Literary LEO 2014

Short Fiction — Honorable Mention 2

The Volkswagen
by Kathryn Shaver

The ring of the bedside phone woke me from a sleep addled with marijuana and bourbon.

I was 27 years old, and newly separated from a husband I had discovered was a scoundrel. With no idea what I was going to do with my life, drowning it in drink and a few too many tokes of pot seemed to be the solution. Though I still lived in the same first-floor apartment of a converted old bungalow in a park-like suburb near the center of town, everything was changing.

My upstairs neighbor’s voice was on the phone. “Sorry to wake you, but there are two police cars with flashing lights in front of the house. Cops have broken into your VW and are crawling all over it. Thought you might want to know.”

I closed my eyes and turned on the light. The alarm clock made a quiet little thwap as the minute card flapped to reveal the time and date: 12:42 AM / WED / JAN 17 / 1973. My apartment was at the back of the house, so I couldn’t see what was happening on the street unless I went out the front door. Get dressed, I told myself. The blue pantsuit I had worn to work that day was still on the dresser. No time for underwear. I slipped on the trousers, snatched a sweater from the drawer and pulled it over my head. As I was contemplating the suit jacket — may as well look professional and accountable for the police, I thought — the doorbell rang.

I felt like hell. Thick and already headachy from drink. Fuzzy from reefer. I remembered I had forgotten to comb my hair. Had they rung all the doorbells and woken my neighbors? Well, too bad. Alice upstairs and her boyfriend were already awake anyway.

I didn’t let them in by the buzzer or take the time to use the intercom, but went out into the common hallway and opened the front door to two uniformed policemen. Red and blue lights flashed behind them.

“Are you the owner of the beige 1966 Volkswagen parked in front of the house?”

“Yes,” I said, wondering what could possibly be the problem. The police radio dispatch burbled something indecipherable in the background. A couple of policemen were, as Alice had said, crawling through my little car.

That car. David — whom I had fallen in love with while we were both working on a college theatre production — and I had been a one-car couple for most of our nearly five-year marriage. As our relationship had begun to fall completely apart, he had spent 800 dollars on a very used Volkswagen Beetle. It was beige, inconspicuous, and inexpensive, compared to David’s lime-green, frog-eyed Saab sports car with hefty monthly payments. My little car reminded me of a big, dirty ice cube, yet it allowed me to depart my daytime ad agency job, the job that paid the bills, every afternoon promptly at five rather than wait for David to show up when he felt like it. I would stop to pick up pizza or fried chicken for our supper, then head straight to the theatre, where David was set designer and tech director, a job that paid very little. I had signed on as volunteer costumer, my attempt at saving what was left of our marriage, so I could be at the theatre with David nights and weekends.

That aging Volkswagen was not only the transportation that had secured the beginnings of our liberation from each other, but also functioned as my costume shop. The passenger seats were filled with bolts of shiny taffetas and velvets, worn strips of fur and feather boas, strings of sequins, some 30 pairs of fishnet stockings, two pairs of silver glitter tap shoes, several bouffant net petticoats, an immense plastic round containing spools of thread in every imaginable color, and a box that held six or eight pairs of scissors, seam rippers, needle cards, and one very large tomato-shaped pin-cushion with the word YES spelled out in pins.

“Could we see your ownership papers?”

“Why don’t you come in?,” I said. “It’s cold out here.” I could see my breath in the night air.

As the two men followed me into my apartment, I tried to lighten the moment. “How’d you like all that costume frou-frou in my car?” I made a fake laugh that I regretted.

They didn’t answer. While I turned on two lamps in the dark living room, they waited in the tiny foyer inside my apartment.

“Please, sit down.” I pointed to one end of the sofa and a chair next to it. “I’ll see what papers I have. But I’m in the middle of a divorce. I don’t know what’s here anymore. My husband ran off with a lot of stuff.”

The empty spaces in the living room glared at me, holes that were there because David had come in one day when I was at work and carted off half the furniture, along with the TV, the stereo and all the Bob Dylan records.

From the half-empty bookcase, I produced a fake leather binder. Stamped in gold on its front were the words “Very Important Papers,” the initial capital letters with great flourishes that promised the importance of whatever might be inside. I unzipped the binder and flipped through the contents. A savings bond my grandmother had given me on my first birthday (ah, there would be some cash if I needed it, which I surely would), my birth certificate, a passport I would have no need for in the near future, my ruby baby ring, and my marriage certificate. Christmas Day, 1967, the wonder of Christmas portending nothing of the sour marriage to come; the snowstorm that day, everything. Whatever other papers might have been there were now gone. How would I know? The binder held stuff I never looked at. There was nothing about the car.

I set the binder on the coffee table, open so they could examine it if they chose. It lay next to a large blue and white plate that served as ashtray. I stared at a few days of marijuana ends, some spent matches, and an ornate little gold roach clip that lay in the plate. The delicate mandibles of the clip clenched the smallest amount of a spent joint. Just what I need, I thought. Now, when my life is in pieces, I’m going to be arrested for smoking a little dope. I decided to ignore it, much as I handled the other aspects of my life.

“I don’t have the title. I don’t seem to have any papers about any cars. Were they maybe in the glove compartment of the car?”

“No, ma’am, they weren’t. How long have you had the car, ma’am?”

“Maybe a year. Maybe less. I don’t remember exactly.” I was still thick and stupid from the evening’s marijuana. My head was pounding from the bourbon. “What’s the problem?”

My mind wandered to whether or not I had paid the property tax on the car and renewed the license plate. I seemed to be getting behind on everything.

“Do you know license plate number, ma’am?”

I squinted to concentrate better. “L A C something…” My eyes still narrowed, the illegal bits of paper and weed in the ashtray on the coffee table commanded my attention. “Four seven … seven. Yes, that’s it. LAC 477.”

“That’s a stolen plate, ma’am.”

I looked at Wheedon — that was the name on the plastic rectangle on his chest — and tried to arrange my face to reflect some sense of composure. “You mean, sir, that somebody ripped off my tag?”

“No, ma’am. We mean the tag that is on your car is a stolen one. HQ got a call from a man who said his license plate was stolen about a year ago. He was driving down your street earlier tonight and saw the same number on the back of your Volkswagen. Called in to notify us where the plate was. So we came over to check it out.”

“But that’s the tag that’s always been on my car.”

“Where’d you buy the car, ma’am?”

“We bought it, I mean, my husband bought it, from somebody he used to work with.” What’s the unscrupulous swine done now?, I thought. “At least that’s what he told me.”

It occurred to me that maybe there never had been a title. David had shown up with the car a few months before we separated. My birthday gift, he had said, so I wouldn’t have to take the bus downtown to the ad agency, not have to wait for him to pick me up in the afternoons, so I could get around a bit, be my own person. It had seemed so perfect. And the first thoughtful thing he had done in a long time.

“Your husband … where is he now?” Wheedon was asking all the questions. Goss had not said a word the entire time, though I noticed he kept looking at the ashtray.

My cat sauntered into the room, curious as always, and brushed up against Goss’s calf for a scratch. “Big cat,” he finally said, and brushed the cloud of white hair from his trouser leg.

“Maine Coon,” I said. Anything to change the subject. “He weighs 23 pounds. Name is Gizmo.”

“Your husband, ma’am?” Wheedon asked.

“He lives in an apartment somewhere over on 14th or 15th Street. I don’t know exactly where.” I did know. And then I wondered why I was protecting him. David had lied to me, cheated on me, spent what little he earned in bars, and had even hit me a couple of times. The last night we were together, he had come home drunk about two in the morning. He sat on me while I was sleeping and began to slap me repeatedly. Gizmo was yowling. All I could think of was how interesting it was that a cat could recognize violence. I kept asking David over and over, “Why are you doing this?” Finally, he stopped slapping me and left the room. A few minutes later, I heard him leave our apartment, perhaps in shame or rage, I never knew. He hadn’t injured me, only a few bruises that were gone in a couple of days. I called him at the theatre the next afternoon and told him to come over and get his clothes and to get the hell out of my life. After he took half our stuff, I changed the locks. So why was I protecting the bastard?

“Actually, it’s that big white apartment building on 15th Street. The part that runs down the hill, next to the Theatre Arts Center. He lives on the second floor.” There. I’ve done it. They could just go find him.

“Thanks, ma’am. We’ll see if we can follow this up with him.”

Wheedon stood up, glanced at the blue and white ashtray — which at that moment seemed to me to be the largest thing in the room — and gave me a glimmer of a smile. He turned and walked toward the door, his partner following.

As they went out into the common hallway, Wheedon said, “And by the way, you need to take care of getting a license plate right away. You can do it at the motor vehicle bureau over on Monroe Drive. You’ll have to find the title, of course.”

As I escorted them out, the front-door intercom clicked once, then again. Nosy Alice trying to listen to what might be going on, I figured. I would have to explain this tomorrow.

When I walked back into my living room, Gizmo was curled into a ball in the chair where Goss had sat. He opened his eyes briefly, and then went back to the serenity of cat sleep. The missing furniture and half-empty bookcases made me sad. I wondered where my life was headed, if I was destined to be like my living room, only half full. I unearthed the little bamboo box of weed and a packet of cigarette papers from behind a Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald picture book, set face out on the bookcase. Its cover showed a couple frolicking in a fountain, a picture I had always admired until now.

I took one of the papers, creased it in half, lay it open, and sprinkled a portion of the crushed, dry leaves into the valley of the paper. I licked the gummed edge of the paper, sealed it and twisted the ends. Scott and Zelda stared at me from the bookcase. Their spirited life, debauched as it was, had always seemed appealing. I thought I remembered that they were even jailed for the fountain caper. Now their irrepressible irresponsibility seemed only foolish.

The roach key gleamed at me from the ashtray. I nestled the little gold clip into the pocket of the VIP binder, zipped it and set it on the top shelf of the bookcase. I put the unlit joint I had just rolled, along with the bamboo box, onto the blue and white plate and took it into the kitchen. I dumped the weed into the sink and buried the little box under some frozen dinner packages in the garbage. Rinsing the plate under the faucet, I flipped on the disposal. The weed and butts swished around the sink for a moment, then ran into the dark cavity that ground them to nothing. I let the water run a long time.