The Golden Age of the American Road


Charlie stood on the bus all the way up the freeway fingering the blue six-month chip in his pocket. A homeless guy occupied two seats with his cluster of black plastic garbage sacks, sneaking sips out of a brown paper bag, the bus smelling of Wild Turkey and BO. Charlie had a little time to kill before the meeting.

He trudged down the arterial, past windshield placards in neon letters proclaiming 1 OWNER/LOW MILES and STEAL ME 4 $2,500! He’d saved a thousand bucks and if he bought an economy car he could drive to work some days and maybe get out of town when he couldn’t take it anymore.

An ancient barge of a station wagon clad in imitation wood grain beckoned from behind sedans and minivans. He scissor-stepped the rusty chain dividing business from sidewalk, weaving through Accords and Escorts, staying below the radar, until he stood beside the woody. Transportation masquerading as furniture.

“Real beaut, ain’t she?” The broad-faced salesman wore a houndstooth sport coat and sparse flattop.

“If you like dinosaurs.”

“Gotcha. But what boy doesn’t like dinosaurs? Something tells me this old monster brings back some memories. Name’s Marv.”

Charlie shook the hand and inhaled the familiar perfume of Camels. “Dad had one just like it,” he said, realizing he’d already made his first mistake.

“Hey, I’m a little psychic. Summer road trips, motels, national parks. Golden age of the American road. Am I right?”

Charlie took a defensive position around the back of the car. “Must have some serious mileage.”

“Under a hundred K,” Marv said. “It’s been hiding out in the original owner’s garage for decades. A sweet old lady, believe it or not.”

“Which means she’s dead,” Charlie said.

“No way of knowing. But yeah, probably.”

Charlie remembered his father bringing home the wagon, their first new car. Demonstrating the power windows, even the one in the tailgate under command of the chrome lever in the driver’s door. A back seat big as a ballpark. The smell of new vinyl. “Cars only lasted about a hundred thousand miles back then,” Charlie said. “They wore out faster, same as the people.”

“Depends on the maintenance,” Marv said. “The old lady had the oil changed every three thousand miles, recorded it herself in this great spider web handwriting in the service record, you gotta see it. You could roll this tank to the gates of Damascus and back, no problem.”

They’d moved five times in three years after Dad got laid off at the airplane factory. The power control for the tailgate window broke somewhere between Wichita and Huntsville. Charlie ran his fingers over the fake wood grain of the back panel, melted into alligator skin ridges. “So, what, the garage burned down around the car?”

“My theory is the window in the garage door acted like a magnifying glass,” Marv said. “Sort of slow cooked the plastic. Look, I’m not gonna lie to you. There’s not much demand for this kind of vehicle here, we’re a basic transportation outfit. But there is significant upside in the collector’s market. You good with your hands?”

Charlie clenched arthritic fingers. The ability to repair the chicken processing machines made him the de facto engineer at work. The only medications that addressed the ache in his knuckles were vodka and acetaminophen, but he couldn’t touch them anymore without liver damage. A tough choice on days like today. “Sure. I guess.”

“Got some spare time?” Marv said.

Charlie glanced at his Timex. The walk to the church basement took seventeen minutes from the bus stop. Already getting tight. “Generally. Yeah.”

“Then you buy a replacement panel on the aftermarket, throw in some new mats, upholstery and detailing and, bingo, this land yacht is factory spec. The profit’ll make your head spin. Or maybe keep it and relive some good times. Skip the motel, stretch out in the back. Hell, you could camp comfortably in a car like this.”

It would be nice to blow off the meeting. Buy the car. Recapture what Dad called the freedom of the open road. It was tempting, and Charlie didn’t deal well with temptation.

“What’s your name, friend?” Marv said.

“Woody.” The old nickname slipped out as he pictured Dad with his arm propped in the open window cruising across Wyoming or Nevada or some other empty state, left arm always sunburned from the short sleeve down. “Can’t we turn on the air conditioning?” Mom always asked when it was hot. “Sorry, but factory air is a mileage vampire, right Woody in a woody?” Dad always tagged on that explosive laugh that startled the twins.

“Well fate’s staring you in the face,” Marv said. “You’d be a Woody in a woody.”

The stale rush hour air made it hard to breathe. Charlie thought about the bar around the corner like others where he’d already spent half a lifetime.

“You don’t hear that name outside kid’s movies and folksingers anymore,” Marv said. “Not since they started using it in the other sense.”

“And what sense might that be?” Charlie needed some room.

“Oh, you know.”

“No,” Charlie said. “I really don’t.”

“Sorry, I got us off track. Let’s talk about what it’s gonna take to get you in this car today.”

“Sure,” Charlie said. “But first you gotta tell me what you meant.”

“Nothing.” Marv stared at his loafers. “Let’s start over. Look, you want some coffee? We got some fresh in the office. I think there’s half a cinnamon twist too.”

There were donuts at the meeting and coffee. He noticed the tremor in Marv’s hand. Dad always drank hardest at the end of the month when he sold cars under the pressure of unmet quotas and another job going south. “I’m not interested unless you’re straight with me,” Charlie said.

“Yeah. Okay. You know how people turn everything dirty? Woody’s slang for ‘boner.’ ‘Sportin a woody’ is something kids like to say these days. It’s a goddamn shame how common decency went down the tubes in this country.” Marv glanced across the street at the strip club parking lot filling up for the evening. “Not like when we were coming up.”

“Yeah,” Charlie said, indulging the urge to hurt something. “Last time I saw my Dad he was driving away in a car like this. My Mom, and me, and my little twin sisters standing in the parking lot of Mount Rushmore.”

“Aw, crap.” Marv looked at the ground and shook his head. “Hey, I’m real sorry. I’ve got two sons of my own in another state.”

Charlie had him on the ropes. “No point reliving the past,” Dad used to say when Mom went on about losing the house, or the Christmas tree decorations left beside the trashcans after the garage sale. “You already know how it ends.”

“It’s OK,” Charlie said. “I’m just screwing with you. My Dad didn’t do that.” Dad drove back into the Mt. Rushmore parking lot in less than an hour, having changed his mind about the invaluable experience of visiting an important national monument versus locating a grocery store so they could eat dinner. They camped in the car again that night.

“Jeez, Woody.” Marv shook his head. “That was a real fakeout.”

Dad worked at Grandpa’s hardware store a couple of months before taking the wagon for a tank of gas and the inevitable pack of Camels and who knows what else. He never came back. “Fake wood on a car,” Grandpa said. “What is it, transportation or furniture? You’re better off without the vehicle and the driver.” Charlie never used the name Woody at the new school. Nobody had called him that in thirty years.

“Glad we got past that,” Marv said. “You can turn yourself a nice profit. It’ll be some work, but fun.”

Grandpa liked to say “They wouldn’t call it work if it was supposed to be fun.” Charlie ‘pitched in’ at the hardware store with no pay until he learned about the Emancipation Proclamation and took off.

“So,” Marv said. “What’s it gonna take to get you in this car today, my friend?”

The thousand in savings was plenty to buy the beast, but not enough to keep it in gas. Not unless he slept in back with the dead soldiers. He already knew how that ended. He checked his watch. Eighteen minutes until the meeting. “I’m a little tight for time, Marv. Let me sleep on it.”

“You come back tomorrow, I’ll cut you a hell of a deal.” Marv proffered a business card between two fingers. “After that, all bets are off.”

The tip of the business card trembled.

“Gotcha.” Charlie took the card, shook the hand. Tomorrow he’d ride to the next stop and double back on foot. He scissored over the rusty chain back onto the sidewalk. If he humped it, he’d just make the meeting.  

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