The First Pinto
Mrs. Behr bought a pink Pinto. I kid you not. It was pink — a gleaming, 1971 pink 3-door Runabout. On that Friday she swooshed in through the back door of the shop with a gee-whiz urgency that roused us from our morning stupor.
“It’s just the cutest thing,” Mrs. B gushed.
We — that is, Doug, Pat, Ed, and I — had been lazing around the big oaken table in the stock room of Suburban Vacuum Sales & Service, sipping potent coffee from Styrofoam cups and sharing the morning newspaper. A box of Hostess donuts lay splayed in the center of the table encircled by a fuzzy halo of powdered sugar.
“What is, Ma?” Doug asked.
“My new car, Dougie. C’mon out and see it.”
“Ma?” Doug said. He put down his half-finished donut, which was a notable event in and of itself. “You bought a car?”
“And how, boy,” Mrs. B answered, with what seemed like the first real smile she’d smiled since the funeral. It started in her shining eyes, reached down through her wrinkled cheeks and lifted the corners of her small mouth. “Plucked it right off the showroom floor.”
Clutching our white, non-biodegradable coffee cups, we all followed in single file back through the repair shop, past a rainbow platoon of Hoover uprights standing at attention — today’s deliveries — and out the back door to the small loading area behind the shop. We had to see this object that actually made Mrs. B smile.
And there it was, like a Look magazine ad, in all its polished pinkness, glorious in the clear, spring sunlight.
“Ta-da,” Mrs. B sang. “Here he is. Isn’t he adorable?”
“He?” Doug said.
“He,” she repeated. “Well, why not he?”
“It’s not pink. It’s rose. And it feels like a he to me.”
To me, and I expect to everyone else, this was a startling transformation. This woman, the one admiring her new pink car and calling it “he,” was not the Mrs. B we had known over the past eight months since her husband, the late Mr. Al Behr, had died. Mrs. B was quiet, reserved, moody, and sometimes even surly; Ed and I tried to cheer her up from time to time, but were mostly unsuccessful; the most we could get out of her was an occasional, half-hearted giggle. Even with her short, curly, old-lady hairdo, completely gray, of course — no attempt to disguise her age — simple blue blouse, librarian-style glasses hanging around her neck by a silver chain, and calf-length black skirt, she now seemed ten years younger than she had yesterday; it was amazing what a smile could do. I was certain that Doug, of all of us, was most confused. His expression suggested uncertainty, possibly worry over his mother’s mental state.
Doug circled “him” suspiciously and pushed his black-rimmed glasses. “It’s so… so small.”
“The car of the future,” she declared to us all. “Compact. Light. Simple. And cute, too. Not like those foreign jobs. This will run them right back where they came from.”
“Is that what the salesman told you?” Doug asked.
“Doesn’t mean he’s wrong, Dougie.”
Ed Miller, the shop’s grimy master mechanic, paced back and forth magisterially along the passenger side. He punctuated his tacit approval by nodding and spitting fat streams of black snuff juice that made sickening splats on the blacktop driveway. Ed had a perpetual pinch of Skoal Wintergreen snuff tucked in his lower lip, even while eating.
Pat Hughes, Mrs. B’s red-haired, boyish son-in-law said, “Y’know, there just ain’t enough pink cars around. I gotta go call my bride and tell her the news.” Pat had been married to Mrs. B’s daughter for over ten years and still called her his “bride.”
“What do you think, Larry?” she asked me. The little car boasted such amenities as a 3-speed manual transmission, an AM radio with a single dashboard speaker the size of a quarter, a back seat that no one with legs could actually use, vinyl bucket seats, wheels the size of Cheerios, and all the interior comfort of an oil drum. What could I say?
“Nice ride, Mrs. B,” I said. Well, it was, on some level. “It suits you.” And it really did just then; I wouldn’t have thought so yesterday.
“It does, doesn’t it?” She beamed like a teenager in love. Of course, I’d never known her as such. She was a sixty-year-old widow, a dour, even depressed old lady to my mind. I’d first met her five years earlier when I had started working, as a high school junior, at her husband’s business, Suburban Vacuum Sales & Service — “the sweeper shop,” we called it. But I’d only gotten to know her in the past eight months; she’d taken over running the place right after Mr. Behr dropped dead of a colossal heart attack while running the sweeper at home — ironic, but absolutely true. When she found him, the machine was still running with Mr. Behr’s cold, dead hand still clutching the handle. Since then, her mood modulated between a little blue and abysmally depressed. But at this moment she was positively giddy.
“Ma,” Doug asked, “why a new car? What’s wrong with the wagon?”
“Oh, it’s too damn big for me, Dougie. You know I can barely even park that thing.”
“Well what are you going to do with Dad’s car?”
This was the issue for Doug, I could see — not that Mrs. B had bought a new car, but that she no longer wanted the one that Doug’s father had owned.
Mrs. B hesitated. “Do you want the Olds? Take it. You have more use for that monster anyway.”
“Okay, Ma. Fine,” Doug said as he turned and walked back to the shop.
“Done. Now,” Mrs. B said, and clapped her small hands together, “who wants to go for a ride?”
* * *
The AM radio saturated the cool swirling air with tinny-sounding renderings of Dorsey, Miller, and Sinatra while the little car bucked and lurched through town. I would have preferred Steppenwolf and Cream, but it wasn’t my car.
Mrs. B mercilessly ground her way through all three gears like she was processing hamburger for the A&P. She slipped back dangerously on hills, peeled out, even fishtailed.
“Got to get used to this clutch,” she said more than once.
It was just Mrs. B and I on this little joy ride. Ed had begged off to dive into today’s repairs, not wanting to work overtime on payday. Doug and Pat were off on their daily routes, making deliveries of serviced vacuum cleaners and pickups of those that would become tomorrow’s work. I decided I could spare ten minutes for a cruise with the old girl and her new wheels. And I’d never expected to see her this way — happy, excited. Even young.
“Dougie’s not too thrilled about my buying this car,” she said.
“I think he was just surprised. You know Doug,” I said. “He’s a practical guy.”
“Like his father.”
Silent moments passed as memories of Mr. Behr mingled with Sinatra’s, The Summer Wind.
“So, Mrs. B,” I said, changing the subject, “how long you been in the market for a new ride?”
“About twenty-four hours,” she said. “Well, I wasn’t really in the market. But I sure needed a change, but I didn’t know what kind. Until I saw this little guy.”
“And a pink Pinto was it?”
“It’s rose,” she corrected. She smiled that unfamiliar smile. “This is just the beginning.”
“Well that sounds… interesting.”
“Larry,” she explained, “it’s taken me eight months to figure out that I’m not dead, too. That should be obvious, but when you’re part of someone else for two-thirds of your life, it’s not so clear. Being alone is tough after forty years. Except for when he was away during the war, Al and I never spent a night apart. Taking over his work helped — running the shop. But I’ve just been going through the motions. I still miss Al like crazy, and I always will, and I know I’ll still have some bad days. But, out of the blue, yesterday morning I woke up and realized that, whaddayaknow, I’m still alive. I should start to act like it before it’s too late. I need to make some changes.”
“What else did you have in mind?”
“Al thought a great deal of you, Larry. He read me all your letters from Vietnam. He was especially relieved and surprised when he found out that knowing how to fix sweepers kept you out of the fighting.”
“Yeah, that was a lucky break. I never fired a gun the whole time I was there,” I said. “And the feeling was mutual. Al — Mr. Behr was a fine man.” I meant it.
Albert Behr, Hoover man extraordinaire, and I had hit it off from the beginning. He was my boss who became a mentor and friend. He taught me to repair any type of vacuum cleaner, and he pulled me through high school trigonometry. I repaid him with good grades, reliability, and by picking up the slack whenever Ed Miller was off on one of his whiskey-soaked benders, which, since Mr. Behr’s passing, had become more frequent. And when I was drafted, the mechanical knowledge I’d gained at the sweeper shop got me assigned to the motor pool, which very well may have saved my life.
“Al trusted you,” she said. “I trust you, too. And while I’m sure you won’t be working at the shop forever — you’re too smart for that — we’re lucky to have you around for as long as you want to stay.”
“Thank you, Mrs. B,” I said. “But why are you telling me this?”
“I need your help. I want you to go with me to look at an apartment. And I don’t want Dougie to know.”
“You mean you don’t want him to talk you out of it.”
“Something like that,” she smiled. “And I don’t want anyone to think they can take advantage of a lonely old lady. Go with me?”
* * *
After closing, Mrs. B, on the pretense of giving me a lift home, took me with her to inspect a newly renovated efficiency apartment. It was a quaint little flat, perfect, in fact, for a sixty-year-old widow looking for a clean, fully equipped apartment in a quiet neighborhood. And it was close to the sweeper shop.
She really didn’t need me there to make the decision; it was clear that she’d already made up her mind. She just wanted to share the experience and her excitement with someone, and not be lectured or second-guessed. But I looked the place over, tried the appliances, examined the circuit breaker, and checked for signs of dampness. All was well. She took it on the spot, and as we left she handed the plump landlady a check for the first month’s rent plus security deposit.
Back in the pink Pinto, Mrs. B was again all smiles.
“Thank you, Larry,” she said, squeezing my hand. “Life still has possibilities. I need to keep that in mind on the low days. Rattling around in that big old house doesn’t help. Even at my age you can still make a fresh start. It’s time to move on to whatever is next for me.”
“You’re welcome, Mrs. B. But how are you going to keep this from Doug?”
“Oh, I’ll tell him when I’m ready. Soon. After he gets used to my new car, I guess. Until then, it’s our secret.”
“My lips are sealed. When do you plan on moving in, then?”
“I’ll get started in the next couple of weeks maybe. There’s no big hurry.”
“Count me in,” I said.
“I already have. Now, where do you live?” she asked.
“Just drop me off at the Forest Tavern. It’s payday, you know, so I should keep an eye on Ed. Otherwise I’ll be in the shop by myself tomorrow.”
When we reached the corner bar, she didn’t pull over to the curb. She just stopped in the middle of the street to let me jump out.
I said, “New ride, new pad. Mrs. B, if you show up tomorrow with jeans and love beads, I’m going to start to worry.”
“I make no promises. Good night, Larry. And thanks again.”
I slammed the pink door and turned toward the sidewalk. Then came the sickening squeal of tires, a sound that I felt in my bowels. I glimpsed the swerving car a split second before it slammed into the rear of the pink Pinto. I leaped away from the deafening impact, tripped on a cobblestone and sprawled awkwardly between two parked cars.
I scrambled upright and took a step toward the Pinto just in time to be blown off my feet by the concussion of the blast. I landed hard on the sidewalk in a crumpled heap, gasping for breath. Again I jumped to my feet and felt searing heat on my face. I realized with horror that both cars had erupted into a furious inferno, as though struck by napalm.
“Mrs. B!” I screamed.
Through the vague outline of the passenger window I saw her shadow flailing hideously at the heart of the blaze. I ran wide around the burning cars to the driver’s side.
“Mrs. B! Mrs. B!” I cried. I raged desperately against the furious heat, battling to approach the pyre — but within the yellow-white flames the silhouette ceased its ghastly struggle.
Heavy hands dragged me back from the burning wreckage. Through stinging tears I watched the angry billows of oily black smoke rise, soiling the azure sky.
“Mrs. B,” I whispered.
NOTE: During early production of the Ford Pinto in the 1970s, the car became infamous as the focus of a major scandal when it was alleged by victims and their families that the car’s flawed design caused its fuel tank to explode in a rear-end collision. This, and the fact that the doors could jam during such an accident dubbed the little car “the barbecue that seats four.” Due to the alleged engineering, safety, and reliability problems, Forbes Magazine included the Pinto on its list of the worst cars of all time.