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Automotive Technology

by Jeff Steinbrink

I was having a plenty bad day even before I stole the woman's car

I was having a plenty bad day even before I stole the woman's car.

"Ex-cuse me," she said, as if maybe she was responsible for the awkwardness of the moment. "That's my car." 

She said it flatly, without even a hint of accusation, but there I was, caught, about to fire up her black rattletrap station wagon. It may at one time have been a Chrysler product, but it had lived through so much and had been cared for so little that it was now distinguishable only as a boxy, decrepit rust-bucket, its headlights smashed, its windshield cracked, its lease on life as we know it over. Along one of its roof gutters, where in better times a roof rack may have been, someone had lashed, with lanyard cord, a bone-white length of driftwood.

"Um," I said from the driver's seat. Inside, the car looked and smelled as if it had been lived in by circus people or monkeys for a considerable time. Bits of rubbish were everywhere, the dashboard leatherette had been picked or sliced to pieces, and the term "upholstery" no longer applied to any interior surface. "I thought this was Deb's car."

"That's hers over there," the woman said, nodding toward another black shape, a hatch-backy thing that I was able to identify-only because a nameplate hung by a single rivet off its backside-as having once been a Ford Escort. I had in fact looked into the Escort, thinking it might be Deb's, before all-but-stealing the woman's car.

"There wasn't a key in that one," I explained. "There was in yours."

"It's in there somewhere," the woman said. "Did you look in the ashtray?"

I was in Deb's car by now. "There is no ashtray," I said. In its heyday the Escort surely had an ashtray, just as it surely had hubcaps, headlights, a couple of rear-view mirrors, seat belts, air-conditioning, a radio, a working trunk lid, and a back seat, but those days were gone. I pawed through candy wrappers, what might have been cough drops, and some sort of goo on the little ledge where the radio had been, but found no keys. I tried the glove compartment-which, remarkably, opened but which held only what I think was the Escort's oil filter and, at its bottom, oil.

The woman sauntered-there's no other word for it-over, reached through the open space where the driver's side window had once been, and plucked a key off the steering column, right in front of me. "Try this," she said, and again there was no need for her to say it in a smart-alecky way for it to be a smart-alecky thing to say.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to take your car."

"Not a problem," she said, meaning it. "Where are my keys?"

"Left them in the ignition."

"Good."  She walked away, her car waiting for another thief.

These were island cars. I had just come on a two-hour ferry ride to rent Deb's house for a week and live like an islander. Deb told me her car would be waiting at the dock and left directions for me to reach her cottage. She had had enough of island life for a while and had taken an earlier ferry back to civilization.

Not that islands off the coast of Maine aren't civilized; they're just-with very few exceptions-very sparsely populated, and they are, after all, insular. This particular island-let's call it Alphabet Island-has a total of maybe two and a half miles of dirt/gravel road. A car thief with an appetite for, say, a boxy rust-bucket that may once have been a Chrysler product would have nowhere to hide that a person walking lazily around the island wouldn't stumble upon in less than an hour.

I turned the key the woman had found for me and the Escort roared to life, a fart of blue vapor filling the air behind me. I transferred my belongings and food-seven banana boxes that had cost just $8.05 to ship along on the ferry-from the woman's car to Deb's and drove the mile or so to Deb's cottage. Along the way, people waved. I took to waiving back, not wanting to be rude, and supposing that they knew Deb's car and were either mistaking me for her or being nice to me because I was her tenant. Neither turned out to be the case:  island people just waive, whether they know you or not. Maybe they figure they'll meet you before too long anyway, or maybe they figure "we're all in this together," even if some of us are in it for just a week.

All along the way to Deb's I saw island cars-or island vehicles. There wasn't much traffic; in fact, there was, apart from me, none. Almost nobody had what you'd call a driveway, but somewhere about most houses, shacks, camps, and cottages was some form of transportation.

On an island three forms prevail. The first and by far the rarest are genuine, functional vehicles like those almost all off-islanders drive. Most of these are trucks and most are involved in serious work-delivering oil, putting out fires, laying down gravel. You don't see a contemporary Camry or Miata cruising a typical Maine island.

The second is the golf cart. Golf carts are preferred by the island elites. They cost real money, and so they sharply separate the have-lots from the have-not-so-muches. When people in the golf carts waive to you in your smoking, roaring island car, as they do, they are doing you a good turn.

The island car, the third form of island transportation, is junk. No one should have to pay good money for an island car, and few people do. The island car is no longer welcome on the mainland, where cars are expected to hurtle through space at speeds approaching 80 mph and to have floorboards, turn-signals, and glass in every window. Island cars are the sorts of things that are, inland, rolled into abandoned quarries in the dead of night, hammered to pieces at carnivals and charity fundraisers, or hauled off to the scrapyard. Island cars are to driving what beer bottles strewn across the lawn are to a night of drinking:  Good Things gone bad.

Until, of course, they find salvation and second lives on Maine's coastal islands. The Escort may have been a failure aesthetically and in many ways mechanically, but it was able to move forward and backward and to haul bulky objects, including my occasional visitors. These virtues define its success as an island car, never mind its monkey-smell, its nasty blue exhaust, or whatever that metal pan is that it drags along beneath it. Across its chin, where a front bumper had once been, it displays a sizeable yellow sticker that reads


We should all do so well.

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Articles in this Issue

The Chore Coat, by Adrienne Mercer
Beauty That Shines Through, by Krista Landers
On Brautigan, by Justin Taylor
Deaf not Deaf, by Josh Swiller
My Guitar Flies Solo to Bucharest, by Glenn Kurtz
Communications, by Phillip Routh
International Law, by Marguerite Feitlowitz
Automotive Technology, by Jeff Steinbrink
Lost Last Month


Jeff Steinbrink teaches American Lit and Creative Writing at Franklin & Marshall College. His commentaries can be heard on public radio's Marketplace.

Where loss is found.

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