An old man bids his beloved car goodbye in Brian Clark’s nostalgic tale.
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Russell stepped out onto the front porch and closed the door quietly. Beth was napping and he didn’t want to wake her. Consideration for his wife accounted for only part of his motive.
He eased his way down the three porch steps, his back and knees protesting in equal measure, and hobbled along the front walk to the driveway. He stopped and gazed at the big old car parked in front of the garage, his eyes drawn to the patches of rust, the scratched paint, the dents. He brushed a colourful accumulation of dry leaves off the hood, then began to circle the car slowly, pausing here and there to gently rest his hand on the sedan.
When he reached the back, he stopped to examine the shattered right taillight and the severely gouged bumper below it. He sighed. It wasn’t my fault, he thought. That driver came out of nowhere.
And yet, he hadn’t driven since that day last month at the Yorkdale Mall parking lot. There had been a family intervention: Beth, Craig and Stephanie had taken away his keys and driver’s license and cancelled his insurance.
“Ridiculous,” he mumbled.
Huffing out a sharp breath, he continued his plodding circuit of the car, stopping by the driver’s door. He cast a wary glance at the bedroom window above the garage and saw that the drapes were drawn. Beth was still napping.
Russell checked his watch. There was still time. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a spare set of keys his family didn’t know about. His hand trembled as he inserted the door key and unlocked the car. Lifting the latch, he pulled open the door, which responded with a rusty groan and set off the warning chime. He shot another worried glance up at the bedroom window and quickly climbed inside, easing the creaky door shut.
Exhaling, long and slow, Russell sank into the worn but still comfortable seat. He wrapped his hands around the steering wheel, feeling its familiar hard smoothness. He grasped the bulbous end of the gearshift on the steering column and rested his right foot on the brake pedal. He gazed through the dirty windshield, his eyes following a strip of faded chrome to the rectangular hood ornament that had pointed the way for so many years.
The odometer, glimpsed through the steering wheel, told the story: 392,721 kilometres.
Russell reached out and patted the dashboard. “Tell me, old girl, where’d the time go?”
A colourful array of plastic pennants fluttered in the warm breeze. Late-morning sunlight glinted off dozens of windshields. A voice on a PA system called out names in a tinny squawk.
Russell wandered down a row of Chevy Impalas, pausing now and then to check out prices and options. It was time for a new car. The old Nova was on its last legs, and Russell wanted something bigger and better this time.
He squeezed between two of the sedans and bent down to peer into the interior of a beige model.
“Hmm, no power windows,” he mumbled.
Russell straightened up and let his gaze drift across the car lot. That’s when he saw it – a magnificent, shiny piece of automotive luxury. It was love at first sight, a heart-tugging, choir-of-angels moment, and he made a beeline for it.
The big automobile was parked at the front of the lot, beneath a banner stretched between two posts that read THE 1984s ARE HERE! Russell approached the driver’s side, planted his feet wide, crossed his arms and just stared. He loved the lines of the car, the gleaming red paint job, the glittering chrome trim, the wire wheel covers, the fender skirts, the huge, gently sloping hood.
Russell took a couple of steps forward to read the price sheet affixed to the back-door window. He groaned. His dream car cost $16,999, thousands more than the Impalas he’d just seen.
That’s when Russell saw a portly man approaching in the mirror finish of the car. Gotta be a salesman, he thought. His plaid sports jacket wasn’t just loud; it was deafening.
“She’s a beaut, eh?” the man said as he arrived at Russell’s side.
Russell just nodded, feigning nonchalance.
The salesman placed his chubby hand on the white vinyl roof. “The 1984 Oldsmobile Ninety Eight Regency Brougham.” He didn’t so much say it as proclaim it, like a functionary announcing a guest at a state dinner.
He extended his hand towards Russell. “Welcome to Penmark Motors, home of the honest deal. I’m Charlie Bartlett, executive general sales manager. And you are?”
“Russell Newton,” he said, shaking his hand.
“Well, Russell, this baby is brand spanking new, and she’s as loaded as I was last night at the country club.”
The salesman winked at Russell and chortled. Russell smiled politely and wondered how many times Charlie had used that line.
“She’s got power windows, power seats, power locks, power antenna, air conditioning, cruise control, tilt steering wheel,” Charlie said in his punchy sales patter. “And she’s powered by a 307-cubic-inch V8 with a Rochester four-barrel carburetor. There’s more horses under that hood than they’ve got at Woodbine Racetrack.”
Charlie winked and chuckled again, and Russell forced another smile.
“So, Russell, whaddya think?”
“Well, it’s a nice car… um… but -”
“That she is, Russell, that she is.” Charlie fished a set of keys out of his jacket pocket and jangled them in the air. “And she’s even nicer out on the road. Go ahead, see for yourself. Take her for a spin.”
Russell knew he should say no, knew he should walk away. He couldn’t afford this car. Could he?
Still mulling it over, it almost came as a surprise when he heard himself say, “All right,” in a small voice.
Charlie unlocked the Oldsmobile and ushered Russell inside with a theatrical sweep of his hand. “You’re gonna love the upholstery, Russ. It’s deep plush velour.”
Russell settled into the grey pillowy seat and had to suppress a moan of pleasure. It was as comfortable as the easy chair in his rec room. He scanned the gauges, knobs and switches on the instrument cluster, noting the ornate chromed script spelling out ‘Regency Brougham’ next to the heater controls. He popped open the spacious glove compartment and glanced into the back seat, which was as comfortable and roomy as the front.
Russell pulled the door shut, inserted the ignition key and turned it. The engine hummed to life effortlessly and idled with a steady purr. He fingered one of the buttons on the door’s armrest and the driver’s window droned down a few inches. Charlie took this as a cue to start babbling again.
“I almost forgot about the paint job. That beautiful shade of red is actually called autumn maple firemist. You see, at the factory -”
Russell toggled the window back up, silencing Charlie with some satisfaction. Smiling sheepishly, Russell offered up an oops shrug, as if it were a mistake, and Charlie grinned good-naturedly.
Slipping the sedan into drive, Russell eased out of the space and headed towards the exit, with Charlie giving him a double thumbs-up on the way past.
For fifteen minutes Russell cruised the streets of west-end Toronto, nestled in the soft embrace of that cushy seat. He marvelled at the quiet power of the engine and the buttery smoothness of the transmission. He barely felt the bumps and potholes. The big hood appeared to float in front of him, like the prow of a ship in a gentle swell.
Reluctantly returning to the dealership, Russell backed the Oldsmobile into its spot, killed the engine and climbed out. He spotted Charlie halfway across the lot, talking the ear off some other poor guy. Still wrapped up in the reverie of his test drive, Russell went back to gazing adoringly at the car. Then his eyes fell once again on the price sheet, bursting the bubble and returning him to a world where Russell Benjamin Newton, 48-year-old insurance salesman and father of two, had no business buying a luxury vehicle.
Charlie lumbered back to the Oldsmobile, his round, florid face beaming. “She drives like a dream, don’t ya think, Russell?” he said, propping his hand on the hood.
Russell produced another perfunctory nod. “It’s just that it’s, um, a bit too much.”
“Beg your pardon?”
Russell pointed at the price sheet and cleared his throat. “It’s kind of out of my range.”
Charlie fluttered his lips and waved his hand dismissively. “That’s just the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Between you, me and the lamppost, it doesn’t mean a thing. So how about this? Let’s go to my office, have a cup of coffee,” he leaned in and flashed a conspiratorial look, “or something stronger, and see what we can come up with.”
Russell rubbed his chin and took a deep breath. “No,” he said finally, “I think I better go back and check out the Impalas.”
Charlie took a step closer and looked Russell in the eye. “Well, my friend, I’d be happy to show you an Impala. I mean, it’s a fine automobile. But here’s the thing. This is the car you want. I can see it in your eyes. Because you, Russell Newton, are not an Impala man. You are a Regency man.”
And this time he didn’t wink.
“A Regency man,” Russell murmured and chuckled softly. He reached out and ran his finger over the lettering on the dashboard, now faded and dust-coated. “Regency Brougham,” he said quietly.
He slid over to the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment. Inside he found a veritable Newton family time capsule. There were old road maps, tourist brochures, hotel receipts, a Blue Jays program, a Niagara Falls snow globe, a broken pair of sunglasses (Beth’s), a hair barrette (Stephanie’s).
He pulled out a manual for a Bonair tent trailer, the cover featuring a happy family camping somewhere in the mountains.
“There’s old Bonnie,” he murmured, then tried to remember if it had been Craig or Stephanie who came up with the trailer’s nickname. That would have been the summer of 1986, he figured, during Bonnie’s maiden trip, a drive to Algonquin Park.
During the next several years they explored almost every province in Canada. And the Regency proved to be a faithful workhorse, hauling Bonnie, the Newton clan and all their stuff for thousands of kilometres, from the rolling hills of Prince Edward Island to the craggy mountains of British Columbia.
Russell could remember only one occasion when the car broke down during those camping years. It had happened one hot August day after a long, steep drive up a mountain road to Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park. Russell had forgotten to turn off the air conditioning and the Oldsmobile’s radiator blew, shooting a hot geyser of steam high in the air.
“That was my fault, old girl,” he said. “I pushed you too hard.”
He pulled out a 1992 Ontario driver’s handbook. Must have been the year Craig got his license, Russell thought. But the lessons had started years before that, when his son was nine or ten. He would hoist Craig onto his lap to let him steer the big Olds around their quiet subdivision. And each time he would say, “Don’t tell your mother.”
Russell smiled at the memory.
A folded piece of white construction paper caught his eye next. He opened it and laughed. Another memory, this from seven or eight years ago, drew into focus: he and Beth heading up Highway 400 on a warm summer day, with grandson Danny, then about six, busying himself with his crayons in the back seat. When they reached their destination, Wasaga Beach, Danny proudly presented a drawing to Russell. It showed the big red sedan – a misshapen cartoon car but undeniably “Grampa’s Omobile,” as Danny called it. It was heading down a winding road, passing stick-figure trees and puffy flowers, a smiling yellow sun shining overhead. After a day at the beach, Danny slept the whole way home in the back seat.
Russell placed the drawing on the dashboard, shoving everything else back into the glove compartment and closing it. He slid across to the driver’s seat and looked around for the keys, finally finding them wedged into the seat behind him. Picking them up, he stared at them, debating.
Just once around the neighbourhood. That’s all. One last time. What could it hurt?
He inserted the ignition key, then pulled his hand back. It was shaking. He massaged it with his other hand.
OK, so I don’t have a license. Or insurance. But so what. Nothing’s going to happen. I’ll go slow. I’ll be careful. It’s not like I’m some damn kid taking a joy ride.
He pumped the accelerator and turned the key. The engine responded with a grinding moan, but wouldn’t turn over. He gave the gas pedal a couple more kicks and tried again. The result was the same.
Russell leaned forward and rested his forehead on the steering wheel. “C’mon, old girl. Just one more time. For old times’ sake. Just once more and then you can… you can rest.”
He gave the accelerator four quick pumps and turned the key. The engine roared to life.
“Atta girl! I knew you could do it!”
The engine coughed and chugged. Russell fed it some more gas and it evened out into a steady thrum. “Still got some life in you yet.”
Russell suddenly thought of Beth. But he couldn’t see the bedroom window from there.
If the car woke her, she’ll be bursting through that front door any second now.
Feeling like a mischievous boy, he stared at the door and waited. A minute passed, and he figured she must still be asleep.
He shifted in the seat and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. He caught his reflection in the rear-view mirror, locking onto his own pouchy eyes. When did they get so dim and tired? he wondered.
“Just once around the damn block,” he mumbled, grasping the gear shift and pulling it down into reverse. Twisting around in the seat, he squinted through the rear window and eased down on the gas pedal, navigating the Oldsmobile slowly to the foot of the driveway and stopping.
Feeling warm and clammy, he lowered the front windows. A cross breeze swept up Danny’s drawing, and Russell grabbed it before it could be carried outside. He examined it closely, and for the first time noticed faces staring out of the car’s windows: himself at the steering wheel, recognizable by his white curly hair and droopy moustache; Beth next to him, with her shoulder-length hair and glasses; and Danny in the back seat, wearing the green cap he never seemed to take off.
Russell smiled weakly. “Grampa’s Omobile,” he murmured.
He folded the drawing, tucked it into his shirt pocket, shifted the car into drive and guided it back to its spot in front of the garage.
Russell shut off the engine, settled back in the seat and waited for the tow truck.