Little Deuce Coupe
by Brad Shurmantine
The summer I turned seventeen I wrecked the family car, a 1965 Buick Skylark. I called it “my little deuce coupe,” having no idea what kind of vehicle the Beach Boys were actually singing about (a 1932 Ford Model 18 hot rod). The Skylark was indeed a coupe, smaller and infinitely cooler than the Buick Special station wagon it replaced. It was the last new car my mother would ever buy.
My brothers were in college and had their own cars, which I couldn’t touch, so the little deuce coupe was mine. The station wagon we got rid of was brown and had dirty fabric seats laden with dog hair. My little coupe gleamed white, inside and out, with plush leather seats where I perched like a prince. I loved cruising around in that car, window down, my arm dangling out holding an imaginary cigarette, singing out loud.
She’s my little deuce coupe
You don’t know what I got
I would volunteer for any family errand, a burger run or carting my sister to a Girl Scout meeting. But that evening I had plans of my own.
“Where are you going?” my mom asked.
“Nowhere. Me and Mike are just going to drive around.”
She accepted that response. “Just driving around” was how teenagers in the Kansas City suburbs normally entertained themselves. Gas was 19¢ a gallon. If we could get our hands on some alcohol, we were set.
“Be careful,” she said resignedly, her usual parting words. Of course we’d be careful. We didn’t intend to do anything dangerous that night, like getting black-out drunk, but our first stop was the neighborhood Safeway where Mike slipped a fifth of Bacardi under his jacket while I stood watch.
Mike and I were neighborhood friends. We met when we were kids on our little league baseball team; Mike was the steady shortstop and I was the problematic second baseman. I could not be counted on to always glove grounders, and my coach made sure Mike covered the bag on all stolen base attempts. Mike hit an occasional home run, while I relied on what baseball scouts call “a good eye.” I wasn’t fooled by pitches out of the strike zone and usually walked my way on base. I could recognize a hanging curve and pop that ball into shallow right, or squirt it between infielders.
Mike was the real athlete, and I noticed when we reached high school how his shoulders broadened and he approached adult size. I, however, could not achieve escape velocity from 125 lbs., despite the milk shake and tablet products I consumed to bulk up, purchased through comic book ads. Mike went to public schools, which I imagined toughened him. I was sheltered in my Catholic schools. We parochial kids assumed we were better than the Protestant rabble, but granted them their street smarts. My high school was “college preparatory;” who the hell knew where those public-school kids would end up. But Mike was a solid guy and I maintained that friendship. No one better to go joy-riding and drinking with. I figured he was experienced with this sort of thing, the Virgil to my Dante.
The drinking was all my idea. Most of my high school weekends were devoted to tracking down beer or weed. Intoxication was a door swinging open, releasing me from my middle class, suburban cage. The road of excess, Blake opined, leads to the palace of wisdom. Back then I hadn’t yet encountered the “Proverbs of Hell” (or Dante either), but I seemed to be unconsciously guided by them, without quite having set my sights on any “palace of wisdom.”
When I got to college and actually discovered Blake they became my MO. To this day I read the “Proverbs of Hell” with pleasure, finding them truthful, since I’m a poet and, like Blake also said, “of the Devil’s party.”
Teenagers too are of the devil’s party. Their psychological task, according to Erik Erickson, is identity formation, which requires pushing boundaries. Lucifer was just trying to figure out what kind of angel he was. He crossed the line, unfortunately, but that shit happens. I had to test the waters; I had no choice. He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence. Blake’s proverbs cast light on the teenage soul, including the kid who wrecked his mother’s car. Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity. Of course, Blake wasn’t writing with teenagers specifically in mind; he never had children. If he’d had a teenager skulking around the house, someone like me, he might have done a little more editing.
We drove aimlessly. We had no place to go. Mike would take a slug and I would take a slug. It was a warm and glorious night and we felt like pirates. The windows were down and the radio was up. I drove with one hand on the wheel and the other clutching a yo-ho-ho bottle of rum. I remember cruising down Blue Ridge Road under the streetlights and feeling an overwhelming sense of well-being. So happy, so cool.
Well I’m not bragging babe so don’t put me down
But I’ve got the fastest set of wheels in this town
When something comes up to me he don’t even try
'Cause if I had a set of wings, man I know she could fly
She’s my little deuce coupe
You don’t know what I got
After that it’s just shards of memory. I’m in the passenger seat–how’d I get here–leaning my head against the door. Who’s driving? Mike is driving. I know I’m really drunk but feel safe because Mike is behind the wheel, this big, sure-handed guy, and he’s laughing. No worries.
Then we’re in our neighborhood cruising down a hill I’ve skateboarded hundreds of times. At the end of that street is a field. Whoops, we’re in the field, jolting over rocks and bushes that scrape the undercarriage and make a huge racket. My head bounces against the car door, not unpleasantly, and I feel suspended in air, waiting for the carnival ride to end.
Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius. The car rolls to an abrupt stop and the genius opens the door and falls out. He can’t stand but manages to sit up, trying to understand what’s happened. The headlights pierce the darkness and there’s smoke and steam everywhere... A cop is lifting me to my feet, gripping me hard under my shoulders. Our front door opens and I stumble past my mother into our living room, fall to my knees and vomit on our worn sage-green carpet.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough. I woke the next morning, Sunday, feeling like shit and fully aware of what I had done. I was alone in the house; my mother and sister had gone to church. I walked down the hallway, my head splitting, mouth full of sand, stomach roiling, and listened to the awful accusatory silence. In the living room a pail of dirty water and a bottle of Mr. Clean sat on the carpet where I had thrown up. The acrid odor of vomit and disinfectant assaulted my nostrils.
I plopped down on our old yellow couch and stared at the ceiling, swamped with guilt and remorse. At that point I didn’t know our car was totaled; I thought we just got a flat tire or something, and when mom got home I’d face the music and then go find the car and change the tire. I’d make it up to her somehow. I felt lucky I hadn’t been arrested, grateful for the nice cops who simply brought me home. (If they had pulled us over while driving, they would certainly have arrested us; instead they just found two drunk boys lying in a field beside a smoking car–much easier to take them home to their mommies and call a tow truck.) One thing for sure: I never wanted to drink again. I had learned my lesson.
Nah, I didn’t learn any lesson. At mass my mother apparently decided to forgive me (thank you, Jesus); there were no angry tears or recriminations when she got home. She sat next to me on our old couch and asked me what happened. I told her the truth. I told her how sorry I was. I was very, very sorry. But I knew immediately she had let me off the hook, and I’d be able to continue with my teenage rebel antics. Maybe employ that long neglected “good eye” and be a little more discerning. I poured myself a glass of orange juice, slipped into my jeans, and prepared to go out and change the tire.
Mom shot that plan down. “The car’s been towed somewhere. Just go to church.” Which I did–missing Mass was a mortal sin. The next day we learned the entire undercarriage and engine block had been ripped out by the boulder field we drove through. The little deuce coupe was scrap metal.
That week was grim and difficult as I realized the full weight of the financial catastrophe I had wreaked upon my mother. She was still making payments on the Skylark; the insurance money would pay it off but leave nothing for a new car. Then the company would jack up her rates. She was a widow with four grown kids who still lived at home–she fed and clothed us and paid our tuition. I had a part-time job in a shoe store which covered my school lunches, gas, and weekend movies. I couldn’t contribute anything toward a down payment on another car.
A kind salesman at her dealership did her a favor, and she managed to secure a ‘64 Buick LeSabre, a big boxy car with patches of rust on the rear fenders. There was nothing sporty or cool about that lunky LeSabre; I was embarrassed to drive it. But it started in the winter and got me back and forth to school. Whenever I pulled into the parking lot, I prayed none of my buddies would see me.
If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise. I persisted. I wasn’t a complete delinquent. I earned good grades, had major roles in school plays, won speech trophies, and my test scores (in my opinion) were fantastic. I worked hard to make my mother proud of me and win her approval, and she steadily granted it. She never once made reference to her smashed coupe, and I kept smoking weed and chugging beer. I did back off the hard stuff.
Eventually I got cocky and careless and was suspended from school, nearly expelled, for smoking pot in my hotel room at a speech tournament–pulled from class and cast down like Lucifer. The Dean called my mother at work and gave her the news; I was too emotional to speak. When she got home she peered into my eyes, her face trembling, and asked, “Honey, are you addicted?”
“No, Mom. I’m not.”
But the hurt and worry on her face did not stop me from careening down the highway of excess. I ate ice cream, watched soap operas, and smoked pot throughout my suspension. In college I never turned down a drug, as long as it was in pill or blotter form. Needles scared me. I told my mother a half-truth. I wasn’t a dope fiend or an alcoholic, but I was addicted to pushing limits.
In time I arrived at that “palace of wisdom:” the high school where I wound up teaching. So many adults I knew were intimidated by teenagers, but I loved being around them. They constantly surprised and amused me. Nothing they did or could do ever shocked or disappointed me, unless they were mean or hateful, and they rarely were. No more than most people. They weren’t perfect–they could be maddening, and I was often flabbergasted by their refusal to learn simple things I tried to teach them, but hey, they couldn’t be bigger fuck-ups than I was when I was their age. In the room with them, I felt at ease. I ran a comfortable, judgment-free classroom where they could be themselves. I even let one kid give a demonstration speech on how to shoot a beer, though I made him use a can of Pepsi. (Maybe that wasn’t exactly wise; not my best Virgil move.) I pushed and challenged them academically, but I couldn’t quite wipe the smile from my face when they’d brag about their wild weekends. I kind of wished I, married with kids, could join them.
In time I forgave myself for wrecking my mother’s car. In her true wisdom she showed me how, that Sunday morning. She forgave me for being a kid; she made it simple. But like my students, I could be a very slow learner. Another nugget buried in the “Proverbs” makes sense to me now, but when I was a teenager, trying too hard to become myself, it would have been cryptic and impenetrable: Damn, braces: Bless, relaxes. It took me a while to learn to relax, but I got there.
Brad Shurmantine lives in Napa, Ca., where he writes, reads, and tends three gardens (sand, water, vegetable), five chickens, two cats, and two bee hives. His fiction and personal essays have appeared in Monday Night, Flint Hills Review, and Catamaran; his poetry in Third Wednesday, Cacti Fur, and Blue Lake Review. He backpacks in the Sierras, travels when he can, and prefers George Eliot to Charles Dickens, or almost anyone. Website: bradshurmantine.com