The Ride Home
Cleo stepped out of the town hall meeting. All of his buddies were inside giving their testimony. Not that it was anything more than standing up and saying what was on their mind to the six people on the village board.
He had been on the volunteer fire department for forty years. It was a tradition and a way to take care of your neighbor, but the conversation was confusing. He could no longer hear so well, and sometimes, to him, the arguments against a professional fire department sounded like an argument for it.
His plan had been to refresh himself with the evening coolness for just a moment. Instead, he wandered down the fronts of the parked cars until he came to the powder blue ‘56 Plymouth Belvedere with its top down. He was not one to talk to objects, but in his head, he thought, Hello, old friend. Let’s just enjoy the nice evening. He ran his finger along the rounded fender and then the big tail fin. He came up the other side. Then he went to the bench on the sidewalk in front of it and sat down face to face with the 60-year-old car.
He bought the car right before going into the army. He remembered pointing it out to his father as it sat on the lot. “You could wait until you got back,” his father said, but it was love at first sight. He did not leave the lot until he did so in his car.
On his first leave home, the first thing he did was see a movie downtown with Mary, the woman that became his wife. The next night, he and his best friend, Ryan, took the Plymouth out and put it through its paces. He was doing 90 when Ryan yelled, “Lights.”
In the distance were lights above a set of headlights. “If it’s a cop, let him catch me.” Unless the cop was going to make him do pushups or KP duty, he could not make himself care.
The vehicle barreled up and then passed them. It was a greyhound bus with clearance lights. “Maybe I need to soup this car up. I got beat by a bus.”
“At least you have a car,” Ryan told him.
Sunday was the parish picnic and Mary was there all day. That was okay, Cleo and Ryan went for another drive. It was a perfect day to ride with the top down and a six-pack of Pabst on the floor in the back seat.
He noticed Ryan looking at him as he cracked his first beer. “What if that had been a cop last night?”
“Then I would have gotten a big ticket. Why?”
“You seem different.”
Cleo stopped over a bridge. “Look, the riverbed is mostly dry. I think a little cross-country driving is in order.”
“Are you going to take her down there?”
“Just until the next crossroad.” Cleo crossed the bridge and hung a right into a small park for people to fish the river. He was able to take the car through a sandy area.
The car sunk like someone let the air out of the tires until he hit the cracked clay. Then he only had to slow down when he came to large rocks.
Cleo threw his empty beer at the shore. “A guy’s perspective changes in the army. At the end of the month, I’m shipping out to Young Dung Po. How could I care about a speeding ticket when I’m going to go stand on a line where a bunch of Orientals have a gun pointed at me?”
Ryan handed him another beer. “I may have to go stand next to you. There ain’t no jobs in this town.”
“I know it. It’s why I took the army.”
“Maybe I should.”
The riverbed took them through wooded areas and past fields. Sometimes it was pastures where the cows’ hooves made deep pockmarks in the mud. Other places had fences and the river had carved away the bank like a spoon through ice cream. “We’ve gone more than a mile,” Cleo announced. “Where’s that damn crossroad?”
Eight miles later, Cleo relaxed about finding the crossroad. “I’ll tell you, I’ve learned a lot in the army. I don’t like the idea of getting shot at and I hate being away from Mary. I even miss all you wet rags, but at least I have a future now.”
After half an hour, Cleo found himself pushing the car a little harder. It made the car rattle and the small stream that appeared in the middle created a hissing sound as the passenger side tires pushed through it.
Ryan broke a long silence. “I’m starting to panic here.”
“This is ridiculous.” Cleo wanted to find a road and it was too far to go back now. Yet there was something to the silence of the trip. He enjoyed the feel of the car and the sun. He grabbed the last beer and handed it to Ryan. “The way the river just keeps going. It’s also sort of fun.”
“I guess so. I thought maybe we had our last adventure. What could me and the town offer someone that went out to California?”
“I almost didn’t come home.”
They drove twenty-six miles before coming to a road. Instead of hurrying up the embankment, Cleo stopped the car. “Here we are.”
“I have no place to be, but don’t you have to meet up with Mary?”
“I want you to drive my car while I’m gone. Unless you enlist.”
“Well, should I?”
“I wouldn’t have this car if I hadn’t. You could come over to Korea and we could be heroes together.”
The back tire spun stones as it made the climb back on blacktop.
When he returned from Korea, the Plymouth was waiting for him under a tarp in his parents’ backyard. He was happy to see everyone, but the first thing he did was climb into the driver’s seat of his car.
He drove it back and forth to work at the Chrysler plant in Belvidere until he bought a Plymouth Fury station wagon. The Belvidere went back under the tarp. The Wisconsin winters had taken a toll on it.
In the 70s, he moved it to a friend’s barn. He did not sell it. He could not bring himself to restore it.
“Cleo. Cleo, I’m talking to you.”
It took a while for him to realize Dick was next to him.
“What was the outcome?
“They didn’t decide yet. I suppose in the end, it don’t matter what we do. Visiting an old friend, I see.” Cleo nodded. His friend held up keys. “You want to take her for a spin?”
Cleo shook his head. “I don’t drive too much anymore. It’s good to see the old girl though. You did a beautiful job. You saved her.”
“No, you saved the car.” In his voice, you could hear how Dick loved the car too. “You held onto it, and then you let her go so that I could bring her back to life.”
Cleo thought again about the trip down the riverbed and how much he enjoyed it. If it hadn’t been a good time, maybe he wouldn’t have encouraged Ryan to join up.
“Well, you stopping down for one?” Cleo shook his head.
“Naw. I’d take a ride home though.”