelle Montgomery has made a mistake. His name is William (never Bill or Willy) and he is three. He is a bright boy, bright like his father and occasionally possessed of the same saturnine temperament.
Of course, William’s father has other qualities as well: narcissism, promiscuity, and violence. All of these dangerous little facets once seemed attractive to Michelle, and just because a hard truth has finally been exposed to her does not mean she’s learned anything from the experience. The pair of them are alone, except when she is not.
She has a job, which is something. It pays less than you’d expect, but it’d be enough if the money was well-managed, which it isn’t.
If this was another sort of story, Michelle would be a kind of heroine, struggling and sacrificing. As it is, she is only half as bad as William’s deadbeat father: deeply inconsistent, one moment smothering, the next coldly distant; as apt to throw a tantrum as her child – and she pinches.
She rolls into the corner lot in a dying Chrysler Intrepid with a cash-loan from her estranged mother that is just about enough to work out a skinny deal. The same salesman that talked Richard into his new BMW walks out to greet her with a lizard’s smile and a wolfish gaze that slowly devours her still-slim, denim-clad figure.
His lascivious smile lasts through the introductions, through the test-drive, all the way right up until negotiations. As they sit down, William, who has been fairly disinterested in the proceedings up to this point, contrives to get himself stung, grabbing a wasp that has been buzzing and batting futilely against the window.
The tiny office instantly fills with a piercing howl, a screaming roar made to rattle fillings and liquefy the brain. The salesman looks at the once-pretty girl, the grimace on her lined, exasperated face. She clutches at the squalling brat, his open mouth like a red wound, and the salesman feels his testicles retract back up into his stomach.
Paperwork never happened so fast. Kaida finds herself crammed full of stroller, child seat, boxes and bags and clothes and stuffed-toys and all manner of detritus. William recovers his composure in the first mile.
Michelle drives fast but not well. She leans forward over the wheel and lurches out into traffic, stomps on the brake pedal at the last minute, chatters on her phone and never, ever, signals before turning.
William is a little boy, and that means dirt. He kicks the back of the front seats and drops crumbs from crackers and cookies, spills juice in sticky puddles everywhere. Kaida’s interior takes on a musty fug of spoiled milk and fast-food wrappers.
There are boyfriends, most worthless, all temporary. One begs the keys “for a job interview” and ends up backing Kaida into a post. Hard. He slinks back at night, tosses the keys on the dresser and is gone in the morning. Michelle doesn’t even notice the damage until weeks later: she is trying to load the groceries and the trunk won’t open.
Her parking-lot struggles do not go unnoticed; he is tall and rangy, dark-haired and loose-limbed with a dangerous confidence. Kaida receives a close-fisted thump on the rear and her trunk springs open. Michele throws her head back and laughs, baring her throat. He smiles too, a glittering, toothy grin.
William, now six, looks solemnly out at the old familiar dance and briefly locks eyes with the cold, predatory gaze of the stranger. He is a bright boy, and he can see hard years ahead. But then, steel doesn’t sharpen against cheese: eventually, he’ll be fine. Kaida will not.
Michelle’s moves in, and as her stranger snaps up every aspect of her life, it becomes evident that there is no need for her aging set of wheels. Kaida will have to go, and after three weeks on craigslist, off she does.
Chapter 4 – Michael
Michael has just turned twenty-three and is coming to the bewildering realization that the world does not, in fact, owe him a living. This state of affairs is in direct conflict with his what his parents and teachers have been telling him for years.
He works as a picker at a warehouse, packing things in boxes, up and down through the aisles. The pay is okay. The hours are good. They don’t seem to mind when he makes a mistake.
The ladies that work the returns section of the warehouse love him, and why wouldn’t they? He’s always quick with a quip, affable; long-haired and lean with a languid smile.
He wires in a sub, replaces Kaida’s stereo with a Sony Xplod. On evenings, Mike drives out to the dyke with Tim-bo in the warm summer evenings and gets high as a kite to the thump of the bass and the sounds of Kaida’s trunk rattling and buzzing away.
He has a loose plan to pay back his parents for the car, but somehow it never happens. The summer seems to stretch on forever, and by the time the leaves start changing, he’s pretty much where he’s always been: not ahead, not behind, takin’ it easy.
Winter, and a cold one. There’s a new guy on shift, olive-skinned and silent; Mike invites him out for beers but he smiles shyly and mumbles something about his family. Whatever.
Tim-bo’s already half-cut by the time Mike finds a parking spot for Kaida and stumbles into the bar, eliciting complaints from those near the door as the icy blast swirls round their feet. Catch-up time – two quick shots take the edge off, maybe a brief step outside to blaze?
He nearly slips on a patch of ice coming back out, but catches the arm of a passer-by and hauls himself back up. The stranger pivots angrily and before Mike can murmur his usual easy-going thanks, a fist lashes out. The punch does little damage, but the fall…
Mike is ok. He’s ok.
Michael, on the other hand, Michael the little boy that once built a vinegar-and-baking-soda model of all the volcanoes of Japan; the boy that kissed Susie Jensen underneath the soccer field bleachers and then ran to tell Tim what kissing girls was like; the boy that once cried himself to sleep over the injustice of a dead hamster: he’s gone. All that’s left is Mike, good old, slightly dopey Mike.
Oh, and he can’t drive any more.
Chapter 5 – Trevor
Kaida is sold to Brent. Brent is a juggalo, and I hardly need tell you what the next two years are like.
Brent finally trades her to Kym for a laptop, but Kym doesn’t drive and Kaida sits outside on deflated tires in the heavy rain. Eventually, Kym’s roommate agrees to pay for the privilege of driving across town and promises to cover the cost of any parking tickets or breakdowns. Kaida is weary, but her dreams are as vivid as ever. In them, she is something more than the fading hulk that rises daily to travel across town, battling stop and go traffic.
Then, one day, Trevor arrives. He is slim, bespectacled, his face slightly scarred by long-forgotten teenage battles with acne. Kaida is yet again on the block, this time for just seven hundred dollars. Trevor will pay five hundred and five hundred only, but not because he’s cheap.
Kaida returns his gaze and for the first time, meets someone who knows what she knows. Someone who looks past the decrepitude of years of abuse, past the once-beige paint job and her rusting quarter-panels and her automatic transmission, past her weak four-cylinder engine and her soggy suspension and her ratty interior and her decaying steering and her mushy brakes and somewhere, far off, as though at a great distance she hears him say, “I’m looking to buy a race car and I can only spend five hundred bucks.”
A race car.
In the paddock, Kaida sleeps. She is painted in full race livery: her flanks read, “Rolling Road-block Driver Training” on one side and “Team Borolla” on the other. Her sagging front seats have been replaced with salvaged Recaros out of some VW product and her once-leaking engine boasts the least-likely turbocharging setup you could ever wish to see. It looks like Frankenstein’s duodenum with a tumourous snail hanging off it.
But she is ready. Ready for tomorrow’s battle. In the morning there will be smoke and noise and fire and paint-swapping and black-flagging and wheel-to-wheel combat of a ferocity unseen since the hippodromes of Rome. Her unlikely foes lie to the right and left, E30 BMWs, hacked-up Miatas, Volvos, Buicks, Lincolns, a Citroën.
Tomorrow, the fray. Tonight, Kaida sleeps.