The sound suggested I’d run over a wheelchair. When it had first begun, the shriek had been too sudden to appreciate any nuance, but now that I’d been living with it for a few miles, I could pick out that specific timbre — a poignant combination of metallic shirring, rubber flapping, and vehicular criminality.
It was resonant enough that men smoking on porches lowered their cigarettes to watch me pass and women pushing strollers a block away paused to identify the source of the sound. Every time I passed a cop, I slithered to a crawl across the asphalt to minimize the roar.
It was a nice neighborhood before I arrived. Tree-lined streets, well-kept yards; a small, attractive Tennessee community. I was a visitor, an invited festival guest. According to the festival’s official website, my presence was meant to develop literacy in young adults and advance education in the community.
I was a role model.
The bottom of my damn car was coming off.
The car was a recently acquired boosted 370Z of the sort many citizens on our roads enjoy hating. It was sullen black, illegally tinted, testily noisy with aftermarket exhaust and topmount turbo. Lowered by the previous owner to the point of ridiculousness, a new set of wheels had rendered it even lower and thus more susceptible to the subtleties of southern road construction.
It was a poor choice for a nine-hour road trip, but I took it anyway, displaying the careless disregard for good sense that many Americans have come to associate with people who drive these sorts of cars. I feel your judgment, but let’s face it: I’m the rubber and you’re the glue, and whatever you say bounces off me and tears off my skidplate outside Nashville.
I mused on the last email the previous owner sent to me. It had ended, “Enjoy my baby!”
It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried to repair the skidplate (fine, undershroud is what Nissan wants me to call it, although I think that sounds like step four in an embalming process). Because the car was lower than an incest joke, it turned out that I couldn’t get to the undershroud without a lift, which meant it was going to have to wait until after the festival. I only had to make it five miles from where I was staying to the festival parking lot without getting pulled over or ripping my entire front bumper off. Then I could persuade a Firestone or something to let me use their lift to remove the plate—shroud—and restore my dignity.
I’ve been told that humiliation dreams are the most common dream type among adults (followed by dreams about erotic adventures with celebrities, a statistic less pertinent to this anecdote). Something about standing naked in front of your colleagues at work, or maybe about pulling in to a festival parking lot and finding that dozens of teens have gathered to see what their favorite automotive-minded author is pulling up in, only to discover it is a Z whose disintegration process is currently louder than the engine.
One of the festival organizers had released a statement saying, “We know that meeting an author is one of the most powerful connections a young person can make.”
As I turned past the teens, a small piece of my fender liner sloughed off. Photos were snapped. One of the teens held up their aviator sunglasses, which matched mine. The undershroud screamed its metallic war cry. I felt educational; if they wanted to grow up to be me, this was probably something they ought to see. Automotive suffering is good for kids.
There’s a language to automobiles, and like every language, it comes easier to some than others.
Growing up, my father and his friends spoke it fluently, and my mother knew enough to hold conversations over dinner. As children, my siblings and I loitered restlessly with my parents in garages and car lots and listened to fast-paced negotiations carried out in this language. Constant exposure meant that even before I learned to speak it, the vocabulary seemed familiar even before I could use it in a sentence. Bushings and torque, catalytic converters and throw-out bearings. Every time I went someplace new, if I showed an interest, I’d get taught a swear word (head gasket) or maybe just enough so I could tell a joke (what do you call a Jaguar with working electrics? Nothing, that’s a trick question).
It was an immersive culture. Even our bedtime stories were told to us in automotive terms. Other kids had Davy Crockett and Brothers Grimm; we had the folklore of James Dean’s last words. There were five of us kids, so basically it was like the Sound of Music if you replaced all the nuns with transmission guys and all the Nazis with used car salesmen.
Now, we were all raised in the same petri dish, so you’d think we’d have all become equally and effortlessly fluent. But as we grew up, the language of cars stuck harder with some of us than others. One of my brothers was fiendishly good at it — an amiable carnival show of a child who could describe the attributes of makes and models of vehicles with the surreal confidence now only seen in those who can recite all the Pokemon. He only had to hear a piece of automotive knowledge once in order for it to stick with him forever. I, on the other hand, remained a utilitarian speaker for years, only able to say what I needed: “where is the toilet?” in every language, including cars. Wo ist die Toilette? Is this front-wheel-drive or rear?
That might have been all the more fluent I became, if not for the suffering.
I grew up suffering in automobiles.
Once, when I was small, I got in trouble for lying to my teacher. I’d arrived very late to class, and when she asked the reason for the delay, I’d explained that our vehicle at the time, a Jeep Wagoneer, had caught on fire. She didn’t believe me (nowadays no one has any problem believing stories of Jeeps on fire). If something so extreme had happened, she said, surely my parents would not have bothered to bring me in to school at all afterward. She demanded a letter from my parents corroborating this fiery tale.
I was puzzled at her reaction. Our cars were always breaking down in one way or another; the cause of this one just happened to be visible from the back seat. Fire? This was a possible and probable side effect of horseless carriages.
I was missing some phrases from my automotive vocabulary at that point: Daily driver and baby hauler were two I didn’t learn until adulthood. My father enjoyed his children, but he also enjoyed looking cool. We were always being stuffed in sports cars that did not fit us or Land Rovers without heating or elegant British numbers that left us by the side of the road. Neither convenience nor reliability were required. We drove through towns in Triumphs with smoking radiators; we drove cross-country in Alfa Romeos with new litters of puppies installed on towels behind the seats. Minivans were not on our radar screens.
I remember one of my favorites of his cars, a creamy XKE, impossibly beautiful. I begged for a ride.
“Get in, but don’t put your feet down,” my father advised. “Just stay on the seat.”
Once in the car, I leaned over to lift the floormat. There was no floor beneath it, just a butterfly’s wing network of rust sufficient to keep the floor mat from falling through. I buckled my seat belt. Later, the low-hanging exhaust hit an already exploded possum carcass and we dragged it all the way home.
I loved that car.
I don’t mean to say that I walked uphill to school both ways with a backpack full of boulders, because I’m sure everyone did at the time; it was the ‘80s (but I did)(in the snow). I just mean to say that the cars I grew up in robbed me of my basic human dignity, and it was good for me.
For starters, the suffering filled in the gaps in my automotive language. Practical application stuffs information in my mind forever. Every time a car doesn’t work correctly, it transforms that lesson from classroom learning to labwork. It was true for my father’s beautiful shitboxes growing up and remains true for my own beautiful shitboxes now. I never forget a car part that wronged me.
And secondly, I didn’t even know I was suffering. I just thought this was what it meant to be in a car. An automobile is not a disposable razor; it’s big and complicated. It seemed logical that things would go awry. Even now, as an adult, something perfect startles me more than something unpredictable; I don’t know if I could ever take reliability for granted. I meet people who expect their cars to work all the time: what is that like? What happens when it breaks? When possibly-broken is the baseline, though, solutions aren’t extraordinary: they’re part of the daily routine.
Look, people, this is a goddamn metaphor.
And you don’t have to believe me. There’s all these studies on resilience that suggest that the people who grow up to be gritty, successful problem-solvers aren’t a special breed. Rather, they were kids who had supportive relationships with adults who serenely found solutions instead of raging, panicking or shutting down. Basically, when you accept that life is a series of finding one solution after another, being suddenly asked to find one more doesn’t break you.
Which sometimes comes in handy in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
The 370Z’s story ended happily, because the secret to getting a happy ending is not stopping the story until you get to a good part. A local Firestone let me throw it up on their lift and we got the battered undershroud off.
The sloughing of the fender liners would continue for another three hundred miles, and I was going to have to be careful not to puncture my oil pan on the way home, but the hellish noise had stopped and the replacement undershroud I’d ordered would beat me home. The next day, I enjoyed the renewed peace and quiet of Murfreesboro, and over breakfast, I admired the view and painted some birds on the crumpled shroud. There would be other problems for other days, but for now, the Nissan lived to fight another day, and so did I.
The librarians at the festival asked if they could have the undershroud to hang on their library wall, so I guess that’s where it lives now. I like to imagine them telling this art installation’s origin story to their patrons. I hope they lay on the drama and intrigue, and the impressionable children grow up to buy cool cars and suffer accordingly.
It’s good for them.
Maggie Stiefvater is a novelist, musician, car enthusiast and occasional rally driver based in Virginia.