His dad stands, hands in pockets, looking across the pasture. He is scanning all the way to the relentlessly flat horizon. There is snow and it lies in wind-blown hummocks. It is a dry snow, and the grass, still green, sticks up in tufts where the earth is bared. The quarter horses are pursuing this delicacy, heads down, tidy hooves breaking through the icy crust now and then. They leave long, jaw-defined paths, stopping occasionally to paw up some particularly choice bit.
“You’ve ruined that car.”
The boy has come in silently, kicked off snowy galoshes outside and carefully dried his shoes.
He knows the sermon is about to start, and this time it may lead to revelations. “The paint and bodywork came out good, don’tcha think?”
“I had a hard time recognizing it. Which one is it, the blue one or the gray one?”
The boy’s heart catches. He has concealed the fact that he owns two old Plymouths—not one. He has been cannibalizing the first to create the second. The cars cost seventy-five dollars apiece, but he has invested nearly his entire fortune in the car his dad has just driven back from the town square. “It’s mostly the gray one, I guess, the seats are out of the blue one—the one you used to own.”
“I thought I recognized those leather seats. I paid quite a bit for those things down across the border at Del Rio.” His father was a fighter pilot then; back from the war and deciding to stay in what was becoming an Air Force. The Plymouth was brand new, a prize for surviving.
He, the boy, has heard the stories. He knows about his mother leaving and is aware of the black hole of information about Korea and the reconciliation. He knows something happened, but not what. He decides not to pursue the subject; perhaps the inquisition will end sooner.
“What did you do with the door handles and the window cranks? They’re different.”
“They’re from a Packard convertible out at Isaac’s”
His dad is not in love with the amount of time the boy spends prowling the auto junkyard, but he did the same in his time, so he holds his tongue. “Is there something wrong with the clutch? I damned near spun it around on the square, and I had a helluva time keeping it running.”
“It’s a competition clutch.”
The man turns around and looks at the boy. “What’s that supposed to mean? Competition for what?”
“Drag racing. Down at Parsons. That’s where we go most Sundays.”
“You and Bud?”
“And Nick. That car of Nick’s, that’s half mine.”
“The old Ford?” His dad shakes his head, “I walked past it the other day, and it barely comes up to my waist. What did he do to it?
“It’s channeled, and the top is chopped.” The boy tries to hold back from lapsing into the arcane language of the hot-rodder. “Maybe Nick got carried away.”
“It doesn’t have any glass in the windows, it doesn’t have a hood. What engine is that, all that chrome?”
“Fifty Oldsmobile, y’know, Rocket-eighty-eight.”
The man snorts. “How’d he get that thing registered?”
The boy draws back; stands silent.
“License plate is off of something else, right?”
He nods reluctantly, “Nick’s mom’s car. She hasn’t noticed. When we’re finished we switch it back.”
The man shook his head again. “So now you’re doing it to your Plymouth too.” It was not a question. “What’s wrong with the carburetor? It idles like a John Deere.”
“It’s got a racing cam.” He stops. That was too far, yet not far enough.
“A racing cam.” Again it is a statement, full stop. The boy feels the ground begin to crumble beneath him.
“And two four-barrel carburetors.”
“On a six-cylinder flathead? What are you thinking about?”
“It’s got a Plymouth V-8, a Plymouth Fury.” He can’t stop now. “It’ll do a hundred in the quarter.”
“Yeah? Where are you going in such a hurry? Perdition, or Armageddon?”
The boy is stumped, “Uh, is that in Texas? The only place we’ve taken it is Parsons. We might go to Joplin in the spring, I guess.”
“You do all that work yourself? There is a grudging look of pride, hidden deeply.
“Nick helped me. Old Ed Pennybaker put the new engine in.”
“He doesn’t do that anymore. Ever since Oklahoma went wet, there’s not enough money in it he says, and besides, the sheriffs all have radios these days.”
The father stares out at the fields again, “He passed me one night, down south of Cherokee, Ed did, back just before the war, I guess it was, I was a young pup. He had a ‘thirty-six Plymouth business coupe. He musta been doing a hundred miles an hour and ten minutes later here came the sheriff in a Pontiac straight-eight. I’ll bet Ed was already twenty miles into Oklahoma before the sheriff hit the county line.”
The boy wisely does not comment.
The father continues, “Ed built those things so nobody would ever look at them twice, plain Jane business coupes and delivery vans, but if they did notice him they better have one of those rocket ships if they wanted to catch him.” He looks back again, “Where’d you get an almost-new V-8? How much money have you got tied up in that car?”
The boy answers the first forthrightly, and dodges the second question; he knows he is skirting the abyss. He registers the question about how much money, but it is too hard to address. He is a mower of lawns, a hauler of hay, he is a grocery store bag boy, and an apprentice butcher, and he makes twist cones at the Tastee-Freez. He has before-school jobs, after-school jobs, Weekend jobs and summer-vacation jobs. The money trickles in and gushes out. He buys chrome air cleaners, exhaust headers, a set of racing slicks, he is barely ahead of penury, but the car is cool and fast. “The V-8, it was from Laney’s car—the wreck. Her dad told me to just get it out of his sight. He even gave me fifty dollars to be sure he’d never see it again.”
“The Jackman girl?”
Miriam Delaney Jackman—“Laney” to everyone from the principal and the teachers down to the adoring freshmen—fell among them like a heavenly comet or an asteroid of pure gold at the beginning of his senior year. Perhaps the analogy is stretched, because she soon became the sun that was the center of the solar system in the little Kansas town.
She was seventeen, already a senior, and mature far beyond her years. Her father was the newly arrived president of the town’s biggest bank—a bank owned by his father-in-law. Laney’s mom was a Kansas girl. She took the first opportunity to drag her husband from his native Philadelphia back to the heartland.
If Laney was dismayed at being dropped into a nowhere little Kansas town at the height of her high school powers, no one ever knew it. She was a magnanimous monarch favoring all of her subjects equally. The girls all proclaimed her “nice,” and the boys in their helpless ways all lusted after her.
It was in the time of the voluminous skirt with many petticoats worn with saddle shoes and bobby sox. The first time one of the football players noticed that Laney always fluffed out the skirt before taking a seat so her bottom rested directly on the butt-polished old wood he proclaimed that never before had he wished to be a chair. For some reason though, football players never had a chance with Laney.
The teachers doted on her. She was a straight-A student with lovely manners. There was only one problem—one they tried to ignore—Laney had a hard time staying away from the local car freaks, the sullen boys with dirty fingernails were her normal milieu, her secret passion.
It took almost no time at all for her to show up in the parade that often took place on weekends when a nondescript and mongrelized family of automotive iron ranging from perhaps 1932 to 1956 glided endlessly around the town square barely above an idle.
The aimless driving was their form of escape. During the gas wars they saw eighteen nine for regular, twenty-eight nine for high test. The common joke was, “Gimme two dollars worth of gas and a roadmap to Texas.” In the parade there was a Studillac—a ‘fifty-six Studebaker with a Cadillac V-8, and a ‘forty-six Ford with a Chrysler Hemi, There was a ‘fifty-one Ford with an Oldsmobile engine and there was the black and gray mongrel in which Nick and the boy sank their combined fortunes.
It was a 1933 Ford three-window coupe with a 1950 Olds engine. It was channeled over the frame so deeply that when it was finished they had to adopt the seats from a crashed Piper Clipper and sit with their legs straight out in front.
The hotrod was generally a creature of good weather and darkness. It had headlights that sat on stalks scabbed onto the front shock towers. They had started as the headlights for two Cushman motor scooters, so the amount of light they threw down the road was minuscule, but Nick thought they didn’t need to see more than a quarter of a mile. It was lucky if they could see two hundred feet.
The car had no hood, no windshield wipers, no side windows, and the only taillight was from a kit for marking a towed trailer. The car could never have passed even a rudimentary safety inspection.
They paraded aimlessly, looking at each other, studying their own reflections in the store windows that surrounded the square. Sometimes they paired off for a quick journey to the south end of town.
Drag racing was the sport du jour and the straight road leading from the South city limits was literally paved with burned-off rubber. The boy got his turn now and then to drive the three-window, and once even had the opportunity to line up side-by-side with Laney. In his teenage angst he dumped the clutch at too low an RPM and the Ford-Olds stumbled off the line. Laney merely punched the accelerator and drove smoothly away with almost no wheel spin. He remembers the low moan as the secondaries kicked in on the two four-barrels, and the bark as she got rubber in second gear. “Yeah,” he says, “Laney Jackman.”
Unlike the rest, Laney, whose father could deny her nothing, drove a two-year old 1958 Plymouth Fury, an ivory-colored vision of loveliness with monster tail fins and a broad slash of gold down the side. It had more than looks, its engine compartment held a V-8 with two four-barrel carburetors.
When the inevitable happened the entire town went into shock.
The boy thinks of making his escape, but his dad is planted there watching the snow fall harder now. The horizon has disappeared into the shifting white curtain.
“Do you know how it happened, the accident?” It was not possible to tell what might be hidden behind the question.
“Yuh hear different things.”
“That’s not what I asked, do you know?”
“Well, I can tell you don’t want to talk. What have you done to that Plymouth? I barely recognized it.”
“Got it painted.” He hopes that will suffice.
“No, the chrome, what happened to the chrome, the hood ornament, that little ship that lit up when the lights were on?”
“I took it off.”
“And the front bumper, and those little push bar-looking things on the rear?”
“The bumper came off a ‘thirty-seven DeSoto. I had it rechromed. Those are nerf bars in the back.”
“Shaved and decked, ‘forty-eight Olds grill, ‘forty-nine Chevy taillights, frenched ‘fifty-two Ford headlight rims.”
The man looked at the boy as if he had begun to speak in tongues, but he remembers the collection of junk cars in his own past, and the biplanes held together with chewing gum and baling-wire. The apple does not fall far from the tree. “I don’t see how you could change those headlights if one burned out.”
“They’re installed from the back, you’d have to take off a wheel, I guess.”
The man shook his head. “Yeh, and to do that, you’d have to jack up the front end. I don’t see how a bumper jack could get under that bumper. I thought I was going to fall out of the thing. Nose on the ground and ass-end in the air, and those giant tailpipes—”
“It’s called a ‘California rake.’ I got some Buick rims and welded the Plymouth centers in. Eight-twenty fifteens in the back, five-ninety fifteens in the front, the pipes are scavenger pipes, that’s what the flared tips are for.”
The man turns to face the boy, “So that’s what that painting is about on the front fender, ‘the scavenger’?” He refers to the painting of a garish green and yellow monster reaching out one long arm and a curling red tongue toward a fleeing female figure. Her yellow hair, streaming out with the velocity of her flight, was almost within the monster’s grasp.
“The girl used to be naked. Mom made me get that bathing suit painted on. She said it could be a yellow polka-dot bikini, like the song.”
The man smiled, “Uh huh, I guess she saved the honor of the family. We used to paint those things on our airplanes. Some of ‘em got a bit raw.”
The boy nods, hoping the conversation is near an end.
“You know I’d rather you not get involved in all that—that racing.” He avoids enumerating the exact issues. “I’d be happy to teach you to fly.” He looks without volition toward the hanger in the back pasture, now shrouded in snow. The Bonanza is in there, all gleaming aluminum, its v-tails are polished. It has red, white, and blue ruddervators.
“Nobody else has an airplane, Dad, none of the kids. There’s nothing else to do here.”
“I know driving those cars is a social thing for you kids, but you see what can happen. Tell me about Laney Jackman.”
The boy pauses a long time, he knows this cannot end well. “It was Laney’s idea.”
“They were racing then? Tell me.”
“You know Nick’s brother? Gary?”
“Yeah, I think so, the one who graduated from high school, what? Three or four years ago? Is he in college?” His dad has a way of working that word into any discussion.
“He, uh, he works for a company in Kansas City. He’s a machinist. He made my racing cam.” He feels those words scorch his lips as he utters them. This shouldn’t be about me. Why did I have to get back on that?
“What about Gary?”
Reprieve! “Uh, he came home for Thanksgiving. Rode on the Greyhound. He doesn’t keep a car in KC. Friday evening we started talking about Laney’s fancy car. She’d beat them all, one time or another. Gary got out the Merc.”
“What, that strange looking Mercury coupe? It looks like someone squashed it.”
“It’s chopped, Dad.”
“Go on with the story.”
“Somebody told Laney she wouldn’t have a chance against Gary. She laughed and said where she was from there were actually curves and hills. She said drag racing was so pointless. That’s exactly what she said. Like she hadn’t been doing it every weekend.”
“She was going to the dragstrip?”
Danger! “Uh, we race south of town sometimes, right south of the railroad tracks mostly.”
“But the crash was at the seven-mile corner.” The roads are so unerringly straight that the rare curves receive names, and are used as landmarks.
“Gary said he’d go for pink slips. From just south of town to the seven-mile corner, he said. Laney said no pink slips, what would she do with an ancient Mercury? She walked over to him and whispered something in his ear. He nodded and smiled. They decided on Saturday night at ten.”
“What were they racing for?”
“Nobody knows. It started to drizzle Saturday afternoon. We told Gary it was stupid to do that. He wouldn’t listen, he just smiled and said he intended to win that prize.” The road is two-lane blacktop, unerringly flat, but narrow and sometimes bumpy. “You remember the seven-mile corner?”
The man works in Wichita now, he flies out on Sunday afternoons and returns on Fridays in the Bonanza, he keeps an old car in Wichita. “I remember, the road goes straight down toward Cherokee, and makes a left toward Pittsburg, a big banked curve.”
“Yeh, they were gonna race to the corner and one mile east. We put somebody at every road, every mile, we were going to start flashing our lights if we saw the Highway Patrol.”
“My God, you are all accessories in a vehicular homicide.” The voice is tense.
“No, it wasn’t like that. Just bad luck. They were close, back and forth, one passing the other. I was parked, me and Nick, just before the corner. At the last, Laney really lit it up. She had a couple car lengths on him and was gaining.”
“How fast were they going?”
“I don’t know. Real fast. I saw Laney’s brake lights come on. Gary started gaining, but Laney was kinda sliding back and forth across the road. He couldn’t get by and then the Merc started to skid too. He went straight and she made the corner, She went out of sight and then we heard it.”
“Tell the rest.”
“There was a semi, a flatbed, it was jackknifed right across the road, no load, sittin’ high; she went under it. It cut the top right off.” He retches. Tears burn his eyes. “She was—she was dead. Horrible. Her head was in the back seat.” He sees the blonde hair; the blood is black in the dim beam of the flashlight. He slumps onto a chair, feels his dad’s hand on his shoulder.
“You called the Highway Patrol or the sheriff?”
“Went and woke up old man Gentry. Used his phone.”
“And you stayed there?”
“Yeh, stayed till they came. We told them we didn’t see the crash, just came on it. They told us we could go, Nick and me. We went south and found Gary parked by the side of the road. He was sick. We got him cleaned up and Nick drove the Merc. Gary told him to sell the thing. He went back to KC the next morning on the first ‘hound.”
“Perdition or Armageddon,” his dad says.
“Yeh, well, gas is cheap, ain’t it?” He starts to cry in long draining sobs as if he might never stop.