FRESH YARN presents:

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.

It was around this time that we discovered the corned beef hash. I don't remember the name of the diner that saved our sanity, but it was near our motel on the outskirts of Phoenix. It was old-school, with a long counter and greasy yellow wallpaper. And it had this amazing corned beef hash, it was warm and salty and basically the purest expression of comfort food in the physical world. I had never eaten corned beef hash before, and I've never had any as good since then. We resolved to eat that hash at least twice a day for the remainder of our visit.

The next day, we had to go to the courthouse for the guardianship proceedings. I was driving again, and I was trying not to dwell on how weird this was, and my grandmother's dirty hair, and all the hassles the attorney had warned us to be ready for, and how to keep my mom from freaking out, and also ---

I swerved left into oncoming traffic. My mom screamed and I started to brake. There was a semi barreling down on us. And then, when we were already halfway into the opposing lanes, a green left-turn arrow flashed into life, and we had the right of way that I'd somehow decided already belonged to us. Miraculously, nobody had already started into the intersection, or they would have rammed us. When we got to the courthouse, I let go of the steering wheel very slowly and then breathed at the top of my lungs.

I think I'm good in a crisis. I'm just not a good driver in a crisis.

After all the lawyer's warnings, the court proceedings turned out to be pretty straightforward. The judge more or less rubber-stamped the power of attorney and guardianship, and the Army didn't object to anything.

We went back to Sun City to sit with my grandma, even though I wasn't sure why. She wouldn't remember our visit, and we wouldn't get to communicate with the parts of her that had meant something to us. But we went anyway.

This time, Grandma seemed calmer, probably because the nurses had medicated her. We sat on folding chairs in the little patio at the center of the rest home. She stared into space and made nonsensical stabs at conversation, and it was almost worse than seeing her weep and run from her pills. It was like she was already mostly somewhere else, except a small part of her grudgingly rested in the shady courtyard.

We had no more traffic scares that day, mostly thanks to luck. Sun City's drivers come in two kinds: the ones who've worked hard all their lives and now nobody is going to stop them from driving 80 miles an hour, and the ones who are in no hurry and always go 20 miles per hour. You can't slow down too much, or the speed freaks will crush you, but you have to be ready to hit the brakes the moment you see a sedan (or golf cart) almost standing still in the road.

Back in Phoenix, I felt exhausted and sore in my load-bearing muscles, as if I'd been carrying instead of sitting. I was maybe a lost penny away from melting down, but I was also hyper-aware of the need to keep from upsetting my mom. She just looked drained past the point of having anything to give.

That's when we stopped at a drug store to get a few things, and I locked the keys in the car. With the engine still running.

Even in the late afternoon, the sun was still kicking our asses, and I just looked at the car and listened to the hum of the engine. My mom swayed on her feet, as if snake-bitten in the desert. She could start screaming or just pass out, and I wasn't sure which would be worse. I steered her to the air-conditioned drug store, and looked around for a pay phone.

The sun did another gaudy desert fade. Our plans for our last evening in town eroded with each passing minute. At least it was no longer so hot that you felt like you'd been spitting for hours. I can't remember what our evening plans had been, but they probably involved eating more hash and watching a movie. Something to get our minds off the week we'd had.

A Sherrif's Department car cruised through the parking lot, and a cop got out. He spent 20 minutes trying to jimmy the lock with a thin metal ruler-like object. He said he had tons of experience breaking into cars, but ours had some kind of newfangled security. I almost called the rental place, but I was sure they were sick of hearing from us.

The cop finally phoned for a locksmith, who promised to come sometime in the next hour.

My mom wandered back from the drugstore. By now, it was fully dark except for all the parking lot lights. I said I was sorry about this, about all the automotive mayhem of the past week. My mom was just glad I'd been able to be there for the whole Grandma ordeal, car crap or no car crap.

Eventually some guy did show up and charged us a shitload of money for thirty seconds' work, and we went back to our motel to collapse. Mom and I cemented our friendship as adults that week, but she never again got into a car that I was driving.

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