Bad Machines

The Corolla SR5 ($900) broke down about a mile and a half up the Grapevine. (As it turned out, the transmission had somehow lost all fluid.) The stick made a chafing sound and the gears wouldn't shift. A- and I walked through serrated brush, dull gold in twilight, down the side of the 5 toward the gas station at the hill's foot. My uncle agreed to drive out from Pasadena and tow us, as we didn't have any money to pay for a proper tow truck. I called at about 7 pm; A- and I waited first at the gas station, then at some generic restaurant, then the restaurant's parking lot, until my uncle arrived sometime after 4. Delayed, he reported, by a brushfire that had spilled onto the freeway. We drove back up the hill in his big one-time church van equipped with car trailer. About thirty feet behind the Corolla was parked a small pickup, white with red detailing. "That's weird," my uncle said. Now parked about 30 feet beyond the Corrolla, he reached beneath his seat and retrieved a small aluminum case, from which he withdrew a nickel-plated handgun--his .45. As he slipped the gun into his waistband he told me to follow him with the flashlight as he inspected the truck. I held the light and drew its yellow beam before my uncle as he walked toward the truck's black window.

 

I bought a 1973 Dodge Charger ($2000), matte black with a fat white stripe down the middle, 318, sort-of mag wheels, a few "minor problems." I figured I'd fix it and learn; hey, at least it ran. A week or two after buying it I was approaching Wilshire on I think Robertson, stopped in the left-turn lane. Then not-stopped: moving, slowly, but moving for sure. I confirmed that I was fully depressing the brake pedal, then engaged the emergency brake. After that I only drove the car once a week, moving it in order to avoid street-cleaning tickets. Six months later I sold it for $1500 to a guy who shipped cars to Singapore, and, as he proudly reported, had done well enough at it to send his daughter to Swarthmore. He'd talked me down from $1750.

 

I am certain that had I inserted the right tape I and my teal Probe ($800) would have made it. I was in Pasadena, having finished a couple loads of laundry, 8 or 9 tallboys, and an equal number of Vicodin. When leaving I opted for a change and instead of playing Neil Young's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, my then-constant accompaniment to driving, chose a Slick Rick tape, the rhythyms of which further divorced my brain from my limbs. By the time I noticed that my arms were no longer responding to commands I had been seen drifting in lazy arcs along the 110, and as I searched for a place to pull over I tried to remember every minute of "Cowgirl in the Sand."

 

I bought a 1996 Volvo 850 ($7500), navy-blue, grey leather interior, moonroof, cd and cassette decks, etc., which I have never driven.

 

I had agreed to meet my sister and my close friend J--, though I was reluctant to leave the comfortable home of P--, with whom I was then sharing drugs. Unwilling to reveal the location of P--'s apartment, I met J-- and my sister at the corner of I think Kingsley and Hollywood, J-- driving his girlfriend's Maxima. They tried to persuade me to go and stay with my sister at our grandmother and uncle's house in Pasadena, and we went there, but I wouldn't get out of the car. J--agreed to take me back to Hollywood. Somewhere in Laurel or maybe Topanga Canyon I realized J-- had overshot the mark and was going in the wrong direction; I suggested corrections to his course and J-- would reply with a cheery "Sure Dude!" and go another way entirely. Somewhere in Topanga I started screaming and didn't stop until we pulled onto the delta of an intersection to smoke. There we watched a young coyote emerge from the chaparral. Then I resumed screaming until we reached PCH, when I calmed down and started issuing threats. Then I called 911.

Me: I'm in my friend's car on PCH and I want to get out but he won't stop to let me out.
Operator. Uh, sir, how old are you?
Me. 26.
(Silence).
Operator: So, sir, uh, what would you like us to do?
Me: I want you to intercept this car and pull it over so I can get out.
(Silence).

I hung up and informed J-- that I would report him as a drunk driver, and make a run for it when he got pulled over. We pulled into the parking lot of one of the little state beaches north of Zuma and after a couple hours I'd calmed down enough to enjoy the scenery, which according to J-- was the point of the whole kidnapping. I called P-- again: she agreed to come out and pick me up at a gas station on PCH. J-- reluctantly agreed to drop me there, but as I dozed in the back seat, he and my sister considered taking me to J--'s place. They thought they'd passed the rendezvous, but I woke as we approached the agreed-upon station and saw P--'s black BMW, with its single feeble headlight. She and I drove excitedly back to her coffee table.

 

I thought the BMW still had one light. One night P-- and I went out later than usual and eschewed downtown in favor of Alameda, where this guy who hung out in a PT Cruiser sold unwrapped nickels, small black stones in too-big ziplocs. We got 12 and got off the 101 at Echo Park, and immediatley heard the siren, a clipped snarl, behind us. I swallowed the bag for no reason other than reflexive fear. The officer in the window paid me little mind and let P-- off with a fix-it ticket--both headlights out. 3 or 4 hours later I managed to regurgitate the bag, now iridescent, filmy, a smear of pulpy black inside in the corner. Opened, eaten away, slick with bile, but some was definitely left and we each consumed it in the manner of our choosing.

 

I do not presently have a driver's license.

 

- Andrew Wilson