it wasn’t until we were standing in a dark, rutted-out, dirt parking lot at the edge of the Tensaw River that I began to question my judgment when it came to impressing females.
“It’s OK, ” I told my date. “I know these people.”
“The engagement party’s out there?” she asked.
“Yeah. They’re kind of like that.”
Before long I heard the drone of a skiff approaching us out of the darkness without running lights. A man that I knew as “Uncle Bob” beached the boat and his son, Robert, leaped out to help us aboard.
I helped my girl into the boat. “You got lights on that thing, Bob?” I asked.
“Get the lights out, Robert, ” he said.
Robert shoved us off and dug around up front until he emerged with a red bow light that was taped to what looked like a fragment of fence picket. He wrapped some wires around a loose battery down there somewhere, and the thing started glowing. Then, he lay across the bow and stuck it in his teeth and we had our navigation lights. “Hit it, Dad, ” he mumbled.
We raced off into the night, running blind with the wind in our face and the fog slicking back our hair. Once we arrived at the camp, there were 10 or 15 people milling about on the porch, snacking and drinking beer. I introduced my date to the rest of the group, and she seemed to mingle and find good conversation. That set me at ease while I caught up with my friend, Archie, and his first cousin, David, a genuine river rat as close to Huck Finn as I’d ever met, my hero.
“How about that white car?” I asked David. “You still got it?”
“Yeah we got it! You wanna take a ride?”
I looked at my date, suddenly sorry I’d brought it up. “Well, I don’t know if I oughta leave right now.”
“She can come!”
“I don’t know …”
“Come on! Let’s load up.”
The white car was beneath a tarp, parked up a wood ramp atop a flood platform. David climbed up, threw off the cover, and there it was – an early ’80s model Toyota Corolla, no windows, mostly rust, dented and riddled with bullet holes.
David got in and rolled it backwards and down into the yard. Then, he turned the key, and it sputtered and coughed to life. I was about to ask my girl if she was uncomfortable about taking such a ride, but she was already climbing in with the rest of them.
Six of us were soon packed into the tiny car like clowns, with David’s wife, Tina, sitting on the emergency brake handle next to him. To top it off, two younger boys threw a sleeping bag on the roof and scrambled up like they’d been there before. With no front windshield, they lay on their stomachs and grabbed the front of the roof, their fingers curled in above the dashboard.
The white car does not accelerate very fast, but it gains speed like a golf cart. Even though one of the headlights worked, it didn’t do much to illuminate the jungle tunnel we were fast approaching. I saw the flick of a lighter as Tina lit David’s cigarette. “Thanks, baby, ” he said.
We plunged into the swamp at high speed, vines banging against the car and kids yelling from the roof. Suddenly, we broke into an open bottom, David spun the wheel with one hand and I saw the feet of our rooftop passengers slide into view as we leaned into a doughnut turn. We spun several times, and I saw David’s face in the rearview mirror, staring straight ahead, calm, cigarette dangling. Then, he straightened the wheel, and we were off on another one of the dirt trails. We had not gone far before I heard him mumble, “Hold on.” I felt one side of the car slam into a dirt mound, and we were suddenly up on two wheels. Feet appeared again on the downside of the car. David still had the wheel with the underside of one wrist. Whop! We were down again, and I heard squealing and shuffling above me as the roof passengers repositioned themselves.
“Woodpile!” somebody yelled. I wondered about the woodpile briefly before I saw an ivy-covered mound in the headlight beam.
“Jesus!” I yelled. We hit it hammered down, bulled into a pile of logs, and I reasoned that no vehicle, even the white car, could come out of it. But the car leapt and bounced over them, buckling the metal beneath my feet like something plowing though giant Lincoln logs. We came out on the other side with vines draped over the car and leaves in our laps. The only thing lost was David’s cigarette. Tina was quick to make repairs. She stuck another one between his lips and flicked the lighter in the dark.
That night my date told me she’d never had so much fun in her life. A year later I married her. Fifteen years later we still talk about the white car.
Watt Key is an award-winning novelist who grew up on the Bay in Point Clear. His third novel, “Fourmile, ” which was released in September, received a coveted Starred Review from Kirkus Reviews.
text by Watt Key • illustration by kelan mercer