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July 31, 2004

Euology For A Rusted Headache
The car is gone. Last week it’s gastrointestinal system fell out (again) while I was driving, and I had to leave it in a local parking lot. It got towed from the lot, then, and when we figured out where it could be found, it had already racked up a substantial impound fee. So, after I chose not to sink any more money into it, the little fucker still cost me a wad of cash, in addition to anything I might spend buying another car (which is, at present, unlikely).

When I say wad of cash, I mean it. I’m standing in the impound lot’s office–an odd narrow space with a countertop that cannot be gotten around. I don’t know how the attendant gets in, but it’s not this way. At the end of this little space is a picture on the wall of cars at a ’50s-style drive-up diner, their little headlamps lit up by tiny bulbs, poking through the picture. The impound guy, tall and dead, sits in his rolling chair on the plastic mat for as long as he can–until it’s absolutely necessary to get to his feet. A graying black dog sleeps on its side under his desk. I watch it for a long moment for some sign of breath, count out four even stacks of twenty-dollar bills, then a smaller stack, then some ones, then check the dog again. It breathes.

Impound guy comes over and looks at the money. His shirt–and the trucks outside–are bright orange, like Halloween. This makes the impound lot’s color scheme orange and gray. The wrecks are gray steel, the sand is gray with road silt, the building is gray aluminum, his pants are gray, his skin is gray, his eyes are gray. “I don’t have change,” he says.

I gather up my money. “That’s great,” I say. “We’ll be back.” On the ride over, Sara had said, “I should’ve asked him how much it’d cost us to abandon it.” I think it over on my way out of the office. When we drive out of the impound lot, her car slams off the curb onto the asphalt. “Terrific,” she says.

Past kids on bikes, circling like sharks, and college students, drinking on the stoops of their rented houses, we find a convenience store. I pull a twenty out of my pocket on the way, to prepare for my lie. Inside is a jolly Mid-Eastern attendant in an Abercrombie shirt. I buy Gatorade with a twenty. “Sorry, it’s all I have,” I say, and feel bad about it.

“At least you’re not just buying gum, right?” His smile’s bright as a Crest ad, except I see it soiled by my lie, like the flotsam of too many Oreos.

“Yeah,” I say. “Could I get just one stick of gum, please?” Not funny. It comes out sounding like I’d rather trash the cigarette lighters shelved by the register, because I would rather like to.

Still, he chuckles, and it feels like charity. “Here’s your change, my friend,” he says. I wish I could say “my friend” like that to strangers, but it never works when I try.

Sara says, driving back into the impound lot, that the place is open 24 hours, and since they only take cash, people must assume anyone driving into the place has money on them. Good point.

The lot’s at the bottom of a gravel hill, under a bridge that’s still being built. When it’s done, the people of St. Paul will be able to drive right over this place without having to look it in the face. Between our parking spot and the office are two seemingly impounded purple children’s bicycles, decorated with stickers of flowers.

Money paid, we go to clean out the car. “It’s probably up top,” the impound guy says. “Take the road back, but stay out of the ruts, and you probably shouldn’t drive too fast. There’s three hundred cars or so up there, so check the number and be sure you’ve got the right one.” The road is lined with small bulldozers and huge stacks of tires, like rubber lumber.

“At least we’ll get a few good pictures out of this place,” I say.

“That’s something,” she says.

An impound lot is orderly and beautiful in its death, like a cemetary. Dead cars become their own tombstones. Each is the casket for an era in someone’s life. Our pasts are divided into dynasties named for the cars we drove through them: The Greater Volkswagen Dynasty. The Black Cadillac Age. The Reign of Honda I.

We find mine in a stretch of derelict Pontiacs. This one’s got the remains of a thousand commutes. That one is full of newspapers and pillows, piled like the mass grave of a sweaty roadtrip. Mine’s got a nest of forgotten receipts, a comic book, and half a melted Starbucks drink.

That’s what I look like dead, to strangers: comics and coffee.

Cleaning her out doesn’t take long. ATM receipts, sunglasses that aren’t mine, a fortune cookie, road maps both new and old, a filthy mint, lots of change, empty boxes, a rubber sledgehammer, a bottle of antifreeze. Sara gets the rusted pipe the tow guys left like an entrail in the parking lot–it’s been in her trunk–and we bury it with the car.

I think about sitting inside one more time. I consider contemplating the oddity of unknown lasts–how I didn’t know I was driving her for the last time–then decide we weren’t really all that close, and hit her broken hood with the sledgehammer a few times. Then I open each door, push down the locks like eyelids, and shut each door. Finally, I take a few pictures of the corpse “for insurance purposes,” though that’s ridiculous because, in twenty minutes, I won’t own this car.

Sara cracks open the fortune cookie she found in the dash. It’s been there since I bought the car two years ago. It came with the car. Presumably I’d been saving it for just this occasion. “The skills you have gathered will one day come in handy,” she reads, then hands it over.

Lucky Numbers 1, 2, 3, 29, 31, 33

In the empty sand at the far back of the lot, near the treeline, is a rusted-out Dodge from the forties or fifties. Her interior is shot, her skin is rotten like teeth, but all the curves are right. It’s easy to imagine this car alive and on the road, under streetlights at night, blonde hair flowing out the windows, fedoras on and lights green. In the back seat, the legs and tail of a cat sneak into the hollow of the door. I’m transfixed until its gone, then jerk as though I’d been startled but hadn’t noticed until just now.

The ground here is equal parts sand and green squares of auto-glass. Tiny car parts lay scattered like shells on a beach. They’ve been swept in on tides of steel, each wave foaming with orange rust.

Sara’s crouched down in her sandals, trying to get a picture of the Dodge from head-on. “I think the camera battery’s about dead,” she says. “See what you can do with it.” Nothing. Snapping a picture makes the camera power off. It’s caught the stench of a mechanical plague in the air, I guess, so I slip it’s stainless steel body into my pocket and get back in Sara’s car.

One last stop at the impound office to sign the car over as scrap. I sign my name on a thick pad of carbon-copy slips, wondering how many cars that pad can dismantle before it’s done. We’ve discussed donating the car to a local charity, but it’s worth so little there’s really no point. The automortician says, “It’ll just end up back here anyway.”

The dog under the desk takes a breath, then lets it out.

Noise: Erin McKeown, “Softly Moses

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