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Conveyance: It’s Never Just a Car

February 24, 2011

It was time, I thought, to alter the way of arriving at there from here. Which is to say, more simply, we needed a new car.

Here are the things that had begun to go. First was the clock on the radio. The numbers were fading from left to right, so that in order to see the time, it was necessary to cup my hand to block the sun and tilt my head a bit toward the passenger side.

There was also the back door handle on the driver’s side. It didn’t work, something I forgot almost daily as I went to open it so my son could climb in to the back seat. I’d pull on it and the handle would come toward me too quickly, doing nothing. I’d have to reach in from the driver’s seat and around then unlock the door and open it from the inside. Then I’d wrangle my arm out quickly to catch the opening door before it collapsed closed again. There was probably an easy fix for this; I even asked my dad to look at it over Christmas. But it was too cold, to trivial an inconvenience to bother with disassembling the door.

There was also the master mechanism for unlocking the doors and raising and lowering the windows on the driver’s door. It had collapsed down into the door frame, and the plastic piece that held it in place kept threatening to slip down into the door. It was still possible to change the position of the windows on all four doors, to unlock them too, but my finger would get lost down in the recesses of the door if I tried.

Also, there was the tear on the passenger seat, which had been repaired, in a manner of speaking, with a c-curved upholstery needle and some navy thread. The stitches were raised, obvious – like a poorly healed scar running beneath the leg of whoever rode shotgun.

But this was our car. We’d shared it for almost seven years, and it was the most constant place we’d been together in three states, eight moves – several of them up and down the Eastern seaboard. Each time we reached a toll we pushed in on the little drawer under the radio and took out the cash we always kept there. As a result, there was a little nest of fingernail scratches on the painted plastic.

This was the car we’d driven to the hospital in after my water broke, the car we brought our son home from the hospital in after the security officer checked to see that our new carseat was properly installed. More than once we’d folded the passenger seat forward and changed our son’s diaper on the flat plastic table the white sketched diagram on it ensured us was its purpose. The back seat and the front one too had been folded down to accommodate long boxes from Ikea on more than one occasion.

We learned to coordinate our schedules, to negotiate the logistics of childcare pickups and evening meetings with this car. We had long talks on long drives. I made it through the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Shenandoah National Park alone with my son, pulled into the parking lot of the Motel 6 in Mt. Airy, North Carolina with him, stopped once at South of the Border and made it up and down the stretch of Florida peninsula at least four times.

More than 100,000 miles of driving through the beginnings of our lives as a family happened in that car. With what’s next so near at hand, though, it was time to trade up. I wanted to pose like my father or an immigrant in front of the car for one last photo. I didn’t. We had joked we’d drive it until it stopped running somewhere on the side of the road. We wouldn’t.

As we test drove what would be our next car with the laid-off factory engineer turned car salesman who’d owned 126 cars in his fifty-odd years, he told us about the three 1969 Pontiac GTOs he’d bought and sold. I remembered the ’67 that was supposed to be my sister’s. The looks I got at 21, pulling that thing up to the gas pump. My goodbye to it had been unceremonious, though I’d begged my father to keep it, to let me pay to get the brake drums replaced so I could keep driving it with the triangle windows tilted in toward my face for a good breeze.

“It’s just a car,” you might have said to me then or even yesterday as I stretched out the fumes of the last gallon of gas I put in our old Toyota Matrix to get us to the dealership to pick up our new Rav 4.

“It’s never just a car,” I would have responded. It’s never just a car.

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