Week of Rental Car Disasters
1992, the Phoenix air could boil your blood -- it was a record heat
wave according to the papers, and the absolute worst time to do
anything delicate and familial.
between our motel and all our other destinations, Mom and I went
through rental cars like home fries. I drove, because she had too
much else on her mind. I was 21 years old, had only just gotten
my driver's license, and hadn't yet made peace with the steering
My mom and I were still learning to relate as adults, a process
that inevitably led to some tension and weirdness. Driving her around
was a role-reversal that confirmed our new alignment. I'd chauffeured
her some while I was getting my license, but this was different.
were in Arizona to have a court cast aspersions on my grandmother's
mental state. My mom's mother had been on the Alzheimer's slide
for years, and hardly ever seemed to know us. But now my grandfather
was dead and Mom needed to be named Grandma's guardian. Otherwise,
Grandma wouldn't get Grandpa's military pension. And there was some
obscure threat that the Army might name its own guardian for my
grandmother. I pictured a tough drill-sergeant type trying to make
her do push-ups in the nursing home.
second day, we went to the attorney's office and he explained to
us the process of legally invalidating someone's brain. When Mom
and I went out to the car, neither of us could talk. We just stared
at each other. I tried to think of something comforting or at least
normalizing to say, and couldn't. Then I just put the car into gear
and backed out of our parking spot.
car jacked way up and then crashed back down, and there was a brutal
backed over the big concrete divider that punctuated our spot. It
was crunching into the undercarriage of the car. My mom and I talked
about it for a moment and decided the only thing was to back the
front wheels over the divider as well. The divider smashed against
the car's innards all the way, before we finally reached the front
wheels and managed to climb up the sheer concrete face. And then
another thunk, from the front wheels.
car drove okay after that, but we kept hearing funny noises, and
we didn't want it to break down in the desert somewhere. So we took
it back to the rental car place and mentioned the noises, but not
the driving-over-the-barrier thing. They gave us a different car.
The next day we went to visit my grandmother in the nursing home,
on the fringes of a massively sprawling retiree-only suburb called
Sun City. She'd long since passed through the uninhibited, breezy
stage of Alzheimer's, and seemed permanently in the weepy, angry
phase. She had a walker and was running away from the nursing home
staff, who wanted to give her some meds. Her hair was dirty and
frazzled, and her eyes were red.
had been a dancer when she was young, but her parents made her give
it up, and she became a teacher. And then an Army wife, traveling
all over the place with Grandpa. She'd been a staunch Lutheran,
the kind of person who never spoke ill of anyone regardless of how
much they deserved it.
after our first nursing home visit, the air conditioning on our
replacement car died. At least this one wasn't my fault. We had
appointments and stuff to take care of, so we had no choice but
to drive around for half a day in a tandoori oven. Mom and I were
both freaked out about Grandma, and a steering wheel too hot to
touch didn't make things any better.
of us talked much, we just stared out at the shapes the air made
over the tar, and the weird pastels of the desert on the way back
to Phoenix. My mom and I talked about how the desert sunset looked
like the tackiest velvet painting you ever saw - but it was real,
it existed in nature, and there was probably no way to capture it
in art without being trashy.
waiting for one of us to lose our shit then, but neither of us did.
We are probably two of the least stoic people you'll ever meet,
with a breaking point somewhere below marzipan when it came to stress,
and we both somehow managed to keep from screaming at each other.
We accomplished this mostly by preserving the silence. The radio
was full of the Republican Convention, Pat Buchanan announcing we
were in a culture war and we had to take back our country like the
National Guard facing down the LA rioters. So we turned it off,
which left us with no sound but the wind through our open windows,
and the perpetually blaring horns of the Arizona drivers.
managed to get the car back to the rental place, where they gave
us no grief about needing another car. They hooked us up with another
car -- I can't remember what kind of car we kept getting, but I
think they were all Geo Prizms, the American auto industry's attempt
at copying Japanese cars -- and we rolled back towards our motel.
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