Boys love cars. Or, at least, all the boys I knew growing up did. Charlie carried that auto-adoration in his heart, too. He would often use them as a play space in the driveway. He made forts in the backs of the SUVs. He even stowed away in the back seat of my sister's car when she went to work on one fine, eventful day - but that's another story.
All the cars that Charlie knew are long gone from the world now, just as he is, having succumbed to catastrophic failures or fatal accidents. As a matter of fact, even the cars that replaced those ones are on their way out. The years and the miles, the tears and the smiles, those things take their toll.
When I came home from Phoenix in 2011, I was driving a Hyundai which I called Little Grizzly (or The Gray Ghost, depending on whether it was running or not at the time). It had a 16-valve engine and a stick-shift, and the first time I took my nephew for a ride in it, I warned him:
"Buckle up, kid. Uncle Paul drives crazy sometimes."
Which he loved with gleaming eyes.
My Uncle-ish pleasure was doubled when I later heard him say to one of his friends, upon climbing into the back of the Little Grizzly to be taken someplace, "Buckle up, man. Uncle Paul drives crazy."
The Gray Ghost outlived Charlie. But not by much. Its replacement, a black Neon that he would be driving to school and back by now, is limping to its own finish line. Between Michigan roads and Michigan weather, the car has about had it.
Yesterday, my sister and I drove out close to Lansing (an hour away) to look at a used car, a Buick. The car was immaculate, clearly having been babied and garaged its whole life. I stuck my head underneath it to look at the frame, and was amazed. Solid steel coated in factory paint. Not a speck of rust.
You see, it's not just the water that gets them, even though Michigan has rainfall on par with Seattle or any other rainforest. It's the tons of rock salt they put on the roads in winter, you know, to save lives. The salt-slush freezes on to the undercarriage of the cars and trucks here, for weeks or even months, and eats them until there's nothing left. Corrosion is more than a metaphor here.
The other thing I noticed about buying a car out of town: Normal people. You do not run into that when searching for a used car here. Basically, Kalamazoo can be boiled down into four subgroups: Bums, thieves, tweekers and crazies. The nice couple with the Buick did not meet any of those criteria, which is why they don't live in Kalamazoo.
My sister bought the Buick. She deserves a nice vehicle after all that has been done to her here.
And so before us all lies the open road. Like the instructions say... Tear along the dotted line.