I’m not sure when my late father-in-law’s town car became our car. It wasn’t when we wrested it from Mom, who we decided couldn’t safely operate it anymore. It wasn’t when we changed the title to my name. For even after that, I saw it as Frank’s Buick, a.k.a. the Batmobile, so named because of its dual automatic “ComforTemp” controls in the front seats (leather), its “Twilight Sentinel” feature that turns the headlights on and off depending on how light it is outside, the heated windshield, the cruise control with automatic reset, the illuminated entry system around door locks, the electric radio antennae that telescopes into hiding every time you turn off the radio.
The sexy stereo system.
Actually, the stereo is one I had installed, complete with a CD player. The old one, which came with the car in 1991, freakishly shut down with a pop while I was listening to the radio and approaching the Verrazano Bridge from the New Jersey side in 2001. It was at night, just days after the terrorist attacks on New York City and, of course, the first thing I thought was that there was another downed transformer on top of a burning skyscraper. Embedded as I was within those many pounds of Detroit excess, I still felt vulnerable.
When I replaced the stereo, I actually wondered what Frank Daley would think, what style he would prefer. I winced after it was installed when I realized it didn’t mesh too well with the dashboard, designed at a time when CD players were probably a thousand dollars each and Americans were still getting tangled in their cassette tapes.
I didn’t think of the Batmobile as ours even after we made arrangements for Mom to live in a rest home in Western Massachusetts and took the car home to Brooklyn, where we hobbled it with a newly bought “club” on its steering wheel. The maroon monster with the runners on top of the trunk sat parked on Prospect Park Southwest as a persistent reminder of the suburban car culture I had fled. My wife, Cheryl, and I talked about never using it except to visit Mom. That it was a gas-guzzler and the size of a small pachyderm and therefore couldn’t be trusted on the narrow, pocked streets of New York. Its very presence suggested that we weren’t really New Yorkers who take the subway everywhere.
I wondered what my late father-in-law would think if he knew that his ten-year- old car, which cost more than his pre-fab in a Florida golf village, was sitting on the streets of New York and dodging yellow cabs on the monthly trip up to his boyhood home of Florence, Mass. to see his widow.
It was shortly after the Buick’s Brooklyn era started that I found Frank’s auto log. It was in the glove compartment, and in it he had put the history of the car’s maintenance: the lube in 1992 shortly after he bought it at a Ft. Pierce, Florida dealership; the wheel balance later that year; the replacement of this with that. It was detailed, fastidious, and very Frank— the type of man who labeled his Christmas storage boxes with reminders of which ornaments he’d hung each year. I found this log scoffable, coming as I did from a family whose patriarch was lucky to remember to put gas in the car, but months before the stereo got replaced, I found myself adding to the log as the car needed service:
Re-set RF wheel speed signal code (2/11/00)
Horn button replaced (9/21/00)
I would return the small pencil—expertly sharpened with the pocket knife I had inherited from him—to the wire rings of the notebook, and wedge it back into the glove box as if the car would fail to turn over unless its history were kept intact.
Frank Daley’s story was one largely written by the time I met him in 1992. The Buick was barely a year old, and I remember standing with him behind the trunk that automatically closed and locked itself, a cooler of drinks on the runners, watching Fourth of July fireworks over a saltwater river. He had a natural fascination for celebrations, which brokered easy conversation with me, someone I’m sure he thought was just his daughter’s summer boyfriend. She was twice divorced, and I was nearly twelve years her junior.
I kept my distance from this short, stocky man. At the pool earlier that day, Frank, white and hairless, was nearly luminescent next to the blue tile, his body a network of scars that crackled from the notch in his throat through his sternum and to his left leg, where they had stripped away a vein. I knew that Frank had developed a seizure disorder late in life and had suffered more than one heart attack, the first when he was just fifty-three-years old, which forced him into early retirement from his work as wonder-boy salesman for Rustcraft Greeting Cards.
In Brooklyn, I got a lot of respect driving around in the Batmobile, even though for the first month I had to reassure myself vocally that I had the right to drive this car that wasn’t mine and that my mother-in-law sorely missed. The Buick was sleek, its nose tapered from its grill to the center of gravity over a muscled chassis. Its maroon color was all sheen except for a couple of nicks that Frank had judiciously touched up with a tube of car paint he kept boxed in the trunk along with every imaginable car care and travel item, including a chamois, hub cab cleaning foam, flares, and an impressive first-aid kit. The car’s trunk was big enough to hide not one, but two bodies.