by Sara Kate Ellis
It’s one lousy dry afternoon in Corona Del Mar, and I’m trying to read Popular Mechanics. My sister and grandpa are yelling, and I can only focus on the ads. Sloop John B is on the AM, all muddy water rushing through a player piano, and my sister’s pulling her hair out because there’s a quarter less gas in the tank and she’s sure grandpa took the keys again. He’s not supposed to drive. He’s real forgetful and his reflexes are slowing.
“That’s a hundred bucks you just wasted acting like some petulant kid,” she says. “How are we going to get that back?”
We use the car maybe once a month for emergency errands, or when we just get so cooped up that we want to kill each other. The rest of the time it’s a carpool or the big diesel rumblers that bus me into the canyon and back on school days.
My eyes dart from the magazine to the embrasure leading into the kitchen. Grandpa’s opening and closing his mouth like a puppet, trying to clench his jaw, but his teeth don’t line up.
“I didn’t do anything.” He jerks a ragged hand toward a cookie jar, jammed full of dried out pens and receipts. “You want your damn keys, they’re right there.”
My sister blows a strand of sweaty hair out of her face, and turns back to see her key ring where he says it is, propped up on the counter like a piece of rusty fruit.
“This is the last time,” she says.
“It ain’t even the first.”
When Dad died, we tried out a home for a year, but it cost too much, so here he is. I’m supposed to keep an eye on him when my sister’s out, but there was a lockdown at school due to air quality, and I got home late. Now she’s rushing around the house, trying to get ready for her second shift at a corrections facility in Carlsbad.
She drops her keys into her purse and snaps it shut. “You just keep it up. Pretty soon they’ll toss you in the clink for stunts like that.”
“Clink?” He says it like it sounds funny.
Even though she got grandpa’s license revoked, there’s little chance he’ll be pulled over until the law goes into effect, when anyone over 65 is banned from operating a motor vehicle. My government teacher Mr. Tran calls it chicken shit, says they’re too scared to take on the big polluters, so they go kick up a fit about aging boomers and rising accident rates.
“Too little, too late,” he says. He likes to say that a lot.
Grandpa comes into the living room, lowering himself into a battered green easy chair with cigarette burns in one of the arms. He’s wheezing, which is probably how my sister sniffed him out, and I wonder if that’s how smokers used to sound. I turn on my side and try to focus on the article, but I can still see that shamed, glassy smile from the corner of my eye.
“Whatcha got there, Suze?” he asks.
Reluctantly, I sit up, swinging my legs off the sofa to give him space. “One of Dad’s. I just found it out in the garage.”
The just is for his benefit. He’s already been through Dad’s things because there were other magazines and old movies that started going missing right after he moved in. The ones I’d really been looking for. Like most autoporn, they’re worth money; some of them are even illegal, but I don’t care about that. It’s the women. Their bodies aren’t swaddled in filterweave and you can see their skin, their necks and shoulders, their legs.
“That’s a Corvette,” grandpa says. “I used to drive one of those.” He points to one all needle-nosed and sleek, like some kind of sea creature that might slip out of the wet sand and slice you right in half.
“No you didn’t,” my sister yells from upstairs.
Outside the all clear sounds, which means the wind has picked up enough to let us go out if need be. No one ever does. When I was little, there was a group of kids who played basketball at an old hoop in the cul-de-sac, but I haven’t seen anyone hanging around there in years except cats.
“That’s a C6, could get up to 205 miles per hour.”
He presses a gnarled thumb over another car, this time red, and I nod, wondering why they’d make something go that fast if it was already against the law.
“You okay for food?” my sister yells. Her ride will be pulling up any minute, and I yell back a “Yeah,” but I’m getting hungry and thinking I don’t want to eat the leftovers. Last night she made some peppery soup that tasted like the air outside.
“I know where one is,” grandpa whispers. “Want to see the real thing?”
“Can we pick up Chinese?” I’m only half serious. Right now he reminds me of this scrawny kid one class below me, the one who lies all the time and gets beat up.
“I do,” he says.
I shrug. There’s no way he’s getting those keys back.
“Suze,” he smiles, his voice raspy with possibility. “I know where she keeps the spare set.”
Grandpa says the sky wasn’t brown when he was my age. At night there was just enough smog to turn it pink. My sister can remember it, too, but I’d been born late, right after she left for college.
We zigzag slowly down what’s left of the old Pacific Coast Highway, and the shoreline against the dark looks like a long strip of fat on a pork chop. I should be watching grandpa’s driving, but it beats me how anyone could get in a wreck at this speed. He’ll die of old age before we do that.
“What I told you back at the house,” he says. “It’s one hundred percent true.”
“The Corvette. It was a beaut too. Really hurt when it got stolen.”
He slows down as we approach a checkpoint, nothing serious along this strip. Not like the cops with their smog guns parked up and down the 405.
“What color was it?”
“Orange, red. I don’t remember.“ For a second, his smile disappears, as if he’s left the stove on back home. Then he picks up, continues as if the whole thing is just occurring to him in real time. “When that guy stole it, I had to go chasin’ him all over the country. Spent a whole summer doin’ just that.”
“You go to New York?”
“I think so,” he says. “I think I did. And Texas.”
There’s a long silence before the guards wave us past the checkpoint. They’re looking for gas hogs and speed racer types, not my sister’s old Honda. The traffic is finally thinning out, fewer rumblers and grassoline scooters and more of those fancy foreign hybrids with state-of-the-art air filters and double thick safety glass. Grandpa waves his hand at them dismissively.
“You didn’t need all that then. Sun was shining all the time. You could go out in it as long as you liked. Take your dog out for a walk on the beach and watch him roll in dead birds. I met a girl who helped me out. Name was…name escapes me, but she drove me all over hell and back until we found her. The car, I mean.”
“Was she pretty?”
He frowns before answering. “The car?”
I wonder if my sudden queasiness is because we’re slaloming at a faster pace. Rapid coastal erosion has turned this once gentle ramble into a patchwork of crisscrossing stitches, swerving inland then seaward then back like some great cement scar.
Grandpa slows before turning abruptly off the highway onto a steep and winding path that takes us through an abandoned development. People used to live here, I think. People used to think they wouldn’t fall in, and I reel back in my seat as we barrel headlong down the hill over pavement that feels more like clay. I yell for him to stop, but that look on his face is wild, almost happy.
We’re angled almost straight down, the reeds and overgrowth streaking the sides of the car with a grimy war paint, as we stagger to a halt before an ancient, weatherworn sign: “Caution. Road Closed Permanently due to Erosion.”
I can still feel my heart jounce. Grandpa’s hunched over the dash, as if trying to get a last glimpse of a thrill that’s now slipping away.
“You still alive?” I loosen my hand from the door handle now slick with sweat.
He coughs out a chuckle as I hand him a sheet of filterweave, wrapping my own carefully around my nose and mouth, tucking it behind my ears the way Dad taught me when the clouds first crossed the sea. He used to weave it through his fingers, play all sorts of games.
“This stuff,” he’d say. “It’s like that chicken egg problem, only verrry, verrry stupid. Bunch of politicos got people all riled up, said they were going to embargo our oil, wrap our women up in gunnysacks, so we started a bunch of wars until the wells were on fire, and the ash got so bad we’re all wrapped up now. What do you think, Suze? That funny or what?”
My filterweave is downy and smells like mint. We’ve gotten ours mixed up, and Grandpa’s got the strawberry chew, a girly smell, but he doesn’t seem to care. When we step outside, the air is surprisingly clear, and I’m tempted to lift the cloth and let some of its salty mist on my tongue, but I hear a kick and juddering sound. Grandpa is laughing, standing over the caution sign, now leaning at a sharp angle toward the ground. He’s acting just like my sister said, a petulant kid. “Tell us somethin’ we don’t know,” he says.
I spot the rim of a guardrail that once might have protected us peeking out between the rocks and tufts of reed grass like a row of dirty teeth. Around us, the remaining houses stand vigilant against the sandy churn below, some sagging backward, rearing back in shock. This is happening to them.
I wonder if Grandpa’s wants to follow suit, to step off the cliff into some irretrievable past. Instead, he sits down and pats the sand beside him. I make my way over, careful to stay a good four feet from the brink.
“I thought we were going to see a car.”
He takes a thin flashlight from his pocket and aims it at the water below. I can see little, just the white foam of the waves, a few jagged shadows poking their noses out of the water like sharks responding to the beam.
“It’s down there.”
“The car. This kid I was mad at, name escapes me. He went right down into the water.”
I wonder how that could have happened if the shore was farther out, but I don’t say anything. The wind’s picked up and it’s getting cold. I want to get my food and get back.
“I was new at school see, and this kid, forgot his name. He didn’t like me. Thought I was moving in on his girl, so he said hey Joe, how about a game of chicken?”
That last word hits my stomach and I start to worry that he’s forgetting our deal. I want to get orange chicken if we ever get out of here. Mr. Tran calls it “fake ethnic food,” but it’s a favorite and we don’t get it very often.
“The idea is that the coward, the chicken, they go speeding toward the cliff. Guy who gets closest to the edge wins, only this kid, he couldn’t stop. Went right over. He’s still down there.”
“You go to jail?” I ask, but the thing is, I know he’s lying. Grandpa lies a lot, but it never sounds like he is, because when he talks, it comes out of him all desperate, like he’s passing on bits of his own history and he’ll disappear if we don’t hear him out. The best thing I can do is humor him. Make him feel good. Make him hurry.
“No. We just took off out of there, bunch of scared kids, and the police asked around, but they put it down to an accident. I don’t know why I remember this so well. I’m forgettin’ everything else these days.”
But it’s all still there. When he’s out of the house, I can go through his things, find the magazines he took, along with Dad’s movie collection, and one of them, I know, will have some cocky kid who drives off a cliff because he can’t open the door in time. It always turns out this way. That two-lane blacktop he likes to talk about wasn’t his to begin with; he’s just doing his best to get it back.
When we get to the car, he hands me the keys.
“There’s no way.“ I point to the front fender, just a few inches short of the abyss. “Besides, I’m not allowed.”
“Neither am I,” he says. “But there’s a difference now. You ain’t going to be.”
He’s right. I’ve got five more years until I can get behind the wheel, and by then the rules will be so tight I probably won’t get the chance. But I do know how. I’ve watched the movies, read the manuals, practiced steering and braking in the driveway.
“Come on, Suze,” he says. “I can take it back up the hill first if you’re…”
“Chicken? Yeah, I kind of am.”
But I do say yes, because I know what he’s giving up: one last look at a time where we could do almost anything we wanted, use up what we wanted, and the hell with the rest. This ride will be my first and last. And that’s how I can know him, know how his world worked, rushing from start to finish faster and faster until the end was the only thing left, and the middle? Some old movie with a Corvette and a pretty girl.
Tags: Sara Kate Ellis