The engine roared to life like a rampant tiger. Birds fled screaming in every direction. Barn cats darted into holes and their blind kittens were sent tumbling. Even the trees wanted to pull up their roots and run, but instead just shivered in horror. All nature quailed before the machine.
I wasn’t exactly rampant. You may be able to understand my state of mind by imagining yourself in the cockpit of an airplane for the first time and being told without any training, “You can fly it, it’s easy.”
Evaporating dew looked like steamy ghosts rising from their graves. I thought about the county fair last summer, driving the bumper cars and feeling at the time that I had outgrown them, and longing now for a time when I was younger and life was simpler. Dimity, smiling, pulled on a pink tam o’shanter and lassoed her scarf once around her neck.
The sound of a racecar engine is unlike any other sound. It sounds simultaneously gorgeous, unnatural, and calamitous, like a ripping of the fabric of space, like a clockwork incubus, like a flatulent robot with an aluminum sphincter. It sounds like the voice of a loud, very angry zipper amplified and piped through a trombone. The engine revs if you just think about pressing the accelerator.
“Remember to stay out of sight.”
Alright. Clutch in. The shiny knob must be the gear shift.
What happened next took only a fraction of a second. The engine revved and the wheels spun and the car went nowhere except to levitate and turn around in a complete circle.
“Too much gas. Release the clutch slowly. Keep going. You’re fine. And turn your wheels forward…” Ringo said.
On my next attempt I managed to move forward, skidding through mud until I reached the gravel driveway. Ever prescient, Ringo ducked behind a tree when he saw the barrage of rocks spitting like machinegun strafes across the yard. I let off the gas long enough to coast onto the two-lane farm road and straighten out the wheels. Then like the proverbial horse that knows it’s feeding time, the car bolted homeward.
It rocketed practically out of its own skin. Out of necessity, I near instantaneously apprehended the sensitivity of the wheel. The car had a mind of its own. Whether I shifted to second, and then third, or the car did it itself, I do not remember. Dimity was wide-eyed and open-mouthed like a drowning victim gasping for air. Her hat didn’t last very long, torn away and left in a cornfield. The one big dial on the dashboard, the speedometer, was climbing out of control. 60, 70, 80.
The brakes! Yes, I found them and moderated our speed. I passed a sign that said 30 mph, and I wondered if this car could even drive that slow. What did it matter? There were so many things illegal about what I was doing, speeding was the mildest infraction.
We were cruising now, feeling the flow, gaining composure, and swallowing back great gulps of adrenaline. The machine clipped happily along, settling for 65 which at that time in the United States was still well above the speed limit of any public highway in the nation.
As Ringo anticipated, I saw a distant tractor approaching on the road ahead. To my right was a grain silo with a sleepy feed store beside it.
I put the transmission in neutral and turned off the engine. We coasted silently off the road and rolled around to the back of the silo where there were hay bales and barrels and farming debris that could conceal the car.
We jerked to a stop. My scalp tingling, my hands trembling, I felt the need to laugh and cry at the same time. I sat with my head bowed for a moment at the hilarity of the moment.
With only a quick glance at me, Dimity jumped out of the car and scurried gingerly into the feed store to find a bathroom. I went in after her.
Inside I saw sacks of grain and kibble and horse meal stacked to my chin. To the right, a potbelly stove simmered with a coffee pot on the burner. Little gray mice chewed stray oat seeds in a corner. A basset hound was flung awkwardly on a pile of hay as if paralyzed. I saw Dimity disappear behind a door near the back and I wandered up to the counter.
The man seated there was at least a hundred and twenty years old. He had an elongated mouth behind the fluffy nap of his white beard that expressed the cartoonish glower of the toothless. His overalls appeared to be the only item of clothing he possessed.
“Uh, hi, hello. Do you have any food for humans here?”
He made no movement whatsoever for fifteen seconds. He could very well have expired sitting on his stool that morning. Who knows, maybe our entering the shop had precipitated his death?
But then he stirred. I could tell that the man was swimming up to the surface of consciousness after being submerged many fathoms down. He gave a staccato inhalation, blinking seemed to cause him pain. He snorted heavily of mucus, wrinkling the left side of his face, then swallowing. He sighed and lost focus as if he’d forgotten that I was there in these few seconds. Then his head bobbled and his gaze scanned the entire room at random. In some resignation at the displeasure of having been awakened, he laid his hands on the counter and then slowly, finally made dizzy acknowledgment of my chest before nodding his head toward a couple of jars further down the counter.
The jars had hand-scrabbled and illegible note cards taped to the side, but I could identify the contents. I grabbed a handful of corn fritters and two pieces of beef jerky and brought them to the register. Outside I saw the tractor rumble past. Dimity reappeared at my side.
“Four bits,” the man breathed. I dropped two quarters on the counter and we slipped out glancing eyes at each other like a couple of secret agents.
Dimity and I rolled the car backward out of hiding then jumped in and sped off confident that the old man, even if he were aware of us and the car, would scarcely be believed even if he could report it.