Logo

Burning the Goat


Burning the Goat

 

“There are conditions.”

“Of course there are,” Mathis said, trying to stifle a laugh.

“I’m sorry?” the lawyer said, looking up.

“I’d be shocked if there weren’t. Please continue. I’m dying to know what they are, these conditions.”

The lawyer looked again at the document, his eyes searching for the last thing he’d read. “Here we are. It says, ‘Mathis is to maintain the car in mint condition. It cannot be sold. Rather, it must stay in the family and be passed to the next generation.’”

“Really?” Mathis smiled. “Is that enforceable? Never mind, I don’t want to know.”

“Your father obviously cared a great deal for this car,” the lawyer said.

“Obviously.”

Mathis accelerated down the entrance ramp for Interstate 10, the yellowed rabbit’s foot fob swinging wildly. He pushed the pedal to the floor and shifted through the four gears. The 389 cubic-inch V-8 gave a throaty vibration. It was the first time he’d driven the car. When he was small, his father, Wayne, let him sit behind the wheel in the driveway. But after Mathis got his license, his father never let him drive it, not even to special events like the Senior Prom.

Mathis was doing seventy when he merged with the midday traffic heading east. There was an undeniable joie de vivre in driving the Goat, his father’s name for the Pontiac GTO. It was smooth in every gear and sounded like power, confidence, and attainment. Past Redlands, he opened it up. Cruising at 85 was no problem for the aging blue beast.

Mathis understood why his father had loved the car. He had reached adulthood at the same time that muscle cars were becoming popular, and this was one of the classics. It had been his prized possession from his graduation at Cal State Fullerton in 1966 until he died of a heart attack six weeks ago. Mathis had heard the stories so many times in his forty-eight years that he could recite his father’s recollections as if they were his own.

The day after Wayne graduated, he had a friend drive him to Lark Motors in Riverside. An hour later he left behind the wheel of his dream. It was shiny. It was immaculate. It was fast. And Wayne had every intention of keeping it that way.

Mathis turned off the interstate an hour and a half later, halfway between Los Angeles and Phoenix. He rolled down the windows to let the heat of the Sonoran Desert flow through the car. He loved the smells of the desert. It was an area he knew well, having backpacked here every winter. He followed a dirt road southwest for five miles which turned into a wet weather wash that looked as if it hadn’t seen a drop of moisture in more than a decade. He drove another half mile up the wash, stopping several times to move rocks that blocked his path. His goal was the Chuckwalla Mountains, the definition of “remote.” In the heat of the late afternoon, no animals could be seen. The only living things were creosote bushes, cholla cactus, and saltbush.

After five years working as an engineer, Wayne purchased a “family” station wagon. By then he was married and his son was due, so the Goat went into the garage. Over the next five decades, Wayne backed it out of the garage every two or three weeks for a wash and wax, coercing his young son to help him. His goal, he said, was to make it “shine like the sun.” Often the two of them washed and waxed the car without so much as driving it around the block. And sometimes Wayne rolled it onto the driveway just to admire it. On the first Saturday of every month when the weather was perfect, he drove the car to a bank parking lot in town where other car enthusiasts – members of the misnamed Alfa Romeo Club – admired each other’s toys. Mathis accompanied his father on one of these outings as a teenager, but once was enough.

Mathis came to a stop between two steep-walled ridges that rose four to five thousand feet on either side. He got out of the car and looked at the sky. Clear, blue, nearly windless. He looked back down the wash. No buildings, no cars. He hadn’t seen another person since leaving the interstate. Stretching to the horizon was an empty expanse of beige. It was perfect.

Mathis opened the trunk and took out a pair of pliers, a two-gallon red plastic can, and a backpack with food, sleeping bag, and bottles of water. He set the backpack behind a boulder twenty yards from the car. He then took the pliers, removed the license plates, and slipped them into the backpack. Then he opened both doors and the hood, removed the cap from the red can, and poured gasoline over the entire car, into the trunk and engine compartment, and over the red leather interior. He paused to admire the thing his father loved more than anything in the world, then struck a match and tossed it into the trunk.

The sound was an explosive exhalation of breath. Flames looking as blue as the metallic paint sped from bumper to bumper and filled the interior in seconds. The flames looked harmless at first, dancing on the car, highlighting the shine of the Goat. They blossomed for several minutes before Mathis began to notice changes. At first white smoke came from under the hood and filled the interior like dense fog. But it quickly turned gray, then black. On the outside, the paint began to blister, pop, and blacken, the same paint that he had waxed, layer upon layer as a boy, while his father preached about the ultimate in automotive beauty.

The rear window was the first to shatter. It did so with a loud snap, a thousand shards flying into the air, bouncing off the open trunk lid, and falling back onto the rear seat. The windshield looked as if it was melting, slowly bending inward, nearly lying flat on the dashboard before breaking into tiny crystalline jewels. The steering wheel melted into a distorted oval and collapsed onto the steering column. For a brief moment, the horn sounded. The leather of the bucket seats darkened, pulled apart at the seams, and curled into odd black shapes. The plastic parts bubbled and gave off foul smelling, toxic fumes. The smell reminded Mathis of a childhood game. He remembered stuffing firecrackers and wads of gasoline-soaked paper into plastic airplane models, then sending them whizzing down stretched wires, and watching them explode and burn as if they have been shot down in aerial dogfights.

 Mathis walked around the car staying upwind in the light air, away from the intense heat and billowing smoke. As he did, he thought about the money he could have made by selling the car. It was indeed a classic. The price of a GTO in mint condition was in the high five figures. This one could easily have fetched fifty thousand, perhaps more. He thought about the environmental consequences of what he was doing – toxic smoke and leaving a burned-out hulk in the desert. He thought about these things, but Mathis wasn’t one to collect regrets. He never intended to keep the car, much less maintain it. He also wasn’t about to sell it to someone who shared his father’s passion. As for passing it on, the thought sickened him. If he had children, why would he give them something that represented everything he hated about his father?

 Flaming embers shot into the air, and debris rained beneath. Hoses shriveled, came loose from their fittings, and dropped to the ground like tortured snakes. A creosote bush caught fire and wilted to ash on the sandy soil. Popping and hissing came with the escape of various gasses.

 Mathis wasn’t alone in his antagonism for the Goat. The biggest argument his parents ever had were after his mother took the car for a joy ride one Sunday afternoon while his father was away on a business trip. Wayne discovered her adventure when he got home and found that the cover had not been put back on the car. The result was that his parents didn’t speak to each other for a week. Mathis was so sick of the silence, he stayed at a friend’s house until the ice thawed.

 The day he left for college, his father bought him a fifteen-year-old Toyota Corolla, which Mathis ended up driving for over a decade. Wayne constantly reminded him how lucky he was to have a car in college. No one had ever bought him a car, he said. He reminded his son that he had taken two jobs while in college to pay for tuition, books, room and board, and to save for the car. The mantra his father repeated more times than Mathis cared to remember was that he had worked hard for everything he ever had. “Kids nowadays don’t appreciate how good they have it.” After Mathis’ own graduation, his father congratulated him by whispering in his ear, “Son, it’s past time you develop a set of balls. There’ll be no more financial support coming your way.” Mathis remembered that he actually felt relieved.

The sheet metal panels flexed, releasing fifty years of accumulated stress. Something snapped in the rear of the car sending a fender flying. The flames leapt high; the smoke rose higher still before bending to the slight breeze. Mathis looked up and realized that he probably should have waited until dark. Someone somewhere would see the smoke. Even so, he reasoned, they wouldn’t get here before the car was ash and he was gone.

Near the end, the redline tires burst like pistol shots, and the car settled onto the rims. The burning rubber gave off thick smoke that stank horribly no matter how far away he stood.

 The entire drama was over in less than twenty minutes. All that remained was a blackened steel frame and wisps of smoke over a smoldering pile of ash. Nothing left was recognizable aside from the general shape of what had once been. Mathis looked at his creation and whispered goodbye to the Goat. He then slung the backpack over his shoulders and started walking.

  

Jim Woessner

  

Jim Woessner lives on the water in Sausalito, California. He has an MFA from Bennington College and has had poetry and prose published in online and print magazines, including the Blue Collar Review, California Quarterly, Friday Flash Fiction, 101 Words, 200 Word Short Story, Flash Fiction Magazine, Fewer Than 500, The Daily Drunk, and Close to the Bone. Additionally, two of his plays have been produced in community theatre.


Post a Comment

1 Comments

  1. not too many muscle car pieces out there...welcome to the club.

    ReplyDelete