By David Feela
Walking through the Cortez City Park during Memorial Day weekend, I admired all the hot rods and muscle cars parked on the grass. Every machine, chopped or partially restored, made me remember my red 1965 Mustang convertible. Just the thought of it makes me close my eyes. Like light from a burned-out star, all that flashy chrome still shines from somewhere inside me. All those layers of wax I buffed clean through the hood still make the sweat on my forehead bead up. The top folded back, the radio blaring, a summer moon rolling like a hubcap across the sky.
I was 18 years old. A senior in high school, majoring in myself. My hair was longer than my father liked it, my face was blemished with self doubt, as if my sense of imperfection constantly wanted out. My mother reminded me not to slouch, then opened the plate glass door to the office where she worked and ushered me through it.
“Don’t be disappointed if she already sold it,” my mother coached. “And don’t look excited if she hasn’t, at least until I’ve had a chance to ask how much she wants.”
I waited in the hall. I stared at my feet until I noticed how the linoleum sent back a ghostly, wavering silhouette of my own body. I studied my reflection, leaning into it. From my mother’s point of view, I was slouching. But I swear I caught a glimpse of the future in that shine, like in a crystal ball, I was consulting the powers of fate and fortune, I was tuned in to the pulse and strobe of fluorescent lighting that stretched across the ceiling. I was coming down like a pilot toward a landing strip, wings balanced, the ground seeming to rise, the runway crew scrambling to welcome me with wild arms.
Nobody owns the road, but put a teenager in the driver’s seat and he thinks he does. I was, in the flick of an ignition switch, a devout convert to the temple of the industrial world. I would kneel at its altar all summer, anointed to the elbows with grease from a hundred graveyard shifts in a downtown Minneapolis machine shop, where my paycheck was a cache of power: horsepower.
When I pulled out of my parents’ driveway, I was in charge; nobody told me what I should or should not do, what to think, when to sit, speak, or in what particular tone of voice I was or was not supposed to address them. With the top down, I listened to the harmony of the spheres transmitted through my cylinders. I stepped on the accelerator and made my 289 cubic inches howl back at the moon.
That was, as they say, then. Here is closer to now: my Mustang is gone, traded for a year of college tuition. I don’t even remember the face that came to pay for the car or pick it up. Man or woman, I don’t really know. Human — at least human — I can assure you. I lived in a basement with three roommates and I was authentically on my own for the first time in my life, flagrantly disconnected from my family and the college’s dormitory system, a rebel without a car. Every responsibility in the world came down on me but I couldn’t see them coming: rent, the telephone bill (with long-distance charges by a r o o m - mate who moved away), groceries, even dog food despite the reality that the dog I fed didn’t belong to me.
Here is now again, almost free of nostalgia: I’m still in charge, nobody except my boss threatening me with termination, that is, unless middle age and cholesterol can be counted as bosses. I’m an English teacher in a small high school two thousand miles from my hometown, happily married, with IRAs, driving a Pontiac sedan. My Mustang would be priceless if I still owned it. I have no children, my mother and father gone down the road ahead of me.
When I first buckled up in the driver’s seat of that Mustang, I thought now was forever. One full tank of gas would have been enough to convince me I had eternal life. Apparently life doesn’t get that kind o f mileage. You inherit it from someone else, from your parents for instance, and they, in turn, from their parents. It increases in value the longer you have it until near the end you would give anything to have it back, as they say in the blue book, to appreciate.
No doubt I’ll go on thinking about my red 1965 Mustang convertible now that the steel has been dissolved and recast as memory and the memory welded to these words. I’ll retire after 30 years and wonder if I ever truly was free. It may be that a post-industrial boy’s rite of passage is acted out through his machine.
Independence is a spark leaping across a universe that ignites us into being. And here I keep polishing a little spot in time, imagining it forever winking back at me.
Dave Feela is a teacher at Montezuma- Cortez High School.