This is one I started a long time ago, and put aside because I thought at various times that readers would confuse it with Robert Asprin’s Myth series or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (which I haven’t read yet). At one point I considered making it part of the Wayne Ellsworth series, and that might be a viable option, but here it is in its original form.
I wasn’t entirely awake yet, and when the doorbell rang I answered it, still in my bathrobe, without really thinking about it. I looked out at the guy standing on the porch.
I was expecting a neighbor’s kid selling something, or a delivery person with a package, so the grinning hairy face took a moment to register. I knew it was familiar, but right at first I didn’t recognize him.
When I did, my jaw dropped.
“Al!” I said.
“Hey, Will!” he said. “Get dressed, will you?”
I blinked at him.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because we need your help.”
“That’ll take some explaining,” he said.
“Who’s we?” I asked, looking past him.
There wasn’t anyone else on the porch, but parked at the curb was The Car, and I could see there were people in it.
I couldn’t believe he still had The Car.
Al Larson was my old college roommate, and I had sold him The Car five years before – and I hadn’t seen him since three days after that, when I went off to get married and he headed for California, driving The Car.
The Car, I should explain, is a 1957 DeSoto I had bought during our freshman year for $100 from some guy out on the edge of town, a guy with a back yard full of old cars and orders from his landlady to get rid of them while she still had some grass left.
The 1957 DeSoto Firesweep is a truly amazing vehicle, weighing two and a half tons, measuring twenty-one feet from the points of the protruding chrome dagmars to the tips of the magnificent tailfins, and powered by a Chrysler 383-cubic-inch V-8 engine with twin exhaust lines and a design or casting flaw in the left exhaust manifold that resulted in most of them shearing through just behind the rearmost cylinder. Intact left exhaust manifolds for Chrysler 383’s were therefore almost impossible to obtain. When The Car had suffered this inevitable malady while in my possession a search of every junkyard on the east coast had failed to obtain a replacement, so I had had the exhaust manifold welded back together; during the three-week period when this repair had not been made, and those four cylinders were therefore not connected to a muffler, a casual drive down the street sounded rather like a Boeing 747 warming up. If both mufflers were gone it would probably sound like World War III.
That weld job probably violated half a dozen safety laws, but it worked, and kept The Car quiet.
Built in an era of gargantuan automobiles, the Firesweep was big even in its day – I’m six feet tall, but I could lie down and stretch out in the back seat without bumping my head or sticking my feet out the window.
The controls were the height of populuxe design, with push-button transmission – the owner’s manual warns you solemnly not to operate the car in Low-Low gear at speeds exceeding 65 MPH – and thermometer speedometer. That is to say, the speedometer has no needle; instead, there’s a slot across it, and in the slot is a strip of orange-red plastic. The faster you go, the more of the plastic strip is visible, as it slides across from left to right. Since the tip is beveled, so that the end of the plastic strip covers a span of slightly more than three MPH, there’s no way of telling exactly how fast you’re going, you can only approximate. This fascinating speedometer goes to 120 MPH, though in fact I could never get the thing over 115, at which speed it vibrated so much I could barely steer.
I don’t know if Al ever managed to top it out.
This was never meant to be a vehicle for the hybrid-loving, fuel-efficient, would-be-green modern world; at its best, on the highway, it managed maybe seventeen miles per gallon, and I think it did that well partly by burning oil, a quart every two hundred miles.
I loved The Car while I had it – it was everything a college student needed. But when I graduated and got a job and set out on the road to the great American dream-state of suburban marital bliss I knew the time had come to put away childish things, and that included my chunk of ancient Detroit iron.
No dealer wanted it in trade, and I didn’t want to take the time to find a collector, so I let Al have it for $500, which I used as the down-payment on an ugly blue Toyota.
That lasted as long as my marriage – Sharon got it in the divorce settlement, and I had then bought myself a used Honda Civic that was, on this particular morning, sitting in the driveway rusting away. The transmission had committed hara-kiri a month before, and I hadn’t yet made up my mind whether to junk the car, repair it, or try to trade it in.
I was using my mother’s Chevy Lumina in the meantime. I’d ordinarily say my mother’s old Chevy, as it dates back to 1999 or so, but with The Car sitting out there, obviously still running, the Chevy suddenly seemed terribly small and modern and sophisticated by comparison.
“Who’s in the car?” I asked.
“That will take some explaining, too,” Al said.
“So explain,” I said.
“I’ll explain in the car,” he said. “Get dressed, will you?”
“I’m not going anywhere without an explanation,” I told him. “And I’m not going anywhere without some breakfast. What are you doing here, Al? It’s been five years! And how the hell did you find me, anyway?”
“What’s to find?” he asked, gesturing at the house. “I’ve been here before, Will, remember? Sophomore year, Christmas vacation, when my folks were in the Bahamas.”
“But how’d you know I’d moved back in with my mother?”
He grinned and shrugged.
“Lucky guess,” he said. “Now, are you coming, or aren’t you?”
“I’m not going anywhere without an explanation,” I said. “If you and your friends want to come in for breakfast and tell me what the hell is going on, maybe I’ll agree to help with whatever it is.”
He considered that – I could see him considering, making all the familiar old gestures, cocking his head to the left and chewing his upper lip so his moustache hairs wiggled.
The son of a bitch hadn’t changed a bit since college, so far as I could see, and I suddenly regretted my own short-trimmed hair and clean-shaven face – or almost clean-shaven, as that was something else I hadn’t yet gotten to that morning. Al had a huge sloppy mustache and a Van Dyke beard and wavy brown hair past his shoulders, which left his general appearance halfway between Frank Zappa and Jesus Christ.
“Okay, Will,” he said. “I’ll just have to hope we can spare the time. Wait here.”
He turned and trotted back down the porch steps, out to the curb, where he talked to someone through the car window.
A moment later The Car’s back doors opened, and two people got out – a plump woman in a flowing paisley dress and jeweled tiara, and a thin guy in jeans and a lumberjack shirt. They joined Al, and the three of them trooped back up the walk.
“Breakfast?” Al said.
Well, I’d said they could join me.