Jamie Sasso finds herself alone, with no family or home. Cast adrift by a distant cousin in another state, she finds she cannot tolerate her county’s foster care program. But where can she live, how can she feed herself, and in what way can she plan her future? Will she even have a future? A Pontiac in the Woods explores those issues and raises meaningful questions about them. With the help of a social worker, Mr. Santa, Misha, a young man she meets at a dance, and her school’s track coach she begins to find her way. But the way is never smooth. More important she cannot find for sure where that way will lead. This is a young woman’s rude, sometimes primitive narrative that packs a surprising punch.
Excerpt of A Pontiac in the Woods
“I want to see how you live,” he said, seeing me shake my head. “You’ve got more guts and independence than I could ever have.”
“Guts isn’t the right word, Misha. I have no choice; it’s a necessity.”
“From what you told me at the dance, you do have a choice, and you’re brave enough to follow through on it.”
I shrugged my shoulders. Whenever people said I had courage for living in a car, I often reminded myself that courage was just another form of stupidity—the kind that people praised. There was some truth in that, I suppose, but as far as I was concerned there was nothing else for me to do. I didn’t want to live in a foster family—with strangers. Again, “couldn’t live with them” would probably be more accurate. And since my older, very distant shit of a cousin didn’t give a damn about me or my future once he got his money from our house, I just flat out had to do it on my own. Then because the social worker on my case, a nice guy named Dominic Santa, reluctantly agreed that I could live alone if I visited him in his office bi-weekly, both the state and the county dumped some money in my bank account each month to make up for my distant relation. Mr. Santa sent him regular reports, but the shithead never responded—not even once. “Bad luck,” Mr. Santa called it, but I just looked him in the eye, raised my hand with the pinky and forefinger up, and pointed it somewhere toward the western part of our county as if I was sending the evil eye.
“Fuck him and his money,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to live with that fuckhead anyway, even if he begged me.”
Oh yes, I said that. And with all that mental baggage I still took Misha into the woods across from the station to see my car that night. It was a 1960 Bonneville that, I’m sure, had once been metallic blue, but with most of the paint gone now, just looked like a rusty brown tank abandoned under some menacing trees. The seats were torn and loose, tires flat and obviously deteriorated, but the windows, miraculously, were left intact though pock-marked, letting in just enough light for a grimy, depressing glow. As I told Mr. Santa once, I spent my entire life there as if it were five o’clock on a graying winter afternoon. Bed was the mangled, spring-exposed seat in back, and a brown army blanket, with as many coats and pants as I could pile together, kept me warm in fall and winter. For hot days, I’d slip under the steering wheel in front and scrunch down very low because there was a hole in the floor above the front left tire that would let in moist, mostly cool air. I covered the hole with a tarp and some stolen blankets during the dark days, but I found the damp ground and whatever fresh air a breeze could bring relieved almost any heat I felt during summer.
“Very cool,” my beaming Misha said as we came around a fat forest oak and saw the Bonneville waiting behind a tuft of tall grass beside a dark rock. He walked ahead of me, circled the rusty beast, and came back toward me with a huge grin on his face. “Jeez, my dad used to have one of these. He said he learned to drive in it and didn’t want to let it go. Finally, it died and he just junked it. I’m sure it wasn’t this one, though, cause I’ve seen the pictures. His was a very bright yellow.”
I pulled open the driver’s door. The screech of rusty hinges made us both cringe. I slid in across to the passenger’s side on the blackened slate-blue couch seat, and Misha sat behind the steering wheel. “Wow, I feel like I’m piloting the Queen Mary,” he said, making as if to steer. The wheel, basically frozen in place, turned just an inch, maybe a fraction more. “Whoa, no more power steering here,” he said. He turned to look in the back, where, beside the six pairs of NBs, I had a stash of canned food, mainly vegetables and a little meat and fish. From there he peered through the grimy scratch of my windows to surrounding bush, grass, and trees. “Pretty private,” Misha said. “You could do some pretty wild stuff here.”
I gave him a hard stare, but he was just trying to be nice, I figured, so I didn’t try to make much of it.
“I’ll trade any time you want,” I said finally, smiling, “your room for this house.”
My fingers semaphored around “house”, of course. But then I let my fingers drop, and we spent a few embarrassed minutes just looking around so we wouldn’t have to stare at each other or say something stupid. With Misha there, my abandonment was painfully obvious, not only because of the old, fucked-up blue car, but also my fucked-up blue life. I knew it had to lower me in his eyes—maybe in a kind way, maybe not. But I mostly knew it had to make any life between us very short.
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A writer, Fulbright Scholar, lover of newspapers, books, movies and most things French or Italian (especially novels and opera), Fred Misurella has published fiction and nonfiction in many journals, including The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Christian Science Monitor, The Partisan Review, Salmagundi, VIA, Altre Italie, and L’Atelier du Roman. He was educated at the University of Iowa, has lived in New York and Paris, and presently resides in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania with his wife, Kim, son, Alex, and daughter, Filipka. He taught creative writing, journalism, and Italian-American Literature at East Stroudsburg University and makes pilgrimages to Provence, Liguria, and Tuscany almost every summer with his family. He is the book review editor for VIA, a semi-annual journal of Italian American culture.