In theory, getting a rental car when you’re on vacation should be a wonderful experience. It’s new, clean, and shiny, and it doesn’t have thirty half-empty water bottles clattering around under the seats or that weird smell you can’t quite track to the source.
So you can imagine how happy we were when the car rental guy in Flagstaff, AZ, gave us a free upgrade to an even newer, nicer car than the economy model we’d signed up for. We had just sent hours crammed into two different planes that required the human leg to fold up into origami to fit in the seats. Now we were going to complete our journey to the Grand Canyon in a car that actually had enough legroom to accommodate knees that only bend in one direction. Pure luxury, right?
We should have been more suspicious. Seriously, who gives out free upgrades? If we hadn’t been addle-brained from so many hours of air travel, would we have noticed hidden terror in the faces of the rental employees? A nervous twitch in their eyes? A hurried conversation that included the words, “For the love of god, just get that car out of here?!”
Long story short, our rental car was possessed. It looked beautiful, of course—a brand new black Chevy Impala, still sparkling from its latest car wash. It behaved while we drove it off the lot, but after that it started getting…chatty.
At first we noticed that it honked at us every time we left it. Then it honked every time we approached it (it had an automatic key fob that would unlock the doors as soon as we were in range.)
That was annoying, but we’d seen other cars do the same thing and just thought we’d have to live with it. Then it started to honk four times in a row if: the passenger-side door was opened before the driver-side door; the driver-side door was opened for more than 30 seconds and the driver didn’t get out; the driver-side door was opened and the passenger-side wasn’t; and sometimes when we were packing or unpacking the trunk. Basically, it honked whenever it felt like it—sometime once, sometimes four times, sometimes continuously. We got suspicious and unfriendly looks from people in parking lots. We gradually came to realize that our car was possessed.
Fortunately, as in most cases of possession, there was a holy book to consult. We found it conveniently stashed away in the glove compartment, along with warrantee papers and related documents. Unfortunately, as is often the case with holy books, it was confusing, complicated, and did not address the actual problem (although we did finally learn how to set the parking brake. Sort of.)
We tossed the holy manual back in the glove compartment and started experimenting with the entirely digital dashboard. There were no buttons, no explanations, just an endless series of options to scroll through. Every time we thought we had turned off the car’s alert systems, we’d get out, walk away from the car, and get honked at. Sometimes it would wait a few seconds to get us off our guard, then honk as soon as our backs were turned. I started arguing with the car and calling it names when it did this. This got us even more looks from strangers.
At last it was time to return the car to the rental people—this time in Phoenix. They probably wouldn’t have taken it back in Flagstaff. As we scrambled to gather our luggage and get away, the car started its “I’m being stolen” continuous honk. We grabbed our stuff, ducked our heads and walked away.
I think about that damned car now while I’m driving my pretty little 1999 Ford Escort. I like how there is a key to turn, a lever for setting the parking brake, and a horn that only goes off when I press that part of the steering wheel. Sure, it might have a slightly cracked bumper, stains on the carpet, and a speaker that cuts in and out. It’s just shy of having 100,000 miles on the odometer—a mark of pride in our family (my Dad kept a Pinto alive and running for almost 40 years.) The Impala will never rack up that kind of milage, because one of these days somebody’s going to shove it off a cliff.
I love my car. I’m going to take good care of it, too, because I never want to have to get a new one. New cars suck. My car’s a classic, really. They just don’t make cars like that anymore. I think it—no, I think it’s a she—She needs a name. I’m thinking Christine. Yeah, Christine is nice.
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