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Makes, Models and Memories

April 16, 2006|Susan Straight | Susan Straight is a contributing writer for West. Her most recent novel is "A Million Nightingales."

"Ah," I'll reply. "Julie." She drove a Duster in 1978.

He'll say to our three daughters, "Call that one girl--her grandma drives the Escalade."

Our daughters are very good at recognizing makes and models of cars and trucks. Without hesitation, they know the difference between Blazers and Broncos.

My father taught me to drive on deserted vineyard roads. He'd raced cars as a teen in inland Southern California and told me stories about using a sewer pipe as a muffler to amplify sound. I practiced on his vintage 1965 Mustang, and once when I swerved on a dusty road to avoid a squirrel, he shouted at me for the first time in my life. "Who's gonna live--you or the damn squirrel? Don't ever choose an animal over yourself."

Dwayne learned on dirt roads too, in borrowed cars. But when we began dating, he was just 16 and I was 15. We walked for months to parks and burrito places, until his father broke down and bought the Batmobile.

The car was a 1960 Cadillac, vintage oxidized brown like faded coffee grounds, with huge fins as if sharks were chaperoning us down the street. Sitting in the passenger seat, I saw a dark stain along the inside of the driver's door.

It was cold and I asked him to close his window, but he wouldn't. He didn't want me to see the spider-web cracks around the bullet hole in the glass. Then, while we headed to the movies, he told me the story of the car. Some guy had been leaning against that window when he was shot. The bullet pierced the glass; the man fell into the door and the dark stains were reminders of his blood.

"You went out in the Batmobile last night?" his friends teased me at school the next day.

"You let me go out in the Batmobile?" I said to my mother last night on the phone.

"What did I know?" she said, laughing.

Dwayne's father had seen the car parked under a tree in someone's yard and knew the story. He kept asking the father of the murdered man to sell it, and finally the man relented. The price was $200.

We never had much money growing up. But we do tell our girls the good-time stories we have, and they almost always involve cars. My stepfather bought a 1966 Mustang from a barn, and the convertible top was gone. A hay bale became the missing back seat. During high school, no one wanted a ride home from me. Then he sold that and bought a 1959 Thunderbird, which I raced against our friend Wendell's car, a Pontiac named Maybelline. Where the road narrowed to a bridge, he chickened out.

We cruised with eight bodies packed into our friend Penguin's Dodge Dart, and when the Bar-Kays sang "Your love is like the Holy Ghost," we all moved in unison so that the car leaped up and down without the aid of hydraulics.

One of our girls' favorite stories is about our wedding. We got married in downtown Riverside, and we had no limo, but after the ceremony Dwayne's cousin Newcat drove us around the local lake in his Cadillac, which had a broken horn. The best man, Dwayne's older brother, shouted out the open windows to waving onlookers, "Honk, honk, dammit, these people just got married!"

Well, now we're not married. But we both taught our daughter to drive. Her father counseled her to stay out of the bike lane. I reminded her not to drift into the left lane on a right turn.

I brought the red Honda home, and she drove with one or the other of us for a few weeks. The car ran fine, but it didn't have a radio. I offered to have one put in, but Dwayne said he wanted to take care of it.

He got an inexpensive CD player at the local swap meet. When I came home from work that day, Gaila had her first car story.

"I was doing my homework and Daddy kept calling me with his cellphone."

"Where was he?"

"In front of the house installing the stereo," she said, rolling her eyes. "First he said, 'G, bring me a lighter.' We didn't have one, so I gave him some matches. Then he called again. 'G, bring me some tape.' I brought the wrong kind twice. The silver tape and the white tape. He wanted that black one."

"Electrical tape," I said.

"Yeah. Then he said, 'G, bring me some water.' "

I laughed. "You're slow," I said. "Didn't you realize what your dad wanted?"

She shook her head.

I remembered our early days of marriage, our old broken-down cars--a Fiat, a Renault, each of which required hours of Dwayne's time under the hood. In our old gravel driveway, I used to sit in the driver's seat with my own work, because every few minutes he would ask me to do something. "Start it up. Rev the engine. Push down on the brake pedal. OK."

Really, he wanted my company, and so I wrote most of my first book there, in the car.

"He just wanted you to sit out there with him," I said.

She sighed. "Well, I had homework. Then he called me again and said, 'G, listen.' He turned the music up real loud and I heard Kanye."

When I saw Dwayne the next day, I said, "Thanks for the stereo." He handed me a small silver figure with a clip. It was an angel holding a note that read, "Drive safely, Daughter."

"I got this at the swap meet today," he said. "Put it on the visor, OK?"

"I will," I said.

When he left, he hesitated by the red Honda for a moment, and nodded his head.

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