Roadmaster

“Roadmaster”

by Randall Andrews

Grandpa John called the Roadmaster his time machine. When I asked him why, he said it was because it took him back. I assumed he meant in his mind, in his memories. That’s what I get for assuming.

Grandma Clara died on a sunny Sunday afternoon, May seventeenth, 1998. I was fifteen then, still a Johnny, and more than a decade away from becoming a John like Grandpa. Detroit played a home game that day, and Grandpa and I made the trek to Tiger Stadium after church to watch the action from the center field bleachers. It wasn’t the home run derby I’d been praying to see, but it was a win, by just a single run over Anaheim. And with the way things were going that year, any win was worth celebrating.

Other than the sparse offense, it was a perfect day, flavored with the enchanting aromas of popcorn and peanuts and fresh cut grass. I felt the passion of the people around me, their shared love of the game, as well as the faint echo of all those who’d come and gone before, generations of players and fans whose devotion had nurtured America’s pastime in that hallowed hall. Baseball felt magical that day.

Looking back, I might even say it was the happiest day of my young life—until we got home and it became the saddest.

Grandma had promised to have dinner waiting for us, but she never got around to it. We found her sitting in her favorite rocker with a half-finished scarf she’d been knitting draped over her lap. She looked peaceful, like she might have just nodded off.

“I saved your grandmother’s life once,” Grandpa said as we stood there, trapped in that awful moment. “The night we met. Did I ever tell you that?”

My answer would have been no if I’d been able to answer.

Grandpa didn’t say anything else that day, not a single word.

Grandpa was seventy-six then, but had always seemed much younger than his years, remaining fit and energetic, and adorning the same thick head of hair he’d worn when he was twenty-six, albeit of a lighter hue. Following Grandma’s death, however, he seemed suddenly to catch up to his rightful age, and then to speed right on past it, decaying decades in a matter of months. He complained of always feeling tired, and he started losing track of things and of time. He gave up the every-morning walks he and Grandma had enjoyed for years, as well as the gazebo he’d been building, and the vegetable garden that surrounded it. He wasn’t sick, but he was heartbroken, and it was heartbreaking to see.

He stilled loved the Tigers—never missed a game on the TV, but the hour drive to the stadium, with all the traffic you had to fight along the way, was too much to make a road trip worthwhile anymore.

And there was the Roadmaster, of course. As long as he could draw breath, even if he had to crawl to the garage, he’d never neglect it. He’d owned a lot of cars, but while the others had come and gone, the Roadmaster had stayed. It was the only one that ever became, as Grandma used to put it, the other woman in his life.

Grandpa always talked about the Roadmaster like it was a woman, too. Maybe all old cars loved by old men are ladies.

“He spent the whole night with his other woman,” I heard Grandma say once. I was little then, but not so little that I didn’t recognize how dangerous that sounded. Grandpa was my hero, a plain clothes Captain America in my eyes, and the idea of him doing anything wrong, let alone something unfair to Grandma, was enough to shake the ground beneath me. I was relieved to learn that the other woman was actually a 1946 Buick Roadmaster with a glossy black body, white-walled tires, and a mesmerizing chrome smile. She was a beauty, no doubt, but no threat to Grandpa’s fidelity.

Though Grandpa’s heart belonged foremost to his wife, it was the car that had made the earlier claim. It entered into his life just weeks ahead of Grandma, rolling off a Flint assembly line where Grandpa played his own small part in its building. The ’46s were the first of the postwar passenger vehicles, the production of which had given way to the needs of Uncle Sam during World War II. Grandpa played his part in that as well, serving aboard a Navy battleship in the Pacific Theater. He found the job in Flint within a month after returning home and ended up building cars for the next forty years.

For decades the Roadmaster had only left the garage on Sundays, traveling first to the local greasy spoon, where Grandma and Grandpa ate breakfast out, their only restaurant meal of the week, and then on to church, where we all met for eleven o’clock Mass. Sometimes they’d go for a ride then, after church, out on the country roads where traffic was sparse and they could drive slow and enjoy themselves. Sometimes, instead of going back home with my folks, I’d ride along with them instead. Grandpa was an amazing storyteller, and I was his most eager audience, particularly when it came to tales of his Navy days.

“Might be a good plan for you, Johnny,” he’d suggest after recalling some high seas adventure or another. “Good way to get out there and see the world before you’re tied down.”

I’d just nod noncommittally in response and try not to think about my only offshore experience, a morning of walleye fishing on Lake Erie when one foot waves cost me my breakfast. I doubted there was enough Dramamine in the world to make a seaman of me, but for fear of disappointing him, I never said so to Grandpa.

That was years before he started calling the Roadmaster his time machine, but that’s what it seemed like to me, even then. That’s the sense I got when I rode along on those Sunday drives, that we were traveling back in time. Grandma and Grandpa were part of a different generation, as was the car, and the farther we got away from town, the more the countryside looked like it had for a hundred years. Out there on County Road Number whatever, there were no fast food joints, dollar stores, or tanning salons to remind us when we were.

After Grandma’s death, the Roadmaster started coming out every day instead of once a week. Grandpa would roll past our house in the early afternoon, often not to return until dark, which was getting to be pretty late as the days stretched. Even if we hadn’t been keeping tabs on him, our houses were only two blocks apart, and he had to pass by on his way to the main road. And the Roadmaster was hardly inconspicuous. Whenever it went by, wherever it went by, it got noticed.

When my mom asked about his outings, Grandpa claimed he’d simply been going to visit Grandma, but the cemetery wasn’t even a mile outside town, and that seemed like an awful lot of time to spend watching over a grave.

“I heard him call the car his time machine again yesterday,” my dad said one night at the dinner table. “Don’t you think that’s kind of weird?”

My mom waved her hand dismissively and said, “Think of how long he’s had that car. Think of all those decades of memories. I’m sure driving it really does . . . take him back.

“But he’s gone for so long,” Dad continued. “Think he might be losing his way, just like he’s suddenly losing track of his stuff? Maybe he’s getting turned around. Maybe he shouldn’t be going by himself. Maybe he shouldn’t even be—”

“We’re not taking Dad’s car keys,” Mom interrupted, putting her fork down with a motion that was halfway between setting and slamming. “So he’s lost a couple things lately. That doesn’t mean he’s losing his mind.”

Ours was a house where serious discussions typically took place behind closed doors, so these words hit my ears with the impact of an air raid siren. My throat closed up so tight that for a moment I couldn’t even force down the last bite of my meatloaf.

Dad hurried to raise his defenses. “I’m not saying we’re there yet. I’m just saying—”

“You don’t need to say anything,” Mom cut him off again. “He’s my dad, and when those decisions need to be made, I will make them.”

“I never suggested otherwise,” Dad shot back, his voice swelling enough to prompt a tiny whimper from my baby sister.

As both Mom and Dad moved quickly to pacify Lauren, I impulsively spat out the words, “I’ll go.”

“Go where?” Mom asked.

Dad, however, caught my meaning straight away. He fixed a hard stare on me for several long seconds, and then tentatively nodded his consent.

“He’s been leaving about the same time every day,” I thought aloud. “I’ll ride my bike down a little earlier, like right after lunch, and . . . offer to ride along, I guess. Or I’ll just hang out and see if he invites me to go with him.”

“It’s not like you could drive him home if something happened,” Mom pointed out. “You don’t even have your permit yet.”

“But I know my way around. Maybe all he needs is somebody to remind him which way to turn or something. I could do that.”

“And he could let us know how things really are,” Dad added. “As it is, we’re just guessing.”

It took a bit more coaxing, but eventually Mom relented.

The following day, as soon as I’d finished my lunch, I hopped on my bike and headed down to Grandpa’s house. Not even halfway there, I was already regretting the blue jeans I’d worn. It had been an unseasonably cool morning, but it was warming up fast, the night’s clouds breaking apart and giving way to the bright summer sun. I was overdressed, but it was going to be a beautiful day.

I laid my bike on its side under Grandma’s lilac bush, strode to the front door, knocked, and then went immediately inside. I’d been showing up at that house unannounced for as many years as I’d been allowed to venture that far down the street on my own. I was never supposed to wait to be invited in, and the door was never locked, except at night.

“If it gets to the point where I have to lock myself in my own house to feel safe,” Grandpa told me once, “then we’re moving.”

“Hello, Johnathan,” I called out as I stepped through the door. “It’s Johnathan.” It was a long standing custom between Grandpa and me to greet each other by our full name. He was John to everyone, and I almost always went by Johnny, but it was good to remember that we were both really Johnathans. It was something we shared.

No response came, and two steps into the house I discovered why. Grandpa was seated in the same chair where we’d found Grandma, his eyes closed, his head tipped back, with one hand clutching his chest.

I froze, torn between equally powerful impulses to run to him and to run right back out the door. Before either urge could win out, Grandpa took a deep, wheezing breath. His eyes fluttered open.

“Oh, thank God,” I huffed, my words barely louder in my ears than my pounding heartbeat. “I thought . . . .”

“Not yet, Johnathan,” Grandpa whispered, saving me from finishing that grim thought. He smiled then, attempting to reassure me, I’m sure, but failing in the effort. My brief surge of relief upon discovering him still alive faded quickly as I stepped farther into the room. Despite the warm day, he was shivering, and his skin, usually as tan as catcher’s mitt, looked almost translucent, like an icy winter windshield.

I rushed across the room, lifted the receiver of a phone older than me, and set my fingertip at the nine.

“Johnny, wait,” Grandpa called urgently. “Please.

“But you need help, Grandpa.”

“I do,” he agreed, “and you’re the only one who can give it. The keys to the Roadmaster are in the kitchen, on top of the microwave. Go get ‘em.”

“But you need an ambulance.”

“I’m not dying from a heart attack, Johnny. You know that. I’m getting run over by a Mustang.”

This was an old joke Grandpa had made many times. He was a diehard General Motors man, and the idea of getting killed by a Ford was ironic, at least to him. It certainly didn’t strike me as funny right then.

“Johnny, please. I’m begging you. Trust me.”

Ten minutes later, Grandpa and I were rolling in the Roadmaster, headed away from the hospital rather than toward it, and I was at the wheel, fifteen years old, unlicensed, and terrified.

“You’re doing fine,” he whispered, probably in response to the look on my face. “Both hands on the wheel, both eyes on the road. No problem.”

“This just doesn’t seem right, Grandpa,” I protested.

“Here,” he said, slipping off his Navy ring and handing it to me. “Put this on, and see if it doesn’t help.

I did as I was told, and just in time to let the wheel slide through my fingers as we turned a corner, its notched backside thrumming across the ring with a familiar cadence. He was right; I really did feel better. And it wasn’t just that the ring fit with the car, but that it fit me. I remembered having tried it on years earlier, and it was so big that even on my thumb it hung like a lasso over a Chihuahua. Now it was just right. If I was big enough for the ring, maybe I was big enough for the car, too.

Grandpa’s winter coat, which I’d noticed laying in the backseat, was probably my size as well. It was a strange thing to see out of the closet, considering the season. I thought back to my parents’ dinner conversation and couldn’t help but wonder if it might be another clue, another sign of his deterioration. I hoped not.

When we were a couple miles out of town, Grandpa reached over and turned on the radio, I think to drown out the sound of his labored breathing. The Tigers game was on, though I barely noticed. At first.

“He’s rounding first and headed for second,” the announcer called. “Here comes the throw from left field, and he’s . . . safe! That’s a double for Greenberg.”

That got my attention. I wasn’t one of those walking sports almanac guys, but I was a fan, and every Tigers fan knows Hank Greenberg. Hammerin’ Hank was one of Grandpa’s heroes, not only an all-time baseball great, but a fellow World War II vet as well.

“I went for a ride the day after your grandmother died,” Grandpa said just then, pulling my attention away from the broadcast. “I couldn’t stand being in the house, and I didn’t want to hear anyone else tell me how sorry they were, so I got in the Roadmaster and just drove.”

He paused then, so long that I wondered if he’d lost his train of thought.

“Where did you go?” I asked.

After another long pause, he answered, “Florida.”

Florida? That sounded like more than another clue. That sounded like proof.

“It only took a half hour,” he added. “I drove out of town, headed down Elm Street, and the next thing I knew I was at the ocean. I thought I was losing my mind, and to be honest, I hardly cared. Not that day. I parked the Roadmaster, walked out onto the beach, and there we were, your grandmother and me, walking at the water’s edge, picking up shells. That was two Januaries back, the winter of ’97, when we drove down for our golden anniversary.”

Grandpa paused again then, probably waiting for me to say something, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. He went on to describe dozens more trips back, all to memorable moments in his and Grandma’s life together: Christmas mornings, Thanksgiving dinners, my mother’s birth, and even the final game of the 1984 World Series, which all the neighbors had watched together in Grandma and Grandpa’s living room.

The tale was so engrossing I didn’t even notice right away when the sun started to set, nor when the leaves started to turn red and gold on the trees along the road—strange occurrences on a midsummer afternoon.

“What’s that?” I asked, spotting a cluster of lights up ahead.

“That’s where we’re headed,” Grandpa answered. “Turn in when we get there. Find a place to park.”

I did. I squeezed in between a vintage Ford F-100 pick-up and a beautiful old Chevy Fleetline. The whole lot was full of classics, including, just a few spots down, a sleek black Roadmaster like Grandpas.

Exactly like it.

Grandpa didn’t hesitate, but threw open his door and lurched out. He seemed a little better, but he was still as white as baseline chalk, and I could still hear every breath he took.

I hopped out, too, and rushed around to help him.

“Get my coat out of the back, will you?” he asked. “This autumn air’s got a chill to it, and I’m not as warm-blooded as I used to be.”

Autumn? It sure felt like it. Looked like it, too.

I helped him toward the entrance gate of what turned out to be an old-time carnival. The line was short, and when we got to the front of it, the admissions man asked Grandpa for two dollars, which he said he didn’t have.

“Afraid I forgot my billfold,” he apologized.

“I’ll get them,” offered a young woman standing behind us.

“Thanks a lot,” Grandpa said as she paid our way. She was immediately familiar, but it took me a second to think why. The old pictures I’d seen didn’t do her justice. She was a knockout.

“Come on, everybody,” a man shouted as we passed through the gate. “We want a nice big group for the photo. You’ll be in the newspaper!”

We followed the crowd as they assembled in front of the Ferris Wheel. As the rows filled in ahead of us, the woman beside me inquired about my Nirvana t-shirt. I was scrambling for an explanation when I heard Grandpa sniffle. I turned to find a tear streaming down his pale cheek.

“That was it,” he said under his breath, smiling. “We just met.”

I followed his gaze and spotted the girl who’d paid our way. She was standing not far to our right, sharing an awkward handshake with a young man who was familiar in much the same way she was. The two of them held their grip for a long beat, and when they finally let go, they both started laughing.

The group dispersed as soon as the picture was taken, but instead of following the crowd, Grandpa and I tailed the young couple as they headed off on their own. Grandpa’s breathing went from rough to ragged as we hurried to keep pace. His shivers turned to shudders. He leaned heavily on my shoulder with one hand and gripped the front of his coat with the other in a quaking fist.

“Don’t worry,” he wheezed at me, impossibly smiling again. “I’m not going to die from a heart attack.”

At the edge of the light, near the carnival’s horse stables, the pair settled beneath a crimson leafed maple tree, almost disappearing into its shadow. Grandpa and I kept our distance, hanging at the crowd’s fringe. I struggled to keep steady as I was forced to support more and more of his weight.

“Johnny?” someone called from behind us. “Hey, Johnny, is that you?”

I turned toward the speaker, my mind racing. How could someone recognize me there? Then?

I was still struggling to figure it out when Grandpa, young Grandpa, walked passed me, so near I could have reached out and touched him. I never knew he’d gone by Johnny when he was young. He never told me that.

“Hey, Clara, come on,” he called a moment later. “It’s almost time for the magic show.”

My young grandmother was just emerging from beneath the maple tree when shouting erupted from the nearby stables. “Look out!” From the corner of my eye, I spotted a white horse charging toward us. Its nostrils flared wide, and its eyes bulged from their sockets. It was running desperately, as if for its life. And Grandma stood directly in its path, frozen with fear.

I meant to rush to her, but Grandpa’s hands, miraculously strong again, gripped my shoulders and forced me backward instead. I stumbled, landing hard on my hands and knees, but recovered in time to watch my grandfather, my hero, do the bravest thing I’d ever seen. The timing of it was so close it seemed impossible, but the end result couldn’t be denied. Grandma Clara sat sobbing but unhurt, and beside her, just an arm’s length away, lay her future husband, aged fifty-two years beyond the man she’d just met, dying.

I hurried to him as his younger self hurried to my future grandmother. I struggled for words. I knew there wouldn’t be time for many.

“It wasn’t really a mustang, was it?” Grandpa asked. “It was a . . . stallion, I think.” His words came out with a heartbreaking gurgle. “The Roadmaster will . . . take you home. She knows the way.”

“What will I say?” I asked, fighting through sobs. “They’ll never believe me. Mom . . . .”

He didn’t exactly smile then, but almost. I could tell he was trying to.

“The newspaper picture,” he whispered, his voice barely there. I lowered my ear almost to his lips to hear. “In a scrapbook . . . on the nightstand. All three of us are in it: your grandma, you, and me. I’m in it . . . twice.”

And then, with his last breath and his last ounce of strength, he really did smile. And then he died.

That was eighteen years ago. I have a family of my own now, a wife I love more than I ever dreamed I could love anyone, and two amazing kids, Autumn Elizabeth and Johnathan Kaline. The kids are pretty little, seven and five, and aren’t balking yet at the long Sunday drives we take after church in the Roadmaster. I know they will eventually, that there’ll be sports and friends and who knows what else to occupy their time, but I’m hoping that’s a ways off yet. Something tells me the old Buick still has a little magic in it, and I’d love for the kids to be along when it comes out.

I try not to have any specific destination in mind when I head us out of town, but rather just drive and see where the road takes us. It usually ends up being the lake or the park or the doughnut shop. We’ve never mysteriously arrived at an old-time carnival or a classic Tigers game, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Who knows, we might end up at the beach in Florida some Sunday afternoon. The kids could see the ocean for the first time, meet their great-grandparents, and be home in time for supper. Anything’s possible.

_______________

Randall Andrews is a science fiction and fantasy writer from southern Michigan. His first novel, The Last Guardian of Magic, won the National Indie Excellence Award for best fantasy in 2010. He is a graduate of Central Michigan University, where he studied biology.

 

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