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Here is a picture of a car

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And why not? It's a 1972 Volvo 164, affectionately called "the Brick" by the European car clubs who collect them.

I bought one on the tail of my freshmen year in college for 600 dollars, from an NC State grad who lived in one of those anonymous apartment complexes outside of town.

I think now, (I'm sure), I wanted to reinvent myself. Although the one grandfather I knew briefly as a child, a proud Surry County dairy farmer, drove a sleek and shiny ancient black Caddy with red interior and tail-fins like the batmobile, and wore a feather in the ribbon of his fedora, and held a quail-egg-sized plug of tobacco in his gums, I, for some unpleasant reason, wanted people to imagine my grandfather as alive, in tweed, smoking a pipe in his book-filled study. Maybe this phantom grandfather had bought the four-door Volvo new in 1972, had replaced it years before, but saved it to give to me, his favorite bright-eyed grandson, when I went off to university.

I didn't lie outright and tell people that I'd been given the car by this make-believe grandfather with leather patches on his elbows. Still, I wanted the people who noticed me driving past to imagine him. (Just like I wanted people to think of me and my mom as eccentric and gloomy creative types, too witty and world-wise to be satisfied by typical human activities--such as being awake and outdoors--rather than the barely functioning, chronically-depressed people we were. But perhaps that is best left for another time.)

The man getting shed of this vehicle saw me coming as if he'd had a vision of an ignorant and gullible teen, on his own, with what was left of his dead father's dwindling insurance settlement temporarily bloating his checking account. The "For Sale" flier was strategically placed by the cash machine in the student center.

The Volvo had over 200,000 miles on it, and no keys. Obviously, the doors and trunk didn't lock, and the ignition was started with a hex wrench. In addition, if you lifted the rubber cover at the base of the stick shift, you could see pavement racing past below. (A previous owner decided he may need a place to dispose of his stash.) I drove the rusty-blue sedan several months, usually dedicating entire afternoons or evenings to starting the engine, which often required getting out and pushing its tonnage, then popping the clutch. (I actually learned how to drive a stick with this Volvo--on the way home after buying it, I pulled into a parking lot and practiced.) The clutch was overly tight and almost impossible, so I stalled a lot. And by a lot I mean always.

It sat lifeless in my driveway for years. I towed it from one apartment to another. Still, with all its problems, I determined to fix it up, and found a mechanic, a friend of a friend, who had a one-car repair shop down the street. He always had a book in hand, the grease thick under his fingernails, when he wasn't under a carriage or a hood. He looked like a young Jack Kerouac. I forked over a tidy sum of my humble earnings, and he did, indeed, fix it up. He scavenged junk yards, added extravagances like side and rearview mirrors, a working horn (that didn't emit a mild shock) and dashboard light, turn signals, an ignition with a key, etc., and I dutifully Armor-alled the tires and the dash and fed it the good oil daily, and was happy for a few months. But, then I got greedy, and handed the mechanic a week's pay and asked him to do even more work, to make it run even better. Of course, you know this won't end well. The well-meaning mechanic turned out to be a heroin addict, he claimed he was robbed of his tools (when he sold them), then he lost his shop, and my car somehow wound up out in the middle of a sad-looking field in the country. I got an uncomfortable phone call--from the put-upon people he'd rented from--to retrieve my car. I found it stripped down, the 6-cylinder engine protruding from the trunk. I towed it back to my unpaved driveway, and there it (again) sat.

The summer after we graduated college, my friend William Gau, (now Captain Gau of the US Army), offered to help me restore the old albatross. I said "William, the engine's falling out of the trunk!" He said "Well, we'll lift that fucker up and put it back. I don't have anything better to do right now." I said "Bill I don't know anything about fixing cars; it's too much." William moved, and fixed up a house instead, (plus married, started a family). The last time I saw him, he had restored a half dozen or so husks of 60s-era BMWs into beautiful, mint-condition automobiles, the envy of collectors nationwide. If Bill Gau offered to help again, with anything, I'd not decline.

I still don't know anything about cars.

Postscript: My dear friend Brian once revealed to me, long before he and I met, he occasionally saw me and my waifish, hippie girlfriend leaning against my car, or sitting on the trunk (prob. waiting for a tow truck or for someone to come pick us up), and he did imagine what my life was like because of the picture we made--the two of us, plus the rusty old car. He told me, laughing, he actively imagined I was some sort of shiftless narcotics dealer, ruthlessly keeping my pretty girlfriend in thrall. So there you go.

And oh, I sold the '72 Volvo to a scrap yard for 35 dollars when I moved the next autumn.

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post #113
bio: john ball

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