The Last Road Trip of the Monte Carlo
A car can be a church, a place of prayer; a place of rest and repair; a place for steering wheel thumping and loud off-key singing to vent the magma of the soul; a place of revelation between lovers, parent, and child; a place of secreting snacks you don’t want others to see you eat; a place of conveying truth to one’s self when the home won’t do; a place of exorcism, an immune system warding off boredom, insomnia, weariness, and voodoo. The bright green 73 Monte Carlo had been all of these. Except for the voodoo.
My son Ben and I had removed all of our belongings to air it out. We had been on the road for twelve days collecting dust and grit from each state from California to Florida, and an odor not rank but accumulated, part Southwestern, part Texan, part Creole, part the peculiar humidity of the Panhandle. I had taken out the bucket, filled it with water and a minuscule bottle of detergent, and was bathing it down in strokes more appropriate for a horse. Ben checked the mileage and estimated the Monte Carlo had achieved twelve miles per gallon while cruising at near eighty miles per hour the entire way from the Panhandle through lower Alabama, and the Carlo’s suspension made it seem the road moved beneath us instead of we over it. Ben swiveled the seats out and swept as best he could the exposed areas, delivering a little bit of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida to the Alabama soil.
The Carlo, as we called it, was an original purchase in 1973 in Omaha, Nebraska. With a big engine, the two-tone green body with the white top, swivel seats in the front, and a glide suspension, it was made for touring.
My service friends and I had used it on numerous road trips, usually on long weekends. We had climbed Pike’s Peak in Colorado, delivered by the Carlo to its base, and used it as an ambulance when Mo got sunstroke and we shaped a makeshift litter and dragged him slowly down the mountain until we could use the Carlo to transport him. We had cruised the Black Hills of South Dakota and gone ninety miles an hour on I-90 until a sudden rainstorm had reduced our speed to a reckless five miles an hour. Lightning had surrounded us, and shortly after the storm passed, a great cloud of grasshoppers encircled the car, smashing into every front-facing inch of the vehicle such that we actually had to scrape the dead insects from the grill and hood and window after a few miles.
We had gone fishing in Arkansas and Missouri, and on one daring long weekend had cruised non-stop to Manhattan to see Dougie’s sister for about eight hours in the middle of the night and cruised back to base, with a short stop outside of Cleveland for the Best Omelet South of Lake Erie, a 3000-mile trip in seventy-two hours. Resonating in the floorboards and sidewalls were our stories of stupid sports plays, drinking, failed womanizing, conservative parents, and deep longings to go back home to those same conservative parents.
I had kept the Carlo in the beginning because I could not afford another car, but as it aged, I had become more attached to it. When I married, my wife encouraged me to keep it polished and running, and it became like a pet.
Now, fifty-seven, I was out of work in the new economy, and suddenly age, experience, mastery did not account for anything; certification and a second language accounted for everything. We had already sold our house and moved into an apartment, and the Carlo was the last asset we had to cover our bills. My wife had purchased an all-electric Volt out of the inheritance from her mother’s passing. Before I would sell the Carlo, I wanted one last road trip, the last grand tour of the internal combustion engine. Ben was recovering from a broken shoulder that put him on short-term disability, and he had never been west of Nevada and Arizona, so we got a burr under our saddles one night and hit the road two days later.
Before we left, we tuned the carburetor, checked the plugs, and changed the oil by ourselves. Ben took great pleasure in being able to sit on the fender and have a place for his feet in the engine well, and had fun adjusting the carburetor and, despite having the broken shoulder, helped change the plugs. He liked being a mechanic, for once, enjoyed the physical labor, as opposed to his I-phone globally networked and his computer, on which he earned his livelihood. Modern cars certainly run better and more efficiently and safer with the engineers designing all of the controls, but a person takes great joy in being the master mechanic of a car, even if nothing more than tuning a carburetor with a screwdriver to make it roar and backing it off so that the engine purrs so softly the metal does not vibrate. The Monte Carlo does not belong to the Shock and Awe Generation, but as Ben played with settings, drivers, and wrenches, I could see a joy, curiosity, and simple pride of mastery that had nothing to do with intellect come over him. This was not man over machine, not brain over machine. Perhaps this last continental grand tour of the internal combustion engine was the last tour of man and machine in concert, as well.
We cruised westward, back on Highway 98, until Pensacola Bay, and then north to Interstate 110. We stopped in Pensacola for lunch and decided that since we were heading north, this was our last chance for Gulf Coast food, and stopped in a place aptly named The Fish House. The server was more southern than we wanted, greeting us with "Honey" and "Sweetheart."She recommended the crab, and we eagerly dug in, with a bowl of seafood curry and rice on the side, and finished with orange sherbet.
Ben drove, and I slept on the way to Mobile, not more than a half-hour ride.
We traveled north until we hit a detour to the west to the little crossroads, population 208. But as soon as we entered the outskirts, the outskirts being two houses close together on the same side of the street and a large post-World War II Quonset hut. The triangular park by the cemetery, the river quay pier, the city building, the library, the town clock tower—all had been donated by George and Wendell Winston, twin brothers who had entered the Air Force, when I met them, at eighteen in 1971. They left the service in 1975 with an idea on how to improve magnetic recording to media, patented it, marketed it, and by 1980 were reaping six-figure royalties.
They did not go on inventing. Wendell graduated in literature, and for a time, imagined himself as a novelist but hit his stride as a ghostwriter for a successful police procedural series based on a Puritan primer. He called himself a hack, but he was actually a great mimic of the written word and was never without work. He supported his three wives, serially, quite well.
Wendell had left a message at our motel about a voodoo spell. He wanted to see Ben and me that afternoon and sent us a Google map to his estate. It stood about one hundred yards from the road with magnolias lining the drive of crushed white gravel, which looks pretty from a distance but gives off a glare that burns right through sunglasses. The house was a two-story mansion with a screened-in porch on the first story going all the way around the house except on the north side, which was open to a magnificent garden with a few frog ponds and reeds popping up out of the manicured flowerbeds.
Wendell had seen us drive up and was already in the driveway when we stopped. He did not look well. His handshake proved it, feeble and clammy. We said a few pleasantries, and then his ten-year-old son grabbed Ben to shoot hoops, and we were alone. He quietly told me he thought he was slowly being poisoned by his third wife, who still lived in the house even though they were divorced.
“She’s Dominican, like the republic. Certainly not like the nuns, though she does have a little bit of the same harshness.
She gets half of my estate when I die. My son gets the other half. Don’t ask me why she still lives here and gets what she does when we are divorced. It’s all very complicated. But I think she has no patience for death and wants it to hurry up."
“Have you been to a doctor?”
“Yes, secretly. They have found nothing abnormal, but she is quite an herbalist, a gardener. And a witch. And I think she knows how to brew things so that they will produce, you know, poison. Why, we have pennyroyal planted in the garden. The stuff used to abort fetuses, and who knows what that pennyroyal will do in small quantities over time. Who knows.”
“Have you talked to the police or a private eye?”
“The police? Please. I know John Russell personally. He has been my best man twice. He’s trained in criminal justice, has a master’s degree from Auburn. A friend. An educated black man that knows blacks and whites and Hispanics. But he is, after all, a cop, and cops don't do anything without proof. And I have no proof.”
“Is this why you wanted me to stop by? You want my help in this?”
“No, no, no,” he said dismissively, waving his hand like a fan in front of me. “I wanted to see that Monte Carlo of yours. Brings back many memories. Not all good, mind you. But some good. You remember when we went to that rose garden overlooking the Missouri River, and we were double-dating, and my date Evelyn liked you better and your date Kay liked me better, and we swapped mid-kissing. And you had never kissed a black girl, and I had never kissed a white girl. You forgot the beer, but we had a wonderful time without it. Remember?”
"Yeah, they used the same lipstick, so when you shut your eyes, it didn't seem to matter who was kissing anyway. You just wanted to be kissing. Do you want to go look at the car?”
Wendell stood up uneasily. "I'll get someone to open the garage, and you can park it in there. I can’t be out in the sun but five seconds, and my skin boils cuz of the poison.”
I walked out to the Carlo and waited until the garage, another two-story structure that could house up to six vehicles, opened, and a young man waved for me to drive up. When I shut off the engine, I introduced myself, and he said nothing but "Roberto."
Wendell came out and didn't talk but ran his hands over the white roof and the fenders. He took the keys from my hand, sat in the driver's seat, started the engine, and revved it a few times, smiling with each push on the accelerator. And then he shut the engine off, gave back my keys, and went back inside. “I can die now,” he said, rubbing me the same way he had rubbed the top of the Carlo.
After he had stepped out of the garage, his helper Roberto said, "He's not right, you know. It’s cancer.”
“He didn’t tell me he had cancer. He thinks he is being poisoned.”
“He’s lost it. It’s inoperable brain cancer. He’s got about two months left to live.”
“He told me he thought his third wife was poisoning him.”
Roberto broke in. “He thinks his third wife is poisoning him, but she has not been around for four years. She disappeared and took over three hundred thousand dollars, and no one has seen her since. She was from the Dominican Republic, and everyone thinks she went back, started a new life."
I had my mouth open and decided I should close it.
“Isn’t that her son?” I said, gesturing to a boy out on the lawn with a soccer ball.
"Yes, but you know how it is. Mr. Winston, he was quiet and stuck in books all the time, and the rest of the time, he played with his boy. But the mother, she had no time for the boy. His cousin comes by, and she helps with the boy."
“What about his brother George?”
Roberto snorted. “He’s a bastard. Wendell can’t die quick enough for him. He thinks he will manage the estate. Like a piece of art.”
“Who will get the boy?”
“Wendell read us the will. The boy goes to his cousin. The house, too. She will come to live in it.”
"Wendell told me that his third wife will get 50 percent."
“No, she gets nothing. He still thinks she is alive in the house somewhere and won’t come to see him.”
“And does the gardening as well.”
Roberto laughed. “The gardening is done by a soft-spoken Mexican who is very handsome. Me.”
Ben and I looked over the map to chart our way to Memphis, but with a little side trip into Mississippi to see another old friend who had lost his house in Hurricane Katrina. He was a CPA in Jackson and had married his second cousin when she was fourteen at the time. She had not been pregnant, and indeed, never did get pregnant. They were childless.
I asked to see Wendell, to say goodbye, but he was already back in bed and fast asleep. Ben was kicking a soccer ball with Wendell’s son and making him chase all over the lawn for it, which the boy did eagerly like a retriever.
We got in the Monte Carlo, and as I slipped into the seat, a shooting pain traveled from my lower lumbar to my neck, and I knew I would be sitting sidesaddle on the road to Memphis. A second and third pain broke like lightning. As Ben prepared to guide the Carlo down the aisles of magnolias, I adjusted my side mirror, and on the second story of the house, in the last window on the south side, I could see a woman about fifty watching us leave.
She appeared to have a doll in her left hand, and in the right, a very large needle.
About the Author
Jeff Burt lives in Santa Cruz County, California. He has contributed work to Gold Man Review, Per Contra, Bird's Thumb, and previously to Lowestoft Chronicle.