|First Day She'd Never See
Everything hinges on selling the Plymouth. I've got to get rid of this Valiant. I've had a few people come over and look at the For Sale sign I made with cardboard and a permanent marker. They cup their hands and look in at the interior. When they see I'm living in the backseat, they get spooked. I roll down the window, and they take steps backward. It might be my beard, I don't know. I say, "You interested?" I soften my voice and smile, but they walk away and chuckle to their girlfriends. The girlfriends are usually the ones interested in the car, they think it's funky or cute. I hear them talking when they walk back to their Nissans or to the new coffee shop next to Life Foods here in the Vintner's Plaza parking lot.
I used to park on Limber Street under an acacia tree. Everyone avoided the tree yellow pods dropped and powdered their pristine paint jobs, so the spot was always open. The droppings gave me good cover. I was safe in there. The mustard-colored silt caked all the windows and blended with the butter-yellow paint of the Plymouth. It could have been any abandoned car. But then reverse went out, and parallel parking became impossible. I'm not going to push the thing around, so I had to move out here to the Vintner's Plaza parking lot where I can always be nosed out.
I don't see a big problem not going backward as long as I plan ahead. Gas stations can be tricky, or if I was in the city, parking would be a bitch, but out here in the valley I don't really miss it. As long as I remember I can only go forward, I can do away with the luxury of reverse. It's a selling point, really, a car that will only go forward. No one seems to see it that way, but I'm only asking $500 for the thing.
The Vintner's Plaza parking lot is big enough to hide a fleet of ships planter-box islands, sod medians, benches, fountains. Whoever designed this lot had a big American idea of adventure in parking. They didn't think the shops would be alluring enough, maybe, and had to create a mad landscaped labyrinth of parking areas to keep the consumers entertained.
The pine-tree grove on the south side with its tan bark and little hilly pathways seems especially attractive to the Jeeps and Explorers, a pseudorustic escape from the multilevel parking structure downtown. Hondas, Volkswagens, and convertible coupes lean toward the tropical palm-tree islands on the north end. The Lincolns, Buicks, and Cadillacs don't seem to mind the central wide-open parking those people just want to get in, shop, and get out. But the BMWs, Lexuses, Jaguars they're all shining by the fountain in front of the new coffee shop, shining like they just had their teeth done.
The new coffee shop is one of those chain cafés that tries to outdo their competition with ridiculous variations on the word Java. This one's called ˇMo'Java!, with an inverted exclamation mark and gaudy multicolored lettering. Things here are a lot different than the Salvation Army rehab outside town; I checked in there when I first moved up from San Rafael a year ago.
The facility was a winery-resort-type hotel in the seventies, but it had transformed into a burned-out haven for users by the time I got there paint over the wallpaper, gray indoor/outdoor carpet on the wood floors. It's strange how people go out of their way to make a nice place bleak; none of us had a chance of seeing our lives any better. They gave us projects, though, the social workers; they made us work. We moved junked lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners, fire-hazard appliances, and countless boxes of clothes and bric-a-brac that all smelled like it had been through a bayou flood. The smell was always the same no matter where in the county it had come from or how much cologne or perfume or fabric softener or syrup or God knows what suburban odor of kids and puke and cigarettes had lived on the stuff it all mixed together in the same germ-infested stink of a rank garage sale. I couldn't get away from the smell it saturated everything for the month I was there.
There didn't seem much sense in moving all the donated stuff from the trucks it came in on to the work yard, to the storage sites, to the sale yard, then back to the trucks that then took it all to the dump. Some of the crap managed to sell to the strange dirty regulars that made shrieking family excursions out of shopping the sale yard. I'd see the same families digging through the nasty boxes of shit, handing a broken Nerf gun to their grubby toddlers to shut them up or trying to start a chain saw that'd been in a creek for a month. They never bought much, those people, but they always came back like they might find a real treasure, something we'd overlooked. The work kept us busy anyway better busy than idle when every minute is a long day. But now I'm on my own, straight, just me and the Plymouth and the Vintner's Plaza lot.
More people in white shorts today I've counted twenty already and it's only noon. No potential buyers yet, though nobody that would even notice my Plymouth. These are the same types of people that were at the golf course, Sonoma County elite in white shorts.
I filled the range-ball machine at the Sweetcreek Golf Course for a while after rehab. I didn't go out in the tractor and actually retrieve the balls you have to work your way up to that. Hipolito was the guy who drove the retriever, the "Lab," I called it, like a Labrador retriever. Hipolito didn't get the pun.
Spring weekends were the worst at the range. Everybody came out with the good weather, and the balls would be flying like hail out there. I'd be dumping buckets of balls into the machine, and Hipolito would be picking them up. I'd see him hauling ass across the driving range, balls dinging off the cage. He never flinched when the balls hit the Lab. He'd come in with a load, then go back out. I'd hustle to keep the machine full, wondering why the course couldn't afford more balls so we didn't have to work so hard. It was a primitive system. Then the machine would jam up always when we were busy and we'd have a line of these Sonoma County people waiting in their goofy golf outfits complaining. That pissed Hipolito off and he'd yell at me as if I'd made the machine jam. He'd say, "God fuckit, Saymone!" That's how he pronounced my name: Saymone. He couldn't wrap his accent around "Simon." He cursed the same way, always a little off like "God fuckit" or "Hell shit." I laughed the first few times I heard him curse in English, but that just made him rattle off some long Spanish language that I'm sure he had right.
I was fired after they discovered I was living in their parking lot, my "home on the range," I called it. Hipolito didn't get that either. They found out I was living in my
car around the same time the range-ball machine came up short on cash. They put it on me, not the piece-of-shit machine or Hipolito. I'm sure Hipolito lightened the till, but I didn't hold a grudge.
Sweetcreek people don't have much tolerance for anybody who isn't an architect or a vintner or some Silicon Valley high roller. People here need the cheap Mexican labor, but they treat immigrants like shit. They find some place in their heart for a stray dog that's pulled free of its tree, but a "destitute Caucasian transient" (like they called me in the Sweetcreek Tribune) just doesn't have a place. The incident of the range-ball machine made the Tribune, if that's any indication of the lives these people have.
There's a sucker's hole in the storm front today that's bringing all these idiots out in their shorts, typical California visitors that haven't been through a spring here. They figure the rain's a fluke in their idea of the "wine country," and now they'll be stuck in the wrong apparel twenty miles from their bed-and-breakfasts. Like the guy I see now across the parking lot, his legs sticking out like summer sausages. He's with his daughter in front of the coffee shop sucking on lattes or something. The daughter looks all right, forced to make the trip with Pops. She's at that prime "just got my license" age and can spot a For Sale sign on a windshield a hundred yards away.
Yeah, you like the car, don't you, you little peach? You think it's funky. You want to be the type of girl who drives a '69 Valiant. You could pack all your tight-assed girlfriends in here, couldn't you? Just have a rebellious little sorority adventure...
That's right, babe, convince Daddy you need to look at the Valiant. It's a safe car, a practical car.
You've got him lifting his sunglasses and looking. That's the way, use your charm.
Daddy's walking over! The guy's got to be 250, a hobbled, running walk like he's being tugged by his gut. Purple ACL scars stretch over his knees like night crawlers. He must've been a fullback thirty years ago, one of those "quick for a big man" types. Too bad about the knees.
"You sellin' this?" he asks me, exhaling nastily through his nose.
"Yes, sir. I'm Simon."
"Simon, Terrence. What is it, a Dart?" He doesn't offer a shake and keeps moving. Eye contact ain't his bag.
"Valiant," I tell him.
He paddles around the side, running his hand over the quarter panel.
The daughter waits at the coffee shop, watching us.
"How many miles?" Terrence asks, his questions ending in an upward tone swing each time.
"Hard to say," I tell him.
I open the hood for him, and he leans his Grecian Formula head in, like he can solve all my problems, like he invented the slant-six motor. His breathing is louder under the hood.
"You think it's going to clear up?" he asks me, stroking the long valve cover like a dachshund.
"The weather. . ." he says, making a quick irritated hand movement, like he's got a bug at his ear. "You think it'll clear up?"
"It'll be clear up to our ass in a few minutes," I tell him. He chuckles, like I might be dangerous.
He takes the air cleaner off and fiddles with the carburetor.
"Is it in your name?" he asks me, interested.
"Yeah, it's in my name.
He pulls out the dipstick and smells the end of it. The oil puts a spot on his nose, and he swipes it off with another quick hand move.
"What's the history?" he asks, putting the dipstick back in.
"I've had it three years," I tell him.
The truth is more fucked than fiction when it comes down to it. Denice made me realize that. I see her hair when I think of her now. Three years. I see her hair, not her teeth or her tits or her scary pale eyes. I don't see the whole time we had in San Rafael, unless I let her hair take me there, and I have to stop thinking and distract myself with something like buttoning my coat against this weather that's coming in.
I used to call her a troll doll. She didn't like it the first time I called her that too close to home, some home she had before I knew her, but when things were good she called herself a troll doll, like that was the only secret we had.
The description was right. Blond cords burst from her head in a dense bush of chaos - you wouldn't think her neck could support it. Her hair might've reached her ass if it were straight, but the kinky life in it kept it all aloft and her little body poked out underneath like a dandelion stem. There were lengthy washing and drying procedures, daylong events that coincided with her not going outside our apartment. I'd just pound the pavement for a while or go to a matinee on those days. They were always gloomy days, blustery she called them, days like today that forced their unmade-up mind on the county sunny and raining, rainbows. Those days kept her bound to our one-room apartment.
"I can't go out in this!" Denice would say, pointing at the weather out our third-floor window. She'd look out at the wet fir trees beyond the street below, she'd look out at the mixed-up clouds above the hills, the drops of water on the windows, and then back at me.
"Why don't you get us some coffees and a Times," she'd say.
Her hair was her biggest asset and her biggest complaint. I'd watch her bind it back with industrial rubber bands, but it still made a run at the world. She wouldn't cut it. If she'd cut it, she would have had to find some other thing to be a burden.
I gave her an umbrella for Valentine's Day, a red one. She hated it.
"What's the real reason you don't go outside?" I asked her.
"Fuck off Simon," she said.
I felt I was doing the right thing giving her the umbrella. Hats didn't come close to covering her head. I thought an umbrella would be a solution, but she saw it as an insult. I bought her a plane ticket to visit her mother in L.A. she thought I was trying to get rid of her. I bought her a subscription to Fitness magazine, since she always peeked at it in the supermarket. She thought it implied she was out of shape.
"Is it my ass?" she said.
"Is what?" I said.
"You think I've got a fat ass?"
"I love your ass."
"Why did you get the subscription?"
"I thought you wanted it," I said.
"Come on, Denice. This is ridiculous."
"What's ridiculous that I don't bow down like some little bitch? Is that what's ridiculous, Simon?"
"It's turning into more than it should," I said.
"What should it be?"
"What should this be, Simon?"
"It should be nothing! Simple. Nothing!"
"You want nothing, you've got it. You've got fucking nothing!"
I'd walk uptown to the Paper Ace for a cocktail. I'd walk through the wet sidewalk like my feet were on fire, breaking an aggravated sweat by the time I got to the bar.
"Can I look in the trunk?" Terrence asks me, walking to the back of the car.
"Sure," I tell him. "Your daughter interested in the car?"
"Well, yeah, she needs a car . . . depends what's wrong with it."
"Reverse won't engage." I tell him like it's not a big thing.
"Huh. Is that right?"
I can feel the deal slipping.
"It might be linkage, some adjustment," I say, feeling it may be the turning point.
My other girlfriends hadn't been as close up as Denice. That's how I think of her, close up, like she was in my clothes, like she had her hand in my crotch and my heart in her teeth. We made up. We made up with liquor and mad fucking against the bathroom door or in the closet, with all her pointed heels poking into us. We'd be sore and hungover and relieved for a day or two, sometimes a week. We'd walk through town holding hands like civilized lovers, talking in the plaza about some movie we'd seen or laughing at people that tripped on the high curbs. We wore sunglasses, and people admired us. We struck envy in our single friends. Then we'd slip.
We were into speed and booze. We'd huff lines of amphetamine and drive to the Paper Ace at night. We'd be shaking by the time we parked under the sycamore tree a block away. We'd abandon the closed-up space of the Plymouth and hike like escaped convicts toward the warm lights of the bar. We'd run across the intersection, finding an excuse in the oncoming traffic to run to the bar. Our gums ached. We'd be giddy discussing the drinks we'd order, nearing the red swinging door that always glowed like an escape hatch from the stagnance of San Rafael. We knew the bartenders. "Shit, it's a Harold night," we'd say, or "Hey, Sonny's working." We kept the barkeep guessing at our cocktails so they'd never serve us a usual. But they all knew us. Everyone knew us.
"No reverse, huh?" Terrence says, stepping back from the Valiant and standing still for the first time.
"It just won't engage, I don't know why," I tell him, hoping ignorance might be a positive thing. I know the transmission needs a rebuild, but that would cost more than the car's worth.
Terrence ponders the problem, not wanting to give up on it entirely.
"The car runs great otherwise." I tell him, "The electrical is A-one." It sounds fishy once I say it.
"A-one.. . Yeah, I don't know. It might be more than I want to get into."
"I can understand that, Terrence." Better to let him convince himself, maybe. The Plymouth has got him hooked in some way, though the motor, he loves the motor.
"That slant-six is bulletproof," I tell him. "They pulled 'em off the line 'cause they lasted so long," I say, hoping for another chance.
"I know the motor, that ain't the problem. That motor will be ticking when we're both gone. But if the tranny's bad "
He cocks his head and swipes at his ear again, a habit that now makes me wonder about its origin.
Denice got cold on the pool table. Her eyes turned hard, and she'd demand quiet without saying anything. Pale stress lines creased high on her cheeks when she lined up a shot. Her forehead would pinch in ridges, and she'd look old for a moment before making impact with the cue ball. If the shot went the way she meant, a white smile cut through her jungle hair. If she missed, the creases stayed under her eyes, and she'd quietly step away from the table.
Pool was our getaway car. We found something that turned us on to each other in the game - posture, determination, competitiveness. We never played each other. That turned bad. We'd watch each other play, and it was fantastic, fantastic in the way that screwing in front of a mirror was fantastic. We'd take more speed in the rest room and order more drinks. I'd grab her and hang on, hang on to her thick hair. Her eyes would drift, and I'd feel her be with me, a privilege in her closeness that made the envy of all the bar losers palpable. We'd play pool until closing, then try to make it home without crashing or fucking in the car.
Our daytime life lacked all that fantasy. Whatever pent-up passion we had came out stupidly brutal. We had to make it through the day to get to the Paper Ace.
"Will you take four hundred for it?" Terrence asks me from the driver's seat. He looks strangely delicate below me in my own car, like a ten-year-old boy with a slow metabolism.
"I'm really hoping for five," I tell him, seeing which way he'll go with it.
He looks over the dash, gripping the skinny steering wheel. He turns it back and forth.
"Maybe your daughter should drive it?" I suggest.
"Yeah," he says, relieved he doesn't have to get defensive about the price, maybe. He climbs out and does a slight variation of his hand flick toward his daughter. She picks up on the subtle motion at the coffee shop and starts walking over.
"You can always find parts for this car," I say. "Yeah, yeah."
My sales pitch has dead-ended. He needs the daughter's convincing.
Denice wouldn't let me drive. "You're higher than the moon," she said. She was higher than the clouds, but that was better than the moon, I guess. Pre-full moon made us question mortality. We both reacted the same way to its brightness we had to show respect in a certain madness of speed and drink.
She drove with all the cockiness of a woman being hit on by strange men. She drove with the recklessness of not being understood. Unabashed, accelerating in the side streets, being the car that blasts by on a quiet night, the car you hear from your bed that flies toward a turn on your street and locks up with badly balanced American steel and skinny tires to drift through and accelerate again.
"I'm jumping if you don't slow the fuck down!"
I said that. I yelled at her curly head, victim in my own Plymouth. I yelled my threat of self-sacrifice, but she just found octane in my helplessness.
That's how I saw her, laughing, rolling, hidden by her hair, driving.
Flinging my door out against the wind didn't slow her. Feeling my body make the dive didn't change her speed. I remember the sober coiled-up moment of hurtling into the street, the moment that curled me line-drive out of the Valiant, flying in a ball along the concrete: She'll know me now, she'll know me as a real man?
My doubt phrased it as a question on impact. The words came into my teeth with the concussion, spitting out with the strange mushroomy taste of collision. All I saw were the strip taillights of the Plymouth and her bloom of hair flashing in silhouette through the back window as the passenger door swung.
Denice never let off the gas. She drove on through the sycamore trees that lined the street, and vanished with just the sound of the exhaust fading.
I walked home, bruised, my knees on fire. I shuffled hard in the quiet of the bedtime houses that hid in the trees. I smoked a broken cigarette. I climbed the steep stairs to our apartment and screamed at the door. I kicked at the wood. I searched for keys that were inside already. She didn't let me in. I collapsed at our door and slept. Even in the erratic popping of my heart against my chest, I slept.
The daughter slips into the driver's seat without a care of the mechanics. She's starstruck by the Valiant.
"No reverse, hon," Terrence warns her.
"How funny," she says, climbing into the backseat. She stretches her smooth legs out and crosses her arms under her breasts like she's on a dick-tease date.
"What's her name?" she asks me, shrugging her shoulders coltishly.
"A car like this has to have a name," she says, climbing out.
"Uh, Denice," I tell her. "Her name's Denice."
"Denice," she says, shutting the heavy door. "I love it! I love it, Dad."
The first day Denice would never see came dark and hard a day that took its coat off and spread out nude to rain on the world. A day she'd never go out in.
She was pregnant, he told me the man who tested her blood. First trimester, he said, suspicion and sympathy in his professional voice.
I watched them emerge from the base of our staircase. I watched from the street, March rain hitting me in the back. The sheet didn't cover all of her hair.
Rain came on. I wanted to get the umbrella, the red umbrella. I had thoughts of sprinting up the staircase and searching the strange corners of our apartment, as if that duty might be the right thing to do, as if I would possibly be part of the right thing to do. But I only watched. They loaded her onto the rain-cleaned ambulance. It didn't bother with its lights there was no urgency any more. The medics loaded her in a slow-motion drill, as if prolonging the event showed more heart.
She'd been dead all night, while I slept outside the door. Her heart had failed. Her young heart failed her when it should have been charging at the world with the same tenacity as her hair, the crazy spring of life still in it when they drove away.
Terrence gives in to five hundred cash for the Valiant. I write up a bill of sale, the final deal strangely deflating. I count his ATM money more than I've had in hand for years. The daughter runs a celebration lap around the car, squealing. She ends up at her dad and hugs him.
I unload my things. The blacktop starts to darken wet with the drizzle.
"You'll take care of her now?" I say to the girl, and she stares at me stunned, like the car is already hers, like she's owned it all along.
"Remember, you can only go forward," I tell her, stuffing my clothes into a jacket and tying the sleeves around them in a square knot. I swing the bundle over my shoulder and walk toward the eaves of Vintner's Plaza. The rain starts in. Visitors scramble for their cars as the downpour bungles their holiday.
Forward now, only forward.
|© Jesse Shepard 2003
This electronic version of "First Day She'd Never See" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher. It appears in the author´s collection Jubilee King, Bloomsbury, 2003. Book ordering available through amazon.com.
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Jesse Shepard is the author of the short story collection Jubilee King, Bloomsbury, 2003, from which "First Day Shed Never See" is taken. He lives in Northern California.
issue 39: November - December 2003