Farewell, My Lovely

categories: Cocktail Hour


way before

Okay, today I’m in the garden planting peas, and I hear a roar and a bang up by the road.  Pickup truck.  So of course I go to see who.  Young man with a terrible limp, no smile, no threat either.  Familiar, I realize, then rejoice: the truck’s familiar too!  It’s my old trusty F-150, and he’s fixed the body and painted it candy-apple red and got all kinds of chrome on the thing, and huge tires, stainless mag wheels, half the revised engine sticking up out of the hood, chrome running boards and racing stickers and exhaust and web tailgate and new leather upholstery and northern-lights headliner and wow.

The scene was exactly the same, maybe three-four years ago:  I’m in the garden planting peas, and I hear a roar and a bang up by the road.  Pickup truck.  So of course I go to see who.  Young man with a terrible limp, no smile.  So I erase my own smile.  Then he turns his on, and it’s the scammer’s smile, these fellas who stop by the country houses at the rate of one or two a month (guys who sell meat they say is stolen; guys who pretend to be mentally deficient and ask for work or twenty dollars; young women in cleavage shirts and very low trousers who say they’re doing a bottle drive for their church and offer a massage once my empties are in their truck, forty bucks each, no thanks; fella who says he’ll pave my driveway with the half-load of asphalt he’s got left from a state job, half price, five hundred bucks, be back in an hour, but he’s gotta have cash now).

“Lotta work on a farm,” this one says by way of introduction.  I feel happy I’m coming out of the garden after rain all covered in mud and wearing rough clothes like his.  Or not quite so rough as his, once I take a look: Reny’s chinos worn down to threads, shoes worn down to socks.  His got one eye looking up, one eye looking down.

“Former,” he says—first name or last?—and sticks out his hand.

“Bill,” I say, giving him just the selling tool he needs, my name.

“Bill, I see you got a truck in the yard here.”

Oh, my gosh.  Lightning had struck.  Just the other day I’d noticed that the registration on my beloved but bedraggled 1984 Ford F-150 pickup had expired some months back.  It was only registered at all that year after an Olympian struggle to get it inspected—body rust.  The solution my mechanic and I came up with at the time was a Farm Vehicle registration, slightly less onerous inspection criteria, the only drawback being you had to paint the name of your town across both sides in four-inch high letters, and then you weren’t allowed to go more than twenty-five miles from home.  “Farmington” did not fit on the door neatly but ran off onto the cab, my miserable handwriting in spray paint, graffiti without its crucial ingredients: rancor and heart.  Last time I drove the unhappy thing was a on an autumn dump run, that great big old bed overflowing with garbage bags and recycling and rusted stove pipe and our old dryer, which had died the fall before that and spent several seasons in the back of the truck.  Did I say it was a tasteful brick red (truck, not dryer)?  Anyway, on that last drive it hopped all the way home, terrifying: something serious wrong with the front end.

“Only 114,000 miles on it,” I said.  I’d only driven the thing maybe two hundred miles a year since Elysia was born in 2000, which is the year I bought the minivan (now also on last legs), since there’s no place in a pickup for an infant’s rear-facing car seat.

Former gave a philosophical shrug: “Bill, American car, that’s a lot of miles.”

“A lot of miles,” I repeated.  I had driven the thing to Ohio from Maine and back five times, once to Chicago, several times over to the White Mountains, even more times to New York City, like piloting a wind machine, like parking a dumpster, always an adventure with my elbow out the window, no AC.  Also my dogs had always ridden by my side in that truck, leaning into the turns, Wally with his big, sweet head on my shoulder, Desi sniffing our the window.  Both dogs gone, sadly.  Had the truck before them and after them.

“We’re just gonna parts it,” Former’s sidekick said.  This guy, he was over six feet tall, ears you could use for Frisbees, teeth you could sell for piano keys.  I immediately assigned him the nickname Latter, since no introduction was forthcoming.

“I was kind of hoping to get five hundred for it,” I said.

“Bill, we only paid three hundred for our truck right there, and it’s four-wheel drive.”

“It’s worth five hundred as scrap metal right now,” I ventured, which was true at the time, before scrap metal and every other bubble burst.  Fun to dicker when you’re practically skipping for joy at the prospect of getting an old truck off your lawn.  I’d had the thought of giving it to Maine Public Radio, which apparently accepts old cars in donation.  But these fellows were less abstract than the radio, and obviously a not-for-profit enterprise of their own.  I could feel very good putting the truck in their hands, like finding an old dog a loving home.

“Bill, what’s your bottom line?” Former said.

“Inspection’s still good till July,” Latter announced.

Former shushed him, none too subtly.

“I feel like I’m selling an old girlfriend,” I said.  “I mean, she’s gotten old and mean, but I still love her.”

“It’s a truck,” Former said.

“Straight-six, beautiful,” said Latter.

That shushing motion from Former.

The engine, indeed, was a thing of beauty, had always run smoothly, sweetly, the classical purr.  I remembered suddenly buying a brand-new battery not long since, fit of hopefulness.  Battery alone was worth fifty dollars.  Though of course selling a naked battery would take at least fifty dollars worth of aggravation to get ten.  The thing to say would have been, Four hundred dollars.  I knew these young gentlemen wouldn’t be parts-ing anything.  They’d be Bond-o-ing and sanding and painting and tuning and hood-scooping and upholstering and welding and in a month or two my old ride would be back on her game, beautiful again, pinstripes and flames, cherry-bomb muffler.

“Two hundred,” I said, undercutting their offer just for fun.  I didn’t want them not eating for a week just so I could have money I didn’t need.

Latter began to laugh.

“Okay,” said Former too quickly.  You could practically see his heart beating through his shirt, a live rube in his hands.  “Bill, I gotta go somewheres here and borrow that money but I’ll be back and don’t sell it to anyone else, okay?”

“Let’s start it up,” Latter said, his horse behind the cart.

“Battery’s going to be dead,” said Former.

He was right.  I have a trickle-charger and while they took the (almost brand-new) battery out of what was still my truck, I got the charger set up in my woodshop.  I was proud to have a shop, even proud of the mess in there.  Former carried the battery in, the weight of it staggering him on his unsteady pegs.  He looked like a very happy man.   He looked, in fact, like a very happy man trying very hard to look like he was not a very happy man.   “Bill,” he said.  “Bill, we’ll be back.”  Heavy breathing.

While they went on their mission I made up an “As is” bill-of-sale, and cleaned out under the seats.  Mostly rope, but also a fingernail clipper in good repair and a little ceramic dog’s head made in 1990 by my artist friend Tre’ Arenz, who died in 2003, not even age fifty.  She’d made these great replacement knobs for stereos and stoves and the like, and I’d used mine as the heater knob in the truck, pretty cool, poor Tre’.

Heater didn’t work.

Over lunch, I thought about the truck, old friend.  I was thirty-nine when I bought it, a man in good repair.  The truck had a serious dent in the roof, looked like someone had dropped a medium-sized tree on it. I would be fifty-five or so that summer not so long ago, and looked like someone had dropped a slightly bigger tree on me.  The dealer was visibly happy that I was looking at this truck, a trade in, wrong brand at a Honda dealer. “Iron,” he called it.  The price was $7000.00.  They way I bargained for it was actually an accident.  Salesman said, “Never mind the sticker, we can sell this thing to you for $6000.”  And I didn’t say anything, trying to calculate if I had that much.  $6000.00 sounded pretty good, but I’m a very slow thinker in those situations and I was still thinking very hard when he said “Five thousand.”  Before I could get my thoughts around the new number he said, “Four,” and then, quickly, “Three.  Three thousand and drive it home.”  At which point my mouth just said, “Okay.”

Anyway, the fellas came back, and Former stuffed a wad of chamois-soft dollar bills in my hands.  I handed him the bill-of-sale.  Latter started laughing.  He couldn’t help it.  He was a happy man.  Former started laughing, too, very happy.  I laughed with them.  They’d be telling this story for years to come: space-shot sells them great truck for like nothing, didn’t even count the cash.

The battery was miles from being charged.  But Former and Latter had a neat trick, which was to install the dead battery in their truck while their truck was running (do not try this at home), then installing their live battery in my truck.  She started right up.  And oh, that engine sounded good.  Former drove their truck, charging my battery, and Latter drove my truck, just put it in gear and backed across my lawn far enough to negotiate our fences.  And then he pulled out.  Familiar crunch of gears.  The old girl hopped up the road at four miles an hour, over the hump in front of the neighbor’s barn, and gone.  And I just stood there, slow thinker, tears coming unaccountably to my eyes.

The next day, I sent a check for $200 to Maine Public Radio.

  1. kurt writes:

    Wasn’t the Swinger (red) reincarnated as well? Your vehicles keep coming back to haunt you!

  2. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Aw, great story. Brings back the memory of two trucks, my little Mazda I drove for 11 years in Indiana until the body rusted through and we needed a second vehicle to haul kids in. Then I got Roberta, a big white F150 with extended cab. Drove her 16 years and as we left Appalachian Ohio two years ago donated her to a rural relief charity. She still looked brand new other than a big dent and a sagging rear bumper. I still miss her, the lousy Detroit product, made in St. Louis though she were . . .

  3. Don Scheidecker writes:

    What great fun! You write like I was there … I felt you lookin’ and a winkin’. Come on out and catch some fish!!

    • Bill writes:

      Don, that’s how you take photos, too… Can’t wait to get back to Montana…

  4. Douglas Campbell writes:

    Swell piece, Bill. Amazing, the significance motor vehicles take on in our American lives. You captured that perfectly.

    • Bill writes:

      I guess our cars are like horses of old… Great to see the word swell put back in service, Doug… pretty swanky… but some of us youngsters are using words like groovy now!

  5. Shonna writes:

    Bill, thank you for writing this. My truck was a 1995 Mitsubishi, bench seat, no A/C. I negotiated the car note as a 23 year old, and I drove that thing up and down the east coast about a million times.

    I was instantly popular with that truck: hauled a stackful of mattresses for a homeless shelter, gear for musicians, and once (with so much judgment) four large cases of condoms in support of a safer sex awareness program. My husband was impressed when he met me, and that first year, we each drove trucks until one of us needed something practical– he caved and bought a Sedan.

    I couldn’t bear to sell it, so after 10 years, I just gave it to a friend. It’s still in operation, and I get to visit it every time I head to DC.

    Truck love. It’s real.

    • Bill writes:

      Right? I mean, who hasn’t driven turckloads of condoms north and south! But seriously, there’s a romance here that can’t be denied…

  6. Ned Stuckey-French writes:

    Sweet, Bill, super sweet. I like laughs at the end and the NPR coda. Former and Latter might be thinking, “Ah, well, he didn’t count the money,” but you, on the other hand, can say, “Ah, well, they hadn’t even seen it start yet when they handed me the money.” Win, win, if you ask me.

    • Bill writes:

      I never did count that money, walked around with one-dollar bills for weeks… old one-dollar bills… pulled from a mattress, I’m telling you… Former visits every so often now… The truck is sentient in his cosmology, with powers…

  7. Todd Casey writes:

    This story strikes home on so many fronts. We had a brick red mid 80’s F150.
    The truck I was sad to see drive away was a two wheel drive toyota with severe body damage on three sides, it looked as if it had been granted a stay of execution 2 minutes after the crusher had been let loose. I bought it for a grand and drove it across the country four or five times often with five or six times the value of the truck in ski gear in the back. I ended up selling it to three Aussie snowboard instructors for five hundred bucks and they sold it six months later to a friend for two fifty. The last time I saw it was five years later with 325,000 miles on it… Makes me smile every time I think of it, lots of good times for lots of people. Hope all is well in Maine.

    • Bill writes:

      Oh, this truck had a million Ford miles on it, roughly equivalent to about 41,000 Toyota miles…

  8. monica wood writes:

    What IS it with men and trucks? My husband puddled up when his truck–which had been nothing but trouble from day one–got towed out of our driveway for the last time. I, on the other hand, was inside, doing the happy dance.

    • Bill writes:

      I really want to try to answer this question. But I can’t. Just something about having your girl slide right over next to you on the seat and and the wind and the possibility you could just keep going. I had those glow-in-the-dark stars stuck on the roof of the cab and on dark nights you’d suddenly remember they were there, and it was like you were speeding through the void…. I had a typewriter I loved once, too, and more than one musical instrument, just metal and wood and glass and stuff, but… I’m back to possibility…

  9. Paul Davidson writes:

    This story made my morning. Thank you for sharing it. Hope you are still in good repair.