The Red Jeep
– Non-fiction by Roberta Faith Levine – October 19, 2018
For a month a red Jeep has sat in front of our House, its red boxy body catching my eye every time I walk outside. Whoever left it, placed it equally distant between the neighbors’ houses, and just at the right point on the hill so I can see if cars are coming before I back into the street. Still, it’s unusual to abandon a car for weeks in front of a stranger’s house.
Oddly enough, I’d done the same thing decades earlier.
My parents died a month apart when I was in my early twenties. Though hard working, my parents’ estate included only a small ranch house, its furnishings, and a car, a late model Oldsmobile. At that time, the Oldsmobile was an aspirational vehicle, more luxurious than Fords or Chevrolets, yet nowhere near the prohibitive cost of a Cadillac. The Olds was a solid step up from the Plymouths my dad used to buy at police auctions.
My dad died at the end of April, exhausted from years of kidney dialysis and other ailments. Weird as it is to say, his death came as a blessing, releasing him from his worn body. A month later my mother died on the operating table during a relatively minor surgery. The surgeon said her artery shredded as he tried to remove the tumor from her liver. While he described the surgery, I felt as though I was shrieking. Then, in an uncharacteristic move, I asked to see my mother. I had to. The hospital complied, and a woman led me to the basement where my mother rested on a gurney in a cold, empty room. A white sheet was pulled over her chest though it hardly kept her warm.
My mother was impulsive. Once, when our family walked out of a movie theater, a city bus pulled up to its stop. Without warning, she grabbed my little hand and pulled me onto the bus with her. She must have felt confident that my dad would follow in the car and pick us up when she chose to get off. She was a beauty who wore her hair cut short as a man’s. A complicated person, she had an irresistible smile tempered by soulful brown eyes. She was my north, my mooring, and her cast-off body lay in the basement room; she was gone.
My parents’ spare matching funerals took place a month apart. After my father’s death, I returned to my life, wounded, but functioning. After my mother’s death, I felt like a burn patient whose fried, cracked skin oozed yellow liquid. My friends, also in their twenties, avoided me like I was tainted. I didn’t blame them, I had nothing to say to them either. Often I’d reach for the phone to tell my parents something, having forgotten they were dead and then be thrust back to the early days of mourning. Just one death requires years to assimilate, but the two combined created a vast, psychic wound that took me a decade to recover from.
My mother had adored that Oldsmobile. It was a heavy car with a plush, cozy interior and an exterior that shone like a golden chariot. Detroit sprawls in all directions. Getting anywhere takes a minimum of twenty minutes, so she often used the car as a dressing room. She’d get in half-dressed, and at stop lights, zip her skirt, button her blouse, apply lipstick or brush her hair. Conversely, on the way home the red lights gave her time to undo, unhook, and kick off her heels. My mother had worked a lot of jobs, her final one was as a jewellery rep. She loved it. She and another woman would drive all over Michigan and Ohio, the car’s trunk stuffed with thousands of dollars of gold jewellery. At each store, they’d unload the black cases, and trip inside in their high heels, a pair of well-dressed middle-aged women.
Her work seemed larkish to me though it must have paid well since she bought the Olds. The car acted as a kind of passport to the more affluent suburbs while obscuring her real economic circumstances. My dad, a mechanical engineer, ran two city buildings in Detroit. His work was low paying though steady which was valuable for someone who’d grown up during the Great Depression. However, the city demanded all its workers live within its boundaries. The rule hardly stifled white flight, but it did create a pool of residents, like us, bobbing along the city’s edge at Eight Mile Road.
Seven months after my parents’ deaths, I drove their Olds from Michigan to New York and left it at my aunt’s house in the Whitestone area of Queens. I had to, it was way too big to drive around Manhattan, or park safely on the Lower East Side. About a half a year later my aunt announced she’d sold her house, was going to Florida, and I had to move my car. She kindly offered to buy it, but I couldn’t let it go. I’d lost everything: my father, my mother, my home, my place in the world, I couldn’t lose their car as well. So I said no.
Her son, not much older than me, suggested I park the car on the street in another Queens’ neighborhood. Like an idiot I agreed, and left my parent’s Oldsmobile in front of a stranger’s house without even thinking to knock on the door and ask their permission, or alert them to its presence. My cousin assured me he’d check on the car weekly and that sounded okay.
Eventually, the police contacted me. The car had been vandalized, its tires stolen, engine parts stripped, and the side view mirrors ripped off leaving only a skeleton of the once luxurious vehicle.
When I think of it now, it makes no sense. How could I have left a valuable car on an unknown street in a neighborhood I couldn’t find without my cousin taking me there? It was like I threw the car away. It wasn’t like, I did throw it away. If I’d sold it to my aunt, at least she’d have used it. Instead, a man with a tow truck gave me three hundred dollars for the body, hooked the car up, and hauled it away. I saw the afternoon sun reflect off its golden roof until the tow truck turned right and it disappeared from sight leaving only an oily iridescent puddle at my feet to mark its existence.
Like me, the Jeep owner didn’t ring the bell to ask if I’d mind if their car sat in front of my house; most likely they didn’t even think of it. Furthermore, I doubt I’ll ever know who left it or why. Yet while it sits here, eerily reminding me of my parents’ car and its fate, I’m going to watch over it and make sure it stays safe.
About the Author – Roberta Faith Levine
Roberta Faith Levine’s work has appeared in Just Be Parenting, Numero Cinq, 2 Elizabeths and other publications. Her essay “Devising Theater” was included in the 2018 publication The Role of the Arts in Learning. She is a two time Roothbert Fund recipient, a 2017 Vermont Studio fellow, and lives in northwestern Pennsylvania with her family.
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