“Drifting” by Jane Cornish Smith, acrylic, gesso, charcoal, and wax on paper, 2011.
Cars were powerful, sacred things in my family. Mom’s first car was a baby-blue Camaro, flipped twice on her way down to Florida. Dad’s second job was on the pit crew for NASCAR. Pop-pop, Uncle Turk, Aunt Dee—they’d head down to Roosevelt Boulevard after dark to watch the street racers compete. Pop-pop would always share the details with me the next day. How they squatted alongside the road in the buzzing yellow glow of Philadelphia streetlights making wagers, watching the drivers zoom down their makeshift track, and waiting, ultimately, for the sound of police sirens which signaled it was time for them, too, to disappear into the night. I remember once asking why they raced there on the Boulevard, when it had so many stoplights. Pop-pop half-wheezed-half-laughed. “If you want to win, if you need to go, you don’t stop just ‘cause someone says you got to.” I was just a kid. I didn’t get it yet.
We were made to drive. People could tell wherever we went. Us heavy-footed sons-a-bitches, with the wind-swept hair and the squinty eyes, would pull up at car shows and immediately be shepherded by the fellow gearheads. This cylinder, this block—they had to show us. It was ritualistic. We patted the dash in gratitude when we passed stragglers on the highway and extended skinny middle fingers when tailgated. Every car had a soul, and every car needed a name.
Grace came into my life just before I left for college. She was a 2002 Ford Focus, red, given to me as a graduation present. It was clear at the dealership that she’d seen a lot. The engine was a transplant, still bearing the garish yellow-highlighter serial number from the junkyard. Left idle, she’d struggle to avoid overheating. On hot days, the engine fans were cacophonous. When I picked up dates, I’d leave Grace running in their driveways. The girls balked at the noise she made, the 115-horsepower-fueled wheeze exploding from behind the grill.
“Gracie gets separation anxiety,” I’d explain. “She’s jealous, too, so you better watch it.”
Grace had a storied life before me—ten years of hard drives and poor maintenance. The battery cables needed a jostling to carry the current. The windshield wiper controls worked less than half the time. She’d fall out of gear when going faster than 70. She was temperamental and bitchy and worked when she felt like it. No, she wasn’t perfect—far from it. But, being only eight years older, I wasn’t perfect either.
I didn’t need perfect to be happy. When I took her for the test drive, she felt right. Driving the wrong car is a lot like dancing with someone else’s girlfriend. Back straight, eyes forward, hands where everyone can see them. There’s no rhythm, no sway. It’s the kind of mechanical motion that driving never should be. I was always comfortable with Grace. On that very first test drive, I let my arm slack onto the door and leaned far back into the grooves of the driver’s seat. I knew her alignment, her brakes. I felt her, and in that instant she was mine.
We learn to drive the way I imagine people learn to diffuse bombs. It’s a methodical process. In Driver’s Ed and in the instructional videos, it’s all Point A to Point B. People are always going places. But driving can be meditative and liberating. There is no greater freedom, I believe, then passing over smooth, striped asphalt with no destination. To be lost and curious behind the wheel. The Zen of it.
As a teenager floating in the interstice between high school and college, these pockets of Zen were plentiful. I remember how the city was new viewed from the driver’s seat. The pedestrians jaywalking, the bicycles weaving, the flashing of diner signs, and the weight of the other cars. Behind the wheel, these things were no longer static scenery, they were living and electric. I’d often get lost, following large avenues into side streets into alleys through bad neighborhoods. I took comfort during these trips in the safety Grace provided. Inside that car, it was my world—shelter from what existed outside.
At the end of the summer, in the foamy grey backseat, I lost my virginity. I’d parked Grace behind a Hilton Hotel that overlooked what felt like all of Philadelphia. It was with a girl named Mary, whose skinny, freckled body laid uncomfortably along the curvature of the interior. It was hurried and breathy. I dug my finger into an old cigarette singe in the seat while our feet jostled the doors. It was the kind of sex had through unzipped jeans, the young clueless kind where every “I-love-you” is followed by an “I’m-sorry” or a “you’re-on-my-hair.” We filled the car with giggles and steam and scattered after a manager spotted us. I can still see that manager’s brown-lipsticked scowl in my head when I think of that night. I remember how her hair-sprayed curls bounced as she threatened to call the police. Snickering from behind the window, I climbed to the driver’s seat and revved home. On the way, Mary and I poked at each other’s still-naked bodies. So foolish, so very young.
In college, I grew up, and Grace grew old. Of all the lessons learned at my university, perhaps the most indelible is that my university was incredibly expensive. Desperate for cash, I took a night job delivering pizzas. The perils of working delivery are well known: the harsh weather, the robberies, the attacks. But it is also achingly lonely. A pizza boy is a transitory entity—coming and going—and, as a result, permanently in the way. Cooks hand you food. Customers hand you money. Doors slam, few words are exchanged. For a pizza boy, being good at his job means being invisible. Peace exists on four wheels, with doors locked, dry underneath a metal roof. Familiar voices come in the form of radio. The cheesy shock-jocks and DJs become company, and their over-the-top attempts at humor begin to register, at the very least, nods of familiarity. Grace could only offer so much. I loved and was grateful for the passenger seat, but in the midst of those double shifts at the shop, I wanted nothing more than a passenger. Jackie BamBam of 93.3 cackled out of my radio speakers most often. I’d text in during his Saturday shifts and hover over the speakers, waiting for that moment when he’d render me whole again: when his voice would bounce out into the airwaves and acknowledge me, the pizza boy with an identity underneath his store cap. This one, my fellow vampires, goes out to David, delivering in Port Richmond. A thankless job but an honest one, too. We raise our devil horns to you, Dave.
The job was hard on Grace, too. She was perennially winking due to a short in the headlight circuit. Belts snapped regularly, often costing a day’s worth of work and hundreds of dollars in repair costs. We shambled on like this together. I’d walk into the mechanic’s office, my head hung low underneath my pizza cap. He never learned my name, instead greeting me by make and model. “Ford Focus, 2002. What now?” My explanations felt like an admission of guilt, as though I had been abusing this poor car. The mechanic would click my descriptions into his computer, with a resigned smirk. I’d place the keys in his thick-fingered, oily palm, and he would sigh.
Shortly after college graduation, Grace’s radiator began to fail. She couldn’t make it twenty minutes without overheating, at which point her engine would seize. I spoke with my mechanic over the phone. He informed me of the repair cost. It would be steep, most of my savings. I figured he could sense my feelings over the phone. “I tell you this because you’re a good Italian boy,” he grumbled. “We can fix her this time, probably the next time. Hell, probably the time after that. But, at a certain point, it’s worth considering other options.”
Junking my car, initially, seemed like a betrayal. But it was clear Grace was suffering. I conferred with my family—the racers, the elder statesmen among the gearheads. They understood my relationship with her, but they agreed it had to be done.
Not long before this, I’d been conferred my degree. Standing proud in my cap and gown my family huddled around me, fighting over whose arm would rest on my shoulders. I thought of this as I said goodbye to Grace in the junkyard. I thought of what my family said that day—the promises they made. That I would be “going places.” As I closed the driver’s side door after cleaning out my possessions, I looked over her interior one last time. The groove formed by my slumping, delivery-boy posture. The traces of rock salt on the floor mats left over from winter. The gaping cigarette singe in the back. Going places.
I closed the door, and, for the first time in what felt like forever, I walked home.
David Marchino is a Philadelphia-based creative nonfiction writer, whose work has appeared in The Penn Review. His essay “No Goodbyes” won the 2016 Penn PubCo Award for Best First-Person Narrative, and his short manuscript He Will Be Remembered earned him honors from the University of Pennsylvania’s Creative Writing Program. In the mornings, he jogs at the rising sun—without sunglasses—squinting hard through the light. He is reading. He is writing. He is searching.
Pingback: Contributors Fall 2017 | Rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal
Love this essay–the detail, the honesty, the CAR! My father was a mechanic, my son races as a hobby, and I have loved cars I cried over giving up. I am also a university English professor who teaches writing creative essays. This one has it all!