“We’re not going to just give you a car” was a speech my parents liked to give. The words would pop up spontaneously regardless of whatever the current conversation happened to be. It didn’t seem to make sense when it would start either. We could be at the grocery store picking cereal and out of nowhere my mother would say “You’re going to have to get a job and pay for it yourself or you‘re not going to appreciate it”. The first time that happened I was left staring at a box of Cocoa Munchies wondering if it was really worth getting a job for. By the time I was ten years old I knew instantly they were back to discussing my car ownership. These random outbursts lasted up until the day before they bought me a car.
Our house in the Missouri suburbs was at least a mile from anything that looked like a business and, though I had a paper route of over a dozen house and the odd baby sitting job, there was no way I could afford to buy a vehicle. I was stuck because to get a real job I would need a car and to get a car I would need a real job.
I presented my dilemma to my mother and stepfather and with the situation spelled out they had to agree we needed a different solution. That solution being I could borrow the family car. A huge yellow Mercury any old lady would be proud to see driving. My mom was working a night job so it was decided if there were any problems with scheduling we would just handle it somehow.
It was a solution but not one I liked. Not the one where I was handed the keys to a new Mustang Convertible. The family car was like driving a boat. In the seventies it would have been considered a high end luxury car but this was the eighties. Times had changed. And I was sixteen. I didn’t want to drive that grandma car everywhere! I had an image I was trying to create.
What made it worse was I couldn’t just ask for the keys and run off for the occasional errand. Before getting the car I had to beg for the keys, justify my trip and then sit through a speech about seatbelts and speed. The speech always ended with the condescending statement from my mother of “Don’t wreck my car”. This always pissed me off. I was a good driver. No, I was a great driver. I was sixteen.
Getting a crappy teenager job turned out to be pretty easy and and had one in a week. To celebrate my first day in the great world of fast food I offered to go get lunch for me and my siblings.
“Mom, can I use the car to go to McDonalds? I have to feed Bubba and Becky” I whispered through her closed bedroom door. I didn’t want to wake her but getting what you wanted was a little easier when she wasn’t totally in charge of her senses. She told me to come in.
“Here’s my purse, take out some money, come right back” She was asleep again before I sat her purse back down on her dresser. If she was ever awake.
It was a gorgeous day. The sun was shining but it wasn’t the oppressive Missouri heat that could melt cassette tapes on a front seat. I cranked up the air conditioner to insure my comfort and rolled down all the windows to insure full visability. I changed the radio station from the old time twangy country music my family favored to a station playing Flock of Seagulls.
It was one of those moments in life when mentally step back and take stock in your life. I had a real job I was starting that evening. I was at the beginning of adulthood and the rest of the world was starting to see it. I was given more responsibility and was trusted more at home. A smile came across my face when I realized Mom didn’t even say “don’t wreck my car” this time, in that way she always did.
Then I wrecked the car.
I was making what could only be referred to as a long curving left turn when I made impact. The Jeep in front of me was stopped trying to make its own left turn and I didn’t see it in time. My life didn’t flash before my eyes but french fries did.
When I did see the stopped vehicle in front of me two things happened. I slammed on the breaks and, like every mother I’d ever seen in the same situation, some deep seeded visceral response kicked in and I threw out my right arm to protect the precious cargo riding in the seat beside me. Not a child in this case but two large back from McDonalds. The impact my arm on the bag made it explode forward in a storm of fries and nuggets.
In slow motion the lemon yellow hood of the family car exploded up to completely block the windshield. Then, In a moment of extreme clarity, I noticed the yellow exterior against yellow interior while yellowish fries and nuggets rained down in front of me. I didn’t have the presence of mind to fear bodily injury for myself or for the people in front of me. I didn’t worry about what would happen when I got home. The only thought going through my mind at that stretched out split second was that the world had all become some shade of yellow. There was an art term for that and I mouthed the word “monochrome” like a curse word.
I wasn’t hurt and the people in the vehicle I hit were fine. The police came and I had the car towed to the closest lot and a passing neighbor gave me a ride home. In all of the excitement I still had the presence of mind to grab what was left of the undamaged lunch and, in a moment of charity, even took the time to scoop some french fries off the floor and seat of the car for my brother Bubba.
Some psychic message woke my mother before I got home so I didn’t have a break before she yelled at me for arriving home without the car. “Your father is going to kill you”. The timing didn’t seem right to correct her on the fact he wasn’t really my father so I let it slide that time. Not that she would have heard me anyway since she was still yelling “I can’t believe you wrecked my car!” she started crying then. It probably wasn’t a good time to remind her that she didn’t specifically tell me NOT to wreck her car before I left this time so I let her off the hook on that one too.
When my stepfather got home from work he walked into the house to see mom and me sitting on the couch, red-eyed and scared of what we were sure was his coming wrath. With the only other two drivers besides himself in front of him and no car in the driveway the situation should have been obvious but he still asked. “Where’s the car?”.
“We wrecked the car!” my mom blurted out through tears.
Well that was weird, I thought. Did she think he could be convinced that more than one person could wreck a car? She was throwing herself on a grenade for me. Trying to save me from the anger explosion she expected. Sort of. She still said “we” so it wouldn’t be all her fault.
Not fooled my stepfather asked. “Who wrecked the car?”
“I wrecked the car”. I braced myself almost daring the fight that was to come. But never did.
“Where is it?” He said with a sigh setting down his lunchbox.
I told him where I had it towed and we rode out in his truck to retrieve it. It looked terrible but it turns out the car was still drivable after a little pounding, the application of a crowbar and a little rope. I drove his truck home wondering about his uncharacteristic calm. The stress of anticipation and speculation about his unexpected behavior was almost worse than an explosion. Was there going to be some retribution at a higher level I’d never seen before?
This was what was going through my head as I go ready for my first day at my new job.