A few days ago my wife drove away at quarter to six in the morning, quite possibly a record for her at the start of her trips, for another sojourn in Florida, this time for three weeks. She had been here at home since shortly after her mother's death in March, but she still has a stepfather living in Fla alone though with many friends close by, and he is 85. So she went back to check on him and in general to tool around visiting other relatives. who are numerous in Florida.
She had originally planned to leave the day before, but when she turned the key, the car wouldn't start. The battery is always the first suspect, but I was embarrassed because I didn't even know where in the car it was. This is because, ever since she she brought her mother's car up here in March, or rather it brought her, I had paid the least possible attention to it. That was because the car is a Cadillac.
I have always had a strong antipathy toward Cadillacs, and you should resist all temptations to give me one, regardless of its worth and condition. This is because with me that make is synonymous with extreme ostentation. a toxin that I've avoided at every turn. In the D.C. in which I grew up it was the vehicle of choice for pimps, preachers, and those who had arrived
, the hoity-toity strivers and the lookdowners, and one of the many titles for short stories and novels that over the years have popped into my head, with no story ever showing up to go with them, is "Two Wigs and a Cadillac."
To my eye, conditioned forever by my little '63 VW Bug of yore, this car that was now my wife's and by extension, unbelievably, also my own, looked flawless, and I could see that it was a marvel of engineering. Everything on it, in it, and about it looked massive, built to last, rounded and smooth to the touch, and machined and painted with the utmost precision and thoughts of luxury. It was a 2002 De Ville, and it looked brand new, though it had 60,000 miles on it. Yet I didn't care for the idea even of having it sitting in my driveway.
Not only was it a car that I would never have desired, but also it just wasn't right for this area. We live on a gravel road. This is a rural gravel road county. And confirmation of its otherworld nature came when I first popped the hood -- and saw no battery. If the engine was there, there should've been a battery, too. Instead the main thing visible was a broad, gleaming, silvery, and enigmatic plate
, which I guessed was covering something as mundane as the engine. Nor could I easily identify most of the other gear at the sides of that big, bright, space age plate, and I felt that neither could any ordinary mortals.
This could only mean one thing. Anybody who would buy a car like this would never ever expect to actually have to work on it. All that matters is that, after the key is turned, the car moves, as quietly and as comfortably as possible, and with the expected dispatch. And if someone as unnecessary as myself should show up and ask to see what's under the hood, still all that that owner wants to see revealed is a nice gleaming cover hiding all the yucky, greasy apparatus of the barbarian bygone days, provided that such is still needed, supposedly to enable the car to move.
But it did make me meditate on my mother-in-law. Not on her in all the years preceding her illness, but in her final days as she lay helpless in the hospital, far from this big, beautiful riding machine of hers, which she had bought and driven about with what must have been supreme satisfaction and which she saw as being the correct and most suitable payoff for all her efforts in life.
Though an admirable woman, my mother-in-law did not shy away from the ostentatious, and she liked to say things like, of the small southern town and the even more humble all-rainbow neighborhood in which she and her husband lived -- and able to say this because of their higher salaries and status as longtime teachers -- "Where we live, we are
So I was struck by the two images of this car, sitting outside and as resplendent and in as good a shape as the day my mother-in-law had bought it, still waiting for her fond touch, while she, worn out by the ravages of age, would never again even look upon it. I wondered how much, prostrate in her final hours, she thought of her expensive, magnificent, tannish-gray, driving machine. Finally not at all, I wagered. And this reopened that eternal question, "How much is this worth it?"
The car trouble was indeed the battery, but we had to get our good neighbor, G., over to help, because his wife has almost the identical model, though she would very much like to trade it in for a more economical and ecological hybrid, and once her Caddy, too, wouldn't start because of a dead battery, which turned out to be -- illogically I thought -- under the back seat. But what do I know? Besides, it had also been under the back seat in my trusty little VW, but then so was the engine, almost.
I just hope that when Esther comes back home, in slightly more than two weeks now, this time she will bring back the car's manual. I believe fervently in having manuals. Sometimes, in spite of all, you have to read them. That's true even with Caddies. Or from where I stand, especially with Caddies.