Sandy imagines the scene as though it’s in a movie: dramatically backlit, crackling with anticipation. A grainy halo builds until the headlights, like twin supernovas, crack open the darkness. The Malibu crests the hill, leaving the ground for an instant before settling back down to matters of rubber and road. The images spool out, so fully formed and plausible that it would have seemed real enough with her eyes closed. But her eyes are open, hands on the wheel. She sees it like this even as she accelerates over the hill. Every frame of the evening sky drifts past the windshield, followed by the pebbled road rushing up through the headlights. She catches sight of the wild ditch-grass gnawing the edges of the road and the dark mangled harm that waits there. But that’s only for a moment and then she’s back on asphalt, feeling that extra little suck of g-force at the bottom of it all. Beautiful.
“Slipped the surly bonds of earth,” Sandy says to her passenger. Rayann braces her hands against the dash, a perpetual crash-position devotee.
“I hate your car,” Rayann moans from her modified crouch.
The road beyond the hill leads into what would otherwise be a fairly modest s-curve but, when taken at such a high speed, as Sandy explains to the ever-bending, ever-more pallid Rayann, it is magically transformed into a chicane. “An auto racing term, very European,” she wants to say to Rayann, but doesn’t. Then she feels the push and pull, the bossed-around big car horseplay that comes with velocity, mitigated by a controlled crossing of the centre yellow line.
Rayann is tired of driving around and wants to go home, that is, if Sandy has no intention of going to the party that they’ve heard about. Sandy, as usual, has been non-committal about the final destination or any stops along the way. But Rayann came anyway. The promise of a ride is a potent lure; it can make anybody come along and maybe forget where they wanted to go.
“We could still go to Steve’s party,” Rayann says, now working herself up again.
She cranes to check her hair in the side-view mirror. “I thought you were going to the thing in Ottawa this weekend with your mom.”
“I decided I’d skip it.”
“Not for me.”
“Steve lives just up here,” Rayann says.
Glenwood Lawns. Harvard Court. The Elms. The names of streets in this part of town get to Sandy. Prestige nail-gunned on like aluminum siding. As in any town in this part of Nova Scotia, there are better and worse neighbourhoods. For every suburb of rambling ranch-style mansions there are shadow cities of trailers squatting on little cinder-block legs. Sandy knows none of this is new or unique, it’s just that she finds it hard to swallow that the good street names weren’t doled out fairly. Sandy’s house stands in an area described by her mother, a real-estate agent, as “Elms-adjacent,” as though hoping the affluence and property values will waft over like the smell of baking bread. Rayann, who lives with her mom in a duplex in Epsom Flats, waves Sandy off when she advances her theories of the injustice of place names, as though the idea were a bug in her face.
Trafalgar Estates. Awful. She pushes the accelerator and the car answers back with a sullen growl. The car’s an insult to these avenues and boulevards, a steaming coiled turd on the croquet lawns. It’s a Chevy Malibu covered with alternating swaths of maroon paint and primer, bubbling and flaking at the wheel wells and door handles. Her mother said the car looked like a nasty patch of psoriasis and chastised Sandy’s uncle Ron for keeping it when he could have afforded better. Ron argued it was a good car and it ran cheap.
Besides, Ron revelled in the unlikely provenance of the car, how it was one of a fleet of Malibus destined to be sent to the Middle East but ended up impounded on a dock in Halifax for two years because the Iraqis couldn’t pony up the necessary cash—apparently they needed all their spare dinars to go toe to toe with their Iranian neighbours. After that, the car bounced its way across the Maritimes, surviving the serial threats of rebuilt transmissions, rust and liens. Ron bought it the summer before he went off to dental school at Dalhousie and was captivated by its exoticism. He hung a crescent moon air freshener from the rear-view mirror and toyed with calling it the Sheik ’n’ Bake or Saddam Shame, but it was only ever really known as the Iraqi Malibu.
Sandy’s mother kept her comments to herself when Ron’s will was read and the car was left to Sandy, probably thinking of the cost of having it towed to the scrapyard, never imagining her daughter would clean it up and spring for a new starter. And now, although it looks the same sitting in the driveway, no one else in the family will even get into the car; it reminds them too much of Ron. It reminds her of Ron too. This suits Sandy just fine.
Ron was the youngest of Sandy’s uncles. Just ten years older than her, he lacked the seniority to be burdened with the title of uncle and so she called him Ron. When he graduated from dental school, she tried “Dr. Ron” for a week until he told her to cut it out. Then, when he went off to Kosovo with the medical corps as part of the service he owed the armed forces for paying for his university tuition, she thought about saluting him, but didn’t. They all thought he would be pulling teeth in an army base in Manitoba for a couple of years. No one figured on Kosovo. In the weeks leading up to his deployment, Sandy and her mother combed the newspapers and watched the television news, alarmed at how stories about Kosovo were still routinely accompanied by pictures of misery. “I’m a dentist,” is all he would say to calm them, pointing to his mouth as if to emphasize how ludicrous their fears were. It wasn’t like he was going to Afghanistan.
This is how stupid the accident was: a road hit by a mortar the previous week suffered greater-than-usual erosion from heavy rains. A personnel-transport truck. A ditch. A damn shame. “Essentially a traffic accident,” said the official from the Department of National Defence. A full military funeral followed and when DND called Sandy’s mother to ask if she would attend the Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa and lay a wreath at the cenotaph as this year’s “Family of Honour,” she agreed. She seemed flattered in that way that the relatives of dead people are allowed to be. Sandy had even planned on going along until they were called a month before and told of the change in plans.
Sandy and her mother witnessed it on the news like everyone else. The aquarium greens of night vision, the voice-over of mundane pilot chit-chat and finally two whumping pulses of light. “Oh my,” she remembered one of the pilots saying, as though he already knew what they’d done. The next day it was in the papers, a headline as big as the photos of the dead Canadian soldiers.
Even though it’s night and November and they’re going too fast, Sandy swears that from this car she can see into every landscaped yard, down the fieldstone paths and through the pergolas. She can see all the gatherings amid the patio lights and bug zappers and jazz music playing from speakers that can’t be seen no matter how hard you try. She’s worked parties like this when she used to waitress for her cousin’s catering business. She wants to tell Rayann that there really isn’t anything special down these streets, nothing less predictable that what they have. Kennedy life. Big teeth and football and torn blouses and shouting: the perpetual and rigorously enforced appearance of perfection. Totalitarian leisure.
Sandy has to pad the brake to keep from going too fast for these suburban streets. A tire pleads for purchase as she leans into a left turn onto Grosvenor. The noise, a line of sound being slowly bent into a curve, ends with a metallic thack. Sandy two-foots the brake, backs up and then gets out to see what the damage is. A stop sign’s pole newly crimped like a drinking straw. Fracture patterns on the fender’s chrome. At a nearby house a porch light turns on. When Sandy gets back into the car, she finds that Rayann isn’t stricken or shocked but only looks embarrassed. It disappoints Sandy.
“Are you completely stoned or something?” Rayann asks, looking straight ahead.
“No,” Sandy replies.
“You should talk to someone.”
“Steve’s house is around here, right?” Sandy says, backing through an intersection.
“On Avondale. Two blocks up.”
The house is easy to find. An old brick mansion set back on a big lot, every room lit up. The house is full, and even though it’s cold outside people swarm onto the spacious porch. Cars line the street, forcing them to park the Iraqi Malibu a block away and walk back to the party.
Sandy didn’t feel like going, but Rayann campaigned all week, trying to lure her with the promise the place would be full of university guys home for the Remembrance Day long weekend. Rayann’s been doing this catch-and-release thing with older guys for a while now, smiling at beery frat boys and pronouncing her name “rain” and generally making Sandy feel like a sidekick. Coming up the front walk, seeing people she doesn’t know turn around and look at her from the porch, Sandy wants to climb back in the car and drive away. Rayann waves at someone and it only makes Sandy feel more self-conscious. But once she’s inside the front door, letting the music slap at her, she feels better, as though she could bundle her anxieties away like a coat and drop them on a bed somewhere. She notices one of many large, red throw pillows. She bends down and touches one, only to find that they aren’t pillows at all but bolts of red velvet fanned and tied up to look like giant poppies. An ill-conceived prom, a rave in Flanders Field. Rayann notices Sandy eyeing the flowers and leans over.
“Steve’s sister is in art school.”
“No shit,” Sandy says to Rayann, who’s already heading into the crowd.
Sandy nods to a few faces she recognizes and opens a beer. The crowd is a mix of strangers and people she knows from high school, many of whom are home from university and are using the occasion to slum, to chat about film studies or semiotics to whatever blank-faced local yokel is standing beside them. Some clique-ing going on, rival tribes trying to cluster in different corners, disoriented not to be hissing at each other across a school hallway. On the couch in a darkened corner she can see two people mauling each other like a couple of pay-per-view bonobos. In the middle of the room, people dance—a great shaking forest of anonymous movement. She wants this, to dance, to have the music and movement crowd her thoughts out to a respectable distance for a few minutes. She doesn’t want to wander off to the kitchen for a toke. She doesn’t want to sit and talk.
She wants to be in a place where no one gives a shit about Ron or about Americans accidentally dropping bombs on Canadian soldiers somewhere in Afghanistan—it was a war zone and it was three weeks ago, after all. Here no one would care that the mothers of those soldiers would hastily be asked by DND to lay a wreath at the Remembrance Day ceremonies and that her mom would politely give up her spot at the head of the procession. She and her mom sat there and listened as the DND representative explained that it was a protocol decision really; Ron died a non-combat death. The other soldiers died—how did he put it?—an ordinance death.
There had been an argument when Sandy told her mother she wasn’t going to Ottawa, as though her refusal made plain what hadn’t yet been acknowledged. After that, the only thing she had heard from her mother was
a message left on the machine at home telling Sandy
what the number was at the hotel and that it was sunny in Ottawa.
She loses track of time, happily. For a moment, in the crowd, she wonders where Rayann is and whether she should maybe look for her. But the only thing more depressing than searching for Rayann in the big, unfamiliar house would be to open a door somewhere and find her. Around Sandy, the crowd moves and she moves with it, and it seems to her absurdly beautiful and exactly what she wants. Rayann will be okay.
After another beer and some more dancing, Rayann appears and pulls her out of the crowd and onto a couch. Rayann is smiling and a little flushed and Sandy thinks her friend is happy, genuinely happy, a thought that faintly depresses Sandy. Rayann tells Sandy that she’s getting a ride home and leans over to Sandy to say that tomorrow they’ll talk. Sandy can feel Rayann’s hair brush against her, senses the heat from Rayann’s face as she leans close. Then she’s gone.
For a minute Sandy lies back on the couch, yawning and watching the party careen around her. Steve, the party’s host, sits down on the couch beside her and begins examining one of his sister’s many poppies. Then he smiles, slow-focussing glee, tripper glee, an Afghan farmer dreaming of a bumper crop of hash. It’s time to go.
It’s cold outside. She’s found her coat and waded through the crowded kitchen to a back patio, where she sits down on a wrought-iron garden chair. Across the table from her sits a guy she doesn’t recognize, headphones on, head gently bobbing. They look at each other for a moment but nothing registers. Then he stands up, takes off his headphones and offers them to her. It’s an odd gesture, but friendly in an unexpected way, almost courtly, and Sandy puts the headphones on, immediately recognizing Bob Marley’s voice. She smiles and after a minute or so, hands the headphones back to him.
He looks nothing like Ron and yet he reminds her of him. The easiness of him. A stoner’s calm, almost dignified. The randomness of him being here at the moment she wants someone to leave with appeals to her, confirms that he’s the one. You’ll do, she thinks, and knows it’s meant as a compliment.
“Do you want to go for a ride?”
Nice car,” he says as he closes the door. They drive off and in ten minutes are immersed in rural darkness. The road ahead is pale blue in the headlights. He’s put away his headphones and says nothing: no questions or comments about why a high-school girl would be driving an old tank like this. He fiddles with the radio and opens his window a little.
She’s reminded of the summer nights when she would go out driving with her mom and Ron in the Iraqi Malibu. She’d be in the back seat and would stretch out, tracking the moon or stars outside the window. They’d be alone on the road, having finished their ice cream. No one would say anything. To say something would spoil it.
She pulls the car off the shore road just above the bluffs, a long slope that leads down to the bay. Having given up finding anything but country music on the radio, he stays quiet, slouched in the passenger seat. Not a word from him as she gets out. Sandy opens the trunk and hefts the gas can out. She slams the trunk, screws off the cap and begins sprinkling gas on the car. By the time she gets around to the hood he’s out of the car, trying to stay cool but unable to hide a look of curious awe.
He steps out of her path as she circles around the vehicle, emptying good gulps onto the material of the passenger seat. A little wasted, stunned or maybe just her sly confederate, he impresses her by not asking any questions. The only sound he hears from her is a grunt as she makes a quick three-sixty and flings the empty gas can, discus-style, into the night.
“Get ready to push, wouldja?”
The boy nods, adhering to the dreamlike tone of bland compliance in the face of preposterous events.
He circles to the back of the car and gives a good push. The car rocks a couple of times and then begins to roll forward. The flare from a matchbook arcs through the night, flashing once it hits the soaked front seat. Moments later, the first wave of heat. She grabs the far side of the steering wheel and pulls it clockwise, turning the car hard right. It doesn’t take much more for the car to set off down the hill. Thirty feet away, the car is completely in flames, a Viking ship burning into the darkness. It gives off enough light that she can tell that the boy is smiling, but she feels no better.
She knows Ron would have hated this. He wouldn’t have said anything—it was her car now—but he hated stuff like this. And watching it, she hates it too. She stands on the shore road, feeling cold again, not able to take her eyes off the fireball heading out into deep space. She wants it to end and hopes for high tide.