Dreams of a '61 Chevy

ON the showroom floor the Roadmaster is light blue with a darker blue interior. It's the first one of the new model I've seen. As the door opens, the latch releases small, precise ticks. The dashboard sweeps across the car, deeper than a bookshelf. The rear end and trunk stretch back to Uncle Joe's Hudson Hornet; the hood slopes toward infinity.

My hands appear small against the steering wheel, but I'm certainly old enough to own this car. Quiet as a church, it swells with luxury and power.

"Bill," a voice whispers. I could have sworn it came from under the plush front seat, probably near the controls that move the seat up or down, forward or backward, or adjust the lumbar position to cradle your spinal curve.

"Bill," the voice comes again, this time from somewhere behind the shift indicator.

"Yes! I'm listening," I whisper, running my hand across the dash. The leather feels tight but soft. The controls just under the leather shelf are easy to see. They look important.

"Bill," my wife's voice cuts in. "What are you doing in there?" She's smiling, but her voice is sharp, almost accusatory, as though she's caught me in a compromising position. "R. G.'s ready," she tells me. He's the salesman, an older man with a diamond ring, who's about to lead us to the business manager, a man with two diamond rings. He'll finish the paperwork transferring us from our older, light blue LeSabre to the slightly used and smaller Century, a white one with spare trim.

I'll miss the LeSabre. I liked the name: LeSabre, LeSabre - "The vorpal blade went snicker-snack."

"Bill, come on," my wife calls. The door on the Roadmaster closes like I imagine the door on a bank vault closing.

"Nice, huh?" I say nonchalantly.

"Yes, dear," my wife smiles. Walking just ahead of me down the hallway toward the business office, she reminds me a little of my mother and the brisk way she used to walk as she pushed me in my perambulator, a purple one with cream trim and teardrop cowls over the swivel-front wheels. A T-handle projected out of a tray on the front, and a chromium rod curved around behind the front wheels to rest your feet on when you were being pushed. I liked that perambulator, especially when my mother disconnected th e long handle from its slots in the rear and allowed me to walk the buggy around by myself.

On our way home, we stop for a red light at a major intersection at the foot of a low hill. An older man in dirty clothes and long overcoat waits beside several shopping bags filled with his belongings. My wife is reading the owner's manual. She likes to know where things are, and she glances now and then at the gauges and buttons on the dash.

The light takes a long time. The man glances at me, his unshaven face gaunt, spectral. He stares; our gazes lock. I nod and raise a couple of fingers briefly from the wheel. It's an acknowledgment, handed down from primitive tribes, a modified gesture of the open hand: I bear you no malice. I carry no weapons.

He does not respond, only stares as traffic moves extra slowly across the complicated intersection from different angles. I imagine for a moment that I've seen this man some years before, camped on a highway island near the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Washington, D. C. I glance over at him again through the open side window. His thinning hair is uncombed, his coat hangs open, and his khaki pants bag around his dirty sneakers. He's a much older man, I decide, and thinner than the one I saw in W ashington.

He keeps staring as though sizing me up, looking through the car. A young boy in a red Camaro appears in my rearview mirror. He waits, rhythmically revving his engine. His car rocks gently with the torque.

I courted my wife in a '61 Chevrolet Impala, a Roman-red sports coupe with a 348 V-8 engine, whitewall tires, fender skirts, dual exhausts, and two sweptback aerials. I called it Big Red. "Man, when that car's sitting still it looks like it's doing 95," a friend once told me.

WE wait. The man keeps staring. It begins to drizzle, and the light balking us reflects in the Century's white hood. "It's used," I want to tell him, "my wife's car." He does not move. I look away. It's early spring and the dampness is chilly, so I press the button and watch the window climb noiselessly to a half-closed position.

The boy in the Camaro revs his engine, inching the car forward then dropping it back. The light changes. The Camaro swerves quickly into the passing lane, and its hood jerks upward as the boy shifts to second gear.

For a moment I grip the steering wheel harder and press the accelerator to the floor; the 3.3 liter, V-6 in the Century might handle the older Camaro, even a 350 V-8, in a quarter mile.

"Bill," my wife's voice comes from the other side of the car, quiet and cautionary like my mother's voice just before she snapped the handle back in the perambulator.

I ease up on the accelerator. In the rearview mirror I can still see the man standing in the center isle, watching as the traffic swirls around him. The Camaro's hood jerks upward again as the boy shifts to high gear. He speeds past, the wash from his wheels misting through the half-open window and dampening the side of my face. I press the button on the arm rest, and the window climbs to a fully-closed position. It's quiet inside.

The Camaro tops the hill, mist boiling from its wheels. It seems to hang for a moment before dropping out of sight, like one of those after-images you see when you close your eyes on a bright object.

My wife places the owner's manual back in the glove compartment. "I'm going to enjoy this car," she says. She runs her hand across the velour seat.

"Yeah," I reply. "It handles well; nice pickup." We don't say anything more. She smooths her skirt, folds her hands in her lap, and looks out the window. I ease up on the accelerator until the engine speed and road speed synchronize, then push the cruise-control button and feel the subtle pulse as the mechanism takes over. The three shields in the round hood ornament glide above the right lane of the dual urban highway. Such a quiet, sedate car, comfortable and safe at just under 55.

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