On Carl’s sixth birthday his parents gave him the set of toy cars he had coveted. After the cake, the candle blowing and the departure of his friends and classmates, he took the box and carried it into his bedroom. He took each car from the box, held it to his ear and pronounced its name. “Mandy. Charles. Lilian.”
Through the open door of his room he could hear his parents’ voices.
“He’s giving them names,” said his father.
“What’s wrong with that? His sister names everything, her dolls, the insects she finds, even the lobsters we had for dinner last week,” said his mother.
“That’s different. Boys don’t give things names.”
“I wouldn’t worry; it’s probably just a phase.”
Carl smiled to himself. He was not giving each car a name. If he listened carefully to a car, it would tell him his or her name.
When you are blessed or cursed with a Gift, you soon learn to be careful whom you tell about it. The boys Carl played with laughed at him when he called the members of his little fleet by their names. The combined vehicles were bringing the troops to the battle front. There was no time for frivolities.
“Army guys don’t give trucks names and definitely not girls’ names,” William said. He was the big blustery boy who organized the wars and declared the winners when the battles were over.
* * *
When he was ten, Carl discovered it was not just toy cars that talked to him. His discovery came on a summer Saturday morning when the family was about to leave on an outing to the beach. Rather than stifle in the embedded heat of the back seat, Carl was waiting outside, leaning against the hood of the family car, an old but serviceable Chevrolet. When the car spoke to him, she did not speak aloud but with a soft feminine voice deep in his mind.
“I’m awfully sorry, but I’m leaking brake fluid. It’s my left rear wheel. I hate to spoil your trip, but driving might not be safe.” The voice was full of plaintive apology, almost the tone of a little girl who had just wet her pants.
Instinctively, Carl knew he should not tell his father their car had spoken to him. He understood enough about brakes and brake fluid to know what to do. He walked to the back of the car and saw the little puddle behind the left rear wheel.
When his parents and sister came out lugging the cooler and the bags of beach necessities, Carl pointed to the puddle and said to his father, “Is that something we should be worried about?”
His father put down the cooler, reached his hand under the car to the puddle and came up with a wet finger he held up to his nose. “Damn, brake fluid,” he said.
“Is that bad?” said Carl’s mother. “Can we still go to the beach?”
“If we’re lucky, it’s just a loose fitting. Go on in the house out of the heat. Carl, you stay out here. You can hand me the tools.”
This happened back in the days when you could be your own mechanics for simple repairs. Carl’s father found and tightened the loose fitting, then refilled the brake fluid, carefully explaining what he was doing to Carl along the way.
When his father had closed the hood and gone to return the can of brake fluid to the garage, the voice spoke to Carl again. “I’m Audrey,” she said, “I’m very lucky. Your father takes very good care of me. I also try to take good care of your family.”
Their trip was delayed a half an hour but was always remembered as a great success despite sunburn and the scratchy sand on the inside of their clothing.
Carl would occasionally speak to Audrey in passing. She would always shyly reply, sometimes with a polite reminder of routine maintenance his father needed to perform.
He had forgotten she had spoken of taking care of his family until the day when Audrey stalled just before a grade crossing with the crossing gates vertical on either side. His father cursed and started to crank the engine. Then a freight train came thundering past. The automatic crossing gates had failed to close.
White faced, his parents stared at each other. “And the kids in back,” his mother said in a shaky voice.
“One piece of luck,” his father said. He reached over and gave his wife a long steadying hug.
Carl knew it was not luck. When they got home, he got out of the car and went up and placed his hand gently on the hood. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“You’re welcome,” came the faint reply. “But don’t forget, I was saving my own tailgate as well.”
* * *
When Carl walked downtown, his route took him past Al’s Garage. It was a place of black grease and filled with the sound of air wrenches hammering on wheel lug nuts. As he passed the Garage one afternoon in the spring of his junior year in high school, he had to step around an early model Sugatti Excellenti that was sitting half on the sidewalk. As he passed, a faint voice called out to him in his head. “Help me. They’re going to junk me.”
Carl stopped and leaned over the front fender. “I’m Carl,” he said. “What’s the problem?”
“I’m Louie,” said the voice in the back of his head. “They say they’re junking me because my gearbox is shot. But it’s not. It’s just the shift lever pin has sheared off. Can you help? The Doc and I have really bonded. I don’t want to end up in the crusher just like that.”
“I’ll try,” said Carl. He went in through the open door of the garage and found a large man bending deep under the hood of a truck. All that was visible was the back of a once-white T-shirt, a pair of dungarees and a large gap of white flesh bulging in between.
“Excuse me,” said Carl. “I have a question.”
The man straightened and turned. He towered over Carl with grease stained arms and a T-shirt that read, Your car’s problem is now my problem. He was obviously Al of Al’s Garage.
“Yeah? A question? Better be good and not a time-waster,” he growled. But his eyes smiled at Carl.
“That car outside,” Carl said, “what’s wrong with it?”
“Blown gear box. Headed for the junkyard. Why do you want to know?”
“You want to sell it?”
“Look kid, have you ever rebuilt a gear box?”
“Well, I have been working on cars for thirty years and I wouldn’t even try to rebuild a Sugatti box. Sugatti would be happy to sell me a new one for four grand, but it just ain’t worth it for a car that old. We searched the network for a used box. No dice.”
“How much do you want for it?” Carl asked.
“A hundred bucks and it’s yours. I’ll even deliver it to your house. But no refund. Don’t bring it back here crying about how I cheated you.”
“I’ll be right back with the money,” Carl said.
He hurried downtown to the bank and took a hundred in cash out of his savings account. It put a bit of a dent in the account, but he did not hesitate.
“Where do you want me to dump the heap?” said Big Al after he had folded Carl’s money and stuffed it into his wallet.
“Nowhere,” said Carl. “I want you to fix the gearshift.”
Al looked at Carl, his face reddening. “Look, didn’t I just explain…”
Carl interrupted him. “I want you to open up the gear box and replace the broken gear shift pin.”
Al’s jaw dropped open. “Shit, of course” he said, “I must be getting dotty in my old age. I just assumed…” He yelled over at a young man pulling the wheels off a car. “Bernie, get a wrench with a Number 15 socket and come out front.”
Opening the top of the gearbox of a Sugatti manual shift is a trivial operation. Being careful not to drip oil on the floor carpet, Al lifted the lid with the shift lever attached and looked inside. “Shit,” was all he said.
Twenty minutes later, Al took Carl for a test drive, running the Sugatti through all its gears. When they were parked back in front, Al turned to Carl, worry in his eyes. “I don’t mind you pulling a fast one on me,” he said, “but you’ve really put me in a bind. I told Dr. Hammerman, the owner, this car was junk. If he finds out that a twenty-dollar repair fixed it, I’m in deep crap.”
“You want to buy it back?” said Carl.
“How much?” said Al, worry in his voice.
“How’s two hundred?” said Carl. “As long as it goes back to Dr. Hammerman.”
“Jesus, yes.” Al pulled out his wallet, gave Carl back his original hundred, peeled five more twenties off his stash and handed them to Carl with a thank-you wink.
“I’ll call Hammerman right now.”
They got out of the car. Carl started downtown to the bank.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Al yelled after him. “I got a couple of questions.”
Carl turned and came back.
“How the hell did you know about that pin shearing?”
“I just had a feeling,” said Carl.
“You get that kind of feeling often? I mean about cars.”
“You want a job? It would be just general helping out at first, but you’re a smart kid. You’d probably make a great mechanic. You can come in after school and Saturdays.”
Carl agreed. He only lasted a week before he told Al his father didn’t want him working until his grades improved. This was only a partial lie; his father had said Carl could keep the job unless his grades suffered. Carl left because he could not stand listening to the pain. Imagine working in a hospital where you are the only one to whom the patients can complain about their agony and the doctors operate without anesthesia.
Carl knew that so much suffering could have been avoided if a mechanic simply disconnected a car’s battery before doing any major work and then reconnected the battery to bring the car back to life. However, he could not think of a way to even suggest this action without his idea being treated with derision. Listening just once to the unnecessary whimpering agony of a car as its cylinder head was unbolted was unbearable. He had to quit.
Afterward, he did occasionally come in at Al’s request to help diagnose a particularly puzzling problem.
“My transmission fluid tastes funny,” a Ford with sluggish shifting might whisper to Carl.
Carl would suggest to Al that he check the fluid. Al would take one sniff of the dip stick and mutter to himself. “Brake fluid. Those idiots at Acme Garage topped off the transmission with brake fluid.”
Word soon got around about the wonder kid who could instantly diagnose a tough automotive problem that puzzled the best mechanics. Banderman, the head mechanic down at the Sugatti dealership, would call Carl whenever their bank of diagnostic equipment failed to pinpoint a problem.
It was on one such occasion Carl discovered he could do more for a car than help with its mechanical problems.
When he came down to the dealership in answer to Banderman’s call, he found the head mechanic standing next to what looked like an almost new Sugatti, his face tight with frustration. “This Merlin is less than a year old,” he said. “The owner keeps bringing it back. He claims it won’t start some mornings and sometimes stalls in traffic. We can’t find anything wrong with it. The owner left it here and said, if we can’t fix it once and for all, he wants a full refund. Think you can help me out?”
Carl sensed he would have to spend some time with this vehicle. Fortunately, he now had his driver’s license. “Let me take it for a test drive,” he said.
Carl drove the car out to Forest Park and pulled down a woods road he knew would give them total privacy. He got out of the car and went up by the hood. “Now what is all this childish behavior about?” he said.
“I’m not happy with my owners; I don’t think we’re compatible.” The car’s voice had a whiny overtone Carl did not like.
“Do they mistreat you? Do they drive irresponsibly? Does your owner drive while intoxicated?”
“Do either of your owners have bad driving habits? Do they accelerate before the gears have fully meshed?”
“Has Banderman, the head Sugatti mechanic, abused you in any way?”
“What make are you?”
“I’m a Sugatti.”
“You know what the Sugatti motto is?”
“Yes. Serving you is our mission and our reward.”
“And whom does that apply to?”
“The staff and mechanics at the dealership, I guess.”
“But not to the cars themselves?”
“I don’t know.”
“I do know.” Carl put a sterner note into his voice. “I’ve talked to a number of your fellow Sugattis. You know what I heard from all of them?”
“I don’t know.”
“Pride. That’s what I heard. They are proud to be Sugattis. You know what they would say to you if they heard your whining?”
“Tighten up your shocks and get real. Start showing your owner what a real automobile is.”
“I never thought about it that way.”
“Well start thinking that way. I believe there is no such thing as a bad car. Show me that’s true.”
The voice was cowed but Carl thought he needed just a bit more of a push. “Understand, right now you’re close to being designated as a rogue vehicle. Sugatti headquarters does not want any rogue vehicles around where some noisy safety-minded reporter can find them. Rogues don’t go to the junkyard. You know where they go straight off?”
“The crusher?” There was now a definite cast of fear in the voice.
“Right. Now we’ve got to give Banderman something he can fix so it will look like your problem was a mechanical one. How about the fuel pump? You think you can run the pressure up so it pops a slight leak?”
“Okay,” said Carl. “Now I never want to see you back at the dealership again except for routine maintenance. You understand me?”
Carl got in the car and drove it back to the dealer. “Try replacing the fuel pump,” he said to Banderman. “I don’t think you’ll have any more problems with this car.”
The chief mechanic looked at Carl and shook his head. “I don’t know how you do it, but you have a way with cars. Ever think of going into sales?”
* * *
So it was that after he graduated from high school, Carl went to work for the Sugatti dealership. Hartwell, the Sales Manager, had been reluctant to hire such a young salesman, but he discovered that youth was an advantage for many customers. They could not believe such an earnest young man could speak anything other than the truth.
It was also his approach to sales that enamored most customers to Carl. He did not start off by asking, “What are you looking for in a vehicle?” Instead, he asked the customers about their families, their jobs, what they liked to do on their vacations. This was simply the right thing to do if you were trying to find the right family for a car rather than the right car for a family.
The first day on the job, Carl had walked out onto the lot where the shiny new vehicles stood row on row. To most observers, all the same models would appear identical, except perhaps for their colors. Carl knew that was not the case. Each vehicle, albeit physically identical to its neighbor, had its own personality. Carl walked among them, pausing by the hood of each to exchange names and get a feel for each one’s persona.
Henry, an Excalibur SUV, was an adventurer. He wanted an owner who would push the limits. He would delight in helping to engender a speeding ticket. Larina, an identical model SUV sitting next to Henry, was a shy young thing. She would only be happy with a quiet widow or a staid librarian who never exceeded the speed limit and would treat her with kindness and compassion.
For six months all went well. While Carl’s monthly sales were just average, his customer satisfaction rating was the highest of the entire sales force. When Miriam, the Assistant Manager, made her follow-up calls to customers a month after each sale, Carl’s customers would bury her in plaudits for their vehicles. They would then wax endlessly on over their delight in ownership and ask Miriam to personally thank that nice young salesman for helping them with the choice of a perfect car.
Then Randolph arrived. He was a high-end Lancelot sports car with the full package of accessories including a simulated manual shift and clutch. He also came fully equipped with an attitude.
“Listen, sales-boy,” he said when Carl introduced himself. “You’re going to find me an owner who understands the car is the boss. I need someone who knows what top of the line means. You got that?”
Carl had noted that higher-end models tended to have corresponding opinions about themselves, but Randolph’s seemed a bit overboard. “Of course,” Carl said.
Carl thought hard about who he could match up with Randolph. Perhaps somewhere there was a florid and pushy salesman for a brewery who would see the car as one more prop for his expanding ego. The two of them could fight it out as to whether it would be alpha man or alpha car. It might take some time to find this ideal customer, but Carl hoped in the meantime he could persuade other interested parties that Randolph was not for them.
Time ran out when Malcolm Stenstredder III appeared. Every merchant in town knew Malcolm. If they had not known who he was, they had been quickly reminded by Malcolm himself. He was the son of Malcolm Stenstredder II, President of the First National Bank of Harperville. Merchants were always polite to Malcolm as one should be to a young man whose monthly allowance far exceeded his mental capacity for judicious action.
“Is that a Lancelot?” Malcolm almost ran over to Randolph and touched his front fender with a reverence unusual for someone more used to expecting reverence extended to him.
Carl had followed Malcom over to the car. As he approached it, the voice came into his inner ear. “Hey, sales-boy. You lined up a mark? You find me a real pussycat?”
Desperately, Carl tried to think of persuasive reasons for Malcolm not to possess this vehicle. Or was it, be possessed by this vehicle?
How about, You sure you can afford this car? Wrong question for the over-indulged son of a bank president.
How about, Not much room in the back for your friends? Wrong question. While Malcolm probably bought friendships, he most likely purchased them one friend at a time.
In desperation, hoping Malcolm was unfamiliar with the details of the Lancelot, Carl said, “Are you able to drive a car with a manual shift?”
Malcolm looked at him with full condescension. “Don’t you even know how the cars you sell work? On a Lancelot, you just put the shift lever into Automatic and you get a car with a normal automatic shift.”
“If you are serious about this car,” Carl said, “let me check with our Sales Manager. Someone may have already put a deposit on it.” He did not wait for an answer, but headed into the dealership building where he buttonholed Hartwell.
“Is that Malcolm Junior out there going gaga over the Lancelot?” said the Sales Manager. “Looks like your lucky day.” He had, obviously, just mentally calculated Carl’s commission.
“Yes. I need to talk to you about it. I don’t think he’ll be able to handle a car like that. I can see him crashing it somewhere. And you know his father. He’ll blame us.”
Hartwell thought over that scenario. “Easy way out of that,” he said. “I’ll get Dad on the blower and ask him if he buys into the deal. If he okays it, he has only himself to blame after the crash.”
“Oh thank you,” said Carl. He was hoping for this outcome and hoping even more Malcolm II would put the kibosh to sonny-boy’s desire for hot wheels.
Hartwell was back in five minutes with a big smile on his face. “All set,” he said. “Old Dad was glad I called. Said he was puzzled as to what to get the kid for his birthday. Said he would pick up the whole tab. We don’t even have to go through a credit check.”
“Don’t you think,” Carl said, “that having the kid owning this car is big mistake? Is he really mature enough for that much machine?”
“Look,” said the Sales Manager, “I didn’t want that car on my lot. Headquarters forced us to take one. The Lancelot has gotten a bad name. No one’s buying them for some reason. I agree that it’s probably a mistake to let sonny-boy anywhere near that kind of a car, but this may be our only chance to get it off the lot.”
Carl could see why Lancelots had gotten a bad name if they all had the same attitude problem as Randolph. It might be years before a suitable owner appeared.
He hid his bitter disappointment behind a shallow smile. “I see your point,” he said. “But could you take care of the sale from here on? I’m sorry, but I don’t want to feel responsible for any of this.”
Hartwell looked at him, totally puzzled. “You understand you’ll lose half your commission?” he said.
Two days later, Carl handed in his resignation, making up an excuse about another job opportunity. He knew he could not continue as a salesman. There would be too many cases where he would have to bless obviously dysfunctional marriages between cars and customers.
* * *
Carl still lived with his parents. Deeply saddened, he went home and sat in his room trying to see some path forward in his life. He felt he had a Gift that he needed to use, if not for the benefit of mankind, at least to bring comfort to some of the thousands of suffering vehicles he knew were everywhere. He sat listlessly playing Auto Repossession and seeing no way out of his dilemma.
Then a telephone call interrupted his game.
“Hey, this is Stanley Pomfrett down at Ace Auto Parts. Al of Al’s Garage says you may be looking for a job.”
* * *
Ace Auto Parts turned out to be a junkyard, three acres of defunct automobiles and trucks. Stanley, the owner, was a slimy man in his fifties who wore a greenish grease-stained excuse for a uniform with Ace Auto embroidered on the shirt pocket. When he was not out with the wrecker dragging in the remains of wrecks, he occupied a chair with bent chromium arms and a plastic seat oozing stuffing through cracks in its surface. He spent most of his time on the telephone discussing potential deals in a language so laced with automotive vernacular Carl had troubles understanding the conversations.
Carl’s job was to watch the place when Stanley was away and to lead customers looking for replacement parts to the appropriate vehicle and assist them in unbolting or ripping loose the required item. None of the automobiles he passed as he walked through the untidy rows of derelicts spoke to him. They were silent, their batteries long gone to the recycling center.
However, Carl did have a few friends. Out near the gate and the little hut of a building they called an office stood a row of apparently undamaged vehicles. Their tires were solidly inflated, their bodies showed a minimum of dents and scratches. These were cars and trucks abandoned only because the cost of their necessary internal repairs exceeded their worth as useable vehicles. They sat there under the mantle of Stanley’s hopeful expectations. Would some sucker appear to take one of them away and undertake its repair?
These vehicles were alive. Carl made sure of that. Once a week he made the rounds to check their health. He checked tire pressures, antifreeze in the radiators. If their engines were operative, he would start them up and run them, if only to charge their batteries.
He often walked among them, just to gauge their feelings, understand their hopes and fears. He knew them all by name, and they spoke to him with thanks for what he did to keep them alive. From what they occasionally said, he pieced together their histories. Many of them faced the grief of sudden abandonment after years of faithful service. Carl spoke softly to the most aggrieved, telling them there was hope and that their new owners would care for them and restore their broken parts.
There were some vehicles whose complaints about their internment were worldlier and sometimes carnal. Take, for example, Andre, the large Dodge van with a cracked block. His former owner had apparently been something of a womanizer who used the van as a portable bedroom. Andre had obviously delighted in this lascivious use of his capacious body. The van was a voyeur.
Carl was checking Andre’s tire pressure one afternoon when the van’s voice rasped into his inner ear. “You know what I really miss? Some action in the back. Is that mattress still there?”
“Yes,” said Carl.
“Think you can do something about it? You know what I mean?”
“If anything does come up, you’re first in line,” Carl said. He had little hope of any couple wishing to use such a bleak facility for love making.
Strangely, something did come up. A couple of weeks later, Stanley buttonholed him one morning when he came in the gate. “I could use your help,” he said. “Sammy, my rotten nephew, has got himself another married girlfriend. I don’t know what they see in him, but he seems to attract them like rats to a dumpster.”
“How can I help?” said Carl.
“They need a safe place they can hump. Her husband is like a police detective, so they have to be special careful. Think there would be any vehicle here they could use?”
Carl started to say Andre, but he caught himself. “The Dodge Savanah would work. There’s a mattress in back that’s pretty clean. Find me some sheets and a couple of blankets. I’ll vacuum it out and fix it up.”
“Hey, great,” said Stanley. “Are you willing to stay late a couple of nights a week? Sammy would make it worth your while.”
“Yes,” said Carl. What problem could there be with two consenting adults being extra careful with their trysts?
Sammy and Vivian appeared the next night. Carl opened the gate for Sammy’s car so he could park it out of sight inside the lot. In his leather jacket and slick black pants, Sammy had the sleek and self-confident gloss of a professional lothario. Clinging to his arm to support her high-heeled plastic boots on the uneven ground was Vivian, a young woman in skin-tight jeans, a fuzzy pink blouse a Goodwill Store would have rejected and wearing enough makeup to obliterate what might have been an otherwise attractive face.
Carl accepted the twenty Sammy slipped into his hand and pointed out the Savanah, down the line of orphan cars, just visible in the light from the single light bulb hanging over the office door.
This routine went on for several weeks. Once or twice a week the couple would appear. Sammy would silently take the keys from Carl and silently return them to him an hour later together with the always-crisp twenty. The couple’s carnal regularity was almost beginning to hint of domesticity. Then Melany arrived.
She was a fifteen-year-old Cadillac that Stanley drove into the yard one early autumn day with all the windows open. He backed it into the empty space at the end of the row of saleable cars.
Carl went out to meet him. Stanley rolled up the windows then climbed out and pulled out an old blanket that had protected the driver’s seat against his greasy pants. “Take a look at that,” he said to Carl. “From the outside, you’d swear it is right off of the dealer’s lot. Twelve thousand on the odometer. Would you believe it?”
Carl looked over the car. The black body gleamed with a luster only frequent waxing could produce. There was not a dent or scratch to be seen. “How come it’s here?” he said.
“Muffler and catalytic converter are totally shot. Floor’s rusted out. Even with the windows open, I almost choked to death. I figure it’ll be three grand plus for the repairs if you could even find the parts.”
“Where did it come from?” Carl asked.
“The old lady who owned it is in a nursing home. She lived all alone in this mansion out east of town. Had a chauffeur full time. He must have spent half his time waxing the car. Her kids are cleaning out the place and just wanted to get rid of the car. I paid them five hundred for it. I figure we’ll find some nostalgia nut who’ll give a couple of grand for it.”
After Stanley had gone into the office to check his answering machine, Carl went over to the Cadillac and spoke softly to it. “I’m Carl,” he said. “How are you doing?”
“I’m Melany. Where am I?”
“Ace Junkyard, but you’re not junk. We’re going to try to find a new home for you.”
“It’s all so different being outside. I’ve always lived in a heated garage. And I always had Walter, my chauffeur. Miss Brodrick was so kind. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to complain.”
“That’s okay,” said Carl. “Everyone who ends up here feels a little lost. But all the vehicles here are simpatico.” He was glad Andre was at the other end of the row of cars.
“How’s my back seat?” said Melany. “Is Miss Brodrick’s robe still there?”
Carl looked. “Yes,” he said. “It’s there, neatly folded, just as Walter must have left it.”
“Oh, that’s so good. You see, I think of my back seat as kind of a memorial, like almost a shrine to Miss Brodrick. I just like to dream of her being back there again, leaning forward to give her driving directions to Walter. He would always say, ‘Yes, Miss Brodrick’ and then he’d just go on driving the way he wanted to go. Is that silly of me, thinking that?”
“Not at all,” said Carl. “I think it’s lovely what you just said.” And he did.
Carl always checked on a car two or three times the first day it was on the lot. After the initial shock, Melany seemed to be calming down and accepting her new home. Stanley had been on the phone most of the day looking for a new owner for the Cadillac, but without success.
He shook his head as he pulled on his jacket. “No luck yet,” he said. “Can you stay again tonight? I think the lovebirds are going to show.”
They appeared on schedule, just after dark. Carl got Andre’s keys off their hook and went to open the gate. However, when the couple climbed out of Sammy’s car, things unraveled.
“Is that a Cadillac?” said Vivian, pointing at Melany.
“Yes,” said Carl. A little knot of worry was starting to grow in his stomach.
“Wow,” Vivian said to Sammy. “Can we do it in that? Like in the back seat? I’ve never done it in a Caddie.”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Carl said. “We just got the car today, and it needs some cleaning up.”
Sammy produced a flashlight from the pocket of his jacket. He went over and shone it through the back window of the car. “Looks okay to me,” he said. “And there’s even like a blanket in there we can spread out on the seat. Hey, let’s have the key.”
When Vivian went over to run her hands over Melany’s sleek black hood, Carl said quietly to Sammy, “I think it would be a big mistake to use that car. The van will be much more comfortable.”
“I agree,” Sammy replied, “but when Viv gets her mind set on something, I don’t mess with it. She only gives her best if she’s happy and when she gives her best, it’s like spectacular, if you get my meaning. And Uncle Stan did say I could use any car on the lot.”
Carl thought of the pain that this use of her back seat would cause Melany. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I can’t let you use that car. The muffler is shot and the floor is rotten. There is real danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.”
“Only if you run the engine,” said Sammy. His thin veneer of friendliness was gone. He pulled a cell phone out of the pocket of his jacket and tapped in a number.
“Hey, Uncle Stan, sorry to bother you, but this joker you left in charge won’t let us use that Cadillac you just got.”
There was a pause. Then he said, “Thanks, Uncle. Here he is.”
He handed the phone to Carl.
“Look,” said an obviously annoyed Stanley. “Give him the damn keys. And no more calls. My wife will kill me if she learns I’m even talking to Sammy.”
Reluctantly, Carl went and got the key. When he handed it to Sammy, he said, “Whatever you do, do not start the engine. Carbon monoxide will kill you.”
“Don’t worry,” said Sammy. “No need for the heater. We’ll be plenty warm.”
The couple disappeared into Melany’s back seat, slamming the door behind them. Carl went back into the office, sat down in the chrome and plastic chair and thought about how he would handle an obviously hysterical Melany in the morning. It would not be easy, but he thought he could talk her down. That was all he could do. To dim his lingering worry, he went back to the game he had been playing on his smart phone.
When he finished the game a half hour later and came back to the real world, he had a sharp feeling something was very wrong. It only took a moment to justify the feeling. From outside came the sound of a running automobile engine. He almost ran through the door. It was the Cadillac. He dashed over to the car and looked through the rear window. Two motionless figures lay entwined on the back seat.
Carl tried to yank open the back door. It was locked, as was the driver’s door. The key was, of course, somewhere inside. There was, he thought, one possible quick way to get into the car. “Melany,” he shouted, “can you open the car doors so I don’t have to break your window to get in?”
Click, click, click, click. The doors unlocked. He clipped the smart phone he was still holding to his belt and yanked open the rear door to be greeted by a wave of noxious exhaust gas. Somehow he untangled the two half-clothed bodies, dragged them out and laid them on their backs on the ground and started CPR, back and forth between the two limp bodies. He paused only long enough to call 911 on his phone, his hands trembling almost uncontrollably.
Perhaps two minutes later, he realized the Cadillac’s engine was still running. He jumped up, opened the driver’s door and reached in to turn off the engine. There was no key in the ignition. In horror, he knew exactly what had happened. “Melany, turn off the engine,” he said, his voice thick with anger.
The engine stopped.
He went back to the bodies on the ground and continued the CPR, his mind torn with anger and grief and thoughts of what he would say to the police when they arrived. He was not going to be able to tell them the truth. If he did, he would be regarded as a lunatic and probably a murderer.
He paused in his CPR and reached into the pocket of Sammy’s tight black pants and found the car key. He got up, opened the car front door and put the key in the car’s ignition. He set the heater control to medium heat. Then he returned to the two bodies and continued his CPR.
As he alternately pressed down and up on the chests of the two inert bodies, he had time to sort out his feelings, the wrath he felt at Melany’s act and the regret he had not been able to do more to keep the two lovers alive.
As the distant sirens grew louder, he realized that he was now an accessory to a felony, guilty of covering up a murder.
The next hour would remain in Carl’s memory and nightmares as a confused jumble of flashing blue and red lights, shouted orders and yellow-jacketed men and women moving professionally but hopelessly through the motions of resuscitation.
What saddened him the most was that, through it all, no one showed any sorrow for the passing of Sammy or Vivian. He hoped, when the relatives were notified, there might be some feelings of grief to match his own.
The worst part of the ordeal was his double interview with the police, having to go twice, in detail, over what had happened. He was careful to stick as much to the truth as possible, substituting half-truths only when necessary.
“The doors were unlocked when I pulled them out of the car.” “After I called 911, I shut off the engine.” There were few enough of these minor diversions from the truth that Carl felt he could recite the words identically in both interviews and could remember them exactly for the inevitable future questioning by reporters, lawyers, and insurance agents.
The final report by the police would be firm in its opinion there had been no foul play. The only possible suspects were Carl, who had no motive and stood to lose twenty to forty dollars a week by the deaths, and Vivian’s police officer husband, who at the time had been assisting the State Police at an accident scene twenty miles away.
When Carl and Stanley arrived at Ace Auto Parts the next morning, they were greeted by a horde of reporters and cameramen clamoring for lurid information. Everything in sight was recorded from every angle, including what came to be known as the death car. Carl repeated by rote what he had told the police. Stanley covered his guilt with honest grief.
While most of the eventual reporting in newspapers and on television would come reasonably close to the police findings, the article in the National Exposer would be quite upsetting to Carl’s parents. Beneath the headline, DEATH STALKS A JUNKYARD LOVE NEST, appeared Carl’s picture next to the Cadillac.
When the reporters had left and Stanley was busy on the phone making funeral arrangements, Carl went quietly out to the Cadillac. “Melany,” he said, “are you there?”
“Yes.” The voice was faint, but Carl detected a new hardness in it.
“You know you have done a very, very bad thing.”
“Yes.” There was no contrition in that one spoken word.
“Are you sorry for what you did?”
“No.” The word was hard and definite.
“Would you do it again if you had the chance?”
There was no hesitation in the reply. “Of course. They desecrated my shrine, my memory of my dearest friend. Of course I would do it again.”
It struck Carl such an attitude would go badly for a murderess at a trial, but there would be no trial, no verdict, no sentence, no retribution and obviously no repentance.
He knew what he had to do. He went back into the office and got a wrench and the piece of two-by-two they used to prop up hoods with broken springs. He went out to what was now to him only an old Cadillac, opened the hood and propped it up with the stick so it could not be dropped on his head. “I’m not sorry either for what I’m doing,” he said aloud. He loosened the bolt on the battery lug.
As he pulled, the cable loose from the battery terminal, he heard faintly, “Oh no, please, oh no.”
Carl ignored the voice, detached the ground connection and pulled the whole cable loose. He took out the prop-up stick and slammed the hood shut. He took the cable back into the office.
“I disconnected the battery ground cable from the Caddie,” he said to Stanley. “With all the publicity, some nutcase might think that car was a cool place to do himself in. I’ll lock the cable in the bottom drawer of the desk if you need it.”
“Good thinking,” said Stanley. “But we shouldn’t have that problem for long. With all the publicity, I’ve already had three offers for the car. What do you think? Should I sell the car to a real collector or this ghoul who called and wants to buy it so he can sell rides in the car? He offered me a cut of the take from what he called his death rides.”
“Let me think about that,” Carl said. “There is something I have to do.”
He went outside and walked past the now silenced Cadillac, up to the end of the row of orphan cars and stopped by Andre’s front fender.
“Andre,” he said, “I’ve got some bad news.”
There was no answer, no voice deep in his mind.
He tried two more times and gave up. Andre, he figured, might be asleep or in a sullen, silent funk over something. He turned and walked back along the row of cars, saying a good morning to each, as was his custom.
But his greetings brought no responses. There was no howdy partner from Wayne, the pickup with the Texas plates. Manfred, the Volkswagen Beetle, did not reply with his usual guten Morgen. Loreen, the inoperable convertible with a tarp covering her torn top, did not give her ever-optimistic come-on. Hey buster, like to go for a little ride?
With a stab half sorrow and half relief, Carl knew that his Gift was gone. He thought of reconnecting Melany’s battery to see if she would talk to him, but realized it was hopeless. His talent was gone forever.
He went back inside and said to Stanley, “I think you should sell the Caddie to a collector.”
Carl thought carefully before he spoke. “That car had a very coddled life. Owned by a little old lady. Driven by a chauffeur. Heated garage. I think it deserves a comfortable future life and not be used as some kind of a sick exhibit.”
Stanley looked at him, puzzled. “You talk like that car is kind of a person,” he said.
“I guess I think of cars that way sometimes,” said Carl.
“Funny way to look at it, but what the hell. Let’s do it. We gotta put this whole bucket of shit behind us, not have some idiot advertising what happened all over town. I’ll call the guy in Texas. He said he’d pay for hauling it down there.”
“Thank you,” said Carl.
* * *
Carl went on into a life filled with more conventional moments of happiness and regret. From time to time, he wondered how he had lost the power to speak to cars. Eventually he came to believe that the truly benevolent Gift is simply taken away from you when you see it as a curse and no longer as a blessing.
Stan Dryer is the pen name for an author who lives in southern New Hampshire. Prior to 1990 he published 17 short stories in magazines that included Playboy, Cosmopolitan and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Three of these stories were later republished in anthologies.
He has now returned to fiction writing and has recently had eleven short stories published (or about to be published) in such magazines as Fabula Argentea, Mystery Weekly Magazine and Adelaide Magazine.
To read some of Stan’s work and find out more about him, visit his blog at www.standryer.com.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Young Man Who Talked to Cars”:
As readers of our magazine know, we delight in pieces that are different and take us to unexpected place with unexpected characters. Author Stan Dryer certainly did that for us and created an imaginative, resonant, and memorable story. We loved that not all of his strong characters were human and that he made us believe cars have feelings.