by Fred Miller
An ancient convertible that could morph into an iridescent streak on the open road sat beside us in the used car lot in the misting rain. Soon it would become the centerpiece of my teenage existence. And we’d call it the Green Hornet.
The car dealer who’d sell it to us stood slue-footed and pointed out features with a stubby hand while his other appeared latched to a belt loop on his almost invisible hip. With a wad of Brown’s Mule tobacco tucked tight in his cheek, he spoke in a slur through thin lips. Our dad listened and scratched the back of his head, his hat tilted at a rakish angle the way it usually did when he was deep in hard negotiation.
My brother and I waited in silence and watched bugs dive-bomb into the intense lights above as the two middle-aged men haggled and hawed. Dad paused to peer off into the neon reflections in the wet street, while the salesman rocked like an anxious penguin. The dealer’s arms opened to match his broadening smile and Dad continued to shake his head until, with no visible sign, the two of them paused and shook hands. It was done. The car was ours.
My brother and I had just acquired an eighteen-mile paper route, thus cheap, dependable transportation had become a must. My brother Johnny would pilot the Green Hornet and, in a maddening frenzy, I’d toss folded newspapers from the rear of the open-topped car.
The School for the Blind and Deaf marked our final delivery before we raced toward Meadowbrook Road where we’d wheel onto a steep incline. And by the time we’d reach the crest of the hill, gears grinding, my stomach would leap in concert with the noisy shocks of the old car, and almost by instinct my eyes would veer to the right toward a ranch style house we were passing. A goddess lived there. And I knew her. Well, I was aware of who she was because I’d seen her at school. And every time we passed in the hallway, I’d offer her a smile, but she never saw me. And perhaps it was just as well, because if she’d deigned to speak to me, I’d have had no idea what to say. After all, what does a mere mortal say when approached by a deity with young female features?
Well, it happened one cool autumn day, the Hornet creeping up that dangerous, rain-slick hill, my eyes roving like beacons toward the house where I knew she awaited a handsome, young suitor to come calling. I blinked, my heart skipped, and without notice my brother hit the brakes and the car eased to a stop. Could he read my mind?
In the rain a fellow stood with a car jack beside a ’53 Chevy.
“Stewart,” my brother shouted, “looks like you could use some help.”
“You bet, Johnny,” he said.
We eased the car around and out we came, my brother twirling a lug wrench in a counter clockwise direction and me dropping to the pavement to place lug nuts in the displaced hubcap. With the task underway, the two of them rapped about cars and friends and fads, all the while ignoring me, the little brother.
Wiping my face with greasy hands, I chanced a furtive peek toward the magic castle across the street just as a figure under an umbrella emerged and moved in our direction. A mirage. It was her. In the pinkest short shorts I’d ever seen. The material just glowed.
“Stewart, honey, can I help in any way?” she said, to our school football captain, her long eyelashes batting.
“Hey, Mary Jane,” my brother said before our athletic hero could reply.
“Oh, hi, Johnny,” she said.
I remained mute, immobile, almost invisible on the ground. The three of them exchanged verbal notes on upcoming games and unloved teachers, all as if I was not there. And to tell the truth, I’d yet to decide if this were a dream or reality.
I listened as football opponents were vetted, and I prayed for another flat tire here and now, so I could gaze on this heavenly image a bit longer. But without notice it was over. She bid them both good-bye and turned in my direction and winked. My jaw flexed, my mouth opened, but no sound came out. For a good minute I watched the seams of those shorts moving away in a smooth, calculated rhythm.
“Close your mouth and let’s go,” my brother said. I flushed. I’d been discovered. Both of them cackled.
Silence filled the car, and when we walked into the house, my mom took one look at me and laughed.
“What?” I said. She couldn’t have known. What was this?
“Son, go take a look in the mirror,” she said.
In the bathroom the evidence announced itself. I’d enough grease on my face to incite an Indian war. My brother appeared in the mirror behind me with an eager grin. He winked. I was ruined. And had no place to hide.
But in a few days providence smiled on me. I saw her enter a classroom at the third period. Now I knew where she was. All I had to do was make myself known to her as the coolest of sophomores, a man she could trust, a man she could pine to know better. My chest swelled. I started to scheme.
My class was near the other end of the building, so I knew I could not tarry long by her door. What to do? Ah, I thought, my new Christmas sweater with the deer and snowflakes pattern. Now that would impress her. The next day I was ready.
I stood by her classroom door and studied my nails as if a fresh manicure was in the offing. I waited. And waited. People were scurrying through doors just as the bell rang. No diva anywhere. Where could she be? I made a final survey of her classroom and there she was on the front row. How’d she get by me? She looked up and caught me in a vacuous stare. She winked. Again. My eyes widened. But I was late for class and too stunned to return the smile.
After a thorough scolding for tardiness from my third period teacher, I sat deflated in my seat. My best friend, who sat next to me, stared. I looked over at him and with a grin he whispered, “What’s with the goofy sweater?”
Back to square one. But I had a new angle. I’d just turned sixteen and was about to be crowned with the highest of teen achievements: a valid driver’s license. Then I could wash and wax the Green Hornet and take my dreamboat date out for a ride. Yeah, that was it. Life was looking up.
The big day came and I became a certified teen driver, an accident looking for a place to happen. First I washed, vacuumed, and waxed the car. Then I polished my loafers. And then for the big question that was tersely handled by my dad.
“Can I have the Hornet on Saturday?”
“Of course not, son,” he said unemotionally, his eyes barely raised from his newspaper.
“But, Dad, why not? I’m a licensed driver.”
“And you’re still learning. If your brother wants you to drive the car on the paper route, I’ll allow that. It’d be good practice for you.”
Sold out by my own dad. All I lacked now was a case of leprosy. Yeah, then maybe he’d rue the day he refused a simple request of this humble soul, his youngest child.
Weeks passed, but the answer remained the same. What I needed was a new scheme. I could scale this cliff, I knew I could. All I needed was time. Once again my confidence began to perk.
Then one Saturday morning I launched a fresh surprise attack.
“Dad, could I take the Hornet to the service station for gas?”
He peered over his morning paper and studied me. Why, I thought? It was an easy question. I’d offered to sacrifice my valuable Saturday morning time as a personal favor for the family. Noting was too good for my folks. And it showed in my face.
“Um, okay son, but don’t be long.”
Don’t be long? How can I take a spin around town with my new love and not be long?
“Well, uh, I’ll have the tires checked too. And maybe clean the windshield, okay?” he nodded, but never looked up from his paper. Wonder if that will allow me enough time?
“And I’ll have the oil checked too. Can’t let the oil level go down, you know.” A silent nod from the authority in the room.
I rolled out of the driveway in the Green Hornet, the top down, a free man. The sky was clear, the weather warm, and I was about to step up and accept the Olympic gold medal for social justice. Ah, just the thought of opening the car door for her. But wait. I’d forgotten to call her. I couldn’t just show up and ask her to take a ride with me. Of course not. She’d need time to dress, put on make-up, perfume, paint her nails. No way this is going to work. Rats.
“This going to be cash or charge?” the service station attendant asked. I stared at him like a startled deer in headlights. I had no money. Hadn’t thought of that. After a brief verbal joust between a vanquished teen and a determined businessman, he called my dad, who approved the charge, and I was promptly released from custody.
I eased out of the station and pointed the Hornet toward Meadowbrook Road. I’d top the hill at lightning speed, I thought. She’ll be looking out the window and see me wave as I sail by. She’ll be awed. And hungry for an invitation to ride in my convertible. I’ll be the talk of the school.
And I was. The car came over the hill at a speed NASCAR drivers can only pine for. I waved. I smiled. And hit the brakes as soon as I saw the police cruiser at the bottom of the hill.
“Hi, son. Say, you look kind of pale. You okay?”
“Um, the Hornet has a problem.”
“Um, yeah, the accelerator pedal sticks.”
“Yes, sir. And I was just lucky enough to pump the brakes and avoid trouble.”
“Son, why don’t you just show me the ticket.”
Now I knew how Sisyphus felt. No matter how close I got to my goal, I continued to slide back down to the bottom of the dump.
Days turned into weeks. Opportunities evaporated. I was doomed. And then, in my darkest hour, an idea whose time had come materialized. Homecoming was three weeks away. The football heroes couldn’t ask her out; they’d be on the field. And I’d ask her before anyone else. She couldn’t say no. That would be impolite. Besides, I’d been paroled. I could drive again.
“Mary Jane, this is your old buddy, Frank Anderson.”
“Frankie? Johnny’s little brother?”
“None other. And this is your lucky day.”
“Yeah. Thought you and me could make the scene at the homecoming game.” I was cooking, grooving. Had it all scripted out in front of me. I heard silence.
“Mary Jane, you there?” I heard what I thought was a snicker.
“I’m here, Frankie. Have you got a car?”
“Have I got a car? Dear lady, I have access to just the sharpest convertible in the city.”
“Um, okay, but don’t keep me waiting.”
I took a deep breath and smiled. I’d become Zeus, god over all other gods, master of the universe. I started to confirm all with a soothing reply, but all I could hear was a dial tone. She’d hung up. Just like that. But she’d said not to be late. Well, sure, it was a date. I’d scored. And I couldn’t wait to tell my friends.
They were impressed. They couldn’t believe it. I was impressed. And I couldn’t believe it either. And for days I walked the halls with the strut of a cowboy movie star.
Now when I saw my beloved at school, I not only smiled, I waved. But for some reason, she never had time to stop and talk, but that was all right. She was probably just nervous around me. Besides, we’d have lots of time on the big date for her to find out what a big man around school I was. I knew. And I’d tell her.
A week before the big day I gazed out onto the driveway at the gleaming Green Hornet, a boss car, the symbol of my new manliness.
The phone rang. Mom said it was for me.
“This is Mary Jane. How are you?”
“Just dreaming about our upcoming date, sweetheart,” I said. And then I gritted my teeth. Was this an uncool line or what?
“Frankie, do you know where you’ll be sitting at the game?”
“Me? Us? Um, hadn’t thought about it. Where would you like to sit?”
“I won’t be sitting, Frankie. I’ll be on the field. I’ve been chosen for the homecoming court and it’s a tradition that the ladies on the court are escorted by members of the football team. Stewart is my escort.”
I swallowed hard. My tongue began to swell. I felt perspiration on my neck.
“Uh, yeah, that’s great, Mary Jane. Congratulations.”
“Thanks, Frankie. I’ll wave at you in the stands. That’s why I wanted to know where you’d be sitting.”
“Ah, you don’t have to do that. My date, probably wouldn’t understand.”
There was a slight pause, then, “Well, okay, Frankie. Thanks for the invitation anyway.”
I stared at the receiver. It seemed heavy. My breathing had become labored. My knees felt unsteady.
Maybe there’s a job opportunity for me in the salt mines of Siberia. I wondered. I was ready and could leave now if they needed me. Or maybe I could get a note from home that announced that I had an unexpected case of laryngitis. Then I wouldn’t have to explain anything to my friends. Or maybe I could break an arm—no, a leg. Then I could be out of school for a couple of weeks. Yeah, that was it. Now, how to break my leg without too much pain.
Fred Miller is a California writer. Over thirty of his stories have appeared in various publications around the world. Some of these stories appear in his current blog: https://pookah1943.wordpress.com.