Black ice, the quasi-official term for the perilously invisible coating of sheen on the road, is the stated cause of death for Matilda. She was mine since high school, my first, and, until then, my only. A rattle indicative of her impending end, echoing about the leafless trees, filled the soundless void for miles. Cries for help, all from me, would be fruitless in our location atop the hill, distant from the nearest soul, trapped without other means of conveyance.
“Helllllo!!!” I shouted, hearing the echo bounce among the hills. Dead air in response, Matilda’s final sputtering the only other sound.
She reached her fate well before we slid from the uncertain grip of the path; years beyond her diagnosed expiration, little help it would have been to have assistance. Without her, I had little option to return home. Fighting against the reality of lacking cell service, I continued to yell, my hope diminishing with the muted passage of the minutes:
“Hello!!! Can you hear me?”
No response but the silence of darkening dusk telling me that all I could do was fire a flare, and continue to hope that only one of us would remain lifeless in the woods.
Temperatures that spring day rose higher than in all the previous week, no doubt in part attributable to the sun making a long-awaited appearance from weeks of gloomy cloud cover. Earlier in the day, we trekked into the nearby mountains, which I thought she could handle well from all the times we had been there before.
Views from the top arrested the senses for a moment of euphoria. Roads on approach offered sights nearly as breathtaking, the snow-covered peaks cresting above the cragged granite blue faces reaching down to the deciduous tree line. Above the couch in my living room hung a panoramic shot of the highest peaks, which did little justice to the in-person sight.
After losing Matilda, I removed the picture of the mountains, replacing it with one of her, the mountains framing the background. Unlike the professional photo that stood there before, I had taken the one now in its stead. The occasion, following our first successful trip up to the peak, had a more pleasant intention at the time than to serve as a memorial, yet did so aptly.
In many ways, I knew her time was coming. What started as a slow decline got quicker with age. Superficial fixes to her surface no longer sufficed. Weeks before the spring, I learned she needed invasive procedure that involved excising a significant part, and at a significant expense. Insurance did not cover this type of work. I asked whether it could be replaced, to which they responded that while it could, at this point it might not be worth it. The heartbreaking reality was that she would soon be no more. Her condition wore down her parts beyond repair; her body was too weak to continue and the options to salvage her became too drastic. It was no longer worth putting her, and myself, through what would inevitably be a futile exercise.
Her final moments unfolded as we returned down a passageway from the peak. Spring’s nascent re-birth had not brought temperatures high enough to melt the remaining patches of ice. It was broad daylight, yet there was no way to see it. Passing through a right-bearing curve, the skidding took over and could not be stopped. I retained composure as it happened, accepting the course of events unraveling before me, my hands calmly steering into the skid, receiving no reaction from the vehicle in response. The uncontrolled slide ended with the blunt stopping force of a roadside tree.
Rattling parts and an ominous hissing portended imminent doom. Leaking gasoline contributed the faint odor of a situation about to get worse. A jammed door frame thwarted my attempts to push open the door, forcing my egress to occur through the broken driver’s side window. I cleared twenty feet on foot before turning around to see it happen, an explosion that burned Matilda to the core, the sound of the roaring flames extinguishing as the remaining fuel burned off.
Dampness from the melting snow in the brush prevented the fire from spreading, sparing the scene from further destruction. Her destiny had arrived, not due to her aging, apparently flammable interiors, but due to a patch of ice that I failed to spot. My father bought her for me when I first got my driver’s license, and now, years later, it would be time to replace her, subsequent to completing the journey home on foot.
It was not me that named her Matilda; in fact, I was at first loathe to accept the convention of naming an inanimate object. Responding to my hesitation, my father once pointed out the inconsistency of my beliefs,
“You named your stuffed animals when you were younger…”
Glad he elected to mention that in the privacy of home, he was correct. They had simple, male names, Dave and Todd, like they were human pals rather than fictional companions. But they were just that, elements of companionship. Cars, however, were of a different nature, objects of reverence, for which human names could not encapsulate my adoration.
Impatience plagued my adolescent years when it came to driving. Any means of doing it in any form before getting a license, I pursued. Go-karts, golf carts, simulated games, and occasionally, holding the wheel while my father drove on the highway. Looking back, it is surprising that he allowed me to do that.
“How about you take over for a bit?” he asked, met by my surprise and overjoyous elation.
My only conceivable answer, as I had already started reaching over from the passenger seat, was to respond, “Yes!!”
Each time thereafter, I initiated the process, “can I drive yet?” Sometimes he made me wait, other times he agreed within the first mile, depending on traffic.
He was otherwise straight, narrow and overly cautious to the point of fear at deviating from the rules. But for those fleeting moments, he handed me control, trusting that I could hold the wheel steady while we cruised at 70 mph, his only available recourse being control over the brakes.
When I approached the age at which I could finally sit behind the wheel and operate the car, his posture and voice conveyed apprehension from the passenger seat. I could never comprehend how a man that not only let me hold the wheel on a highway since the age of 11, and who had seen much else in his long career, would fear the process of teaching me how to drive.
A minivan played the role of our family vessel by the time I advanced to the latter stretch of teenage years. The decision to purchase such a functional mode of transport designed to transport up to eight made little sense for a family comprised only of my mother, father and me. My father offered the justification that the higher ground clearance eased the ability to get in and out of the van, which, for his stiff neck, nobody doubted was an issue.
The van offered a comfortable ride, while its utilitarian appearance discouraged me from being seen driving it. I had hoped for my own car, a notion that both my parents attempted to dispel quickly as I approached the age at which it might be possible. “If you want one, you can work for it” was a phrase I heard regularly. “But I can’t work unless I can drive there,” my retort, seemed befallen to ostensible disinterest.
In the safe confines of an otherwise empty parking lot of the county park, my father swallowed his fear and began the lesson. Gas, brake, steer – in measured doses and, “not all at once!”
We looped around the lot, the easy handling of the minivan navigating parking spaces and cautious turns. He let me venture out to the road a week later, completing my induction into the class of drivers.
With the date approaching when my age would turn sufficient to drive on my own, I accepted a job bagging groceries at the supermarket. “We’re happy to drive you to the store” said my mother, smugly, as she dropped me out front for the most cursory of interviews.
I checked my pride with the intention of exhibiting to my parents that I was sufficiently responsible to operate and maintain an automobile of my own. Naively, too, I conceived that I would save enough money to purchase a car for myself. Little time passed before realizing that the low wages offered by my position, and the minimal hours I could work after school, were far from sufficient to carry through with this ploy.
My strategy was not for naught. Within a month of the day I walked from the motor vehicle department with a newly-minted driver’s license in hand, my father brought me to a used car lot, where he permitted me to search for “practical” cars within his specified, and predetermined “price range.” He swiftly, and indeed, sternly, nixed my first two choices, both convertibles sporting horsepower in the 300 range. “Not in a million years” were his exact words, demonstrating his occasional preference for hyperbole.
My overreaching ambition dashed, we spent the day driving four door sedans and small sport utility vehicles with respectable gas mileage and elevated safety ratings.
“This is a good one for what you need” he repeated, in response to each.
His ambivalent tone evidenced practicality succeeding over exhilaration. He did not smile much; his face instead maintaining poise as we passed through rows of pragmatic options.
Turning to another of the seemingly endless rows, we came into sight of her in tandem. She was a stunning yet sedate shade of yellow, taking hold of our focus from the first glance. A crossover mix between a truck and an SUV, with open-air passenger seating and a canvas hood, starkly contrasted with the sensibility of the adjacent vehicles. Matilda did not find her spot among the safest vehicles, nor did she get the best gas mileage.
“Look at that one” he uttered, still speaking calmly but the sight provoking his first smile of the day. “Wow,” I said back, looking toward him to witness futile attempts to contain excitement. Despite his glee, hesitation struck me as an initial reaction, a symptom of inherited practicality prevailing over the unbridled whimsy of hormonally-regulated teenage fancy.
He allowed me to take it for a test drive, feigning reluctance at first, yet moving quicker than me to fetch the salesman. The salesman’s sedated demeanor unveiled his lack of preparation to my father’s excitement, by this point with no attempt to conceal it.
“My brother had one just like it – it was supposed to be mine until he wrecked it” my father explained as the dealer walked us back to the car. I began to understand my father’s enthusiasm. Seeing him so excited induced the similar rush I felt when he handed me the wheel on the highway, pushing forward my own enthusiasm to get behind the wheel.
Driving her took it to another level. I was powerful. The height from the ground afforded a view above the other cars, while her acceleration left them in the dust behind us. It appeared rugged while retaining the creature comforts of a sedan. My father’s face, beaming in the rear-view mirror, closed the sale. As we pulled into the driveway of our house, the red lights of the rear of my mother’s car flashed, bringing her reversing car to an abrupt halt. She caught a glimpse of us and rolled her eyes, letting out, “What?” Her window was still rolled up as she spoke, but the message was unambiguous.
The name “Matilda” came with the car but remained undiscovered for nearly a month. Since reaching my teenage years, we started a tradition of ascending a trail in the nearby mountain range and hiking from a makeshift looking point to the peaks. The trek commanded the entire day, just my father and I alone in the wilderness. We spoke openly during our journeys, about nearly everything; it was the only place I overcame the age-induced angst of sharing insecurities with a parent. He, too, seemed more at ease, recounting stories to me about his past and his perceptions of the future, both mine and his.
Often, his stories recounted tales from his career, the bulk of which he spent in the army, and his rise through the ranks to officer. From his tales of rigidity over mealtimes, sleeping, cleaning and disciplinary procedures, I gained an understanding of the straight-laced nature he put on in my presence.
“We could never get away with what they do now,” he noted, more than once, his face reflecting recollection of his bygone years.
Vivid accounts of his time in the army reminded me of my younger years when he wore his uniform at home. I was also reminded of the sudden shift, around the time I first started school, when he no longer appeared in the well-pressed officer’s uniform with which his presence had become synonymous.
“Where’s your suit?” I remembered asking one night, over dinner, seated on a phone book to raise my face above the table. “He doesn’t need to wear it anymore” my mother answered, cutting off my father as he was about to respond. “Why?” I asked, with the curious inflection of a small child. Sensing my inevitable inquiry, my mother continued with nothing more than, “to spend more time at home with us.” I had no reason to believe my parents would fabricate the reason.
Once he shed the sharp features and colorful medals of the suit I had come to admire, my father’s new vocation put him in a less captivating uniform, and kept him out of the house at nights. This one did not have any medals, but a silver badge in their place. When he started, I remember thinking he was a police officer; but by the age of seven, I learned, by overhearing an argument between him and my mother, that he was a security officer at a building downtown.
“You were an officer in the army, look at yourself, you’re sitting behind a desk watching monitors all night” she said, the derision on her face more scathing than the tone of her voice. “You know as well as I do that this is all I can do” he responded, desperately searching for the words.