My Life

Memory Remix: Running on Empty – Part I

Running on Empty 2

Once upon a time, my family had a woody. (How’s that for a vague but potentially questionable opening line?) In the interests of fair disclosure and the avoidance of retroactive investigations by Child Protective Services, I should point out that the “woody” in this case refers to a motor vehicle that has been decked out with wood accents on the exterior. That’s what we had.

Well, it wasn’t a real woody, as in actual, tree-based wood like you would find on the fancy cars driven by people named Biff or Muffy as they motored to the country club for a round of golf and racism. Our model had fake wood paneling, an arrangement that was inexplicably embraced during the drug-laced early 70s but was no longer popular when this story takes place. You could still find these instant-anachronisms here and there at the time of our narrative, assuming that you would actually want to do so despite all signs indicating that you should not. And topping it all off was the horrid aspect that this vehicle was a station wagon, so there was absolutely nothing cool about this car at all.

It’s 1981 or 82. I know I already had my driver’s license, but I wasn’t yet a senior in high school, so there you have it, general time frame. It wasn’t actually my car, but I did drive the thing. And I hated it with a passion. It tortured me, and I tortured it right back. This was not a healthy relationship.

You see, my family did not have a tremendous amount of money, but my mom and step-dad did have an amazing number of friends who happened to own cars that they no longer cared to keep around. Many of these things would end up at our house, piled up at the end of our long driveway in a haphazard manner that reeked of death and poor choices.

I don’t know if money changed hands, I don’t know if these things were slightly-evil gifts, I have no idea how the cars were procured. Until I was able to drive, I couldn’t care less about cars. They were just things parked in the driveway, sometimes as many as 5 or 6 at a time, and on any given day half of them did not run for one reason or another, quietly rusting in the Oklahoma heat and dribbling fluids that were surely radioactive.

We did not win any yard-of-the-month contests in our neighborhood.

Anyway, somewhere along the line this station wagon showed up, ugly as hell. As mentioned, there was the wood-paneling, which immediately ruled out the vehicle as anything desirable whatsoever. Where the paint was still intact, it was a dull, morose brown. I don’t remember if the air-conditioning worked, but probably not. I can recall many childhood summers spent baking in the confines of family vehicles, nearing asphyxiation and dreaming of a place that did not smell like sweat and vinyl seating.

Once I obtained my license, I became a little more invested in the ragtag collection of metal at the end of the driveway. On a good day, when everything in the current lineup was actually in working order, it was almost fun to pick out what you felt like driving that day. There was an actual selection involved, an inspiring joie de vivre, despite the sure certainty that most of these vehicles could be implicated in drive-by shootings, splattered with DNA that scientists could process twenty years later.

On bad days, and there were quite a few of those, when some of the heaps weren’t running or there was an influx of people temporarily staying with us who needed some loaner transportation, there was no enjoyable decision-making. I had to drive the station wagon, if I got to drive at all. I had low seniority in the driving pool, and I had best be satisfied with what was left. No discussion.

So me and the butt-ugly station wagon spent a lot of time together, despite the mental damage this unleashed on my budding gay sensibility. And things just never managed to go my way when I was driving the thing. Stuff just happened that didn’t happen to other people, or at least didn’t happen to the characters I envisioned in my mind when writing the story of the life that I didn’t have.

My first day at my first real job? I was driving the station wagon, natch, which was bad enough. I clearly wouldn’t be impressing any of my new co-workers rattling up in that thing. The place that hired me (David’s Department Store, for all my peeps back in Broken Arrow) had just been built, and they were still working on the landscaping, with heavy machinery doing some grading off to one side. (The natural lay of the land in much of Oklahoma does not speak of beauty and customer-attraction; you have to manipulate the soil, beat it into something that it isn’t, and this is what the tobacco-spitting contractors were doing to pass the time until the next government election where they would vote for anybody who was a Republican.)

Here comes dorky me, bouncing along in the Brady Bunch relic, just trying to find the employee parking area. Of course, I make a wrong turn and suddenly I’m in the dirt field with the grading machinery. Great. Just then, some scooper thing drives up and snags one of the piles of dirt that are everywhere. (It’s no surprise that Oklahoma was the epicenter of the Dust Bowl. There’s nothing but dirt and disappointment everywhere you look.) The driver then nimbly whips around to head somewhere, just as a fierce gust of wind rips the top third of loose dirt out of his scoop, sending a billowing cloud in my direction.

It’s summer. It’s hot. So of course the windows are down in the station wagon, that’s just how we lived. (Air-conditioning was for fancy people who bought cars at dealerships and not from some shifty guy named Buford who lived behind a bowling alley.) And my dumb ass is sitting there in the middle of a dirt field with wind, dust, Dorothy and Toto headed my way.

There’s no time to roll up the window, as it was manual. All I could do was just brace myself and wait. I at least had enough sense to close my eyes as a thick red-brown fog blasted through the station wagon like some perverted nuclear incident that government officials would deny had taken place despite a Zapruder film showing otherwise.

When the air finally cleared, I dusted off the rearview mirror and assessed the damage. My hair was completely coated in a gritty layer of dirt, I couldn’t hear very well out of one ear as there was so much crud sandblasted into the canal, and since I had been sweating in the heat, any exposed skin looked like I was really serious about the benefits of mud treatments. If I had to pick one word to describe my condition, it would be this: afterbirth.

I had 15 minutes to clock in.

I threw the car into drive and finally made it to the damn employee parking lot that should have been easier to find if people with any sense had been in charge. I leaped out of the car and started digging in the back for anything to clean this crap off of me. I used whatever I could find: oily rags, crusty beach towels, somebody’s shirt. I basically gave myself a sponge bath without the aid of a sponge. Or water. Or dignity.

With seconds to spare, I took another look in the rearview. Amazingly, it didn’t appear to be all that bad. Obviously, something wasn’t right with the hair, but you couldn’t really tell what. I have always had extremely thick hair. Apparently the dirt clods had just worked their way deeper into the follicles, making my mane look even thicker, like maybe I had overdone it with some “body enhancing” conditioner that would be marketed to metrosexuals in twenty years when it became okay for men to care how about how they looked.

Most of the mud was gone from my skin, so I quickly dabbed at the few remaining traces, sopping up the muck. Apparently, the panicky sweat that was now gushing out of me proved to be of great assistance in helping rinse things off. Nature is a wonderful thing when it decides to play nice instead of sending a tornado your way. I still looked somewhat out of balance, like there was something seriously amiss with my metabolism, but this would just have to do.

I scurried around to the front of the building, dashing through the doors along with a few other folks getting in just under the wire. (They looked just as startled and anxious as me. Did they also bathe in the parking lot?) My new supervisor was waiting for us in the lobby, and after some fakely-cordial hand-shaking, he turned to lead us to the employee training room.

I turned to trot after them, bringing up the rear. As we marched along, I happened to glance down, and I was mortified to see that with each step I took, little puffs of dirt were exploding outward from my shoes. I hadn’t thought to check there. Geez. This mark of the beast was never going away.

As I looked back up to make sure I was still following the others, I made eye contact with one of the new girls in the Jewelry department. She had been fiddling with a display of gold chains, but her concentration had been broken when I waltzed by sporting feet that apparently had their own ecosystem.

She gave a slight jump when she realized that she had been caught staring, but recovered nicely and gave me one of those smiles that polite people make when they realize they are seeing something absurd but don’t want to make anyone feel bad about it.

All I could do was return the smile, probably one with mud between the teeth (hadn’t thought of checking there, either), and just keep walking. Her smile widened a little bit (good, my teeth must not be muddy), and then went back to her work. I caught up with the rest of the new hires, and we slipped inside the training room, the door slamming shut behind us.

Thus began my first hour of life as a paid employee….

And the fun continued, with further laughs and adventures as I drove that horrid car around town. I’ll say this much, my friends at the time were the best. First, they never said anything (directly to me, anyway) about that awful contraption. And second, they were willing to ride in the car with me, despite the ever-present threat of physical danger, or at least severe humiliation, that could happen at any moment. That car was just bad luck.

But one of the most appalling things that occurred with the car took place when I wasn’t even driving it.

I was at the house, and Mom and I were engaged in a very heated exchange of words. I don’t recall the details. Most likely she either did or did not want me to do something, and I was very insistent on the opposite choice. You know how it is when you’re 17. You think you know everything, and that everybody else on the entire planet is incredibly stupid. That sort of thing.

Anyway, the discussion did not end well, and I stomped out of the house, headed off to do or not do whatever it was that I did or did not want to do. At that particular time, we had an abundance of operating vehicles, so lately I had been driving this jeep/bronco thing (don’t recall the exact make) that was much nicer than the hated station wagon. I would be driving the jeep on this excursion, thank you very much, screw seniority.

I hopped in and started it up, cussing and muttering under my breath, saying all those really good smart-ass responses you wish you had thought of during the argument instead of right after. I threw the transmission into reverse and shot backwards. I really don’t think I was intentionally meaning to go as fast as I did. I was just mad and not paying attention.

That lack of attention changed, though, roughly two seconds later, as I slammed into something hard enough that it rattled my teeth. I sat there for a moment, completely unwilling to turn around and see what I had hit, never mind inspect the damage, hoping that if I was quiet and still enough then last two minutes of my life would be magically erased from my history. But curiosity finally won over and I took a gander.

I had broadsided the station wagon, dead center on the driver’s side door.

Holy cow. My life just went to hell.

I had enough sense to slowly pull forward, listening to see if I was doing even more damage, like pulling the door off or hitting a nun in the process, who knew what could happen next. There were just some minimal scraping noises, no thudding clangs as the transmission fell out or the earth split open and swallowed me and my transgressions with a satisfied belch.

I killed the ignition on the jeep, stumbled out of the battering ram and went for a closer look, with everything bathed in that weird, surreal light where your mind is still trying to process what has happened. Surprisingly, the back of the jeep actually looked fine. I really couldn’t see any dings or scratches that looked unfamiliar. I might see them when my heart stopped pounding and my vision cleared, but we were okay so far.

I turned to the station wagon.

The driver’s side door, my door, was bent into a V-shape, with the middle of the door pushed inward, over half of the distance to the steering wheel. This was not an optimum development, as there was no hiding that mess with some paint and a prayer. And, of course, the door wouldn’t open. Might be able to jack with it later, but it wasn’t budging right now in this hour of desperation and failure.

I sighed again. Despite my desire to simply walk out of the neighborhood and never be seen again, joining Amelia Earhart for tea in the South Pacific, I knew that I had to deal with this. I now had to go back and talk to Mom, the person I had just yelled at, and explain that I had been in a car crash without even leaving the driveway. Great.

I briefly experienced a surge of hope that I might not be in that much trouble, as there was a mitigating circumstance that might lessen the severity of my crime as I stood before the martriarchal jury. Somebody had parked the station wagon where they shouldn’t have, as normally there were no cars where the wagon was now sitting, deflated, so that tiny bit was in my favor. But on the flip side, if I had just looked behind me before backing up all hog-wild (“Just like they teach you in Driver’s Ed!” would surely be uttered by the prosecution team) then we would not be conducting an inquiry in the Kitchen Courtroom. Nope, there was no getting out of this one.

Then it hit me. Why wasn’t anybody coming outside to see if I was okay? Surely they heard the crash. I think Helen Keller heard that crash.

I looked toward the house.

Was she actually waiting for me to come back in? To make the long march of shame up the sidewalk? Was she standing just inside the door, peering out at me, wearing a secret smile that mothers save for this type of situation, where they have complete control of the playing field and they know it?

Why couldn’t she just come on out? So that I didn’t have to explain. I could just stand there as she walked up, and point at the damage, looking really sad. Maybe cry a little bit.

Complete silence from the direction of the house. No movement whatsoever.

Sigh.

I slowly trudged up the judgmental sidewalk, the concrete squares glaring at me disapprovingly, thinking of last-minute escape plans. Who could I call? Did I have enough money for a plane ticket? Did they let you stay in homeless shelters even if you are not theoretically homeless? Maybe the priesthood?

I stopped at the front door, milking the delay as long as possible, then I reached down and turned the knob…

 

Click here to read the rest of this story…

(Originally published in “Memory Remix” on 01/13/10, revised and updated with extra flair for this post.)

 

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