Reading about death is a relatively easy thing. This deals with mortality, which is slightly different, and considerably more difficult. This thing over here dies…that thing over there dies…but mortality is something we all have in common with each other. Death is an event, mortality is a condition. And deep down we all know we have it, and can’t get away from it. It’s part of us, and that’s the theme here — not for the timid.
I bought “Bessie” and drove her off the lot way back when she had 6.3 miles on the clock, and the maps were different. The Berlin Wall would fall in another four months. Hayden Panettiere was over a month away from being born. Batman had just been released, which inspired Bessie’s ultimate nickname — The Batmobile. The woman who would later be my wife, picked her out. I often joked this was the one choice that she made, ever, that wasn’t injurious to my prosperity…which wasn’t a joke. I’ve thought many times that when we split up and Bessie went with me, this was contrary to some master plan that was pursued much, and discussed little. I, and Bessie, represented a ticket to a “good life” for someone who had spent many years chasing it, but not honestly.
For Bessie to be at my side for so long, didn’t figure into my plans either. She was a leased vehicle, leased without any options. I just loved the way she coasted; when she was new, I used to take her out of gear and see how many miles would click on by, as the engine just idled away. It wasn’t until a couple years after that, when I was separated, neck deep in debt, during that wild and crazy summer of ’91 when the collection agencies were kind enough to inform me my wife was hanging bad paper all over Seattle in my name, that I realized — hey wait a minute. Nothing is working out here, financially. My boss is late on his payroll, and I suspect he’s in Vegas gambling something, trying to earn my paycheck from two weeks ago on Black 17. Or maybe he’s given up…maybe I’m just laid-off and I don’t know it. Everything sucks. Only one thing has panned out here, and that’s this little black car.
|The final odometer reading
And Bessie and I took on the world, like a lost soldier from the Civil War trying to find his regiment again, with his faithful horse. Us against the world. Seattle continued its slump, and when a new job prospect opened up in Detroit I was greeted by a rather wretched choice. Move away and turn things around, maybe, or see Mom a few more times after she got that tumor in her brain. There was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in our family over this, but pointedly, Mom was not participating in it. She could see people were putting life on hold for her, and she did not approve. Mom was all about life…yes, we should be together as a family, but we should live life first, as it is meant to be lived. Ultimately I did as she wished.
And that’s when this life we should be living, got really exciting — when I spent a year driving a Toyota in Detroit. Detroit, where the livelihood of everyone depends on the sale of American cars. They didn’t appreciate me. They let me know. Since that time, I’ve often commented that if I can do freeway lane changes in Detroit in a rice-rocket, I can do ‘em anywhere in anything.
The divorce came through in November of ’91, and I engaged my two thousand mile commute. To work. Three time zones away, in Detroit. In Bessie. Bessie, whose 60,000 mile warranty expired 20,000 miles ago.
Well, there are other cities where more fun is to be had, than Detroit. But I wouldn’t know one way or the other. I lived the life of a man who had none, who was instead trying to put the remnants of one back together. Working, sleeping, working some more…paying some bills…maybe eating…occasionally drinking. Drinking more than I should. I did have some fun…I learned how to sky-dive in Detroit. Life was such an empty proposition during those months, I’ve often thought that the timing was a little off. Thinking back to the moments where I looked up, and saw my chute deployed properly after all, I’m sometimes unsure if that rush of emotion I felt really was relief.
Fate interjected again, when a contract came up out here. And so, toward the end of ’92, this became my assignment: Sacramento. The family drama kicked into high gear by then, as Mom outlived diagnosis after diagnosis, but it was clear if she made it to the Christmas that was coming up, it would be her last.
Bessie was shipped out to me. This was a condition of my accepting the Sacramento assignment; I had planned for her to facilitate my journey home for the holidays. But it seems someone had been saying whatever needed to be said to get me off the phone, and had instead resolved to talk some sense into me at some later time. Which meant — on December 22, Bessie was not en route according to plan. She was in the Motor City. I was in Sacramento. Immobile. It was far too late to book a flight for Mom’s final Christmas…or catch a Greyhound…or…whatever. My reaction to this was not pleasant. Something had been building up in me during these previous two miserable years. And over the phone, I released it. I know not how. I know not what I said. I knew nothing but rage.
But I do know at 10:00 in the morning on December 24, 1992, Bessie was delivered, Detroit to Sacramento, one way.
I hopped in, gassed her up, and drove like hell. Bellingham, WA: 864 miles. Redding by two in the afternoon, Ashland by that early midwinter nightfall…somewhere up there I stopped for some grub, and reached Portland by eleven-ish. Welcome to Washington. Onward we go. Kelso. Olympia and Nisqually basin, deep into the wee hours of the morning…just drive…
What follows is a sickeningly-sweet Hallmark commercial, where the parents rise for Christmas morning at six, to find coffee being made by the wayward son who just finished an all-nighter to get home in time for Christmas. Mom hadn’t seen me for over a year by now. It was to be the last time.
For the funeral, once again, people tried to talk sense into me, and again I made the mistake of listening. I went by air. I left Bessie parked up in Reno, and took a thoroughly miserable three-leg itinerary up to Bellingham. It took twenty hours to do what I had previously achieved in fourteen…and this inspired a cynicism toward air travel that continued for many years afterward. After that, my point of diminishing returns was thrown WAY out there. A thousand miles or so. Up to that point, the travel agent could rest. Bessie would handle things for me.
And she always did…all those years, if the key turned, the engine would start — no ifs, ands or buts. It was shortly after Mom’s burial, which put some closure on all the drama taking place up north, when I began to settle into something of a normal life in the Big Tomato…where Greenback meets Madison in Orangevale…in the wee hours of the morning, late spring to early summer of ’93, she crossed 100 thousand miles.
And I resolved to learn a bit more about her. The Toyota Corolla GTS was produced as a three-year family, from ’87 to ’89. The engine was a naturally-aspirated double overhead cam 1587cc inline-4 with EFI, a novelty back in those days. It was a third-generation 4A-GE, a popular one for refitting for auto racing. When the lease came to an end, I bought her out. She ran problem free, until — in the summer of ’95, oil started to fall on the exhaust manifold. At 150 thousand miles, she got a new valve cover gasket. That is as close to the heart as any repair ever came throughout her long life — the only procedure ever performed on the engine, regular maintenance aside.
Then I got someone pregnant. About this time it had became trendy and fashionable for people, when they learned of such impending arrivals, to shove expectant fathers into their anticipated life-changes, celebrating the male angst and discomfort in the new role. They came from all over, zooming in like angry hornets, upon whatever parts of the former bachelor’s life he found most pleasing — and in my case they put Bessie in the crosshairs. And so one well-intentioned goo-gooder after another nudged, cajoled and coerced that I should “upgrade” towards one of those trendy minivans.
By 1998, as the boy completed his first year, I came close. But I demanded to see something to show me that the new vehicle for which Bessie would be exchanged, was to be as reliable, and peppy, and carefree, as she had been. The salesmen showed less than overwhelming enthusiasm to demonstrate this to me, and so we walked. Bessie became a family car, albeit an unlikely one.
By this time, we had our little adventure with wrapping Bessie around the tree, miraculously getting her back again. That was another instance of defying the odds. She wasn’t “wrapped around,” instead she was cut in half with the tree rammed square between the headlights. The engine was spared but the radiator was destroyed. It was that dreaded fool-behind-steering-wheel problem that comes up from time to time.
This was the start of a mild decline…although she did snap out of it, in a sense. New parts were found, and plugged in again — and we kept finding out the mechanics didn’t do it quite right. There was that adventure in Williams that we had after it became clear the new radiator had been plugged in all cockeyed.
Bessie continued to service our daily transporation needs, and we continued to service her. New timing belt at 216. New clutch at 238.
I remember during that dramatic breakdown in Williams, we were on our way to visit Dad. I remember we tried again, later that summer, and that was when Bessie crossed a quarter million.
I remember three hundred thousand happened just after “Kidzmom” and I had split up. We tried to keep the home together for the boy’s sake, but in the end, it just amounted to a wonderful lesson for both of us that all people cannot necessarily share their lives with all other people. We’d made our plans in late ’03, during which time it turned out Bessie’s new radiator from the tree-wrapping incident was substandard. A pinhole, in the neck. I was far less distressed about depriving my son of a united household, than I was about doing the smog test to find out if it was worth getting a new radiator. Fortunately, it was…although by now, everyone was convinced I was nuts. February ’04 came, the Mom moved out and took that dreadful stupid dog with her. Life got bleak. I saw very little of the boy over the next three or four months. And then I set up a new household and life got somewhat “normal”…June, his seventh birthday…and that August is when the Big Three Oh Oh happened.
At that point, the life of a single-dad began in earnest, and Bessie’s mileage demands skyrocketed. Fourth of July of ’04 was unforgettable. It was the first father-son thing we did after the split. We piled into ol’ Bessie at three in the morning, and headed out to the Balloon launch. I think it was in Willits. Saw the new Spider Man movie, then waited up for fireworks. It was a good lesson in what a twenty-hour day is like when you’re 38 years old — not the same as when you’re 26.
Single parents treat their cars a little differently. When ya gonna pick him up. When ya gonna drop him off. You forgot to bring his coat. School needs you to pick him up. He wants to see you tonight. Are you taking him this week. This is your weekend. We can’t meet you, can you pick him up here. This one is not your weekend, but do you want him anyway. We won’t be home, can you drop him off over here.
Bessie, by this time, was over fifteen and she handled all these demands with less complaint than a brand new car would’ve. She handled them like she was expecting them. It was an amazing thing.
Looking back on it, I think the final decline came with a single event…the way it does with people who are blessed with longevity, you know? Grandma caught a cold a year before she passed, or she broke her arm, or she slipped on something…and from that point was never the same again. Well, that’s how Bessie went. I parked Bessie unwisely it turns out. Someone backed in to her, destroying the hood. The radiator was unscratched, but the bracket that held it in place was destroyed.
By this time, she was past 330. The insurance company of the woman who didn’t look where she was going when backing up, pronounced this latest repair to be well above the car’s worth. And this, at last, was fresh ground for Bessie. I had to salvage her.
The DMV sent me through this daunting process this last Christmas, and I was working to get it all tied up within the sixty days. She’d need a new set of plates. Little pain-in-the-ass things became items of concern, as they would have caused the inspection to fail. So it was off to the junk yards to get replacement parts for an eighteen year old car.
|Bessie (left) lies in state, next to her replacement (right)
…it was exactly like something my mother would have done. Who knows, maybe that was her in there all this time — some otherwordly scheme for the Perfect Grandmother to actually see her grandchildren. Just like Mom, Bessie seemed to understand the trouble that was being taken on to keep her going, had risen above some threshold that was no longer acceptable. It was as if something deep inside her reasoned that while life was worth living, for her it came at the expense of others living less of theirs, and she cared not if this sacrifice was freely given or not — she would not accept it. If there was an awful choice to be made, and others would not make it, she would.
On Friday morning, the boy and I hopped in the faithful jalopy to drop him off at his Mom’s one more time. I turned the key and the starter eagerly pushed on the engine…
…and for the first time since the Soviet Union fell, the engine pushed back.
I realized immediately that something had just gone terribly wrong. I checked for the cheapest problems first, but the battery was full of life. You could feel the car lurch slightly when the engine was supposed to turn over. This was the first problem, ever, inside the power plant.
After “Kidzmom’s” new husband drove down to collect the boy, I gave it another whirl and she started right up. The repair shop was about ten miles away, and she was running alright now…except I saw coolant vapors in the exhaust. Not good.
I chanced it.
I made it part of the way. To The Spot. The spot, which I’d spent a decade wondering where exactly it would be…now I have my answer. Latitude 38° 38′ 38.40″N, longitude 121° 09′ 28.05″W, final mileage 341,092.3 — never an inch above that. The idle had suddenly lost what smoothness it had. And then the power fell away. The coolant temperature gauge began nudging treacherously upwards. I powered down one last time…and coasted to The Spot.
End of an era.
My son’s involvement in the salvage operation gave him a new understanding of how faithful this machine had been to us, and he had a tough time with it when he finally realized what happened. It wasn’t like losing a car at all, it was more like losing a very dear pet, or relative. The lectures I found myself dishing out were exactly the same…except for that bit about machines being machines, someday they’ll go, they don’t heal.
But really, are the machines so different. People are the same way. Just like machines. Built to fall apart. Born…terminally ill. We don’t live forever, we just live to see another day.
Bessie navigated her way through a stretch of time that had swallowed up so many other things. But — her time did come, and it will eventually come for us all.
In watching its pendulum
Swing to and fro,
Many hours had he spent while a boy;
And in childhood and manhood
The clock seemed to know,
And to share both his grief and his joy.
For it struck twenty-four
When he entered at the door,
With a blooming and beautiful bride;
But it stopped short
Never to go again,
When the old man died.