The car

Andrea and I arrived at her parents house and walked in, barely able to squeeze in the living room because of all of her dad’s partially completed projects and her mom’s collection of things that she felt added decor. Her mom waved from the kitchen, where she was feeding the baby. Alice, Andrea’s younger sister and the baby’s mom, was trying to clear away enough dirty dishes to make room for two boxes of Little Ceasar’s pizza, the one that had commercials with a tiny cartoon Caesar, dressed in a toga and chirping “Pizza! Pizza!” I devoured two slices while watching Alice learn to feed her daughter by helping her mom.

Alice was my age, and had known me since I had started dating Andrea in the 10th grade. Like Andrea, she was gorgeous, with her mom’s wide, brown eyes and expressive eyebrows. Unlike Andrea, she was anxious to have her own family, and when she got pregnant her mom and dad offered to share raising her daughter while she finished school. She wasn’t necessarily academic, but she accepted her parent’s help so that she could earn her high school diploma. She knew my mom had not, and every time I said something sarcastic about Wendy, Alice reminded me that not everyone was as lucky as she and Andrea were to have parents who supported them, and could stay at home with a baby because they had disability checks and didn’t need to work. Somehow, though we were the same age, Alice seemed wiser than me or most of my friends. Even the older ones I knew only because they were Andrea’s friends first, and, other than me, most of her friends were older than she was.

Alice asked about my class schedule, and was shocked that I changed it from what seemed easy to what sounded unpleasant. She asked Andrea if she’d still help me with physics while in college, and Andrea said of course! Especially if I kept teaching her how to wrestle. I said that sounded like a fair trade: she was good at math and science, and almost everything she tried, and I was good at wrestling. She was uninterested in magic, surprisingly, so the only thing I had to offer were wrestling lessons.

She had graduated from Scotlandville Magnet High School for the Engineering Professions, where we had met when I was in the 9th grade; though I wasn’t on her radar then. She remembered me as a nerdy little kid trying to hard to make friends by picking on kids even more nerdy and smaller than I was. I had gotten expelled from Scotlandville in the 9th grade, which is how I ended up at Belaire.

Belaire was a good school, but not at all challenging, probably because it was in a poor district. Almost half the kids were African American, and 16% were Asian because of the nearby Little Saigon, made of immigrants working in Baton Rouge’s seafood and shipping industry. As white families continued to leave, property values dropped, which meant funding from taxes fell, and even the wrestling team lost budget every year. To compensate, Belaire installed an “honors program” focused on preparing kids for medical school, and was trying to become “Belaire High School for the Medical Professions.”

Allmost all of Belaire’s honors classes were mostly white, a sharp contrast I wouldn’t notice until I took Physics and Calculus. Sandy was in the medical program, but, like most of the honors kids, she wanted to become a Chemical Engineer and work in one of the chemical manufacturing along Chemical Alley, north of Baton Rouge. A chemical engineers starting salary was rumored to be at least $36,000. A teacher’s was $19,000. I was unsure about a doctor’s salary, but Dr. Zuckerman, the neurologist in my magic club that everyone in Baton Rouge called Dr. Z, was richer than anyone I had ever known, except possibly Big Daddy.

Dr. Z’s house was huge, with plenty of room for his kids to each have their own room, and for Mrs. Z to have a huge yard and garden. They even had a secret room behind a bookcase, like I saw every year on The Magic Castle television specials. He had installed stadium seating from LSU’s old baseball stadium in the secret room for magic club meetings and lectures from visiting magicians. Even David Copperfield came to Dr. Z’s house, and David earned $33 Million per year back then. And he was married to a supermodel. And his twin assistants, gorgeous girls from Baton Rouge, seemed to adore him. From my perspective, being a magician was the way to go.

Ironically, Andrea didn’t want to be an engineer, she wanted to go to medical school. She was fun, smart, hard working, and gorgeous, like Sandy. But, unlike Sandy, she had an overt wild side, and that was part of her allure.

Her dad was slightly goofy looking, with thick glasses and a pudgy belly. I held out hope that if he could have a housefull of women adore him, so could I one day.

He and her entire family adored me, mostly because her dad had worked for Big Daddy in the 60’s, building the Baton Rouge International Speedway. He said Ed Partin kept him employed even in bad years for the economy, which happened a lot in Louisiana. He said he had been injured on a job, and that my grandfather fought his employer for a disability settlement, throwing the full weight of the Teamsters behind him. Like many of my friend’s parents, he said he’d do anything for my family. I never understood why I saw my family so differently than everyone else, but I never said anything.

Her dad even rooted for me in front of Andrea, saying he had hope that we’d get back together.  He said I came from a good family. Of course I didn’t correct him about Big Daddy, and I admitted I was foolish to break up with Andrea. She just laughed, her eyes animated with genuine amusement.

Andrea and I left the kitchen and navigated through the cluttered hallway to her bedroom. I hopped over her piles of clothes and landed on the bed, stretched out, and looked up at her. She stopped inside the doorway to talk to her rats, Meth and Mene, and gently lifted lifted Meth out of the cage and nuzzled his nose. At least I thought it was Meth. They looked the same to me, like something I would have shot and killed at my dad’s cabin.

She asked if I’d like to hold him. I accepted the pest, and let him stand on my chest while she got Mene and told her she was a pretty girl. Andrea said rats were social creatures, and that she would a would only by them and their food from a pet shop that insisted on selling rats in pairs. Apparently, lone rats go crazy. They need love and companionship, she said.

She had named them after methamphetamine, a new drug she was having fun with. I recognized the second part, amphetamine, because Big Daddy had become addicted to them before going to prison, saying they helped him focus and think clearly. He even found ways to get them in prison. Lots of amphetamines, apparently. Until then, I had done some minor drugs, pot and mushrooms and some pills I never learned the name of, but nothing as bad as amphetamines.nA friend, Dr. Zuckerman, told me that amphetamines were prescribed to kids to help them focus, but that too many made you paranoid and delusional, and I asked Andrea if it was OK to take something addictive, like methamphetamine, and she said yes. For now, because she found pleasure in exploring her mind and body, and that’s what this time in our lives was for.

I mentally kicked myself, again, for breaking up with her.

She put the varmints back in their cage and hopped on the bed and stood on her knees and raised her hands to fight. I got on my knees, and she instantly punched towards me with her right hand. I rotated my forearm to Wax On, like in the movie The Karate Kid. Or Wax Off. I never could remember which was which. But, whatever I did, it worked. My right forearm brushed her punch away effortlessly, and I curved my wrist to trap hers using the “sticky hands” technique that our friend, Todd, had taught me from his Kung Fu classes. As she moved past me, I clasped her tricep with my left hand and pushed gently as I pulled effortlessly right wrist. She went face-forward onto her pile of clothes, her elbow raised and pointed towards the ceiling. But, as usual, I paused to celebrate my victory too soon, and she rolled under her elbow, onto her back, and scissored my waist with her legs and rolled me over her body and off the bed in one smooth motion. We laughed and compared notes on how we did what we did. She reminded me of how I had lost in last year’s city tournament when I paused after taking down my opponent, and he reversed and scored enough points to win.

We ended practice, and sat on her piles of clothes and stayed up all night talking and playing with Meth and Mene. Andrea had always been a night owl. I had always done whatever was necessary to talk with her.  

The next day, she drove me to the Department of Motor Vehicles so I could get my driver’s license. I used her van for the test drive – she had taught me to drive – and then her dad helped me find a used car. Granny had give me $2,000 for a car after Uncle Bob died, explaining my situation succinctly by saying, “You need wheels.”

Without wheels, I’d be stuck at Wendy’s, too far away to finish wrestling. And, because the team had voted me as Captain, I wanted to stay at Belaire, not move all the way to Saint Francisville. I liked being part of a team, and had even skipped school at the end of the season to visit nearby middle schools and recruit 8th graders so that we’d have a bigger team this year. Now that I had a driver’s license and $2,000, I could find a car and work and wrestle at Belaire my senior year. I imagined it would be just like the wrestling movie, Vision Quest. I even hoped that, like in Vision Quest, the older, wild girl would sleep with the younger wrestler. Like a lot of kids, I emulated movie heroes. And, as Louden, the hero of Vision Quest, had said, sex burns 150 calories a shot, and it would help him cut weight so that he could drop down and wrestle the undefeated champ. I was all for burning calories with Andrea, and I envisioned finding a car that would help that endeavor by making me seem cooler than I was.

We found a red sports car, a Pontiac Fierro. It was a lightweight, two seater car known for exploding in collisions, which is probably why they were selling it for only $1,800. I’d have $200 left over for gas, and it wouldn’t use much gas because it didn’t waste precious ounces on things like side-impact rails or other frivolous safety features. And it came with a tape deck.

As soon as I had the keys, I drove to Granny’s house near the airport and Chemical Alley to show off. She asked if I had checked the price against Kelly’s Blue Book to make sure I was paying a fair price, and if I had checked the engine for problems. I told her that my friend’s dad looked it over, and said it was fine, and that it was a good value. He obviously knew a lot about used cars, because he had so many parked in his front yard as works in progress. She reminded me to follow all the road rules, and reminded me that she limped because “some asshole” had crashed into her when I was a baby. Granny was always advocating learning the rules, if only to avoid trouble, and to never, ever be an asshole.

I left her house and drove a few blocks away to Grandma Foster’s, my dad’s grandmother. Big Daddy was there, and so was Uncle Doug and a few cousins I didn’t recognize, so I didn’t stay long. In fact, I left abruptly.

That evening I told Andrea that Big Daddy looked thin and weak, probably from the amphetamines. She asked how I felt after seeing him, and I said that I still felt uneasy around him, but nothing like that time two years ago, after he had been released from prison early due to poor health. Andrea and I had been dating a few months by then, sneaking out at night to spend time together, and she’s the only one I had talked to about it. I didn’t know the words back then – I still don’t – but I used words like “terrified,” “frozen,” and “surreal.” The closest comparisson I could imagine was the scene in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, when Yoda sent Luke Skywalker into the tree cave full of The Dark Side, and Luke confronted Darth Vader, who turned out to be himself. Nothing I had seen in The Karate Kid, Rocky, or Vision Quest Came close. What had terrified me was how noone else saw what I saw. It was too surreal to describe, but I had told Andrea that I left Grandma’s two years ago and knew I’d do whatever was necessary to not be like Big Daddy or anyone else in my family, if only for their ignorance.

She listened without interrupting. She remembered that day and the following month well. I had even started going to a church, of sorts, with my buddy, Mad Dog, and his family. They feverishly attended Jimmy Swaggart’s evangelical tent sermons around town, and even paid to attend his enormous campus with a church and high school, the headquarters of his world ministries. That was soon before he was caught for the first time in his car with a prostitute and a pile of pornographic magazines. But, the damage had been done, and I broke up with Andrea because of her previous promiscuity, hoping to become a better person myself. Later, after Swaggart made national news and Mad Dog asked to be emancipated from his family, I had sought out friends with what I thought were loving families, and had returned to Andrea. They were always fun and laughing together. But, unlike the Prodigal Son’s father, she didn’t accept me unconditionally. She said that we’d only ever be friends. I had hurt her feelings. Fortunately for me, she was still in my life, and was helping me on my Vision Quest to never be like my family. And her family was still fun, and helping me when mine would not.

The next two weeks progressed well, and I enjoyed driving to school and my job washing dishes at a local bar and grill – coincidently similar to the Vision Quest wrestler’s job – until I wrecked the Fierro. I was driving behind Steve Long’s big pickup truck, going about 20 miles per hour up the interstate on-ramp, and I was looking at the cassette player and trying to fast-forward Van Halen’s 1985 tape to “Panama!” because I wanted to sing along with David Lee Roth as we flew over Baton Rouge along the raised section of I-10.

I had reached between my legs, pulled the seat lever, and eased the seat back. Then I looked down at the cassette player while I fast forwarded, paused, listened, and fast forwarded again, trying to find the lyrics I was singing in my head:

Yeah, we’re running a little bit hot tonight

I can barely see the road from the heat comin’ off

I reach down, between my legs, and ease the seat back

She’s blinding, I’m flying

Right behind the rear view mirror now

Got the feeling, power steering

Pistons popping, ain’t no stopping now…


I was so distracted that I didn’t see Steve slow down and look for traffic, even though I knew he was as meticulous of a driver as his father. I ran the tiny Fierro under his truck, and the Fierro’s hood crumbled. I got out, still listening to David Lee Roth singing through the mediocre speakers.

I heard the unmistakable Clank and Squeak of old Chevy truck handles opening and the doors swinging out on hinges that never could get enough WD40 sprayed into them. Steve got out of his truck and shut the door – it made that unmistakale Clunk – and he walked back to my smoking car.

“Damn, Magik! Your radiator’s busted.” He said, unconcerned, as usual, about anything other than being helpful. He was just like his dad.

Steve’s big, old, heavy truck was barely scratched, so he took time to look under the Fierro. He looked back up and me instantly, and said, “And your leaking oil.” I peered where he was pointing. I said I thought I could make it to the next exit, so we both turned on our emergency blinkers and I followed him as fast as I could, barely a crawl, until the Fierro’s engine began smoking so badly it blocked my and I crawled to almost a stop just before the next down-ramp. I was able to coast down the ramp, but once at the bottom I couldn’t see because of all the smoke. As David had said, I could barely see the road from the heat comin’ off.

Steve got out and came over again. “You either blew the head gasket, or popped a piston,” he said. He didn’t know the coincidence of his words, and I wasn’t in the mood to make jokes about it. I felt my energy draining as I watched oil dripping from the Fierro’s engine. My frustration was directed at dumb luck – that’s what a 16 year old calls bad driving – but I was also disappointed in myself. I wasn’t handling adulthood as well as I had expected.

Steve hooked a chain to to the Fierro so that he could tow me to his house. I rode inside and timed the brakes and steering wheel to coincide with his break lights and turn signals. When we arrived, his dad, Mr. Earl, looked at my car and calmly drawled, “Magik, looks like you either blew the head gasket, or popped a piston.” I told him I agreed, and asked if it could be fixed.

“Yep,” he said. “But it won’t be cheap. You can leave it here while you find parts.” The three of us stood there, watching the Fierro drip oil onto the driveway, until Mr. Earl said, “Y’all want Gumbo? There’s a pot on the stove.”

Mr. Earl loved cooking Gumbo and Jambalaya and E’toufee, and smothering just about anything they had shot and killed, and always had a pot of something on the stove. We went inside and scooped hearty portions into deep bowls, and pulled wide spoons from the utensil draw, and talked while eating and sitting close together around their coffee table.

Their house was small and packed with furniture accumulated over 30 years of living there with three kids. They had bought the house as newlyweds, expecting to earn enough to upgrade when they had kids, but time passed quickly and Mr. Earl had to do what he could for work to support  his family while Miss Peggy stayed at home and raised her two sons and daughter. But, despite barely enough room for themselves and their fishing boat and hunting trucks, they always found room when I or any other kid needed a place to stay or would like a bowl of Gumbo.

Miss Peggy was perky and cheerful, and asked about Steve and my friends, but never probed. She just stayed cheerful and sweet, and told us which type of dessert she had made to match whatever her husband left simmering on the stove.

Mr. Earl was a man of few words, and most of them involving dinnertime and jokes and funny hunting stories. He would make all of us laugh as soon as his slow drawl began setting up a punch line. Anticipation and patience seemed to be half of the fun, and our friends had become conditioned to begin laughing as soon as he said, “Well, there we was…”

And, like most adults I trusted, he didn’t pry. He had been a Teamster in Big Daddy’s union, briefly, but had decided that he preferred independent work, which is probably why he had to leave the state during slow times in the economy. In Louisiana, that happened a lot, and only Big Daddy’s Teamsters seemed to have jobs in rough times. What’s more, they never talked about their family, even though they were famous. Mr. Earl’s uncles were the famous governors, Earl and Huey Long, and everyone in Louisiana revered them like America revered the Kennedys and England revered kings and queens. Huey was even nicknamed “The Kingfish,” a hero of the poor in Louisiana when Louisiana was mostly poor farmers and emancipated slaves, and his wife, son, and brothers had all become U.S. senators. A dynasty, just like the Kennedys. But that was long ago, and the Longs I knew never worried themselves about their past or mine.

Mr. Earl told a few jokes as we ate Gumbo, and Miss Peggy said I was welcome to stay the night. I thanked them, got my backpack from the Fierro, and apologized for the oil spreading across the driveway.

“Don’t worry about it, Magik,” Mr. Earl drawled. “There’s already more oil in my driveway than there is in all the offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.” Louisiana’s gulf coast produced oil that was processed in Chemical Alley, and most of my friends’ dads worked as Teamsters or offshore oilmen, and most mom’s were secretaries in Chemical Alley, like Wendy and Granny, or stayed at home to raise kids, like Miss Peggy and Andrea’s mom.

Miss Peggy said my bed was ready, and I saw that she had pushed the coffee table aside and opened up the couch’s fold-out bed. It was tastefully laid out with matching pillows and sheets, and the blanket was tucked in neatly. A glass of water and a plate of cookies were on the coffee table. I called Andrea and told her what had happened, and said I’d see her after we fixed the car.

Steve’s family was one of the ones I had latched onto two years ago, and even with the disappointment I felt in myself and the loss of my first car, I still slept well in their home that night. It wasn’t just that I was full from from the cookies and a second big bowl of Gumbo, or that I was tired from staying up all night with Andrea and going to school every morning. I felt safe and comfortable and accepted at the Long’s. I felt like I imagined you should feel in your family’s home.

I rode with Steve to school for the next few days, and after school we scoured junk yards for Fierro parts. Andrea’s dad didn’t have a Fierro in his yard, and was already working on new projects, so it was up to Steve and me to find parts and fix the head gasket. We had seen that it was cracked, and assumed that the pistons were fine. Andrea came at first, but had begun taking classes at Southwestern University and wanted to study. She was taking calculus and physics, and said it was challenging, so she left me with Steve to fix the Fierro.

I quit looking for car parts after a week. I had never been interested in cars or anything mechanical, and trying to learn to fix a car for the first time seemed hopeless, even with the instruction manual I borrowed from the public library. We could take apart the engine, and Mr. Earl had a lift to pull it out, but I couldn’t make sense of everything I saw. Listening to Mr. Earl’s advice when he came home from work was useless, because I had no idea what an “intake manifold” or “radiator belt” or any of his other words meant, even though I nodded and pretended not to be lost. And, I had committed to beginning wrestling practice early, so I resigned myself to jogging to and from Belaire. It was only 2.2 miles from Steve’s house, and I figured the extra miles would help me prepare for my final wrestling season, and the 82nd. Fixing the Fierro could wait until after wrestling season.

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