by Adam Powell
She was born in 1975, only seven years before me, but she seemed so much wiser, so much more experienced beneath the clumsy and awkward hands of a sixteen-year-old boy convinced he could teach her the ways of contemporary love, though he scarcely knew them himself, and possibly show her things she had never before imagined. I’d met her several years before at my grandfather’s farm, located just beyond Montgomery’s boundaries, where she sat beneath the shade of an old oak tree, day in and day out, longing to be noticed again, held again and, if it not be too much to ask, treated well, like a favored teacher rather than a newfound lover. I’d watched her secretly for years, eyeballing her plump curves and heavy frame from the window in the feed store, where the catfish farmers, cattle- and horse breeders, dog lovers and duck herders picked up their salt blocks and fifty-pound bags of feed, never knowing that it would be me who taught her never to love again.
Growing up in Selbrook, a quaint little neighborhood west of Montgomery, Alabama dotted with aged plantation homes and rows of towering pecan trees, under which we’d spend weeks picking up pecans and selling them to make rent or buy Christmas presents, was like growing up a world away from my classmates in the city— they’d never had to pick up pecans to make ends meet; they’d never been beaten with a bullwhip for scaring the chickens; they’d never had to patch a tear in a foal’s leg after it was mangled by a barbed wire fence; they’d never had to go squirrel hunting for their dinner; they’d never baled hay or fed a hundred head of cattle or played day-long games of baseball on a hidden sandlot surrounded by weeds the size of telephone poles. The little neighborhood of my youth was a place frozen in time, a relic of a time and place where men still grew brown and craggy beneath the Southern sun and brutalized their mud-splattered children and flour-covered wives. We’d be put out of the house around 8:00 every morning and told not to return until 4:30 that afternoon, when the sound of my father’s car pulling into the drive would send panic through the house, as one never really knew from one day to the next what minor infraction or inconvenience might send him into a violent and uncontrollable rage.
But, despite the beatings, the simplicity of a child’s life in that place at that time was a gift, one that I would try to extend to my children more than a decade later, only to find that the neighborhood of my childhood, though relatively unchanged, had lost the magic and mystique I’d known as a boy— the old sandlot can no longer be seen through the overgrowth surrounding it; the sound of playing cards in bike spokes as children maraud from one end of the neighborhood to the other, only about five or eight blocks in any direction has strangely disappeared; men are no longer seen puffing pipes in the feed store while discussing politics or the weather or the upcoming harvest; old women no longer walk in packs along the empty streets before daybreak and houses now stand where once we’d constructed a dirt bike path, as well as atop the isolated wooded areas we’d once explored along the edges of the neighborhood.
And the cars are different, too. In my youth, all the old men drove old, oversized pickups, the kind with rust collecting inside the dents scattered from the hood to the tailgate, likely the result of an overzealous bull looking to get to the feeder before the rest of the herd, and the women drove big Buicks, usually gold or green, which they’d drive at break-neck speeds to church on Wednesday night or Sunday morning or to the produce stand before all the other Buicks could get there and pick dry the selection of green tomatoes and peaches. And the ones who didn’t drive pickup trucks drove twenty and thirty-year-old jalopies they cleaned every Sunday afternoon, inside and out, after cutting the grass, so that they shined like new. Nowadays, the cars are as feeble as the people – the old men still drive oversized pickups, but they’re silver and they get replaced every two or three years, so there are no dents and very few bulls, and the old ladies just stay at home and wait for the morning, afternoon, and evening news.
Still, she was a woman of and outside of her time, not out of place on Selbrook’s tiny streets, yet wholly unlike any other there. She had grown from a sleek, modern beauty to an elegant and exotic lady as the years passed and all along I’d watched her age with grace, there in the shade not far from the street that stretched from Old Selma Road to the sandlot at the back of the neighborhood, then curved to the left toward a pasture, before curving back to the right and running straight into the old trailer park that butts up against the Alabama River.
The first time I took the driving test, I failed. The second time wasn’t much better, but the driving instructor – a fat, red-faced man with rimless bifocals and a sandy mustache – had taken pity on me and given me the green light to cruise alone.
“So,” my dad said to the instructor once I’d parked the car. “How’d he do?”
“Well, to be honest, he seems like he’s a little distracted when he’s driving,” the red-faced man responded. “He’s just somewhere off in his own little world. I mean, he drove pretty good, but being that distracted is gonna get’m in a helluva mess one of these days.”
A helluva mess, indeed.
We drove straight from the driving test to my grandfather’s farm and parked beneath the old oak tree. And with the twinkling of keys moving from one hand to another, she was mine: that 1975 baby blue Mercedes Benz 300 D, complete with the baby-blue hubcaps donning a chrome Benz logo and an all-leather interior the color of sun-bleached khaki shorts, likely labeled as mauve in some earlier age.
Having only dreamed for so long of how she handled, I learned her quirks pretty quickly, the biggest struggle being getting used to driving a heavy, twenty-year-old machine with a diesel engine, which required my meandering mind to focus long enough to hold the choke, attentively awaiting a clicking sound and the flash of a tiny red light, before pulling it all the way out and turning the engine over. She’d belonged to my uncle, likely fresh off the lot, and at 95-cent per gallon she was my chariot through the outskirts of the ’90s – classic rock on a turn-dial stereo, perforated leather across the dash and the steering wheel and the fattened bench seats. The Baby Blue Bomber bobbing breathlessly, bedlam bound.
One evening around dusk, my brother and I decided to take her out for a jaunt through the neighborhood, the same one we’d navigated atop bicycles until just months before. It was summer, the clouds breaking from orange to auburn as the moon crept slowly up, the pecan trees alive with the sound of a thousand bugs and birds and squirrels, and we set off with the windows down, smoking cigarettes we’d stolen from the gas station down the street as the radio whined low.
The stretch of road between the old sandlot and the enormous cow pasture just down the way was a two-lane surrounded by wide stretches of open land encased with barbed wire, which leaned and cracked amid thousands of tiny, jutting trees. We pulled into the gravel pit at the edge of the sandlot and rocks and dust spit up behind us as I spun the Baby Blue Bomber to face the cow pasture, about half a mile down the road, which curved sharply to the right before hitting the pasture.
“So,” I said to my brother, tossing the butt of an unfiltered Winston out the window. “You wanna see what she can do?”
It was a phrase my father used to say when we’d drive home late at night from the ballpark behind the nearby elementary school and he’d bear down on the gas, sending his little Dodge Ram screaming as it crept up to 120 MPH down long, dark country roads.
“Hell yeah,” he said, and I floored it.
The Baby Blue Bomber wasn’t like modern cars, even modern cars in the ’90s, with their flimsy, lightweight bodies – no, The Bomber was a curvy and hefty beast, heavy metal head to toe – so it took her awhile to get going. We were nearly three-quarters of the way down the road before it reached 60 mph.
“Let’s see if we can take this curve without hitting the breaks,” I screamed at my brother as the country wind blew into the car like a cyclone.
“Do it,” I heard him howl, a wide smile across his face, bright against the now peach and plum-colored sunset.
We were right around 75 MPH when we came roaring into the curve, so I jerked the wheel hard to the right, thinking I could coast this unwieldy monster gracefully through— no such luck. I felt The Bomber edge slightly to one side and her hulking body began to roll into the curve and the wooded area it crossed. I glanced over at my brother and could feel my face mirror the grotesque look of panic now dripping from the corner of his eyes, mouth, and forehead. I pulled the wheel back to the left and felt the tires once again make contact with the rocky pavement, immediately sending The Bomber zigzagging a few yards across the road before crashing along the front wheel-well into a rotted telephone pole. By then, my brother was out cold in the passenger’s seat and a small trickle of blood could be seen where his forehead spiderwebbed the windshield. I jumped out and rushed to his side of the car, but found him sitting up and reaching for the cigarettes by the time I’d made it through the knee-high grass and soggy ground into which we’d landed.
“Fuck,” he said, dabbing his forehead with his fingers. “I guess that was pretty good, yeah? I mean, we made it, yeah.”
“Shit,” I mumbled in response. “What are we gonna do?”
We sat on the hood of The Bomber, smoking cigarettes and wondering how we were going to get her home and, once we did, how we were going to hide the nasty, black gash engraved between the headlight and the wheel, thinking nothing of the small but steady stream of blood slowing leaking from my brother’s forehead, before trying our luck. To our surprise, she cranked right up and rolled out of the ditch with ease, but when I threw her in drive, a penetrating sound of clanging and gnashing could be heard emanating from the wound. I had to drive back through the quiet, country neighborhood slanting left to keep the wheel and the body from meeting, only to occasionally have to pull it sharply right, to bring it back to the other side of the road, and send the streets reeling beneath the echo of crashing and shrieking metal.
My father would show strange restraint that night, a precursor to the more delicate man he’d become years down the road, deciding to simply pry the baby blue metal away from the wheel with a rusty pole he pulled from his work shed. As far as the wrinkle in the metallic frame, outlined in black where the baby blue paint had been peeled away; as for the windshield shattered on one side, looking as if pieces of glass might at any moment begin pouring out of it; as for the tiny crack in my brother’s forehead, where now a scab was beginning to form; as for the smell of unfiltered Winstons hanging heavy on our clothes and breath and the inside of the car I’d so generously been given, he said there were more important things: we were safe, we were home.
My brother and I would chart many a course thereafter in The Bomber, forever scarred by a telephone pole in Selbrook, which even now bears the trembled lean inflicted upon it by The Blue Bomber’s night ride so long ago. Those rides would continue until the day the power steering went out and we were told by a mechanic that it would cost more to fix The Bomber than it would to buy a new car, like the vet passing along the news that the family’s eighteen-year-old retriever has to be put down. So we parted ways, at some nondescript shop off the Southern Bypass, not far from the tiny Baptist church where I was baptized the first time, which is right in front of the railroad tracks that run nearly the length of Old Selma Road, just a mile or so down the road from the produce stand run by a sunburnt and wrinkled old man and woman in their front yard, which is right around the corner from B&J’s Grocery, where we used to buy cheese crackers and Coca-Cola or chewing gum to mask the smell of cigarettes, which is right across the street from the house I grew up in, about an eight-minute walk to Powell Feed Store, which is where I first saw her beneath an old oak tree when I was a kid.
Adam Powell is Editor of The Selma Times-Journal and President of the Alabama chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).