Before we ran off to Iceland, there was a flurry of mad activity in the garage — with, I’m pleased to report, something to actually show for it. I worked with confidence and purpose for a change. It is nothing that I really want to share yet. I’ll just say that I can now clearly see the day when I’ll move on to something other than the hood. And that I’m on the verge of proving all the naysayers wrong. Nuff said on the subject for now.
In college I had a friend who would judge all music by the same limited criterion. It didn’t matter if it was Puccini or the Pixies. His response was always the same: “Who? Never heard of that. Can you dance to it?”
I suppose you can dance to just about anything, Andrew, if you have the proper shoes. But that seems frustratingly narrow and beside the point.
Whilst traveling I try to be broader than that. I have not one, but two criteria by which I judge a new place.
The first is whether it would be a good place to ride a bicycle. Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik does indeed seem to be well-suited for cycling, at least for transportation purposes. There is a huge network of bike lanes. Bicycles seem to be allowed on some buses. The weather is surprisingly mild (at least in summer). And with an extremely low crime rate, many bicycles are simply left out at night, leaning against a gate or hedge.
Outside of Reykjavik the roads are narrow and often unpaved. Still, we saw many touring cyclists, mainly riding Euro-style bikes — flat bars, hybrid frames, wide tires. Camping options are first rate. The main obstacle as far as I could tell would be the suddenly changeable weather. During our stay the temperatures were mostly pleasant, but some days were quite windy and I did not envy those on two wheels.
So the answer would be a qualified yes — Iceland seems like a great place to ride, but just know what to expect.
The second — and more relevant — criterion is whether there are any air-cooled Volkswagens there. To most people this might seem asinine. You save your hard-earned cash to see a place you’ve always wanted to visit, and as soon as you get there you’re playing punch buggy.
What sort of loser did she marry?
I can’t answer that question. But I can tell you that there are exactly three air-cooled Volkswagens in Iceland. I know this because I counted them, and here they are:
Now, Iceland is a small country but we did not go everywhere. We may have missed an occasional fjord, sheepfold, or lava tube. But over half of the entire country’s 320,000 some-odd citizens live in and around Reykjavik, and that’s where I snapped the pics of the blue Beetle and the green Bus. I found the orange Super in Ísafjörđur, a little town up in the Westfjords that’s pronounced exactly like it’s spelled. Once, across a field of glacial scree, I thought I spied another Bus parked against a rusty tin barn; but I was unable to get closer and it could have been in service as a fish-drying rack for all I know. So I’m not counting that one.
Somebody probably knows exactly how many VWs were imported to Iceland, but even in this age of internet-powered gotta-know-right-now-ism, I gave up trying to find this information. Modern Volkswagens appear to be selling quite well there, right along with Škodas (owned, coincidentally, by the Volkswagen Group), Toyotas, Fords, and Opels. And I can only imagine that “back in the day” a reliable, inexpensive, easy-to-maintain car that went great in the snow would have been quite appreciated by the practical-minded Icelander. For Exhibit A, I present this post card, dating from 1965, of a Beetle motoring down a snowy street in Reykjavik:
I found the post card in a photography museum down by the harbor. I promptly mailed it to myself back home because I had never received a post card from Iceland before. On the back, I couldn’t think what to write, so I just did the standard “having a great time — wish you were here” thing. I also scribbled a list of bomb-making materials, in a shaky but emphatic scrawl, just to see what would happen. Knowing nothing about the art of bomb-making, and not having access to Google, I had to improvise a list of items that sounded sinister and threatening:
- blasting caps
- magnesium filings
- one spool 22-gauge copper wire, plastic-coated
- fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, organic
- duct tape
- tabasco sauce
The TSA let me back in the country, so I guess got my answer. Either the mail carrier is honest, or I’m not a very convincing would-be terrorist.
I do not believe in the whole fate/destiny thing, simply because such terms are impossible to define, and because I do believe in free will (and Free Willy, but that’s another topic entirely; and my opinion on this might raise hackles in local watering holes throughout Iceland). But I can’t help but wonder what was so special about the three old VWs that remain in Iceland. Although the green Bus appeared to be pampered, the two Beetles were definitely daily-drivers, with all the attendant missing hubcaps, dings, oxidized paint, and rust spots. I suppose that, at some point, someone decided (and keeps on deciding) that the whole thing was worth it, that it somehow made sense to spend the time, money, and effort to keep his VW on the road instead of hanging cod in it.
What happens in Iceland stays in Iceland. Unless it’s volcanic ash. Or Björk. Of slightly more relevant concern to me is the history of my own car. In the end, it really doesn’t matter how the roof was dented, or who the culprit behind the wavy hood was. Still, after the countless hours I’ve spent sanding, stripping, hammering, grinding, isn’t it human nature — our “fate” — to ask: who did this to you?!?
Well, I think I may have found my answer.
I want you to watch a video. I know, I know. I don’t like it either when someone forwards me a YouTube or some-such, imploring me to watch it. It’s like being given homework. Plus, for the longest time I thought a YouTube was a “U-Tube” — some kind of newfangled birth-control device. But this is a very short video, about a minute. And the part I want you to focus on is the first 30 seconds or so. You’ll see what I mean instantly.
Also, I recommend turning the sound off as it’s both distracting and annoying. Then come back and we can go with it. I can wait.
Pretty neat, huh? I thought so too. The first time I saw this, it all made sense and the story coalesced. It was like Dean Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state, once said: “Things sometimes need to be made clearer than the truth.” And the truth that spoke to me went something like this:
The story begins on a Monday evening in August of 1969. The Sorensen family — Arthur, Lydia, Arthur Junior, and Diane — are gathered around the dinner table in their bungalow in New Paltz, New York. It could be a roast, it could be a ham, or it could be meatloaf (again). It doesn’t matter. Dinner progresses in the typical American style observed by a certain Charles Dickens so long ago — the clanking of tableware, breathing, chewing, and not much in the way of conversation. A competitive event of sorts.
Arthur Junior has something on his mind. He is on break from the same local college where his father is a professor of applied mathematics. He hasn’t much to do for the summer, other than the job at the movie theater to keep him busy and to make a little extra cash. He’s already taken care of that, though. There remains just one small detail to iron out. He passes the potatoes to his mother, clears his throat, and goes for it.
“Hey Dad? Could I borrow the Volkswagen next weekend?”
By the standards of the day the Sorensens were fairly progressive. Still, Arthur Junior knew it was pointless to even pretend to involve his mother in the decision. She always deferred to her husband. He had all but given up even trying to use her to gauge the sort of reaction he might get when he got around to asking Dad. Mom would just shrug her shoulders. “You’ll have to ask your father.”
Professor Sorensen swallowed, dabbed the corners of his mouth with a napkin, and spoke. “The whole weekend?” he wanted to know. A rational question from a rational man.
Arthur Junior knew this only represented the first in what surely would be a series of questions. His father was not an intimidating or mean-spirited man. To the contrary, he was usually given to kindness, and inclined to trust. He would be looking (but not too hard) for logical reasons why not to loan Art the car. Except for the little streaking incident last fall (it could hardly be called a lone effort), his son was mature, focused, and making the grades.
On the practical side, by this point the VW was over four years old, and had been relegated to the status of a shared-use vehicle. Mother drove it on those rare occasions when she went anywhere by herself; most of the time it was, for all practical purposes, Art’s car anyhow. His father drove the new Buick.
Still, there were certain facts, just the basics, that would need to be addressed.
“Well Dad, it’s like this . . .”
Art explained that he and April had already gotten the time off work, and were kind of hoping to go up to Bethel for some camping. And a concert.
“Bethel. Up past Monticello.”
They were hoping to make, you know, a long weekend of it. Leave on Thursday, back by Sunday night.
Diane had been silent until then, but was now suddenly animated, chewing in a hurry and teetering on the edge of her seat. She swallowed hard. “Oh! Yeah, I heard about that!”
If all eyes had not been turned to Art’s little sister, they would have seen him wince, ever-so-slightly — as if he’d just discovered a Band-Aid in his meatloaf, but was trying to be polite about it.
She was already on a roll before Art could intercede. “That’s the big concert they were gonna have up in Woodstock, but they had to move it, right? And the Doors are going to be there, right? And the Grateful Dead? I heard them talking about it on the radio, and they said —”
Diane may have had some of her facts mixed up, but she clearly knew just enough to make her a potential threat. Details, of course, were important. But not too many details.
“No, Diane. The Doors are not going to be playing in Podunk, New York. Geez!”
“But the Dead? And I heard The Who! And Janis Joplin!”
“Let him finish, Di,” Father said. Thankfully.
But Art was already finished, pretty much, when Diane sat back in her chair, quiet now but with a devious grin. Like she knew something more. There was another round of awkward, Dickensian dinner-time racket. Art casually took another bite of his food.
“So, yeah. Like, we — I mean I — I was wondering if we could borrow the car.”
The elder Arthur took a sidelong glance at his wife. She was hunched over her plate, seemingly mesmerized by the only thing on it — a steaming baked potato with a fork sticking straight up out of it. It was possible that Mother would have been no less fascinated had a smoking meteorite come crashing through the ceiling and onto her plate.
The reasons for Mother’s odd behavior would make themselves clear in later years. For now, she was mostly ignored when she acted like that.
“Well,” Arthur said, turning his gaze back to his son, “I don’t see why not. Just get it back by Sunday night. You’re mother might want to use it. And be careful.”
“Groovy! Thanks, Dad!”
“I will not require any lemons at all,” Mother interjected, apropos of nothing.
“And Jimi Hendrix,” Diane whispered in her brother’s general direction, just to assert her relevance.
Arthur Junior helped clear the table like a good Mr. Do-Bee. Truth be told, he was giving himself some time to mull. No sooner did Dad give his assent, then Art began to think he had sold himself short. The Buick would have been much roomier, especially if Gordon and Carolyn went along. Plus all the camping gear. And they could practically sleep in the thing if it were to rain.
But the Buick was brand-new. As permissive as his father was, the chances were slim. At least this way there was capital left for Art’s sudden afterthought.
“Hey, Dad?” he began, casually.
“Mm?” Father was preoccupied with complex three-dimensional geometric calculations, no doubt, trying to determine the absolute most efficient way to fit all of the dishes into the dishwasher without any wasted space whatsoever.
“Any chance I could borrow the camera, too?” By this it was understood that he was referring to the Canon Auto Zoom 814 Super 8 that his father had spent countless hours weighing the merits of, before he finally broke down and bought the thing, to everyone’s relief. The brochure had sat on the coffee table for months. It had been a little present to himself, his reward for becoming a full professor.
Art had his father’s attention now. “Now, you’re pushing your luck there, mister,” he said with a grin.
But we already know what the outcome was. Professor Sorensen was quite the softie.
The fact that the four of them — Art, April, Gordon, and Carolyn; plus camping gear, clothes, snacks, beer, and other requisite party favors — had left on Thursday, instead of Friday, saved their hides. Later they would hear about the Quickway fiasco. As jam-packed and overburdened as the little Volkswagen was, and as hard as it struggled up the Hudson Valley ridges and the foothills of the Catskills, it would have been an even harder hike, with all the gear, to Yasgur’s spread from wherever they would have been forced to leave the car. Plus, as we can see, they managed to score a prime camping spot.
Thursday night was not a whole lot different from an overnighter at the state park: they hung out, smoked a little grass, and ate some burritos. Some other New Paltz friends arrived later and they got a drum circle going. Someone else planted a peace flag at their campsite. They listened to a portable radio for a while. Then they climbed into their canvas tents and went to sleep.
It was Friday when things really got hopping. The bad news was that, after a cursory search of the premises, Gordon could not find any of the Orange Sunshine. Maybe if they waited. Probably, yes. But they did not want to wait. The music would start soon. Richie Havens or somebody. Waves of people were already starting to claim their spaces near the stage. The good news was that Gordon did not return empty handed. He presented them each with a tab of brownish blotter, which they summarily ate.
People from everywhere just kept on coming, seemingly (and literally, at times) by the busload. Soon it was apparent that this thing was big — really big. A great big rolling strolling freak show. They had some nachos and drank apple juice and watched and waited.
The afternoon rolled on in the linear way it does but gradually it wasn’t so linear anymore. People passed and waved hi and then moved on. Others came and stayed, filling in between the spaces. The scene seemed to repeat itself in similar, but not identical, iterations. Like how the edge of the record always seems the waviest part. Not exactly like that. But close.
Some company. Have some brownies (really! They’re just brownies. Honest). Nobody knew what Carolyn thought was so funny. Even and especially Carolyn. Everyone looked at Carolyn. Who pointed at Eddie, brownie-girl’s guy. April on the blanket in her prairie dress and no shoes. Knees drawn up to her chest staring at something in mid-distance but impossible to tell what or why. To much trouble to ask and would spoil the fun.
Somebody said to April hey, where’d you get the daisy? Everybody thought that was funny like you go buy one at the mall or from the daisy vender or through mail order or like if you collect enough box-tops there you go, there’s your daisy. But April said no it was not some cheap ordinary daisy. She found it. It was lonely at the edge of the water so she took it. So you killed it, somebody said, but that was not funny.
Noise from over there. Hear electric snaps zaps feedback amplifiers patch cords pedals stacks waves from the stage area oh. Hardware. Hard hardware. They’re getting ready. They’re gonna start any minute maybe an hour or two. Later. Not now like right now this very minute. They can’t. It’s not possible. They’re all about business over there and here we are. Just little old us getting started because what do we know?
Somebody closer by with a horn. Closer then further then closer again. The same note. Some horns come from the top and bottom but this one was just the bottom. Blat. Blat. And every time they do that all of the birds bugs and other flying things scatter and it takes everything a second minute hour to get the whole whirling mess going again.
Stop. There’s this scene to dig right now. April staring in the mid-distance. They’re still coming, on and on. Like an army marching to war to peace easy purpose. The purpose is the purpose. Is this the same scene? This is the same scene. But sounds like a mike check and somebody rapping about the scene from back beyond but it’s loud enough so definitely they’ll hear once they get going. Bring yourself into it. Before it starts the camera.
The Super 8! Dad’s (whose? Mars) Super 8!
Art sprung to action instantly and retrieved the camera from the car. He brought it back to the big blanket they had spread out, a village square of sorts between the tents, and sat down Indian-style to figure the thing out. He’d never used it before, but had watched his father enough times to understand the basics. It was not, to be sure, overly complicated; but with everything stuttering, shuddering, melting, and morphing in this mad wonderland that was quickly overtaking everybody, it took him a few minutes to feel comfortable with it.
Finally he stood and started rolling. Art easily disregarded Wavy Gravy’s background claptrap about it being a free city and how they were really going to make it work. Instead, he found that it somehow added to the mayhem of it all, and made it seem like one great big peace zone. The thing that bothered him, though, was that he felt a desperate need for altitude.
Did you actually count the Volkswagens in the video? Probably you did not. I was going to, but changed my mind. Doesn’t seem to be much of a point. It is evident that at that time, in that place, they were like roaches. For every one that you see, there are probably a hundred that you don’t. Except they don’t scatter when you turn the lights on. But if you were for some reason inspired to count the Volksies, don’t forget to count the one that our cameraman is standing on.
I have no reason to doubt that it’s none other than the Sorensen family’s Ruby Red 1965 Volkswagen Deluxe Sedan, chassis #115167767. The very same car that has been sitting in the same exact spot in my garage for the better part of two years.
You might say that’s ridiculous, but what do you know? What are the chances? you might ask. But I challenge you to prove to me that Art was not standing on my future Volkswagen that day. Zealots, conspiracy theorists, and congressmen of all stripes use this sort of logic on a regular basis. I’ll admit that they’re probably about as paranoid as I am at this point; but they’re entitled to their stories, as I’m entitled to mine.
Of Scandinavian stock, young Art was tall yet rail-thin, about 150 pounds wet and unshaven. The strength and integrity of a domed structure have been well-known since at least the Roman times. This example, rendered in thick German steel, was no exception. It supported Art without complaint, at least at first. And being barefoot, he was not concerned about scuffing the paint. Once he’d completed his 360-degree sweep of the farm he stopped filming. Something had caught his eye toward the bottom of the slope behind their camp.
“Hey,” he called. “I think I can see the stage from here!”
Bad move, Art.
Carolyn was the first to join him. She clambered up and, though she too was boyishly reedy, it was just enough weight in the right (wrong) spot. “Aah!” she screamed as the roof crumpled inwards beneath their feet. She threw her arms around Art, giggling.
Art knew that something unfortunate had just occurred, something for which there would be later repercussions. He deferred giving it too much thought just then, though, as being this proximate to Carolyn was an intriguing New Development. Gordon didn’t even seem to notice her, still clinging to Art and dancing around on tippy-toes in a playful panic, as he clambered up next to them. Confused, Art glanced back at camp. April sat on the blanket, still staring into the undefined mid-distance, the flower still in her hair. And though he couldn’t quite tell from this angle, he imagined she still wore the same look on her face — a look of both puzzlement and joy, like that of little girl discovering her reflection in a puddle for the very first time.
After a while April snapped out of her reverie and the four of them joined the exodus toward the stage. Whether recalling it over the next several weeks or forty years later, the following three days would appear to them as a dream, with its own very special soundtrack. Some things would be vividly stamped in their memories, other things would be forever lost. They would spend much of the time soaking wet and covered in mud. They ate little, slept even less, and did not bathe. They were already flying by the time the warnings about the brown acid reached them; they collectively yet wordlessly decided not to let the power of suggestion spoil what, to be quite honest, was turning out to be an incredible trip.
The numerous rain delays over the course of the weekend meant that by the time Ten Years After was cranking out their frenetic “I’m Going Home” on Sunday night, the vast majority of those who had attended were singing the same song. But their pace was much slower. They broke down sodden tents and blankets, or left them where they were. The compulsion to a least straighten up a bit, to do something with all of the refuse was strong. But there was simply nowhere. Whether on two feet or four wheels they simply up and left by the thousands, abandoning the scene that would define a generation.
It was not as if Art and April, Gordon and Carolyn (or was it Art and Carolyn, Gordon and April?) had nowhere to be. All four had jobs to attend to, and family that would be expecting them at some point. There were no telephones. But with several acts still on the bill, they decided that to stay would be an investment — that was the word Gordon used to make the case. Nobody seemed inclined to argue. Besides, it was a fait accompli by the time they had this discussion at 2:30 Monday morning. CSN (and sometimes Y) was about to come on and it would be, they all agreed, silly to leave just then.
After that act (which did not disappoint) they retreated back up the hill to their campsite. Things in the psychedelia department had for the most part run their course, and their stated intention was to try to get some sleep before the drive home. But nobody was very convincing. They all knew that it would be virtually impossible to tear themselves away before a certain Mr. Hendrix had his say.
There is a point of exhaustion beyond which, no matter what else is going on, the body will sleep. Art slept like the dead all through The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Sha Na Na as well. (He would harbor no regrets as to the latter; years later, at a cocktail party with fellow cardiologists, he would be surprised to find out that said musical offenders even played at Woodstock, and would argue the point until somebody with an iPhone proved him wrong.)
The real regret was that he somehow managed to sleep through most of what many would later consider the crowning act of the entire festival, a performance so epic that, to be blunt, it sends chills down my spine to contemplate it — and I wasn’t even there. Jimi threw it down, no holds barred, proving himself the undisputed reigning master of his art. It was as if he were possessed by an inexplicable, preternatural musical muse greater than any of this earth. The irony was that the vast majority of those who went to Woodstock were home by then.
Jimi was just beginning his stunning rendition of The Star Spangled Banner when Art emerged from the tent. He stretched to his full height, then stopped, listening, awestruck and reverent. The rain had for the most part quit; but a puddle in the dent on the roof of the Beetle reflected the scudding clouds, smoky and gray. Through his Stratocaster Jimi spoke for millions; and what they all cried was we’re Americans too, dammit! And we love our country! Many would later criticize this performance as disrespectful, if not downright “un-American.” But the simple truth was that it could hardly have been more quintessentially American — independent, free, and defiant. It was just in a language that the elders failed to grasp.
Carolyn (!) emerged from behind him. She pulled one of Art’s t-shirts over her sleepy head, came up close, and drew her arm around him. They had Jimi and they had each other. They said nothing because there was nothing to say. After a minute or two they wandered off toward the stage one last time, hand in hand.
Gordon and April, who by now had become something of a pair, were already breaking camp when they returned. Carolyn began to gather her things too. Not having anything else to look forward to, Art finally began to contemplate things he was not looking forward to. He was looking at the puddle of water on top of the car.
That was when Art committed Mistake Number Two. Really, I personally wish he would have left well-enough alone. I wonder if maybe not all of the acid had worn off after all. In the end it was probably just that human tendency to want to make it all go away right now — to hit stop, rewind, and record; and to hold a finger over your lips for a minute or two, recording crickets, cars, lawnmowers, trees swaying, birds singing, children playing — anything, except what really happened.
First he swept the water away with his hand. Then he opened the door and folded himself into the back seat. Sitting in the middle with both front seats tilted forward, for a full minute he just sat and looked and listened. Then he started to feel around, caressing the ceiling with an open palm. He slapped it a bit, then started pounding with a closed fist. Not getting the results he had hoped for, he wedged himself into the back seat cross-wise, his chin on his chest and his shoulder blades pressing into the right edge of the bottom cushion. Still barefoot (he hadn’t worn shoes since Thursday) he pulled the backs of his knees inward with his hands and placed his feet on the ceiling. The angle was bad but he had hope. He whispered to himself:
and gave a mighty shove against the ceiling.
So he did it again. And again. Pretty soon he had a rhythmic pumping motion going on, and the whole Volksie was rocking and rolling like there was something else going on in there — which, of course, is simply not possible.
Sometimes Art, like his father, was hard to read. He liked to think that he embodied the peace-and-love beatitude that defined (or was supposed to define) the counterculture of his times. So it is impossible to tell whether he was getting frustrated, or simply a little carried away. He was pumping hard, fast and furious, working up a sweat, when all of sudden, two things occurred at the exact same time:
- The headliner tore, and
- There was a sharp, angry, and repeating cracking noise just below his head.
The first event had hardly registered before the second scared the bejesus out of him. Before he knew it he’d bolted from the car and stood several feet away, panting, staring, bewildered. His friends would have been rolling in the grass laughing, had they seen him. Luckily they were preoccupied with breaking camp. So Art was a lonesome fool now.
When his pulse began to slow down, he cautiously approached the vehicle. The door was, of course, wide open. He peered inside. The first thing he noticed, like a blow to the gut, was the large flap of torn headliner hanging from the ceiling. There was also a slight acrid smell in the air, like a sour aftertaste. An electrical smell, he realized. With that he reached in and pulled the bottom cushion of the back seat upwards — revealing, lo and behold, the battery. The rubber thingies that were supposed to cover the terminals were not only a bit floppy, but also appeared to be partially melted. And there were evident scorch-marks on the horsehair seat-stuffing. It turned out that Art had demonstrated that yes indeed, one can short the battery out, if enough pressure is applied in the right (wrong) spot to bring the seat springs in contact with the terminals.
The keys, he saw, were still in the ignition. He jumped in the front seat, said a quick prayer (he seldom prayed, but figured it couldn’t hurt), pumped the accelerator pedal once, pressed in the clutch, and turned the key. It fired right up.
But there was nothing that was going to save him once he got home.
It was a long drive. Wired and tempered from the crucible their bodies had been through over the last few days, they were nevertheless hungry for a proper sit-down. They stopped at a diner in Middletown for coffee and pancakes. The waitress was cold, indifferent, and obviously not particularly enamored by their kind. This was hard to take given the warm group-hug they’d just shared with 500,000 of their closest friends.
And so the hordes returned to wherever it was they came from. Paraphrasing Didion, who quoted Yeats, they slouched towards New Paltz. They crept back to Poughkeepsie. Crawled to Greenwich Village. Slogged to Brooklyn. They hitched rides, rode the bus, nursed battered Dodges and Chevies back to Washington, Boston, Atlanta, Wichita, and Denver. Some even dragged themselves as far as that mythical promised land of California.
After dropping off his friends, Art turned into his own driveway. Oh how he wished now, more than ever, that he could borrow just one little detail from that alternate parallel universe — the reality in which it actually made sense to get a place of his own, instead of attending college in his home town, with free room and board, and with his father’s benefits covering the small remainder of expenses that his own scholarships did not. He pulled up next to his father’s Buick and shut the engine off. The door to the old barn/garage was open, and he could see his mother in there. She used it as a potting shed. She was potting.
She emerged from the dimness, wiping her hands on her smock. There was a smudge of black dirt vertically splitting her forehead, making the perpetual furrow between her eyebrows even more pronounced. At first it was almost as if she hadn’t noticed her son pull up. She glanced across the street, into the trees, and then into the gray sky above, as if assessing the weather or scanning for airborne marauders.
Then she noticed the car, saw something was wrong, and stared at it. She did not move and did not look at Art. He almost called, “Mom?” but thought the better of it. It was she who finally broke the silence.
“Rubylove,” was all that she said. She slowly turned and retreated back into the garage.
In summertime Art’s father kept irregular hours. Typically he taught a class or two, caught up on research projects, and tutored a few of his more “challenging” students (on a volunteer basis). Presently, however, the professor was situated under cover on the back porch, reading a novel. The sweet smoke from his pipe hung thick in the sodden air.
“You’re late,” he said without looking up from his book as Art walked through the open sliding door.
“We wanted to call, but there were no phones. And —”
“Which would explain why you didn’t call us. Or Jerry.”
Jerry was Art’s boss at the movie theater. Art was now officially twenty-four hours late for work. Twenty-three-and-a-half hours ago, Jerry had called the house looking for Art. And April, while he was at it.
“I need not tell you how embarrassing that was,” Arthur Senior said.
“Dad, I’m sorry. It was mayhem. There was just no way.”
“You did manage to bring the camera back in one piece?”
“Yes!” Arthur Junior replied, a little too quickly, a little too emphatically. “Yes. I did. It’s fine.”
The professor finally put down his book and pulled the pipe from his mouth. “Well, I’m sure you’ll apologize to Jerry. Now would be a good time. It might be a moot point, though,” he said, looking his son in the eye.
Arthur Junior had been feeling a bit peaked this day. Of course he’d heard the rumors about the strychnine, and wondered if the tight muscles, clammy skin, and dry mouth could in any way be attributed to that. Maybe the brown acid hadn’t been such a good idea after all. But the present knot in his throat and queasiness was something else. He simply couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Dad,” he began, looking at his father’s brown leather slippers. “The car. I think I messed it up. But I’ll pay for it. I’ll figure out a way.”
Art was no expert, but he figured (correctly) that body work wasn’t cheap. He also figured (correctly) that to fix the Volkswagen’s roof was akin to major surgery. It didn’t seem to be the kind of thing you could just unbolt and replace. Maybe they had special tools. Or maybe they’d have to weld a new roof on. Plus the headliner. Either way, it would be expensive. He had been honest and straightforward about damaging the car. But he knew that there was just no way in hell he’d be able to afford a repair like that.
His father took a deep breath as he rose. “Let’s have a look.”
Back in the driveway, Art stood off to the side, silent, with his hands in his pockets. In spite of the drizzle, his father took his time with it — poking and prodding, mumbling to himself, and assessing the damage from every possible angle. A few times he just planted himself in one spot, mulling. Finally he stood next to his son. So as to avoid eye contact, they both looked at the subject of the conversation.
“Disappointed,” the professor said. He seemed to be letting that soak in for a moment when Diane strode up the driveway in her red rain slicker.
“Oh, hey Artie! How was it? I heard it ran late. Did you see Jimi Hendrix? Susan said she heard from her sister that — hey! Like, what happened to the car?”
“Go in the house, Diane,” her father said. “Please.”
Fortunately Diane had enough sense to keep walking. Arthur Senior waited until they heard the door swing closed.
“It’s your problem now, Artie,” he said, still looking at the car.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” Art said. He meant it. “It was a dumb thing. Like I said, I’ll figure out a way to cover it. Doug has a buddy that does body work. I’ll get a quote and I’ll save up to pay for it.”
“Assuming you still have a job, that is.”
“Awe, that’s just a lousy job at a movie theater, Dad. I can always find something else.”
“You’re missing the point!” growled his father, in a rare show of temper. “It’s an integrity issue, son,” he explained, recovering himself. Art figured that word had to come up sooner or later. It was one of his father’s favorites.
“Plus, like I said. It’s your problem now.”
“I’ll pay for it.”
“You know, I really don’t care whether you fix it or not. What I’m trying to say is, the car is yours now. It’s your problem.”
“What?” Art said, looking now at the side of the old man’s face. Hard to read, as usual.
“That’s right. Mom doesn’t really drive a whole lot anymore. And you’ll need it when you go off to medical school. Which I’m confident you will. But effective immediately, you’re paying for gas, insurance, registration, maintenance, everything. What you do about the damage is entirely up to you.”
Thanking his father seemed, at that point in time, horribly inappropriate. Besides, Art didn’t even want the car. Not that car. Not like this. He said nothing.
“You can count this as your graduation present, if you will, three years early,” his father said as he turned and walked back toward the house. Although this was an act of kindness, there was still a sharp, rueful edge to his voice. He’d been backed into a corner and he knew it. Sure, he could have forced his nineteen-year-old, minimum-wage earning, college student son to come up with a ridiculous amount of money to repair a four-year-old Volkswagen. Or he could have simply kicked him out of the house. There were scant reasonable, logical choices.
“Oh, and one more thing,” his father said, pausing on the steps. “A’s. I want A’s. Nothing but. Understood?”
This did not intimidate Art. “Yes, Dad.”
“Good. Now get that piece of shit out of my driveway.”