First Day She'd Never See
Everything hinges on selling the Plymouth. I've got to get rid of this Valiant.
I've had a few people come over and look at the For Sale sign I made with
cardboard and a permanent marker. They cup their hands and look in at the
interior. When they see I'm living in the backseat, they get spooked. I roll
down the window, and they take steps backward. It might be my beard, I don't
know. I say, "You interested?" I soften my voice and smile, but they walk away
and chuckle to their girlfriends. The girlfriends are usually the ones
interested in the car, they think it's funky or cute. I hear them talking when
they walk back to their Nissans or to the new coffee shop next to Life Foods
here in the Vintner's Plaza parking lot.
I used to park on
Limber Street under an acacia tree. Everyone avoided the tree yellow pods
dropped and powdered their pristine paint jobs, so the spot was always open. The
droppings gave me good cover. I was safe in there. The mustard-colored silt
caked all the windows and blended with the butter-yellow paint of the Plymouth.
It could have been any abandoned car. But then reverse went out, and parallel
parking became impossible. I'm not going to push the thing around, so I had to
move out here to the Vintner's Plaza parking lot where I can always be nosed
I don't see a big problem not going backward as long as I
plan ahead. Gas stations can be tricky, or if I was in the city, parking would
be a bitch, but out here in the valley I don't really miss it. As long as I
remember I can only go forward, I can do away with the luxury of reverse. It's a
selling point, really, a car that will only go forward. No one seems to see it
that way, but I'm only asking $500 for the thing.
Vintner's Plaza parking lot is big enough to hide a fleet of ships planter-box
islands, sod medians, benches, fountains. Whoever designed this lot had a big
American idea of adventure in parking. They didn't think the shops would be
alluring enough, maybe, and had to create a mad landscaped labyrinth of parking
areas to keep the consumers entertained.
The pine-tree grove
on the south side with its tan bark and little hilly pathways seems especially
attractive to the Jeeps and Explorers, a pseudorustic escape from the multilevel
parking structure downtown. Hondas, Volkswagens, and convertible coupes lean
toward the tropical palm-tree islands on the north end. The Lincolns, Buicks,
and Cadillacs don't seem to mind the central wide-open parking those people
just want to get in, shop, and get out. But the BMWs, Lexuses, Jaguars they're
all shining by the fountain in front of the new coffee shop, shining like they
just had their teeth done.
The new coffee shop is one of those
chain caf้s that tries to outdo their competition with ridiculous variations on
the word Java. This one's called กMo'Java!, with an inverted exclamation mark
and gaudy multicolored lettering. Things here are a lot different than the
Salvation Army rehab outside town; I checked in there when I first moved up from
San Rafael a year ago.
The facility was a winery-resort-type
hotel in the seventies, but it had transformed into a burned-out haven for users
by the time I got there paint over the wallpaper, gray indoor/outdoor carpet
on the wood floors. It's strange how people go out of their way to make a nice
place bleak; none of us had a chance of seeing our lives any better. They gave
us projects, though, the social workers; they made us work. We moved junked lawn
mowers and vacuum cleaners, fire-hazard appliances, and countless boxes of
clothes and bric-a-brac that all smelled like it had been through a bayou flood.
The smell was always the same no matter where in the county it had come from or
how much cologne or perfume or fabric softener or syrup or God knows what
suburban odor of kids and puke and cigarettes had lived on the stuff it all
mixed together in the same germ-infested stink of a rank garage sale. I couldn't
get away from the smell it saturated everything for the month I was there.
There didn't seem much sense in moving all the donated stuff from the trucks it
came in on to the work yard, to the storage sites, to the sale yard, then back
to the trucks that then took it all to the dump. Some of the crap managed to
sell to the strange dirty regulars that made shrieking family excursions out of
shopping the sale yard. I'd see the same families digging through the nasty
boxes of shit, handing a broken Nerf gun to their grubby toddlers to shut them
up or trying to start a chain saw that'd been in a creek for a month. They never
bought much, those people, but they always came back like they might find a real
treasure, something we'd overlooked. The work kept us busy anyway better busy
than idle when every minute is a long day. But now I'm on my own, straight, just
me and the Plymouth and the Vintner's Plaza lot.
in white shorts today I've counted twenty already and it's only noon. No
potential buyers yet, though nobody that would even notice my Plymouth. These
are the same types of people that were at the golf course, Sonoma County elite
in white shorts.
I filled the range-ball machine at the
Sweetcreek Golf Course for a while after rehab. I didn't go out in the tractor
and actually retrieve the balls you have to work your way up to that. Hipolito
was the guy who drove the retriever, the "Lab," I called it, like a Labrador
retriever. Hipolito didn't get the pun.
Spring weekends were
the worst at the range. Everybody came out with the good weather, and the balls
would be flying like hail out there. I'd be dumping buckets of balls into the
machine, and Hipolito would be picking them up. I'd see him hauling ass across
the driving range, balls dinging off the cage. He never flinched when the balls
hit the Lab. He'd come in with a load, then go back out. I'd hustle to keep the
machine full, wondering why the course couldn't afford more balls so we didn't
have to work so hard. It was a primitive system. Then the machine would jam up
always when we were busy and we'd have a line of these Sonoma County people
waiting in their goofy golf outfits complaining. That pissed Hipolito off and
he'd yell at me as if I'd made the machine jam. He'd say, "God fuckit, Saymone!"
That's how he pronounced my name: Saymone. He couldn't wrap his accent around
"Simon." He cursed the same way, always a little off like "God fuckit" or "Hell
shit." I laughed the first few times I heard him curse in English, but that just
made him rattle off some long Spanish language that I'm sure he had right.
I was fired after they discovered I was living in their parking lot, my "home on
the range," I called it. Hipolito didn't get that either. They found out I was
living in my car around the same time the range-ball machine came up short on
cash. They put it on me, not the piece-of-shit machine or Hipolito. I'm sure
Hipolito lightened the till, but I didn't hold a grudge.
Sweetcreek people don't have much tolerance for anybody who isn't an architect
or a vintner or some Silicon Valley high roller. People here need the cheap
Mexican labor, but they treat immigrants like shit. They find some place in
their heart for a stray dog that's pulled free of its tree, but a "destitute
Caucasian transient" (like they called me in the Sweetcreek Tribune) just
doesn't have a place. The incident of the range-ball machine made the Tribune,
if that's any indication of the lives these people have.
There's a sucker's hole in the storm front today that's bringing all these
idiots out in their shorts, typical California visitors that haven't been
through a spring here. They figure the rain's a fluke in their idea of the "wine
country," and now they'll be stuck in the wrong apparel twenty miles from their
bed-and-breakfasts. Like the guy I see now across the parking lot, his legs
sticking out like summer sausages. He's with his daughter in front of the coffee
shop sucking on lattes or something. The daughter looks all right, forced to
make the trip with Pops. She's at that prime "just got my license" age and can
spot a For Sale sign on a windshield a hundred yards away.
Yeah, you like the car, don't you, you little peach? You think it's funky. You
want to be the type of girl who drives a '69 Valiant. You could pack all your
tight-assed girlfriends in here, couldn't you? Just have a rebellious little
That's right, babe, convince Daddy you
need to look at the Valiant. It's a safe car, a practical car.
You've got him lifting his sunglasses and looking. That's the way, use your
Daddy's walking over! The guy's got to be 250, a
hobbled, running walk like he's being tugged by his gut. Purple ACL scars
stretch over his knees like night crawlers. He must've been a fullback thirty
years ago, one of those "quick for a big man" types. Too bad about the knees.
"You sellin' this?" he asks me, exhaling nastily through his nose.
"Yes, sir. I'm Simon."
"Simon, Terrence. What is it, a Dart?"
He doesn't offer a shake and keeps moving. Eye contact ain't his bag.
"Valiant," I tell him.
He paddles around the side, running his
hand over the quarter panel.
The daughter waits at the coffee
shop, watching us.
"How many miles?" Terrence asks, his
questions ending in an upward tone swing each time.
say," I tell him.
I open the hood for him, and he leans his
Grecian Formula head in, like he can solve all my problems, like he invented the
slant-six motor. His breathing is louder under the hood.
think it's going to clear up?" he asks me, stroking the long valve cover like a
"The weather. . ." he
says, making a quick irritated hand movement, like he's got a bug at his ear.
"You think it'll clear up?"
"It'll be clear up to our ass in a
few minutes," I tell him. He chuckles, like I might be dangerous.
He takes the air cleaner off and fiddles with the carburetor.
"Is it in your name?" he asks me, interested.
"Yeah, it's in
He pulls out the dipstick and smells the end of it. The oil puts a spot on his
nose, and he swipes it off with another quick hand move.
"What's the history?" he asks, putting the dipstick back in.
"I've had it three years," I tell him.
The truth is more fucked than fiction when it comes down to it. Denice made me
realize that. I see her hair when I think of her now. Three years. I see her
hair, not her teeth or her tits or her scary pale eyes. I don't see the whole
time we had in San Rafael, unless I let her hair take me there, and I have to
stop thinking and distract myself with something like buttoning my coat against
this weather that's coming in.
I used to call her a troll
doll. She didn't like it the first time I called her that too close to home,
some home she had before I knew her, but when things were good she called
herself a troll doll, like that was the only secret we had.
The description was right. Blond cords burst from her head in a dense bush of
chaos - you wouldn't think her neck could support it. Her hair might've reached
her ass if it were straight, but the kinky life in it kept it all aloft and her
little body poked out underneath like a dandelion stem. There were lengthy
washing and drying procedures, daylong events that coincided with her not going
outside our apartment. I'd just pound the pavement for a while or go to a
matinee on those days. They were always gloomy days, blustery she called them,
days like today that forced their unmade-up mind on the county sunny and
raining, rainbows. Those days kept her bound to our one-room apartment.
"I can't go out in this!" Denice would say, pointing at the weather out our
third-floor window. She'd look out at the wet fir trees beyond the street below,
she'd look out at the mixed-up clouds above the hills, the drops of water on the
windows, and then back at me.
"Why don't you get us some
coffees and a Times," she'd say.
Her hair was her biggest
asset and her biggest complaint. I'd watch her bind it back with industrial
rubber bands, but it still made a run at the world. She wouldn't cut it. If
she'd cut it, she would have had to find some other thing to be a burden.
I gave her an umbrella for Valentine's Day, a red one. She hated it.
"What's the real reason you don't go outside?" I asked her.
"Fuck off Simon," she said.
I felt I was doing the right thing
giving her the umbrella. Hats didn't come close to covering her head. I thought
an umbrella would be a solution, but she saw it as an insult. I bought her a
plane ticket to visit her mother in L.A. she thought I was trying to get rid
of her. I bought her a subscription to Fitness magazine, since she always peeked
at it in the supermarket. She thought it implied she was out of shape.
"Is it my ass?" she said.
"Is what?" I said.
"You think I've got a fat ass?"
"I love your ass."
"Why did you get the subscription?"
"I thought you wanted it,"
"Come on, Denice. This
"What's ridiculous that I don't bow down
like some little bitch? Is that what's ridiculous, Simon?"
"It's turning into more than it should," I said.
"What should this be,
"It should be nothing! Simple. Nothing!"
"You want nothing, you've got it. You've got fucking nothing!"
I'd walk uptown to the Paper Ace for a cocktail. I'd walk through the wet
sidewalk like my feet were on fire, breaking an aggravated sweat by the time I
got to the bar.
"Can I look in the trunk?" Terrence asks me, walking to the back of the car.
"Sure," I tell him. "Your daughter interested in the car?"
"Well, yeah, she needs a car . . . depends what's wrong with it."
"Reverse won't engage." I tell him like it's not a big thing.
"Huh. Is that right?"
I can feel the deal slipping.
"It might be linkage, some adjustment," I say, feeling it may be the turning
My other girlfriends hadn't been as close up as Denice. That's how I think of
her, close up, like she was in my clothes, like she had her hand in my crotch
and my heart in her teeth. We made up. We made up with liquor and mad fucking
against the bathroom door or in the closet, with all her pointed heels poking
into us. We'd be sore and hungover and relieved for a day or two, sometimes a
week. We'd walk through town holding hands like civilized lovers, talking in the
plaza about some movie we'd seen or laughing at people that tripped on the high
curbs. We wore sunglasses, and people admired us. We struck envy in our single
friends. Then we'd slip.
We were into speed and booze. We'd
huff lines of amphetamine and drive to the Paper Ace at night. We'd be shaking
by the time we parked under the sycamore tree a block away. We'd abandon the
closed-up space of the Plymouth and hike like escaped convicts toward the warm
lights of the bar. We'd run across the intersection, finding an excuse in the
oncoming traffic to run to the bar. Our gums ached. We'd be giddy discussing the
drinks we'd order, nearing the red swinging door that always glowed like an
escape hatch from the stagnance of San Rafael. We knew the bartenders. "Shit,
it's a Harold night," we'd say, or "Hey, Sonny's working." We kept the barkeep
guessing at our cocktails so they'd never serve us a usual. But they all knew
us. Everyone knew us.
"No reverse, huh?" Terrence says, stepping back from the Valiant and standing
still for the first time.
"It just won't engage, I don't know
why," I tell him, hoping ignorance might be a positive thing. I know the
transmission needs a rebuild, but that would cost more than the car's worth.
Terrence ponders the problem, not wanting to give up on it entirely.
"The car runs great otherwise." I tell him, "The electrical is A-one." It sounds
fishy once I say it.
"A-one.. . Yeah, I don't know. It might
be more than I want to get into."
"I can understand that,
Terrence." Better to let him convince himself, maybe. The Plymouth has got him
hooked in some way, though the motor, he loves the motor.
"That slant-six is bulletproof," I tell him. "They pulled 'em off the line
'cause they lasted so long," I say, hoping for another chance.
"I know the motor, that ain't the problem. That motor will be ticking when we're
both gone. But if the tranny's bad
He cocks his head and
swipes at his ear again, a habit that now makes me wonder about its origin.
Denice got cold on the pool table. Her eyes turned hard, and she'd demand quiet
without saying anything. Pale stress lines creased high on her cheeks when she
lined up a shot. Her forehead would pinch in ridges, and she'd look old for a
moment before making impact with the cue ball. If the shot went the way she
meant, a white smile cut through her jungle hair. If she missed, the creases
stayed under her eyes, and she'd quietly step away from the table.
Pool was our getaway car. We found something that turned us on to each other in
the game - posture, determination, competitiveness. We never played each other.
That turned bad. We'd watch each other play, and it was fantastic, fantastic in
the way that screwing in front of a mirror was fantastic. We'd take more speed
in the rest room and order more drinks. I'd grab her and hang on, hang on to her
thick hair. Her eyes would drift, and I'd feel her be with me, a privilege in
her closeness that made the envy of all the bar losers palpable. We'd play pool
until closing, then try to make it home without crashing or fucking in the car.
Our daytime life lacked all that fantasy. Whatever pent-up passion we had came
out stupidly brutal. We had to make it through the day to get to the Paper Ace.
"Will you take four hundred for it?" Terrence asks me from the driver's seat. He
looks strangely delicate below me in my own car, like a ten-year-old boy with a
"I'm really hoping for five," I tell him,
seeing which way he'll go with it.
He looks over the dash,
gripping the skinny steering wheel. He turns it back and forth.
"Maybe your daughter should drive it?" I suggest.
says, relieved he doesn't have to get defensive about the price, maybe. He
climbs out and does a slight variation of his hand flick toward his daughter.
She picks up on the subtle motion at the coffee shop and starts walking over.
"You can always find parts for this car," I say. "Yeah, yeah."
My sales pitch has dead-ended. He needs the daughter's convincing.
Denice wouldn't let me drive. "You're higher than the moon," she said. She was
higher than the clouds, but that was better than the moon, I guess. Pre-full
moon made us question mortality. We both reacted the same way to its brightness
we had to show respect in a certain madness of speed and drink.
She drove with all the cockiness of a woman being hit on by strange men. She
drove with the recklessness of not being understood. Unabashed, accelerating in
the side streets, being the car that blasts by on a quiet night, the car you
hear from your bed that flies toward a turn on your street and locks up with
badly balanced American steel and skinny tires to drift through and accelerate
"I'm jumping if you don't slow the fuck down!"
I said that. I yelled at her curly head, victim in my own Plymouth. I yelled my
threat of self-sacrifice, but she just found octane in my helplessness.
That's how I saw her, laughing, rolling, hidden by her hair, driving.
Flinging my door out against the wind didn't slow her. Feeling my body make the
dive didn't change her speed. I remember the sober coiled-up moment of hurtling
into the street, the moment that curled me line-drive out of the Valiant, flying
in a ball along the concrete: She'll know me now, she'll know me as a real man?
My doubt phrased it as a question on impact. The words came into my teeth with
the concussion, spitting out with the strange mushroomy taste of collision. All
I saw were the strip taillights of the Plymouth and her bloom of hair flashing
in silhouette through the back window as the passenger door swung.
Denice never let off the gas. She drove on through the sycamore trees that lined
the street, and vanished with just the sound of the exhaust fading.
I walked home, bruised, my knees on fire. I shuffled hard in the quiet of the
bedtime houses that hid in the trees. I smoked a broken cigarette. I climbed the
steep stairs to our apartment and screamed at the door. I kicked at the wood. I
searched for keys that were inside already. She didn't let me in. I collapsed at
our door and slept. Even in the erratic popping of my heart against my chest, I
The daughter slips into the driver's seat without a care of the mechanics. She's
starstruck by the Valiant.
"No reverse, hon," Terrence warns
"How funny," she says, climbing into the backseat. She
stretches her smooth legs out and crosses her arms under her breasts like she's
on a dick-tease date.
"What's her name?" she asks me,
shrugging her shoulders coltishly.
"A car like this has to have a name," she says, climbing out.
"Uh, Denice," I tell her. "Her name's Denice."
says, shutting the heavy door. "I love it! I love it, Dad."
The first day Denice would never see came dark and hard a day that took its
coat off and spread out nude to rain on the world. A day she'd never go out in.
She was pregnant, he told me the man who tested her blood. First trimester, he
said, suspicion and sympathy in his professional voice.
I watched them emerge from the base of our staircase. I watched from the street,
March rain hitting me in the back. The sheet didn't cover all of her hair.
Rain came on. I wanted to get the umbrella, the red umbrella. I had thoughts of
sprinting up the staircase and searching the strange corners of our apartment,
as if that duty might be the right thing to do, as if I would possibly be part
of the right thing to do. But I only watched. They loaded her onto the
rain-cleaned ambulance. It didn't bother with its lights there was no urgency
any more. The medics loaded her in a slow-motion drill, as if prolonging the
event showed more heart.
She'd been dead all night, while I
slept outside the door. Her heart had failed. Her young heart failed her when it
should have been charging at the world with the same tenacity as her hair, the
crazy spring of life still in it when they drove away.
Terrence gives in to five hundred cash for the Valiant. I write up a bill of
sale, the final deal strangely deflating. I count his ATM money more than I've
had in hand for years. The daughter runs a celebration lap around the car,
squealing. She ends up at her dad and hugs him.
I unload my
things. The blacktop starts to darken wet with the drizzle.
"You'll take care of her now?" I say to the girl, and she stares at me stunned,
like the car is already hers, like she's owned it all along.
"Remember, you can only go forward," I tell her, stuffing my clothes into a
jacket and tying the sleeves around them in a square knot. I swing the bundle
over my shoulder and walk toward the eaves of Vintner's Plaza. The rain starts
in. Visitors scramble for their cars as the downpour bungles their holiday.
Forward now, only forward.