“Ben. Wake up. Wake up, Ben.” He came swimming up from the depths of an indistinct but spectacularly troubling nightmare to find his mother sitting on his bed, fully dressed in one of her going-to-church outfits, makeup on, eyes wide and burning with that insane fire that meant trouble. She had pulled the sheets from him and he was conscious of the underwear he had outgrown, thin and worn-out. From before he’d gained a foot in height across six painful months. In gym class he used the toilet stall to change. “Guess what? Guess what, Ben. Guess what we’re doing today.” When she woke him like this, which happened every few days, Ben always had trouble getting his head together. What day was it? What had he forgotten? Or was this just what his dad used to call the illness, in his mother, or in him, or both of them?
It was Tuesday. October 15, 1985. The more he thought about it, the more certain he was. His alarm clock, which was perched perilously on the far end of the windowsill from him, was dark, but the window itself was light. Which meant she’d been in here before, earlier, and had unplugged the clock. He’d already missed the bus that picked him up in the dark, out with the other kids from the apartments. “Is the answer,” he snarled, trying to pull the sheets back up past her weight on the bed, “going to school?” Ben’s mother laughed and lay down on the bed facing him, her breath hot on his face, her scent an assault.
“Of course not! Today is the day Mommy gets a new car!”
“MOM,” he exhaled, rolling away and presenting his thin back to her, “how can we get a new car? You said we couldn’t even afford to put tires on the old one.” But behind his cynical response there was already a swell of hope that made his stomach float in his body. He didn’t truly know how much money Mom made. He suspected that she didn’t either; the three of them, Ben, his ten-year-old sister Teresa, and his mother, seemed to be on a financial roller coaster that corresponded in no way with things like weekly paychecks or monthly bills. Some weeks they would go to the video-game-and-pizza place and she’d hand them twenty dollars each for tokens, her eyes wide, ordering twice as much as they could possibly eat. Then a day or two later he would come home from school and she’d be home instead of at work, up in her bed, crying just loudly enough so he could hear. If he yelled “Going out!” then slammed the door and stood quietly, the crying would stop.
“Get your sister ready,” the command came, “and hurry, because we have an appointment with a very nice man, a Mr. Foulke, at the Mercury dealer. You know that I used to have a Cougar, when I was younger.”
“Yes, Mom, I know.”
“It’s time to get another one. Your father made me sell the Cougar. I’m certain that when the whore he lives with now asks for a car, he doesn’t dare to contradict her. Your father is a millionaire and we are starving here, so he can have a new sixty-thousand dollar Mercedes-Benz every year. And one for the whore, too. Well, I hope she earns it. I don’t have to lie down with that man any more. This much, I am grateful for.” This monologue felt like a drill applied to the back of Ben’s skull, but before he could respond she was up and out of his bed, running out of the room, turning on the radio out in the kitchen, singing along tunelessly. “Somebody tell me! Why I work so hard for you!”
As he helped Teresa find something to wear from the piles of mostly dirty laundry in the downstairs hall, Ben whispered to her. “Mom thinks we’re getting a new car.”
“Really? ‘Cause the one we have makes that noise.” There had been a growling noise from the trunk of their Fairmont these past few weeks, starting faint but getting worse and definitely correlating to the speed of the car, not the speed of the engine. Ben knew that meant it was the rear diff or axle or something. Surely it could just be fixed. His mother had, until this morning, pretended not to hear it, turning up the radio and singing along louder. Teresa looked at him with concern. “Could we really get a new car?” Mom said she didn’t make a payment on this one. I heard her talking to Dad on the phone about it.”
“I don’t know. Let’s just stay quiet and try to stay out of her way.” So they sat mute in the Fairmont waiting for Mom to come out, which she eventually did, in a completely different outfit. She was vibrating.
“A Cougar! Finally! Candy apple red, just like my old one. Now, you’ve never heard me tell you this,” and this was inevitably the precursor phrase to a story they would have heard a hundred times, and never the same way twice, “but that Cougar was a gift from Mark Cooper, the man who owned most of Manhattan when I was at Columbia. He was a powerful man, and very passionate as well. He had the car delivered to my door by one of the men in his organization. I could certainly tell you more about him, but it wouldn’t be appropriate.” Ben sighed internally at this, having heard the “more” in explicit detail the last three times his mother had come home from a date or a party drunk. But before his mother could wind herself up into telling a different story, they were at the dealership.
It was new and stunning, with deep carpets and a monstrous crystal chandelier hung thirty feet above them. At least eight brand-new Mercurys and Lincolns were arrayed before them, nothing cheaper than a loaded Marquis wagon. In a flash, his mother had a simpering man in front of her. “We have,” she announced, “an appointment with Mr. Foulke.” They were led off the showroom floor to a private office to meet Mr. Foulke, who turned out to be a massive black man of approximately middle age in a Brooks Brothers double-breasted suit.
“So charming to meet you,” he breathed, and he leaned to kiss Ben’s mother’s hand.
“Dear me,” she responded. Ben had an inkling of how this would go; one of the seniors at school had offered him ten dollars a while back to steal his mother’s panties. She had been a famed beauty, or so she said, and men turned their heads when they were out in public. But still there was never any food in the refrigerator and Ben went to sleep hungry more often than he didn’t. “We’re here,” she clarified, “to buy a Cougar. In candy apple red.”
“I can certainly accommodate you,” Mr. Foulke laughed, deep and resonant. “That’s my job.” Ben was vaguely reassured that he was black; on television the black guy in a suit was always the good guy, fighting for a rec center or gun control or justice of some type against unscrupulous, evil white men who had Mercedes-Benzes and Armani suits and were basically Ben’s father. If Mr. Foulke thought this was a done deal, then he probably knew something that Ben didn’t. About a job, or some money, or something good that had happened.
In a flash, they were all packed into a new Cougar, driving towards the freeway entrance ramp. It was red, as requested, with a red velour interior. “This is the V-6,” Mr. Foulke noted, “with the RS package, which consists of a unique sporting combination of trunk rack spoiler and appearance stripes.” It smelled nice, like the showroom did.
“You should be aware,” Ben’s mother said to Mr. Foulke, who was leaning across the console to absorb everything she said, “that this is not my first Cougar.” Ben looked at Teresa, who frowned back at him: here it comes. But although his mother went on in detail that was meant to be obscure to the children but was in fact perfectly understandable to a thirteen-year-old, Mr. Foulke never appeared to be anything less than fascinated. Twenty minutes later, just as his mother was reciting the list of featured guests at her cotillion, they arrived back at the dealership.
“If this is the right car for you,” Mr. Foulke rumbled, “all we need to do is to run a few numbers and we’ll have you on your way.”
“I’m certain,” Ben’s mother replied, “that you’ll offer me something fair. Shoo,” and that was directed at Ben and his sister, so they ran off to sit in the back of a brand-new Town Car and whisper about what they would do with the new car.
“It has a computer dashboard,” Teresa giggled. “It’s so quiet. I like that it doesn’t make that noise. Do you think we’ll go to the pizza place?”
“We’ll have to celebrate. If we can afford the car, we can afford to celebrate.” They stayed in the back of the Lincoln. Ben read the brochures, for the V-8 Capri with its blunt-faced menace, for the futuristic aero Topaz. Teresa slept with her face against the velour door panel. Then there was a tapping on the window that startled Ben. He saw it was his mother and he felt humiliated for having shuddered.
“Come out of there,” she beamed. “That Cougar might not be available. But Mr. Foulke has a 1983 Thunderbird that we should look at. Nearly new. It might be easier for us to get into that one. Plus it’s a V-8. The Cougar is a V-6, which wasn’t what I wanted. My original Cougar was an XR7. That was a V-8, and so is this Thunderbird. A Thunderbird has class.” The Cougars had been in a neat row in front of the dealership, with their multi-color “RS” stripes and plastic on the seats, but this Thunderbird was in back, dirty, and it smelled like tobacco. The carbon-paper used-car disclaimer was taped up to the passenger window with “$8995″ scrawled in the corner.
It was better-equipped than the Cougar. “Loaded,” was his mother’s verdict, and she floored the throttle on the way up the freeway. Mr. Foulke hadn’t accompanied them this time, but they took the same drive, only faster, while hit mother spoke in the rapid stream of consciousness that Ben knew as the illness. “Quite suitable, some of the best people drove Thunderbirds in my youth, they would park in front of the Four Seasons, they were convertibles back then, but we didn’t know how unsafe convertibles were. Your father was so handsome then, and so smooth, although I knew that I was marrying beneath myself, he was so handsome I didn’t care, I don’t know how you don’t look anything like your father, Ben, he has such a classic look and you can be so awkward. Naturally I was never with another man when I knew your father. Something must have happened.”
“I want to go celebrate now,” Teresa complained.
“Soon, dear, soon, just a few papers to sign and we’re done.” But when they returned to Mr. Foulke’s office, there was a new man sitting at the desk. A white man, in a better suit. Angry-looking. Mr. Foulke stood to the side, looking abashed. Ben knew what this meant. The good guys were no longer in control.
“Susan,” the white guy said, “Mike and I have been working on this deal for a while. It’s not impossible. But I think we need to put a little more of a number on our car to make your car go away. Which is what we all want, right? What we’ll do is put, say, eleven on ours and five on yours, which will pay it off. You can work with that, right?”
“I’m sure you know what’s best,” his mother responded, and the man smiled.
“Now, for the credit thing. Now, you told us that you haven’t worked your job, your current job, very long. Now, we’ve pulled what we call a TRW on you, and I think we’re going to have to work with a bank a little bit. What we need is what we call a ‘co-signer’. That’s just someone who signs on the loan paperwork. You said you had family back in New York.”
“They’re dead,” Ben heard his mother lie, flat-voiced, through pursed lips. “My parents are dead. I have no one. I am depending on you. I was told — my friend, Marie, told me — that you can work with people, that you could straighten this out. I am,” she repeated, “depending on you.” Then she smiled, and the men smiled in reflex. There was a long moment of silence.
“Why,” the man behind the desk responded with brightness that he clearly didn’t feel, “don’t you see what you can do for a co-signer, and give Mike a call, and we’ll hold that T-Bird there until tomorrow night for you.” He stood and that was the sign for them to stand as well, to walk back to the Fairmont.
“Why are we getting back into the old car?” Teresa asked, breaking into a sob. “This car makes NOISE! We’re supposed to be getting RID OF IT!”
“Sweetheart, we’ll come back for the Thunderbird tomorrow, Mommy just needs to work a few things out. Who wants ice cream?” But the Dairy Queen was closed. It was just nine-thirty in the morning. They drove on and Ben could tell his mother didn’t know where she was going, they were leaving the safe part of town where their apartment was, but they finally pulled up in front of a Carvel, found the door unlocked, and sat down as the only customers there. “We’ll take three sundaes with everything!” she chirped to the attendant, who waited for clarification that did not come before leaving and returning with three monstrous, overloaded ice cream towers.
“I don’t want this,” Teresa cried. “I want a chip wheelie.” Ben’s sundae was strawberry, which he hated. He tried to move the strawberry topping away from a section of the thing, hoping to get a little bit of unadulterated vanilla, when his mother grabbed his hand, the one that held the spoon.
“Just eat it,” she hissed. “Just fucking eat it. I’ve given up everything for you. I was somebody in New York. I could have gone home, but for your and your fucking sister. Your father didn’t want you. I was stuck with you. Eat your fucking sundae. You put me in this mess. I won’t have your ingratitude. You sullen little shit.” Then she relaxed her grip and collapsed in tears, burying her face in her hands. Ben caught Teresa’s terrified eyes and motioned.
“Come with me,” he whispered. They walked up to the counter and faced the same girl who had taken their order. “Our mom says,” he offered confidently, “that we can have two chip wheels. She made a mistake.” Then, with the wrapped packages in hand, Ben led his sister out and into the parking lot, where they opened the rear door of the Fairmont and clambered in, sitting together, eating their ice cream. When their mother appeared on the sidewalk, Ben reached forward past the driver’s seat and touched the switch that locked all the doors. The keys were clammy in his hand. And while their mother beat on the window and screamed, Ben faced Teresa and took the hand that didn’t hold the chip wheel in his.
“I hate this car,” Teresa said.
“It’s not forever,” he whispered, “nothing is forever.”
A note on the automobile which sits uneasily at the center of this narrative: the 1985 Cougar RS was just one of the many tape-and-stripe packages popular with Mercury dealers, and you can read all about them at Cool Cats — JB