The Opinionated Car

When Neal turned sixteen he took, and passed Driver’s Ed, and his parents gave him a car. It was a shiny four-year-old black Acura Integra. They were as pleased as Neal to have their responsible son mobile for it meant an end to their chauffeur responsibilities. Neal lavished attention on the car which he named Negra Integra. Every weekend, even in Houston’s hot, humid, 100-degree summer weather, he meticulously washed and polished the exterior and vacuumed the interior with its spiffy black leather seats. He used Glue-Gon to remove the past owner’s parking permits, including an A&M University on-campus permit from the front and back windows. He, likewise, removed a miscellaneous of stickers from the bumpers. Neal’s parents observed to each other, with a slight tinge of concern,

“Neal gives the impression of loving Negra Integra, perhaps even more than his girl-friend Isabella. Before we gave him the car they seemed devoted now, who knows?”

Both Neal and Isabella were good students set to graduate from high school in the top ten percent. Their college applications netted them several offers, including those from the two local rival universities: Texas A&M (Agriculture & Minerals), College Station and UT (University of Texas), Austin. The intense rivalry between maroon clad A&M students and burnt-orange sporting UT students slowly invaded their relationship as they evaluated options. The problem was that Neal favored UT with its urban campus flanked by the Texas State capital while Isabella favored A&M with its more rural setting at College Station. The two had lengthy discussions about their college choice and, foolishly, let the dialogue gradually drive them apart. In anger, Isabella chose A&M and Neal UT. They broke up. Neal poured his remorse into lavishing more attention on Negra Integra. While he polished and cleaned he told the      car his most unhappy regrets.

After his first session at UT for rush week Neal drove home and announced to his parents,

“Despite all the attention that I’ve given Negra Integra I now find that the car doesn’t like me!”

They looked at him with astonishment, both wondering what University was already doing to his mind,

“What do you mean?” inquired his mother, “Cars don’t have feelings and even if they did, how could they express this?”

“I dunno,” replied Neal, “all’s I know is that I get negative vibes. I know that Negra Integra dislikes me.” He went on to explain, “It’s like when you take out a girl who doesn’t like you, the feeling manifests itself without words.”

Neal’s parents nodded sagely, even though they didn’t understand what he meant.

For his drive back to Austin Neal turned on the Acura’s GPS (Global Positioning System). He didn’t need guidance for he knew the route; take I10 west and turn right onto 71 at Columbus. However, he also knew that the turn onto 71 was easy to miss and hoped that the GPS would ensure that he didn’t do so. He disregarded the UPS instruction to turn north at the Sam Houston toll road, Houston’s first outer ring road, and again at Addick’s dam. After passing Addick’s dam he began to worry and wondered if the GPS sensed traffic congestion on I10 west and was attempting to circumvent it by taking him to 290 west; so, when it suggested that he turn north on the outer loop he complied. When he came to 290 west the GPS instructed him to turn west. Neal felt that his suspicions were confirmed. However, just before Brenham the GPS instructed at turn north onto Highway 6 to College Station. Neal turned off the GPS.

When he called home that evening he told his parents,

“Either the GPS is malfunctioning or “that car” wants to return to A&M and its first owner. Now I have proof.” he said “That car’s dislike is morphing into hatred.”

Neal’s Dad offered a more probable explanation. Perhaps the previous owner, a student at A&M had the destination pre-set and Neal had mistakenly pressed the wrong button instructing the car that he wished to go to College Station. Neal was sure that this had not been so but conceded the possibility. During his next visit to Houston at Thanksgiving, Neal’s Dad took the car in for a check-up and annual safety inspection.  The mechanic checked the GPS which he announced to be in perfect working order with no pre-set destinations. The family put the previous mal-function to be “one of life’s little mysteries.”  Neal resolutely maintained the mystery to be a symptom of a simple fact, as he put it,

“That car detests me.”

Behind his back, Neal’s parents observed that it was clear that Neal didn’t have the same feelings toward his car which he now referred to as “that car” rather than “Negra Integra.”

After Thanksgiving Neal’s drive back to Austin was thwarted with problems, for he was picked up for speeding at both Columbus and Bastrop. He called his parents and told them that he was sure, nay certain, that he had NOT been speeding.

“I had my eyes on the speedometer. I’m sure.” He said.

Neal’s parents were not happy especially when Neal told them that he knew about holiday speed traps and had his eye on his speedometer the entire drive, he blamed “that car.” When he returned to Houston for Christmas his father again took the Acura in for an oil change and checkup. The mechanic reported the speedometer to be working perfectly.

In the spring Neal’s architecture class scheduled a visit to the Bush Presidential Library in College Station. Neal drove, 290 east, then 21 north east, in all, a less than two-hour drive. They approached the Library along the sweeping Barbara Bush Drive, and spent the rest of the day sketching and admiring the building. The group re-convened to return to Austin at a Starbucks close to the A&M quad. To his horror Neal’s car wouldn’t start. The general consensus was a failed battery although Neal knew better, the car was home and didn’t want to leave. He wisely did not share his diagnosis with his fellow students. They hooked up jumper cables with no avail bringing them to the collective conclusion that the problem was the starter motor. They discussed options and decided that Neal’s passengers should hitch rides with other cars while Neal called for a tow. He told them that he would have the car taken back to Houston, where he would stay with his parents, hopefully being able to drive back the next day.

Neal went into the Starbucks to wait for his tow. He noticed that one of the baristas looked like Isabella. When she turned he realized that she was Isabella. Suddenly Neal was swamped in suffocating emotion, his hands shook. He put them on his lap. When she saw him, she left the serving counter and slipped into a chair at his table.

“Missed ya.” she said.

“Me too”

Neal explained about his car. It was a balmy evening and Isabella said that her shift was over so they decided to wait in the car. She playfully suggested that Neal give it one more try, he turned the ignition and it started without hesitation.

 

 

 

The Accident

Carl and I generally wake up at about the same time. As he gets showered and dressed a lot faster than I do, by the time that I emerge from the master suite, he is sitting reading the Austin American Statesman. That morning was no exception except that he complained that he felt exhausted and a little ‘woozy’. I stared at his familiar face, and decided that he did look grey. His skin had a dank cast and, instead of their usual lively glow, his brown eyes looked dull and listless.
“You OK?” I asked.
 “Like I said, a little woozy, but its passing!”
 “I worry about you Carl. The doctor said that you might have another heart attack at any time. Do you think that this is one of those times? If so you should take it easy, and we should go to the clinic.”
“Nope, please, dear, don’t worry. I tell you, this coffee has done the trick. I feel great. As I mentioned last evening I have some pressing paperwork to attend to. I’m going to drive to the office and take care of it.”  

The hall clock chimed 8:00 as I watched him drive out. I turned into our home office and sat down. Then I was with him in the car. We had already turned from Foster Ranch Road onto the east bound three lanes of Southwest Parkway. The median between us and the west bound traffic was bright green in the morning light. The risen sun was brilliant and, since we drove due East, it almost blinded us. We passed the Boston Lane light and then the one at Travis Country Boulevard. He began to drive erratically. I put my hand on his arm,
“No Carl, no, pull over. You are having a heart attack!” At the point where the road curves to the south he kept driving straight across lanes. We ploughed off the road, through a mound of bluebonnets and made toward a tree.
I shouted “NO” and braced myself for impact. An impact never came. We were still in bed.

 Carl was shaking me, “Calm down Mary, calm down. It is only a dream.”
I relaxed and snuggled up behind his back. I held him in my arms as I drifted off to sleep. How I loved this man! A few minutes later, I decided to get up early and make him his favorite breakfast of pancakes. I crept out of bed leaving him snoring peacefully. In the kitchen, I discovered a shortage of milk and eggs. I decided to make a quick trip to Randall’s to buy these items and berries for a dessert which I planned for our son’s nineteenth birthday celebration that evening. Driving down Foster Ranch road felt like ‘deja vue’, then I turned onto Southwest Parkway and, as in my dream, bright dawn blinded me. The road was empty, and I enjoyed the translucency of the new March leaves on the trees. Everything seemed alive, but I didn’t share in its exuberance. I felt an ominous foreboding. The deer appeared right after I passed the Travis Country Boulevard light. I don’t know why I swerved, instinct, I suppose. Then I was going through the grass and bluebonnets. I saw the tree, already marred by Carl’s car. I screamed as I tried to brake and felt the car gliding toward it. 
Carl had stopped snoring and was shaking me, “Mary, Mary, wake-up. You are having another night-mare.”

Relieved, I snuggled against his back and slept, I think. Soon I heard noises in the kitchen and went to investigate. It was Margaret, our first-born, making herself coffee.
 “Good morning, dear, you are up early for a Saturday?” “I know, Mum, but last night I was called to do a morning fill-in shift at the clinic. They are short staffed.”
“Do be careful dear, at this time in the morning, the rising sun is blinding on Southwest Parkway.”
“I know, Mum, but I’ll be fine. It is not as though this is my first time to make this drive.”
 I watched her reverse out of the drive-way and turned into the study. I sat at my desk examining e-mails, then I was with her. We were stopped for the light at Travis Country Boulevard. She was sipping her coffee. When the light turned, she started with a jerk, coffee spilled out onto her lap.

“Ouch,” she yelled. I knew what was going to happen. As we swerved across the road, I saw the tree already standing a little crooked with its bark marred by the morning’s previous impacts. I knew that she was going to die. This time I screamed. 
Carl had me in his arms, “Mary, Mary, wake-up, wake-up.”
“It’s a recurring dream, or should I say night-mare,” I explained.
“Let’s get up,” he suggested.

Even though it was only 7:30 we did so. When we were seated at the breakfast table reading our newspapers, our son Andy appeared. He wore his biking gear, clinging tight to his body. You would see every lean muscle. I thought that he looked gorgeous, so fit, so healthy, so full of life.
“Good morning,” we chorused,” happy birthday, nineteen today.”
 He bowed in acknowledgement. “Yes, good morning,” he responded, “I’m meeting up with the team. We are going on a twenty miler, be back in plenty of time for the birthday celebration.”
My heart sunk, could my nightmares be a warning? I looked at him with motherly love. I didn’t want to sound overly interfering but had to give my warning.
“Drive carefully, dear! And, please don’t speed, the limit on Southwest Parkway is 55.”
He gave me a dead pan look of resignation. “I’m safe,” he said, “and anyway there is no traffic on Southwest Parkway on a Saturday morning.”
“Good,” was all I could counter, “But please, son, no texting or phone use while you are driving. It is illegal for good reason.”  

He leant over and kissedd me on the forehead and prepared to leave. Carl and I followed him to his car. We stood and watched him drive out onto Foster Ranch Road. He sped off far too fast. I could hear the roar of his engine, even after he had turned onto Southwest Parkway. After a few seconds, I experienced a wave of terror more profound than any that I had experienced in my nightmares, then nothing. 

By 8:45 am Carl and I were on Southwest Parkway driving east to Randalls to get the milk, eggs and berries. At Travis Country Boulevard, the road was blocked by a police car. A policeman directed traffic to U-turn and find another route.
“It’s a fatality!’ I said with sinking heart.
“So early in the morning,” mused Carl, “Who was out so early on a Saturday morning?”  I strained my neck but could see nothing. Carl continued his monologue, “I wonder if it was a heart attack, or someone avoiding a deer, or someone texting, or spilt coffee.”

I wasn’t listening to Carl’s speculations; my nightmares were too vivid. They came back to me striking me in the heart, so that all I could do was worry. I pulled out my phone and called Margaret.
“Good morning dear. Sorry if I woke you up but have you heard from Andy this morning?”
“Come on Mum,” her voice had the tone that you use with a small child, “He is on a ride with his team. Of course, I haven’t heard from him. They don’t let phones distract them.”
“I suppose that you are right, I just wondered,” I explained, “It’s his birthday!”
“Mum, of course I know that it is his birthday,” again her tone was gentle as though she was talking to a small child. “I texted him a birthday wish early this morning.”
It was my turn to be instructive but my foreboding pressed upon me and I couldn’t speak. I rang off.

 By 9:00 am we returned from Randalls and took the short cut up Boston Lane, the two-lane road was full of traffic for the police had now moved their barricade to the Boston Lane light. 

Hours later, when the police arrived, I let Carl talk to them. I didn’t need to hear what I already knew. I refused to look at the body. I let Carl do the identification. Later, much later, in the afternoon, Carl and I drove to the spot, the place that I already knew. We parked, and Carl got out to take pictures. You could see how a moment’s distraction for someone driving way too fast in the middle lane would go straight into the median, across the grass and bluebonnets into the tree. It stood there just as I had seen it in my nightmare, its bark torn and marred. The ground was churned up where the team who cut him out had parked and there were ruts where the tow truck had pulled the car out.