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The Car That Wouldn’t Go

by Darby Mitchell

I had a car once, my first car — a chariot — a black Ford, ancient. I suppose the wonder was that the car worked at all. I earned my transportation to and from Wayne State University by driving several fellow students from Wyandotte, downriver of Detroit, to the university, starting about six in the morning.

The car had no heater. There was no back seat, either. This is because a landlady I had once when I was renting an apartment near the campus had tossed out the back seat. I don’t know why.

The reason I suspect her is only that she was particularly and perpetually angry, her hair was frowsy, and her hands were always on her hips. She was always frowning as I came down all the back swaying stairs from the third story, then into the parking lot and, on the day I noticed that all of a sudden I had no back seat, at that moment, behind me, I heard her say, “Ha hah!” and go back into her basement apartment and slam the door.

So ever after, in hard times when the group of us couldn’t afford rent near the university, my fellow students sat on the floor where the backseat should have been. They froze their buns off and, fortunately, couldn’t see that I couldn’t see out the windshield on all the days it was frosted or snowed or snow-covered — or on rainy days, either, because, along with the heater, the wipers didn’t work.

But that didn’t matter because I wasn’t looking much out the windshield anyway. The car knew well enough how to drive itself to the university. In fact, it knew its business better than I did. The car liked this trip every day, liked the company, liked the independence I gave it. My business was not to drive but to study Latin.

What my car had not liked was living at the minister’s house, a segment of my life which had already begun and ended before this story starts, when I was a bit of an orphan, but too old to be an orphan — the minister and his wife having seen great things in me, having taken me in and given me a safe, secure home where I could study in peace and quiet, whereas I cared neither to have a safe, secure home nor to study in peace and quiet.

I think the problem was that the car did not like the minister’s wife. Whatever the case, every time the minister’s wife wanted me to drive her to the hairdresser’s shop, the car refused to move. It wouldn’t even give the death rattling last gasp: “Chug chuuug chuuuugggg.” It simply would not go.

This already awkward situation went on week after week — the car refusing to move for the minister’s wife and the minister’s wife insisting that the car would move so that she could go for her weekly appointment to the hairdresser. Each week we repeated the routine, down to the repetition of each minute detail.

The minister’s wife started each adventurous trip to the hair dresser with stoic, logical determination. She had a regular appointment; she would keep it. So she put on her hat, picked up her smooth black leather handbag, looped the two thin black straps of the handbag precisely over the sleeve of her left wrist, pulled on her white gloves, buttoned them and, head firmly erect, game to the last, led me out the back door of the parsonage and around to the driveway where sat my car — with that same look on it that was on the face of the minister’s wife.

The problem, I think, originated in the fact that the minister’s wife had gone bankrupt spending the last twenty years of her life teaching third grade students to read and write. She and I had a talk once about one of her students that had colored the sky green.

“Wonderful!” I said.

“What do you mean, wonderful,” she said.

“He colored the sky green!” I said.

“The sky,” said the minister’s wife, “is not green.”

“To him it was,” I said.

“That’s not reality,” said the minister’s wife.

“To him it is,” I said.

“The sky is not green,” she said.

But whatever the problem was, I want to set you inside the scene of the weekly dilemma so you can see the car for yourself. The minister’s wife and I have left the house, have approached the car. Her hat is on her head, her purse is on her wrist, her shoes, with both feet firmly planted inside them, are on the ground. She stoically gets into her side, whereupon I enthusiastically take my seat in front of one large pillow that brings me within a reasonable reach of the pedals, and another large pillow that enables me to just about see out the windshield.

“Ready?” I say.

She nods, purse-lipped.

I put the key in the ignition and I turn it. Nothing. I do not look yet at the minister’s wife. I pump the gas pedal a little, not to flood the motor, but to coax it. I turn the key again. Nothing. Even more studiously than the first time I do not look at the minister’s wife. I pump the gas pedal a little more. I wait for something somewhere inside the car to settle down, get in the mood. I turn the key again. Nothing.

The minister’s wife is stolid. She looks, as the expression is, “squarely ahead.” I wait. I count. I say a little prayer to the car. I turn the key again. Nothing.

Finally, I turn toward her, “It won’t start.”

“Why won’t it start?” she asks me in a careful monotone.

“I don’t know why it won’t start,” I say.

That was the routine every Wednesday, as long as I lived at the minister’s house. Once this conversation was finished between the minister’s wife and myself, she got out her door, walked stoically, still sure of reality, around to the back door, doggedly climbed the steps and entered the house where, every week at precisely the same time, she called a cab to take her to the hairdresser’s.

In the six months or so that I lived there, the car didn’t start once when I was supposed to drive the minister’s wife to the hairdresser’s.

I got rid of that segment of my life by flying to California, renting a shack in Venice with my friend Claire, painting the interior of the shack bright arterial-blood red, and slouching down in the middle of the womb to suckle my soul on Emily Dickinson — wondering how we ever came to be separate.

But I am ahead — or perhaps behind — my story.

Back to the car. Every fall I had to make the sacred journey to my father, who had retreated from the world he had botched to his lodge in the woods of northern Michigan. My friend Claire often made this trip with me. At this time, I think the back seat was still in the car. Yes, I’m sure it was.

We drove out of the traffic into the dusk, out of the highway, beyond the notably old-fashioned gas pumps of the little Irish junction of Roscommon that always set my mind to wondering, always made the ground unfirm, shifting, and then on beyond Roscommon into the night now, towards the silver star hanging alone above the bare breast of a black hill, marking thus the divide between darkness and light, between night and silver dawn, between industrialization and Nature.

A moment — and the earth teetered on the very crest of time, of death, and then, with a sigh, rolled over, and toppled down the hill, to begin again.

We were off onto two-track tire trails now and the morning fog came on again — as the promise was — erasing the terrible city behind us, a fog that glazed the entire world in new birth. This was my father’s woods. Here were smells that were not baked cement, not hot metal, not broiling paint. Here was silence hanging over us. Here was the hush, the breathless waiting of a great being, the goddess, just rousing into day. And, miraculously, the car was still going.

But only so far as the clearing before my father’s lodge, where the dark chariot gasped out its last breath and did not remember to take another. It simply lapsed into silence. The inertia of the car, not knowing it had fallen asleep, took another few moments to roll unevenly to a stop. Claire and I sat, looking straight ahead of us at the morning.

Absolute silence.

“Well!” I said.

Claire gathered a few items that had reappeared in the light of dawn. We descended out of the car and walked to the log front door behind which my father had retreated from the wreckage he had made of his own particular world.

Later, by the insanity of daylight, my father looked at the car. It would not go. My father drove his own vehicle into town, brought someone back with him, and that person also looked at the car. It would not go. It had gas; it had oil; it had an engine; it still had seats, a steering wheel, a gear shift, a windshield, windshield wipers (albeit they did not work). It had tires. The tires even had air in them. It would not go. We got behind it and pushed. We got ahead of it and rocked it. I thought of tipping it over.

The upshot was, since we had to get back to the city early Monday morning, my father found a ride for us in a Cadillac. Back we were. No problem.

But the car was “up north.”

After considering matters for several weeks, I decided that my car had simply taken a vacation. But fun and games cannot go on forever and so, eventually, it would have to recover from its lapse of responsibility and come back. Perhaps, out of loneliness, it would even come back by itself.

It didn’t.

Coincidentally, at this conjunction of time and place, a pair of Swedish engineering students were inhabiting the basement apartment next to the landlady’s apartment. For some reason, I was able to interest these engineers in our problem. They had a car. Their car was, like themselves, purely mechanical. It worked.

In a few weeks, the four of us — two blond, handsome Swedish engineering students and Claire and I — were headed back up north, an entirely uneventful trip when people know what they are doing, people who know the world to be flat, so they simply drive on the surface of it — an entirely orderly world — perhaps the same world inhabited by the minister’s wife who kept trying to ride in my car on Wednesdays to the hairdresser’s.

So the four of us simply got to where we were going. We whisked by the uneven mirage-like ground at Roscommon, zipped into the woods, meandered down the long snake road that led to my father’s lodge and stopped behind my car — just exactly where my car had decided to stop for its vacation.

The next day, an Indian summer Saturday, hot, misty, the engineers, talking to each other back and forth in pleasant Swedish like twins that know a secret, a benign language, took the engine of my car apart and laid it out piece by piece, like an exploded drawing, on an immaculate sheet they brought along precisely for just this purpose.

They examined each part of the motor as they separated that part from its mother-being, laid each piece onto to the same, precise separate location on the sheet as the piece had occupied in reality when it was in union with its central motive, which is to say, when it was in working order inside the engine. After an hour or two, the entire engine was entirely out on the sheet, a dead, exploded, descended version of the engine of my car.

Claire and I watched, entirely innocent. Claire was art; I was literature. What had been vague to us was being delineated, black piece by black piece on a dustless white sheet in the middle of my father’s woods. We were both entirely impressed. We had grown a grudging respect for the reality of these Swedish geniuses.

Then, finally, the engineers got down to something they considered most particularly exciting — a thing that had been at the very heart of the engine — a little thing that went back and forth, back and forth, kind of on a pivot, one very small part that could not be reduced into smaller parts. They displayed it before us, showing us the intricate working of the thing: the center.

“Look,” said one.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you see that?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you see how it works?”

“Yes, I do,” I said solemnly.

Then the engineers talked together in Swedish. They looked at me. They looked at each other. Finally, one was chosen to tell us the verdict.

“There is nothing wrong with this engine,” he told me.

“It won’t go,” I told him.

They looked at each other.

Then they put it all back together, all the pieces up off the sheet and into conjoined order. They wrenched it all into final shape, and they shut the hood.

“Try it,” said one.

I got in, primed the gas, and cautiously, slowly, very slowly, turned the key. The damn thing started.

Now that I think of it, it was when we got back to the apartment house in the city that the landlady threw out the backseat of that car.

Copyright © 2008 by Darby Mitchell

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