The Red Marquis, The Redheaded Girl, and the Red Mist

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

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.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • JustPassinThru JustPassinThru on Feb 03, 2011

    There's nothing I can add...except that you've got a superb gift for prose. You say you're channeling Gordon Baxter. I'll take your word...but to weave a story that well, no matter how can honestly call it nothing but your own. I, too, used to read Baxter's column in Car and Driver back in my teens. I tried my hand a fiction and story-telling...but it didn't come off so well. A tip of the hat from my tiny little corner.

  • -Nate -Nate on Jun 17, 2013

    I just found this ~ GREAT STUFF ! . I too traveled a similar road and am *very* lucky indeed to still be alive . I spent my entire Father's Day with my Son who , at one point , sadly asked me why his Mother cannot open her mouth without lying and causing tremendous grief for herself and everyone else nearby . I dunno Son , she wasn't a Red head but she was just like that and being young and in experienced , I married her anyway , our Son is the only good thing out of those wasted 15 years . KEEP WRITING ! . -Nate

  • James Hendricks The depreciation on the Turbo S is going to be epic!
  • VoGhost Key phrase: "The EV market has grown." Yup, EV sales are up yet again, contrary to what nearly every article on the topic has been claiming. It's almost as if the press gets 30% of ad revenues from oil companies and legacy ICE OEMs.
  • Leonard Ostrander Daniel J, you are making the assertion. It's up to you to produce the evidence.
  • VoGhost I remember all those years when the brilliant TTAC commenters told me over and over how easy it was for legacy automakers to switch to making EVs, and that Tesla was due to be crushed by them in just a few months.
  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.