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fiction by Wendy Brandmark

My Red Mustang

I was never one of these people who wears their car around them like some adorable child. Even in the early days when I drove down Broadway trying to sing to the radio, elbow on the window, curls blowing, just like anyone else in a car, even then my legs trembled. And the car pulled this way and that, shaking when I speeded up. I never thought of it as old though the car was in its dotage. Because it was bright red and still shiny. A Mustang. And the car loved its long sleek shape, like youth itself.

“So big,” I said when the owner drove up. I’d imagined myself in one of these little bug cars.

“Not really,” Jeff said, brushing his hand along the hood and then smiling at me.
I could see he had fallen for the Mustang, and I put my hand deep in my pocket to pay for all that was wrong with it. Jeff wanted to go up into the mountains so we got new brake shoes and tires. Days after he left Denver for Los Angeles the battery went. And then the problems became chronic. It was a car which took at least 10 minutes to start.

We had come west together from New York City to teach at colleges we’d never heard of. Let’s face it, I’d say to him, they’ll never have us back again, they the nobility of the East Coast who had spawned and then abandoned me.

“Why care?” Jeff said. Because he was going home. He threw down his doctorate in philosophy and on the basis of one video about chicken hearts talking, took a job teaching film in the rotten core of L.A.

I saw myself surrounded by verdant mountains with glittering streams, but as the plane circled and circled I looked out to see the towers of Denver rise out of the dry plain. I was stuck there in an English Department headed by a short Texan who wore a cravat and goatee and said “Howdy.” At the beginning of the semester, the faculty had a “jamboree” at a ranch house where one of the professors lived with her pet horse. I drove the Mustang back in the dark, the mountains like silent men watching my descent into the city.

When I told Jeff over the phone about the Mustang’s behavior, he said, “It’s a good car.”
I realized that despite his long experience with driving he knew nothing about cars. He had grown up on the L.A. freeways; cars for him were like horses he could mount and ride away, and it didn’t matter if tomorrow his stallion couldn’t carry him, he’d find another.

“You could sell it.”

“I don’t believe you. After you pushed me to buy it. You said I had to have a car here. You said.”

“You trade in. One used car for another.”

“Can you see me in a used car lot? I’d end up like Jack and the beanstalk with only beans.”

He laughed his rollicking laugh. He’d gone California, as if the touch of sunlight had faded the Eastern angst and he was golden again. Only I carried New York around these brilliant streets, still in my Jewish skin of dread and deep thinking. Even here and especially here where the blue sky was like an eye of doom on my special little darkness.

Jeff always said of me, “she knows how to ride the trains,” because I’d learned to drive late and my heart did a little dance when I had to speed up. At 26 I was ashamed to say that this was my first car and maybe had I stayed in Brooklyn I would never have had a car. How I missed the New York subway, the heavy filthiness of it, the iron roar which could crush your heart, the dark in moments when the lights failed and you were left alone with strangers.

Denver had no subway, and as Jeff said, only odd souls rode the few buses. These figures I saw at the wavering edges of my vision whenever I walked up Colfax or sat in White Spot with coffee.

I dreaded mornings, the Mustang waiting for me to give it life in the bright street. Again and again I tried the ignition till its blood quickened and I could be on my way.

I complained about the Mustang on the phone to Jeff at Thanksgiving but he seemed not to hear. When I asked was he coming to Denver for Christmas he kept talking about the comfort of nothingness. He was making a film about two people who disappeared slowly until only their breath was left.

“Will you stop this bull. You said one of us should go to the other.”

There was a long pause. I scratched the receiver.

“What’s that?”

“What’s what?”

Another pause and then I said, “So I’ll see you when.”

“Aren’t you’re going to your folks?”

“I only have one folks. A mother in Brooklyn. Remember?”

“Hey just lighten.”

“If I go to New York I won’t come back. I just will not be able to bear it.”

“That bad?”

Suddenly I could smell him naked, his golden skin moist and warm, like some god who came not from the clouds but the fragrant earth. I really couldn’t speak at that moment for fear that I might start sobbing.

“So maybe stay there.”

I looked out the window at my Mustang. We were alone. Jeff had got me with car and left me.

I did go to Brooklyn for Christmas break because Jeff couldn’t make up his mind where he wanted to be. The morning I left Denver, the Mustang was parked in the street, its hood streaked with snow. I thought for the first time it was showing its age. It had a neglected look, the paintwork no longer gleaming. You could see more clearly the rust its former owner had tried to cover up. I thought the car might die and then I would be rid of it.

But somehow the Mustang survived the winter.

During the second semester I discovered other New Yorkers in the English Department. One of them was a gaunt Joyce man from the Bronx. The other was a beefy guy of middle age who wore chunky cardigans and wrote novels about himself having poignant sex with young women. He was a fellow Jew, the first I met in Denver which is maybe why I said to him, “I can’t acclimate. How do you stand it?”

His mouth turned up in sneer. “Then go back if it’s so bad.”

The Joyce man had an unexpectedly deep voice and his long lined face looked like it had taken a million drinks. I told him about the car.

“You got a Mustang?”

I couldn’t see it was that funny, certainly not for him to break off into coughing.

“Yeah but I don’t want to have it anymore.”

He had his eye on me, this taper of a man.

It was in the full glare of a Denver spring that the Mustang had the first of its episodes.

“C’mon,” I said, but the sound when I turned the ignition was not good. The cars behind me began to honk. Finally they began driving around me, the men with their arms half out the windows. I got out and pulled up the hood as I had seen others do. As I stared into the inner workings of my Mustang, a man appeared from one of the cars, a florid fellow who grinned at me.

“What’s the problem?”

“I don’t know. It never happened before.”

“That’s what they all say.” He bent over it and did something to the engine, then asked me to go back into the car and try to start it. It worked and I blessed him. But as I drove on I blushed for the nakedness of my Mustang thrown open for all to see.

The car had little breakdowns several times over the next few weeks, but a man always appeared who could revive it. One day I got lost and turned down a street I never thought Denver had, dappled with shadows from large ancient trees, and people actually strolling on the wide sidewalks with stores you’d find in Brooklyn: Emily’s Beads, One Hand Books, even an old fashioned candy store.

We were ambling down the road when the engine began to stutter. As usual I pulled up the hood and then stood there waiting. A young guy with hair down his back sauntered by, drawled “hiyah howdy” but didn’t stop. I got so far as touching what I thought were the spark plugs when she emerged from the bead shop, a woman with shiny black hair and one feather earring. She went right to work.

I stood watching her. “I wish I could get rid of it. How I wish. It’s such a pain in the neck.” I was reminded of how my mother used to speak of me when I pulled at her sleeve to go my way, my way.

She smiled at me. “You tried selling it?”

I shook my head. Nobody would want this car.

“You clean it up. You’ll see. Someone will want this shape, someone will.”

I almost said “What about you?” but I could see it wasn’t her sort of car.

She waved to me as I started to drive down the street. I suddenly thought I should get her telephone number. She might want it after all, but more, much more I wanted to see her again. When I turned around she was gone. I imagined her astride a motorcycle or a high black stallion.

She put the idea in my head: I could just sell. A week later I took it to the supermarket. At the cash register the store manager offered me a free tub of ice cream if I let him check my receipt. I reckoned maybe my luck was changing.

I took the streets one after the other, singing “Sunshine on My Shoulder.” As I slowed down just before Colfax, the Mustang stalled and there I was with my carton of good luck chocolate ice cream quietly melting.

Then he appeared, a short tight man with sunglasses, his sleeves rolled up. I said the usual things about wanting to rid myself of the car, but he said nothing. He fiddled with the inside, told me to start it. He tried again but it still wouldn’t start and he hit the side of the car with the flat of his hand. “Bitch.”

When he got it going, he came round to the window. “I’ll give you $200. You got no engine.”

“Then why?”

“The shape. My daughter’ll like the shape. I’ll gut it.”

He looked like he’d never had daughter. I took the card he gave me. “That’s not much,” I said.

“If you can’t get more,” he said.

We rolled along after that, me in a pensive mood. I whispered, “Don’t worry. I won’t give you to him.”

But I began to fear getting into the car because I would never know how or where it would fail.

I put an ad in the Rocky Mountain News, a two-liner which said nothing about the Mustang’s problems. But they were not fooled. The ex-policeman who left his epileptic wife with me as security while he drove the Mustang, came back with a pale shocked look. Another man took one look at the oil leaking from the Mustang’s decayed haunches and walked off.

I can’t shake it, I told the Joyce man.

“You need a little story. People have to feel that owning this Mustang will change them.”

“In two lines?”

“Have you ever thought, maybe you don’t want to sell it?”

I pondered that for a week, taking out the Mustang for judiciously short trips, always returning through the dappled street to see if the woman with the feathered earring would emerge once again from the bead shop. And the Mustang behaved as if it knew it was on trial.

And then it happened, the Mustang trembling and then dying in the starkness of a wide street with cars skidding around me. “No,” I said, “no, no, no.”

I phoned the small tight man that night. He didn’t sound surprised or even bothered, as if he picked up old Mustangs every day. “You still want to buy it?”

“Yeah I’ll gut it. I’ll just gut the whole thing.”

I could see his hard arms reaching inside the Mustang’s infernal engine.

I phoned Jeff even though we hadn’t spoken for months, because he loved the Mustang. I hesitated about calling; what if he pleaded give it another chance why don’t you?

But he was breezy as ever. “It’ll be your first step home if you sell her.”

I thought of the Joyce man who called the Mustang my narrative. “No. It’s a new story. Me on the buses.”

Jeff laughed. “You’ll be with your kind.”

Next morning I walked down to Broadway and waited for the bus to the university. An old woman with a large striped bag over her arm stood with me. A skinny nervy young woman joined us, books under her arm. I imagined she was a student.

I watched the cars passing so fast. Was I looking for my Mustang already gutted and moving with new speed and confidence? It would ride right by without recognizing me or even acknowledging all we had been through together. I felt light as I walked onto the bus with the others and took a window seat warmed by sunlight.

“You never really change,” Jeff had said.

I looked around; the nervy student was moving her lips as if rehearsing what she would say to her professor.

I imagined my hands on the wheel of the Mustang and began to make motions like a child mock-driving beside her mother. I drove again but without any stalls, my hands and arms making half circles. Once a motorcycle came beside me, but it roared past before I could see the woman with the feather earring riding faster and faster till she flew up into the hot blue sky. I drove all the way to the university, the Mustang’s long shiny nose of a hood moving slow and steady through the stops and starts of traffic, through the bus shuddering as it paused to pick up new passengers. And then like everyone else when I reached my stop, I thanked the driver and got off.  

Wendy Brandmark’s short stories have been widely published in journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel The Angry Gods, and teaches fiction writing at Birkbeck College and Oxford University.