Elton buys a haunted Buick which forces him to question his and his mother's past; by Renata Scruggs.
"It's a '94," said the owner. "I bought it used for my wife, but she wanted a minivan." Behind him, the man's crammed garage retched random auto parts onto the gravel driveway. Robbie had driven all the way to Staunton to see the Roadmaster. He wasn't sure why he wanted this car, but he did.
The owner eyed Elton. At twenty, Elton looked more like sixteen. He wore his wavy reddish hair draped across his forehead, torn jeans and a Leon Russell t-shirt. His skin was so pale that his best friend Dave sometimes called him a ghost. Dave had come along for the adventure; he wore a similar outfit, except his t-shirt displayed a faded cannabis leaf.
"It's huge," Elton said, peering into the cavernous interior.
"Yeah, it's a land yacht. You could carry a whole softball team in there. Great shag wagon too."
"Hmm," said Elton. "The tires need to be replaced."
"As is, like the ad said."
"500?" Dave smiled slightly, trying not to give anything away. He had seen Elton at work like this before.
The owner hesitated.
"Were you named after Elton John?" Elton was filling out the paperwork.
"Yeah," he said, mildly annoyed. He'd heard this question a million times.
"Do you have a brother named Bernie?" The owner laughed at his own joke.
"Sister," Elton deadpanned. Dave, who was standing beside him listening to this exchange, snickered.
"Huh?" said the owner, looking over at Dave. "Oh, yeah, good one."
Elton crouched over the hood of the Roadmaster. A family of four could picnic on top. After he finished filling out the form, he stood up and spied an old tow truck parked next to the garage.
"Can you tow it so I can get some tires?"
"Cost you extra."
"How many people have looked at this car lately?" Elton was young, but not stupid.
"Ok, where do you want it towed?"
"Blue jean baby, LA lady, seamstress for the band," Maxine sang softly as she watered her plants. She wore pink scrubs dotted with teddy bears and dangled a cigarette from the corner of her mouth. She looked up when Elton drove up. The cigarette fell out of her mouth and onto the dirt.
Elton got out and hugged his mom. "What do you think?"
"Not what I was expecting."
"It was a good price and in good shape."
Maxine bent down and picked up the cigarette, brushed off the dirt and re-lit it.
"Max, you gotta stop smoking those. They're gonna kill you."
"Don't like those stupid vapor cigs. They taste like water." She took a long drag. "It's Marlboro or nothing for me."
"It'll be nothing soon," muttered Elton as he went into the house.
"Count the headlights on the highway," Maxine sang as she returned to watering her plants.
Elton sat in the front seat. The vinyl was in remarkably good shape, considering the car's age. Nothing a little ArmourAll wouldn't fix. He turned the key and the engine rumbled to life. The old AM/FM radio started playing.
"Lay me down on sheets of linen, you've had a busy day today," sang a young crooner.
Elton opened the glove compartment and pulled out a couple of outdated maps, a crystallized pack of Dentyne, yellowed napkins. Something fell onto the floor. Elton picked up a small square foil package with the indentation of a ring. "Trojan Extra Ribbed," read the label.
"Eww." Elton dropped the condom on the seat. Something caught his eye in the rear view mirror - his mother sat in the back seat.
"Mom?" Elton turned around. The back seat was empty.
"This is cool as shit!" said Dave as Elton drove. "What a deal! Smokin, El."
"You wanna go to the beach?" Dave looked hopeful.
"Nah, I gotta work this weekend." Elton's cell phone rang.
"No Bluetooth, huh," said Dave.
It was his mom. He put it on speaker.
"Where are you?" she asked.
"You shouldn't be talking on the phone and driving."
"You called me. You give me shit if I don't answer."
"Language, young man."
"Sorry," mumbled Elton. Dave chortled.
"Pussy-whipped by your own mom," Dave whispered loudly.
"What?" said Maxine.
"Nothing, mom, that's just Dave being Dave. We're taking it for a ride, that's all. I'll be home soon."
"Bring something from Weezie's for dinner," she said, and hung up.
Elton, carrying a backpack and chewing on a piece of toast, hustled to the car the next morning, late for work. He settled into the car and turned the key.
"Don't forget to pick me up tonight," said his mom.
"I'm working a double shift at the hospital," she continued.
Elton realized he wasn't talking on the phone. He looked in the rear view mirror. There was his mother, looking tiny against the expansive back seat.
"I lost my virginity in a car like this," she said.
"TMI, mom. How'd you get in here so fast?"
No answer. Elton looked in the mirror again. His mom was studying the seat while smoking a cigarette.
"Seems like everyone but us had a station wagon when I was a kid," she continued. "One summer I went on vacation with my friend Elaine and her family to the Adirondacks. They had a car just like this. Elaine and I sat in the way back, making faces at the people behind us. It was a great vacation. My only vacation as a kid. My father was so pissed when I got home."
"Who knows. Probably because I had a good time. He used to beat the crap out of me for no reason." Maxine ran her finger along one of the seams on the seat. Elton looked away. He could feel the growing silence. He looked in the mirror again. His mother was gone, but he could still smell cigarette smoke.
After work the following day, Elton parked the Roadmaster in the garage. He wedged it between his mother's battered Corolla wagon and a stack of cardboard boxes, the lower ones sagging under the weight of the boxes on top. He had no idea what was in any of the boxes; they'd been there for as long as he could remember. His mom never took anything out of them. Time to clean the garage.
"Mom, is it ok if I clean out the garage?" Maxine was in the kitchen, chopping carrots and dropping them into the crockpot. Carrot stew, one of the few things his mom knew how to cook. It was supposed to be beef stew, but she left out the meat.
"Yeah, why?" She stirred the carrots into the broth, which was already swimming with onions and celery tops.
"Car won't fit."
"Don't throw anything away."
"How am I supposed to clean it then?"
"Just organize what's in there." Maxine studied the stew intently. She seemed to come to a decision and walked to the spice cabinet. Elton moved out of her way.
"You should get rid of some of the junk. You're such a pack rat."
Maxine dropped a bay leaf into the stew. The fragrance of spices and chicken stock filled the kitchen. "Maybe. But aren't you glad I didn't get rid of you?"
The Roadmaster purred. Traffic was light; Elton felt like he had the road all to himself. So far, he hadn't attracted many girls with the shag wagon, but he didn't care. The car meant freedom, independence, the chance to get away by himself. The chance to think.
What did his mom mean, aren't you glad I didn't get rid of you? His mom was young, probably not even 40 and very attractive, according to his friends. A real MILF, Dave liked to say. Elton hated that term, MILF. Disgusting. That was his mother Dave was talking about.
Who was she, anyway? They didn't have any family in town and she never talked about her family. Where'd she come from? She wouldn't answer his questions about her past.
"Best to leave the past where it belongs, behind you," said Maxine once when she was driving him around. She had turned up the radio then.
"You're the diner in my rear view," sang a gruff voice. "A cup of coffee growing cold."
She listened to old Elton John songs constantly. Elton thought it was a weird obsession.
"You know he's gay, right?" Elton had asked her once.
"Doesn't matter. He's a great songwriter and musician. And somehow, the lyrics always seem to say the right thing when I need it."
"Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics. You should have named me Bernie instead of Elton."
"Elton has a better ring to it."
Elton could feel something with him in the car as he drove. He glanced into the rear view mirror. This time, instead of his mom, he saw a pale faced man who looked familiar in a vague way. The man had long sideburns and a strawberry blonde-colored mustache, almost transparent against his skin.
"Whoa, who are you?" Elton demanded.
"Buick knew how to build cars back then," the man responded.
"What the fuck, man, how did you get in my car?" Elton slowed down and stopped in the middle of an empty intersection. He turned around to face the stranger. The man looked at him and through him at the same time.
"I said, who are you and what the fuck are you doing in my car?" Elton was getting nervous now, especially since the man refused to answer his question.
"I lost my virginity in a car like this," said the man.
"I don't give a fuck. Get out of my car."
The man looked at Elton and smiled, but it was more wistful than happy.
"You look like your mother."
"How the fuck do you know my mother?"
"I used to know her. Before you were born."
Elton considered this.
"Are you my father?"
"Are you my father?" said the man in a mocking tone. "This ain't no Doctor Seuss book, kid. "
"Then who the fuck are you?"
"Does she still sing Tiny Dancer all the time?"
"How'd you know that?"
"She always liked Elton John. He was her escape route." The man looked at his hands. "I tried to learn piano to impress her, but my fingers were too stubby."
Nearby a train blew a loud warning, startling Elton, but the man remained unperturbed. Elton turned around and looked out the front window. He realized he had stopped on the train tracks. The safety arm came down behind the Roadmaster and the red lights started flashing.
"Better get off the tracks," said the man in a calm voice that belied the situation.
Elton started the car in a nervous rush and backed up into the gate, knocking it backwards. He kept backing up until he was clear of the tracks, then stopped the car again. The train blew past him, screeching and whistling. He could smell the diesel smoke. Elton, still breathing hard, looked in the mirror. The man was gone.
"This car is fucking haunted."
Dave laughed. "It's not the car, dude. It's you."
They were sitting in the front seat of the Roadmaster, parked at the VDOT memorial off the highway, just before Afton Mountain. Elton liked coming here to think. Dave liked coming here to smoke pot. The valley spread out before them like a table set for Thanksgiving. Farms were settling in for the night; houselights flickered in the summer breeze like fireflies. They could hear the local drag strip wailing.
"No, I mean it. I've been totally sober each time. First my mom, then a guy I think is my dad."
"Yeah, right. You just happened to buy a car haunted by your dad. You don't even know if he's dead."
Dave laughed again. He took a drag off a joint and passed it to Elton. Elton shook his head.
"Either the car is haunted or I'm losing it," Elton persisted.
"Probably the latter." Dave laughed and started to cough.
"Good shit," they both said at the same time and laughed again.
"Ever find out who he was?"
"Nah, she won't talk about it."
"She was young, right?"
"Yeah, a teenager. Her parents kicked her out so she moved down here."
"Some place in Maryland, I think. I'm not sure."
"You should find out."
"Wouldn't make any difference."
"Aren't you curious?
"Maybe. But I don't want to upset Maxine."
Dave took another drag while they watched the night lower itself over the valley like a curtain at the end of a play.
"All sales final. I told you that when you bought it." The owner stood with his arms folded.
"It's not that. I just want to know where you bought it."
"The title's clean."
"I know that. Where'd you buy it?" The owner hesitated, unsure if this was a trick.
"Auto auction in Glen Arbor."
"Glen Arbor? In Maryland, near Annapolis."
Elton drove down Ritchie Highway, past the motor mile, a large shopping mall, big box stores and a row of fast food restaurants, their massive signs reaching into the road as if to grab customers as they drove by. When he entered the town itself, the road thinned to two lanes. Abandoned strip malls and empty stores stood decaying between low-slung office buildings and the local bank. A small hardware store offered S&H Green Stamps. The traffic signals were strung across the intersections on wires instead of attached to poles like at home. He passed a small diner called the Beehive. The town seemed to be frozen in time.
He drove to the local high school. Three tall arched windows graced the front of the old red brick building. The marquee out front announced "Home of the Glen Arbor Gophers." He slung his backpack over his shoulder and walked inside the main office, where a woman wearing a button that said "GAHS, Class of 1968 Welcome back, Alums" sat behind a high counter. Her hair was teased into a brown halo around her face. The office was quiet, dark and cool.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"Could I look at some old yearbooks?" asked Elton.
"Someone should be able to help you in the library. Go out this door, take a left, and it will be the next building."
Elton walked outside. The school was probably built in the 1920's, he guessed. It had art deco touches that he recognized from his modern lit class. Very F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Inside the library, a woman wearing a man's white dress shirt, a dark pencil skirt and wide belt stood watching a group of students drawing with charcoal. Her heavy black eyeliner swept up in waves from her top lashes. Her black and gray hair was pinned neatly on top of her head, a couple of tendrils strategically placed at her temples. With heavy makeup covering a well-lived face, she looked like a character in a John Waters movie. She noticed Elton when he walked in.
"Can I help you find something?"
"I'm looking for old yearbooks."
"They're all online now," said the art lady. "You could have saved yourself a trip."
Elton shrugged. He preferred to flip through actual paper pages, but there was no point in telling her that. She pointed to a row of stacks.
"They start at the left end and go chronologically. The nineteen nineties should be about halfway down."
Elton nodded. In the stacks, he found the volume for the Class of 1995.
He sat down on the floor and found the senior section. The girls looked uncomfortable in velvet drapes that exposed their shoulders. The boys wore tuxes with wide, black trimmed lapels and oversized black bowties. The fancy clothes looked awkward beneath the boys' untidy hair and scruffy faces. He flipped the pages until he found the picture he was looking for.
A girl with dark hair and dark skin smiled confidently from the page. Maxine Johnson. She looked young and innocent, like she was playing dress up in her mother's clothes. Under her name was a list of her activities -Yearbook, Theatre, Honor Society. She hardly looked like the type to get pregnant at seventeen.
Then her quotation: "But oh how it feels so real, lying here with no one near, only you, and you can hear me when I say softly, slowly, hold me closer, Tiny Dancer." Was she referring to herself, or someone else? His father? Him? Was she already pregnant when this picture was taken? He couldn't tell because the picture was cropped right below her chest.
He turned to the Theatre section. There she was, standing on a stage wearing a fringed poncho and bell bottom jeans, flinging her arms up like she was dancing. The rest of the cast sat cross-legged on the stage floor, watching. The caption read "Godspell Production Wows Audience."
He flipped through the student sections to see if anyone looked like he could be his dad. Nothing. He heard a noise behind him in the stacks so he shoved the yearbook into his backpack.
"Do you have permission to be here?" Startled, Elton looked up at a pale, familiar looking face glaring down at him.
"I asked at the office."
"Did they give you a pass?"
"I'm not a student here."
"Doesn't matter. You can't walk around the school without either a pass or an escort."
"No one told me."
"You'll have to leave." The man reached for Elton's arm and tried to pull him to his feet.
"Leave him alone, Robbie." It was the art lady.
"He's not supposed to be here."
"You're not the hall monitor. This is my library, and I say he can stay."
Robbie, a good thirty years younger than the art lady, was clearly intimidated. "It's not your library," he protested in a feeble voice.
"Get out, Robbie. Go bother someone else."
Robbie let go of Elton's arm and stalked off.
"Thanks," said Elton to the art lady.
"Robbie's a grumpy man," she said. "I don't think he's ever left the state of Maryland."
Elton pulled into the parking lot at the Beehive Diner. Most of the other cars were as least as old as the Roadmaster. He parked next to a battered Camero covered in battleship gray primer.
Inside, the hostess greeted Elton. When she smiled, her smoker's face folded into vertical lines below her cat's eye glasses. Her hair was matt black, piled high and lacquered stiff.
"Sit anywhere you like, hon."
Elton grabbed the first empty booth and read the menu. Burgers, shakes, limeade. Just like an old diner, but with modern prices. He looked around and noticed a rotary pay phone on the wall. He'd been in retro diners before, but this was the real thing.
A small contingent of men wearing jeans and carrying small coolers came in. Some of them greeted the hostess by name. They slumped on the stools at the counter. The counter waitress approached them, carrying a glass coffee pot with a metal bottom.
"The usual?" They nodded in unison and the waitress started pouring coffee.
Elton could feel the presence of someone standing at the booth. Thinking it was a waitress, he looked up and said, "Could I get a glass of water and -"
It was not the waitress. It was Robbie.
Robbie dropped onto the opposite seat like a stone, shaking the booth.
"That your Roadmaster out there?"
"I lost my virginity in a car like that. Seems like every family had one back then. Not me though. That's my Camero," he said, nodding in the direction of the gray junker. "Bought it when I graduated from high school. Needs a new paint job. Why were you looking at old yearbooks?"
Elton stared at him, did not reply. The waitress came to the booth and placed a small glass of water in front of him.
"My name's Doris, hon. Ready to order?" She and the hostess could have been sisters, except Doris' beehive was blonde with dark roots.
"Ah, sure. A burger, please." Doris wrote it down. Robbie stared at Elton with a hopeful smile, like a lab puppy hoping to hear the word "walk."
"Cheese?" asked Doris. Robbie continued to stare at Elton. Elton stared back. Doris seemed oblivious to what was going on between them.
Elton felt like he was in a showdown with Robbie. He could hardly concentrate on what the waitress was saying. "Ah, Sure."
"Anything to drink?"
"Just the water."
"Sure? Limeade's pretty darn good here."
Doris wrote on her pad again. Then she turned to Robbie.
"You want me to move your coffee over here, Robbie?"
"No thanks," said Robbie, still looking at Elton.
"I'll bring it anyway so it don't get cold."
Robbie leaned forward once Doris was gone. "Sorry about that show back in the library. I didn't want Mrs. Basketcase to know."
"To know what?"
Robbie spread his hands like the answer was obvious. "I was wondering when you would come to find me."
Robbie sat back, his eyebrows raised, his mouth open.
"Are you kidding? Same kinky red hair, same skinny body type?" Elton sized up Robbie's roundness. He had at least 40 pounds on Elton.
"She never told you?"
"Told me what?"
"Look, I wanted to do the right thing. My mother even offered to watch you while Max went to college. She was the one who wanted to leave."
Robbie plowed on, as if giving a well-rehearsed speech. "She hated this place. Thought it was too dull. But I couldn't traipse around the country in a station wagon."
Elton recovered his composure. He too had rehearsed a speech, although his was more of an accusation. "Why didn't you ever come and visit me?"
"I didn't know where you lived." Robbie slurped his coffee. "Where do you live?"
"About 150 miles south of here."
Robbie laughed nervously. "Well, you know what they say about Richmond - 100 miles south of D.C. and 100 years behind the times. Hell, they're still fighting the Civil War down there. News flash - the South lost."
Elton's cell phone rang and he silenced it. Robbie glanced at the screen and noticed the caller.
"What's Maxine doing these days?"
"She's an emergency room doctor."
"Man, I knew she was going places."
Maxine's call had gone straight to voicemail. "Shit," she said.
"If you ever come home pregnant, I'll disown you," her father warned her when he found out she was dating Robbie. So Maxine didn't go home. Instead she headed to Staunton right after graduation in the car she bought with the money she earned and had to hide from her father so he wouldn't take it and spend it.
"Everything in this house is mine," was his motto, including her. But not her. The Roadmaster freed her.
She had a scholarship from Mary Baldwin, so she got a job in town for the summer and found a cheap room. She ignored the baby growing inside her as long as she could. She started school in the fall wearing baggy shirts and jeans.
"I taught her how to drive. She was in my class. In fact, she had a car just like yours." Elton nursed his limeade while Robbie talked in between taking gulps of coffee. Doris kept the cup filled.
"What was her family like?" asked Elton.
"Don't know. Her mom was dead. Her dad sold insurance or something."
"What was he like?"
"Never met him. I got the impression he was very strict. She had to sneak out of the house because he didn't want her to date anyone."
Doris came by and took Elton's plate. "Dessert?" Elton shook his head. Robbie winked at Doris and she rolled her eyes.
"I don't know why she hated Glen Arbor so much. We've got everything you need -Best Buy, Target, we even have a Wegmans now."
Elton regarded the half-empty parking lot with cracked cement and the deserted buildings crumbling along the road. Robbie followed his gaze.
"Not here, of course; out by the new mall. This part of town is dead."
Maxine didn't mind not having friends in college. Her pre-med courses were demanding, plus she had a job and took care of Elton. First growing inside her, and then growing beside her. Growing with her. She and Elton rode the same carnival ride. Med school in New York, residency in Dallas. She worked in a variety of cities. By the time Elton was ten, they had travelled to almost every state. She settled down when she was appointed head of emergency room surgery at the teaching hospital in Charlottesville.
She didn't feel badly about never taking Elton back to Glen Arbor, even after her father died. Nobody in Glen Arbor knew about Elton except Robbie, and she meant to keep it that way.
Poor Robbie. He was a nice enough guy, but limited in reach and imagination. All he wanted was a Camero and a Sears credit card. She hadn't even thought about him until Elton bought the Roadmaster.
"You shouldn't have gone there." Maxine sat at the kitchen table, nursing a cup of coffee. Elton stood with his back against the door.
"You wouldn't tell me anything."
"With good reason."
"What good reason? Is Robbie my father?"
"Is he still there? Still teaching Driver's Ed?" Elton nodded. "I'm not surprised."
"Is he my father?"
Maxine stared at her coffee, said nothing.
"Never mind. I'm going to bed." Elton pulled the yearbook out of his bag and dropped it on the table. "Brought you something."
"Night, hon," she said without looking up. Elton noticed the "hon" for the first time. He'd heard it all his life from her, but from no one else until he visited Glen Arbor.
Maxine stared at the yearbook, its edges rubbed clean of color. It was time.
The Roadmaster hummed softly, the dashboard lights casting a yellow glow into the summer night. The FM dial whirred as Maxine turned it. Music and talking erupted, then fell back into silence. Eventually she found the station she wanted.
"Lite 98, the best of the 70's, 80's and 90's," said the D.J. "Let's go all the way back to 1971. From Madman Across the Water. Tiny Dancer."
Maxine opened the yearbook to the teacher section.
"Robert 'Robbie' Bernard Woods, gym teacher and driving instructor. Anne Arundel Community College, teaching certificate, 1993; University of Maryland, College Park, B.A., 1992; GBHS, 1988. Two years teaching at GBHS."
"It wasn't just you, Robbie, it was the town."
Robbie answered from the back seat. "I think I knew that. He's a good kid."
Maxine placed the yearbook on the seat next to her and got out, leaving the Roadmaster running. Robbie watched her as she reached in and released the parking brake. Just as the car started to move, she threw a CD into the back seat. The car crept toward a gap at the edge of the overlook where another car must have taken out part of the guard rail. Robbie looked startled, questioning. He picked up the blue CD case. It was "Madman Across the Water."
Maxine watched the Roadmaster as it rolled slowly over the edge and out of sight. Then she hitchhiked back to the house to talk to Elton.