Published by The Bookends Review, August 2, 2021
Henry was stopped in traffic, headed to an early-morning doctor’s appointment, when the red MG popped out of a side street and passed him, city-bound.
The car was lipstick red, husky-voiced. The driver wore dark bubbles of Hollywood sunglasses, a blue blazer and a bold red macho-striped shirt open at the throat. A thick shock of white hair crowned him in a sun-drenched halo.
Early in his college years Henry had yearned for a red MG. Craved. Coveted. A Ferrari or Porsche might have been even better, but he had no hope of affording more than an MG, and not much hope of even that. In fact, he drove a third-hand Jeep of World War II vintage. Courted Mabel in that ancient vehicle, until she gave him an ultimatum: find a conventional sedan that offered some protection against upstate New York winters, or find a new girlfriend.
He was in love with Mabel, so he traded up from the Jeep to a well-used Chevy BelAir, an absolutely graceless boat of an automobile whose greatest asset was a wide back seat almost as big and comfortable as a sofa. That back seat was arguably responsible for an early marriage. Their wedded bliss lasted, and that back seat was in time filled with a passel of kids, all but the first conceived in a proper marital bed.
The BelAir made it through the first decade of their marriage, held together toward the end by yards of duct tape. By the time they could afford to replace it, a vehicle that seated only two was out of the question.
The man in the red convertible wore a jaunty smile as he went by Henry, one hand on the steering wheel, the other carelessly on the back of an empty passenger seat, as though inviting someone to flag him down and fill the space. That fleeting image burned itself indelibly into Henry’s brain.
His own shirt was a business-blue oxford. He had long shunned stripes, thinking they exaggerated his lanky frame, but it occurred to him he might look good in half-inch stripes that asserted themselves. Maybe blue or green, just to be different from the MG man.
They were together four decades, he and Mabel, wonderful family years, raising children now scattered into other states. He was until his retirement a beloved middle school English teacher, which meant they were comfortable but not affluent. Until the first-born son, Harry, was in his teens, Henry never made enough even to think about a second car.
When the all the kids were old enough, Mabel went back to get her degree and began a teaching career, and a second car seemed feasible. By then, though, Harry was old enough to drive, and the prospect of having sons – no matter how well-brought-up and responsible– begging to borrow his roadster was enough to dissuade him from even hinting to Mabel how great she’d look in a two-seater. He reluctantly shopped around to find a clunker that was a latter-day cousin of the old BelAir.
They managed a long European vacation once, flying into Frankfort for a two-week drive through lands of castles and art museums, good restaurants and picturesque ruins. Mabel let him lease an Audi convertible – every bit as much fun as he’d long imagined, and he’d maxed it whenever the speed limits were inviting. It was a mixed blessing, though: There were even sportier BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes on the German autobahns, Lamborghinis on the Italian autopistas, and Jaguars on the British motorways, all reminders of the automotive destiny that had been denied him.
Over the years, he gradually succumbed to the reality that owning any such vehicle was like another unfulfilled dream, snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. That was an ambition born of a Caribbean vacation where they learned to paddle along, peering face-down through plastic lenses at a profusion of colorful fish and coral.
They never got back to snorkeling even the Caribbean, let alone affording a long flight down under to explore the greatest of the world’s marine offerings. Too late for that now, surely. And he was sitting at the wheel of a six-year-old tan Corolla that looked like half the other cars on the road, peas out of the same pod.
As the red convertible with its throaty sibilance swept down the highway and out of sight and hearing, the Corolla suddenly seemed ancient. Australia might be out of reach, but peppier wheels might not be beyond his grasp.
The light changed; Henry drove on out of town, toward the doctor’s.
He still had a good head of hair. Salt-and-pepper, thanks to some drugstore stuff he’d used since Mabel’s death. He’d kept her hair dryer, and it occurred to him that with it he could probably make his hair look almost as thick and bushy as the red-roadster man’s. Even without a blow-dried corona, the face he shaved in the mirror each morning looked younger than his years, with only a few crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes.
Her death was a bit more than a year behind him now. He’d gotten past the grieving, but had postponed any thought of shucking the burden of lawns and gardens, moving to an apartment or even one of the new senior retirement communities. He wasn’t ready to downsize, throwing away a houseful of memories of Mabel. Soon, perhaps, but not yet.
And he’d found ways to fill the gaps. He spent a morning each week at the food bank, helping sort and stack, doing the heavy lifting that most of the other volunteers, older than he, could manage only with difficulty. He spent another morning delivering Meals on Wheels. And he became a more regular attender at the events of the Senior Guys, a lunch-and-speaker retiree group he’d joined when he quit teaching.
Friends said he was still young enough to “make a new life,” which he understood as a Delphic, euphemistic way of saying to re-marry. There were those who urged him to pursue some widows in the circles he and Mabel had inhabited. He always nodded in silence, reluctant to say aloud that if or when he decided to look for female companionship, he’d be prospecting in other, younger fields, or that the elderly women to whom he delivered occasional meals would also not be candidates.
Outbound traffic was light at this hour, so he could pay some attention to the commercial strip that lined the road. He had forgotten – or perhaps never until now noticed — how abundant car dealerships were on this stretch. In the few remaining miles to the doctor’s, there were a half-dozen. Most of them were across the road, perhaps worth eyeballing on the way home, but suddenly here was a bright yellow Porsche on his side, parked on one of those elevated display ramps that put it head and shoulders above the hoi polloi of other cars. A Boxster, a classic.
He pulled off the road to admire it for a moment. Checking his Timex, he was still early for his appointment. He got out to read the hyped specifications on a sheet pasted to the driver’s-side window. A “descendent of an open-cockpit race car,” a “midship-mounted 3.0-liter boxer engine and powertrain.” Offering 350 horsepower, 309 pound-feet of torque, acceleration from 0 to 60 in four seconds flat and a top speed of 177 mph.
“C’mon, Henry!” he said aloud. If he could have a roadster, he’d want a red one, and he certainly couldn’t afford a Porsche, even now. Nor did his ambitions reach 177 miles an hour. He didn’t need this car, nor a Lamborghini, Ferrari or Jaguar. He got back into his faded Corolla before a salesman might appear. Looking into the dusty side mirror, he eased back out into traffic.
He’d had some bloodwork done the week before, as his doctor prescribed, and his visit this time began with the traditional EKG. A pretty young nurse wheeled the machine into the examining room, had him loosen his shirt and lie on the table, and briskly applied the sticky contacts to his skin before hooking on the color-coded leads.
“How do you keep them straight?” Henry asked. He knew the answer; he just wanted a little conversation. Men his age had few occasions for small talk with younger women other than their daughters. She looked exactly the sort who would have graced handsomely the passenger seat in this morning’s red roadster.
“They’re numbered,” she said with what he recognized as an automated be-nice-to-patients smile. She must spend every day, he thought, staying coolly professional with old geezers like him who want to start perfectly innocent conversations. Probably a mother of three with no interest in sporty cars.
“Breathe normally,” she said, and pushed a button on the machine. A few whirs and clicks and it was done; she unhooked the leads and deftly peeled off the stickies. “Might as well keep your shirt open,” she advised. “Doctor Perry will want to listen with his stethoscope. He’ll be with you in a few minutes.” And off she went.
He had to wait only a few minutes. “Henry, you’re in good shape,” the doctor said as he came in, offering a perfunctory handshake while he browsed a loose-leaf notebook in the other hand.
“Last time I saw you was soon after your wife’s death. I’m sorry. Are you managing the adjustment?”
“Best I can. Still miss her.”
“Of course.” The doc consulted his notebook again. “EKG perfect. Kidney function fine. Your good cholesterol is high, and bad cholesterol low. I guess you must eat carefully. And you’ve kept your weight down.”
“I work at it, doc.”
“It shows.” He unlimbered his stethoscope and went through the usual deep breath/breathe normally routines. “I see men a decade younger than you who don’t take as good care of themselves.”
Henry was pleased, but not surprised. He’d made the best of retirement, starting more than a year before Mabel’s death. Swam at the health club four times a week, ten laps; worked out on a half-dozen machines. “Age gracefully,” Mabel used to say. He had.
“Any advice, doc?”
“Any hobbies? Travel? How do you keep busy?”
Henry mentioned the food bank, Meals on Wheels, Senior Guys.
“Good for you. Keep doing what you’re doing. Might even find someone who makes the evenings less lonely. And do something different now and then.”
“We all benefit from the unexpected, Henry. Let yourself be surprised now and then. Get the blood stirring. And I’ll see you in a year. Stop at the front desk to make an appointment.”
The day had warmed by the time he got back to his car; he rolled all the windows down and turned on the a/c until the interior heat was dissipated. Get the blood stirring? He thought. A more youthful car might help.
He started home, driving past Toyota and Honda and Mazda dealers whose showroom lots bulged with sedans and vans as drab as cartons of pastel Easter eggs.
A mile down the road, though, a Chevy dealer had a blazing red Corvette displayed prominently, placed on one of those elevated ramps just as the yellow Boxster had been. Another classic; Henry pulled off to look. His color, but a muscle car, flexing its fenders like biceps. Not his type; he drove on. Besides, he was just window-shopping. Pursuing an idle fantasy prompted by a chance glimpse at a traffic light. Silly, really.
On the other hand . . . . A Mazda dealership loomed, with a red roadster out in front. A Miata. Maybe one he could afford. He pulled deep into the shoulder, and walked over.
The passenger space looked comfortable, compact. The dashboard array of instruments included the tachometer that separated men from boys. The instruments placed so one could glance at them while holding the road at high speed. He had a fleeting vision of himself in dark bubble sunglasses on a shimmering Great Salt Lake proving ground, flooring the accelerator.
The salesmen seemed all to have retreated to the air-conditioned showroom. He circled the car, gauging it. No harm if he got in, sat behind the wheel. Who knew what might happen? He could hear the doc’s voice: Be surprised now and then.
“Hey, mister, is that yours?”
She wasn’t a kid. Blonde hair wound behind her in a pigtail halfway down her back, sunglasses pushed up on her forehead. She was casually dressed for a hot morning, tight jeans emphasizing tight buttocks, a few buttons carefully undone on a short-sleeved white blouse that was diaphanous enough to demand attention. Maybe early thirties, about the age of the doc’s nurse, but nothing wooden about the smile she gave him: a warm, real smile.
She was, Henry thought, quintessentially a young woman who would look great in the passenger seat of this morning’s sporty little red roadster – or this one.
“Not yet,” he improvised. He was still nonplussed by her appearance beside him; she must have walked in from the highway. It was as though Doc Perry had prescribed her. “We all benefit from the unexpected,” he’d said.
“I’m looking for a ride into town, mister. Would be fun, riding in an open car like that. I thought it might be yours.”
“How much time do you have? I could give you a lift in maybe half an hour.” He couldn’t possibly complete a deal in so little time, but could surely take the car for a test drive, give her a lift into town. It popped into his head that they might leave the Miata at the airport where they boarded a plane together bound for the Great Barrier Reef.
“Gee, thanks, but I can’t be late to work. I’d better keep going. If you catch up with me before I get a ride, though, I’d sure like to keep you company.” Giving him another sunny smile, she walked back to the shoulder of the road, heading into town. Not thumbing; looking occasionally over her shoulder, expecting someone to notice her and pull over.
“Can I help you?”
He almost jumped. He hadn’t heard the salesman walk up. “Just wanted to look around.”
“Of course, be my guest. I see you like the looks of this Miata. A fantastic little car.”
All right, then, carpe diem, Henry thought. Seize the moment. Ask about a test drive. He might still catch up with her. “Probably out of my price range. Still, tell me about it.”
“Less than you might think,” the salesman said. “Is that your Corolla? We might work out an attractive trade-in. Maybe you’d like to take this out for a spin? Let’s walk back to the office to do a little paperwork. My name’s Bob Taylor.” Henry accepted the offered handshake.
He should have known he was inviting what was literally a high-powered sales pitch. The Miata was at its best with a manual transmission, which this one had, Taylor said, but an automatic was available. An unusually peppy 16-valve, four-cylinder engine that cranked out 155 horsepower but was a gasoline-sipper, 35 miles to the gallon, thanks to a six-stage gear box. A cloth top that was easy to put up or down and stowed well.
Henry endured the recitation until they reached the showroom. “What I’d really like to do,” he said, “is see how all that feels when I take it out for a test drive.”
“You bet. Let me get the keys while you get out your driver’s license and insurance card.”
It took forever. In his mind’s eye, he saw the blonde hitchhiker, cars slowing, pulling over to offer her a ride. Women that attractive didn’t need to show a thumb. He glanced at his watch, trying to remember what time it had been when she walked back out to the road. She must surely have gotten a ride by now.
Still, it would be fun to take the little Miata out for a drive. No commitments, just a test drive, then get back into his tired old Corolla and go home.
Or see what kind of bargain he could drive with this fellow; maybe sales were slow enough to prompt some haggling. He’d be in a perfect position, not hesitating to walk away. “I appreciate your best offer,” he imagined himself saying, “but that’s still a little rich for my blood. Let me give you my phone number, and you can call me if the manager sees his way clear to coming down a bit, or maybe giving me a little more on the trade-in.”
At last they were walking back out to the Miata, the keys moist in the palm of Henry’s hand. “Let me take the keys to your Toyota,” Taylor was saying. “While you’re out on your test spin, I’ll have our mechanics look at the Corolla and work up the best trade-in we can manage.”
Henry opened the door and slipped behind the wheel. He adjusted the seat, finding the right distance, toying with the tilt. Adjusted the side mirrors. Spent a moment examining the dashboard display. Then started the car, adjusted the power side mirrors, depressed the clutch and shifted through all six positions before returning the stick to neutral.
“Looks like you’ve got it,” Taylor said. “This car was made for you. I’d head west, if I were you. Two miles out, third traffic light, take a left onto Bushy Hill Road. Almost no traffic, and a few straightaways where you can open her up. Have a good ride!”
Which is exactly what Henry did. It felt good. More car than he would in his wildest dreams have thought about yesterday. Not likely to attract many hitchhikers, either, but you never knew.
Some hard bargaining ahead. Might not work out. But he was sure Dr. Perry would approve.