If it hadn’t been for the El Camino, my life would have been another life altogether. But you know how it is, you’re walking down the street, mind emptied with each brisk step, air a golden glow and birds flocking and boom, there you are, face-to-face with something beautiful. I spotted it half a block away and my mouth hung open every step to that corner.
A fascination with cars was sown and tended in my childhood. I sat on our uneven brick porch steps noting different colors of passing vehicles and the makes and models and years. My brothers did it so I did, too, to avoid being left out. It evolved into a competition, a guessing game. It gave me more status, a little sister who could name cars before they were even close to passing by. Darren had a rusty black Ford truck that should have been towed to the dump but it was his first set of wheels and therefore like a pet he fawned over. Les and I were too young to drive yet. I drove late. After Les’ accident I almost didn’t dare drive, period, but he got out of the hospital and healed up and was soon instructing me on basics which I knew anyway from riding with them and being given a few chances to drive in the country. The mechanics also fascinated me but I had to push my way between the boys and Dad to get under the hood to soak up even a little knowledge.
I was almost eighteen before I got my license and then Les and Darren and our parents were sorry. My gas pedal foot liked to punch hard and my favorite activity was heading out to dirt country roads to let it all out. I had to take my turn with Les’ smooth riding green Pontiac Le Mans; it was pretty nice. But I preferred anything that mimicked a race car or souped-up trucks. Or an El Camino. It was part truck, part car; it was useful but it was sleek. Two seats like faster beasts often had. It wasn’t fancy but it had real class of its own.
It was not the usual in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s for females to have a thing for cars, only celebrity race car drivers. Darren and Les were first amused then proud of me, Carla, for doing well in various spontaneous races, for often being able to diagnose knocks and squeals. Only Les knew I longed to be a race car driver and I swore him to secrecy as if my brothers didn’t suspect that already, but we both knew that this was out of reach. By twenty-one my path had taken a wide turn and I was soon graduating with honors from an area college. I had been thinking that if I worked for a year I could move out like my brothers had before me. Well, Darren got drafted for the Army after one year of his own college plan. But Les had his sleek shoe box of an apartment on Fifth and Heinz and worked at a big auto parts store just as he hoped as a kid. He’d planned on becoming manager in two years and he was.
But I was going to teach sixth grade. It was practical and secure, I got along with older children and loved learning so hoped to impart that to them. And it took imagination which I longed to use more fully. You might say I settled for teaching although I chose to do it. My parents were proud of me, always introduced me as “our Carla, a sixth grade teacher–isn’t that smart and a bit brave of her?”
And so the years passed, ten to be exact. I had a knack with preadolescents and was good at teaching. But not with long-term relationships. I had an allergy to housewifery, all that polishing, buying new linens that matched wallpaper and whipping up fancy dishes to please others and all that after working all day. I just didn’t have it in me. My idea of labor plus fun was swimming in the river as soon as I wouldn’t die of hypothermia, playing a hard game of tennis, hiking and camping. Reading as much as possible and travel. Though men naturally liked those things they wanted all that in a woman and the compliant homebody. I flat-out gave up after numerous trials and errors.
When I complained, Les shook his head in defeat; he’d tried to fix me up on blind dates that went nowhere.
“You’re too much. Maybe it’s that you think too much”
I eyed him with a frown. “Meaning?”
“You’re smart, athletic and independent. Okay, cute is part of it but then you think all the time. You broke out of the time honored mold.”
“Les, this isn’t the early twentieth century! Bras have been burned or at least loosed and women are rising up if you didn’t notice. Sheesh.”
“Sure, but it takes time to change things.”
“Another century or two? Men are that slow?”
I gently punched his shoulder for emphasis; he gave me a testy look but refrained from retorting. He knew what I meant and vice versa. My brother was a great guy and also had found an excellent girlfriend. But I had thrown in the towel.
One afternoon I was walking in my leafy neighborhood where I’d managed to rent a duplex in a spacious bungalow. I was often scraping by but it was worth the quiet, wide streets; arching mature trees; and better security and serenity of an established family neighborhood. I admired many divine houses as usual and was peering into treetops at squirrel mayhem when a downward sweep of my vision registered a vehicle. Shiny, deep blue, shaped like my old dream car.
An El Camino, parked right in front of my place.
I hurried to get a closer look at it. A 1970 or 1971, I thought, and the paint job was impeccable, vinyl interior slick and spotless, a four speed. The chrome glinted at me. I wondered what that V8 could do.
Across the way a door opened, releasing booming voices, quick laughter. My lawyer neighbors always had someone coming and going; they were the noisiest ones during summer week-ends and always friendly. I had accepted a couple of invitations to attend a gathering in their endless and sumptuous back yard. I’d in fact been considering if I had something decent to wear when attending one that night.
A man of trim build and black shaggy hair rushed down the stone steps, then slowed as he spotted me ogling his car. He opened his arms to indicate the wonder of his fine machine like a proud parent.
“A beaut, right?”
I stepped back instinctively; mustn’t breathe on it too hard. “Quite attractive sitting at my curb. A favorite of mine, actually.”
He looked at me then. “You like cars?”
“I do. I always wanted an El Camino.”
“Excellent taste we both have. What do you drive?”
I inclined my head toward my car in the driveway. “That scarred red Chevelle.”
He opened the driver’s door, rested a foot on the frame and beamed at me across a gleaming roof. “I’m Marty Grant–and you are?”
The smile unnerved me a smidgen, teeth all lined up perfectly, crinkly blue eyes lit up. Danger sign already, too much good looks. But his car was a far finer sight to behold.
“I have to do errands for my aunt and uncle but I’ll be around. I’m a nephew of Tom and Jeannie Trimley, here for a visit.”
“Me, too, be around that is, since I live here.”
His short chuckle was refreshing. “Okay, later, Carla.”
I felt frozen to the ground as he took off. It was breathtaking to see that navy blue, no it was a sapphire El Camino in motion, to hear its well tuned roar. I wanted to be inside, behind that wheel.
Of course I knew he’d be there but I went because that was my loose plan, anyway. The Trimleys were having their first real summer soiree, as Jeannie said with high arched brows aflutter. She was funny and whip smart and a natural hostess, and her husband cooked up a storm in their out door kitchen. I was frankly a bit envious of their life so was all in before I met the owner of The Car.
It was after seven when I entered the back yard through a tall ironwork gate. There was enough booze and bodies to constitute a jovial crowd in the making. I waved at Thomas Trimley as he glanced about and he lifted a wine glass toward me is greeting, then I wriggled fingers at two or three others I recognized from the blocks. I wasn’t so much a part of the “in gang” as a respectable addendum, an add-on who, due to my age, occupation and I guessed my general civility (little did they know). I had met a couple of students’ parents at one of the parties and it was a challenge to be my real self while learning more about them rather than act like it was a PTA meeting. It had turned out moderately well so far.
I got a soda and cruised small groups of the minglers.
“I noticed you talking to my nephew out there at the curb. That car, he’s just nuts about it, he’d rather own that than a good apartment.”
I took in Jeannie’s yellow and purple flowered sundress as it floated about her. Her earrings had tiny bells, tinkling each time her head moved. I’d worn white slacks with a peasant-style coral top and called it good. Jeannie had also studied law, too, she’d told me once, then had three children fast. She was such a buoyant woman.
“He saw me looking at it but didn’t seem to mind.”
“Oh, Marty enjoys the admiration. He has a passion for car restoration but drives like a madman. Do not get into any car with him! But I can vouch for his honor–he’s a good boy, my sister’s only son, if a bit spoiled. He’s visiting this summer a short time before he takes off to get a PhD. in philosophy, of all things, he was meant to be an engineer at least or so saith his father.”
She shrugged as if it meant little to her in the end, Marty was her beloved nephew.
“Telling my secrets, Auntie?” Marty pecked her on the cheek and nodded at me. “You came to drool over my car again, I see.”
“And to eat great food. But you’re quite right though it shows better in sunlight. How long have you had it?”
“I’ll leave you to it, see you at meal time!” Jeannie wafted along on a soft breeze, melted into a thickening crowd.
Marty took a swig of root beer before answering. “Let’s see, about three, four years ago. I’m ready to sell it, then attend to a fine but creaky MG GBT. Interested?”
A young woman sidled up to him, shook his elbow. “Marty, are you really going to Germany to study philosophy? How stupendous of you.”
“Sara! Yes, off in search of wisdom.”
Sara widened her eyes in astonishment, fluttered impossibly thick and false eyelashes and sauntered off with a damaging sway. Marty shook his head.
“When can I drive it?” I asked him. No risk, no gain.
Marty looked around at the crowd. “How about now?”
That was all it took, I asked and he assented, to my utter surprise.
He got in the passenger’s side. I put it in gear and drove it eight miles out to the Needle, a pointy land mass that overlooked the river. I knew those country roads like the lines on my palms. Hugging those curves was nothing. The El Camino clung to them them all, responded with a surge of power at a touch, took the ascents and descents with nary a pause. It was a well tuned dream of a car and we both knew it was worth whatever he’d ask for it. I parked it and hopped out with a yelp made of adrenaline, then scanned the sunset sky.
“That was cool. I never knew a woman who took so easily to cars, was so in charge. Why is that?”
“Short version is that I had brothers and a dad who loved them, too. But I think my passion rivaled theirs. I wanted to do more with cars…Now I teach fascinating, rowdy kids. No time for such daydreams, at least not now.”
I turned toward him. His neck was craned so that he could see the stars. They struck me as crystals from another dimension, displayed on multi-colored silk.
“You wanted to race, I imagine,” he murmured. “Me, too. But I also like to just ponder, know what I mean? It isn’t all about machines and money, exactly.”
I didn’t answer. We were at the edge of a narrow piece of land, I felt a little stunned as we became absorbed by celestial unfoldings upon night’s onset. And that very moment I could smell his faint fragrance, a mixture of musk, pine, light sweat–and was that the car, gasoline or oil? I could feel my muscles and bones, strange to say, but I’d just raced an El Camino up to the Needle and everything in me felt strong, powerful, right on target.
Marty slipped an arm about my shoulders companionably and I leaned in just enough.
“Look, the North star and is that Cassiopeia?” I said as I pointed.
“Wonder what the sky will look like in Heidelberg this autumn…”
“Well, study star maps along with Erich Fromm or Hannah Arendt or Hildegard von Bingen. Or even Schopenhauer, if you must–that terribly pessimistic viewpoint.”
It seemed Marty laughed silently. Then he took a mighty breath, let it out slowly as if all that air was rarefied nourishment. I could feel his ribs move up and down beside mine and then they pressed against me, and his hip, too, and there it was, that sparkler of a charge that was half body, half soul. It skipped from brain to brain, heart to heart, hip to hip.
This man, this woman. I closed my eyes.
“I could do that…and then come back with something good, maybe with a BMW 507. Oh wow, wouldn’t that be amazing?”
Eyes open again, I leaned into him a little. “That would be far more than even that.”
That was all it took. That brief interchange. That’s how I came to own a vintage BMW 507, among a few other classics, along with Marty. We take it out for a good spin every weekend here in Heidelberg and a bit beyond, even more now that we’re retired. But an ebony 1974 El Camino belongs strictly to me.