A short story award submission by Grace Epstein
Josie pulls the dipstick from the engine, wipes it, pushes it back into the tube.
“It’s an old car,” her father tells her.“Got more that a hundred-fifty thousand miles on it.“
Josie tries not to react to his continuous advice.She doesn’t want to fight.At least, not out here in front of her neighbors, not that she knows any of them really.
“Car does that kind of mileage, it’s ready for the junk heap.”
Josie checks the level.A thin hair above full.She jams the stick back into place.“Maybe the ignition.”
“Did you check the carburetor?”
“Dad, cars these days don’t have carburetors.They got computer chips.Fuel injectors.”
“That right?Well, I’m out of my depth then.I still think you ought to pack it in on this one.”He shoves his hands deeper into his coat pocket, face against the wind.
“I can’t afford another car,” Josie says.“I just paid this one off.”
“Well, cars aren’t made the way they used to be.Light bodies. Don’t stand up to nothing.”
“Nowadays cars get over two hundred thousand.They make them lighter for traveling than they used to.” She's being short. Since he arrived with cables, he hasn’t let up on the idea of her buying another car. She tosses a glance at the kids still seated at the apartment window.She worries they are cardboard look-alikes of her children who are actually dismantling the house.
“. . . to the lot and take a look around.Can’t hurt to look,” he says.This, from a man who hates shopping, and frequently buys the first thing he sees, to save time.
Josie shakes her head.“I’ll call the shop and have them come get it,” she insists.“Do you mind giving us a ride?”
Josie motions the kids to get their hats and coats on.They bolt up and move back from the window.She can see Jake taking charge of Jordan, pointing at something and signaling back to her.She tries to remember him ever being as young and helpless as Jordan.Even at five, he’s quite the little man, a fact that makes her teary.She hides her rapidly filling eyes from her father with the lift of her coat collar.The western sky fills with borderless clouds, enfolding them in a soft gray blanket.Snow, Josie thinks.
Her dad goes into the apartment while she puts the tools away and transfers her stuff from her car to his.Her father thinks she ought to supervise the boys at all times, even when she’s working.He doesn’t approve of single parenting. It’s not what she signed up for either.
Her father takes back roads to the day care center.He doesn’t like the traffic at this time of the morning, but he especially hates going even two minutes in the wrong direction.To save “mileage” on the car, the journey takes twice as long.
The kids giggle behind her, and Jake is kicking the back of the seat.She anticipates her father’s reprimand, but he barely notices. He’s more tolerant of her kids than he was of his own. Josie’s mother, however, remains the taskmaster. Josie wonders what her kids will say of her parenting when they are 31. Will they sit silently beside her rather than engage in conversation, and then there is Tom. Will they even remember him at all?
At the center, she walks Jake to the kindergarten, and then ushers Jordan downstairs to the three-year old class.Jordan is a cheerful child, never bothered by delays or bustle.He smiles, fiddling with a Thomas the Train toy. “Hello, I’m Thomas the Train,” it repeats.With each push on the smokestack, Jordan giggles. She tries to savor these moments. “Bye, sweetheart, I’ll see you later,” she waves from the threshold of his room.He used to scream whenever she dropped in off here.
Once back in the car, her father turns down a series of alleys toward the college where she is a lab assistant.They pass a large dumpster where two homeless women are digging for food and other treasures, a common enough scene these days, but her father never ceases to comment on it.
“Would you look at that?” he scoffs.“Country’s going down the tubes.Look at them!Able-bodied women digging through garbage instead of taking a job.”
Josie resists defending them.It never helps.For her father, homelessness is a choice, like single parenting, never the result of unfortunate circumstances, job loss or mental illness.In the world her father inhabits, Josie can choose not to be what she is by choosing another husband.
“I’ll call and let you know whether they can fix it today.If so, we can pick it up when I get off.” She removes her briefcase and purse from the floor of the car.“Is that okay?Are you and mom doing anything this evening?”
He shakes his head hesitantly, “I don’t think so.She’ll give you a call.”
Josie nods, “Thanks Dad.Sorry, I had to get you up so early.”
He shrugs, “Maybe after dinner, you can take a look at the lot.”
At ten, the garage calls.The mechanic quotes the price for parts and labor.His voice is matter of fact, disinterested.
“But the car is five years old . . . ”
“Got about 156,000 miles on there.”
Josie's over a barrel. “Yeah.But I’d like to make it to 200.”
He laughs, “Well, you’ll have to put some money into it then.It could use some new ball joints, tires.”Even he thinks she should upgrade, or maybe that’s how he’s been trained to respond.
“Yeah, well, let’s do the fuel injector this time. But could you try used parts, first.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” indifference returns to his voice.“I’ll give you a call.”
“Great,” she says into the phone and rolls her eyes at Sue who is seated across from her on the other side of the table. Josie puts her phone away.
Sue shakes her head,“I hate mechanics, used to be married to one. Not good.”
Josie shuffles the test slides, holding them up to the light and trying to determine whether students have misfiled them after yesterday’s lab. Josie murmurs, “My dad’s probably right, I’m throwing good money after bad.”
Sue shrugs, “Might save you a hassle every other day.”
“It’s so expensive. I barely make the rent.”
Sue shakes her head empathetically,“You figure on a used one then.”
“There’s no way it can be a new car.”
“I was reading this article about Cuba,” Sue says, “where they haven’t been able to import cars for a couple decades because of the embargo, not even parts. So they improvise repairs with bits of steel and rubber, even duct tape.A lot of cars from the early 50’s are still running perfectly well.The odometers flip to zero five, six, seven times, but the damn things still keep running.Makes you wonder.”
A while later, her mother calls,“Why don’t you get something else?”
“But this is costing a lot too.Missing work.Not to mention the stress on you and us.”She is trying to sound matter of fact, so that Josie won’t be offended.
“Mom, I’m sorry.I thought all it needed was a jump this morning.”
“Well, he’s getting old, and he can’t help with that stuff anymore.”
Josie tries to remember a time when her father did car maintenance. “It’s not unsafe.”
“Well, something could happen.”
“Something has already happened.”
Her mother’s voice drops an octave, “Those poor little boys, been through so much already.Losing a father at their age, and you without any prospects.”
Josie doesn’t respond. Prospects are marriageable men.Men will provide; men will defend.Men will fix the car when it isn’t starting.Josie is about to break.Instead she swallows her outrage, “Okay, I’ll look, but we are not buying tonight.”
“Come over for dinner, and Dad will take you out to the lot afterwards.”
The lot.Like there’s only one.
“Dad can go to the garage and asked them to hold off on the fix.”
“No, don’t do that.I’ll call them. ”She pictures her father explaining her life to the mechanic. She fills her coffee cup and summons her courage,“I’ll do it, but I’m not buying it tonight.”
“Sure.Just go and look.”
Her mother is always so confident about purchases.She knows nothing about cars, about electronics, about appliances, but when it comes to purchasing, she always knows that the one she likes is the only one to buy.For Josie, things are murky, less promising.
For lunch she wanders down the hall to the student lounge.Sue is having a smoke just outside the building door.That’s Sue’s lunch, half a dozen cigarettes. She stands thin and spindly beyond the threshold.
Josie sinks into an armchair.From the window she sees the wind picking up. Young trees lean toward the ground, bending to breaking point.The weather station forecast ice tonight, but with the strength of the wind, Josie thinks it might come well before evening.
The lounge, empty today because of a physics exam going on upstairs, is oddly silent. One of the secretaries—Josie has forgotten her name but nods recognition—is filling the coffee maker.She pours the water into the top and slides the drip device into place.She does this very efficiently and wordlessly.The secretaries used to resent Josie and Sue because they had college degrees, before they all learned what lab techs earn. Now they eye the lab techs with concern and shock. Why go to all that trouble for a degree, they seem to ask.
Once Josie imagined going to graduate school in microbiology or perhaps, medicine.She’d have to move to the state capital since there’s only a Master’s program at this college.Now moving with the kids is impossible.
The mechanic calls back at 2:00 PM to tell her he hasn’t located a used unit.She’s not surprised.She wants him to go ahead and replace it, but she knows this will not make her parents happy.It will be hard to resist their interference now.She already feels guilty for not buying a new car in September when they first suggested it.She tells the service attendant she’ll call him back.
She wonders how the boys will react to a new car.Jake is embarrassed by the rusting, and the long tire mark that goes across the driver’s side where the semi knocked them off the road ten months ago, snapping Tom’s neck, leaving the rest of them unscathed.
When her father picks her up, he says he’s already dropped the boys with her mother.There’s no reason, they can’t stop by the lot before dinner, instead of after.This new tactic has her mother’s fingerprint on it.
“Dad, I’m really hungry.Can’t we do this later?”
“What’s the point?You need a car, and you need it now.”
Is he so sick of helping her that he can’t possibly stand even one more hour?It’s best to catch her off guard before she reconsiders.
“I don’t know.It seems a little impulsive to wake up one morning and buy a car by dinner,” she slides down in the seat across from her dad, and looks up over the dashboard from the view she might have had at the age of five.She feels like five. She’s directed, pushed, shoved into doing what she doesn’t want to do. She tries to concentrate on the sky’s rich shade of gray.The wind spins the power lines and the traffic lights to a threatening pitch. It whistles at the seams of her father’s car, an inhuman howl.
“Sometimes, I don’t know about you, Josephine.” Using her full name never bodes well. “You’ll wait until the damn thing falls apart in a heap on that freeway when nobody’s around to give you a hand.Why do you have to be so stubborn?”
Josie turns her head to look at him.Gray hair peeks under his cap like fringe, setting off his aging freckles.For a moment she recalls a lankier man from her childhood, soft spoken, but uncompromising, stalwart even.Me, stubborn? she thinks.
“I can’t afford another car.”She says it in her mind, but not to him.She can’t win this argument. She prefers the shadows, slouched in her seat where the only thing visible is the ghostly cloud cover. She prefers research before she makes any decision. Dissolving under the oppressive heated air of her father’s dodge, she speaks,“I need to think about it, first.”
“How many times has this happened this month?”His tone hardens.
“How many times have you been stranded with that damn car?That’s what.”
“Three, maybe four times.But I’m getting it fixed, this time.”
“You got it fixed last time, and the time before last. It keeps needing things.” He pulls the car onto “the lot.”He plays golf with the owner, a guy about his own age.Josie sees the guy, Harry--she thinks his name is—standing by the office trailer.Perhaps Harry has promised a deal and leaves the lot by dinnertime.
“Josie, for crying out loud, take a look.At this rate, you’re going to spend a lot more to fix that car than to get another one.Harry Drew’ll fix you up with something reliable.”
Josie pulls herself upright and eyes the row of cars to her right and left.She wonders why it is so hard to let go of this car, given its terrible memories. The house she had with Tom is gone.Nothing of value is left of the lives they once had together. She feels the tears welling up again.“I got no down payment, Dad.”
“Use the six hundred you were going to pay to fix the other.”
Now it is Josie’s turn to shake her head, “I was planning on using a credit card.I don’t have cash.”
He father shrugs, “So I’ll lend you, and you can pay me back a little at a time.”
“What sort of car can I buy?”
“Something with payments.$120 maybe. . . .”
“I can’t do that.I can’t afford . . . .”
“Just look.And we’ll see what Harry says.”
“Insurance payments will go up.”
Dad and Harry are pitching a little Toyota, but she doesn’t like it.She wants something Tom might pick out, a SUV or a Taurus with a button on the driver’s side to lock and unlock all the windows.The Toyota has less mileage and costs a little less, her father insists.
“‘Course,” says Harry, “Taurus is good too.Good resale.”
Her father is shrugging his shoulders. “You got a car with 80,000 miles versus one that’s got 96.”There can be no choice about it.And because he is loaning the money, Josie feels obliged to accept.
“Besides,” her father adds, “Bigger cars cost you more at the pump.”
She bends her head into the piercing wind that whips her hair against her face and neck, biting with sharp fury. Tom is gone, and no car changes that.
They take the Toyota for a test drive, and Josie maneuvers it through the freeway traffic.Harry and her father cackle about their golf scores and every so often, Harry mentions the way the car handles.Josie nods and hits the gas pedal a little harder to see if she can make the car jump.The pressure in her throat eases slightly with the press of the accelerator.
When they leave the freeway, she feels a blast of air pushing against the car as though it is about to lift off the ground.She feels like Dorothy flying out of Kansas and into the Land of Oz. Menacing, how will she get back home.
Back onto the lot, Harry says, “So, shall we fix you up with a car?”
Josie looks away momentarily.
“Come on, honey.Every time Jake and Jordan get in that thing. . . . Hell, it’s a reminder.It doesn’t work anymore, kiddo.”
Nothing works anymore, her failure revealed to Harry and the world.
“Let me do the paperwork, and you can drive out of the lot tonight,” Harry pitches.“And we‘ll take the other one as part of the down payment.”
“But if they can fix the other one,” she mutters.
Harry responds, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll call the garage and maybe we can give a little more on the trade.”
Her father is smiling, and Josie knows she’s beaten.She thinks again of the car that took them to Disney World, that carried the wood for the kids' swing set. The sleet tingles at the window behind Harry’s desk.
She signs, agreeing to pay $121 for another lifetime for this used Toyota.Maybe it is only five years, but it might as well be a millennium.She has no future because each day is as far ahead as she can think now. She has sold almost everything to pay the hospital debts.A husband dead, two boys under six, no real job, no prospects.Now that she’s replaced the car, Josie thinks, they will move on to replacing Tom.
Harry has to check the credit approval.Since it’s after hours, he’ll have to wait until tomorrow to okay it, but since he knows her father, he’s willing to let her take the car home for the evening and return in the morning to close the deal. She knows this is an act of faith on Harry’s part, and perhaps on he father’s.
“I could wait until the morning,” she says, without meaning to.
Harry smiles, "I know where to reach you.Besides we can always work something out."
Driving home, the darkness engulfs her and the Toyota. The sleet sticks to the car glistening like glass, feathering the windshield.She follows her father to his house.
She remembers again the smack of the semi that took Tom’s life.She thinks of Jake, looking out for Jordan because his mother isn’t managing.The tears spill onto her cheeks and into her mouth.Her nose fills as Josie gulps for air.In the blur of tears and rain, the cars to her right and left float like ballet dancers moving to the strains of Swan Lake.It would be easy to slide over, into another car or a tree. She could stop breathing, like Tom did. The boys deserve better than her empty prospects.
Instead, she follows her father’s dodge. She watches it pull into the garage, and she stops in the driveway behind it.At the window, she sees the boys standing and waving excitedly. Even Jake is leaping from her mother’s grasp. They vault out of the front door while her mother calls out to them.
Josie runs her coat sleeve across her eyes and waves back.She steps into the rain, hearing her boys' squeals. In a flash, Jake slithers past his grandfather and toward her. He dances and jumps. Bits of sleet dot his dark curls, but his cheeks are glowing with heat. At the top of the concrete steps he vaults forward into Josie’s arms. The icy crystals prick their necks and faces. Jakes throws back his head and opens his mouth, catching the ice on his tongue. Josie holds him tighter, letting the wind surround them. She’s never noticed how much he looks like Tom.