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It had never occurred to Charlotte McKenna that she needed a new car, until she saw Peggy Huxtable getting into a bronze number that looked like an antique. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
She opened the door to her light blue 14-year old Volkswagen bug, with all its fenders bashed in. Her husband, Paul McKenna, had bought it in Amsterdam as a set of wheels, had driven it around Europe for nine months and shipped it back, shortly before they met. He meant to give it to his sister and gave it to Charlotte instead. It was like a member of the family. But when Peggy Huxtable waved as she drove past, something changed, some window opened up deep inside of her.
“I need a new car,” she announced to Paul one night.
“Oh? The Volkswagen still runs.”
“It’s going to run forever!”
“I thought you liked it as a statement.”
“I did. But it doesn’t fit my image anymore.”
He looked at her. Outwardly she hadn’t changed.
“What kind of car do you have in mind?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then where did this idea come from?”
“I guess it happened when I saw Peggy Huxtable getting into the most gorgeous car.”
“Huxtable? Oh, that ass. I heard he bought an old Rolls, piece of junk. Is that what it was?”
“I don’t know. It was kind of boxy and bronze. It was the most mellow metallic sort of copper or bronze, like an old penny. It was beautiful.”
“Well, I would never buy a piece of junk like that, nothing but headaches, you can’t trust the Brits with cars, their cars get more vertical miles than horizontal ones, but we can look around and see what you like. I don’t have any objection to the idea.”
Driving through the city she became conscious of cars for the first time.
“Oh, there’s one I like,” she pointed to a large black car loaded with chrome.
“That? That’s an old Mercedes. Twenty years at least. You don’t want anything that old.”
A few nights later in a parking lot they saw a white one. They walked around it in the moonlight. It was perfectly restored. It was, they now got very specific, a 280 SE.
On a Sunday they were standing and admiring a cream colored one in front of a gallery, when its owner came up.
“Nice car,” Paul said.
“Thanks, I just got it.”
“What year is it?”
“My wife likes this model. Do you mind my asking how much you paid for it?”
“Not at all. I got it for $5,500.”
Charlotte and Paul looked at each other. Not just a window but a whole wall slid open.
It was not long before they were spending Sundays studying the classifieds and going to see every car in the state. They were all ’71’s and ’72’s. All well over 100,000 miles.
“Does it have to be such an old car?” Paul asked. “Maybe you’d like one around seven or eight years old. It’s not what you pay up front, you know. What’s it going to do to us later? It could drain you to keep it going. I just don’t think it’s wise to buy a 20-year old car.
“Let’s get a Lexus,” said 6-year old Charlie.
They looked at younger cars, but the height of the grill dropped after ’72 and she finally said, “If it’s not that model, let’s just forget it.”
The first car they considered was in an older, exclusive neighborhood with full grown trees. The car was a beautiful deep forest green, but the hood…the paint on the hood was completely cracked and stained.
“The engine overheated,” the owner admitted. Caught fire was more like it. “But it runs great. You can take it for a spin.”
“Go ahead,” said Paul. “See how you like it.”
“Me?” Charlotte was suddenly paralyzed with terror. “Drive it?”
“You might as well. It’s going to be YOUR car, isn’t it?”
Nervously she got behind the wheel, found reverse and backed it into the street, then lurched forward and drove several blocks. The car seemed huge, compared with the Volkswagen. It was like driving a hotel lobby. The dashboard was wood and she liked that.
“How much are you asking?” Paul asked the owner.
“You can have it for $2500. I got a new car and need the space.” He pointed to a BMW.
When she returned, Paul stepped aside with Janis and said, “What do you think, do you want it? It’s so cheap it’s a joke. It’s a piece of junk but you could have fun with it for awhile.”
Charlotte felt uncertain. “You know, if the idea is to make an impression, then that hood ruins the whole thing.”
The following Sunday they looked at another car, in a suburb to the west of the city. The car had been painted an odd metallic pale green. The owner, a balding doctor, said he was moving to a small town and didn’t want to appear ostentatious. (“With that piece of junk?” thought Paul.) $5300 seemed fair but who could live with that color? It was like a piece of metal that had lain in the ocean a millennium and begun to glow.
It was after the tenth car, a pale blue one that still didn’t look right, that Charlotte confessed what she really wanted was a black one.
“You want a black car? You’ll look like a dope dealer.”
“The chrome shows up better.”
Once she had narrowed it down in her own mind, the exact vision of what it must be, the car itself materialized in a short while. A ’72 midnight blue 280 SE. Paul found it at a dealer after seeing every dealer in town. He brought Charlotte in the evening to see it.
“That’s it,” she said.
They bought it but she was too terrified to drive it home. She drove the VW back. “I am not afraid of a car,” he said and took the wheel. Classical music came on. The car sailed like a ship, silently.
For days she was afraid to drive it, but then Paul sold the VW and she was left alone with the big black machine. Its fenders were like the flanks of a blue black stallion. Chrome outlined the entire body, trimming the windows, forming the bumpers that shone like mirrors. The grill rose like a monument of chrome, topped by the hood ornament, the star. Inside, the dashboard was exotic wood and felt like the cockpit of a vintage plane. She fell in love with it and learned to dream in its arms as she drove.
One night, outside a Chinese restaurant, parked on a dark side street, the star was broken off. They noticed it right away, when they got in. It was visibly missing. It rode the hood like the crosshatch of a telescopic lens. Without it, the whole driving experience was different.
Even though they replaced it within a few days, Charlotte was horror struck. At first she thought the whole hood would have to be replaced. Even after Paul restored it, she was still in a state of shock.
“Because it swivels,” he was saying, “there’s an assembly of about seventeen pieces under the hood holding it on. Took me an hour and a half, I don’t have the right tools, not to mention that it cost $74.95.” Then Paul forgot the whole thing. It wasn’t his car. He didn’t give the Mercedes another thought, except to say, “You might watch where you take it. A car like that invites vandalism. You won’t be able to leave it just anywhere.” But after that, he gave it no more thought.
Charlotte, on the other hand, began having nightmares. Every night she dreamed that her car had been stolen. Even though Paul had paid twice as much as its Blue Book value of $4,500, he’d decided not to carry theft insurance. What could you buy for $4,500? He carried liability in case she hit someone, but no comprehensive. If the car was stolen, it was gone. And besides, it was irreplaceable.
Every night she dreamed that she was coming out of some building, desperately searching for the car, unable to find it. She had dreams where it was stolen right before her eyes. She had dreams where she stood stranded in the countryside at night. She had city dreams where a police officer even said, “Don’t get upset, you’re dreaming.”
“How can I be dreaming when this is all so real?” she snapped at him, rapping her knuckles on a brick wall as they walked up a city street to file a report. The wall felt very solid.
Every morning she awoke bathed in sweat, her heart pounding, totally relieved that it had only been a dream and her car was safe in the garage.
But she even had waking nightmares, like the night she came out of an evening class and couldn’t find her car in the parking lot where she’d left it. She waited until all the other people had come out of the building and driven away….but her car wasn’t there. She stood on the empty asphalt convinced it had been stolen. Then, in desperation she looked across to the next block where there was an identical parking lot and there, all alone, stood her stallion.
There turned out to be many parts of town she no longer went because it wasn’t safe for her car.
“That car is running your life,” he best friend said. “I couldn’t live like that. Just get rid of it.”
But how could she part with her car? She loved it as she would love a man. It drove like a dream, like a silent jet plane. She wanted to die and be buried in it. She thought driving off Independence Pass might be a good way to go when she was ready. But every night, there she was again, discovering with that awful feeling, that her car had been stolen.
It never got easier. Each time was equally intense. Each time she was shocked and distraught. Each time she had the sinking certainty that she would never see her car again. She worried more about her car than about her child.
One day, in the middle of July, Charlotte was at a swimming pool with Charlie. After the lesson he liked to splash around and she was gazing at the sky when far in the distance, coming from the northwest, was a single pointed black cloud. It looked like a smear in the clear blue sky, far, far away. But as she watched, it approached very quickly. Everything got dark and windy.
“Everyone out of the pool!” a loudspeaker boomed. “We have a tornado warning! Everyone clear the pool and stand under the awning!”
The awning over the refreshment stand looked very flimsy.
“Let’s go!” she called to Charlie.
“Can we make it home?”
She considered shielding the car with her body, with towels, looked for somewhere to move it, some shelter. There was no safe place nearby.
It was windy but she could probably make it home, a distance of three miles. She was halfway home when the sky opened up with a torrent of ice and hail that obscured everything and felt like an avalanche of rocks. She couldn’t see anything through her windshield which she thought would end up in her lap. She couldn’t see to move forward, but was afraid to stop. She kept crawling through the deluge of ice and stones, leaning her head out the window to see the road. It was like being under an iron tub pelted with meteorites.
How she made it home she didn’t know. She pulled into the garage and went with Charlie into the house. The downpour of water, ice and hail was just incredible. She couldn’t see the trees in the yard. The wind howled and ripped around the house, fist-sized hail battering it from all sides. But as quickly as it came, so it passed. Suddenly the sun came out and everything was calm. Six inches of hail lay on the ground. The July sun shone brightly.
She went to the garage and looked at the car.
“Maybe we can get a Lexus now,” said Charlie.
Even in the dim light she could see the damage. She didn’t need to back it into the driveway to see it. She could see deep dents the size of quarters all over the body. It was bruised. She caressed its navy flank with sorrow.
But she never had another nightmare about her car.
Every few months Paul raised the topic of having the car restored, but she ignored him. Two years later it still hadn’t been fixed.
“Maybe now that it’s going to qualify as an antique, we should get the body fixed.” He was becoming insistent and couldn’t understand why she wasn’t interested.
“I’d rather not,” she finally confessed. She loved her car more than ever. “Once it’s fixed I’ll have to worry about every scratch and dent. My nightmares will return. Please, let’s just leave it the way it is.”
A Thousand Lights
At 68 she had married a man who took her shopping to Neiman Marcus, because he had worked there many years as a tailor and got an additional 30% discount off the sale price, which put everything within reach. Widowed, they had fallen into a kind of first love. They took long brisk walks every morning, usually at the new enclosed mall with its palm trees and waterfalls. Here she already knew the contents of every store. If a jeweled purse or strange shoes caught her eye, Oscar would buy them for her.
He adored her and had a bit of money, not much, for how much could a tailor have? But he had held on to all of it and wanted to spend it on her.
She had always loved beautiful things and loved possessing them. She herself had stepped out of the Italian Renaissance or Russian, rather. A longing for Czarist Russia, as portrayed by Tolstoy, pervaded her being. She was forever Anna Karenina in love with Vronsky and doomed to throw herself under a train.
She sometimes told vignettes of sitting at a table under the trees at her paternal grandmother’s house near Kiev. “They were as poor as mice,” she said, “but as devout as saints.” She often saw herself, dark-eyed and scrawny, sitting at that table eating sunflower seeds.
Her father, an idealist, embraced Communism. He worked in the stables of a wealthy family and outraged everyone by running off with the youngest daughter, a milky beauty with dark hair and eyes. In an old photograph she looks made of ivory.
He was not permitted, even after the birth of four children, to enter his in-laws’ house. She was allowed to come and during the war she smuggled food out of her father’s house for him.
Sonia was 14 at the outbreak of the war. After her father got TB, the family survived on the sale of her mother’s clothes. “She sold one piece at a time. We could live a whole month.” This was Russia during Stalin, World War II and 20 million dying in the frozen mud.
She was sent to a factory in another city, because they would give her daily bread. “I would try to save it to eat later, but it was always stolen from me.”
They walked through the shining halls, black marble waxed and polished daily, outlining the elegant, brightly lit stores. The jewelry winked at her. She especially loved jewelry. But today nothing called to her. All the beautiful things in all the stores held no allure.
Outside, the April day was dark and raining. At 4:00 they needed to attend the funeral of a dear old friend. To be buried on such a day! For two weeks the sun had been pulling blossoms from bare branches like a magician pulling colored scarves from his sleeve.
But today it was dark as night and pouring rain. They had driven to the mall anyway. It was an enormous place with many distractions and diversions. They often ran into people they knew who also exercised there.
In illuminated windows stood glittering displays, mannequins in sequined gowns, gold and silver shoes, drifts of silk, all drew the eyes as into aquariums of glowing fish. One’s gaze fell in and rested upon some lovely thing, as in a trance.
But she no longer wanted anything.
This was the second funeral in a week. People were departing. People they knew. People they had known since they were young and strong.
Now some of these titans were falling. It was terrifying to ponder one’s own fate. Did they really have so little time? They had just married and everything was so perfect, how could it end? It wasn’t fair! It made her furious with God. How could the perfect conjunction of all things come down to nothing?
Why did God allow death to exist?
They stood before a crystal store. Her gaze fell into a crystal bowl flashing with a thousand lights.
It blocked out everything else.
It hung in space like some kind of incredible diatom, some holographic map of a condensed universe. She stared into its carvings and edges, this bowl on a pedestal, this empty bowl of flashing lights. How could something like this exist in a world where we must all die?
Everything but the bowl disappeared, Oscar, the mall, the other people and the echoes of their voices, the marble, the palms and water, even the glass between herself and the bowl, everything vanished. She had no body and was conscious only of a glittering geometric apparition hanging in black space.
“You like the bowl?” Oscar was asking.
She shut out his voice and could not tear her eyes away from it. She remembered her father, tall and dark as Pushkin, dying in a make-shift hospital. The war years were condensed into a single frame: among the hundreds of beds, looking for him. He had died and was not there. Unbelieving, she ran, tears streaming, from bed to bed looking for him. It had sunk in so deep in her, and lain at the bottom like an ancient anchor, for so long. So long. And with the funeral last week, and now the one today at 4:00, in this rain… she stopped thinking and stared, transfixed, into the bowl.
Oscar stood lost in his own thoughts. Then his ceaseless energy roused him. He said, “Let’s get going.”
От издателя: Book Description In the first in a new series of brief biographies, bestselling author Peter Ackroyd brilliantly evokes...