Drawing by Judith Wolfe

SARA McAULAY

Sweet Betsy Turnpike



    Oh, do you remember sweet Betsy from Pike?
    She crossed the broad prairie with her lover Ike
    (traditional)

           

    I am not the kind of woman who follows other women around. It wasn't the driver that caught my eye, anyway -- it was her '56 Chevy convertible. Black, with whitewalls and chrome skirts. Top down, of course. I tell you, my heart turned over.

            I'd been threading my old Norton through rush-hour traffic, ready to be home after a day that had begun twelve hours earlier when one of my clients' mainframes crashed. I'd gotten to play savior, but now I was tired. All around me, glass and metal glittered, reflecting late-afternoon sun. The air stank with exhaust and trembled with heat. Rap music erupted from a LandCruiser vibrating on tall knobby tires, the pavement itself rumbling and thumping with the beat.

            I changed lanes, ducked out from behind a plumber's van, and that's when I saw it. Massive and muscular, mean-looking in the ton-of-steel way cars ought to look mean, and rarely do anymore. The '56 BelAir with the big V8 -- the one I loved had been shaved and ported, with a three-quarter-race cam. Twin glasspacks, so when it talked to you, you heard it. It was leaded and lowered, with Moon hubs and full fender skirts; zero to sixty in just a few.

            Sweet Betsy Turnpike -- power and freedom on four fat Goodyears. Too bad she was never really mine. Two blocks ahead the light turned green. I edged the bike past five or six cars; got close enough to the Chevy to see the driver's face, half-hidden by big black shades, in the rearview. She was young. Pretty, not pretty? I couldn't tell, and that wasn't the point anyway. Her hair was nearly the same dark red that mine had been, hers helped along with henna, cut short and spiked on the top.

            What a beauty, I thought, meaning the car. Lucky you, I thought, meaning the driver, who probably hadn't an idea in the world what she was driving, what a car like that really meant. I was about to pull up alongside: quick peek at the tuck and roll leather upholstery I knew would be there, check for the necker's knob on the steering wheel and then grab the freeway entrance coming up on my left. But when the Chevy's right signal winked and the car peeled off toward Crow Canyon, I followed.

            I knew Sweet Betsy the way you know a lover. The wide bench seat, the three speed column shift -- the way the lever dropped way down the crossbar of the H between second and third. Expanse of hood like the deck of a big boat. I knew how the steering wheel felt, always shimmying a little under your hands because there was no way you could keep the front end aligned; knew how the body leaned on hard turns, how all those horses could gather you up and sling you down a straightaway so fast your head snapped back. Twelve miles to the gallon if you drove like a granny, but who did? In a car like that, who ever did?

            Traffic thinned after we entered the canyon. I dropped back and let a few cars pass me; I was thinking of upholstery again. The back seat, of course -- not my first time by any means, but my first time with someone I thought I maybe loved. Johnny D, one of those skinny, flat-butt boys with an eagle tattoo on his bicep. Today he'd be a skinhead; in '66 he was a not-very-good guitarist in a worse-than-that band. I was a singer in those days, or trying to be. I did a few gigs in South Jersey with the Turnpike Cops and by the time the band folded, Johnny and I were doing our own number. He let me drive his car sometimes, though he kept the keys in his pocket and I had to ask. Now, almost thirty years later, I could still feel those keys passing body-warm from his hand to mine, like live things -- which in a way they were, I guess. In a way they were my life.

            Maybe one night a month I got to live, if I asked nice. One night a month, or maybe two. Sure, he'd say, go on, and I'd call Peggy and Jane and Mary Lou, fill those big seats front and back with girls from my night-school classes and girls from work. Girlfriends. We were all somebody's girlfriend, but we were each other's too, out for a good time in Sweet Betsy with the top down; me driving, and all that power under the hood. To this day I'm grateful to Johnny D for teaching me about head gaskets and timing belts. At the time I was grateful for my one night a month or maybe two behind the wheel.

            Summer nights. Shorts or bathing suits, the sweaty pressure of someone's bare thigh against mine. Someone's arm around my neck, her breath on my cheek. Afterwards I used to dream I kept on driving. My girlfriends and me, rolling on down the road forever, singing along with the Kinks and the Stones on the radio.

            That was a dream, but time passed and the nightmares were real. Nights when Johnny and I would argue, days when we'd fight. He'd jab me a left to the gut that would double me over, a right to the jaw to straighten me out again. He said it was love. For my own good, he said. There came to be times when I wouldn't ask, nicely or otherwise. When I'd wait till he was asleep, and just take the keys and go. Or I'd hot-wire the car -- after all, he'd taught me how.

            Nights when I'd turn off the headlights; days when I gunned it down the wrong side of the road. Rolling two-lane backroads; high crowns and sandy shoulders, dips between the rises deep enough to swallow a good-sized sedan. I'd set myself a distance, a hundred yards or so at first, then more, and ease Sweet Betsy into the oncoming lane and stand on the gas, figuring the faster I went, the quicker I'd get it behind me, whatever it was. Either I'd crash or I wouldn't and it would be over, and maybe somebody'd find some meaning, whichever way.

            Up ahead the black Chevy turned onto a side road that wound through the foothills to a regional park where there were picnic grounds and a little lake. A logical destination, it seemed to me. Maybe she was meeting friends; maybe she wanted a place to be alone and think. I too used to seek out a lake, more of a pond surrounded by willow trees, the summer I thought I was in love with Johnny. All those feelings came back to me now, and the sensations: the smells of hot metal and damp earth and vegetation, and the pond itself as I remembered it, stagnant and rank this time of year, a flat, dull-khaki expanse rimmed with peeling dried mud, the willow branches draggled and matted like dirty hair.

            The county road was empty, just my Norton and Sweet Betsy and the lengthening shadows, some whitefaced cattle in the fields on either side. I shifted down into third and then to second, dropping still farther behind, even letting the Chevy's broad black and chrome fanny out of sight around the bends in front of me. The road dead-ended at the park, and I slowed down still more, teasing myself a little.

            Sure enough, when I turned in at the entrance there it was, half-hidden between a Dumpster and a grove of eucalyptus at the edge of the lower parking level. Only a few other cars in sight. Trees obscured my view of the picnic area and playfields; the park appeared almost deserted this close to dinnertime. Two old guys fishing off the dock, a handful of joggers chuffing along the path. No sign of my driver at all.

            The air was warm and still and smelled like cough drops. I rode on down, leaned the Norton on its stand beside Sweet Betsy, hung my helmet over a handgrip and walked around a little, stretching the kinks out and admiring the machinery. They looked good together -- the low, mean black motorcycle and the low, mean black car, both of hem on the skids side of 40, but not showing their age at all.

            The Chevy's top was still down. Black and red leather upholstery, plump and soft as a sofa. My Sweet Betsy's seats had been black and white but the smell was the same, a mix of cowhide, tobacco and testosterone-spiked sweat. Leaning in over the door, I played for a long moment with the idea of wiring the old girl and taking her for a spin, but settled for popping the hood release. Say hello to the horses.

            Before I could raise the hood, a grey-haired woman in a Save The Whales T-shirt came striding up the path through the trees. She unlocked a red Honda and drove away with barely a glance at me, yet my skin crept as if she'd read my mind. A scrub jay swooped overhead, banked sharply and settled on the edge of the Dumpster. Another mind-reader -- it fixed me with its beady, accusing gaze until I tossed a stick at it, saying, "I'm just looking, damn it! Get outta here!"

            The sun was low by that time, the air still warm but with a hint of fog from beyond the hills. My muscles ached with fatigue after the long day, and a little knot was gathering itself behind my left eye; not quite a headache yet. I had two cats and a dog at home who'd be wondering what had happened to the kibble goddess. And I had a girlfriend who'd been out of town for two weeks, who'd be calling home in less than an hour. Just a peek at Sweet Betsy's engine, that's all I'd come for. A little nostalgia buzz. Even that was beginning to feel stupid.

            Go home, I told myself. Just pick up your toys and go.

            But there stood Sweet Betsy, waiting. Hood unlatched. Buttons undone, you might say. I raised the hood, propped it and leaned in over the fender. Closing my eyes I breathed that other summer in, that other life, and breathed it out again. And in again and out. The engine was still warm, but cool enough to touch.

    * * *

            The day before the night when you leave him, you both start drinking early. Gin and juice all afternoon, screwtop Chianti when the sun goes down, the wine as sour as his mood. Then beer at the Hi-Hat Lounge.

            The night when you leave him, you both get drunk. Otherwise he'd never ask and you certainly wouldn't tell, not the whole truth, though by that time you're past bothering with real lies. You and her out riding, two friends just riding with the top down, down to the lake, that's all.

            The night when you leave him, you both get plastered. Knee-walkin, commode-huggin truth-tellin plastered, shit-faced and plowed, so when he says "what else?" you tell him, leaving nothing to his imagination or anyone else's as the crowded lounge falls silent for a moment before the laughter and the raunchy comments start. He unloads that roundhouse right, so drunk that when he misses, his momentum carries him past you, windmilling legs and elbows across the bar, scattering glasses and bottles. You're sober enough, just barely, to admire the stunt. Sober enough, definitely sober enough not to stick around for an encore.

    * * *

            "Hey!"

            I jumped. My shoulder struck the hood and it chomped down, missing me by inches.

            "The fuck you doing?" No idea where she'd been, but here she came. "Are you crazy?" Angry and scared -- even her plum-colored hair seemed to bristle. Twenty feet away from me, she stopped, breathing in gulps. She wore cut-offs and a man's denim shirt knotted below her breasts. Gold hoop in her navel; her ears, studded with beads and gold balls, looked like the corner of the reminder board where you stick the extra thumbtacks. She could be a waitress, a college student, my vet's receptionist. It occurred to me that it just might be possible the Chevy belonged to her.
            "Get away from there!" she ordered, edging a step closer. "That's not your car!"
            "I used to have one like it," I began. It felt like the truth to me.
            She took another step. This close, she looked younger than I'd thought at first. Maybe eighteen, no more. The big black-framed shades had slipped down her nose. She shoved them back with a hunch of her shoulder, but not before I saw her left eyelid, iridescent and fat. "You were fuckin gonna steal it! You were fuckin gonna mess it up! You crazy bitch, he'll kill me!" Up came her fists, ready to pop me if I didn't back off.
            "Sorry!" I stepped away from the car, raising my hands. "I shouldn't have touched it. Take it easy."
            "You don't know what he's like!" She was still breathing hard, but she'd relaxed enough now to notice the Norton. She stared at it for a moment, wheels turning so to speak. "Jesus! That was you?" She looked me over, boots to buzz-cut, and her eyebrows wagged once. "Haven't you got anything better to do than follow people around?"
            "I wasn't. . ." I began, but of course I had been.

            She shook her head, beginning to smile, the wheels still turning. Tonight maybe she'd tell the boyfriend how some old dyke had tried to steal his car. Tried to steal his car and then hit on her in the parking lot. Maybe they'd laugh; maybe the thought of it would make him hard. Later, thinking about it again. . . Her own damn fault, he'd say. If she was lucky it might stop there.

            "So." She tipped her head toward Sweet Betsy, still smiling. "Wanna buy it? It's for sale."
            I wanted to drive it, for sure. Wanted to drive it and sing along with the radio and walk safely away when the drive was over. "Can't afford it," I said.
            She studied me for another long moment. Without moving, she seemed to gravitate toward me -- some trick of the light perhaps. Tiny, tiny fine hairs on her cheek and upper lip caught the red sun; her whole face shimmered. Then with a shrug she dug in her pocket for keys. "You don't even know what he's asking."
            "Whatever it is, it's too much." I watched the keys slide out of her pocket. His keys, on a ring with a lucky rabbit's foot. Then I said, "You don't have to take it, you know. There are hotlines, shelters, I know a phone number. . . ."
            "Butt out!" And then, her voice high and desperate, silencing anything else I might have said: "He loves me, goddammit, and you don't know shit."

            What I do know: she was young, just a kid who wanted out of her parents' house, and whatever he called himself this time around, Johnny was her ride. If not Johnny D, Johnny A, Johnny B, Johnny C; an alphabet of Johnnies with their grass, their whiskey and their jealousy, their fast cars and fast fists.

            On the night before the day you leave for California you go to see her. Just come for a ride, you say, but she won't. Just a ride, you say, down to the lake one more time. She shakes her head. She's with Johnny D these days, in the front seat of Sweet Betsy with the top down, the radio loud and the wind lifting her hair. She's with him these nights too, though you'd rather not think of that, or of the bruise on her shoulder that she covers with her hand when she sees you staring. For a moment in the doorway, mothsbumbling and nuzzling the porchlight and her parents' TV droning away in the living room, she tilts her face up to you and her eyes go soft and strange, and after all these years you still think maybe, just maybe, if you'd known then what you know now, you could have changed her mind.

            What I know now; nothing of use in the present moment. Every way I could think of to touch her felt wrong so I dug for my keys as well. We stood there for another moment, face to face with nothing between us but air. I ran a quick hand over Sweet Betsy's front fender, shiny paint slick beneath the layer of grime. Then I slung a leg over the Norton and kicked it into life. "Remind him to change the oil," I said.


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