Smoke engulfed my body.
My eyes blinked open from a groggy sleep. My fingers rubbed at the puckered skin on my cheek and the imprinted marks caused by the weave from the interior carpet of the open trunk space. White noxious clouds billowed past the side windows. I smelled the carbon monoxide. A drowsy question slipped through my four-year-old thoughts.
Where’s Aunt Helen’s house?
The rear car door opened. My mother commanded for me to climb out. I placed my hands on the backseat and flopped my legs over, still trying to rub the sleepy gunk from the corners of eyelids. I coughed from the car fumes and stared at the whizzing cars along Route 22 in Westmoreland County, Pa. Whoosh. Whoosh. They sped along the intersection. I knew where we were - a bad place.
Bad intersection. Congested. Impatient drivers. Often we rode by this place and saw at least one accident. Often the ambulance loaded the people on stretchers but did not bother putting on their flashers. I knew what this meant even at my tender age.
We had left the city of Murrysville and had just entered Monroeville. The car had climbed the hill, making struggling putt-putt chugs I had thought came from somewhere in my dreams. I had drifted to sleep while laying in the trunk space in the grey, cramped Vega. Although only my mother and I rode in the car, I still curled on a blanket in the far back. Old habits died hard.
The car sat in the turn-off lane, smoke continuing to billow out from underneath with the engine pinging and clanging despite everything turned off. My mother had pulled it over far enough on the side where hopefully no other vehicle would hit it. But we weren’t going to stay there to find out. Sitting in the car would have been dangerous if a neglectful driver should strike the rear end. Now it was worse as we stood near the car waiting for this scenario to happen.
My mother told me to keep to the far side as we began walking. Where? I had no clue. We left the main route and took a different one, heading in a roundabout course. She walked closer to the road, a shield in case some weirdo child molester should pull up and try to snatch me. Although this story takes place in 1979, such incidents were becoming more commonplace.
We walked a good fifteen minutes along the dirt side with no sidewalks or curbing stones. Cars still whizzed by, but not as often as before. Nothing was to the right side of me except the hillside. But farther away sat shiny metal lined in even, slanted rows within a large lot.
New cars. Sparkly in the afternoon sunlight, I turned my face away and shielded eyes from the glare. It was a strange place for a dealership - off the main track and private. I guess this might have been the reason they shut their doors three years later. We entered the front doors.
Quiet. Dim. The showroom had pot lights ensconced in the high ceilings. Each beam brightened an individual car, yet large blinds were down over the display windows, half-drawn with faint streamers of sunlight barely warming the marbled floors.
I stayed close to my mother as we wandered about the building looking for signs of life. We finally found a well-dressed man, almost surprised to see us there, as he lifted from his desk and accosted us. All I heard of their talk was, “Car broken down - would you like to see this year’s models - need phone - we have special year-end prices - call husband at work - I can cut you a good deal.” Mainly, my attention focused on an object against the far wall of the showroom.
There sat a booth. It looked like a type of photo booth with a full curtain draping over the entrance. Covered on the outside walls grinned pictures of TerryToons: Woody Woodpecker, Mighty Mouse, Chilly Willy, and Heckle and Jeckle.
One step, then another, I sidled over in a hesitant shuffle young children would make when not knowing if where they were going was allowed but curiosity dared them nonetheless. I pushed the curtain away and saw a bench and a monitor such as a person would see at an arcade parlor. Yet there were no joystick or buttons to play the game.
A woman wearing a pantsuit outfit walked into the room. She smiled, reached into her pocket, and pulled out a quarter. She stuck it into the slot.
The monitor lit up. The first droning chuckles of Woody Woodpecker wailed from inside. Pictures flashed as the red-headed bird swam through the cloudy sky backward before slamming beak-first into a sycamore tree.
My mouth gaped in wonder. I glanced at my mother who had become startled by the loud cartoon noises. My eyes asked silent permission. The man standing beside her assured my mother that they could discuss things in his office while I could watch cartoons. The other associates would keep an eye on things.
The woman pulled out a few more quarters and slid them inside. I hopped in and sat on the bench, watching Mighty Mouse fight off the evil villian cat Oil Can Harry in its parody of Superman. Although the booth had a hard plastic seat, I did not mind it as my body curled in one corner with knees up to my chest and dusty tennis shoes tapping the surface in happiness. The outside world disappeared to the flashing lights, the high-pitched voices, and the clang of dropped anvils coming from the monitor.
The only times I became drawn out of my cartoon revelry was whenever I heard a KA-CHUNK along the slot of the machine. I peeked out and spied on the person, either dressed in business attire or a blue jumpsuit (the guys who worked in the tuneup garage), as they glanced back and gave a wave. Being shy, I quickly poked my head inside. I found out later that the owner of the dealership had informed all the employees to drop in a quarter whenever they passed by. I believe there was a food incentive (pizza delivery) involved on his part in exchange for their generosity.
The cartoons played in seven to ten minute intervals before needing another quarter. With the amount of chunk change flipped into the slot, I occupied this booth for THREE HOURS (roughly 18 quarters = $4.50). By the time the monitor flickered off, I experienced a “brain fog.”
Literally dazed by the flashing pictures, on the verge of having a slight headache, eyes sore from the strain, and body wobbly from stiff muscles, I shuffled from the booth in a sway like a druggie coming down from a righteous high. My eyelids blinked rapidly to fight the spotty haze lurking in the edges of my sight while whenever I turned my head I saw lines of colors in my plane of view. Once my mind cleared, I scratched my head in confusion.
I shuffled around the showroom, staring at the closed doors but not sure which one to open. Without the droning cartoon music and with the lack of activity, the place felt like a funeral parlor. It didn’t help matters that large black cars took center stage looking like hearses in the spotlights. Nervous now, I returned to the safe confines of the booth leaving the curtain closed in protection. I curled in the corner, rested my forehead against bent knees, and waited with growing apprehension.
Thirty minutes later, the curtain pulled away. I jumped in fright on the bench, staring wildy at my mother. She said it was time to go.
I climbed from the booth and we headed outside to where the sales associate had parked a car: a huge brown behemoth Chrysler that in my mind looked like a mini submarine. The deal had been struck between my mother and the owner: she could have the car for three days while their mechanics worked on the beat-up Vega. Then she would bring their car back (with a full tank of gas) and exchange it. All she had to pay for was parts and labor for her car.
Happy, my mother waved at the friendly owner and sales associates as she drove us home. Optimistic, the dealership hoped my mother would fall in love with the car and decide to buy it in the end.
Sighing, I curled up on the front seat while softly humming the Chilly Willy melody for the entire ride.
Photo of cartoon booth courtesy of arcade-museum.com
Photo of Heckle and Jeckle image courtesy of wikipedia.org