An Unexpected Acquaintance

May 9, 2010
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It’s a beat-up, dirty-brown sedan: a Ford Pinto, relic of the seventies. It should have been put to rest years ago, but somehow, it manages to limp forward on elbow grease and pure, mulish determination. When I open the passenger side door (it’s sticky and warm in the scorching sun, as though someone spilled soda on the lock and never bothered to clean it up), an odd aroma wafts out: a mix of hamburger grease, cigarette smoke, and “New Car Smell!” from a can. A pair of fuzzy green dice hangs from the rearview mirror. The cup holder is stuffed to the brim with crumpled receipts, packets of ketchup, cigarette butts, and the collected debris of a lifetime. A Dodgers sweatshirt lies in a heap in the backseat--and, surprisingly, a forgotten book hides underneath: The Metamorphosis, by Kafka.

I’m just getting out of the car when its owner returns. He’s carrying two bags of groceries, careful not to let a precarious family-sized bag of Lays slide out of the top, when he looks up and sees me. Lowering the bags and locking his elbows to his sides, he runs across the parking lot. I don’t try to run. By the time he reaches me, he’s out of breath, but he wears a fierce expression though his five o’clock shadow that I’m sure is intended to frighten me.

“What are you doing to my baby?” he spits, his voice like gravel.

While he was huffing and puffing, I was steeling myself with a saccharine layer of civility and kindness. “Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry, sir. I just love old cars like this.”

For a few seconds, his panting mouth hangs open like that of a goldfish out of water. Eventually, he speaks. “Yeah, but what were you doing inside?” His face an amalgam of defensiveness and confusion, he gestures vaguely at the car with his shoulder.

“I’m so sorry. You left the door unlocked, and I couldn’t help but take a peek. I love old cars like this.”

He seems finally to be coming to his senses. His expression resolves itself; he looks less likely to tackle me, but still wary. “She’s not old.”

“Vintage, I mean. Of course.” I flash him a dazzling smile, and it seems to melt him a bit.

“Well...some might call her old, but she still runs like a charm. I take real good care of her.” He sets the grocery bags down on the asphalt and stretches out his arms with a sigh, then gently pats the trunk. A large scratch runs like a river down the length of the hood.

“Yeah, can’t say I blame you for wanting to look around. She’s still a beaute,” he says. From out of his pocket comes a battered key, and with a practiced movement he slides it into the driver side door. He’s forgotten, of course, that it was unlocked to begin with.

Suddenly, he looks up. “ I know you? You look familiar,” he says, squinting at me through the blinding sunlight.

“A lot of people say that.” I slide my sunglasses over my eyes and readjust my purse, covering its telltale bulge with my shoulder. “Well, I’ve got to be going now. Have a nice day, Gerald.”

“Yeah, you too, lady.”

I am dozens of yards away unlocking the door of my own car when he realizes it.

“Hey, wait a sec. Hey, wait! How did you know my name?”

But I’m far too far away to hear him. As I step into the car, a small smile touches the corner of my mouth. I ram the pedal and speed out of the parking lot.

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