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issue 22: January -February 2001 

spanish translation | author  bio

Frederick Barthelme

the living-room lights keep her awake when she goes to bed before I do, which is most of the time. The light comes down the hall and under the bedroom door, she says, and in the dark it's like a laser. So on Sunday, after she'd gone to bed, I started to read Money in semidarkness, tilting the pages to get the light from a book lamp clipped onto the magazine. That didn't work, so I gave it up and watched a TV program about low riders in San Diego. They put special suspensions in their cars so they can bounce them up and down. That's not all they do, but it's sort of the center of things for them. I'd seen the cars before, seen pictures of them jumping - a wonderful thing, just on its own merits. I watched the whole show. It lasted half an hour, and ended with a parade of these wobbling, hopping, jerking cars creeping down a tree-lined California street with a tinkly Mexican love song in the background, and when it was done I had tears in my eyes because I wasn't driving one of the cars. I muted the sound, sat in the dark, and imagined flirting with a pretty Latin girl in a short, tight, shiny dress with a red belt slung waist to hip, her cleavage perfect and brown, on a hot summer night with a breeze, on a glittering street, with the smell of gasoline and Armor All in the air, oak leaves rattling over the thump of the car engine, and me slouched at the wheel of a violet Mercury, ready to pop the front end for a smile.
            In the morning I left a note attached to the refrigerator with the tiny TV-dinner magnet, telling Rita what time I'd be home from the office, then got in the Celica and headed for the freeway. I'd been in traffic for half an hour, most of it behind a bald, architect-looking guy in a BMW 2002, when I saw a sign for Kleindienst Highway Auto Sales. This was a hand-painted sign, one quarter billboard size, in a vacant lot alongside the freeway - a rendering of a customized 1947 Ford. I got off at the next exit and went back up the feeder to get to this place, which was a shell-paved lot with a house trailer at the rear, strings of silver and gold decorations above, and a ten-foot Cyclone fence topped with knife wire.
            A guy jumped out of the trailer the minute I got onto the property. He followed me until I parked, then threw an arm around my shoulders before I had my car door shut. "Howdy," he said. "Phil Kleindienst. Hunting a big beauty, am I right?"
            "Just looking," I said.
            "We got the classics," he said, making a broad gesture with his free arm. He swung me around toward a Buick four-door "Mainstream, high-profile, domestic, soon-to-be-sought-after classic road machines for the world of tomorrow."
            "That's a big amen," I said.
            He liked that. He laughed and walked me around the lot keeping his hands on me the whole time - on my shoulder, my forearm, my back. He didn't have any cars that weren't huge and American, and he didn't have any custom cars. "Take a gander at this," he said, opening a brown Chrysler sedan. "This baby's Autorama clean."
            We went up and down the rows together. He was citing virtues, giving me histories, and I was looking for the hot rods. Finally, I said, "What about this sign?"
            "What sign?" Phil said.
            "Out there on the freeway," I said. I pointed back up to where the sign was. We could just see the back of it.
            "Aw, you don't want to mess with that stuff. Lemme show you an Eldorado I got."
            He started to move again. I said, "I'm a little late. I guess I'll have to come back another time. Thanks anyway."
            "Hold your hanky there," he said. "I got one. I'll show you one. A Lincoln, pretty old."
            He took me around beside the trailer to a corner with a banner that said "BARGAIN CORRAL" strung over the top. There was one car there, and it could have been in the TV show I'd seen. No price was soaped on the windshield, so I asked.
            "Oh, hell," he said. "I don't know. Too much. Let's go back up front, lemme show you some sweethearts." He turned me toward the front of the lot. "How about this Caddy? About a '77, a honey-dripper. Purrs like a pistol."
            I stopped him. "You don't want to tell me what you're getting for this one? What's the deal?"
            "Whew," he said. "You're too tough. You're kidding me, right?" He waited a minute, looking me over to see whether or not I was kidding him. "You don't want that porker, do you?"
            The Lincoln was pale blue with black and green pinstripes, front wheels smaller than the rear, and it was low, maybe two inches off the ground. There was an airbrush illustration on the side, between the front and rear wheel wells - a picture of the Blessed Virgin, in aqua-and-white robes, strolling in an orange grove, behind each tree of which was a wolf, lip curled, saliva shining. The glass in the windshield and in the doors was dark green, and the steering wheel was huge and white. A head-bobbing metal Bambi - I think it was supposed to be Bambi - sat on the shelf behind the backseat, staring out the rear window.
            I said, "I'm just curious. What's it worth?"
            He let go of me for the first time since I'd arrived, backing away, putting a little distance between us as he studied the car. Finally, he slapped his hands together and said, "I don't even want to give you a price on that there. See, that's my boy Pico's car. Was anyway. Pico got shot up in 'Nam. He was this kid used to hang around, then worked for me. Built the car himself - did all the custom work, put in the hydraulics, stereo. All that in there's rhino skin. I don't even know where he got that."
            "Looks professional," I said.
            "Oh, yeah, heck yeah. He was good. He's got D. & H. Reds in there. It's real clean. It's about a thousand percent clean. He's got so much chrome under the hood you could put the hoses in your bathroom, use 'em for mirrors. I don't know why he's got these tiny wheels up front here, I guess that's a cholo thing..." Phil gazed at the Lincoln. He was half fat, maybe forty, with prickly blond hair, double-knit pants, a short-sleeved white shirt with a spread collar. "Pico cut her himself - know what I'm saying? Build a car like that today costs a fortune." He grinned and held his hands up as if giving me the bottom line. "I figure we're talking six, in the six area."
            "What about the Toyota?" I said.
            "OK. Fine. That's all right," he said. "I can work with you on that." He locked an arm around one of mine and gave me a quick pull toward the office. "Let's boot some numbers around."

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His trailer smelled like Pine-Sol. Everything was covered in knobby fabrics, earth tones. There was a dining booth, a tiny kitchen, a living space with a six-foot ceiling and a bubble skylight. He had four TVs, all consoles and all turned off, lined up against one wall. When we sat down, he said, "Let's verify our situation here. What's your line?" He was shuffling around, looking through a wood-grained-cardboard file cabinet.
            I said, "I'm in sales. Pools, pool accessories, like that. Above-ground stuff. Is that what you mean?"
            "Naw. I mean how come you want this car? Is this a kick-out-the-jambs thing for you, or what?" He waited a second, then went on. "OK, so don't tell me. What's your telephone? I'll check your wife on the deal. You got a wife, don't you?"
            "Rita," I said.
            "I mean, you tool in Nipponese and you want to leave a Flying Burrito Brother, and I don't buy it. What's the better half gonna say? How do I know you got the bucks? How do I know you're in your right mind?"
            "I don't know, I do, and I am," I said.
            "Ha," he said. "That's good. What's the number? Better gimme the bank, too."
            I gave him the numbers. He said, "Great. Get you something in the fridge. I got some Baby Ruths in there, if you got Olympic teeth. Help yourself."
            He wiggled out from behind the table, went through a narrow hall to the rear of the trailer, shut a door between that room and the one I was in. There was a Plexiglas panel in the door, so I could see him in there, black telephone receiver to his ear, staring at the ceiling as he talked, swatting his hair with the papers from the file cabinet.
            He was in there only a minute. When he came back he said, "The woman's not home, but the bank thinks you're aces." Then he gave me a long look. "Now listen," he said. He reached up under his shirtsleeve to scratch his shoulder. "I'm thinking you don't genuinely want this car. I know I'm supposed to be breaking your leg to sell it, but I figure you got some kind of momentary thing going, some kind of midlife thing - you look like you're about midlife."
            I shrugged. "Not yet."
            "Yet don't matter," he said. "My brother had his at twenty-seven. By twenty-nine he was putting toast in milk during the local news." Phil brushed something off the table. "Tell you what," he said. "I'll rent it. You take it maybe a day or two, leave yours on a collateral basis, take this guy, drive him a couple of days. Then, you still want it, we come to closure. How's that? I don't want you down my throat next week begging to undo the deal, right?"
            I said, "I'll rent it right now."
            "Sure you will," he said. "And I don't like it, but now and then, hell - what's it hurt?" He started through the file cabinet again. "I got a form here saves my heinie when you go to Heaven in it."
            Phil had to go to his house to get the form. He lived right down the street, and he asked me to mind the store while he went, so I sat on the steps of the trailer and watched the highway. Traffic had thinned out a lot. He was gone forty minutes. When he got back I took the Lincoln.


I stopped at an Exxon station and filled up with gas, then drove to my office. I had just gotten into my assigned parking space when a young associate of mine, Reiner Gautier, pulled up in the drive behind me.
            "What, you went overboard on chimichangas?" he said. "What is that? Where'd you get it?"
            "Just trying her out" I said.
            "You got a built-in Pez dispenser on there?"
            I waved the remark away and pretended to search my briefcase, hoping Reiner would move along. Finally, I had to get out. He'd left his car door open and was giving the Lincoln a careful look.
            "That's Mary," he said, pointing to the picture on the side of the car. "She's got wolf trouble there, doesn't she?"
            I shrugged. "She'll make out."
            He looked at the picture another minute, turning his head back and forth. "That says it all, know what I mean? I like it. I go for this cross-cultural stuff." He walked back toward his car, giving my shoulder a pat on the way.
            I let him leave, then got back in the Lincoln and pulled out of my space. I went to the shopping center near the office, stopped in the parking lot, and tried out the lifts. I looked out the door, and I was better than eighteen inches off the ground. That got the attention of a black woman who was standing outside the ice cream store, leaning against one of those phone-on-a-pole phone booths.
            She said, "That some kind of trick car?" She was a young woman, in her twenties, and good-looking except that she was snaggletoothed. She was holding a clear plastic shopping bag with yellow rosettes on it.
            I said, "Yeah. I guess it is."
            She looked at me, then at the car, with a kind of amused curiosity, tilting her head back, squinting her eyes as she sized me up. "Well," she finally said. "What else do it do? Do it dance or anything?"
            I grinned at her, shaking my head, then put the car in gear and left. At a bar called Splasher's, which I pass every day on my way back from work, I pulled up and went in for a beer. I'd never been in this bar before. It was one in the afternoon and the place was deserted except for a woman with feathery hair who handed me a wet bottle of Budweiser. She was cleaning up. The ceiling was falling in on this place. The walls were black, and the only illumination came from back of the bar and from the beer signs you always see, the kind that sparkle and throw little dots of light. One sign had a waterfall that light rushed over. I took my beer to a window table so I could watch the car through the stick blinds.
            The woman played Country Joe and the Fish on the jukebox. I thought that was amazing. I spun my coaster, listening to this music I hadn't heard in twenty years. Between tunes I went to get a bag of beer nuts from a metal rack next to the cash register. The woman watched me search my pocket for change, then nodded when I put two quarters on the bar.
            Two kids on trail bikes stopped outside to give the car a look. These kids were about fourteen, with dirty T-shirts and minimal hair. They straddled their bikes and stared in the car windows, and I smiled about it until I saw that the kid on the driver's side was prying off the door mirror. Then I rapped on the glass and went out. "Hey! Get off of that, will you?"
            The kid who had been doing the prying gave me an innocent look. "Great car," he said. "We're checking it out. Right, Binnie?"
            Binnie was already on the move, standing on the pedals of his bike, rolling away. "Pretty good," he said. "For a dork-mobile."
            I said, "Sorry you're leaving."
            "Whoa..." he said.
            The first kid started moving, too. Then he stopped his bike and turned to me. "Hey," he said. "You know that mirror on your side? It's real loose. I can probably fix it up. Ten bucks."
            I gave him a nasty look and shook my head, then got in the car. I stopped at a drugstore on the way home, went in to get cigarettes. A college-age guy with blue eyes and pretty brown hair was in back, sitting at a folding table, eating his lunch. It didn't look like takeout food - it looked homemade. He had a dinner plate, a salad plate, a jelly glass with red and green swirls on the side. There was milk in the glass. He asked if he could help me.
            "I need a pack of cigarettes," I said.
            He came across to the cigarette counter, wiping his mouth with a yellow paper towel. "What kind?"
            I said, "True. Menthol."
            He looked at his cigarette rack, one end to the other, then turned around and said, "I don't see 'em. You see 'em out there?" He pointed to the front of the counter, where more cigarettes were displayed.
            I'd already checked, but I looked again. "None here."
            He came out from behind the counter rewiping his mouth. "I don't guess we have 'em. I was sure we did, but I guess I was wrong. I can order you some."
            I waited a second or so, looking at the guy, then picked a pack of Kools off the counter "How about these?"
            "We got those," he said.

Rita came to the window when I pulled up in the driveway and honked. It took her a minute, but then she figured out it was me and dropped the curtain. "What's this?" she said, coming out the front door.
            I held up a hand and said, "Wait a minute. Stay there. Watch."
            She stopped by the gas lamp at the edge of the drive. I jumped the front end of the Lincoln a little, then as far as it would go. Then I raised the rear to full height, then the front. I kept the car up until she was coming for a closer look, then I let it down, left front first, like an elephant getting on its knees in a circus show. That stopped her.
            I got out of the car "How do you like it?"
            "Whose is it?" she said.
            "Ours." I put an arm around her and did a Phil Kleindienst sweep with my free hand, covering the Lincoln front to back.
            "What about the Celica? Where's the Celica?"
            I reached in the driver's window and pulled the hood release, so I could show her the chrome on the engine. "Traded it," I said, leading her around to the front. "Guy gave me a whopper deal."
            She stopped dead, folding her arms across her chest. "You traded the Toyota?"
            "Well, sort of. But this is a killer car. Look at the engine. Everything's chrome. It's worth a zillion."
            Rita looked at the sky.
            "C'mon," I said. I tugged her arm, leading her to the passenger side, and put her in the car. I went back around, latched the hood, then got in and started the engine. I waited, listening to the idle. "Amazing, isn't it? Can you hear that?"
            "The motor? I hear the motor. Is that what you're talking about, that rumbling?"
            We toured the neighborhood, then I started to go downtown, but Rita remembered she needed some lemon-pepper marinade, so we stopped at the supermarket. I sat in the car while she went inside. A lot of people walked by wearing shorts, and all of them looked good.
            We picked up a family bucket of fried chicken on the way back, ate most of it in the car, then finished up inside. Then we had bananas and ice cream. After that Rita switched on the VCR and put in a tape. "I want you to see this," she said.
            It was a PBS documentary about China - about a peasant family. The grandmother ran things and got carried around on the back of a bicycle through this gorgeous countryside of misty, contoured land. Her son didn't know much about communism but felt things were a lot better now, with the Four Modernizations. His wife cooked, his daughters helped in the field, and his son wore a leather motorcycle jacket when he went out to help with the harvest. At the end they cut to the father, alone in some room, sitting by a big vase with thin branches in it, dusty light slanting in. He talked about the family, his voice ricocheting around the high registers while out-of-sync white translations popped on the bottom of the screen. When he got to his son, what he said was that the boy had been "stunned by the West."
            That was it. Rita stopped the sound and we watched the credits go by, then the network logo, then some previews of WGBH shows. She poked me and pointed to the TV Guide, which was on the coffee table on my side of the couch. I gave her the guide and then watched her look up listings.
            When she finished, she tossed the magazine back on the table. "Well?" she said.
            "It's a rent-purchase thing," I said. I showed her the paper I'd signed for Phil Kleindienst. "I can give it back anytime."
            She laughed and said, "Hey! Not so fast. I may love it. I may want to go for a spin.

We went out about ten o'clock. It was cool, so we slouched down in the seats and left the windows open. We went by an apartment project we used to live in, and then we went over to the other side of town, where there is a lot of heavy industry - chemical plants and refineries.
            Rita said, "It rides pretty good, doesn't it?"
            "It's stiff when it's down," I said.
            "So pump her up," she said. "I wonder what it'd be like to keep."
            "People would stare."
            "Great," she said. "It's about time."
            She looked terrific in the car. She had on a checked shirt open over a white Danskin, her feet were up on the dash, and her short hair was wet and rippled with wind. Her skin was olive and rough, and it was glowing as if she were in front of a fire. When I missed a light next to Pfeiffer Chemicals, a couple of acres of pipes and ladders and vats and winking green lamps, I leaned over to kiss her cheek, but she turned at the last minute and caught me with her lips.
            "Why, thank you," she said when I sat back again.
            "Yes," I said.
            On the way home we stopped at the mall. The stores were closed, but there were kids roller-skating in the parking lot and a couple of cars parked nose to nose under one of the tall lights. We pulled up next to a palm tree in a planter about fifty yards away from the kids.
            Rita said, "It's amazing out here, isn't it? How can this place be so good-looking?"
            "Beats me," I said.
            She put her head in her hands. "It's awful, but I have a craving for tamales. Really. I'm not making a joke, OK?
            One of the kids, a girl in shorts, pointed a finger at us and skated over. "How come it stays up like that?" she said.
            "Just magic," I said. But then I opened the door and showed her, letting the car down real easy, then jumping the front a little bit for her.
            "You've got her now," Rita whispered.
            The girl stood back with her hands on her waist for a second. "Boy," she said.
            She was pretty. Her shorts were satin, with little specks of glitter on them, and she had on a tiny undershirt-style top. Some trucks sailed by on the highway. I offered Rita a Kool. She took it and held it under her nose.
            "What's your name?" I said to the girl, rolling my cigarette between my fingers.
            "Sherri," she said. "With an 'i.'"
            I nodded. "You out here a lot?" I wagged my hand toward the other kids, who were sitting on the hoods of their cars watching us.
            "Sure," she said. She rocked back and forth on her skates, rolling a little, then stopping herself with her toe. "Make it go up again, OK?"
            I did that, getting it wrong the first try, so that I had one side up while the other was down. Rita was laughing in a lovely way.
            The girl watched, then shook her head. "Boy," she said, smiling and skating two small circles before starting back toward her friends. "You guys are weird."
            "Howdy," Rita kept saying all the way home. "Howdy, howdy, howdy. Howdy."

She went to bed at one. I couldn't sleep, so I watched a movie we'd rented a couple days earlier. When that was over I rewound it, paged through an issue of Spin that she'd picked up at the grocery store, then watched the end of a horror show on HBO. By then it was after four. I tried to sleep but couldn't, so I got up and went outside. It was almost light enough to see out there. I sat in the Lincoln and thought about how nice it was that Rita could just sleep whenever
            she wanted to. After a while I started the car and went for a drive. I stopped at an off-brand all-night market and bought some liquid refreshment in a sixteen-ounce, nonreturnable foam-sleeved bottle. I wondered if the glass was less good than glass in regular bottles.
            The scent of countryside in the morning was in the air. The rear window was smeared with condensation, and the storefronts were that way, too, and it was hard to focus on the stoplights, because of the way they made rings around themselves.
            I went downtown, and it was like one of those end-of-the-world movies down there, with somebody's red hamburger wrapper skittering across a deserted intersection. The sky was graying. I made a loop around the mayor's Vietnam memorial, then took the highway running west, out past the city limits. The mist got thicker. Close to the road the trees looked right, but farther away they just dissolved. In the rearview mirror I could make out the empty four-lane highway, but above that it was like looking through a Kleenex.
            Finally, I turned around and drove back by my secretary's apartment, saw her car with its windows solidly fogged, then passed the mall again. Some overnight campers had turned up in the lot, and their generators were chugging away. There were two Holiday Ramblers, cream-colored, squarish things, and an Airstream hitched to a once-green Chevrolet. I pulled in and stopped. The air was so wet you could feel it when you rubbed your fingers together. The sky showed bits of pink behind a gray cloud that was big above the eastern horizon. A bird sailed by in front of the car, six feet off the blacktop, and landed next to a light pole.
            These two dogs came prancing into the lot, side by side, jumping on each other, playfully biting each other's neck. They were having a great time. They stopped not far away and stared at the bird, which was a bobwhite and was walking circles on the pavement. They stared, crouched for a second, then leaped this way and that, backward or to one side, then stared more. It was wonderful the way they were so serious about this bird. These dogs were identical twins, black-and-white, each with an ear that stood up and one that flopped over. I made a noise and their heads snapped around, and they stared at me for a minute. One of them sat down, forepaws stretched out in front, and the other took a couple of steps in my direction, looked for a sign from me, then twisted his head and checked the bird.
            The dash clock said it was eight minutes to six. I wanted to drive home real fast and get Rita and bring her back to see everything - the dogs, the brittle light, the fuzzy air - but I figured by the time we got back it'd all be gone.
            The lead dog took two more steps toward me, stopped, then stretched and yawned.
            I said, "Well. How are you?"
            He wagged his tail.
            I said, "So. What do you think of the car?"
            I guess he could tell from my voice that I was friendly, because then he did a little spasm thing and came toward me, having trouble keeping his back legs behind his front. I opened the car door and, when he came around, patted the seat. He jumped right in. He was frisky. He scrambled all over the place - into the backseat, back into the front - stuck his head out the passenger window, ducked back in and came over to smell the gearshift knob. The other dog was watching all this. I called him, then put the car in gear and rolled up next to him. He didn't move for a minute, just gave me a stare, kind of over his shoulder. I made that kissing noise you use to call dogs, and he got up and came to the door, sniffing. Finally, he climbed in. I shut the car door and headed home. They were bouncing around, and I was telling them the whole way about the girl in the parking lot and about Rita and me, how weird we had been. "We aren't weird now," I told them. "But we were weird. Once. In olden days."     

© Frederick Barthelme
This electronic version of  "Driver" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author and the Wylie Agency. Book ordering available through amazon.com

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio

Frederick Barthelme is the author of eleven books of fiction. He recently collaborated with his brother, Steven, on a memoir, Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss. In 2000, Counterpoint published a collection of his stories - both new and old - in The Law of Averages, in which "Driver" appears. He is working on a new novel, to be published by Counterpoint in fall 2001. Barthelme directs the writing program at the University of Southern Mississippi and edits the literary journal Mississippi Review.
Useful Links:
            Frederick Barthelme at Ole Miss:
            Mississippi Review on the web:

photo: A.M. Fortenberry

navigation:                        barcelona review 22              january - february 2001

Frederick Barthelme - Driver
Helen Simpson - Wurstigkeit
Frank Huyler - two stories
John Aber - Massage
Juan Goytisolo - two stories

-Poetry Tim Turnbull - 7 poems
Antoni Clapés -
from Hair's Breadth

George Orwell
Answers to last issue's Gothic/Horror Quiz

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