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Old Paint
Megan Lindholm

Megan Lindholm lives in Tacoma, Washington, and has very fond memories of a blue Chevrolet Celebrity station wagon. In fact, she still has a chip of blue plastic that is just visible under the skin on her right knee from a near head-on in 1991. The car is long gone, but oh, how the memories linger. . . . Megan sometimes also writes fiction as “Robin Hobb.”

 

 

I was only nine when it happened, so I may not have the details absolutely right. But I know the heart of my story, and the heart is always what matters in a tale like mine.
My family didn’t have much when I was growing up. A lot of lean years happened in that first half of the century. I don’t say I had it as tough as my mom did, but the 2030’s weren’t a piece of cake for anyone. My brother, my mom, and I lived in subsidized housing in the part of T-town they call New Tacoma. It sure wasn’t new when I was a kid. Tacoma’s always been a tough town, and my mom said that her grandpa kept her on a short leash and she survived it, and so her kids would, too. Everyone knew we had the strictest mom in our apartments and pitied us for it.
We weren’t like a lot of folks in the subsidized housing. Mom was ashamed to be there. It was the only thing she took from the government, and I think if she had been alone, she would have lived on the streets. We got by on what she made working at an old folks’ home, so we budgeted hard. She cooked our meals from scratch and we carried our lunches to school in the same battered lunch boxes and stained backpacks, year after year. She mended our clothes and we shopped at the Goodwill. Our cellphones were clunky and we all shared one computer. And we didn’t have a car.
Then my great grandpa died. Mom had hardly seen him in years, and we kids didn’t know him at all, but she was in his will. She got what was left in his checking account, which wasn’t much, and the old furniture in his apartment, which was mostly particle board crap. The old rocking chair was good, and the ceramic canisters shaped like mushrooms were cool. Mom said they were really old and she remembered them from when she was little. But the one big thing he did have was a car, parked in his parking slot where it had been gathering dust for the last twelve years since they’d taken his license away.
The car was vintage, and not in a good way. Back in the 2020’s, there was this rage for making new energy-efficient cars that looked sort of like the old classic gas guzzlers. People wanted rumble and roomy to go with their solar and alternative fuels. I guess my great grandpa had been a surfer back in the day, because what he chose was something that was supposed to look like a station wagon. The first time we went down to the parking garage and looked at it, Ben, my older brother, groaned and asked, “What is that crap on the sides? Is it supposed to look like wood or something?”
“Or something,” my mom said absently. She pushed the button on the key, but the battery for it was long dead. So she opened the car the old-fashioned way, putting the key in a hole in the door handle. I was fascinated and proud of my mom for knowing you could do that.
The outside of the car was covered in fine dust, but inside it was immaculate. She sat in the seat for a little while with her hands on the wheel, acting like she could see out the windshield. She was smiling a little bit. Then she said, “The smart thing to do is sell him. If the interior is this good, I bet he kept the engine cherry, too.” She reached down and pulled a little handle, and Ben and I jumped when the hood of the car popped up.
“Mom, I think you broke it,” Ben said. “Maybe we shouldn’t touch anything until we can have a mechanic look at it.” Ben was fourteen then, and for some reason, he now believed that if he didn’t know something, Mom didn’t know it either. She just snorted and got out of the car and went around to open the hood the rest of the way.
“My goodness,” she said softly. “You did take care of him, Pops.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I do remember that the inside of that engine compartment was spotless. She shut the hood, unplugged the car from the supplemental charger, and retracted the coil. She had a license and knew how to drive, because that was part of her job at the old people’s home. I was still surprised when she slid in behind the wheel and put the key in a slot-thing and turned it. The vehicle had an anti-theft box on the steering column. She hesitated, and then put her forefinger on the sensor. “Hello, Suzanne,” the car said in a rich, brown voice. “How are you today?”
“Just fine,” she said quietly. “Just fine.”
Ben was freaked. Mom noticed that and grinned. She patted the steering column. “My grandpa’s voice. A little customization he did on the systems.” She tossed her head at the back seat. Ben opened the door and we both got in. There were shoulder strap seat belts.
“No airbags?” Ben asked in disbelief.
“They’re there. But when he was new, cars had both. It’s safe. I wouldn’t put you in a car if I thought it wasn’t safe.” She closed her eyes for a minute and tightened up her mouth as if she’d suddenly wanted to cry. Then she opened her eyes and shifted her grip on the wheel. “Let’s blast,” she said loud and clear, and the engine started. It was a lot louder than any other car I’d ever heard. Mom had to raise her voice to talk over it. “And when he was new, cars were electric and internal combustion. And much noisier than they are now.”
Ben was horrified. “This car is running on gasoline, right now?”
Mom shook her head. “Sound effects. And loudest inside the car. My grandpa had a sense of humor.” She stroked the car’s dash. “All those years, and he never took me off the security system.”
“How smart is this car?” Ben demanded.
“Smart enough,” she said. “He can take himself to a fueling station. Knows when his tires are low on air, and can schedule his own oil change. He used to talk to the dealership; I wonder if it’s even in business still. He’s second generation simulated intelligence. Sure fooled me, most of the time. He has a lot of personality customization in his software. My grandpa put in a bunch of educational stuff, too. He can speak French. He used to drill me on my vocabulary on the way to school. And he knew all my favorite radio stations.” She shook her head. “Back then, people wanted their cars to be their friends. He sure was mine.”
“That’s wack,” Ben said solemnly.
“No, it was great. I loved it. I loved him.”
“Love you too, Suzanne,” the car said. His voice was a rich baritone.
“You should sell this thing, Mom,” Ben advised her wisely.
“Maybe I should,” Mom said, but the way she said it, I knew that we had a car now.
Ben had begun to think he was the man of the house, so he tried to start an argument with Mom about selling the car and using that money and her inheritance money to buy a real car. She just looked at him and said, “Seems to me it’s my inheritance, not yours. And I’m keeping him.”
And so that was that.
She opened a little panel on his dash and punched in our address. She moved a handle on the steering column, and the car began to ease backward. I held my breath, thinking we were going to hit something, but we didn’t. She stopped the car, moved the handle again, and we slid forward, smooth as a slide, up and out of the parking garage and into the daylight.
On the way home, she kept pushing buttons and chatting with the car. It didn’t have instant-net, but it had a screen that folded down from the ceiling. “What good is that? You have to sit in the back seat to see it,” Ben complained. Mom reached under the seat and opened a drawer. Inside was a bunch of old style DVD’s in flat plastic cases.
“They’re movies,” she said. “Supposed to entertain the kids in the back seat. The screen is back there so the driver won’t be distracted.” She picked up the stack and began to sort through them. She had a wistful half-smile on her face. “I remember all of these,” she said quietly. “Some were my favorites.”
“So the driver’s supposed to just sit up front by himself and be bored?” Ben demanded.
She set the movies down with a sigh and turned to him. “The driver is supposed to drive.” She turned back and put her hands on the wheel and looked out over the hood. “When this fellow was built, cars were only allowed to go a short distance without a licensed driver in the driver’s seat. Less than a mile, I think it was. The auto-brains were really limited back then. Legally limited more than technically limited. People didn’t really trust cars to drive themselves. They had emergency services locators, of course, so they could take you to the hospital if you passed out, and sensors to help you park, but when he was built, drivers still did most of the driving.”
“Why do you keep calling the car ‘he’ and ‘him’?” Ben demanded.
“Old habit,” my mom said, but she said it in a way that ended the conversation.
We had a parking spot at our building that we’d never used before. The first time we pulled up in the car, every kid hanging around outside came to see what the noise was. They watched as the car plugged in to charge. Our car was about twice as long as any other car in the lot.
“Look at the size of those solars,” one boy whispered, and Ben’s ears went red.
“Old piece of junk,” said another knowingly. “Surprised it still runs at all.”
Mom did the one thing that Ben hated the most. I didn’t much like it either. All the other moms in the building would have just ignored the wanna-be gangers hanging around the parking lot. Mom always looked straight at them and talked to them as if they were smart, even when they were so drugged out they could barely stand.
“He’s old, but he runs like a clock. He’ll probably outlast most of the Tupperware crates here. They still used a lot of steel when this guy was built.” Mom set the alarm, and the tattle-tale light began to circle the car.
“Wha’s that stuff onna size spozed to be?” Leno asked. He was smiling. Leno was always smiling, and I’d never seen him with his eyes more than half open. He looked delighted to see the car, but I’d seen him look just as enthusiastically at a lamp post.
“It’s wood. Well, pseudo-wood. My grandpa was so proud of it. It was one of the first nano-products used on any car. It was the latest thing, back then. Guaranteed not to peel or fade or scratch, and to feel like wood grain. Most minor dents, it could repair, too.” She sighed, smiled, and shook her head, remembering something. Then, “Come on, kids. Dinner to cook and homework to do.”
“Homework,” one of the boys sneered, and two girls laughed low. We ignored her and followed Mom into the house.
Ben was mad at her. “How come you know so much about that car? I thought you didn’t have anything to do with your grandpa. I thought he, like, disowned you when you were a kid or something.”
Mom gave him a look. She never talked much about her family. As far as I remembered, it had always been just her, Ben, and me. Someone must have been our father, but I’d never met him. And if Ben remembered him, he didn’t say much. Mom firmed her mouth for a minute and then said brusquely, “My grandpa and I really loved each other. I made some choices in my life that he didn’t agree with. So he was really angry with me for a long time, and I was angry with him. But we always knew we still loved one another. We just never got around to making up in time to say it.”
“What decisions?” I asked.
“Getting knocked up with me,” Ben said, low. Either Mom didn’t hear him say it or she didn’t want to discuss it.
So, after that, we had a car. Not that we drove it much. But Mom polished it with special wax, cleaned his solars, vacuumed out the inside, and hung up an old-fashioned pine tree scent thing from the mirror. Once we came home from school on the bus, and found her asleep in the driver’s seat, her hands on the wheel. She was smiling in her sleep. Every once in a while, on the weekend, she might take us out for a ride in the station wagon. Ben always said he didn’t want to go, but then went.
She didn’t upgrade the car, but she made it ours. She put us both on the car’s security system, and updated the old GPS settings with our home, schools, the hospital, and the police station, so in an emergency either of us could get help. The car greeted us by name. Ben pretty much ignored its personality program, but I talked to it. It knew a lot of corny old jokes and had a strange program called “Road Trip Games” about license plates and “Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral.” I tried out every seat in the car. I watched some of the old movies on the little screen, but they were really long and the people talked too much. My favorite seat was the one in the back that faced backward. I liked watching the faces of the people as they came up behind our car. Lots of them looked surprised. Some of them smiled and waved, and some turned their heads to look at the car as they passed us. The only time I didn’t like it was at night when the headlights of the cars behind us would hit me right in the eyes.
The car was a sometime thing, and mostly it didn’t change anything about our life. Sometimes, when it was pouring rain and we had to walk to the bus stop and then walk home again, Ben would grumble. Other parents sent their cars to pick up their kids from school. Ben whined about this a lot. “Why can’t the wagon pick us up from school when it’s pouring rain?” he’d demand of her.
“Your grandfather was a ‘drive it yourself ’ guy. Like me. I doubt he ever had the block removed.”
“Then it’s just a software thing? You could take it off ?”
“Don’t get any ideas, Benny-boy!” Mom warned him.
And for a while, he didn’t. But then he turned fifteen. And Mom decided to teach him to drive.
Ben wasn’t that interested at first. Most kids didn’t bother with a personal license anymore. As long as a car met the legal standards, anyone could get in it and go. I knew little kindergarteners who were dropped off by their cars each day and then picked up again. Mom said it was stupid that it took three thousand pounds of car to transport a forty-pound kid to school, but lots of people did it. Ben and I both knew that Mom could have had the car’s brain upgraded or unblocked or whatever, and we could have had wheels any time we wanted them. But she chose not to. She told Ben the only way he was going to get to use the car was if he knew how to physically drive it. Once he passed his test, she told him that we might even have it updated so that he could just kick back and tell the car where he wanted to go.
So that was the big attraction for Ben. I got to ride along on his driving lessons. At first Mom took us way out of town in the evenings and made him practice in parking lots outside vacant strip malls. But Ben actually learned to drive pretty well. He said it wasn’t that different from a lot of his video games. Then Mom reminded him that he couldn’t kill himself or someone else with a video game. She was so serious about it, and Ben got so cranky. It was a thing they went through for about a year, I think. Any conversation about the car always turned into an argument. He hated the “dorky” paint and wood on it; she said it was “vintage” and “classic.” He said we should get a cheaper car; she said that all the metal in the body made it safer for him to drive, and that he should be happy we had a car at all. Their conversations were always the same. I think Ben said, “I know, I know!” more than a million times that year. And Mom was always saying, “Shut up and listen to what I’m saying.”
Ben was absolutely set on getting the car upgraded so he could ride around with his friends. Most of his friends’ parents had said “no way” to them riding if Ben was actually driving the car, even after he got his license. He kept telling Mom how the car would be safer if it could drive itself and how we could get better mileage because it would self-adjust routes to avoid traffic or to take short cuts, and that statistics showed that car-brains actually reacted faster than human brains in dangerous situations.
“Maybe so, but they can only react one way, and human brains can think of a dozen ways to react in a tough situation. So the answer is still no. Not yet. Maybe never.”
Mom scored big points on him the next week when there were dozens of accidents on I-5 that involved driverless cars. Mom didn’t care that it was because of a virus that someone had uploaded to the traffic beam. No one knew who did it. Some people said it was an environmental group that wanted to discourage private cars. Other people thought it was just a new generation of hackers making their mark on the world. “It wasn’t the cars’ fault, Mom!” Ben argued. “The beacon gave them bad information.”
“But if a human had been holding the steering wheel, none of those accidents would have happened,” Mom said. And that was the end of it, for a couple of months.
Then in June, Ben and Mom got into it big time. He came home from school one day and took the car without asking. He brought it home painted black, with a rippling hint of darker tiger stripes. I stood and stared at it when he pulled into the apartment building parking lot. “Cool, huh?” he asked me. “The stripes move. The faster you drive, the faster the nanos ripple.”
“Where’d you get the money to do it?” I asked him, and when he said, “None of your business,” I knew it was really going to blow up.
And it did, but even worse than I’d expected. By the time Mom came home from work, the vintage nanos in the “wood” paneling were at war with the tiger stripe nanos. The car looked, as Mom put it, “Like a pile of crawling crap! What were you thinking?”
And they were off, with him saying that the black made the car look better and that the new nanos would win over the old ones and the color would even out. When it came out that he’d raided his college money for the paint job, she was furious.
“It was too good of a deal to pass up! It was less than half what it would cost in a standard paint shop!”
So that was how she found out he’d had it done in one of those car-painting tents that had been popping up near malls and swap meets. They were mobile services that fixed dings in windshields or replaced them entirely. They could install seat covers, and add flames or pin stripes. The shady ones could override parental controls for music or video or navigation systems, erase GPS tracking, and alter mileage used. Or, in the one Ben had gone to, do an entire nano-paint job in less than an hour. With the new nanos, they didn’t even use sprayers anymore. They dumped the stuff on and the nanos spread out to cover any previously painted surfaces. The men operating the paint tent had promised Ben that their nanos were state of the art and could subdue any previous nanos in the car’s paint.
Mom was so furious that she made us get in the car and we drove back to where Ben had had it done. By law, they should have looked at the owner registration before they nanoed it. Mom wanted Ben’s money back and was hoping they had call-back nanos that would remove the black. But no such luck. When we got to where the tent had been, there was nothing but a heap of empty nano jars and some frustrated paint crawling around on the ground trying to cover crumpled pop cans. My mom called the cops, because it’s illegal to abandon nanos, and they said they’d send out a containment team. She didn’t wait for them. We just went home. When we got there, Ben jumped out of the car and stormed into the house. Mom got out more slowly and stood looking at our car with the saddest expression I’d ever seen on her face.
“I’m so sorry, Old Paint,” she told the car. And that was how the car got his name, and also when I realized how much her grandpa’s car had meant to her. Ben had done a lot worse thing than just paint a car without her permission. I thought that when he calmed down, I might try to explain that to him. Then I thought that maybe the best thing for me to do was to stay out of it.
The paint on the car just got worse and worse. Those old nanos were tough. The wood paneling took to migrating around on the car’s body, trying to escape the attacks of the new paint. It looked scabby, as if the car were rotting. Ben didn’t want to be seen in the car anymore, but Mom was merciless. “This was your decision, and you are going to have to live with it just like the rest of us,” she told him. And she would send him on the errands, to get groceries or to return the library books, so he would have to drive Old Paint.
A couple of months later, my mom stayed home with stomach flu. She woke up feeling better in the afternoon, and went to the window to look out at the day. That was when she discovered Old Paint was gone. My brother and I were on the bus when we got her furious call. “You probably think you are smart, Benny-Boy, but what you are in is big trouble. Very big trouble.” He was trying to figure out why she was so angry when the bus went crazy. Ben dropped his phone, bracing himself and me on the slippery seat. Mom told us later that the Teamsters contract with the city had always insisted that every city-owned mass transit unit had to have a nominal driver. So when the bus started honking its horn and flashing its lights and veering back and forth over three lanes, the old man in the driver’s seat reached up and threw the manual override switch. He grabbed the wheel and wrestled us over to the curb and turned off the engine.
The driver apologized to everyone and asked us all to sit tight until the maintenance people could come. He called in for a replacement bus, but everyone on the bus heard the dispatcher’s hysterical response. Twelve bus break-downs in the last ten minutes, three involving bad accidents, and there were no more replacement buses to send. In the background, someone shouted that an out of control ambulance had just rear-ended a bus. Dispatch put the driver on hold.
We were only three blocks short of our stop, so we asked to get off and walk. Ben grabbed his phone off the floor, but Mom had hung up and he didn’t really want to find out just what she had discovered that had made her so mad. Ben had a lot of secrets in those days, from rolling papers in his gym bag to a follow-up appointment at the STD clinic. Not that I was supposed to know about any of them.
We’d gone half a block when we heard the bus start up. We looked back and saw it take off. I’d never known a city bus could accelerate like that. We were staring after it, wondering what had happened, when a VW Cherub jumped the curb and nearly hit us. It high-centered for just a second, wheels spinning and smoking, and two kids jumped out of the back seat, screaming. A moment later, it reversed out into the street and raced off, still going backward. The teenage girl who had jumped out was crying and holding onto her little brother. “The car just went crazy! The car just went crazy!”
A man from a corner bar-and-grill opened the door and shouted, “You kids get inside now!
We all hesitated, but then he pointed up the street and yelled, “OMG, now, kids!” and we bolted in as the Hot Pizza delivery van came right down the sidewalk. It clipped the awning supports as it went by and the green-and-white striped canvas came rippling down behind us as we jumped inside.
The place was a sports bar, and a couple of times we’d had pizza there with Mom when her favorite team was in the playoffs. Usually every screen in the place was on a different sports feed, but that day they all showed the same rattled newsman. He was telling everyone to stay inside if they could, to avoid vehicles of all kinds and to stay tuned for updates to the mad vehicle crisis.
Ben finally called Mom and told her where we were, because the tavern owner refused to let us leave by ourselves. When Mom got there, she thanked him, and then took us home by a route that went down narrow alleys and through people’s backyards. Every few minutes, we’d hear a car go roaring past on the streets, or horns blaring, or crashes in the distance. . . .

 

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"Old Paint" by Megan Lindholm Copyright © 2012 with permission of the author.

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