The Car I Have Become
by Susan Parker
Yesterday I finally got around to washing our cars. The activity gave me time to reflect upon the driving skills of members of our household. I had to scrub around a lot of scratches, bumps, and swipes. I discovered new dents, divots, and dings.
Before my husband's bicycling accident we owned only one car, a 1987 cherry-red Honda Civic with a roof rack. Mountain and racing bikes were latched to the rack in summer and fall; telemark and skate skis were carried there winter and spring. Inside the hatchback were plastic bins stuffed with camping equipment, climbing gear, Rollerblades, headlamps, backcountry maps, and energy bars.
After Ralph's accident I dismantled the roof rack and stored the gear in the garage. It wasn't clear that we were going to go anywhere again. Ralph could no longer get into the Honda without being carried to it, placed in the front seat, and tied down.
My parents found a used van equipped with a wheelchair lift and had it shipped to us from New Jersey. Not long after the van arrived, a distracted neighbor ran into the Honda and smashed the back seat into the dashboard. A tow truck hauled it away. My parents came to the rescue again, driving my grandmother's 1989 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cierra to Oakland for my use. It was the classic old lady car—it had never been driven over 40 mph and it had less than 30,000 miles on the odometer. It had been taken away from Grandma after she ran into a neighbor's fence and tried to leave the scene of the accident. It had automatic everything and a trunk the size of our living room.
We needed a second car because we had acquired two more drivers within our household: Jerry and Harka, my husband's attendants. These men take exceptional care of my husband but, except for their shared commitment to Ralph, live very different lifestyles.
Jerry grew up on the streets and in the courts of San Francisco and Alameda counties and has been driving other people's cars, very fast, for a long time. Harka was raised on a water buffalo farm in the shadows of the Himalayas and did not ride in an automobile until he was an adult. He didn't learn to drive until he arrived, at age 40, at our house.
We use the van to transport Ralph to doctors' appointments and meetings. During the day I drive the Oldsmobile to work. At night, Jerry drives it to card games and domino matches. In between, Harka practices driving it back and forth in our driveway.
When, after eleven tries, Harka finally passed the California State Drivers Test, he began driving the Oldsmobile, very slowly, on the side streets of Oakland.
For a while everyone took good care of the Oldsmobile, but then things started to fall apart.
Harka knocked down a tree in our front yard while backing out of the driveway, smashed a few trashcans, and put a large scrape on the passenger door when he got too close to a NO PARKING sign.
Jerry came home late one night with a shattered front windshield. Someone he'd beaten in checkers had taken a hammer to it, he explained. A subsequent card game produced a slashed tire, and a trip to Safeway resulted in a mysterious front-end collision in which no eyewitnesses saw the crash or the perpetrator.
My grandmother's car no longer resembles the pristine baby-blue sedan she once drove at the elegant speed of 20 mph into other people's manicured front yards. It looks like the kind of car that strangers give wide birth to on the freeway—an automobile that appears to be dangerous and possessed; a vehicle held together with duct tape and clothespins, driven by whacked-out, maniacal demons. But don't be scared. It's only Jerry, Harka, and me, and, hovering somewhere between the backseat and the huge trunk, the driving spirit of Grandma.
Susan Parker's work has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Sun, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and Salon, among others. She was the recipient of the 1999 Richard J. Margolis Award. Her memoir, Tumbling After, will be published by Crown Books in spring 2002. A resident of Oakland, California, Suzy teaches nonfiction writing classes throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Her essay, "Room at the Inn," appeared in the first issue of On the Page.