Which famously was the question my friend Pete asked me as we were driving in New Hampshire and his car, this was the Datsun, BURST INTO FLAMES! FLAMES WERE SHOOTING FROM THE ENGINE RIGHT IN FRONT OF OUR EYES! and Pete asks hesitantly do you think we should pull over? as I am shrieking pull over!!!!!! and hammering on the dashboard hoping that indeed he will soon pull over so we can exit sprinting across the icy stubbled fields into the dense and brooding forest, from which refuge we watched the fire burn out eventually, and shuffled wearily back to the car, and stood there freezing and snarling until a guy came by and drove us into town in his truck, which had, no kidding, huge flames painted on it. We agreed that the flames on his car looked pretty cool.
Then there was the time we were driving, this was also in New Hampshire, you wonder what it is with Pete and cars and the Granite State, and THE FLOOR FELL OFF HIS CAR, in such a way that you could SEE THE HIGHWAY SPEEDING BY BELOW YOUR FEET, and I screamed that time too!!! and hammered my sneakers on the dashboard until he pulled over!! but that time he didn’t ask me if he should pull over, he just pulled over, having learned his lesson. Pete points out that the whole floor didn’t fall off the car that time, just most of the front part, and he notes also that it is not accurate to say, as I have said, that the chassis fell off, because the chassis did not fall off, only a vast piece of the floor, which apparently had rusted to dust because the car was ancient beyond reckoning, it may have been the first car ever invented, this was not unlikely, that car was probably four hundred years old, probably the conquistadores owned that car, and Pete had paid something like three hundred bucks for it, which is not the least he ever paid for a car, no, no, not by a long shot, for there was the convertible he bought for a hundred dollars, this was the Impala, he drove that car THROUGH THE CAR WASH WITH THE TOP DOWN to see what it would feel like, which he said it felt great except that he lost his spectacles in the rush of water. That car, the Impala, never did dry out, although it dried out better than our friend Billy’s car, this was the Chevy, which he parked near an ocean before a hurricane, and it drowned.
Pete actually bought another car for a dollar, this was the Buick, from a guy who said there were no dents, go ahead and walk around it and see if there are any dents, boys, which we did, and there was a huge dent on the right front side, and I said, fairly reasonably, I thought, hey, there’s a huge dent over here, and the guy says to Pete, who’s your asshole hippie freak friend? anyway Pete buys this car hurriedly, but it turns out the car was sensitive to weather, and whenever the temperature went up or down more than ten degrees overnight the car wouldn’t work until the temperature went back to what it liked, which was about eighty, because the car had been born in Florida or something. One time we went to the movies, Pete and me, this was To Have and Have Not, directed by Howard Hawks, just a terrific movie, the rare kind of movie in which you want to live for a while, and a cold front blew in during the movie, and we had to PUSH THE CAR ALL THE WAY HOME, because we didn’t have money for a taxi, and the buses didn’t run after midnight, and you can’t just abandon a car, as Pete said, it’s your car, man, you have to be responsible for it, otherwise you shouldn’t even have a car, am I right?
Another time he had a car, this was another Buick, which a dog got stuck to, this was a Labrador retriever named Hank, but the details of this story remain sketchy, as Pete says the dog was trying to MATE WITH THE CAR, which is highly unlikely, and Billy says the dog froze to the car, which is much more likely, because this was in Vermont, where it gets to be like eighty below although Vermonters don’t admit this and go around wearing nothing but vests as if a vest would keep you warm, all a vest keeps warm is like your spleen or something, and Hank wasn’t the brightest bulb in the galaxy, there are a lot of stories about Hank, but we are talking about cars. Although one time Pete strapped a hockey mask on Hank and sent him roaring among his little nieces and nephews at Christmas, which caused a memorable ruckus, and another time Hank got stuck to a train to Montreal, which was supposedly an accident, but you wonder.
Anyway the last story I wanted to tell you about Pete and cars was another car Pete bought for a dollar, this was the Volvo, which was also an ancient car, and which the seller had parked out in his back yard under some trees for about twenty years, but he had left a window open a few inches, so the car was really moist and funky inside, with slugs and moss and such, and a seedling, this was a maple, had TAKEN ROOT IN THE BACK SEAT and expanded to startling proportions. Pete went through this car meticulously after he bought it, finding about ten dollars in loose change but leaving the tree, because as he said it would be just wrong to kill a living thing, and he gave the car to his wife Colleen for Christmas, which always seemed a complicated gift, I mean, who wouldn’t want a car for Christmas, but a car with a maple tree growing out of the back seat is not the kind of car you maybe pick out first for your girl if you were picking out cars for your girl, am I right?
2. You Know What I’m Saying?
The car that we estimated was easily four hundred years old, which may have been driven by the conquistadores, possibly when they fled the Yaqui people in the Sonoran desert, most of the Spanish warriors fleeing south, but three or four of them, says Pete, probably crowding into the car, which is just big enough to fit four guys with major armor and weaponry, and flooring it north to Kansas, well, that car, it was a Ford, of course, which Pete bought from a guy who had bought it in Kansas from a girl who said she bought it after a guy drove it into a river, it still had a lance in the trunk, and it’s not like you find the working end of an old Spanish lance in the trunk of your car every day, you know what I’m saying?
A guy I know in Boston who knows weapons better than he should, says Pete, he says it’s not a lance, it’s the working end of a halberd, which is what conquistadores carried more than they carried lances, said this guy, because lances were mostly for guys on horses, which is why they were called lancers, whereas your regular guys who walked carried halberds, which were like axes seven feet long, you got to have some major forearms to swing those suckers, so what you got here in your car, says the guy to Pete, that is most definitely the business end of a halberd.
Not to mention, says Pete, that the maps in the car were really old and were printed in Spanish, that’s a dead giveaway, and of course the conquistadores had never been in Kansas before, and of course they didn’t know what road to take. I mean, think about it, you get lost on those little county roads there, the ones that wander aimlessly through farms and ranches because a hundred years ago the guy surveying the road wanted to survey the farmer’s daughter, you could stay lost for a hundred years, because it’s not like those roads have signs, you know what I’m saying? And you could go for years without seeing anyone to ask for directions, and when you do find someone, and ask for directions, the farmer maybe doesn’t focus on directions because what he sees is four burly guys wearing major serious armor, with those helmets that look like the Sydney Opera House, and the grimy beards and all, probably their swords sticking out the back window, you know, his directions would be like go to where the farmer’s daughter used to live and turn right, that kind of thing, very confusing.
And if the maps and the halberd are not enough, says Pete, here’s the kicker: there are no seat belts in the car. Think about it. Seat belts were made mandatory by our government in the year 1600, when the French tried to steal America, so a car without seat belts must, ipso facto, be from before 1600. Also the radio only gets Spanish stations, and what does that tell you? It tells you that the car was Spanish, and the radio frequency sensor in the engine can only understand Spanish. You have to know something about cars when you are working with history stuff like this, says Pete, otherwise you end up just listening to any old nut saying any old thing. But the fact is that there are facts, which is what we are talking here, and then there is nutty stuff, which is why God invented talk radio, which the car does not get, and what does that tell you, you know what I’m saying?
3. The Grief Diet
Anyway the last story I want to tell you about Pete and cars, well, this story isn’t as funny as the other stories, but it matters that you know it, so here it is: One time he lived in his car for a while. It’s not what you think, that he was homeless and desperately poor and had to live in a hulk parked in the woods where a guy abandoned it and blackberry brambles took over in that greedy possessive way they have, all snarling and prickly, and he had to dive dumpsters for old doughnuts and soda cans and such. No, this was during the Dark Year, the year of the eclipse, as he says, when the tide came in and covered him, and he went walkabout for a while.
This was hard on his wife and children, you bet, and even his dog was crushed, but Pete is that lucky kind of guy who his wife likes him even when she is furious and terrified and knows that there’s nothing she can do for him, and his kids were teenagers and so maybe they didn’t even notice he was gone for a while, although me personally I think they did notice and were just quietly praying like hell in the roiling temples of their hearts, and it’s interesting to me that the dog went out hunting for Pete for days and days, one of the kids told me that, it would leave every morning and spend the whole day searching town and beach and woods for the big guy, coming home exhausted at night and sleeping by the door so that anyone who opened the door at night would hit the dog right in the kidneys, which the dog couldn’t really afford, that dog peed every eleven seconds, pretty much.
Anyway we were talking about Pete living in his car, this was the Park Avenue, which is a really big car, Pete says there was plenty of room in the back seat where he hung his suits and everything, because he still went to work at the investment firm, he’d just take a shower at the gym in the morning and drink a lot of coffee, because as he says he was always really tired, that’s the worst thing about the black dog, he says, you get really tired, no one ever tells you that part, you are just wiped out, you can’t think straight, how come no one ever says that part, you read all this stuff about depression and chemical imbalance and midlife crisis and no one ever says really the worst thing is you feel like you could sleep for a week and you’d still feel like you hadn’t slept since Lincoln was president, you know what I’m saying? Also I couldn’t eat, and I lost twenty pounds. The grief diet, man.
Anyway Pete says if you have to sleep in your car for a while you could do a lot worse than a Park Avenue, and he had satellite radio too, and reclining heated seats, and he collected the newspapers every evening from the doughnut shop, and the policeman knew him and left him alone hoping, like everybody else, that things would change and Pete would make a comeback, which he did, finally, for no particular reason that he could explain except maybe that people kept leaving notes on his car, first it was people who knew him like his wife and kids and coworkers and neighbors, and then it was even people who didn’t know him, schoolkids and truckers and people like that. Pete thinks maybe the cop, his name was Michael, quietly told everybody what was up, and suggested leaving notes under his windshield wipers like traffic tickets in all sorts of colors, and Pete says in the beginning he didn’t have the gas to read the notes but then there got to be so many on the windshield that he couldn’t actually see out the windshield, and he started reading them and enjoying them, some of them were so funny, and then people started leaving money under the windshield wipers, and maybe that was the thing that pushed me over, says Pete, you can’t be taking money from people because you have the black dog, that’s just bad form, man, so I went home, nailing the dog right in the kidneys with the door, I told that dog never to sleep there but he doesn’t listen to me, and my wife and kids were real sweet about the whole thing, they didn’t say much, they just hugged me and all, and my oldest kid says what’s with all the notes on your windshield?, which cut the tension, so that was pretty much that. Had to take the dog to the vet later for some kidney problem that cost me a bundle, which I figured was my penalty fee for being on vacation from life, you know what I’m saying?
4. Lester’s Best Day
But I’ll tell you one more story about Pete, this time not about cars so much as the dogs who rode in his cars, for he had a long line of great crazy dogs, Hank and Mugga and Lester and Tommy, not to mention the time he briefly owned a pony because of a girl, but that’s another story altogether, and we were talking about the dogs.
Lester, now, he was a really great dog, the kind of dog who could run all day, Pete would take him out to the pond and they would run the whole pond, which is like nine miles around, and Lester at the end of the run was fresh as a flower, not even panting hard, you wondered how far that dog actually could run, which is why Pete signed him up for the marathon one year, that was the year Pete ran the marathon wearing buffalo horns for some reason we can’t remember now, the year he got all the way to the top of Heartbreak Hill, right near Boston College, that’s like at twenty miles, and the president of the college was there among the spectators, easily discernible because of his collar, he is a priest, you know, and Pete stops and reaches into his jock and pulls out a soaking wet twenty dollar bill and says to the startled president here’s a donation for the college, Fadda, don’t spend it all in one place, and runs off down the hill toward the finish line with the poor priest standing there with the moist twenty, which God knows you wouldn’t want to have that in your hand, you know what I mean?
Anyway we were talking about Lester, who got a number and everything, the race registrar wasn’t paying attention or conspired with Pete, and Pete wanted Lester to run with sunglasses but Lester declined, and he wouldn’t wear the official shirt either, although he did wear his number. He took off at the beginning of the race, not pacing himself at all despite what Pete had told him again and again about setting a steady pace, and by the fifteen mile mark he was drained. We found him long after the race, sleeping under a guy’s car, and when Pete hauled him out, Lester complaining about his sleep being disturbed, one of the neighbors said Lester had committed An Incident with a female poodle and a child had been scandalized, so it wasn’t, all in all, Lester’s best day.
I should tell you about Hank and Mugga and Tommy, but there are just so many stories about Lester that once you get started telling stories about Lester there’s no end to them at all, like the time he did win a ten mile race along the river by cutting in front of the leader at the very last second, this was after a heroic comeback on the last downhill stretch, he was just flying down that hill, Pete’s theory is that Lester came about as close to the sound barrier in that last thousand yards as any dog ever has, which may be right, because I was there, at the finish line, waiting for Pete, and you couldn’t even see Lester he was going so fast, he was like a blur rocketing along the road, a most amazing sight. He got his blurry picture in the paper the next day, and Pete bought him a steak.
There are a lot of other Lester stories, like the time he got married to Pete’s cousin’s boyfriend’s dog The Little Death, that was a roaring party, and how he learned to surf, although he was terrible at it, and how he appeared in a short story by a famous writer, two of whose short stories were made into movies, but the guy never did seem to have any money even after the movies, and he still drove around town with a baseball bat in his trunk in case of trouble and a hundred bucks under the mat on the driver’s side in case he got caught short. Famous as he was out in the world, he could still be found at the sub shop almost every day, ordering the steak bomb and ogling the waitress, and he still tried hitting on the other professors’ daughters whenever he got the chance, which is scummy except in one case where the daughter was literally the most beautiful girl in the history of the universe, and she had an excellent dog, too, but that’s another story.
5. Kitty’s Back
I swear this is the last story I’ll tell you about Pete and cars, and I suppose really it’s a story about me, and why I love the big guy—not that way, but in the way you love a really dear friend who gets you and you get him and you have a million stories to choke with laughter over, the kind of guy who when you are driving with him and he snorts suddenly and says remember that time we got stuck in the snow in Flagstaff? you both start laughing so hard you have to pull over and wipe the water out of your eyes and wonder how come when you laugh really hard your cheeks and stomach ache, why is that? That kind of guy.
Anyway, we were sitting out behind a pub on the beach in New Hampshire in the convertible, this was the Impala that he drove through the car wash later with his bathing suit on and the top down, the Impala that never really did totally dry out after that, although Pete said it was totally worth driving through the car wash because, as he says, how often do you get to drive through a car wash with the top down, you know, which is an excellent question, and I am sprawled in the back seat, sipping beer, and he is in the front seat, fiddling with the tape deck, and the ragged convertible top is folded down, and it’s a glorious warm starry summer night, you just cannot imagine a more lovely night in the United States of America, you can smell ocean and beer and fried dough, and faintly through the walls of the pub we can hear the bar band roaring through what sounds like the greatest hits of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and there are girls laughing somewhere nearby, which is a terrific sound, and there’s a piney breeze from the forest on the hill, and Pete says, man, this is it, I found the legendary Kitty’s Back tape, which is the greatest mystery tape in the history of Bruce Springsteen bootleg tapes, a live tape that was supposedly recorded with unbelievable technical skill by a weird genius engineer in the summer of 1974 when Springsteen and the E Street Band had arrived at full intense throttle as a band, all their capacious skills at a peak, plus years of experience on the road, plus still they had wild youthful joy and exuberance, this was before they got so huge that you had to mortgage your house to get a ticket, and you couldn’t get a ticket anyways because tickets were snapped up before they went on sale by stockbrokers and scalpers, and this tape, the famous Kitty’s Back tape, was a shadowy legend, we were always meeting someone who had heard it or someone who knew someone who had it, but you couldn’t buy it, of course, and every time you pursued it deliberately it would get lost, or a guy’s cousin’s tape deck had eaten it, or someone’s mother accidentally poured battery acid on it, or something like that.
So when Pete held up the tape like a trophy, grinning like a whale, I sat up straight, and when he popped it in the tape deck and cranked it up large and the band tore into the song “Kitty’s Back” I almost fainted, and believe me when I tell you the sound was a clear and crisp and wild and clean and loud as if the band was perched on the deck of the Impala, and it went on for twenty howling minutes easy, the band building to an incredible pitch, and Pete got so excited he started jumping up and down in the front seat, and Pete is no pixie, so the car was shaking like a dog after a bath, and something about the moment just nailed me where I live down deep, you know?
I mean, you could talk about all the ingredients here, the stars and beer and summer and glorious extraordinarily American music, and the laughter of girls on the beach, and the smell of pine trees, and the fact that we were young and strong and stupid, and happy in a ratty old convertible, with no duties and responsibilities, yet, but there was something else at play, something I never forgot, something I savor, all these years later. I don’t have any good words for it, even now, but there was a moment there, when Pete was leaping up and down in the front seat and I was jumping up and down in the back, and the car was shucking and jiving, and the music was so unbelievably loud and wild you couldn’t imagine there had ever been a song so joyous and intense and thorough in the world before, and people walking by were laughing fit to bust, that I got as close to something as I ever got. I have been happier, sure, in far deeper ways, like the time I danced with my new astounding wife at our wedding reception, or when our startled children slid out of her years later with wet resounding plops, but there was something that night by the beach, something nutty and silly and electric, that makes me smile every time I think about it, which is pretty often. Maybe the silliest moments are actually the most important ones, you know? Or maybe moments like that are like windows that you drive by really fast, and just for an instant you see something crazy and cool, and then it’s gone, and all you can do is grin and remember.