THE NEW CAR
by Terence Hughes
He felt supreme, he was an eagle wheeling in the sky. There she was, sitting right down there in the driveway, the car he’d dreamt of for years. The one he strove to be worthy of his entire working life, the car that symbolized his success. A glistening black miracle of performance, safety, and mildly ostentatious proto-wealth. And joy: $126,259 MSRP worth of the highest German engineering, powerful and sleek as a panther. Quattro drive, secure in rain and snow, hail and sleet. Sunroof for those delicious New Jersey days when it’s sunny and warm and not too muggy or buggy. And practical! A sinfully comfortable four-door sedan. Something for everyone.
He trembled a little as he looked at it. He felt himself getting a bit aroused. He smiled like a besotted lover.
Rich Chambers reluctantly turned and went inside. His wife Marni was preparing dinner and little Richie was watching a DVD about mutants or something.
“Hey, Marn, let’s ditch all this and go into the city. Have a nice dinner someplace.” He saw them dining someplace grand like Per Se. They’d clink Champagne glasses while overlooking Central Park in the twilight. They’d eat surf and turf: caviar and Kobe beef. He chuckled thinking of it.
Marni sighed with displeasure. “You’re letting this car go to your head.” She had made pesto and spent a fortune on pine nuts. Anyway, where could she find a sitter at such late notice?
He put his arms around her as she put the pasta on to boil. “Come on, baby, you know you want it,” he whispered comically. A little hump.
She laughed, shrugging him off. “You pick the worst times.”
Rich threw his arms in the air. “You’re lucky I like your pesto!”
At dinner he babbled on about nothing but the new Audi S8 Plus – Plus! – and her wondrous features. Richie and his mom gave each other a baleful glance.
He rushed them through dinner and bullied them into going for a ride. “Look! Only 36 miles on the odometer!” He got on I-80 and drove west. Rich suggested driving to the Delaware Water Gap, and turning back right after they got to Pennsylvania.
“It’ll be Richie’s bedtime soon,” Marni protested. She knew what she was in for.
“The sun’s still shining! Anyway, it’s Friday.” It was late May -- it was light until nine. The sun descended gently toward the horizon and cast a golden glow over the rolling countryside. Rich goosed the car to 110 mph. Marni grabbed the handhold. Richie reached from the back seat and squeezed her other hand in solidarity. “See how she effortlessly cruises along!” Rich exclaimed as he wove in and out of traffic. Horns blared. He returned the bird several times.
“Here, watch this!” He got into the right lane and slowed to 60, trailing a pokey pickup that wasn’t going above 45. He didn’t brake and the car closed in on the truck. Marni and the boy screamed. The car automatically stopped, creating panic among the drivers behind him. Horns blared longer this time. A beautiful blonde lowered her window and shrieked, “You fucking lunatic!”
Rich smiled and waved ironically. “Was that the coolest or what?” He was beaming.
Marni was very pale. “Turn around, Rich. I want to go home.”
Rich realized he’d gone too far. He got off at the next exit and headed east. He drove at a sedate 70 until the exit for Morristown. “Sorry, folks,” he shouted comically, “the show is ovah.”
Still, he heard sharp intaking of breath as they tootled around the country roads on the way back to Randolph. Marni began to cry. Richie, who was seven, protested, “Dad, look what you done!” He started crying in sympathy.
Rich listened to them full of remorse and bitterness, but more bitterness, as he turned into their street. He sat in the car as they got out and ran into the house. “Goddamn wet blankets!” he raged as he stroked the leather upholstery. “They would have to rain on my parade!” He closed his eyes and breathed in the smell of leather and high-grade plastic.
It was twilight. He peered around the neighborhood, hoping someone had noticed the German beauty sitting in his driveway. He began to look critically at the houses and yards around him, suddenly realizing how crummy some of them looked. Even as night fell, he noticed that George hadn’t cleaned up all the leaves from last fall. The Shapiros’ house needed painting. Dandelions had conquered the MacLeods’ lawn. And the Chengs’ – a total dump.
Rich got out of the car and looked at his place. $900K, easily. They could afford a better house in a better neighborhood. At 35 he was VP of Strategic Planning at the up-and-coming MQRD Corp. He was well on his way. And, he thought, he wouldn’t tread water there – he’d find a better company, a bigger and more important one to work for. Until one day: equity, partnership! They would move to Bernardsville. Next stop on their meteoric rise – Morristown? Sure!
Meditatively he walked up the front steps and went inside.
It was just 9:30 but Marni was in bed, lights out. “I’m in for it now,” Rich thought, feeling wronged. Richie was in his room fooling around with his iPad. “Hey, pal, what’s up? I guess Mom’s really upset with me.”
The boy looked up. “You know, the thing on the highway. Plus she figured out how much you paid for the car.”
“How did she find out about the price of the car?”
Richie fidgeted. He stole a glance at the iPad.
His father reddened with anger. “You little sh – “ Rich stopped himself. “Go to sleep, damn it.” He slammed the child’s door, making sure to switch off the light.
It was a silky night and Rich sat out on the deck. The full moon rose through the trees, so bright it cast the trees’ shadows on him. Full of self-righteous hurt, he considered that, hard as he worked and successful as he’d been at his age, they could cut him a fucking break and let him indulge himself for once. He never thought of himself. It was all for family, family was all. Marni, Richie. His universe – his too-small universe. “That’s about to change, goddamn it. It’s gonna be a lot more about me from now on!”
Rich sat there for hours, revolving a bigger, better life in his fervid mind. He saw a grand brick house with a front lawn that fell in grassy terraces toward a drive a quarter mile long, imagines himself in a teak chair sucking on a G&T in the balmy late afternoon. Wearing an ascot? Too much. Very expensive sport clothes. Paul & Shark. A woman approaches who reminds him of Melania Trump, only not dead inside. She smiles with joy as she touches him and stoops to kiss. “Darling, our guests are coming soon. We’d better change.” She leads him around back to the 70-foot pool, where a catering team is getting the place ready for a fancy cookout and a hundred high-profile guests. Even a US Senator! Brazenly, excitingly, she strips to the skin and glides to a $400 chaise longue and coos, “Chéri!” Unlike Marni she is not already broad in the beam.
Marni appeared at the slider and said, “I’m sorry, Rich. I acted like a jerk.” She came out on the deck and sat beside him. She offered her hand. He struggled to wake up and conceal his erection. “I know what the car means to you. I know how hard you’ve worked – slaved – to get us to this point.
“I think the jerk was me.” He halfway believed it.
“Let’s go upstairs,” she murmured, and she led him to their bed.
It wasn’t quite the thrill of fucking by a 70-foot pool, but it was good enough.
Saturday morning was a glory. The neighbors started drifting into the driveway at nine and Rich held court. The men were eager to talk about horsepower (605! Yeah, really!) and the women wanted to know how much it cost. Marni wasn’t there so he let slip a number somewhat higher than the actual price. This way, he thought craftily, he could deny it vehemently when one of the gossips let the figure slip to Marni.
Whatever. He managed to convey the high attainment of the Chambers family.
George Gramaglia whistled and said, “Wow, this car outclasses the neighborhood, Rich. Pretty soon you’ll be living on Fifth Avenue.” They all laughed. Even Rich considered that a supreme overreach, although he for a brief moment he envisioned a broad terrace overlooking Central Park. Anna Gramaglia said, “I think you could get 800 for this house. The market’s really hot right now.”
She was a real estate broker, so he listened carefully. “Only 800? I was thinking 9, 950.”
Anna shook her head. With her rich Bronx accent, she said lightly, “Comparables, dear. Anyway, you been here just three years and paid about 550, right?”
“Yeah. 575.” Rich was disappointed. He muttered that he’d call her soon.
“But not a word to Marn. It’s a surprise.”
The Gramaglias nodded okay, but skeptically.
Rich smiled, thinking, “Won’t she be surprised when I put the house up for sale! She’s such a stick in the mud, but she’ll come around.” Marni would be grateful for his boldness when she found herself living in a better house, a better town, a better world.
They went for a drive to the shore that afternoon. He opened the sunroof to the blue blue sky. He didn’t go above 80. Richie marveled at the way the car handled. Marni complimented her husband on the refined ride. He grinned from ear to ear. His heart soared. He sang “Volare” very off key. They all laughed.
They strolled down the boardwalk at Asbury Park and ate pizza and ice cream. They watched the season’s early birds try to swim in the freezing water. Rich was filled with pride when he saw his little family posing by his gleaming new gem. He took a raft of pictures with his iPhone, the merry ocean in the background, and managed a couple of selfies. Marni took one of Rich gazing rapturously at the Audi, and she laughed, “You’re what I’d call ‘man happy.’ Only a new car can make a man feel like that.”
Rich thought it was funny and true and he put his arm around her and squeezed her. Planted a big kiss on her cheek. After he yelled at Richie to keep his ice cream away from the car, he reflected that this was the happiest he had ever been in his entire life. The sea breeze blew the sunlight around and lit up the darkest corners of his soul.
After a couple of hours Rich began to worry about the effect of the salty air on the paint of his new Audi. He gathered them into their seats and closed the sunroof. He wiped what he imagined to be salt crystals from the dashboard. “Maybe I should take her to the carwash, what do you think?”
The two of them groaned. “It’s okay, Dad. Don’t go wacko on us.”
Marni tried to laugh it off, “Honey, the car’s fine. I don’t think an hour in the salt air is going to destroy it.” She inhaled deeply. “See? It still has the new-car smell.”
Rich drove home at the speed limit, silent and watchful of cars coming up behind and past him. Richie and Marni exchanged a look.
For some reason, when he got home Rich didn’t want to drive the car any more that day. Marni had an idea about going to a nice local restaurant, a pinkies-up place, Rich called it. No, he didn’t feel like going out again. He was tired. Leftover pasta? There wasn’t enough for all three of them. He said he’d have a can of soup and a tuna sandwich; he made it himself. Then went to the garage and sat in the car, fretting that the odometer was at 200. He feared losing all its newness in one crummy day. He couldn’t shake a feeling of gathering doom. “Hey, Marn, I don’t feel too good.” He went upstairs and got into bed at ten.
Richie and Marni were in the family room watching E.T. “Don’t look good, Mom.”
“Doesn’t, sweetheart.” She sighed.
He had a turbulent night, waking often from dreams he couldn’t recall but had him sweating through his T-shirt and shorts. The sheets were soaked. He got up and laid a big beach towel under him, but he woke up later and that, too, was drenched. He rose at dawn and stood glumly in the kitchen drinking K-Cup after K-Cup.
The morning was overcast. He went out to the deck. It was humid and felt like rain. He imagined driving through the marring rain for fresh bagels. He considered asking Marni to get them in her beat-up Subaru, but, he mused bitterly, she would plead Richie and his oh so precious needs – the boy hated bagels and would only eat waffles and bacon. Damn kid, how she indulged him. Sometimes, in fact, he felt they were in a conspiracy against him. Was he such a monster? He was a loving father and husband. He had sacrificed himself unstintingly for ten years strictly for Marni’s, then Richie’s wellbeing. Yet his bitterness summoned a raven to his mind – how he hated those knowing looks, those sighs. Always he let them pass without comment, but he noted every one of them and kept a sort of internal ledger. The raven grew bigger and darker.
Of course Marni did ask him to get bagels. She pleaded Richie’s waffles and bacon. “If I don’t he won’t leave us a minute’s peace.” She gave him a complicit smile. “Loverboy,” she whispered.
“Fine!” Rich hesitated for a second, maybe he’d take her car. But he hated that dented tin can –- his traded-in Acura was light years better. Grudgingly he backed the new car out of the garage. It began to sprinkle halfway to the bagel shop. He relaxed a bit as he felt the Quattro drive do its thing. His heart swelled with a kind of pride despite the marks the raindrops were leaving on the car’s perfect skin.
The lot at the bagel place was packed, and it was a tight squeeze to get in and out. The rain was falling harder and people scurried around with the Sunday Times as their umbrella. Sweating a little, Rich pulled into a space at the far side of the lot, where it was just gravel. The space was narrower than he would have liked. Both sides were too close. He didn’t wait for another spot and gingerly emerged from the Audi, careful not to open his door too wide.
He trotted to the shop. The line was at least ten deep. Every thirty seconds or so he looked outside. He could see his car from there, part of it. The two cars he had parked between were still there. A white Jag to the left, a blue Mercedes 600 to the right. “What a bloated barge!” he scoffed. His S8 Plus would make that lumbering piece of crap look like a soapbox racer on the highway.
He was about to look outside again when a scuffle erupted in front of him. Line-cutting. “I have a very important business meeting in 15 minutes!” the older man shouted. The bigger one shouldered him aside and laughed, “Yeah, with bagels and cream cheese? Get outta here.”
No one else wanted to get involved, but a man near the end of the line called out, “The line forms here, buddy.”
The line-cutter bulled his way through the crowd and went outside cursing. He stalked angrily to the blue Mercedes, charged into it, gunned the engine, and swerved out of the space in a spew of gravel and mud.
Rich’s heart was in his mouth. He left his spot and raced outside, heedless of the pouring rain. The Mercedes was roaring into the highway as Rich ran toward the car. He found a scrape and a dent along the right rear at the wheel well. The scrape was about two feet long. Blue paint was etched into it. The dent was small in area but deep. What a black fury he felt. How he hated everything and everyone, especially that old bastard who damaged him.
Rich got in the car. He switched on the seat heater, shivering violently. He let the car warm up and drove home carefully in driving rain. No exuberance, no thrill. No overweening pride. Seething anger. The slightest thing would set off an explosion.
When he got home, they saw his face and gave each other the knowing look he hated.
“Honey, where are the bagels? What’s wrong?”
Rich practically shouted. “The line was too damn long. I said to hell with it.” He calmed himself. He turned to Marni. “Do you like it here – in this neighborhood?”
Marni was wary. “Ye-e-es…”
“Then I won’t put this damn dump on the market.”
In her astonishment she cried, “What are you talking about?” It was her turn to be furious. “Are you insane, Richard? You’re just out of control!”
“Dad, why are you like this?” Richie asked dejectedly, “Are you off your meds?”
“I don’t need those goddamn things any more,” his father snapped.
Marni looked angrily at her husband. “Come on, Richie. Dad needs to be left alone.”
“Never mind,” he said with the voice of a martyr. He stormed down to the garage. He inspected the damage. “Fucking piece of junk.” His kicked the wet black metal, hard, adding a small dent.
At work the next morning the president of the company asked him, “Hey, Richie, how’s the new car?”
“Oh, it’s nice,” he answered in a subdued way. “Very nice, Gerald.” He remembered his euphoric feelings on Friday evening. Fool. “Took it to the shore. Had a nice time.”
“I like my S8 a lot but nothing – nothing – compares to my new Tesla. What an advanced, refined automobile that is. I’ll take you for a spin at lunchtime.” Gerald treated him to a condescending grin.
“Cool.” Rich pasted a smile on his face. “Well, to work. Excelsior and all that.” He went into his office. He closed the door. He stared out the window, watching blue jays squabble in a pine until a phone call roused him.