“Free Car,” fiction by Alex Kudera

After the click, I wonder which I like least, folks who phone too early in the morning or those who call late at night. Then I return to the other room, a small L-shaped kitchen/living room area, pour myself a cup of ambivalence, and lie low on the futon couch with my calves resting on a two-foot stool in front. This is my version of a lazy boy with ottoman. Sugar and milk are both MIA, so I suffer through coffee too hot and bitter. Despite the possibility of caffeinated optimism, I soon become consumed by doubt about the car.

On the one hand, it’s free and that’s hard to beat. Ron is trying to cut costs, so he wants to give up the car and go with public as his only means of transportation. I can’t blame him, really I can’t. I had the old Corolla stolen six months back, and with gas costs between three and four dollars a gallon, I’ve enjoyed the freedom of a carless existence. No insurance premiums, no parking hassles, no accidents, no broken windows on mischief night. On the old car, I had four separate broken windows, an average of one per year. They like to hit the old cars because an alarm never sounds. It’s like beating a broken man or a wounded animal, hitting the guy who is already down and out if not yet immobile.

As I understand it, the car is a 13-year-old Nissan Sentra 4-door wagon with a 5-speed manual transmission, no air conditioning, and problems with the exhaust that may cause it to flunk inspection. The car is due for inspection at the end of July, just a few weeks away. I’ve told Ron I’ll buy the car for the difference between $800 and the cost of the full inspection, necessary repair, and transfer fees. Ron keeps insisting that I take the car only for the cost of a Thai dinner and a bottle of wine. He has been talking about Karma, and his moon in Saturn indicating change. Good deeds and good moves away from the present are on Ron’s mind. To the tell truth, I can’t help but question his motives.

Somehow, I’m at the meeting spot five minutes early, and I soon realize he’s going to be late. I imagine right on the hour is hard to hit. The hot July sun is beating down on me; the air has been soggier than a long-haired dog chasing ducks in a pond. Philadelphia humidity is the humidity that loves you back, and I’m still in my cranky, morning mood. All this waiting is like being due to shoot free throws when a timeout is called. I’m being “iced” on the line, with more time to deliberate over the wisdom of this transaction. I’m imagining all the negative scenarios again—massive repairs, a dying engine, driving a car without air through the summer. At 9:40 a.m., Ron pulls over to the corner and interrupts my worries. I open the passenger door and step inside.

“Jason.”

“Ron.”

“Would you like to drive?” Ron has one of those voices you hear on national public radio, a deep sonorous sound, gentle and civilizing. Live from a turtle race in Augusta, Maine. Or a tug-boat pull on Lake Ontario. This is Ron Riga, live from Kalamazoo.

Three weeks of summer swelter has my brain in park, so when faced with a question it takes me time to respond.

“Yeah, I better drive.”  I get out of the passenger side and walk around the back of the car. As I pass the back, I notice trash strewn throughout the wagon compartment—crumpled newspapers, graded papers, empty food cartons, bent soda cans and Styrofoam coffee cups, halved credit cards and other angular bits of plastic, the residue of life in America. Glancing through the driver’s side rear door, I see junk all over the backseat too.

Ron sees my frown and quickly apologizes. “I’m really sorry, but I was out of garbage bags and didn’t get a chance to clean out the car. I’m truly sorry about that.”

In my morning mood, I can’t help but grimace. I imagine I look like a sour, ugly fellow. I try my best to mask my immediate reaction with a considerate tone. “That’s okay. We can stop at the supermarket across from my insurance place.”

“Sounds good.”  In his tone, I hear Ron really wants to bag up the trash. He wants to deliver a clean automobile for his karma. I get into the driver seat, where below and behind my left knee, I find the lever to move the seat back. I adjust the rearview window until I can see the decals parallel to and below the red stripes for rear defrost, across the wagon’s back window. Davidson College. Carolina Coastal. UNC Greensboro. All the levers are manual and easy to adjust.

Then I stare down at the pedals. It’s strange but I can’t remember how to operate a manual transmission although the car I had stolen was also a stick. I realize that my feet had memorized the necessary controls but now they’d lost their way—similar to how fingers can memorize a gym locker combination so that one loses conscious awareness of the actual numbers but can still easily get the locker open. It’s not going to the gym for a few weeks that could ruin things.

Finally I turn to Ron. “Is the left pedal the brake or the clutch?”

“Hmmm,” murmurs Ron. “It’s the clutch. Are you sure you want to drive?”

“Don’t worry,” I add. “I haven’t driven a stick in six months, but the car I had stolen was just like this one.”

“Good,” says Ron, and despite my novice’s question, he seems genuinely at peace with his decision to turn over the wheel.

And we’re off.

The car shudders every time we go over a pothole, jolting me more awake and into more doubt as my skepticism about the car grazes the roof each time. The key is whether or not it will pass state inspection. I’m buying it with confidence in the hazy knowledge I have of a state waiver being granted for emissions; as long as I get $250 worth of work toward the necessary repair, they’ll give me the emissions sticker. At least I think this is how it works. I’m hoping everything together—transfer fees, inspection, repairs, bottle of wine, Thai dinner—settles under $500.

I turn on to 76 West to get to City Line Avenue and slowly accelerate into the mid-forties. It is then that I notice we are almost out of gas.

“Are you going to miss this one?”

“Jason, frankly I’m not,” Ron replies. “The insurance was just too high.”

“How high could it be?”  I’m thinking about the fact that the car is so old.

“Well, I had points, a long story, and so it was costing me over $2000 per year. I just can’t afford the insurance in my situation.”

My first thought is, “yeah, that’s another reason we should all quit what we’re doing and jump into that racket,” but it is the word situation that looms over the highway. Although we’re now making forward progress at almost 50 miles per hour, the concept of situation—a stagnant stuckness Ron has found himself in—is as thick as the humidity and just as suffocating. Ron is forty-nine and a part-time instructor of freshman composition at a couple of local colleges. He has recently told me he has refused work at the one where we were quarantined in classrooms full of anxious undergrads because he needs health benefits, something he can’t acquire without full-time employment. (I’m twenty years younger, and through a tip from a friend found insurance for $69 per month for young male non-smokers. Younger men can afford a policy because we never get pregnant, rarely get sick, or go to the doctor when we do.)

“Should I stop somewhere to fill up the tank?”

“Oh, thanks for reminding me. The gas gauge is broken; it will always point to E.”

“Do you know how much is in there?”

“I haven’t been driving recently, but I’m almost positive there is at least half a tank. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. Just fill her up once a week; the car gets over thirty miles per gallon.”

We arrive at the shopping center parking lot across from my insurer.

“Ron, I’m going to find a place to take a leak.” The coffee is doing the talking.

“I’ll go purchase the plastic garbage bags and get rid of that trash.”

We get out of the car, and it is then that I notice Ron’s dress. His wide belly is shielded by a royal blue Hawaiian shirt with peach parrots and yellow stars. He’s wearing light blue jeans cut off at the knee, revealing thin but hairy calves. His sandals appear to be of aged quality, a genuine leather strap where the toes peek out. He wears his long black and silver hair straight down, his full beard in a sizable bush. He is 5’7″ or so and two hundred something pounds, quite the contrast to the svelte and clean-shaven young Ron Riga I’ve seen in a photograph on our office door.

Indulging in the final stages of my own spry and thin self, I stroll into a health food center and inquire if they have a men’s room. A lady behind the counter says no, and that there is none in the shopping center before 11 a.m. when the Olive Garden and Lord and Taylor open. So I walk out, and away from the car, toward the back parking lot behind the low-rise strip mall.

A few minutes later, back at the car, Ron smiles proudly, holding up two black trash bags full of crap from the wagon. Each is equal in size to his own substantial middle.

“Wow, it looks clean.”

“You see, that wasn’t so bad.”

“No, it wasn’t at all.” By this time my morning fog is starting to lift, and I feel myself warming up to Ron, and even to the automobile.

“The insurance place is across the street on the ground floor of the Iroquois Apartments building. Shall we?”

“Indeed, we shall,” says Ron.

We get back in the car, one step closer to transferring ownership of a teenaged Nissan Sentra with a broken gas gauge and possible exhaust leak, a car that by law must be inspected within three weeks. I look over at Ron.

The hopeful brow of his “so we shall” is forming into a more doubtful, “we shall, no?”

I put the key in the ignition and turn. She starts right up; I have to admit that much.

We walk into the Iroquois Apartment building but see no remnants of a sequestered or murdered tribe. The more vaguely oppressed subsist here now—guarding the door, a black man in uniform; by a walk-in storage area, an immigrant, female, most likely an islander, assembling her cleaning supplies.

Through the glass doors and into the State Farm offices, we find that the agent I deal with isn’t around, but Deanna says she can complete the paperwork. It takes us three printings of the insurance card before we get it right. The first time around she insists on typing in H/B for hatchback, not realizing that the lead digits of the VIN could also be for a station wagon. The second time, we get the options wrong. The third time, it’s my fault; I forgot to request a change of address when I moved at the end of May. Despite the three false finishes, Ron seems happy as a clam, a wide smile and some soothing words for the typist. I can barely break out of my half-frown—I’m already in the middle of buyer’s remorse although I haven’t purchased anything yet. (Can you suffer buyer’s remorse if there’s no price or payment?) Deanna returns Ron’s wide smile as she prints out the corrected forms, including a new temporary insurance card that has my name typed on the same card as the vehicle.

Oh Shit. That makes me look like the owner!

We return to the rust-spotted tin can on wheels, now protected by two insurance policies. Ron has an extra hop in his step; he is eager to head off toward Triple A, where the car will officially change hands.

Back inside the Sentra, I pull out easily and we head to the end of the one-way street.

“You seem to be adjusting easily to driving the car,” says Ron.

And just as I turn to respond, I forget the clutch and stall out at the stop sign at the end of the road.

000

Traffic is light, so it takes only twenty minutes to arrive back in the city at Triple A. We park in the free lot for members, and stroll into the lush A/C. There is no line for automotive transactions—replacement plates, change of address, registration renewals etc.—and a chirpy elderly woman greets us with, “What can I do for you kind gentlemen today?”

“This gentleman is kindly buying my car,” announces Ron.

We sit down at her desk and watch the woman guide us through the paperwork. Ron’s cheeks grow rosy, and his smile widens. Transferring this gold car out of his name, and off his insurance policy, becomes an ecstatic experience. He taps his toes a bit and manages brisk foot movements not unlike a hop or jig.

Sign at the X here. Sign at the X here. And here. And so on.

When she finishes, she tidies up the papers and hands a stack to each of us. Then she hands me my new license plate. Ron practically hoots with glee. The Nissan is off his hands. His excitement and my skepticism burgeon together; they are conjoined twins in a simultaneous growth spurt. No longer seated, he dances briefly in the middle of Triple A. The happier he becomes, the more nervous I become. What am I getting myself into? I imagine the car flunking inspection, and the $250 waiver being unavailable, and suddenly I’m paying five bills for a tow truck to come dump the car because it can’t pass inspection without two grand worth of engine work.

“Shall we head for the Thai restaurant?”  Or Ron may just be eager to eat dinner and drink the promised bottle of wine.

“Sounds good. I just gotta screw the plate on first.”

Outside, under the hot sun again, from the back of the wagon, Ron retrieves a flathead screwdriver from a cardboard box top containing two quarts of oil, some dirty rags, and a beige glove with an ice scraper attached at the end. It’s no trouble at all to use the rusty, old screws that fastened Ron’s old plate to the car. ECN 6734. That’s the new me. The plate ID offers a hint of meaning, but I can’t make anything of it. Maybe it’s just a mirage.

Ron tells me I can keep the screwdriver, and he returns it to the box. He adds, “The car sometimes runs low on oil, so make sure you add a quart about once a month.”  He drops this in as if it’s no big deal, but my initial reaction is imagining the car coming to a screeching halt on the highway. A rusty, old mechanic comes to rescue me in his tow truck saying, “See son, you let her run dry. Car is like a woman son. Gotta keep her moist if you want her to work for you.”

I’ve never added oil on my own to any car. “Is that hard to do?”

Ron looks surprised but then responds, “Not at all. Allow me.”  Nothing can dampen his spirits at this point, and he pops the hood, finds the stick to prop it open, opens a quart of oil, and then uses one of the rags to unscrew the plastic cap where you pour in the oil. He tips the quart over and slowly pours in the black gold. Then he removes the dipstick from the right side of the engine, dips it down in the oil, and then shows me how to read the measurement. “See, we’re full up now.”

“So do this once a month?”

“That’s about right.”

It doesn’t seem that hard to do, so I feel a bit relieved. No gas gauge. Oil once a month. Exhaust repair required for inspection. But she certainly does ride easily.

Ron waits while I deliberate over the new information.

“Let’s go eat,” is all I can think to say.

000

Seated at the Thai restaurant, I see Ron’s eyes light up as the bottle of wine arrives at the table. His eyes gleam as the server pours him a full glass of golden liquid. I’m more eager for the Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce, but to be polite, I take half a glass too. We raise our glasses.

“To the golden Nissan,” toasts Ron. We clink, drink, unfold our cloth napkins, and await the food.

The appetizers arrive and they’re as tasty as promised. The brown sauce is spicy and peanuty; I sip the wine to cool my mouth. Ron has already gulped down his full glass and poured another, so I ask him if he minds if I have a little more.

“By all means, please do so,” he says.

Soon, we’re drinking and eating and chewing and talking literature like two readers and writers anywhere—guys who trade in cheap meals and change our own oil, all sacrifice for the sake of art. The cool air conditioning in the empty restaurant helps us forget the dense heat outside, where the car is parked on a side street, well removed from our conversation. But like a new friend, I can’t help but bring it back in. With the wine my concerns about the gas gauge and the oil leaks are washed away, and I’m thinking only of the fact that I’ve gotten an entire car for the price of this dinner. “So you’re sure you won’t miss the car?”

Ron looks up from his white wine and half-bit chicken on a wooden skewer, straight at me. I see his weathered, tan face, his gray-blue eyes, but most of all the bags underneath them. They hang like weights, revealing too many worries over a long passage of time, too many books read alone late into weekend nights, a thick, rich sadness that hovers over our delectable meal.

Ron emits a long, soft sigh and says, “No, I won’t miss the car. It’s not really the insurance premiums either.”

Oh?

“The car reminds me of my wife.” His despondence over this truth is final; I doubt my face expresses proper empathy, but it is no trouble to echo his sigh.

“I bought the car so I could be near my wife as much as possible. I would be attending graduate school in Philadelphia, and she would be teaching yoga back in York. I needed the car to commute into town three days a week. This was three years ago, and it seemed like the perfect way to keep our marriage together despite my return for the master’s degree in poetry.”

Ron sips his wine again. Yes, he sips now, as if only to wet his mouth to continue.

“Everything seemed to be working out okay. We’d lost our teaching jobs in South Carolina, but we were back up North in familiar territory. We had food on the table, and we were in therapy.

“As it turned out, therapy was the problem. As it turned out, my therapist, our therapist, was visiting my wife for massage on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. While I was in class taught by an uptight experimentalist, my wife was giving Saul a rubdown. And so. . .”  Ron abruptly stops talking and drifts off. His eyes wander away from wine with dinner, and I can’t help but turn around to see the pretty Thai waitress bending down to pick up a straw weave holder and the dozens of sugar packets that have fallen on the floor. The sugar is preserved in the packets, and we both watch as she places them neatly back in the holder.

“So your wife had an affair with your therapist?”

“Yes.”  Ron turns back to me. “I lost my wife to our therapist.”

“Did you sue?” That fucker is all I can think. The waitress approaches our table with the water pitcher. Ron sighs and explains.

“He had a salary, a big house, security. I was turning even farther away from these things, back to my writing, to poetry.”  Ron sighs again, this one looming over the table like a novel ending that includes a failed suicide—a last futile effort at succeeding at anything at all. “He had the things my wife desired at that stage, things I couldn’t provide. Providing these things didn’t interest me. Writing poetry did. If I know in your heart you are already leaving, it is better I let you go.”

The waitress smiles as she walks away. Silence steals over the empty appetizer plates. I knew Ron had taught down South, had shared a lecturer’s appointment with his wife, had lost the job when the school went bankrupt, and now was up North and that the poetry degree was on top of a PhD. Twelve years of higher education and he can’t afford to keep an old car around the house. I knew he was separated from the same wife too. Now I knew how. My present-day benefactor has had his most precious possession stolen.

We sit in silence, regarding each other solemnly, warily, if not in an outright stare-down; as if together, we are calculating whether the story ends here.

And then the sexy sugar-packet waitress delivers our entrees. On my suggestion, we’ve both ordered the Drunken Noodle, an assortment of seafood—shrimp, scallops, and squid—over flat noodles with fried egg and thin slices of carrots and squash mixed in.

“Could you bring us another bottle of wine?” Ron requests this as if it were as dangerous as asking for her phone number.

We spend the next fifteen minutes focused on eating and drinking. Ron plows through his Drunken Noodle, stabbing and devouring every flat noodle, squid, scallop, fried egg bit, shrimp, and serrated flat carrot piece; he washes it all down with ample gulps of wine. I match him noodle for noodle if not gulp for gulp. The eating takes us away from the lost wife, the car exchange, the summer heat, and everything else beyond the plate. When the new bottle arrives, Ron fills his glass to the very brim but balances it perfectly as he raises it to his lips for the first gulping. He is now going at about half a glass per gulp, washing down almost every forkful with wine.

And then, there is nothing left. Both our plates are cleared, both bottles consumed, only Ron’s water glass left untouched. The check arrives, and Ron immediately offers to pay for the second bottle of wine but I insist I cover the entire bill. The bottles are 30 bucks each, but I’m still getting a car for less than 100 American dollars. We stand up and wobble out of the Bangkok Inn. Back outside, the sun still crowds the pavement like a fat man sharing a two-seater on the subway—sweaty and oppressive and dominating the scene.

I offer to drive Ron home, and he graciously declines, saying he can take the suburban train up to East Falls, but I insist, and he relents. So we climb back in the little gold box, and again she starts right up, and I drive out of West Philly, over the Spring Garden Street Bridge and up East River Drive to Midvale where the car takes on the steep hill at a slow but steady rate. I’m amazed at the pep in the 13-year-old engine. Around a bend and up a dead-end street, I double park and say goodbye to Ron. “Goodnight, and thank you,” he says as he lifts his full body out of the passenger side and onto the street. I observe him ambulate away the car, from black asphalt to grey concrete sidewalk and up the wooden steps to his little two-bedroom box house. He fumbles with his key and then enters his rented house, a drunken old man no longer in possession of an automobile. Who knows what this change of fortune will bring? Will there be women he can’t marry now and even some unwilling to go on a date? With bitterness, will he see every therapist as a purloiner of wives or every woman as an absconder, or worse yet, a thief of therapists? Would it be easy to estimate all manner of expenses he’ll save upon, how happy or sad he’ll be the rest of his life, or whether or not he’ll ever drive a car again? It is all too much to consider, but I watch until he closes the door behind him, and I smile and wave because I think I see his hand motioning a final goodbye.

Then, my foot on the clutch, I put her back in gear, press gently against the gas pedal, crawl out of Ron’s dead end, and cruise back to the river. Alone with the car, it really strikes me that this is a free car. Possibly still young and dumb, but no longer in doubt about my ride, I push harder on the gas pedal, and sure enough, she accelerates. The Nissan was Ron’s past life, his wife and his dreams, and then it was their collapse. The Nissan became his wife with his therapist. But for me, tonight, the Nissan is my peppy little pot of gold. Pushing past fifty miles per hour, I experience ownership of the car. I have appropriated Ron’s automobile; it is not unlike I am stealing his story. But now it is part of my story, my opportunity and adventure. As I push down harder on the gas, I recognize that perhaps it is only the wine forming my thoughts, but I must say the bucket seats are not uncomfortable. And I’ll remember to fill the tank with gas tomorrow, just fill her up and then I’ll know I have a full tank to start. After I get gas, I’ll go deal with inspection, show my mechanic the paperwork, and allow him to see for himself. I hope he’ll confirm that I purchased this vehicle for almost nothing at all.

 

 

***

Alex Kudera‘s award-winning adjunct novel, Fight for Your Long Day (Atticus Books), was drafted in a walk-in closet during a summer in Seoul, South Korea. In 2016, he published Auggie’s Revenge with Beating Windward Press as well as a Classroom Edition of Fight for Your Long Day with Hard Ball Press. The e-singles “Frade Killed Ellen” (Dutch Kills Press), “Turquoise Truck” (Mendicant Bookworks), and “The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity” (Gone Dog Press) are available most anywhere books are downloaded. When he isn’t writing, he works, walks, frets, fails, and helps raise a child.

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