BY GAYLA CHANEY
Seventeen. That's the number of automobiles I have owned in my lifetime; none of them firsthand before the Pontiac I am driving today. The cars I bought usually had bad tires or body damage or both. However, they were at a price that a single woman working the switchboard for Liederman and Busher could afford. That was their appeal, despite color, make, or mileage. Whenever I located any potential vehicle, before I finalized the deal, I would call my mechanic friend, Larry Pritchard, who would go with me and inspect my latest find. Through my ignorance of cracked blocks and bent axles, Larry's mechanical form of genius would shine. “Again, Valerie?” Larry would ask, pretending to be dismayed that I could already be in the market for another car.
“Something economical on gas this time,” I'd say. Or, if it was winter, I might request, “Something with a heater that works.” Or, if I was feeling short on patience or irritable, or just needing to feel like I was as good as the next driver, I might seek out a car with a passenger door that could be opened from the outside. Falcons, Ramblers, Dodge Darts, even a Volkswagen once made their way into my life, but despite my fickle nature and my constant yearning to drive something different, a Pontiac was never among them. I didn't deliberately avoid owning one; it's just the way it worked out.
I am now sixty-four years old, and I am the owner of a new, blue Pontiac, the kind that comes with a warranty. This is one that I purchased without Larry going over it from top to bottom. I can imagine the look on his face if he were to see me pulling into his garage in this flawless machine. I like that image. I think of it often -- me, startling him with something so out of the ordinary, something that even I find hard to believe myself.
Now, a year before I am ready to retire from my place of employment, I bought what may well be my last automobile. And I bought it without a mechanic going over it. I bought it based primarily on color and style, not on price alone. I bought it because it is a Pontiac and Larry would be impressed.
Blue was my first choice. A dark, shiny blue, like the ocean. Larry Pritchard is somewhere in that ocean, somewhere under all that blue. He was a very good mechanic, if not that good of a sailor. When I go to the beach with loaves of stale bread to feed the gulls, I think of Larry out there somewhere, and since the initial shock has worn off, it has become sort of romantic, like thinking about Percy Shelley or Hart Crane or Jim Morrison.
In life, Larry wasn't too romantic. Pillow talk was an unknown language to him. He preferred talking about flushing radiators when he was here, and fan belts and Quaker State Oil. Death has helped him out in that department. Now, when I recall our little talks, he seems to have other things to say. I don't have to call him about checking out another old car; he calls me up in my memories.
The week before he went fishing with his cousin Arnie in a boat too small to fight a choppy sea, Larry and I met for lunch at the Burger King near his garage. I wasn't in the market for another automobile at the time, so the lunch was just a pleasant break from the ringing phones at Liederman and Busher. “What's so interesting?” I asked as I saw his eyes follow some blonde out the door and into her car.
“That Pontiac,” he answered.
I turned to see the blonde get behind the wheel and I smirked. “Sure thing, Larry,” I said, hoping not to show how injured I felt, knowing I could never be twenty-five again, and even if I could, I wouldn't be able to compete with that. Larry surprised me then, maybe to spare my feelings, but maybe not. Maybe it was a sincere remark. I'll never know. He looked at me, shaking a French fry for emphasis, and said, “You'd look good in a new Pontiac, Val.” Just like that, and he went back to eating without giving the blonde another glance. At that moment, I sensed a degree of fidelity growing between us. It turned out to be a short-lived fidelity due to Larry's dumb cousin planning a fishing trip in a storm. But I felt something that day which seemed to signal Larry's prior hesitancy toward commitment was beginning to melt.
Since that turned out to be our last afternoon together, I have tended to view Larry's suggestion about the Pontiac as his version of prophecy. It was kind of like Larry was leaving me a testament: Without me here, this is what you'll need to do.
At first, it seemed strange to me that a man who loved cars as much as Larry did should die in a boat, and not a fast racing boat, but a pathetic little fishing boat, borrowed for the weekend. His cousin Arnie, the mastermind behind their tragic fishing adventure, washed up on shore a few weeks after they went missing, but Larry never did. In a way, Larry might have preferred the idea of his body, or parts of it, remaining in motion. He'd have probably made a joke about his recycled self or digested bits of him turning up on my plate at Red Lobster, which once was my favorite restaurant, but now is a place I avoid. And yet, I have the idea that Larry is okay with where he's resting. There was no burial expense for his kids. Furthermore, when I think of him sloshing under the waves, I tend to believe that any movement at all would suit Larry better than being stuck in the ground, immobile, permanently stalled.
Out there with the dolphins and the dead poets, Larry is, not was. He remains capable of sending something back to us at any time: a hat, a shoe, a Ziplock bag that carried his wallet and fishing license. That open-ended potentiality makes everything seem less permanent, even death. If I am feeling particularly lonely, I drive to the beach in a car Larry more or less selected for me, and I become a beachcomber for the day, bringing along day-old bread for the birds.