Car Fiction by Gary D. Smith

“Mr. Randel, we’re here to pick up your car.” Standing in the open doorway was a big man with a rolled up blue work shirt exposing his tanned forearms. I could hear the rumbling of the idling truck out front at the curb. The reality of hearing his words vaporized my vain hope that the whole thing would just go away.

A sick feeling ran through me as soon as I had opened the door and saw him. It was the kind of feeling you get when the nurse interrupts the article about “Future Undersea Kelp Farms” in Popular Science and your vain attempt to distract the butterflies in your stomach, and asks, “Joseph Randel?” She always looks around as if she doesn’t know whether “Joseph Randel” will be escorted in with his mother, or will need help with his walker.

“OK,” I said. There’s no sense arguing with this guy. It’s going to be his way or the highway. He’s just hired to do a job. Several weeks earlier I’d received a letter from the EPA stating that my car’s age limit had recently passed, and that it fell under the Federal Automobile Reclaim Act, meaning that it would be confiscated as scrap and recycled. When I got the letter, what ensued was a fierce internal battle and a verbal review to my wife about all that is wrong with the way things are, how it should be, and how good it used to be. In the weeks that followed, I resigned to the inevitable but maintained futile hope that maybe they’d forget or something.

“The car’s in the garage.” The man in the blue shirt backed away from the doorway to let me by. As I started to walk by him, I picked up a look on the man’s face that told me he was ready for a fight, and that he’d been faced with this kind of situation before. Maybe even that morning already. I tried to give him a reassuring look to disarm him a bit, but his expression never changed. Not much into body language, this one. Stepping over Joey’s riding race car on the walk, I walked slowly around the corner of the house to the garage. The man in the blue shirt waved to his buddy still in the idling truck. I heard the truck come to life, and the transmission catch a square cog just a bit going into reverse. So this was the end. The guys at work at talked about their experiences losing their cars, and now it was my turn. This was going to be worse than I imagined. And I had imagined it pretty bad.

As I leaned over to open the garage door, the man interrupted my movements. “I need you to sign this.” I stood up trying to avoid his eyes. On the clipboard was a three part form with a tear-off lower portion. Dangling from a well-worn string was a very dull pencil. The pencil perfectly matched this guy’s personality.

My hand shook as I grabbed the pencil and quickly started to review the release I was about to sign. Most of it had been obediently filled out by some computer that got its information from some mammoth data base sufficiently programmed to contain information about my car. It seemed to me that was an awfully big system just to ruin my day, not to mention forever changing my free mobility. I was filled with anger, fear, and disgust. Somehow, I was getting flim-flammed.

I skimmed the release. “Penalty…Imprisonment…Fine…EPA…Ozone layer…Pollution…Global Warming…Congestion…Spotted Owl…Vehicle Age…” were a few words that caught my eyes. It was a rerun of the letter the EPA had sent me. I might as well get this over with.

Some words I hadn’t noticed before were on the lower portion of the release. “What is this about a ‘trade-in voucher?’”  I blurted this out before my mind wondered whether this guy could deal with a question—any question.

“That’s ’splained on the back. Hurry up, Mac. We’ve got three more to pick-up before quittin’ time, and it’s almost four now.”

A lecture on tact was in order, but ill-timed at the moment. I turned the form over and read something that I had somehow overlooked before. It said, in small print, that the car could be traded in on an EPA approved ZEV instead of being picked up for scrap, and that it might be worth more as a trade-in. Well, that wouldn’t be hard to imagine. The government wasn’t giving me enough for my car to buy a month’s bus pass.

“It says here that I don’t have to let it go for scrap—I have 30 days to trade it in if I want to. And my 30 days isn’t over yet.” My mind raced forward to another evening of sitting in my car in the garage listening to the car’s stereo.

“Look, Mac, you car is on the list, see? And if I don’t bring it to the yard, I’ve got a lot of ’splaining to do. And I don’t like ’splaining.”

“Well, you can’t have the car. I’ve got one more day. I’m going to trade it in.” Two more days of freedom and independence. Well, sort of. I can’t actually drive the car, with the gasoline tax so high. But it is great knowing that I could if I really wanted to. Maybe I can drive again! Maybe the ZEV’s aren’t so bad after all. I know a guy who has a neighbor who has one, and really likes it.

I signed the voucher, took my copy to give to the dealer, and handed the blue shirt back his clipboard. He gave me a look that is tough to describe. For a moment, I was unsure whether he was going to grab me, or leave. He left. He was not happy. I hoped he wouldn’t be back.

The next morning I called the office and got a personal day off. I grabbed my briefcase along with all the papers, account records, and all kinds of other paperwork, probably unnessesary, I’d spent the night worrying about forgetting. The bus stop was a short walk from home.

Twenty minutes early for the bus. The waiting and anticipation of a new driving experience woke an old memory. I remembered sitting on the front porch anxiously waiting for Dad to come home from work. That was the big day—the day we went to the dealership to pick up the new ’67 Camaro that Dad helped me buy. Where was he? Did something happen? After pacing back and forth wondering if time had stood still, I remember turning to walk into the house to ask Mom if he’d called, when Dad’s ’62 Chevy sedan turned from the street, bounced over the rain gutter dip between the street and the drive, and came to an abrupt halt not twelve feet from me. I wanted to say, “Hi Dad! Boy, am I glad to see you!  Let’s go!” But young men in their late teens are too cool for that. Instead, I stood their silently waiting for Dad to get out of the car. And as he walked by to go into the house, he asked, with a hint of a smile on his face, “You ready?”

A young man’s first new car. Well, this experience will be just as great. I hadn’t been keeping up on the latest models of ZEV’s, but I figured that by now maybe there is some sort of sport model—maybe even a convertible.

The bus arrived. I climbed up the steps, stopped and shoved the pass card into the recorder, then walked back and took a seat. It was a beautiful spring day, with the oaks along the street graciously displaying their new leaves in the breeze.

The ’67 was red of course. It wasn’t the high performance model (I couldn’t afford that), but at least it had a V-8 and a stick. I remember driving down Victoria Avenue between the towering eucalyptus trees during warm summer evenings and hitting those cold pockets of air that settled in the low spots. There was the sweet smell of orange blossoms in the air, and the rumbling of that V8—Mozart to my ears.

The air brakes of the bus startled me, and the noise of the doors opening brought me back to the present. The next stop would be mine.

The EPA New Automobile Distribution Center was in the center of town, in the old McCormick Building. As I rounded the corner, my heart raced in anticipation of my renewed freedom. There was a gray ZEV out front, parked on the street. I stopped and scanned its drab shape. “Must be an older model,” I thought to myself.

There was a ZEV out front. “Must be an older model,” I thought to myself.

 

The gray ZEV stood in stark contrast to my red ’67. It had endured a polish job nearly every week. A neighbor told my Dad that I’d rub the paint off at that rate. I remembered driving it to the dealership to gaze through the chain link fence at the new models two weeks before announcement. Owning that new car was like having a season pass to the new car showroom. I figured it gave me the right to sit in all of the new cars, carefully examine the engine compartments, and collect brochures of my favorites.

I shook the cobwebs out of my head, and turned to go inside the showroom. The door latch was stiff, but gave finally with an extra push. It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the dim lights. It didn’t look like a showroom like I remembered. There were no sales banners or literature racks. Just a gray desk and with some matching chairs. There didn’t seem to be anybody around. Past the desks over against the wall on the far side of the room was another gray ZEV, obviously new, just like the one parked on the street. I walked around the desks and over to the car. I stared at its boxy form. “This must be the base model,” I thought.

“Can I help you?” The voice came out of nowhere. I was embarrassed at being obviously startled, so I waited a bit before I turned to face my inquisitor.

“I’m interested in exchanging my car—” I opened my briefcase and started fumbling for the form—“for a new ZEV.” I couldn’t immediately find the form, and glanced up at the “salesman.” He was a short, stocky, middle-aged man wearing a grey suit. There was no excitement in his eyes.

“Please follow me to my office, and we will fill out the appropriate forms.” As he turned to walk away, I could tell that he was heading toward a dark hallway, away from the car.

“Wait! Can you tell me about the car?” He stopped and turned around. The look on his face was partly annoyed, and partly puzzled. “What do you want to know?”

What do I want to know? Well, everything! I want the sales pitch! The specs! Tell me why I should buy one! Overcome my objections! Come on! I’m not here to buy a roll of stamps!

But all that I heard myself say was, “Can you tell me about the engine?” He walked past me back to the rear of the car and opened the deck lid. I followed him and stood gazing into the open cavity. There was a small, molded plastic luggage area toward the rear, and components of some sort over where there should have been a rear axle.

“This ZEV is powered by a fuel cell. Compressed natural gas enters here—” he pointed to some fitting that looked like it belonged on a hay baler in the Henry Ford Museum—“that goes to a reformer. The reformer splits it into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Hydrogen flows into the cell and reacts there, making electricity. The resulting water is caught in the holding tank over here.

“The electricity that is produced spins up a gimbal-mounted flywheel. It’s the flywheel that actually stores the electricity that powers the car through the transverse electric motor mounted up front. The flywheel gets a power boost through the braking action of the car, extending the range. It’s all precisely computer controlled.” I’ll bet it was. Whatever I was looking at more closely resembled a water heater than what I would expect looking under the hood of an automobile.

“How about performance?” I asked starting to dread what may be coming.

“This ZEV Model 3B Sedan has a range of 175 miles at 55 mph.”

“No, no. That’s not what I mean. I mean what will it do in the quarter? What’s the 0-60 time? What’s the top speed?” This whole experience was not going as planned.

“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,” he responded. “But you may be interested in the dual front and rear air bags. They are computer coupled with the side door air bags to react either in tandem, or separately in the event of a collision.” His blank stare throughout the duration of his answer told me that my questions were outside of his training envelope.

“Are there any other models to choose from?”

“There is a small van.”

“Does it have the same powerplant as this one?”

“It has a bigger electric motor to compensate for the extra load requirements.” Now we’re getting somewhere!

“So it’s performance is better.”

“The van and the sedan are both computer governed to perform exactly the same whether loaded or empty, so the driver never has to adjust to any changes in vehicle performance.”

It can’t be that bad. It must be that this guy is just dry, and obviously not interested in automobiles.

“Can I drive one?”

“Delivery can take up to 120 days.”

“No, I mean before I decide to buy one.” He looked at me like I had grown another head right before his very eyes.

“Why would you want to do that?” His tone of voice registered an increased level of frustration with that answer, and I believed that he was beginning to doubt my sincerity. “That would be highly unusual.”

“Well, I’d like to determine whether I will like driving the car before I buy it.” I found myself beginning to talk like he did, in a rather stoic, bureaucratic monotone. “Maybe I’ll want to compare it with that of another manufacturer to see if their offering is more to my liking.”

Another puzzled look from my host. After an uncomfortably long pause accompanied by a stare below a furrowed brow, he finally said, “There are only these two models. There aren’t any others. All of the manufacturers produce the same EPA approved units.”

My shocked expression no doubt would be the topic of discussion over dinner that night with his wife and their 1.7 approved children. “Do you mean to tell me that it’s either this rolling plumbing exhibit or the bus?” I was starting to let my frustration and disappointment come to the surface, and he didn’t respond immediately.

“It is highly unusual, but I suppose that you can drive the ZEV out front. It is last year’s model, but they are essentially the same. It belongs to the zone administrator. I has just been serviced, but won’t be picked up until tomorrow.”

The walk through the room around the desks toward the light of day settled me down a bit as I anticipated getting behind the wheel of a car again. My red ’67 had a red interior with bucket seats and a console.

The interior of this car was mouse gray. My “salesman’s” suit matched perfectly. He slid the I.D. card into the dash, and a green light came on. I had the seat adjusted quickly and was looking around for the ignition switch. “How do you start this thing?”

“The fuel cell is spinning up the flywheel. You can go anytime.”

All……right! Maybe it’s one of these “design” things. The car didn’t excite me to look at or sit in, but times have changed. Here we go! I eased on the go pedal on the floor, and the thing moved fairly briskly up to about 25 mph.

My passenger interrupted the experience with a word of caution. “We can only be gone 20 minutes.”

I used that 20 minutes to thoroughly evaluate performance of my new toy. All in all, it did OK. It turned. And stopped. The acceleration was that of a car I used to do deliveries in as a teenager, a ’66 Rambler Ambassador wagon. After about a half-inch push on the go pedal, it became academic how much more you pushed it. It was only going to accelerate at a given rate. As I drove the car, my “salesman” talked about the ins and outs of owning a ZEV. He explained the fueling procedure, maintenance, life expectancy of the fuel cell, and other things that went in one ear and out the other. So what. Putting up with inconveniences of owning an automobile were always easily offset by the thrill of driving and the freedom of being mobile. I didn’t pay much attention to him.

I parked the car where I had started it. I just sat there for a few minutes in silence, and finally remarked, “You don’t see too many of these things on the road.”

The “salesman” ignored my comment and opened the door to get out. I turned my head toward him and asked, “How much are these things, anyway?” His answer was shocking. The price of the car was bad enough, but with the taxes tacked on, it was staggering.

The salesman disappeared inside the building. I slowly emerged from the car and started for the entrance. I turned around and stopped, staring at the ZEV. Again my mind resurrected thoughts of my ’67. I used to wash it and then just sit out and stare at its shape, as if it had been the single work of a master artist. I just couldn’t get enough it. Steve McQueen said in the movie Le Mans, “Racing is life. Everything else is just waiting.” Not driving my car was just like that to me. Oh, there was a time later in life when cars became more practical. But that was merely suppressed love, waiting to be released again at a different time with another car. I wished I still had my ’67.

I suppose I stood there in a stupor staring at the ZEV longer than I thought. I heard the door to the building open, and the “salesman” emerged. “Mr. Randel, are you coming in to sign the necessary paperwork?”

I thought for a moment. There was a struggle inside that was fighting a losing battle. The conclusion had become obvious. It was over. I turned to him and said, “No, I’m not. This thing is nothing more than a boiler on wheels. It has no soul, no life of its own. Just being able to get around isn’t enough. I’ll just take the bus.”

I got off the bus and started walking back up the street towards my house, dazed, not really paying attention to what was going on around me. I pondered the events of the last day, and sadly compared them with picking up my first new car so many years ago. I just couldn’t believe things had really gotten this bad.

Gradually, the signals coming from my eyes woke up my mind. I saw an arm waving out of the window of the approaching tow truck, and the man in the blue shirt with a smirk on his face hollered at me, “Your wife let me into the garage. See ya later, Mac.” As he passed by, there was my old car on the hook headed for the scrap yard.

© 1994 Gary D. Smith

1 Comment
  1. A very touching story and well written.
    I hope it will never be that bad. Even alternative fueled cars can be exciting if passion is put into their design.
    I think electric cars could make awesome muscle cars given the right styling and tech.

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