The car roared into Paul’s rearview mirror like the past. Cruised up fast as if it were actually going to hit his bumper, then backed off just a few feet.
“What an asshole,” growled Paul, glaring into the mirror.
He recognized the make instantly: Ford Mustang, mid-80s, no class. Squared-off rear window rather than the clean swoop of the late 60’s models. Chopped-off back end instead of the slight, nuanced fins. Paul would know. He’d had a red ‘66 Mustang Fastback as a teenager. The thought of that car, after so many years, still sent a pulse of warm blood through his body.
“Now that thing had class,” Paul said aloud.
Even his high school girlfriend, Marjorie, who disliked cars, had admitted that. He remembered taking her to the drive-in in the summer, the little kids swinging in the pink dusk below the big screen, his first blowjob, how shocked he was.
“Damn that was a car.” He’s grinning to himself when he glances in the driver’s side mirror.
The Mustang is still riding his ass but he surprises himself by deciding not to let it bother him. Paul is driving back out to his ranch, their home, after another troubling day in the office, and this is his favorite time and place and season. A winter evening, fifteen precious miles of open road. Snow a foot deep in the forest, the highway dry.
His mind falls back to his first love. He worked so hard for that car. A whole summer of night shifts stacking 2x4s in the lumber mill. A winter shoveling snow in a pickup mounted with a snowplow. His uncle owned the business and trusted him. Paul now found that hard to believe. He was only 16 at the time, the same age as his daughter, Lila. Had he been sloppy or reckless, he could have sliced open a dozen cars with that blade. But he drove the pickup, curling waves of snow out of the way, like he would later drive his Mustang, fast, but precise, with intense concentration.
The Mustang behind him is still tailgating. Ordinarily Paul would already be simmering with anger, but he’s enjoying his drive down memory lane.
He is remembering when he finally got his driver’s license. He had known how to drive since he was twelve. His uncle had taught him out on the ranch. An ancient, stiff-geared Studebaker used to haul hay or fence posts. In the beginning he’d had to stretch out his body completely to depress the clutch. Still, it came naturally. From the beginning he could synchronize easing off the clutch and pressing the gas. The truck never jerked. Soon enough he could get the cantankerous beast to do things even his uncle couldn’t.
He hadn’t even bothered with a learner’s permit. He’d bicycled out to the port authority the day after he turned 16, got his license, and pedaled back home thinking “Now I’m free. Now I’m free.” He’d already been saving his money for two years and he bought the Mustang that summer.
When he drove it up to their basement apartment, his mother had refused to even come out and look at it. But his younger sister, Melanie, was flush with excitement. “Shotgun,” she yelled, and hopped into the passenger seat. They drove all over town together, stopping at the Tastee Freeze to get ice cream cones. Melanie had insisted on paying because she had just gotten a job as a maid.
Later in the year they started sneaking out together to go joyriding. On Friday nights they would play hide-and-seek. It was always after midnight when the whole town was sleeping. People with jobs and work. People his age now, Paul thought. One car would get a 30 second head start, then the other vehicle would try to find the first car. If it was Paul’s turn to hide, he would shoot out, shifting fast, pushing the Mustang, Melanie holding onto the door handle and catching her breath in awe. He would make a quick turn left, shut off his lights, turn left again, glide quietly up behind a parked car, shut off the engine.
Absently looking at his scarred hands on the steering wheel, Paul wonders if he ever told this story to Lila. He hopes not. It’s not the kind of story a father tells his sixteen-year-old daughter.
Sometimes he and Melanie would drive all the way to the next town, just to do it. He would pass cars as if they were standing still. The speed gave both of them visceral jubilation. Melanie never acted scared or told him to slow down. She trusted him implicitly, which made him imagine that he was responsible and mature. Driving his Mustang was the only time he felt in control of his destiny.
He never took Melanie with him when he raced. He didn’t even tell her about it, although he knew she knew. He didn’t race that much. Just once in a while, when he couldn’t hold it in any longer. He understood it was dangerous but he secretly loved it. A forbidden pleasure. Even then, at that age, speed and power were more seductive than sex.
Paul allows himself a glance into the rear view mirror. The ugly Mustang is still there, as if taunting him.
“Fucking tailgater,” he growls.
The car has had several opportunities to pass, but hasn’t taken them. Paul slows down but the car still won’t pass.
“C’mon buddy,” he says loudly.
Paul can feel himself getting angry. He knows this is ridiculous. He instructs himself to let it go. He allows the snow blanketing the landscape to calm him. He takes several deep, slow breaths and tries to look into the rearview mirror with equanimity. So this guy’s driving like a jerk, so what. Paul slides his mind back into reverse.
He learned so much from that Mustang. It taught him about the unseverable connection between work and money. It taught him about the often invisible connection between maintenance and reliability. It taught him how to run away—out to Seattle, the girl with the earrings in her cheeks—and then how come back. He remembered the pride he experienced his senior year when he tore the whole thing apart and put it back together. At community college, and then at the university, he majored in mechanical engineering.
Before leaving for college, Paul had planned to give the Mustang to Melanie. He’d had it all through high school. He felt he’d gotten everything he ever wanted out of the car and was ready to move on. Melanie had been his co-pilot the whole time. He’d taught her how to drive in the Mustang. He’d even let her take it to the grocery store now and then. She deserved it. She needed it.
To tell her, they went for a drive out toward the ranch. He was passing cars, feeling the exhilaration of acceleration for the last time. He hadn’t said anything yet. He came up on an old ranch truck about like the one he’d learned to drive with. When he started to pass there was suddenly an oncoming car and he had to duck back in. The truck hadn’t altered its lumbering pace. He couldn’t slow down quickly enough and they plowed straight into the back of the pickup. The front end of the Mustang slid partway under the truck’s barn-welded bumper before the bumper smashed into the hood, cutting right toward them, crushing the windshield.
The rancher swung open his door and hobbled back to the car, peered through the shattered windshield, and said, “You alright?”
They were wearing their seatbelts, a novel addition to cars of that vintage, and besides tiny cuts from spraying shards of glass, they were fine.
Thanks to an I-beam bumper, the truck was no worse for wear. The rancher backed the Mustang stuck to his bumper down into the barrow pit, then gunned it, separating his pickup from the mangled Mustang.
“You might want to think about this,” said the rancher as he drove them back into town.
That night, Paul recalled, he’d cried himself to sleep, obsessed with the realization that he had almost killed his little sister.
The Mustang has inched closer. Paul knows he should simply pull off, but the pull-outs haven’t been plowed. A drifted dirt road appears now and again, but by the time he has recognized its possibility, he’s flown past. He decides to slow down until the Mustang is forced to pass. And this works.
He can hear the engine of the Mustang roar and begin to peel out around him. Reacting instinctively, impulsively, Paul stomps on the gas pedal before the Mustang can pull up parallel. The speedometer jumps from 40 mph, to 50. 60. 70. They are racing, side by side, screaming down the asphalt, the forest chuttering by in a smear of white. Paul’s 4-cylinder pickup is no match for the Mustang, which begins sliding by just at the crest a hill.
Paul glances across and is gutted by the sight of Lila in the passenger seat of the Mustang, laughing and waving. Then he hears the blast of a diesel horn and out the corner of his eye sees the on-coming snowplow.