By Wade Beauchamp
Ava’s tired. She’s getting old. She’s put together good, but she’s tired. Oil pressure’s sinking fast; the needle sags a little more with each county line. Since Smithfield, Ava’s gone through quarts almost as fast as I’ve gone through cigarettes. But we made it, Ava and me. As soon as I turn onto Stratford Road, the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream” comes on the radio, swear to God. The Texaco roadmap is dotted with fingerprints in black 40-weight, tracing my way back here. I’ve made it. I need a gas station and a payphone. Get some oil in Ava. Call work, let them know I won’t be there. Most importantly, I need to find someone good enough for Ava.
She had to be named after Ava Gardner, Pam had explained to me. A Cadillac would've been Liz Taylor. A Lincoln would've been Marilyn. But Ava was a Ford. No pretensions. She grew up humble, a poor farm girl who became the epitome of glamour. Carolina girls, both of them. Even in '63, when Ava and a Thunderbird might have been considered a little passé, they were both still drop dead gorgeous. Even in their prime they were high maintenance. Treat either one wrong and they just might kill you. Maneaters, both, Pam had explained.
My favorite picture of Pam was tucked into the visor. The one I had taken with that little Kodak she’d given me. We were on the shoulder of Stratford Road, just outside of town near the bridge. I’d captured a battle-weary Pam, cigarette dangling from her mouth as she crawled out from underneath Ava, 9/16” Craftsman wrench in her hand. She’d gotten her running again, just like she always did. From the side of the frame you could see my arm, reaching to help her to her feet. I was wearing a green-sleeved baseball jersey. Pam’s face was smeared with grease and sweat and dirt, none of which could mask her pride and exhaustion.
I tried so hard not to hate Ava for what happened. It wasn’t her fault. I hadn’t always felt this way about her. I’d loved her at one point, but that was before I found Pam that morning, behind the wheel, in the garage, a garden hose running between Ava’s exhaust and the quarter glass. Pam had crammed an old t-shirt into the gaps to make it airtight.
Stratford Road hasn’t changed. Not much, anyhow. Ava and I pass through empty intersections and blinking traffic lights. The spaces in between are a shadowy nether-realm seen through constellations of dead mosquitoes and lit by the pale teardrops of the headlights. Strip malls, restaurants, and convenience stores, all darkened, slip by in a flurry, then more desolation.
It’s easy to imagine this road has been here forever. One late night driving its length, Pam and I had dreamed up its entire history, from a gouge carved out by a receding glacier, to mammoths trampling it smooth, then Indians and later Settlers, feet and wagon wheels, first dozens and then thousands, finally tar and gravel, asphalt.
Pam used to say, every road is really two roads, the one that takes you away and the one that brings you back.
I think of all the times I’ve traveled up and down this road. My trip home from the hospital was on this road. My first school is on this road. I rode past it as a young child and the kids playing on its swing sets and see-saws looked so big to me. Years later they had grown so small. I cruised down this road. Raced on it. Flew with my first date down it, just missing her curfew. I left for college, swore I’d left this town behind, on this same road, only to limp home six months later, humbled. I’d left it again last year, for good this time, I swore. Now I was back. For good.
A stoplight catches us and we sit and wait on no one. Ava’s oil pressure needle slumps all the way down and stays there, twitching every few seconds, in the throes of a silent movie death scene. I ignore the truth the gauge tells. Over the past year I’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring truths, and this is just one more.
I spot a neon beacon of red and blue. Open All Nite. Dottie’s. Our light turns green and Ava and I move, her valves chattering now like one of those wind-up toy skulls. We burble the quarter mile to the diner and have our pick of parking spaces. Ava seems to choose one of her own accord.
Over the hissing and popping of her resting engine I can hear the hornet’s nest buzz of the roadside neon. The sign is old and in ill-repair, but it still works, just like the diner it advertises. The tiny brass bell chimes as I push the door open.
It’s bright inside and “Beautiful Loser” is on the radio. I’d laugh if I wasn’t so tired. I still manage a smile. I haven’t heard anything recorded after 1979 since I crossed the county line. There’s a long counter dotted with little skylines of salt and pepper shakers, ketchup bottles, sugar and napkin dispensers, with stretches of empty Formica in between. It’s a miniaturized, culinary version of Stratford Road. I pick a stool at the counter, the same one I’d sat in countless mornings waiting for Pam to get off work, and now I wait to see if I’m the only one in the place.
My first glimpse of the waitress is through the porthole window of the aluminum kitchen door. I watch her hands weaving her bottle-blonde hair into some sort of bun on the crown of her head then skewering it with a pencil. She emerges, swinging open the door with a bump from her hip. She mans the other side of the counter, directly across from me, slaps down a laminated menu and produces a pad and another pencil from the front thigh pocket of her pink dress. Dottie was still making them wear those awful things.
“What’ll it be, honey?”
Her hazel eyes are tired. She’s wearing too much perfume, her mascara has caked into clumps around her crow’s feet; her lipstick is too bright. Her uniform is a little too tight and she chews gum with her mouth open. She even looks a little bit like Pam. I like her. But more importantly, Ava will like her.
“Got a phone I can use?” I ask.
“There’s a pay phone across the street at Ronnie’s.” I follow her uninterested nod over my shoulder to a side-by-side laundromat and video rental store. I’m not sure which one is Ronnie’s, neither was here last time I was. But there is no telephone on the wall between the two.
“How about a 24-hour service station?” I ask next.
“Only gas you’re going to get this time of night is from my cooking.”
“Yeah.” I take a minute to look at the menu, though I’m not hungry. “Where’s Dottie?”
She looks at me like I’m the first person to ever ask her that. In fact, it’s the first time she’s looked at me at all.
“Dot’s dead. Her brother runs the place now.” She stops, then decides to add, “But he ain’t never here. He don’t get here till about six. Not much traffic before then.” A short silence. “I’m Sunny,” she says finally, tilting her name badge up at me with her pencil. We both realize we’ve been staring and she looks away, down at her pad.
“You want something to eat?” she says.
“Just coffee, please.”
Sunny turns away and steps to the back counter. She rises on tiptoes and plucks a coffee cup from an overhead shelf. She’s barefoot in nude pantyhose, the bottom of her feet dirty and wet. Yeah, Ava is going to like her.
She’s pouring something that looks thick enough to put in Ava’s engine. My swivel-stool creaks and Sunny turns with my coffee. If she saw me looking, she doesn’t let on.
“Nice car,” she says.
“Thanks.” Instinctively I look over my shoulder to make sure Ava’s still there.
“First boyfriend had one just like it. Except blue. I’ve loved T-Birds ever since.”
I smile to myself, imagining the adventures Sunny and Ava are going to have together.
“So, you from around here?” she says next.
I take a sip of the black sludge in my cup and shake my head once. “Used to be.”
Sunny waits for me to elaborate, but when I don’t, she’s asks me where I’m headed.
“Business or pleasure?” she asks. And for just a moment, I want to tell her everything. Something in the way she says ‘pleasure’. But I don’t.
“Nah, no pleasure there,” I tell her.
“That’s a shame.” And we stare again. She suddenly laughs, maybe at what she just said, maybe at the way I reacted to it. But she laughs; a series of short, melodious bursts, so cheerful it makes me laugh with her. It’s the first time I’ve laughed in a long time.
“Listen,” she says, eyes pointed directly at me, like a pair of drawn pistols. “There’s a phone in the office. You can use it if you want.”
I nod and Sunny rounds the counter and pads silently to the diner door. With a ka-chunk, she locks it, then rises on those dirty tiptoes to flip a switch on the Open All Nite sign, turning it off. I follow her through the swinging aluminum door that leads to the kitchen. She glances once over her shoulder, making sure I’m behind her. She leads me past the abandoned cook’s line, with its charred and battered range, stained griddle and dilapidated deep-fryer. The entire kitchen is coated in a heavy film of brownish grease, made all the dingier by the struggling fluorescent lights flickering overhead. At the back of the kitchen is a door that at one time, I’m sure, was white. Now it’s a washed-out beige and has Dorothy Transou spelled out on it with those slanted stick-on mailbox letters.
Against the wall, on our way to the office, an old stainless steel sink stands, its bowls overflowing with encrusted pots and pans soaking in gray water. It’s in front of the sink that Sunny stops and turns to face me. She extracts the yellow pencil and her hair falls down around her shoulders. She seems unwilling to trust her voice, but there’s invitation in her eyes.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” I begin, reciting the speech I’d rehearsed in my head at the counter. “You’re beautiful, Sunny. But you remind me of someone.”
She smiles, looks down at the tiled floor, and nods. “That’s a good one.”
“It’s okay either way.”
I let myself into Dottie’s office and call work and leave a message I haven’t rehearsed half as good as the one I gave Sunny.
When I come out, Sunny is back behind the counter, staring out at Ava. “Take care of her,” she says.
I say nothing else as I walk out. The neon Open All Nite flickers back to life as soon as I’m back behind the wheel. I dig a ballpoint out of the glove compartment and fold my road map to an empty area of North Carolina. I write:
She’s yours. You seemed to like her. Maybe you were just saying that. But either way, you can have her. Consider it my apology for putting you through this. Just keep an eye on her oil pressure.</epigrah>
I position the map on the dash to make sure it’s the first thing Sunny will find. Well, the first thing she’ll find after she finds me. I key the starter and Ava fires right up. The oil pressure needle barely moves but the valves stop chattering after a few seconds. She’s not dry yet. I drive around back of Dottie’s and put her in park, right in Pam’s old spot, and let the motor idle for a few minutes.
I hop out and open Ava’s trunk and dig out the garden hose and an old rag. I run the hose from the exhaust pipe, around the side of the car, and snake it through the triangular vent window on the driver’s side door. When I’m back in the car I push the vent window closed as tight as I can without pinching off the hose and then cram the rag into the gap. I blip Ava’s throttle once or twice, the burble of the big V8 like a lullaby. It feels like it takes forever to go to sleep.
When the interior of the Thunderbird swims back into focus, I expect to see Sunny standing over me, asking me if I’m okay, asking me what the hell I’m doing. But I’m still alone. The sun’s coming and Ava is still burbling away faithfully. “All I Have to Do Is Dream” is on the radio, swear to God.
Stupidly, I take it as a sign and drive away, shaking the cobwebs from my head. Dottie’s shrinks in my rearview mirror as I amble down Stratford Road, toward what, I have no idea. Maybe I’ll try again, I think, a different way. Maybe tomorrow, I don’t know. I’m not thinking clearly right now, the carbon monoxide has done that much.
I steer Ava down the road, noticing now that her oil pressure is good. The needle doesn’t even flutter, just sits there pretty as you please at 35psi. Good girl, Ava. I drive out of town as the sun peeks over the tree line. The clouds in my head begin to part. I’d say I feel almost good but I’m not sure I really remember what that feels like. I drive a mile or two, the sun high enough above the horizon that I pull down the visor to block it. The photo of Pam tumbles into my lap. Another sign, I think, ridiculously. In the moment it takes me to glance at her picture and return it to the visor, the sun has climbed high enough in the sky to no longer be visible through Ava’s windshield. The carbon monoxide has done more of a number on me than I’d realized.
I sit up straight in the seat and rub my eyes. When I open them, the interior of the Thunderbird seems to have somehow grown. The space inside the car feels twice as spacious as before. The passenger door is too far way for me to reach. My arms are extended to their full length to hold the steering wheel. Again I sit up in the seat, but now to try to see over the dashboard, which looms over me like a cliff. My stomach lurches at the contradictory information my eyes are feeding my fume-addled brain. I need to pull over before I wreck. I can’t do that to Ava. I try to press the brake pedal and can’t find it with my foot. I can’t feel the floor, either. I look down and saw that both gas and brake pedals, and the floor below them, are exactly where they should be, only now they’re impossibly out of leg’s reach. I slide down into the seat until I can touch the tip of my shoe against the brake pedal and ease Ava to a halt. I have to get out and get some fresh air.
I pull up on the T-Bird’s handle, swing the big door open and step out into the afternoon sun. I feel its heat soaking into my skin. Down the road, not far, is the bridge where I’d taken the picture of Pam. The Thunderbird is there, too, right now, on the side of the road. I look to where the car was not a second ago and see only empty pavement. I look down at myself, making sure I’m still here, making sure I’m still real. I’m wearing my green-sleeved baseball jersey. I’m holding my glove. I move toward the car, walking at first, then running as fast as my 9-year old legs can carry me. Pam is crawling out from under the car, smiling, wrench in hand. She slides behind Ava’s wheel and gives her a try. She fires right up. “All I Have to Do is Dream” is on the radio. I run to her.
She turns to see me just as I skid to a halt in the Thunderbird’s open doorway, panting. Her smile gets even bigger. “Where’d you go, sweetie?” she says. “We’re going to be late for the game.”
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