I bought my first car when I was seventeen. A 1977 AMC Gremlin. A real rust bucket, its glory days long behind. The top coat of its sky-blue paint job had given away to layers underneath, revealing a small tapestry into its history. Its odometer was stuck halfway between 23,729 and 23,730 miles, and that was following a turnover, or two. The car barely ran and it smelled like sulfur. It took at least 5 turns of the ignition to get it to start. The muffler was rotting through and the tires were last changed during the Reagan administration. This was the most important car I would ever own.
I’d been out hunting with my Uncle Danny and in the middle of nowhere, halfway between Bumfuck and Diddilysquat, we’d come across an acre of patchy land. There was an old trailer that had an impressively tragic junk yard building up behind it. At the front of the discard pile was the Gremlin. It called to me in a way I couldn’t explain. I knew something of destiny lie within that car. A feeling of peace and clarity as I gazed upon it. The gentle tugs of fate upon the strings of my life.
I got home and I couldn’t quite explain it to my best friends, Paul and Carrie, but I had to have that car. I’d never been one for risks or adventures. I’d never really had interest in walking outside the lines. I wasn’t the type to ever put myself out there, to expose myself in anyway. I sometimes got teased for this, and Paul would constantly remind me how if I had any guts at all Carrie would know how I really felt about her. The car summoned something inside of me. It was time to do something bold.
The next opportunity I had I grabbed Paul and we went out to the junkyard. We pensively approached the trailer, acutely aware we’d ventured far off the beaten path with no clue left behind as to our whereabouts or intentions. Probably one of the dumber things I’d done in my short life, but youthful purpose is filled with the spirit of invincibility.
As we closed upon the door of the trailer it kicked open. The occupant was a scraggly man who identified himself as Nickels. He tongued a wad of chaw in the corner of his mouth as he looked us over. He was rail thin, wearing a camouflage hat and overalls. There were three mangy dogs circling his heels.
I pointed over to the Gremlin and asked if he was looking to part with it. His eyes narrowed and his mouth slightly curled at the corners. I was found money that had just deposited itself on his front lawn and he was trying to figure out how much I had in my pockets. He took a slow, cautious walk over to the car and made a deliberate loop around it, like he was appraising its value before our eyes.
“This,” he paused a moment in an attempt to be grandiose, “is the car time forgot.” He spit a wad of chaw out onto the ground and his mutts fought over who got to lick it up. I glanced over at Paul and he looked back. He shrugged and blinked three times. I turned back to Nickels, ready to haggle with the money I’d hard earned mowing lawns and bagging groceries in the summer.
I pulled out the money and Nickels held out the key, jangling from a lucky rabbit’s foot keychain. As we exchanged, Nickels held on to the keys tight for just a moment, which made me grip the half of the money I still had in my hand. We stood there, each holding an end of the key and the cash, and I worried maybe he’d had second thoughts.
He sucked his teeth and looked me over one more time then leaned in close within my personal space. “She’s got one good trip left in her.” He gave us a crooked little smile and spit once more before turning and heading to his trailer. I got into the Gremlin, and after several turns of the key, it started up with a wretch. I grinned ear to ear as I drove it away from the trailer, Paul following me in his mom’s minivan.
I parked the car at Carrie’s house. Her father, long skipped town, had an empty shed that was just big enough to store the car in without anyone seeing it. Under cover of darkness we rolled it into the shed and shut the door, giddy with our secret. Paul, Carrie, and I sat in the car for hours into the night, telling stories and joking with each other. Our private little thing, our private little place. They asked me a couple times what I was going to do with the car. I didn’t yet know, but I knew it would be important. It only took a few weeks for me to figure out the plan.
It was now Fall, and we could see our breath in the cool moonlight. We headed out of town, way down a rural road that had never been properly paved, and the Gremlin struggled with every bump, but miraculously, owning its fate, it made the trip. Carrie and Paul followed in other cars, filled with our closest friends. We arrived at the old Cranston farm that had been abandoned years ago. A real estate developer had bought the land and then went bankrupt, and nobody had wanted it since, so there it sat, desolate. Fitting, perhaps, that my car was being unified with a land just as forgotten.
We pushed the Gremlin out into the middle of what once was a corn field, now barren and dry. Our friends piled out of the other cars to help. It took all 10 of us to get it out there, into the agriculture wasteland. Ready for its final breath on this Earth, a derelict traveler about to embark upon one last journey.
First we filled the car with fireworks, ranging from bottle rockets to roman candles to cherry bombs. Then we doused the car with both lighter fluid and kerosene and quickly retreated to what we felt was a safe distance. Paul pulled an archery bow from his car and tied a rag around the head of an arrow that he soaked in lighter fluid. He pulled the arrow back and Carrie ignited it with a flick of her lighter. The flame danced in her eyes and she smiled in anticipation. Paul aimed the arrow and released it. The flame soared in the air, a beautiful phoenix twirling in the moonlight, and as it descended it grazed the car just enough for a spark to ignite the volatile mix of flammable death that covered the Gremlin. With a furious growl the Gremlin erupted in flame, a magnificent triumph of reckless teenage engineering.
We cheered as though it was the single most amazing thing to ever happen in human history. Perhaps it was. The flames grew higher and higher, piercing the midnight sky, as though our cheers were empowering it to reach out and touch the stars overhead. It didn’t take long before the flames reached the fireworks inside, and suddenly the air sizzled with the streaks of bottle rockets and the sparks of the roman candles.
That’s when Carrie, beautiful ruby haired Carrie, grabbed me by the hand. She pulled me away from the crowd of our friends, who were hollering into the night, and looked so deep into my eyes the world suddenly melted away. We were alone, on an island of nothingness, just me, Carrie, and the moonlight. We kissed, and as we did, I felt a massive wave of heat come over our bodies, the universe warming with the fire of young lust. Our lips parted and as I snapped back into reality I noticed the true source of the heat emanating towards us. The flames had ignited the gas tank and the Gremlin had given itself to the cosmos in a spectacular fireball, our own private atomic explosion.
Carrie still held my hand, smiling as though she’d witnessed god. I pressed the key to the Gremlin into her hand and our eyes locked. She knew what this night had meant to me. She closed her fist around it tight and held it to her chest. We turned back to the fire and joined our friends in the revelry of the night, our hearts and souls alight.
Back home Carrie took the Gremlin key and put it on a chain around her neck. She wore it every day and night – even long after we’d grown, moved away, lived our separate adult lives. She still wears it, and though I’m not sure why, I’d like to believe she wants to remember always the first time she felt the fire.