It was obvious things weren't going well with the Celica. But who knew it would get this bad?
Thursday, August 23, 2001
"That''s right," I affirmed breezily, folding my arms. "The first time I saw it I didn''t like it."
The driver didn''t answer, just dumped a shovelful of black stuff into the smoking carcass of my automobile. He didn''t have to open the hatchback. The windshield had exploded from the heat about a half hour earlier.
Or so I deduced. From my vantage point a safe distance away, I was unable to make out many details through the billows of greasy black smoke and the flames licking at the hillside. I suppose that to the motorists backed up for miles on the northbound lane of Highway 1, the pillar of smoke provided some kind of explanation for the delay. Perhaps some said prayers for my safety, but I doubt it.
In due time the driver got the car onto the bed of the tow truck. It was so charred that when traffic started to flow again my boyfriend drove right past, staring at it blankly, like everyone else. He didn''t even recognize the blackened hull as my car.
The immolation was a fitting end to my brief association with the 1988 Toyota Celica. It''s true that when I first glimpsed it, on Memorial Day, I was less than pleased. The design was clearly a throwback to the late ''80s--low-slung, angular, probably sleek at the time--and, like leg warmers, the esthetic hadn''t aged gracefully. Nonetheless, I was taken with the car''s sunroof and sporty suspension, and I ponied up the $1,800 with good cheer. A sunroof!
The honeymoon, however, was fleeting. The car refused to pass smog until I''d spent $200 procuring for it something like an automotive colonic. Shortly after that, the battery and trunk-open lights began going on and off mysteriously--though not so mysteriously to me. Many an alternator has committed suicide rather than live in bondage to me, and I recognized the signs of despair. After this one finally leaped from the ledge, stranding me on the edge of town late at night as a parting shot, I paid a mechanic $380 to replace it. At that point I had owned the Celica for two months.
One day a few weeks ago a tinny little rattle started up that, to my delight, went away when I accelerated. "Now that''s my kind of mechanical problem!" I thought. When it began again the next day, I stepped on the gas. And then the noise got louder and something popped and then it got very quiet in my new car.
A few seconds later I smelled the burning.
I pulled over to the side of the road just in time to see tendrils of black smoke curling out from under the hood. I yanked some belongings out of the back and scooted away. Fiery liquid was dripping from the Celica''s innards. Flames began shooting out the grille.
I''ll mention here that many drivers sped past my smoldering automobile without even slowing down. After a few minutes, though, a nice man from Prunedale pulled over to help and called the fire department on his cell. Certain the car would explode (it never did--the movies play it all wrong), I cowered behind his truck, watching the spectacle through the windshield.
By the time the fire engine pulled up, most of the sad deed was done. It took about 45 minutes for everything on my car--upholstery, radio, windows--to burn off completely. Later there was a post mortem.
"It looks like the fire was hottest right in here," said one firefighter, who had pushed his gas mask back onto his head. He made a circling motion with his hand over the part of the engine that''s closest to the driver. Nothing much was left. He looked at me.
"So--what happened?" The CHP patrolman, the Marina cop and the second firefighter leaned in expectantly.
I answered them, of course, but I didn''t try to give them the real reason. How could I possibly explain the forces that were at work? There are mysteries in this world that should be left alone. My trouble with cars is one of them.
Everyone who knows me understands that a parade of casual disasters has attended my recent affiliations with cars. Why this should be I don''t know.
The Nova, my last car, was in its heart a trusty thing. But time and use took their toll, and its inopportune plotzing became the talk of my immediate circle of friends. In April, the Nova left me stranded for the last time. The clutch seized up at Moss Landing in rush hour, and I wound up taking a $38 cab ride home, during which I had a lot of time to think about the Nova''s future.
I sent the Nova to its final resting place and borrowed my boyfriend''s Honda. The alternator promptly showed its displeasure by self-destructing to the tune of $500. A week later, I somehow brought ruin upon the fuel filter. By the time I bought the Celica, the Honda wasn''t running at all. I had been driving it for three weeks.
This trail of devastation cuts a wide swath. Parts from other people''s cars litter my past, as well: several years ago while visiting a friend I borrowed her truck (the battery went), and two years ago, again on vacation, I borrowed a different friend''s car (air conditioner, power steering).
And so it came to pass that on Memorial Day, feeling jittery and reflective, I resolved to treat this new car differently. "Maybe, if I''d just been a little nicer to my cars," I thought, "they''d still be running."
This constituted a sea change, as I''d always subscribed to an austere view of car stewardship. Like a poor farmer who owns but one aging donkey, I saw to the basics--like gas--with unfailing vigilance. But real oil changes were few and far between, tune-ups even rarer, and trips to the car wash an unthinkable bit of frippery.
No longer, though! In the Celica I never threw trash on the floor. I carried my empty water bottles into the house. I squeegied the windows each time I got gas (and I got the good stuff). I washed it twice in three months and had the interior detailed. I even had the oil changed.
But I couldn''t fool myself and I couldn''t fool the Celica. I never really trusted it. I never settled in, never left shoes and newspapers and coffee cups in the back seat or threw tapes everywhere. The car was like a new friend I was always trying to impress but who ultimately bored me. For all my neglect of the Nova, there was familiar affection in the way I tossed trash into its back seat. I never could have been that comfortable with a car I didn''t like.
And so I watched dry-eyed as the Celica was carted away on that blustery August day and I tried to count my blessings. So far they seem to total a bit of notoriety: I''m told I made it onto the radio news, and co-workers say they think of me when they see that black mark on the pavement just south of the Reservation Road off-ramp. Meanwhile, I''m paying handsomely for my dishonesty, doomed to groveling passenger- hood and long moments contemplating where, exactly, things went wrong between me and the internal combustion engine.