I have two lessons to teach today. I arrive at the Car-Park and start looking for the vehicle I usually use, a red Toyota Camry. It’s gone, but this shouldn’t be a problem. We’re scheduled one car per instructor, so I hunt through the lot looking for another one to use. The only option left is the white Chevy Malibu, the “grandfather of the fleet.” The Malibu is a mean-looking ramrod of a car. Staring at the vehicle, it occurs to me that I might not have enough chest hair to pull this off. The dent-laden car looks worn and tired, as if years of running moonshine in Appalachia have taken their toll.
When I open the door, I’m hit with the odor of a Motel 6. I stand for a long moment looking down at a tattered driver’s seat, which is covered with cloth resembling dead, wrinkled skin. I drop behind the wheel. The seat is rock hard, with a strange indentation that cradles my butt cheeks uncomfortably. A plastic strip along the dashboard attempts to simulate mahogany wood. The instructor brake, a cast iron bar with a round hook, looks like a medieval torture instrument.
I try to start the car, but the key won’t budge. I try pressing in before turning and I look for an ignition lock, but nothing works. After trying all my other keys, I call the office to ask if there’s a trick to this beast. Maybe I need to coast downhill and pop it into gear? Michael, the office manager, gives me the cell phone number for Thomas, another instructor who happens to be in the area.
I call, interrupting Thomas in the middle of a lesson, and ask him about the Malibu.
“Oh no, you don’t want to use that car!” he barks.
I confirm that the Malibu is the only thing left.
Thomas has a working key and says he’ll swing by the lot.
He pulls up 10 minutes later in a dirty red sedan. A student is driving and another is sitting in the back. Watching the car slow to a stop, I wonder what the kids must think about this scene. Probably the exact same thing I’m thinking.
Thomas squeezes into the Malibu and uses his key to start it up. I don’t hear any of the funny noises rumored to live under the car’s hood. When I relate this to Thomas he turns the engine off, heaves out of the car with a grunt, and fixes on me with an incredulous look.
“Well,” he says, “I added steering fluid, but I think a belt’s bad. If it starts making a loud grinding noise, pull over and let it cool off.”
He hands me his key and lowers his large frame back into his car.
“I’ve told them about that belt a number of times already.” He glances away for a moment and then looks back up at me with a smile.
“Hope the belt holds. Good luck, buddy.”
With an hour left before I need to leave, I stroll into the coffee shop at the edge of the parking lot and get lunch. Sitting at a small table, I consider my next move. I have a highway lesson, not the ideal setting for a bad belt. But I’ve never been one to shy away from car noises. If you turn up the stereo and ride it out, the sound usually goes away. And hey, maybe a crap-out will cajole the company into getting the Malibu serviced.
I return to the parking lot at 12:30. The Malibu is gone. I stand looking at the empty space in disbelief. Did the finance company repo it? I call the office. Michael answers in a cheery voice.
“Mr. Sullivan, how can I help you?”
I relate the situation.
“OK,” Michael says more deliberately. “Let’s check the schedule.”
The momentary silence is broken when Michael starts chiding his computer for being “so damn slow.” I hear Michael talking to himself as he clicks through windows and taps on the keyboard. The sounds stop suddenly and I hear a deep, ugly groan.
“Well,” he sighs, “we have one more instructor scheduled than we have cars for. Someone must’ve grabbed the Malibu while you were gone.”
I exhale and shake my head. This must be how parents feel when they see their daycare plastered on the 6:00 news. I hang up and think about another fake family emergency to foist onto my students, whose lessons will now be cancelled. I make the calls and then head home, wondering what surprises tomorrow will bring.
On Saturday I pull into a parking lot in Beaverton and wait for my car to arrive. It’s 12:30 and the instructor bringing me my vehicle is nowhere to be seen. I tap my steering wheel and glance at my watch. I need at least 15 minutes to get to my 12:45 lesson.
At 12:35 the 2001 Malibu bolts into the lot. I give the other instructor a cursory “thanks” and hop into the car. When I insert my key and turn it, the Malibu turns over with a sickening thud. The engine burps and rumbles, the front end of the car shaking under the strain. Waiting for the car to stabilize, I watch the tachometer needle bounce between 0 and 1. C’mon baby, I only need you to last for the next hour. I whip out of the lot and blaze to my lesson, glancing occasionally at the clock on the dash. The front of the car squeals in disapproval as I race toward the school, using a series of California stops to check my speed.
I arrive at exactly 12:45. There’s only one car in the lot, a high-end BMW. Approaching the vehicle I see a woman wearing more makeup than the Joker sitting stone-faced behind the wheel. Her son Matt sits silently in the seat next to her, staring at nothing. When I introduce myself to Mrs. Egglestrom she greets me by asking when we’ll be done.
When your kid crashes the car. “We’ll finish here at 1:45,” I tell her.
She tells us she’ll go shopping and return then. Matt exits the car and we stand for a moment watching as his mom races across the empty lot toward the exit. I picture her at Kitchen Kaboodle agonizing over the choice between an apple corer and a strawberry stem remover.
Matt correctly starts his test by walking around the car, searching for safety issues.
“So how’s it look?” I ask.
“Well,” Matt says, from beside the front bumper, “this tire doesn’t look so safe.”
I look down at the right front tire and see faint grooves running through its smooth rubber surface. Jesus, that’s embarrassing. A company teaching driving shouldn’t feel OK with the safety risks posed by a car running on something this worn. Ethics aside, buying new tires is also a lot cheaper than hiring lawyers after a crash.
As we walk behind the Malibu, I notice a new black scrape mark and a gouge on the bumper. On my door I spot a shallow indentation on the bottom of the back panel. It looks just like the dent an angry instructor’s foot would make. The Malibu is starting to resemble the car your aging uncle with a parole violation would drive.
We get into the vehicle and prepare to leave. Matt turns the key and the Malibu thumps to life, belching out an ugly grinding noise from under the hood. Matt’s body flexes in alarm and he glances over at me, fearfully.
“Whoa,” he says. “Are we gonna be all right?”
I study the tachometer needle, which is dancing wildly among the lower numbers.
“Sure,” I reply confidently. “This thing just needs a minute to warm up.” I make sure the car is in park before adding, “Just give it a little gas.”
Matt taps the accelerator gently and we watch the needle. After a minute of nursing we manage to get our patient stabilized. The noise from the hood lessens, shifting from an angry growl to the moan of a dying animal.
We proceed to the mock exam, which will mirror the formal exam Matt will ultimately take for the state. Matt changes lanes cleanly, crosses two sets of railroad tracks safely, and parks along a curb with impressive precision. At one turn he forgets to signal. It’s his only flaw as we head into the home stretch of the test.
We roll into to a residential area to finish the exam. At the first stop sign the car starts shuddering, preparing to die. Matt glances over.
“Uh oh, what should I do?” he asks, breaking me out of a prayer trance.
“Just give it some gas,” I urge.
Matt slips the shifter into neutral and guns the gas quickly, revving the engine. He manages to resuscitate the suffering animal. The car shakes a few times and stabilizes, but then starts to moan louder. It wants to go home.
I decide to finish early and re-route us back toward the school. Matt knows what he’s doing, so there’s no point risking a breakdown. At a four-way intersection he cruises through a stop sign, looking straight ahead. I take a fleeting look into the two bisecting roads, which prove to be empty. I don’t brake or say anything. Normally this error would disqualify a student, but I’m giving Matt a few bonus points for enduring the smell and performance of the Malibu without complaint. We just keep going and return to the school as if nothing has happened.
In the parking lot I discuss the exam, skipping the minor detail that he actually failed the test, and mention that he forgot to signal at one point. I give him a 95 percent, tell him he’s a good driver, which he is, and wish him luck. Matt exits the driver’s seat and sprints towards his mom’s car, which has just rolled into the lot.
I look over at Mrs. Egglestrom. She doesn’t turn her head when Matt enters the car. She rolls out from the curb and drives past me looking blankly forward through the windshield. Adios, dark star. I jump behind the wheel and race back to the other site, arriving just in time to offload the decrepit Malibu to another instructor.
I’m grinding away two dead hours between lessons, reading a copy of Teen in the 7-Eleven. I think of it as continuing education. I don’t remember my younger years being this complicated. But then again, we didn’t have these magazines to convince us that things were so complex. I usually use this time to do paperwork. My office consists of an ever-changing mix of empty school cafeterias, coffee shops, recreation centers, and convenience stores. But today I’m skipping paperwork to further my knowledge of the teenage world.
I’m learning how to “Rock My Prom” when a fellow instructor calls to arrange a car handoff. It seems the Malibu has finally died. My coworker relates the story of its demise: He was driving home from a lesson when all the gauges suddenly dropped to 0 and the radio went silent. The Malibu was having an electrical failure.
The car managed to limp along until the battery died at a light on 82nd Avenue, a main throughway in East Portland lined with low-cost used car dealerships. Is the Malibu sick of its life and trying to find a final resting place? An older gentleman walking down the trash-littered street stopped and kindly offered to help. He got behind the wheel to steer the wreckage off the road. The instructor then crouched behind the car and pushed, like a dung beetle rolling a turd ball.
A week later I pull into the lot where our company vehicles are stored. I park my car, get out, and start looking for the Honda. I stop dead in my tracks when I see the Malibu sitting toward the rear of the lot. Jesus, they’ve revived it. Not again. This car is like Terry Schiavo: the instructors want to let it die in peace while the company fights to keep it alive at all cost. The duel, it appears, shall continue.
• 11 February 2011