Driven by Memories as Strong as a V-8

T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County

It's easy to forget, living in Orange County, just how great it is to own a car. Most of us drive them to work, of course, but that driving is usually done in the increasingly generous period of time known as the rush hour. No words need be spent decrying that oxymoron.

More to the point, it's easy to forget just what a powerful experience driving a car can be--until the roads are clear, the weather is interesting and there is something eating at your heart. In a car, you can get away from that something, or you can drive, hoping to get a glimpse of it.

I set out on such a journey recently. It lasted the better part of a night, though I had no idea at the time that it would go that long.

To begin with, there was rain in the forecast, always a boon for the introspection, brooding and melancholy I was determined to avoid. I checked the sky late Friday afternoon and it was the same noncommittal thing it had been all day long, a gray detente between rain and shine--pure indecision. Few things on Earth are as frustrating as a sky that won't quite rain or a sun that won't quite shine.

Something should be said about the car I was driving. It was a black Ford T-Bird with a sport suspension and a V-8 engine, which I bought new eight years ago this month. It has automatic everything, nice fat tires (losing tread, unfortunately) and a tape deck that works only sometimes. This particular Ford engine was built just a hair before the advent of the high-output hummers they've got now, so it hasn't got much more than 170 bhp, but that kind of horsepower will definitely get the job done if the car is intelligently geared, which the T-Bird is.

It has sentimental value because I paid for it with money earned from my first novel, a book I could never really envision selling until I saw it in the window of Marriner's Bookstore in late August of 1985. Most important, it was the car I drove when courting the woman who would become my wife; the car in which I brought home my dog Cassius as a terrified 8-week-old puppy in 1988; the car I drove to bury my wife's body that woefully dreary day in January of 1992.

The car has seen a lot.

I gassed it up, double-washed the windshield, checked the oil and headed north on Coast Highway out of Laguna. It was still early evening, so the traffic was thick: just what you'd expect on a Friday that won't quite rain. The cars were backed up coming into town, but heading out the running was pretty fair except for the inevitable driver--there is always one--using the passing lane for sightseeing.

I accelerated around him, throwing the requisite sideways dagger of a glance his way, then leaned back and let the center lane dividers tick past on my left. I looked out the window to where the endless gray horizon met the endless gray Pacific; and closer in, a smattering of small commercial boats worked the kelp beds and a disconsolate sailboat wended out toward Catalina. I was happy to not be on it.

Much has been written about the V-8 rush, so I won't try to outdo the competition except to say that it's a truly satisfying thing to sit still and go from, say, 40 to 80 in just a few seconds. I love the way you can feel the T-Bird shift up and rev high for a screaming moment, then clunk back down into cruising gear and become all but silent. A V-8 makes it all sound so easy. All I heard was the tires on the asphalt and the wind hissing past outside.

Newport slipped along in its ceaseless mercantile vigor, all lights and restaurants, yacht brokers and car dealerships. On the right flashed past that slanty little architect's office that looks like it was jammed into the earth by a giant child. On the left, Josh Slocum's and the Chart House mixed in with the art and antiques dealers and the purveyors of marine hardware. That icy blue neon striping around the John Dominis complex is nice to see against an undecided sky.

I like that you can smell Huntington Beach as you enter it. It's the smell of oil being taken and electricity being generated and it is an honest smell. It's also a reminder of what it takes to manufacture, fuel and lubricate the engine humming just a few inches from your toes.

I ate dinner in Huntington and got back in my car. Now the night was black, but there was still no rain as I navigated the side streets back to Coast Highway, past the redeveloped downtown. You can try to zone some of the surf shops out of Surf City, but you can't zone out all the surfers--there they were on the streets by the score, as if Chuck Dent was still in business and the Golden Bear was about to start its first show of the night.

I got back to Laguna around 11, so I just kept driving south to San Clemente. The car was running great, and I hadn't been in San Clemente since moving my fiancee out of there back in 1988. There was her street, Escalones, a quiet, crooked little road with a Thrifty at one end and nothing at the other. And there was her old house, repainted but still the same tiny abode it was a thousand years ago, when she stood behind the screen door in an orange blouse with her big dog glaring up at me and my eyes straining in the porch light while she smiled and opened--just for me--the complex system of locks she used to keep the bad guys out.

By now I understood what I was looking for, but this was accompanied by the sobering realization that I would never see her again on this Earth. So again, I drove.

I remembered driving like this back when we were first dating, just cruising the roads between Laguna and San Clemente, delirious with happiness. I believed then that love was feeling you were about to steal something more wonderful than you would ever deserve. I believe that still.

Out loud now I wished her a happy birthday, which was the next day. I put on some music I used to listen to back then, a Warren Zevon tape:

"Some nights I drive my car

Up and down the boulevard

Can't seem to find it

Sentimental hygiene . . ."

I didn't understand back then what old Warren was getting at, but I do now.

I zoomed up Interstate 5 to the Beach Cities off-ramp, took that nice bending turn at rather high speed and touched the brakes to join the late-night traffic in Dana Point. Up Coast Highway, then onto the canyon drive that would lead me home, but past that drive and back onto the interstate again . . . for one more pass.

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