390

     The last time I can think of that anyone wrote about her was when dad was falling apart by her deathbed, from midnight to six, day in and day out. He was crying into his journal about all the anger and sadness that she could cause, just by being herself. He felt that she had been cold and brittle. She was. He felt that she had often been more concerned about propriety and appearance than about expressing genuine warmth. She was. She was intensely determined to be perfect, to match her husband's easy perfection, and she was perfect in every way she tried to be, for good and bad. h

     My grandmother, Margaret Pence, died in the beautiful Virginia spring of 2000. She'd been a schoolteacher, family matron, and consummate lady forever. A chronic autoimmune condition took her away from us about six months after Granddaddy died of cancer. In the last hours she was conscious, in an awful delirium that was unbearable to watch, she was terribly afraid of being alone and that the doctors had some awful plans for her, so we all promised not to leave her alone in the hospital. We took six-hour shifts for—God, I don't know—ten days or something?

     In 1965, the Ford Motor Company introduced the LTD as a step up from the Galaxie, a well-muscled fixture of the budding NASCAR circuit, and a heavy, fast family car. A few more pounds of chrome and a slightly more serious eye toward comfort and luxury were some of the main features that had upper-middle-class war vets shelling out the extra money for it, but underneath the hood was a family of some of the most serious engines ever to have come out of Detroit. By 1967, the base engine in an LTD was the gloried 302, with options for 390, 427, or 428 cubic inches of displacement.

     Grandmother's was right in the middle: a 390. The larger engine would have been immodest, but the stock power plant would have been too pedestrian. She didn't load up on tacky extras like a radio or power windows, and didn't add anything to the car from the time she bought it in 1968 until she died other than a small silver-trimmed umbrella in the back seat and a box of Kleenex in the glovebox. In 1986, the vinyl top was showing some wear, and the upholstery needed a little attention, so she paid for a full restoration to showroom condition.

     For years, this car was the quietly thundering calling card of a little lady who claimed she was too practical to spend money on a new one, one that might have been safer or gotten better gas mileage. But at some point in my lifetime, the LTD went from being old-fashioned to being a classic. She ignored this subtle, unannounced change, along with the increasing hoots from young bucks who saw the "390" badge behind the front fenders and dreamed dreams of yanking the engine out of the chassis to power their Mustang, Maverick, or Fairlane underneath a spreading Dixie flag airbrushed across the hood.

     "I just cain't see paying for a new car. I like mine."

     As brittle as she was, as prim and mannered as any lady of quality was obliged to be, there was a secret. She wrote her Master's thesis on Henry James. She could quote Wordsworth rapturously as any situation might demand. For Christ's sake, she had a first edition of The Rubiyat (which I was not allowed to touch) on her coffee table.

     In the many ways it manifested, it was never obvious, but even as she sat at the foot of the table and passed hot, heavy dishes, always to the left, with shaking, arthritic hands, you could always tell there was something else. If you looked closely, you could see a beastly fire burning behind that alabaster façade. It was kept in check so that unsightly soot and smoke would not sully the carefully crafted exterior, but it was there. I once heard her and my Granddaddy making love when I was a little boy, and the screams scared me to death.

     Once every ten years or so, she would accidentally become furious, or jocular, or would spread her jaw like Apeneck Sweeney, letting her arms hang down to laugh. In these rare moments, when she, the nightingale, was among us, the Sweeneys, there was an almost audible crack, and the alabaster would soon need some maintenance.

     The 55 mph speed limit wasn't mandatory until 1974, as a response to the horrible oil situation of the seventies. The LTD was built to haul families across the nation's highways, freeways, interstates comfortably, and at a speed slightly higher than that of the wolfpack's. It is most comfortable in its top gear at a speed between 70 and 75 mph.

     Family legend has it that a state trooper once came to the house to warn my Granddaddy that if he "didn't slow Margaret down," the highway patrol would have no choice but to start writing her tickets.

     I drive the LTD now. I purchased it from the family trust that was set up to handle my grandparents' estate after their death. It is an amazing machine, and will take almost any car out of a stoplight. Its 390 cubic-inch engine translates into about 6.4 liters. Nowadays, that kind of ridiculous displacement is pretty much reserved for big trailer-hauling trucks and Ferraris.

     The last lucid conversation I had with my grandmother was about what I was doing for a living. I was starting to make a living as a book editor, and was able to get some writing done. After years of bad decisions, terrible jobs, poor performance in college, and doubtless dozens of deep embarrassments to her of which I remained unaware, she sighed and adjusted herself in the bed. She indicated her sincere approval with some understated compliment and shut her eyes for a moment.

     She then apologized for being ill, and for being unable to prepare an Easter lunch for the family, promising to have some suitable "egg thing" in the near future. A few days went by, and she was given enough morphine to keep her from being conscious of the painful infection that would eventually kill her.

     The car remains pristine. It sat for almost three years unused, so there have been a few leaks and dry-rubber problems, but they all seem to have worked themselves out as juices started flowing again. It purrs like a lion; there's none of the low-class grumbling that marks other muscle cars. It requires high-test, with a $1.50 can of octane booster on top of that to keep it running right. It needs about five minutes to warm up in the morning. The chrome sparkles, the original badges that speak modestly of "LTD," "F O R D," and "390" are all in the right places, all impossible to find replacements for anymore, so she had some spares in a Ziploc bag in the glovebox. It acts prissy, fussy, difficult.

     And it wants to eat life as rapidly as it sucks down expensive gasoline.

     And so did she.

     For almost thirty years I saw the two of them, Grandmother and her car, for the fragile, brittle faces they showed the world. The idea of passion and speed and a throttle that goes much farther than you want to push it were conveniently swept, along with so much else in my family, under the rug, to be denied in dysfunctional WASPy ways.

     I indulged in that denial. I ignored her energy and fire just like she ignored the way I smelled like cigarette smoke. We all ignored each other and smiled. I snuck out to hot-box Camels, and she stayed in the kitchen, working herself into a frenzy, holding back on the passion that would have otherwise made her come out and talk to us, to yell at her sisters about something, to laugh at my uncle, to tell me to shape up. That passion was folded neatly into little packets and put away for later. I know now that they were unfolded in the car.

     I pity the poor kid who pulled up next to her in an Impala after one of our family dinners. If she put as much into dogging him off a light as I put into that Camel, she would have made him cry. And then, she and the car would have both let their arms hang down to laugh.

     Now, she's in a place where people aren't allowed to hide who they are. God doesn't indulge in denial. I hope she and Granddaddy are sitting on a porch with big, cold martinis, and that they know I have a different way of enjoying the LTD, but different though it may be, that I sure as hell do. I don't hide my lust for driving fast, or for many things at all. I listen to Mötörhead. Loud. I don't so much pity that kid in the Impala now, he's just getting what he deserves. But as much as I want to, I will not paint a Dixie flag across the hood. That would be immodest.





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