Nine out of 10 times starting my car required popping it into neutral and pushing it a few feet to move the flywheel to a more favorable position for ignition, a technique prescribed by my brother. I often wondered if he was mocking me. I imagined him chuckling at the thought of me ritualistically indulging this fickle and fictitious “flywheel” as he made his coffee every morning. Duped or not, it worked—still, I made sure to never do it in front of him; I don’t feed monsters. I always crossed my fingers and tried turning the key first in the hope that this step could be avoided. It wasn’t a large or hard-to-move machine; I just really enjoyed the times that it worked; made my day. Then my method failed. After working up a sweat pushing the thing up and down the drive 3 or 4 times I called my mom. She took me to the bank where I borrowed $3,000. I dropped all of it on a shiny teal Blazer manufactured 11 years after my birth. It was younger than me and everything worked and I finally understood the appeal of going “out for a drive.”
Paul and I made plans to drive up the Beartooth Highway. I’d never been, and he said that was a shame. He was the new guy. Curly black rock-star hair and an I-know-what-your-thinking smile, I would have followed him anywhere. He drove because he knew where we were going and I don’t take direction well. A big yellow sign told us that the highway was closed for the season. Paul was disappointed. I was just grateful to be out of town and in his company—to hell with the highway. We had turned back toward town when a herd of deer crossed in front of us. Paul breaked just in time. I thought the half-dozen animals toddling along before my windshield were graceful and magnificent. Paul sighed his relief and accelerated once the deer were safely across. The fat one came out of nowhere, smacked my 11-years-younger-than-me radiator into the fan thingy, puncturing it and making my most prized possession completely inoperable. Looking back, I’m really glad the deer was not hurt, at that moment, however, I was considering how very ungraceful and not-magnificent he was.
We pushed the car to the shoulder and started for town on foot. A kindly farmer picked us up and dropped us off at The Blue Ribbon Bar in Red Lodge where we ate greasy hamburgers and drank free shots of “Liquid Heroin,” the invention of the bartender. Paul swore he’d fix my car and I told him we’d worry about it in the morning, get me another drink.
A weight had settled in my stomach. A parasite—growing as it drew energy from my legs and shoulders in thick pulses. I felt my body losing substance and would not have been surprised to disappear, leaving only the stone lump of my disappointment on the blue vinyl barstool, glowing with the remnants of my youthful potential. I briefly questioned the notion that one, once disappeared, could achieve emotion such as surprise. My expectations were not always to be met, and I really had little control. It’s a tough lesson to learn; the realization had altered me—physically. Paul said it was the cheeseburger.
Across the street, he told me, was a tavern renowned for its rich history and spicy pickles: The Snow Creek. We crossed that street and ordered 2 red beers with spicy pickles. The cheerful bartender poured our beers and then crouched before the under-counter refrigerator for a full minute, struggling around juices and garnishes in search for the pickles I was beginning to think weren’t all that renowned. Spicy, they were. The burn in my mouth comforted me; sensation assured me and stole attention from the knot at my center.
We bought a roll of quarters and moved our drinks and coats closer to the pool table. I watched Paul rack the balls, a cigarette hanging crookedly from his mouth. I really have never seen longer eyelashes—they brushed his cheek-bones when he looked down. The Cover of the Rolling Stone was just ending on the juke box. Paul mouthed the last words, “awww, beautiful,” absentmindedly as he tightened the balls in the rack and carefully lifted it away. I remember that moment like it just happened; somehow it was that important.
The song held some meaning: back in California, Mom drove a giant rusty water truck to town twice a week to fill the water tank set atop the red train car Dad called his shop. She drove fast, too. If you can get enough speed, she figured, you just fly over the wash board! Folks called her “Wacky Jacqui.” Teeth bared, curly red hair streaming out the window of the fastest, ugliest vehicle ever—she definitely earned the title. When I went with her, and possibly even when I didn’t, she sang over the roar of the engine and the road noise; Dr. Hook was a favorite in the old water truck.
So, maybe it was the song, maybe it was the man, perhaps it was the pickle, but later that night, as Paul chased me around the room we’d rented wearing a foot-thick layer of foam he had created by means of the whirlpool bath tub and a bottle of shampoo, I decided that control is overrated. Our expectations are limited by our imagination, which is not, in my experience, limitless. If you’ve ever been shocked, dumbfounded, even once, you’ll have to agree. Sometimes reality is more grand than what you could have imagined. These are the times when being surprised is worth the inherent loss of control. My new car sat broken, miles down the road, the thought of the repair bill was riding on my shoulders, and I was stranded. It was the best weekend ever.