So I thought enough of Shen's original story to give it new life. I think it wanted some.
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Poppy had gotten the car from a friend of my uncle's, a porcine hombre who wore his shirt open all over the renovated town just as he had in scratchy yearbook photos, exposing his weathered paunch and chest scars from multiple heart surgeries to anyone who happened to take a second look at him—and everyone did, except Poppy and Uncle Dee. My sister's birthday brought the three of them together as they hadn't been for years, thanks to the Merchant Marines and my uncle joining up after the migrant life made him feel too landlocked. Poor locals call it a hotfoot, a joke on themselves that occasionally someone makes good on, but then Uncle Dee had hotfooted back, and you would've thought the party was for him, the natural link between men who wouldn't have shaken hands at a funeral, had my sister's dress not thrown the house into uproar for three weeks.
Non-lethal but threatening pincushions and garish, wasted cloth pieces glutted the living room the first day my new Uncle Esteban (as he told me to call him, though he's a Wasp) steered his dusty old limousine around the difficult corner leading into the drive. Before the dirt could settle, a gyroscopic blur that could only be my sister had run out the door and I had tripped over a yardstick in a frenzy to keep a pace with her that was mostly in my head. "What's that you just broke?" came the resigned voice with a suppressed sigh. "Nothing, I'll cut you a new one," I replied, just as stoically. Then followed haggling on when and how, as if I were eight still, learning how to use a level and a square. By the time I got to the limo, Poppy had already looked it over and made his decision, his arms protecting my sister's dress from a thick layer of undocumented grime. "What do you think," I heard him whisper, "is it worthy of the name Isabelle?" Her look askance made me smile.
For six years or so, while Izzy and I suffered through staggered puberty, this limousine had it easy. It seemed to be rooted in the ground even here, like an obelisk, a cairn, a cenotaph for bad ideas left to rot at the border and buried by time. It hadn't just pulled in, it had warped here, had materialized, manifesting all the old, forgotten wrongs. It syncopated with a force that would've stopped the sun. The color black at least evokes feelings, like envy or suspicion. This evoked nothing, and still I was jealous. My father took another turn around the driveway, and I watched all the projects in our one-car garage halt and disperse, dislocated by Uncle Esteban's artifact from the Reagan years' war on drugs. "Don't let Reagan pull the wool over your eyes. It was never much of a war, and he sure as shit didn't start it. Come on, now, son. Make a muscle for me." I made a muscle for him, so that Izzy could stick her tongue out at his chest hair, but it hurt when he squeezed my biceps. "Not bad."
"Wanna see the compartments?" He was so fucking proud of it, so fucking proud. His vim rubbed off on Poppy, who hadn't yet picked up the true scent of the car's birth. Out swung a door and the once white interior beckoned wearily back, tattered and demeaned, standoffish. Black paint turned into rust where passing cars and people couldn't see, as if sealing off this petrie dish from the world for its own good, and Uncle Esteban climbed into it as though it were one of those heart-shaped beds like hotels keep just for newlyweds. He spread his arms showily. "Isn't she a pearl, inside and out?" Then he opened up one of the seats to show us a smuggler's delight. That's when the hammer fell. I heard the clap. No one believes me now, but in that moment, I knew that it was either the sun or my sister, and that for the sake of the world, Izzy had to go.
"Get inside and take off that dress until the party," Poppy ordered, and she scampered off, glad to be relieved of feigning interest in the big, dirty new car. My pleasure at not having been ordered off ebbed a moment later when Uncle Esteban became the first rag that Poppy took to the paint job. "You don't teach my kids about the world. I do," was all he said. The only time he drove her was on family outings, those biweekly events at which my father was able to spare enough from his paycheck to chauffeur us all to some shabby taco truck or candy store. "Mijo, we're traveling style now," he'd joke with me in the rearview mirror, warmth spreading across his face so brightly that it almost reached into the back seat. You could see in those glances—in that broad smile so rare on his face, and in the way his head tipped back to rest from a higher, prouder neck—that he really believed it. The limo was a part of him, standing in front of her, watching us pile into the back.
One time my mother scolded him for not letting her sit in the passenger seat, and he sulked away and had his own "family outing" at a bar in Altamont with a juke box programmed for people searching for the meaning of their lives. I only knew it was the Altamont because they called and I got up and my mother closed their bedroom door against the ringing, which kept going because we didn't have a machine and because the bartender was really freaked out after seeing Poppy's ride. He returned still soggy from the bar early the next morning, several hours after they called, without a word for any of us. No one mentioned the passenger seat or being chauffeured or the car at all again. Instead my mom, with her baby Izzy in her arms, sat across from me in the cavernous rump. There were no seat belts, so sometimes she'd lay down, matching my sister's glazed stare at the upholstery as if she'd found meaning of her own, something that collectively we'd all lost long ago, in the patterns and stains. I'd hug the door, interlocked with the arm rest, while inching my face close to the blurry tinted window that wouldn't roll down, trying desperately not to think about the song I'd heard in the background noise of the bar. It was one that I liked. It spoke to me in rays.
Just last month, I came out onto the porch to see what news could be had in the trails of menthol smoke, and found Poppy and a couple of friends from work he never did introduce staring through the smoke at Isabelle. The car had taken on new character, her histories become more intricate and varied each time I heard him open up, conjuring an exciting and enviable past from the empty spaces of the compartments we were implicitly forbidden to open or speak of. I too had become captivated with a sense of mystery and awe, like meeting a retired super-hero with no powers, and no villains. My Poppy only ever lived for others to see in those stories he made up about a car long past its prime. The following Tuesday, he left and didn't come back. I had seen it coming, too, in the long looks he gave Isabelle when he thought no one else would notice, like a lover he had lucked into at his age, deserving of ponderous sentiment if for no other reason than that she was his last. He had an urge to leave us all behind. Isabelle promised him something, promised us all something.
The promise turned out to be non-redeemable. Izzy got sick shortly after her party. The doctor at the free clinic said she had been sick a long time with an old killer, tuberculosis. But the molds in the limo's interior triggered complications and, coughing in the same dust that her namesake had stirred upon arrival, she died. She stuck her tongue at me before she went, just once. I told her it had turned purple and gray and she told me to shut up, which was nice and familiar and off-putting, and which made me hate her later for not forcing her last words to be something more helpful. After that, my mother claimed a proprietary relationship with the only Isabelle she had left and flung open the smuggler's compartments and filled them with Izzy's make-up and romance novels, which had provided all of my sister's very own complicated highs. These romance novels have no real resolution, as far as I can tell. Things happen; life goes on; people get laid and sometimes they die, but with prettier names than most everyone else.
The last time I saw my father alive, he had hunched over the steering wheel of the old blue Toyota, evicted by innocuous harlequins. It's possible that he cried. He didn't see me, and I walked back inside, remembering the weight and warmth of tears against my will. Poppy took the last family outing by himself and I waited up past three for the call that never came, for a song that never played, and for a scream or for anything from my mother who had become too quiet, staring at the walls in silence the same way she and Izzy had once contemplated deadly upholstery.
Isabelle still sits in the gravel, in the same crooked position that Poppy favored for getting it back out into the street without a three-point fuss. It's funny, but I've never blamed Isabelle for my sister's death or my father's, though I think my mother does. So I don't tell her about my little night missions, long after the last prime time soap opera, when I can't sleep and the phone doesn't ring. I take my old battery-run lantern out into the black and climb into Isabelle and pull up the compartments and find a romance novel I haven't read twice yet. I'm running out of pages. Sometimes I lay back on the cushions like a player and order the chauffeur around the block a couple of times. I pretend women are on the outside, looking in. Some of them want my autograph, some of them just want to know what it's like to be inside with me. And sometimes, when it grows quiet and I know I'm tired and that I should return indoors and go back to bed and mold-free walls, I choose to stay instead out of a perversion I don't yet understand. At those times it gets so quiet, all I can hear is my breath.
Created: Feb 05, 2010Document Media