Christine was eating into his mind, burrowing into his unconscious. Christine, blood-red, fat, and finned, was twenty. Her promise lay all in her past. Greedy and big, she was Arnie's obsession, ...(more)
'Oh my God!' my friend Arnie Cunningham cried out suddenly.
'What is it?' I asked. His eyes were bulging from behind his steel-rimmed glasses, he had plastered one hand over his face so that his palm was partially cupping his mouth, and his neck could have been on ball-bearings the way he was craning back over his shoulder.
'Stop the car, Dennis! Go back!'
'What are you - '
'Go back, I want to look at her again.'
Suddenly I understood. 'Oh, man, forget it,' I said. 'If you mean that . . . thing we just passed - '
'Go back!' He was almost screaming.
I went back, thinking that it was maybe one of Arnie's subtle little jokes. But it wasn't. He was gone, lock, stock, and barrel. Arnie had fallen in love.
She was a bad joke, and what Arnie saw in her that day I'll never know. The left side of her windscreen was a snarled spiderweb of cracks. The right rear deck was bashed in, and an ugly nest of rust had grown in the paint-scraped valley. The back bumper was askew, the boot-lid was ajar, and stuffing was bleeding out through several long tears in the seat covers, both front and back. It looked as if someone had worked on the upholstery with a knife. One tyre was flat. The others were bald enough to show the canvas cording. Worst of all, there was a dark puddle of oil under the engine block.
Arnie had fallen in love with a 1958 Plymouth Fury, one of the long ones with the big fins. There was an old and sun-faded FOR SALE sign propped on the right side of the windscreen - the side that was not cracked.
'Look at her lines, Dennis!' Arnie whispered. He was running around the car like a man possessed. His sweaty hair flew and flopped. He tried the back door on the passenger side, and it came open with a scream.
'Arnie, you're having me on, aren't you?' I said. 'It's sunstroke, right? Tell me it's sunstroke. I'll take you home and put you under the frigging air conditioner and we'll forget all about this, okay?' But I said it without much hope. He knew how to joke, but there was no joke on his face then. Instead there was a kind of goofy madness I didn't like much.
He didn't even bother to reply. A hot, stuffy billow of air, redolent of age, oil, and advanced decomposition, puffed out of the open door. Arnie didn't seem to notice that, either. He got in and sat down on the ripped and faded back seat. Once, twenty years before, it had been red. Now it was a faded wash pink.
I reached in and pulled up a little puff of stuffing, looked at it, and blew it away. 'Looks like the Russian army marched over it on their way to Berlin,' I said.
He finally noticed I was still there. 'Yeah . . . yeah. But she could be fixed up. She could . . . she could be tough. A moving unit, Dennis. 'A beauty. A real - '
'Here! Here! What you two kids up to?'
It was an old guy who looked as if he was enjoying - more or less - his seventieth summer. Probably less. This particular dude struck me as the sort of man who enjoyed very little. His hair was long and scraggy, what little there was left of it. He had a good case of psoriasis going on the bald part of his skull.
He was wearing green old man's pants and low-topped Keds. No shirt; instead there was something cinched around his waist that looked like a lady's corset. When he got closer I saw it was a back brace. From the look of it I would say, just offhand, that he had changed it last somewhere around the time Lyndon Johnson died.
'What you kids up to?' His voice was shrill and strident.
'Sir, is this your car?' Arnie asked him. Not much question that it was. The Plymouth was parked on the lawn of the postwar tract house from which the old man had issued. The lawn was horrible, but it looked positively great with that Plymouth in the foreground for perspective.
'What if it is?' the old guy demanded.
'I' - Arnie had to swallow - 'I want to buy it.
The old dude's eyes gleamed. The angry took on his face was replaced by a furtive gleam in the eye and a certain hungry sneer around the lips. Then a large resplendent shit-eating grin appeared. That was the moment, I think then, just at that moment - when I felt something cold and blue inside me. There was a moment - just then - when I felt like slugging Arnie and dragging him away. Something came into the old man's eyes. Not just the gleam; it was something behind the gleam.
'Well, you should have said so,' the old guy told Arnie. He stuck out his hand and Arnie took it. 'LeBay's the name. Roland D. LeBay. US Army, retired.'
The old sport pumped his hand and sort of waved at me. I was out of the play; he had his sucker. Arnie might as well have handed LeBay his wallet.
How much?' Arnie asked. And then he plunged ahead. 'Whatever you want for her, it's not enough.'
I groaned inside instead of sighing. His chequebook had just joined his wallet.
For a moment LeBay's grin faltered a little, and his eyes narrowed down suspiciously. I think he was evaluating the possibility that he was being put on. He studied Arnie's longing face for signs of guile, and then asked the murderously perfect question:
'Son, have you ever owned a car before?'
'He owns a Mustang Mach II,' I said quickly. 'His folks bought it for him. It's got a Hurst gearbox, a supercharger, and it can boil the road in first gear. It - '
'No,' Arnie said quietly. 'I just got my driver's licence this spring.'
LeBay tipped me a brief but crafty gaze and then swung his full attention back to his prime target. He put both hands in the small of his back and stretched. I caught a sour whiff of sweat.
'Got a back problem in the Army,' he said. 'Full disability. Doctors could never put it right. Anyone ever asks you what's wrong with the world, boys, you tell em it's three things: doctors, commies, and nigger radicals. Of the three commies is the worst, closely followed by doctors. And if they want to know who told you, tell em Roland D. LeBay. Yessir.'
He touched the old, scuffed hood of the Plymouth with a kind of bemused love.
'This here is the best car I ever owned. Bought her in September 1957. Back then, that's when you got your new model year, in September. All summer long they'd show you pictures of cars under hoods and cars under tarps until you were fair dyin t'know what they looked like underneath. Not like now.' His voice dripped contempt for the debased times he had lived to see. 'Brand-new, she was. Had the smell of a brand-new car, and that's about the finest smell in the world.'
'Except maybe for pussy.'
I looked at Arnie, nibbling the insides of my cheeks madly to keep from braying laughter all over everything. Arnie looked back at me, astounded. The old man appeared to notice neither of us; he was off on his own planet.
'I was in khaki for thirty-four years,' LeBay told us, still touching the hood of the car. 'Went in at sixteen in 1923. 1 et dust in Texas and seen crabs as big as lobsters in some of them Nogales whoredens. I saw men with their guts comin out of their ears during Big Two. In France I saw that. Their guts was comin out their ears. You believe that, son?'
'Yessir,' Arnie said. I don't think he'd heard a word LeBay said. He was shifting from foot to foot as if he had to go to the bathroom bad. 'About the car, though - '
'You go to the University?' LeBay barked suddenly. 'Up there at Horlicks?'
'Nosir, I go to Libertyville High.
'Good,' LeBay said grimly. 'Steer clear of colleges. They're full of niggerlovers that want to give away the Panama Canal. "Think-tanks," they call em. "Assholetanks, " say I.'
He gazed fondly at the car sitting on its flat tyre, its paintwork mellowing rustily in the late afternoon sunlight.
'Hurt my back in the spring of '57,' he said. 'Army was going to rack and ruin even then. I got out just in time. I came on back to Libertyville. Looked over the rolling iron. I took my time. Then I walked into Norman Cobb's Plymouth dealership - where the bowling alley is now on outer Main Street - and I ordered this here car. I said you get it in red and white, next year's model. Red as a fire-engine on the inside. And they did. When I got her, she had a total of six miles on the mileometer. Yessir.'
I glanced over Arnie's shoulder at the mileometer. The glass was cloudy, but I could read the damage all the same: 97,432. And six-tenths. Jesus wept.
'If you love the car so much, why are you selling it?' I asked.
He turned a milky, rather frightening gaze on me. 'Are you cracking wise on me, son?'
I didn't answer, but I didn't drop my gaze either.
After a few moments of eye-to-eye duelling (which Arnie totally ignored; he was running a slow and loving hand over one of the back fins), he said, 'Can't drive anymore. Back's gotten too bad. Eyes are going the same way.'
Suddenly I got it - or thought I did. If he had given us the correct dates, he was seventy-one. And at seventy, this state makes you start taking compulsory eye exams every year before they'll renew your driver's licence. LeBay had either failed his eye exam or was afraid of failing. Either way, it came to the same thing. Rather than submit to that indignity, he had put the Plymouth up. And after that, the, car had gotten old fast.
'How much do you want for it?' Arnie asked again. Oh he just couldn't wait to be slaughtered.
LeBay turned his face up to the sky, appearing to consider it for rain. Then he looked down at Arnie again and gave him a large, kindly smile that was far too much like the previous shit-eating grin for me.