8 July 2014

From the Estate of Uncle Gerald

In high school I drove my mom’s twenty-year-old Mercury Bobcat that was brown and basically a fancy twenty-year-old Ford Pinto. I drove it for three years and I loved it so much. My girlfriend at college had a piece-of-crap-red IROC Z her uncle had given her. She was pretty sure he'd lived in it for several weeks during a divorce, which seems uncomfortable. But she kept it at my house and hated it anyway, so I felt entitled to treat it as if it were my own, and I drove the hell out of it with AC/DC on cassette in the foothills off campus.

First and only time I ever hit the ton was in that IROC. And that's my “car ownership experience.” Kind of sad, I guess, and certainly not as impressive as that guy Rheinhold, who lived down the street from me when I was little.

Rheinhold drove a pace car Corvette and then a Bandit T/A to high school. And his father had a '71 GTX, which was nothing like my own dad's car, a first-year Ford Escort he would come to hate. I wonder sometimes what’s in Rheinhold’s garage these days.

I called the Mercury Brown Freedom, because that was the car, distilled to its essentials. The IROC was just stupid, and how I drove it, stupid too. Several times I should have died in that car. But I didn't, so what I remember of those foothill days is the joyful stupidity.

Now I'm nearing middle age and I live in Portland and I ride my bike and I text sometimes while I ride my bike, which really is stupid. All my friends are married and have little kids and minivans or crossovers or whatever to cart them in, and if my mother was still alive, she’d wonder what was wrong with me.

The point is my dad’s brother Gerald is dead. My sister Amy called on Sunday to tell me the news.

They were estranged, Dad and Gerald, and I only ever met him once, on our “This Is Our Amazing Country, Kids!” roadtrip in a yellow GMC motorhome. Now that thing was amazing. I remember little about him, except he smelled like chemicals, never opened any of his curtains and had a small red boat with twin propellers beneath a bedsheet in the garage. Dad said he studied salamanders for a living.

“I'm heading down there next weekend,” Amy said. I could hear her kids hitting each other in the background.
“I’m picking up a bunch of vintage Tupperware, some jewelry and books, and a log cabin quilt from back in the day. Dad’s great-grandma made it or something.”

“Or something,” I said. But she was yelling at her kids.

“And you get a car, apparently,” she said. “So yay for
you.” My sister Amy is a master chef of sarcasm.

“Wait,” I said.

“Something old,” she said. “It literally says ‘Old Car’ in the paperwork I got. She was nice and matter of fact again, the one representing us in whatever needed representing for an uncle neither of us knew.

“A car?” I said.

“End of the week they're bringing it to you,” she said.

Now it is the end of the week. A Russian man called yesterday and talked very fast with a heavy accent in a semi-truck at speed. I barely got any of it, but what I did catch was: “We drop in front of house tomorrow, between hours nine to five.”

I spent the rest of the day thinking about this old mystery car of Uncle Gerald’s. Are we talking old like Brown
Freedom or old like the 1950s? Or the 1920s? American? English? Japanese? It’s not a Citroën but what if it was? Enchanté. A Model T might be kind of cool — some stodgy thing with tall wooden wheels that I could paint platinum, because why not? How about a bullet-nose Studebaker? That’d be fun. Or an old Porsche, but maybe not a 924.

The Russians arrive between nine and five, right on time, and it’s a big to-do on my narrow street, their giant green truck clogging it up and irking my neighbors.

After a few minutes a ramp comes down and all the kids on the block join me at the back to peek inside. It feels like Christmas, but bigger, the Super Bowl of Christmas. In the dark at the front of the trailer the driver disappears for a minute to unhook the straps, and then he pushes the car toward us. Shiny bits pick up the light from the open end and soon I see that there’s a propeller and another propeller and then the red paint of the little boat I remember from Uncle Gerald’s garage. For a moment I am disappointed, the boy unwrapping a boat when what he’d wished for was a car.

Closer it rolls, though, the fins and taillights visible, the chrome spotless, and then a license plate, “NEWT.” I smile then and I picture Rheinhold’s garage.

No way Rheinhold owns an Amphicar.

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