We bounced up the mountain on the dirt road, the undercarriage of our car clunking from time to time on one of the bigger bumps. I was following the directions Alec had given me the first time we came to visit, thirty years ago – “Just take a right at every fork then take a last right when you see our sign – you can’t miss it. That’s our driveway.” Though we’d been this way countless times since the first, we still exchanged worried looks, conveying primordial fears- lost in the woods on a mountain in Northern Vermont, sun’s going down, how much gas do we have?…But there was the sign! We laughed, at the joke whose punch line gets a little sharper with each year as the sign weathers into further obscurity. You can’t miss it -no problem, green lettering on a green sign on a tree in a green wood.
I nursed the car up the last stretch of long driveway – the ruts were really murder now.
I don’t remember which car it was we were driving, because I’ve never paid a bit of attention to any cars. If I witnessed a bank robbery and the cops asked me, “What were they driving – was it a Dodge Dart or a Mazerati?” I couldn’t say. The only time I pay cars any mind is when the one I’m in stops working. Suddenly that car is very much in front of me, the subject of fear -how am I going to get where I need to get? Followed by anger when I see the bill. Soon as the thing’s rolling again I’ve forgotten it exists, along with all the other billion cars on the planet.
I saw the roof peak of the house Alec and Maggie had built and finally smiled – even on their driveway we still wonder if we’re on the right road – was that their sign, or some leaves on a tree? I looked over and saw a bright red car. This one I actually saw, for a moment, because it seemed so out of place. In part I’m stuck back in the early 70’s, back when Alec and I were in a band together and rode to gigs in his jalopies, mufflers sewn on with twisted coat hangers, steam – or was it smoke? periodically farting out from under the lid. I’d been impressed by how Alec could fix his car, and grateful that he fixed my clunker a few times – once when it had broken down he’d slapped a tire on the front of his and pushed mine miles up a winding road to his house, where he’d fixed it. Alec and Maggie had had to stay over at our wedding with their two small kids because Alec’s car wouldn’t start. And Maggie’s cars were no better.
Another thing – Alec and Maggie are the perfect embodiments of the best of the hippies – folks who haven’t wasted their lives chasing the allmighty dollar, who’ve followed their dreams and raised a fine roof and two find kids. Though all of us are past tire-on-the-hood tow jobs, and have working vehicles, I just didn’t see them as fancy red car folks.
I told Mrs. Muse, “Must be company.” She agreed.
Alec and Maggie were the only people there. I kept stealing glances out the window at that red car. Maggie explained, “It’s a perk with my business. Something to do with the taxes.” But she wasn’t apologizing. “I really like it.”
I was jabbering with Alec as he put the pork roast in the oven when the women slipped out the back door. “Oh, Maggie must be taking Mrs. M for a ride.” I saw a flash of red, and to my confusion, the heads of those two fine women. Oh, a convertible. The word instantly slipped from my mind, before I could connect it with what Mrs. Muse had said a few times recently – about what a good time she’d had riding in her friend Sue’s convertible. In retrospect I know she was using her usual subtlety to tell me something. And I was being my usual obtuse self, not getting it one bit.
Alec and I were still talking when the women returned. As Mrs. Muse came in the door I noticed she was suppressing a little smile. She had a gleam in her eye. I knew these signs. She wanted something. It made me uncomfortable, but soon I was lost in the wine and conversation.
Next morning we bumped down off the mountain. We both smiled, free of the fear of getting lost, as there’s only one way down, and content with the memories of that fine pork roast, the fine wine and finer conversation the four of us had chased long into the night. A good time to approach me.
She said, “I want one.”
“You know – a convertible, like Maggie’s.”
I am a cheap bastard, just as my mother taught me. But when Mrs. Muse brought it up a second, then a third time, I relented. I am not one to refuse her her heart’s desire.
She came home with it. “You want to see it?” I said, “Sure,” just as if she’d asked, “Do you want to see a spreadsheet of household expenses over the last ten years?”
There it was. A car, like all the other cars I’d ever seen. “Nice.”
“Want to go for a ride?” Oh, OK.
We were not a mile down our country road when a most unexpected thing happened. I felt the breeze on my face. Heard the whoosh of air as we sliced a path through it. I took a deep breath and smelled grass, and flowers, and a sweet hint of cowshit (not an entirely unpleasant smell.) And it felt…good. I felt free.
Somewhere far below my thoughts wriggled an ancient feeling memory. Riding next to my father in his pride, his Austin Healy Sprite, through the country outside of town. About the most relaxed that wound up guy ever got, about as free. He would talk and I would listen, and it was one of the very rare times in a long troubled relationship when it just felt good to be with him, and I assume for him to be with me.
We got home and Mrs. Muse said, “How was it?” with one of her big smiles that says gotcha! and at the same time takes pleasure in my pleasure.
“OK. You win. It’s great.” It wasn’t too painful to admit. Thankfully, unlike my folks, neither Mrs. Muse nor I are big on holding onto a dumb thing like pride.
One nice sunny day, I was headed to the gym. “Want to take my car?” Over that spring and summer I would see confirmed what I already knew – that Mrs. Muse is far more generous than I will ever be, and has become only more so as she embraces Buddhism. Time and again she would let me take the convertible, even though it meant she would be riding in my fat old Volvo wagon, whose interior has suddenly come to feel as silent and claustrophobic as a coffin.
As I headed for the gym I was expecting the usual morose half-hour ride laden with workout anticipation, which no amount of cognitive manipulation has ever really lightened (You know you’ll feel much better after you work out, you always do…screw you, I feel like shit now!)
But the wind was gently kissing my head, vacuuming the thoughts right out, including those of immanent self-torture. Believe me, I have too many. Bob Dylan sang for me when he sang, “I need a dump truck mama, to unload my head.” The ride back was simply bliss. The convertible not only saved me from dark thoughts, but saved me from NPR.
Now I’m really totally hooked. I push my open topped ride well into November, donning my winter coat, hat and gloves, and turning the heat up full. As the temperature dips below forty and aims for freezing I feel like I’m approaching some critical test –like flying into the sound barrier, or the speed of light. If I can just bear it I’ll be breaching the space-time continuum, subject to extra-dimensional miracles…or just frostbite. I haven’t had the guts yet to find out.
It’s been a tough winter in a lot of ways, which I won’t whine about here. So tough that even the approach of spring holds little hope. Except I’ve had the top down twice in the last week, reminding me of what I can be grateful for. Good old friends. Mrs. Muse, of course. And her convertible.