© Copyright 2003 by Judith Nakken
My housewife car was a four-year-old Commander. Boring. It was the dullest of banal Mr. Studebaker’s automobiles and even out-humdrummed Nash’s Ramblers for unappealing. Just as every Rambler wagon on the road was a glaring, two-tone green, my pointy sedan with the wraparound rear window was peachy beige with a maroon top and twin to every sixth car on the suburban streets. I wanted a Golden Hawk.
He didn’t refuse me many things, but the Hawk dialogue was closed. The boss’s wife drove a wraparound Commander, maroon and beige, and that was that. He referred to the ’37 Cord he was restoring, the coffin-nosed monstrosity whose dead body and appurtenances used all but lawnmower room in the attached garage of our California culdesac home.
“It’s going to be for you, honey, and it’s twenty times classier than any old Golden Hawk. Plus, it was thirty years ahead of its time, anyway, with the front wheel drive and all. It won’t be long,” he promised. He’d been working on it four years and in another four it would be thirty years old and, by his own admitted timeframe, mediocre. I didn’t want to wait.
I won’t say the Studebaker controversy was the reason I divorced him; it actually was about his not knowing-no, not caring-how many teams competed in the World Series. But I found myself alone with a loose eight hundred dollars, a veritable fortune in my eyes. I left the three little kids with a neighbor and went car shopping.
There it was! On a used-car lot on Rosemead Boulevard sat a ’57 Hawk, its grill, sleek fins and chrome striping reminiscent of the science fiction that had influenced my life since I discovered H.G. Wells at eight. I was already past the entrance and had to drive what seemed forever to turn around and make a dangerous dash across the busy thoroughfare. The little Commander slunk into a parking space beside the trailer-office and sat there quietly, apologetic, surely knowing that the pink slip in the tiny glove box meant it wouldn’t be going home with me. I swung my Jane Russell body up the rough wood steps to outsell the salesman.
“There’s a pink Golden Hawk on the far corner,” I flirted. “How much is it?”
He was the classic used car salesman, right down to his graying, gypsy good looks and outlandish sport coat. He wore a wedding ring, however, and didn’t seem very flirtatious. I toned it down a bit. Childlike now, I continued.
“I don’t have much to spend, but I’ve always wanted one. Can I go sit in it?”
He was down the steps in a flash and replied only when he took my hand to help me navigate the rough boards. “It’s actually a Silver, but a beauty. ’57, and a great price.”
I pretended to be returning to the Commander. “Come on,” he beseeched. “When you sit in it you won’t know you’re not in a Golden. Give it a try, eh?” I allowed him to persuade me.
Playing reluctant, I sat in the pale pink leather of the car that was built to be mine. I bemoaned the fact that it was automatic transmission, not mentioning that the last stick I’d driven was my folks’ ’38 Chevy with 4 on the floor or that the despised Commander trade-in was also automatic. I complained about a tiny cigarette burn and the stale odor of smoke (I burnt up three packs of 29¢ filters a day, myself) and about the coupe’s 87,000 miles. I allowed him to persuade me that all used cars were sold ‘As Is,’ without warranty, and I didn’t even test-drive it. After I haggled the price down as far as I could, I signed over the Commander and parted with $750. The Hawk and I left the lot and I didn’t whoop for joy until we were out of the salesman’s sight.
It was less than three miles to my house, but I had already stopped whooping. Steam obscured my vision and the hood looked like it was going to pop off and fly back to its home planet. The neighbor’s husband was home from his day shift at the nearest aircraft plant, and he shook his head. “No warranty? As is, huh? Well, the water pump is shot on this baby, and I’ll bet it costs plenty to replace it.”
We decided the best thing for me to do was to drive it back immediately and see if the salesman wouldn’t do the right thing by me. To that end, the neighbor filled some water jugs and set them on the floorboard on the passenger’s side with instructions to replace water every few blocks, “before the gauge gets in the red,” between home and the car lot.
I added fuel to the plan and collected my children from his back yard. Chubby little girl was wet and filthy as only a three-year-old can get on a Slip ‘n’ Slide, and cranky from going without her nap. The boys were five and seven and also grubby, and I delighted in the large hole in the shoulder of Dougie’s tee shirt. I piled them prominently in the coupe’s small rear seat and wended my burnt-fingered way back to Rosemead, rehearsing a poor-young-mother plea as I drove. The gauge was going in the red again as I drove into the lot and parked next to the Commander. Its wraparound rear now resembled a gleeful sneer.
Mr. Salesman came down the steps. I looked sorrowful, gestured at the car full of urchins, choked back tears and began. “I barely got it home. The water pump … What will I do? … I can’t afford…”
His expression didn’t change and he was not unkind, but he yawned scorn with every word when he interrupted my scene. “I’ll get you a new water pump, ma’am. No charge. And I would always have gotten you a new water pump. You can come back for the Hawk on Friday noon.” He was up and down the steps and handing me the keys to the Commander when he spoke his last words.
“But I want you to know, ma’am, that I think you’re about as helpless as a cobra.”
The Hawk and I declined at about the same pace. The divorce judge allowed me a payment-free four years in the family home, to finish my degree and begin a career. It seemed like forever, right up to the degreeless day I came home from shopping and drinking and couldn’t get into the driveway because a moving truck was in the way. Ex-husband was there directing the job. He said I’d had ninety days’ notice that the home was sold. I didn’t remember. He took the children for the weekend and I followed the van to a new home, a tract house he’d rented in my name just a few blocks away.
There the Hawk had to sit on the street, where the birds that resided in the orange trees added insult to its unbathed body’s injuries. Scratches and dings on its fair chassis told the story of drunken parking and more, as the left headlight frame was suspiciously bent. I drove it to my rather responsible job nearly every day, too seldom to classes at night and far too often to the Serene Room with its dim lights, piano bar and few hours of escape from the unnamed terror that stalked my spirit.
It clamored against my neglect, the lovely Silver Hawk. It first failed its brakes in heavy go-to-work traffic, days after I let the insurance lapse. I’d barely dug myself out of that financial hole when it dropped its reverse gear without warning. Straight-ahead driving, no mean trick, worked for a couple of months until one day the “Drive” gear shuddered at me forever before the coupe finally jerked forward. I bemoaned my automobile fate over Black Jack Daniel’s and beer at the bar that night.
“I don’t even know for sure if I can exit the parking lot,” I complained. “Even though I’m parked to drive straight out.”
“No Studebaker is worth a nickel,” my favorite bartender chided me. “Seriously, that Hawk ain’t worth a hundred bucks.” I liked him, but I was incensed at the slight.
A would-be friend approached me before the night was over. He had a Monza I could have, he said, if I could buy one tire and pay for the title transfer. It wasn’t worth the powder to blow it, either, he indicated, but it was running. He followed me home “to see where I lived,” and brought the car the next afternoon.
The Silver Hawk sat in the gutter under the orange trees in the weeks that followed. It grew more dusty and speckled, until a front tire was flat and the neighbors complained. I’ll sell it, I told them, and put an ad in the Friday Nickel. Saturday morning the phone rang early.
“Does it run?” The young man’s voice was excited.
“Yes, it runs, but there’s no reverse gear and a front tire is flat.”
“I’ll be right there. Don’t sell it to anyone else.”
He brought a check and his last bank statement to prove that his check was good and showed me his drivers’ license. After I’d signed the title over he went out and started the engine.
“I’ll be back with a tire tomorrow,” he said. “I’m sure I can drive it away. You know, ma’am, now that it’s mine, I want to tell you that you sold it far too cheap.” He wasn’t gloating; it was more like shame.
I pooh-poohed him. “No, no, that’s all I wanted,” I argued. “Have a good time with it.”
I got in the Monza when he left, to go shopping and drinking. I couldn’t wait to get to the Serene Room with the last word; to show my no-longer-favorite bartender the check for $125.00.
It’s nearly two
generations later as I recall these events and consign them to the printed
page. They were only brought to the forefront of my memory by Washington
State’s recent giant lottery. It rose to an unheard-of twenty-seven million
dollars, and people who never indulged were standing in lines to buy lottery
tickets. My two lady friends and I went to the local mini-mart and stood
in a line. Clutching our tickets on the way home, one of them began to
tell what she would do with the jackpot. When the second woman was through
recounting all the good things the lottery would afford her, they asked
me. “What would you do with it, Judith?” I hadn’t thought, but I didn’t
hesitate. “I don’t know what else,” I answered, “but I’d spend a bunch
of it on a ’57 Studebaker Silver Hawk. Preferably a pink one.”
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