Beauty's in the key-holder's eye

Maine is one of those states where kids can obtain a driver's permit while their features are still as smooth and clear as milk and their bedrooms are still lined with Golden Books, Barbie dolls, and G.I. Joes. I suppose this goes hand-in-hand with being a rural state and constitutes a legacy from the days when kids were pulled out of school to drive trucks and tractors for the various harvests.

Be that as it may, I already knew, when my son was a preteen, that I would not be ready for the day when he would want his own car.

That day has arrived, although I did manage to hold out longer than many parents. Alyosha is just about to turn 17, just about to transform his permit into a license, and has just used his meager savings to purchase a small used car.

The 1990 Toyota Corolla had perched in the front yard of a home on the main road of our town for weeks. This in itself was unusual, as a Mainer is as immune to "For Sale" signs as he is to black flies.

I had noticed this car when it was first wheeled out. Cobalt blue and fairly squat, it reposed under a spreading silver maple, slightly tilted up from rear to front, like a friendly dog eager to jump at you with its muddy paws. At first there was only one small, barely legible sign under the windshield: "For Sale." But as the days passed without any takers, the signs multiplied: "Hey! Look Here!" "Cheap!" "Must Sell!"

This was all Alyosha needed to see. As a teen raring to get behind the wheel of his own vehicle, he was in that peculiar frame of mind that made every used car look like the best deal on earth. In recent months, as we drove here and there, I'd watch with fascination as he craned his neck this way and that, straining to get a better glimpse of cars for sale along the road. From the 1962 Corvair that Ralph Nader had christened "unsafe at any speed," to the 1973 Dodge Colt missing only its windshield ("Make an Offer!" read its sign), to the Cadillac Fleetwood only slightly smaller than our living room, everything looked, to my son, like his dream car.

Now, I am notoriously careful with money. I save returnables, buy T-shirts at the thrift shop, and even once (to Alyosha's mortification) bent down to pick up a penny in a parking lot. So when my son finally became aware of the Toyota, I couldn't help putting up my monetary defenses, even though it was his money that was at stake, diligently earned by busing tables at the local pizza joint.

It took Alyosha three days of wrangling to get me to visit the Toyota with him. And while I immediately saw the vehicle's flaws (some rust, a trunk that couldn't be opened, and a missing hub cap), my son basked in its delights. (It's a car, Dad! A car!)

It was soon clear to me that my son was in emotional quicksand with no vines to grab onto: He would have his car. As we hovered about the Toyota the young owner came out to greet us. "Want to take it for a ride?" he offered, holding out the key. My son's expression brightened. The next thing I knew, we were tooling down the interstate. I was driving, with Alyosha sitting next to me. "What do you think?" he asked eagerly, in a tone that intimated he would brook no criticism.

Still, I sensed that this was my last opportunity to be honest with him. "The brakes are a little soft," I murmured, half-heartedly.

"Soft?" Alyosha echoed, his heart sinking.

"But they're not bad," I quickly added, in an effort to redeem his feelings.

As we drove on I could see – I could feel – my son falling ever deeper in love with the car. I knew then and there that nothing I said could take the shine off his enthusiasm. I suddenly found myself silently enumerating the car's assets: low mileage, four good tires, a clean interior, and plenty of pep. In my mind's eye I recalled my own first car: a '68 Chevelle on its last legs. In retrospect I realize that I couldn't have paid someone to take it off my hands; but at the time I felt as if I were driving a golden chariot, and I can recall days of complete happiness as I flew along the Jersey Turnpike, oblivious to the clanking, clattering, and rattling of my bucket of bolts. The Toyota was in rather better condition; a decent car that needed some TLC.

When we returned, my son looked searchingly at me, wanting to really know this time if I thought it was a good deal.

"I know you'll take good care of it," I told him. It was all I needed to say. It was all he needed to hear.

When we took the car home that very day, he immediately began to wash and wax it. I watched from the kitchen window as he made long, loving loops with the cloths, working well into the evening, until his blue angel fairly glowed. In fact, it was glowing almost as much as he was.

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