An Oldsmobile Cutlass and a Mercury Topaz sat in Mom’s driveway, cultivating a world in rot. Their flattened tires spilled down across the concrete, baked to a cragged barren surface. This black desert landscape was full of life -- invasive Jersey Fresh tomato vines crawling up the rubber walls, bay sand embedded in the threads, glass twinkling in the sun. Survivor of Many Offensives, Builder, Black Sheep, First (and Only) of His Name, Father to Three, Husband, Brother, Grandfather (to be) and survived by all, including these, his armada of rust (but they didn't put that in the obituary).
Mom wanted to clear the driveway and revive its adjacent garden since church hadn't exactly inspired the spirit-haunted distraction the old chaplain promised. And anyhow she didn't want the neighbors thinking her a poor old widow that kept a shrine room to her dead husband, like leaving the slippers just so beside the bed as he left them the morning of the attack. So she divided the spoils to the kids: I, the oldest, naturally took the heaviest of those burdens, two unflipped economy vehicles. “Do whatever the hell you want with 'em,” she said. “The Oldsmobile actually runs.”
And I did, whatever the hell, starting with the Cutlass. My brother came along for the ride, driving that once blue hunk of metal back to New York. He congratulated me on the new whip. "You might have inherited the Ding Dong Dealership, but you know I got all the cool shit," including Dad's crucifix-made-weed-stash and a stack of Playboys that Mom pretended to ignore through its 30-year black-plastic-wrapped subscription. (I laughed a little thinking how she might receive the renewal notice in a few weeks and call him a dead prick or something.) We hit a Garden State deficit-sized pothole on the Parkway that sent my brother’s Skittles and Wawa iced tea flying all over the car and he cursed the Governor, the goddamned purpose of tolls, public infrastructure, something about a rat's ass and all things holy including Jesus himself just like Dad. I felt a little moved by it actually and submitted a weepy “fuckin' A, man” for good measure. "Sultan of Swing" was on the radio and I cranked it up through the two speakers that worked. We drove on to New York, bumping along on that shockless frame.
Goodnight, now it's time to go home
And he makes it fast with one more thing
Fall came and only one vehicle remained in Mom’s driveway, making room for tomato vines rotting wide open with fruit flies like a gift to the family dog. Meanwhile, the Cutlass sat in an overpriced garage, across the river from our apartment in Chinatown, awkwardly alongside luxury vehicles and vanity plates for three months - three months I hoped to fill with family visits to Storm King, emergency diaper runs at the new Target, weekend getaways to Cape May to visit Mom... I fell into arrears with the garage and waited for the voicemails to become angry before driving it back to Chinatown in hopes of a free street spot. For a week I battled my neighborhood's parking bullies, experts in the waiting game of opposite-side street sweeper rules.
Luckily, I received a callback for my inquiry to donate the Cutlass to Vietnam Veterans in need. "Yes, yes," I said, "the vehicle is still available. It's so cool you called me back. You know my Dad was a survivor of the Tet Offensive!" Silence. The caller said she'd send a representative from the VVA in Philadelphia that afternoon to pick up the Cutlass and leave a tax form for what Mom called “that sweet, sweet write-off.” If I timed it right, the tow truck would arrive just before the street sweeper stormed down the block, kicking up dust and a mad rush of angry Cantonese retirees in minivans. And, sure, I'd feel good about it too, my "commitment to those who served" and all.
Waiting for the pickup, I turned the radio on and caught the tail-end of an interview in which a woman was saying,
...and we do it this way because we can't in real life. Here, we're all going to the same place, and it's not a good one
Odd, I thought. As an ex-Catholic, I assumed the "same place" people took a more agnostic view of the afterlife, neither good nor bad given its no-thing-at-all state of, well, literal nothingness. In that moment, suddenly, I found myself dropping in on a big wave of guilt and regret for donating the car and wished I could call Tracy from Philly's VVA back to tell her, “Hey, it’s me - the son of the Tet Offensive survivor. Remember? Yeah, about the car..." But it was too late. Time to make some veteran's day with a beautiful once blue Oldsmobile Cutlass, no shocks, two speakers and a Hoffa-sized trunk.
Jimmy, the VVA's driver, spoke in a thick Philly accent like my Mom. I could picture his EAGLES SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS tattoo under the cliché striped mechanic's long-sleeve, a little name-patch on its breast. Jimmy. "You might wanna check the car again for any personal effects," he said. In the glove compartment, I flipped up the manual, searching. Beneath it I found an old a cassette of Steely Dan's Can't Buy a Thrill. The album opens with a song called "Do It Again" that Dad used to play at full blast through long rides at night, my child-mind remembering only the scary thunderstorm drives, his joyous singing at odds with the chaos around us. I could hear him through that cassette:
You go back, Jack, do it again, wheels turning 'round n 'round
But I left it, closed the compartment and handed the keys over to Jimmy. "All yours, buddy."
I hoped the next guy to drive it had a falsetto.