THE CAR PARTY
PAUL RECEIVED A TEXT FROM the mechanic, at night, saying to buy a new car. He sent a picture of a skull and crossbones. Everyone in this town is into safety: it keeps them up at night. They discuss social issues where a sense of humor isn’t allowed. Because of this Sara has no friends. Paul has too many friends. Even the mechanic is his friend. Who considers their mechanic their friend? No one. Once, after telling Sara how she has no friends, Paul said how many people he talked to that day, listing them off one by one until he reached twenty-five. After they buy their new car, Paul is throwing a car party.
They have visited eight car dealerships in three different states in six days. Paul has done immense online research. He is losing sleep thinking about cars.
Sara refuses to enter the dealerships because they are everything she dislikes in the world. How people can get excited about cars is beyond her. So she walks to whatever business is closest. Today it’s a supermarket. She gets grapes. The cashier doesn’t help her, which makes Sara feel uncomfortable.
“It’s him,” says the cashier. “Black guy with the bags.”
Sara turns and sees an old man with two reusable bags moving swiftly toward an empty checkout, then through an empty checkout.
“Second time today,” says the cashier. “Stealing frozen shrimp.”
“He needs it more than us,” Sara says.
“It’s against the law,” says the cashier.
After Sara buys her grapes, the cashier runs from the register and into the parking lot so she can watch the man being beaten by security—two former cops who were fired because they did things to young boys. In this town it’s easy to find new employment.
“I just wanted to use my grill,” says the man. “My son gave me a grill and I need some shrimp to grill on it.”
Inside their old car Sara eats her grapes. She watches as the man is pulled by his limp arms to the back of the supermarket. The cashier watches too. She is an elderly white woman with bloodshot blue eyes, and when she walks to her Sara sees a bumper sticker: IF YOU MUST BURN OUR FLAG WRAP YOURSELF IN IT FIRST. Sara wonders what happens to a person where they have to steal shrimp. She wonders why no one stopped the man from reaching that level.
“Maybe he just likes the thrill of stealing,” says Paul in the car driving home. “That’s a high-ticket item, bag of frozen shrimp.”
Sara has a theory on Paul. They have been married for eight years. Before they were married, Paul was an illustrator. “Only twenty-seven,” is what people eating small hotdogs told her during the reception, “wow.” What the following years proved was that Paul had peaked too early. There was just too much more life to live. And instead of books, films, or trying to continue with his illustrations, he shifted his love to home repairs, lawn fertilizer, and car mileage. When their neighbor mowed his lawn Paul hurried outside to mow his lawn.
“Have you decided?”
“I have,” says Paul. “But I need to sleep on it. You will, my dear, see our new car at the car party.”
Paul knows Sara dislikes surprises but he’s going to surprise her anyway. He drives through the suburbs with incredible acceleration. Every stop sign is a restart. Turning into their neighborhood, the car wobbles from side to side like it’s trying to catch up to the engine. The mechanic told Paul he was driving his coffin. It sounds like the springs are cracking off because they are. In the rearview mirror Paul sees two kids picking up a small hook of rusted metal off the road.
“I read something online,” says Paul. “For the car party. It’s like a regular ham hoagie but you put toothpicks in the front and back of the bread and at the tips of the toothpicks little circles of ham. That’s the wheels. Then, you carve out the bread at the top and make a ham seat. Pretty neat.”
He wasn’t being ironic or funny. He was serious. All joy had left their conversations years ago.
“I’d say you’re better than that,” says Sara, “but you’re not.”
“Nice,” says Paul.
Paul likes to use the horn. He never did before they were married. When a person is peeking they don’t have time for such things. But now he scares people who pull out in front of him with enough room to do so. He believes this is how people are taught. When Sara suggests maybe the driver is having a bad day, people’s mothers die constantly, he ignores her. Such imaginary compassion has no place in Paul’s world of horn.
“I’m doing the ham car sandwiches,” he says.
Sara dreams about car commercials. It’s not really sleeping. This has been happening ever since the mechanic told them they would die in their Ford Taurus. Sara had thought there were worse ways to go. Tonight’s dream is at the supermarket but inside the supermarket are cars. The cashier from before is driving the cars. There are hundreds of her. She has orange hair and each car is an American flag. No one seems to care about the cars driving around the supermarket because they have food to buy. If they don’t have food they can’t exist. There is nothing more to the dream. In the morning Sara tells Paul to hurry up already, she’s going a little crazy about this goddamn car situation.
In the closing minutes of the deal on a new Honda Fit, the salesman becomes an awful person. He says he likes hunting, owns three dogs he doesn’t allow inside his home, and hates cats because they are “perverts.” He talks about a guy who owns a chain of gyms and leases a car for 1,000 dollars a month. The salesman describes the guy’s mansion with banisters covered in animal hide and Paul says, “That should be illegal,” and the salesman says, “You can’t penalize a man who made a life for himself,” and Paul thinks, but doesn’t say, sure you can.
The finance manager tries to sell Paul an extended warranty, and for some reason, Paul thinks about buying two. He has read all the advice on declining the extended warranty. So he says no. He has a moment as old Paul. It’s such a flicker of a moment, when he thinks how absurd the responsibility of car ownership truly is. No one should own a car. But everyone has a car story. How sad.
It’s only a half-moment. When the finance manager sits back, shocked that Paul would decline the extended warranty, Paul apologizes and buys the value package. He’s not even sure what the value package does but he owns it now. Before Paul signs the contract, the finance manager says he’s nervous because his daughter is overseas, in Brussels, where there are high levels of terrorism, and in some sense, the finance manager becomes a better person. He is attempting to connect emotionally to Paul. But when Paul signs the next six years of payments for a white Honda Fit, he forgets about the finance manager and his daughter completely.
The car party is tomorrow, so Paul drives the Honda Fit to his parents’ house. His parents live thirty minutes north in a town of chain restaurants surrounded by cornfields. The town has the record for the most stop signs in a ten-mile radius. While driving, Paul says “smooth ride” out loud twice.
His parents are excited because they get to see the car before anyone else. If Sara’s parents saw the car before them, they would consider themselves “act two.” They are people who believe in class structure and have done everything to get to the top. But everyone knows there is no top. They refer to other people’s homes as modest, and once, after a meal at Sara’s parents’ house, Paul’s mother described it as a nice time for eating off a plate on your lap.
“White wouldn’t be my top choice,” says Paul’s father in the driveway. “Pop the hood.”
“Why?” says Paul.
After looking at the engine, Paul’s father says they can’t stay at the car party because they have tickets to Trans-Siberian Orchestra. They will try and stay for “as long as possible.” They are so happy to keep the Honda Fit in their driveway until the car party. Paul counts twelve cats in the living room. Since he was a child his mother had cats and no friends. She took naps in the afternoon and afterward, when she went to the kitchen for coffee, Paul would make her bed, the cats exploding from beneath the comforter and running out of the bedroom.
His parents have unspoken rules about visiting. He has to stay a certain, undisclosed, number of hours or his visit will be considered too short. So Paul sits in the living room drinking coffee. He figures three hours is enough. It is not.
From the garage Paul’s father says, “How much are we paying for Fancy Feast?”
There’s no response from Paul’s mother, who has an office but no job. From where she sits, in the office, it’s clear that she can’t hear Paul’s father.
“Says here in the paper best price of the year, Fancy Feast, forty-two cents,” continues Paul’s father from the garage. “So, if we’re going to make a run, let’s do it now. If you think I want to pay top dollar for Fancy Feast, it’s going to be a long winter.”
Paul pulls the waist of his jeans over his stomach. He does this move a lot now. He’s not overweight. As a matter of fact, he’s skinny by American standards, except his stomach, which is a beer belly. Paul hasn’t had a beer in ten years. His body type is embarrassing to look at during the summer months. Once, a little girl called him a fat skeleton. On Sara’s suggestion he tried yoga, but immediately vomited in downward dog pose. All this shit just poured out of him like a tipped cup. Afterward, having spent the duration of the class sitting against the wall, he was told by the instructor that what had occurred wasn’t unusual. “Anytime the heart chakra opens inner toxins are released,” said the instructor, “did you know that?” Sara nodded and smiled at the instructor. “I did not,” said Paul. Paul had failed at yoga. Each time Sara thought about it, for weeks after, she would smile.
Paul listens to his father explain how to drive their van. His mother says if he crashes the van they will be stranded at their house forever. They go over what time they should drive over in the new car for the car party. From there they will drive their van to Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
“Thanks,” says Paul. “For helping me out. It means a lot.”
“So you’re leaving,” says Paul’s father. “Hon, guess who’s leaving.”
“Already,” says his mother, walking quickly from her office.
“Linguine with clam sauce, if that changes your mind,” says his father.
“The old guilt trip,” says Paul, smiling and hugging his mother.
“I’m not really trying to guilt you,” his father says.
“We’re just kidding,” says his mother. “You should know the difference.”
“What’s the difference?” says Paul.
Sara is doing an exercise routine where she walks in place for forty-five minutes. Paul hates the exercise routine. He tells her to walk outside like anyone else. But Sara just likes walking inside, in place. She can’t defend herself enough. She does the exercise routine when she’s stressed out, and the car party is stressing her out. Earlier in the day she went to a vegan restaurant and ate a big salad. She thought some healthy food in a positive environment like Dalai Mama would help, but after she sat down, a group of women sat next to her. There were so many other tables to sit at but they sat next to her. It made no sense. The women were joined by another woman who, during introductions, identified herself as a feminist. A few minutes later one of the women said, “I saw a video of a two-year-old shooting a horse. It was amazing.”
“Tonight let’s watch a funny movie together,” says Paul.
“What does that even mean?” says Sara, walking in place.
“I don’t know,” Paul says. “A funny show or something. Something to relax us before the car party.”
They have been sleeping in separate beds because Paul is always the first to go to sleep. When he’s asleep Sara watches television on her laptop for hours. She’s not even sure what the shows are about, she just watches them.
“I don’t think so,” says Sara.
“Fine,” says Paul.
They walk to the supermarket in the dark. This is Paul’s fault because he forgot to buy hoagie rolls for the ham car sandwiches earlier in the week. He has the ham. Sara feels very alone. No one walks to the supermarket in their neighborhood. Even if it was around the corner, everyone would drive.
The walk is forty-five minutes because Paul is too afraid to take the van, and Paul makes sure not to mention the duration. For such a developed neighborhood there are many dead squirrels in the road. There are little pockets of forest between the winding roads and streams covered in leaves. Every driveway is a hill. The moon isn’t visible but the clouds are illuminated with pale light and the headlights from vehicles scan all trees. “Living with you is like being alone,” says Sara.
“Zinger,” Paul says.
Months ago they got into an argument and she kicked him in the stomach. Paul was surprised that he wasn’t surprised she was capable of such a thing. There was a slapping incident early in their marriage that left a two-inch scar on his face. That was a surprise. And there was an evening where she threw Doritos at his head while he did the dishes. After being kicked in the stomach by his wife, Paul spent the evening throwing, like Frisbees, his framed illustrations onto their front lawn. His neighbors formed a small crowd and watched.
Sara waits in the glow of the supermarket lights. She never goes inside anywhere with Paul anymore. Next to Sara is a garbage bin covered in Christmas wrapping paper for donated toys for the military. It’s already so full. The man who steals frozen shrimp comes walking out of the grocery store with two large bags.
“Okey-dokey,” says Paul with the hoagie rolls. “Now we are good to go. All set for the big Ta-do.” He is doing a voice. At one point in their marriage it was funny when he did a voice. The most common voice was that of an older man speaking in clichés and casual racism. It used to be a kind of satire on people that truly existed this way. But now Paul is this way. There is little to no difference between Paul and the voice, according to Sara. Paul continues: “What a difference a week makes in the weather, huh? One minute you’re in a Hanes Beefy-T, and the next you’re in a winter jacket. But hey, welcome to the Northeast, right?”
“I hate you,” says Sara. “I’m not doing this anymore.”
“Well, you are,” says Paul.
On the day of the car party Paul tucks his shirt in. It’s the only time in the year when he will tuck his shirt in. He cleans the entire house, including two hours of vacuuming. Sara spends the day sitting on the couch in the living room, seemingly stunned.
“I have to say,” says Paul. “It’s nice having company over. Good friends, a nice wine, interesting conversation. This is what the human experience is about.”
“About a car,” says Sara. “That we can’t even afford.”
“I need to make the ham hoagies,” Paul says.
“Need,” Sarah repeats.
Paul’s parents arrive first with the Honda Fit so they can stay “long enough” before taking their van and driving to Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Paul imagines, on their way to Trans-Siberian Orchestra, his parents listening to a CD of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Everything is kind of sad when he stops to think about it.
“Party time up in here,” says Paul’s father grimly. “Listen, it drives okay, but it’s weird how you never see any ads on TV for a Honda Fit. I hope you went with the extended warranty.”
“I like what you’ve done with the entranceway, Sara,” says Paul’s mother. “I wouldn’t have thought to put hanging plants out in this weather. Interesting.”
Then the house is filled with Paul’s friends. They are everywhere. There is a small child who calls his parents “Bass-Holes,” a clever rewording of “Assholes” so he won’t get in trouble for swearing. Someone spills wine and asks for a towel. When they don’t get a towel, the person starts kicking the red stain with their boot and the stain somehow starts to go away and the person laughs uncontrollably as they kick.
Everyone at the party is able to make conversation about a variety of topics. Sara kind of floats through the house not feeling like it’s her house exactly. She does her fake smile walking past people, and when someone says hello, she does her high-pitched voice and hugs them with a surprised look on her face. She spends no more than thirty seconds in any conversation. She obliterates all conversations. She is the destroyer of conversation—a point of pride for her.
In the kitchen Paul eats a ham sandwich shaped like a car. He tells Sara, “It doesn’t get any better than this,” and she responds, “Hahahahaha.”
Paul eats three ham hoagie sandwiches before walking around the party. The mechanic is at the party. Paul once read how being a mechanic is like being a doctor. The article was written by a mechanic who disliked doctors. A doctor once operated on the mechanic's mother’s leg but it was the wrong leg. There was a hiccup in the paperwork. Now she has two bad legs and has given up moving. The mechanic said there’s little difference working on an expensive and complex piece of machinery whether it’s car or human. Paul believes this. He deeply respects mechanics. He thinks maybe it’s not too late for him to be a mechanic.
“Hey buddy,” says the mechanic. “You seem fucked.”
“Probably because I am,” says Paul.
The mechanic tells the same story he tells everyone. Paul has heard it twice before. How his ex-wife refuses to talk to him. It’s been five years, or four, or seven. When he sends her holiday pictures of him and the boys, she sends them back in a small envelope all cut up.
Sara walks into the bedroom and is surprised to find two people sitting on her bed. A man is telling the woman sitting next to him about venison. Lightly rubbing her chin with his thumb, he promises to bring some venison into the office tomorrow. Then he kisses the woman. On the woman’s lap is one of Paul’s ham hoagie cars. It really does look like a car.
“Everyone thinks venison is a tough meat,” says the man, “but everyone is wrong. The way I prepare it, you’ll think you’re eating a filet. It’s because I cook in a combination of American and Thai styles. What do you think about that?”
“I think you’re wonderful,” says the woman.
They kiss some more and then fall backward into Sara’s bed.
Sara wants to be alone so she walks to the bathroom. Her bathroom. She finds it shameful that her bedroom has its own bathroom but she uses it often. The door is locked. No one should be using this bathroom. It was part of “Paul’s Rules,” which he emailed to his guests. She lightly knocks on the door. It doesn’t really make sense, but she doesn’t want to interrupt the couple talking about venison and ready to fuck on her bed. The man is explaining how you need to gut a deer after killing it. Something about the brains. Eventually, the bathroom door pops open. Inside the bathroom is Paul’s mother.
“Honey,” she says. “Come in here, quick.”
Sara slips into the bathroom and closes the door. Paul’s mother locks it. She has been in the bathroom for an hour. Why isn’t she at Trans-Siberian Orchestra, admiring all that hair?
“We’re getting divorced,” says Paul’s mother. “Ba-boom.” It’s a little weird for Sara to hear this while Paul’s mother sits on the toilet, but she nods and listens. She says that she never really wanted to go to Trans-Siberian Orchestra in the first place. They’ve been going for years and each year she likes it less. So she refused to get into the van and stayed outside until she could sneak back into the house. Paul’s father went to Trans-Siberian Orchestra alone. Sara thinks how Paul, since she has known him, has always bought them tickets as a Christmas present.
“Are those two sticking it to each other?” says Paul’s mother. She means the couple on Sara’s bed.
“I believe so,” says Sara.
“Good for them. Nothing like young love. If I were you, I’d get your ducks in a row and get yourself a new life while you still have those legs. Living with the same man is torture. You think it’s good now, but just you wait, honey. It makes no sense. You think you have a life but really you’re trapped by everything he does. We’ve been duped.”
“Do you want something to eat?” says Sara. “Have you seen Paul’s ham hoagie cars?”
“Nah,” says Paul’s mother. “I might take a bath if you don’t mind. I’ll show myself out when I can make a run for it. You think this is the first time I’ve done something like this? Honey, I’ve lived.”
“I don’t know what to say,” says Sara . “This is strange.”
“No, it isn’t,” says Paul’s mother. “After decades of marriage you either give up or you do strange stuff.”
When it’s time to reveal the car, everyone goes outside and surrounds it. Everyone is drunk, so they leave their jackets and hats inside. Paul has the car covered in too many blankets. It takes him a long time to pull them off. Sara somehow gets involved in a conversation with three women who are discussing things they like.
“I like anything with crunch,” says one of the women. “Doesn’t matter what, as long as there’s crunch, I’m eating it.”
“Sounds like me with 3D movies,” says another woman. “I’ll watch any movie in 3D.”
“Anything with wings,” says the last woman quietly.
Sara doesn’t speak. She can’t think of one thing she likes. She watches Paul get into the new car and start the engine. There are multiple configurations for the headlights and he progresses through them all, ending on the last, most powerful combination, which includes two fog lights. There is a separate switch for the fog lights. Paul will spend hours of his life considering using them or not using them. He puts the radio on, a Green Day song Sara recognizes from high school but can’t name anymore.
Paul’s mother is carrying a bag filled with car hoagie sandwiches when she leaves the house. The bag rattles a little as she moves. She walks across the entranceway, and to the far side of the house, behind everyone, where there is a short section of lawn followed by a long dip in the hill, where her shadow runs toward the road.
SHANE JONES is the author of the novels Light Boxes, Daniel Fights A Hurricane, and Crystal Eaters. He lives in Albany, New York.