By Kirk Eggleston
Published by Virtual Publications
December 2001; ISBN: 096795035X; 303 pages
BRAD Cunningham barreled across rural Iowa like Rommel raiding North Africa. Grandpa Otho's 1971 Buick Electra two-door was the mightiest mass of metal on the battlefield. Not a ding, a scratch, nor a speck of rust had ever blemished her ponderosa green finish. Masterfully lined with clear plastic seat covers, her satin-like upholstery had never worn or soiled.
One hundred sixteen. One hundred seventeen. One hundred--"Jesus Christ!" Brad swerved to avoid a gravel-throwing International Harvester. The driver, hunched under his Ralston Purina cap, waved obliviously at the passing blitzkrieg. "Asshole!" Brad swore like a commandant, or at least as bad as his grandfather had. Childhood memories of Grandpa Otho included the old man's foul mouth, dirty war stories, and a toothless chuckle when his dentures dropped onto the kitchen table. Most recent in Brad's muddled mind was Grandpa with his mouth sewn closed at the Burns' Family Funeral Home. "Otho really looked good," everyone repeated when they returned from the viewing. Brad's only thought was that the clean-shaven, full-figured carcass was a fine work of taxidermy, like the moldering stuffed beaver down at The Lodge.
All Brad really cared about was that he was out of Garnavillo alive. Every second in that vinyl-sided Iowa town seemed like months. No one said much about anything, but they all talked in such excruciating detail that Brad had thought, before long, he too would need embalming. No wonder Grandpa had always seen the tank as half empty instead of half full. He had spent the greater part of 84 years always making sure he had enough gas to get back to Elijah Burns' Conoco on the corner of Main Street and the Stop 'n Shop. Brad, on the other hand, pushed the fuel tank past the red zone and barreled into a random roadside station on fumes. "Fill it up," he said to the attendant, an old timer more greased than Grandpa. Full service seemed appropriate in the Buick. Brad figured it for one of the few raw pleasures in which Grandpa had ever indulged.
The attendant wore a white ascot like a gas-pumping millionaire. With a filthy forefinger pushed to his throat he rasped robotically, "Ya want Super Unleaded or the Econo Crude?"
Brad remembered that the Buick ran on leaded gas. "Uh, I'll take the Super 99 Octane."
"You betcha." The attendant's Darth Vader voice well suited his black Valvoline stained coveralls and steel-tipped boots. Even the ascot looked imperial. He marched to the rear of the Buick, removed the fuel nozzle from its holster, and squatted out of sight from the rear view mirror.
"OOOOOoooooooohhhhhhhhhhh." The groan was horrific, but all too familiar. A similar cry had echoed in Brad's ears this weekend every time one of his 17 great aunts and uncles sat down, stood up or bent over. "Drivin' your old man's car, eh?" The attendant's amplified exhales reverberated through the Buick as though he had pressed his steel larynx to the gas tank. Smoking a Pall Mall through the hole in his throat made every gasp sound like stereo distortion.
"Uh no," Brad stammered. "It's my, uh. The car is mine."
"Sure it is, Son! Sure it is!"
The attendant had no idea how close Brad was to pushing the car over to self-serve. Who was this toothpick-chewing, rag-wielding, human air compressor to condescend to an Ivy League graduate? "Well, it used to belong--"
"Used to belong to somebody who babied his Buicks, didn't it? Some ol' fella who waxed her every week and parked her in a garage! Am I right? Am I right?" The attendant had maneuvered himself to the front of the Buick and turned up the volume control under his ascot. His face, rusted with moles and furrows as deep as the plowed Iowa earth, hovered over the windshield like the flies near the men's room door. Thankfully, the sudsy stroke of a squeegee blurred it.
I'll stand down by the door
And catch the gray men
When they dive from the fourteenth floor
Brad reached for a cassette. Music had always provided deliverance from vexing conflict, and now was a better time than any to tune out reality.
I'll collect everything I'm owed
And before my friends find out
I'll be on the road
Time was all it took to marry the most unlikely of juxtapositions. Lounging in a Nixonian luxury liner with early Donald Fagen, once an absurdity, now made beautiful sense: Steely Dan and Tricky Dick. It was so simple, so appropriate, so harmonious--just the way Grandpa should have driven in 1971. You can't buy a thrill, Brad figured, but you sure as hell can inherit one.
"YESSIREE, Bradley. I remember it like it was yesterday."
Two decades had passed since Otho Cunningham first sat behind the wheel at Earl Burns' Star Spangled Olds-Buick, the only dealership in Clayton County. Garnavillo folklore had immortalized the Buick's history. Fat and friendly Earl Burns himself kept it alive at the funeral reception.
"'Howya doin', Otho?' I said to your grandpa. 'Why don't you climb in this here sleek two-door model. It's by far our most luxurious car on the lot.'"
Brad sat uncomfortably next to Uncle Earl on Grandpa's front porch glider, heir to a history he had no choice but to hear.
"Your granddaddy climbed in the Electra and just sat there like a zombie or somethin'. I showed him how to move the automatic bench seat up and down and back and forth with the electronic switch, and I told him three times we had a demo model outside he could test drive."
Uncle Earl was like Alex Haley's grandmother, keeper of the oral tradition. Brad didn't see him so reverent. Uncle Earl had at least one of Great Aunt Amelia's paprika-sprinkled deviled eggs in his mouth and a heaping plate of potluck in his lap. He ran his knockwurst fingers through his thinning Bryl-Creamed flat top. Years of test driving the latest Rivieras and Ninety-Eights had creased his white dress shoes.
"But Bradley, your granddaddy just sat there with his hands on the steering wheel, not sayin' or hearin' a thing. It was like he didn't even know I was talkin' to him, ya know, like he was in another world or somethin'." Brad watched Uncle Earl lick his cubic zirconia high school graduation ring. It had accumulated a sizable deposit of Coney Island salad, his wife Augusta's special blend of diced Hormel franks, Cheez Whiz, and Miracle Whip. It was as disgusting a thing as Brad had ever seen, but a fascinating anthropological study.
"I mean he was so taken by that Buick that I finally had to shake him and call out his name over and over again. 'Otho! Otho! Otho!'" Uncle Earl stopped licking his ring and took a caveman bite of one of Great Aunt Eunice's southern fried chicken breasts. Brad noted how Uncle Earl saved the skin for last. "I' was 'eally sum'un. Sum'un so min' bogglin' I a'most cawed fo' he'p." He finally swallowed. "But just then your grandaddy turned to me and spoke with a voice of seriousness that I'd never heard from anyone except the town preacher, or maybe Emmet Pearson when he speared his foot with a post hole digger. Do ya know what your granddaddy said to me, Bradley?"
Uncle Earl wiped his whole face with the napkin he had wedged between his second and third chins. This made Brad nauseous. He picked at his spaghetti pie and, in penny loafers, felt acutely estranged. Uncle Earl was no longer interesting. Just a gluttonous yokel.
". . . Well, I'll tell ya. He looked at me through those thick glasses that made his eyes look like they were gonna bug outa his skull, and in that John Wayne voice of his he declared, 'Open the goddamn door, Earl. I'm gonna drive her right out of the showroom!'"
Perhaps 23 was too young to grasp life's finiteness, but watching Grandpa's peers bid their friend farewell hit Brad with a cold splash of mortality and bad beer. Uncle Earl had cracked open his seventh Pabst Blue Ribbon, which sprayed all over Brad.
"I'll tell ya. It was like the Lord Himself spoke through your granddaddy. I thought I had sold a car to the Almighty!" Uncle Earl took a deep breath. He had tears in his eyes. "I'll never forget it. And for God's sake don't ya ever forget it either."
All morning long Garnavillo had subjected Brad to religious rhetoric and rituals that came to him in a vacuum. He attended the standing-room-only service at Our Savior Lutheran Church to hear Pastor Swenson briefly eulogize Grandpa's life as an outstanding family man, once Grand Beaver Chieftain, and northeastern Iowa's leading State Farm representative from 1952 to 1987.
"Otho Cunningham lived a simple life like all of us. He worked hard, loved well, and passed on part of himself to his children and ours. Like a good neighbor, he willed us all some security. And as a beneficiary of God's will, he is now insured in heaven. Now would ya join me in singing all fifteen verses of Blessed Assurance?"
This is my song
Praising my savior
All the day long
Grandpa's life seemed so simply summed up. The townsfolk paid their final respects after driving several miles out to the country cemetery behind a crawling 1964 Hearse. Zeb and Zed Burns (two of Grandpa's pall bearers) folded up Old Glory, and Grandma tossed a handful of rich Iowa soil on her husband's ponderosa green, satin-like upholstered casket with the unusual but prudent plastic lining. Then, as the sky blackened and rain began to pour on Grandpa's grave and the surrounding Astroturf, everyone hurried into their cars and drove back to the family homestead. There they would present Grandma with cold cuts, hot casseroles, and Tupperware full of Jell-O.
Brad hated Jell-O. He watched Uncle Earl and the gaggles of Garnavillans devouring the stuff like it was escargot and again felt alien. For Great Uncle Horace in the later stages of Parkinson's disease, it went down easier than a more stationary dessert. For everyone else, this solid but shaky foundation of crushed-up horse hoof helped them forget that Grandpa was six feet underground. Even Grandma had seemed to digest Grandpa's death with a smile. Sure, she had shed many tears at the funeral (she had been with Grandpa since she was 17), but when she took a bite of Evelyn Burns' marshmallow and banana-filled Nox Blox it was just dessert. Six years younger, and debilitated only with chronic name confusion, Grandma stayed in better shape than Grandpa before he died in his Art Linkletter electronic recliner. As she described the event at the reception, the chair had lifted Grandpa to a standing position "and he just kept on goin'."
What if the Kraftomatic had been right next to the grave? Brad had mused. Grandpa could have fallen into the coffin and resumed on autopilot with his electronic descent into the crypt. NNNNNNNNNNNNTHUNK! NNNNNNN . . . ". . .
You're thinkin' about how special that car is, ain't ya, Brad?"
Uncle Earl resumed his storytelling.
"Good thing. Cause that's one blessed Buick ya got there."Copyright © 2001 Kirk Eggleston
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)
Brad Cunningham is a raging tornado with a ponytail. Ivy League elitism and real world angst twists him across the rural heartland of America. Only in an inherited 1971 Buick Electra can he weather his own storm. Zealots, racists, convicts, whores, Elvis, and girls named Dorothy dent the tin skin of suburbia, while Grandmas wholesome brand of courage prevents a brainless surrender to law school. The highlighted road leads Brad through irony to Oz. There's no place like home.
is a keen writer with a good ear for dialog. The plot contains enough
surprises and tension that I read it the first time in one sitting. I
lingered over it in subsequent read-throughs. While the overarching moral
of the book may not be anything new, Eggleston provides enough subtlety
and freshness to Brad's journey that it hardly matters. Brad's is a complex
and compelling story about a young man looking for his place in life.
This reader enjoyed the trip."
Eggleston has a definite way with words. There are many places in the
pages I would love to remember, many of the characters, too. And can you
imagine finding the story of Siddartha on a menu? He weaves all of this..Krishna
and Oz and everyday happenings all together in a wonderful progression
of thought and humor that make you glad that you are following along with
Brad on the yellow road, totally surprised to find enlightenment at the
end of the journey."
Kirk Eggleston teaches
English and history in a public middle school. He