From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

Moonlight Drives

It was a 1982 Ford Mustang, the deep, sexy color of blood. My older brother had bought it with his share of the money from my father’s life-insurance policy. He’d seen an ad in the paper, then that evening he offered the owner half the asking price. An hour later, the car was parked in our driveway. This was how my brother conducted business, like a grifter.

I was sixteen, and by my mother’s decree, we were supposed to share the car. My portion of the insurance money was in an account I couldn’t access until I turned eighteen, so she only allowed Alan to buy the Mustang if he promised to teach me to drive. When I saw the car that first night—Alan had already named it Phoenix and referred to it with feminine pronouns—my imagination soared. I saw myself driving to school and spiriting my friends on weekend road trips; I coasted on the moonlit beach, as Erin Wells, whose deep green eyes turned my knees to puddles, sat in my passenger seat. At sixteen, keys to a car are like keys to a vault where the answers to youth’s most confounding riddles are stored; getting a car meant getting a life, and by that, I mean, getting the girl.

But Alan never threw me the keys. In fact, for most of the first month, Phoenix sat with her hood open in our garage. Although she ran with such power that I found myself clutching my seat belt when we went for parts, Alan wanted to make adjustments. Most surprising was his decision to reverse the gear configuration in the transmission—first became fifth, second became fourth, etc. If someone tried to steal Phoenix, he’d rigged her to stall and strand them.

I worked at a miniature golf course, as did Erin Wells. She tied her yellow work shirt in a knot above her belly button, and she could make holes-in-one on every green; when our boss gave his weekly lectures about the register continually coming up short, she didn’t cower like the rest of us; she threw raucous parties whenever her parents left town. Though we worked together each afternoon, I’d never been invited to a party.

Eventually I started sneaking the Mustang out at night and taught myself to drive the backward gears. After a few excursions, Phoenix rarely stalled. Within no time, my midnight cruises lasted hours on end; I sped through abandoned streets and past my friends’ houses, past Erin’s. But I never stopped. I liked the freedom of driving alone, just as I liked the promise of having cracked the code to my brother’s gear configuration; I liked knowing that he didn’t know what I knew.

I’d sworn to myself I wouldn’t tell anyone, yet soon enough, I spilled everything to Erin. We were organizing the putters. I told her how my brother had haggled for Phoenix and how he reversed the gearbox, how I’d been stealing the car every night. “She purrs like a kitten,” I said, because Alan had said that. I expected Erin to swoon, for her eyes to brighten as she begged me to whisk her away. Instead she said, “I guess that also explains the $100 missing from tonight’s till.”

A week later, Phoenix wouldn’t start. Alan had driven her earlier that afternoon, and she’d run perfectly, but she wouldn’t turn over when I cranked the ignition. I thought I’d flooded the engine. The same thing happened the next night, then the next and the next. Alan drove every day and never mentioned any problems, but when I crept into the night and tried the keys, she wasn’t getting juice. I feared he’d learned about my moonlight drives and had loosened the battery cables or removed a spark plug, but everything under the hood looked good. Soon, though, Phoenix started giving Alan trouble. It happened once when he took me to work, then twice more when he tried to leave. Eventually she always started, but she became less reliable. When I asked Alan what the problem might be, he shook his head and sulked into our house. The next morning I expected to find him diagnosing the trouble, but instead he was perusing the classifieds. He wanted to sell the Mustang and buy an import. My stomach turned; it was as if he’d said we were euthanizing our dog.

I wondered if my drives could have done in Phoenix, if somehow I’d been doing something so terrifically wrong that her engine just threw in the towel. I decided that if the car didn’t start tonight, I’d confess to Alan. He’d be furious, but at least he might be able to save her.

All of this occurred to me during the boss’s larceny lecture, and although I’d not paid strict attention, I gathered the register had been short $200 this week. He was livid; he was sweating and veins showed on his forehead. He ranted and paced in the concession area, while the workers—there were six of us—sat at orange tables. We were watching the clock, waiting to go home. Then the boss said, “And guess what? I know which one of you it is.”

My heart stuttered. For a split second it crossed my mind that he’d accuse me—though, of course, my only crime was borrowing Phoenix—but my real anxiety came because I, too, suddenly knew who the thief was. Erin was chewing a straw, uncharacteristically eyeing the clock more urgently than any of us. She wore new, expensive Reeboks, and she looked about to cry. As with the doomed Mustang, I wanted to save her.

So no one was more surprised than Erin—not even the boss or me—when I cleared my throat and said, “I’ll pay it all back.”

“Now you have to find another job,” Alan said driving home. Somehow I’d thought he’d applaud my chivalry, but he couldn’t believe I’d done it. “And she let you get fired? Sounds like a real catch.”

That night Phoenix still wouldn’t start. I tried for an hour, then went inside and waited, then returned to try again. I turned the key, pumped the accelerator, but my heart wasn’t in it. I’d already resigned myself to the fact that the car was a lemon. She seemed no different to me than Erin—they were just dreams. And dreams, I’d started to learn, were best left untouched; in daylight, they fizzled and stalled; they left you stranded and got you fired. Maybe that night—at the golf course, then later in the Phoenix—I changed. Maybe I wandered from innocence into adulthood, into a world where a dream and $2,000 will buy a broken-down car, but I didn’t feel that then. I felt younger than I’d ever felt in my whole life.

“There’s a switch under the seat,” Alan said suddenly. He was in the backseat, and he scared me half to death.

My hands started shaking. When I spoke, a quiver came into my voice. I said, “There’s a what?”

“There’s a toggle switch under the driver’s seat. When it’s flipped toward your feet, it cuts power to the engine.”

I reached down, half-expecting a mousetrap to snap on my fingers. But there was only a small switch, flipped forward. Alan said, “I thought you’d figure that out, too, but I guess not. Maybe there’s still a few things your older brother can teach you.”

“How about women?” I asked. “Can you teach me about those?”

He laughed a little and said, “Let’s start with odometers.”

And at that moment I realized Alan was proud of me, proud of what I’d done at work and proud that I’d taught myself to drive. He was complimenting me the only way he could, as a brother. We were more alike than either of us knew—sons of the same parents, boys who’d lost the same father—and Phoenix gave us an opportunity to follow our dreams.

“I have a suspicion we’ll start seeing more of this Erin,” Alan finally said from the backseat, “so you’d better show me where she lives.” It took a moment to understand he wasn’t moving into the driver’s seat. I’d never driven with him in the car before, and an exquisite fear rushed through my body. But that passed, as everything does, and I reached down and flipped the kill switch. When I turned the key, I still expected the engine to fail. She didn’t, though. She came alive without so much as a single cough, and driving with my brother that night was like nothing I’d ever known; it was as if I’d been born again, given wings to fly from the darkest of ashes.

Don Keyes

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