Around the time my baby brother was born, so 1997 I guess, my dad brought home The Sub, our pet name for the ‘88 Chevrolet Suburban that instantly became neighborhood eye-sore and eventually became an odd sort of family heirloom. Ostensibly it was purchased to serve as the family surf-mobile, the ideal vessel to stack high with longboards and fill to the brim with sandy feet and wet bottoms, but at some level it was one in a continuing series of actions performed by my father whose end result was pissing off my mother. (This ritual no doubt predates my existence, and it surely has evolved over the years, but the current list of things my dad does to infuriate my mom includes, but is not limited to, the following: any time he goes to Costco by himself; stepping into the shower at the exact moment they need to leave to get somewhere on time; leaving the back door of our house open; buying anything off the internet, or worse yet, the television; feeding the dog from the dinner table). Surviving thirty plus years of marriage demands a certain discretion from both sides in the selection of just which battles to fight, and thankfully in the case of The Sub my mom let her defenses down relatively easily. Had she known that nearly twenty years later it would still be sitting in front of her house, she may well have adjusted the intensity of her resistance.
It had originally come to us with a two-tone paint job, top half white, the bottom navy blue to match the interior. Somewhere along the way we paid to have it repainted in the original Chevy metallic blue. After that, getting behind the wheel of The Sub erased any chance of anonymity for its driver. You could hear its V8 coming a long way off, long before she actually came into sight, a big blue bomber barreling down the road. First for my older brother, and later for me, she became almost part of our identities: the Smith brothers were good athletes, able students, reliable friends, and drove that damned Suburban. As far as first cars go, a guy could do a lot worse.
Charging down the freeway, surfboards hanging out the back window, more bodies in the car than seats, the sounds of the Chili Peppers or Modest Mouse or maybe Weezer (“I’m still afloaaaaaaaat”) fighting to be heard against the roar of the engine, I felt vital in a way I never had before, or have since. The destination was secondary in The Sub; she made the getting there an adventure in itself. She turned over grudgingly, accelerated reluctantly, and on a good day got ten miles to the gallon. Her speedometer stopped at eighty-five, and with a long enough downhill you could just get the needle to kiss the end of the meter, then pray the light at the bottom was green, as no force of heaven or earth was going to stop that car before the intersection. Invincibility is a cheap commodity at seventeen, cheaper still behind the wheel of a two ton truck.
There was rebellion not just in the act of driving fast, but a particular thrill in doing so in a vehicle designed for anything but speed. Once you crept past seventy in The Sub it felt like a shuttle re-entering the atmosphere; I was never sure how long she would last before bits of metal started tearing off or parts began catching fire. Everything shook and you did not steer so much as hold on for dear life. It was an early taste of the essentially human compulsion to test the elasticity of limitations. It’s taken me years to comprehend the elevation of stakes that occurs when the car is swapped out with a body, or a mind. The transitory nature of youthful vigor hits you head-on the first time you find yourself hurtling toward the bottom of the hill, this time praying for red lights and wreckage. You can feel your grip loosening on the steering wheel, one mile at a time.
The Sub failed its smog inspection a few months ago, and my mom must have imagined then that the eye-sore had seen its last days as a resident on our cul-de-sac. She made a common female error, underestimating just how irrationally attached men can get to their cars. My dad had it towed up to his cousin’s shop, and a couple hundred bucks later (and with more than just a hint of possible impropriety) she was deemed legal once more. My baby brother intends to assume daily use of The Sub when he gets his driving license in a few weeks, becoming the third and final Smith brother to do so. In the meantime it sits on the curb out front, a few thousand pounds of metal and memories. I’ve gotten behind the wheel a few times, not with any destination in mind, as these days I have no place to go. The engine fires up, and I feel a familiar kick somewhere in my gut, though only briefly. It’s like a window to the past, but one that refuses to budge open, only transmitting sights and filtered sounds to give vague impression, but never the full taste.I’m able to gaze through it only so long before I cut my losses, pull down the blinds, and drive on home. After I kill the engine I sit for a moment, searching in vain for the words to warn my brother. These lessons must be lived, these hurts felt. You can’t grow up by proxy.
I don’t know how much remaining time The Sub has. Not much, I would guess. If it’s not the smog again next year, it’ll be the transmission, or some other problem too expensive to justify repair. Like a family dog she’ll be put down, scrapped for five hundred dollars or so. They’ll drain the blood, remove gasoline and oil and coolant, then resell and recycle what they can. The bulk of her body will be sent to a steel mill somewhere, melted down and reused. She’ll come back to life as a sports car maybe, a convertible I like to think. Some day she’ll come tearing down the highway like an animal uncaged, top down, begging for more speed.
Foot down and flying, needle jumping. The horizon can’t get here soon enough.