Earlier today, I returned to the Root Hill Café for their monthly open mic.
This mic routinely features musicians and poets, so I felt compelled to try something a little different and do some storytelling. Storytelling is actually a common pastime in the south, and there are annual conventions at places all over Dixie. I went to one such convention a few years ago in Whitesburg, KY, and enjoyed it enough to try my hand at storytelling intermittently since then. I read this story at an open mic in Hyannis, MA, although the version below is significantly different. The Root Hill Mic only allots 6 minutes, so I had to cut the original story down about 1700 words. I thought it might be fun to share the story with you all.
This story is about a man’s tepid relationship with his first car. The title is in homage to Pat Frank’s post-apocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon. (Homage is just a word you use when you don’t want to say “ripped off from.”)
This story is semi-autobiographical. I have fictionalized several parts of the story, as well as changed names and locations. The car though… the car is 100% real. And Mom, I repeat: a lot of it is made up; don’t get upset over the references to underage drinking. Everyone who knows me remembers I didn’t drink in high school. I waited until college to start my illegal drinking.
Alas, Satellite. By Gregory Quinn.
The knee-high grass lacerated our bare calves as we made our way across the precarious dunes. We were going the long way. Too many sections of Amber Beach were full of too many bathers; there weren’t a lot of good places for a couple of 16-year-olds to have a drink.
Just across the sand was a lingering salt-water marsh interspersed with dilapidated, useless docks. After this, it was a short walk down Franklin Ave to the Point, an eternally eroding cliff at the tip of Amber Beach. 50 feet below in the crashing tides, fallen rocks congregated with harbor seals and pot smokers and underage drinkers.
It was the summer of 2001.
I had finished up a morning shift at the local General Store. My friend Kessler met me as I counted the draw. He had a devilish grin on his face; an impish, half-smile indicating he was about to make me do something devious. He led me to out to the trunk of his car and revealed his bounty - a fresh six pack of Natural Ice.
When we finally reached Franklin Ave we turned left and headed for the point, and there on the front lawn of an ancient, wind-weary beach house was my future first car. A 1974 Plymouth Satellite, 500 bucks.
It was four-door and faded brown. The passenger side was facing the street, the molding on the driver’s side was missing, and on the fender there was a large hole surrounded by what could have been decade-out rust. In resembled - in what could be described more tactfully but never more honestly - a giant turd. I fell in love with it instantly.
Kessler, who had abandoned any pretenses of hiding his drinking, took a sip of his warming Natty Ice and said: “that car… is fucking sweet.”
Looking at it then, I thought of my dad - a real kind of car guy. We could spend weekends working on it together. Fix the Landau roof and replace the molding. It would need a new paint job. Blue, for sure. Red, my dad would say, will only attract the cops.
Two weeks later the Satellite was mine. Kessler and I took it for illicit test drives around Amber Beach, thinking we were so cool. Everyone else’s first car was generic; faceless. Their ’88 Camry’s and their ’92 Civics were interchangeable amongst the masses. But not mine - mine was distinct, like a first car should be. 1974 – 2001: 27 years. In our own twisted logic, Kessler and I maintained, “Over 25, it’s a classic, over 30, an antique.” My 1974 Plymouth Satellite. Classic.
Things didn’t go as I planned. I started driving it to school and discovered that my fellow classmates didn’t share in my first-car romanticism. To them, the Satellite was only distinct because it was a laughable piece of garbage. I was constantly ridiculed. I never had the skin to handle it. I started to long for the days my mom stayed home so I could take her 1986 Volvo Station Wagon to school. I remember my senior year. The senior superlatives were coming up, and amongst the categories was worst-car. I became ill with the thought of winning the “award.” The idea of having to walk down the bleachers in front of my howling classmates made me want to faint. I made plans to go Marlon Brando on the event and have a Native American woman accept my award. In the end, I underestimated my class’ sense or irony; they gave the prize to Erik Fulmar and his pristine Mustang. He was an ass hole.
One afternoon that same senior year, I discovered the Satellite covered in a barrage of egg shells and sticky yellow yoke. I was mortified, not because of the damage done, but because I was clearly going to have show someone of authority the car. The Vice Principal took a look, and he immediately assumed it was a random act. Someone just saw this ridiculous car and thought: wouldn’t it be clever to egg it. Nonetheless, my mother insisted I file a police report. Now, I would have rather let bygones be bygones then do that, but my mother won out.
The police officer arrived and got me started on a pile of paperwork while he accepted all my mother’s offers of coffee and bagels. As much as I dreaded this whole ordeal, I did enjoy feeling notorious. After being as absurd as possible, (Suspect allegedly infiltrated school property and vandalized said automobile is a I sentence I actually used) I handed in my report and to my horror the officer said he would need to have a look at my car.
My first thought was to steal his gun, shoot the officer and my mother, than make my escape to Mexico (In my mother’s Volvo, naturally.) Instead, I showed the officer the way to the car.
“I fail to see the damage.” The office said.
“If you look here, you can see where the egg yoke stained the paint.” I said as I tried to point over a softball-sized hole to a stain that was barely noticeable.
“Well…I can’t file a damage report if we can’t discern which damage was caused by the incident, and which was preexisting. It looks to me, that most of these blemishes were caused by other factors. Honestly, the car’s not valuable enough to make any effort to find the assailant. Understand?”
“It’s valuable to us,” my mother said. She was only trying to help, but it merely riled me more. The officer apologized and exited, and to no one’s surprise, nothing ever came of it again. I had fantasies of sleuthing around and seeking retribution, but I never did a thing. I just hated the car.
My dad, though, he loved that car. In didn’t occur to me when I was younger, but my initial attraction to the Satellite, (and my overemphasis on the importance of first cars) had nothing to do with me loving it, but my own desire to please my father, who really did love old cars. All the things I hastily assumed I loved about the Satellite, were actually what my father loved about it.
And boy, did the Old Man love the Satellite.
I would spend the entire day trying to convince myself the car didn’t exist, only to hear my father rave about its limitless potential. The problem was it never reached this supposed potential. Every dime earned went to fixing shit I didn’t care about. The money saved for the paint job? New radiator. The money for the stereo? New fuel injection system. The money for the roof? New tires. Always those goddamn tires! New front tires, new spear tires…new snow tires! New tires are a grim symbol of adult reality.
That my father’s endless hope for the Satellite was met with apathy by his son was a serious blow to our relationship. My father was justifiably annoyed with the lack of gratitude I showed for all the hard work he did. I wanted to spend the time with him, but not if it meant working on the car. In that case, I would prefer to be alone.
Plans to fix up the car were halted as my family’s finances deteriorated. Money was put into cars only if absolutely necessary. At this point it was all my father and I could do to keep the Satellite from exploding. For the last 12 months of the car’s life, I used two feet to drive: my left foot would ride the break as I gave it gas on stops; otherwise it stalled, leaving me at the mercy of anxious commuters.
When I went to college I left the Satellite at home. The car lived out its days rust-collecting in the driveway before we had it junked. It was an ignominious exit. I went out with friends for the night and when I returned it was gone. Maybe I was relieved. Maybe regretful, after all, the Satellite did have potential. I don’t really remember how I felt, but to this day I’m certain of one thing. My dad was heartbroken.
I don’t have a car now. I live in New York City - I don’t even have a Metrocard. But I got wheels back home, left – once again – to die in my mother’s driveway. That car, a 1996 Geo Prism, has taken me around the country and back a few times. I suppose it was junk too, but I loved it. I got it a few years back for nothing. My grandmother had passed away, and I was bequeathed the Geo.
It was very much an old-lady-who-only-drove-it-for-church-and-groceries type of car. When I got it, it had 50,000 miles despite being a decade old. Everything about it was odd. There is no name on the trunk of the car, no Geo Prism in writing, no Geo symbol. There was nothing at all; as if even the car is embarrassed to admit what it is. We made a good match.
The color was unfortunate. Light Blue like the sky, only gayer. The rear of the car was emblazed with a giant pink breast cancer magnet that my grandmother left there. The trunk looked like a banner at a women’s rights parade. Driving the car during this period was a virtual admission of having a vagina. But I didn’t have the heart to rip the ribbon off – who would? Eventually, it rotted away.
Driving cross-country, I thought endlessly about how lame a road trip car the Geo was. I wanted to be in a classic car, goddamnit. Then I would recall the opportunity I was missing.
On the road one night I gave Kessler a call.
“I wish I could be there with you, man.” Kessler said.
“It would be nice to have some company.” I said
“You know what would be really sweet though? If you made this trip in the Satellite.”
I had thought that myself many times. I spent a few sleepless nights in the Geo, thinking of the space I would have if I were in the Satellite. I could have danced in that thing.
“Oh well,” Kessler says. “It’s too bad.
Yeah, it’s too bad