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The Week of Rental Car Disasters
By Charlie Anders

August 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.

Shuttling 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 wheel.

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.

We 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.

The 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.

The car jacked way up and then crashed back down, and there was a brutal thunk.

I had 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.

The 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.

Grandma 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.

Right 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.

Neither 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.

I was 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.

We 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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