On a Saturday evening sometime during my senior year of high school, in the general vicinity of my 18th birthday, my main bro Alexander and I went to the supermarket to grab a case of Fresca and some gummi bears for a night of Dungeons and Dragons. On the way out to the parking lot we were talking about the Voynich manuscript – a famously cryptic ancient text written in an unknown, indecipherable foreign language, which we had been debating the origin of since we read about it on Wikipedia earlier in the day.
“What if it doesn’t even mean anything?” Alexander speculated. “What if it was just some Renaissance-era asshole trolling future historians by writing a fake book of gibberish?”
“I don’t know, man.” I sighed as I unlocked the light blue 1997 Subaru Legacy that my parents had recently given me the exclusive right to drive. “It’s a mystery.”
Alexander shrugged and opened his door. “Well… Into the ‘ol Mystery Wagon, I guess.”
On Friday The Mystery Wagon started overheating during a 15-minute drive, on level terrain, on an overcast 60-degree day. It had done something similar to this two weeks before, after which my mechanic flatly told me that if this kept happening it would cost me so much to fix the problem that I’d be better off just getting a new car.
If you’re even a casual reader of this blog, you probably know at least a couple of things about me: I spend a lot of time consuming peanut butter and watching television, I prefer certain cast members on Community to others, and I love The Mystery Wagon more than life itself. Something I observed two years ago (shortly after paying a Santa Clausesque Russian mechanic $1100 to replace my steering gear) was that The Mystery Wagon was about the closest thing I had to a pet, like a beloved dog that needed to have a different internal organ replaced every one to three months.
Just about everything in my life changed when I moved to LA. I left my friends, family, and pretty much every other familiar thing behind to move to a place where I had one cousin and nothing else. The Mystery Wagon was the one piece of my life in Oregon that I was able to bring me with me – the car I learned to drive in, the car I drove to band practice, the car that conveyed my friends and I to and from Mexican food thousands of times throughout high school.
The silver lining to living in a car-oriented city like LA was that I got to spend an awful lot of time sitting in The Mystery Wagon during those first several months. So no matter how lonely I was, or how godawful hot it was, or whatever demoralizing or infuriating thing happened to me at my internship, I could count on being able to climb into a safe, familiar piece of my home at the end of the day for 30 minutes to an hour of alone time, depending on traffic. I talked through a lot of my problems and sang along to a lot of Jefferson Starship in two and a half years.
Forget that thing about it being a dog. The Mystery Wagon was more like a big, rolling security blanket that pulled slightly to the right.
This past Friday I was able to make it back to my apartment in The Mystery Wagon with the needle on the temperature gauge pointing as far above the ‘H’ as it was possible to get. As I pulled onto my street, I optimistically noted that at least the engine wasn’t making any funny noises and wondered if maybe the only problem was that my temperature gauge was broken.
I pulled up to the curb, shut off the engine, and got out of the car to go inside. As I closed my door, the engine unexpectedly gave off a choking, tortured groan and a cloud of white vapor began to billow from under the hood. Dropping to my hands and knees, I saw a steady trickle of engine fluid coming from under the car and running down the street into the gutter.
Over the phone, my mechanic recommended I take the car to a specialist he knew on Monday – and told me I probably shouldn’t drive it anymore until then.
In late March, while going through my receipts for my accountant, I added up all of The Mystery Wagon’s maintenance costs and discovered that in 2013 it cost me about $1700 to maintain a car that Kelly Blue Book said was worth $1300, tops. At the time, I wisely decided to just file that information away and not take any steps whatsoever to prepare myself emotionally for what was bound to happen.
Logically, I always knew this day would come. But I had a crazy fantasy that maybe I could keep The Mystery Wagon running just long enough for me to get one of my scripts in front of the right person and become an overnight sensation, kind of like Lena Dunham except I wouldn’t have to get naked. Then, with all the money that would be pouring in, I could afford to extend The Mystery Wagon’s life indefinitely with a brand new engine and bodywork.
“That famous writer Truman Capps is so humble!” My fantasy fans would say. “He still drives the old car he brought to LA because he wants to remember his roots. And also because he’s developed a weird personal connection to an unfeeling inanimate object.”
Monday morning AAA towed The Mystery Wagon to a small auto shop in a terrible place called Van Nuys, where I explained the problem to the mechanic and then took an Uber home. That afternoon the mechanic called to inform me that my timing belt and water pump needed to be replaced, which he estimated would cost about $700.
I looked numbly at my bedroom wall and fell back on my age-old Mystery Wagon coping mechanism: Insistence that Subarus (or at least, my Subaru) are magical, immortal beings that last forever.
“Do you think I could drive it for a few more years if I replace the pump and the timing belt? I mean… It is a Subaru, after all.”
“The engine is very old, Mr. Capps. You could spend $700 to fix this and your transmission could go out two weeks later. You should probably spend that money on a car that you know you can count on.”
“But... It’s a Subaru!”
“Yes,” the mechanic said slowly. “But it’s an old Subaru.”
On Tuesday I leased a grey 2014 Prius C – an experience deserving of its own blog update, later. Tuesday evening I picked up The Mystery Wagon from the mechanic, who offered to give me $300 for it once I’d cleaned all my stuff out of it. On Wednesday I did a fair amount of crying and stress eating.
On Thursday morning I got into The Mystery Wagon and drove to a self-service car wash in North Hollywood, where I spent a few bucks to pressure wash as much filth as possible off of the car. I’d wanted to really polish it with a chamois, but the vending machine that sold them only took cash and there weren’t any ATMs around. Instead, I got into The Mystery Wagon for the last time and drove to Van Nuys.
The mechanic counted out $300 on his front desk as I signed the section on the pink slip that transferred legal ownership of The Mystery Wagon from me to him. He told me he was going to try and fix it up and then donate it to his church, where it’d be given to a family that needed transportation.
“That’s good. It’s a really good car.” I choked, pulling down my Ray-Bans in a vain attempt to hide the fact that I was tearing up. “I hope it… I hope it makes somebody else as happy as it made me.”
“Uh huh.” He said, rightfully feeling very awkward about the situation he was in.
I took one last look at my car, turned my back, and walked away.
That afternoon I called my friend Denmark to talk about the events of the past week:
“I didn’t get this upset when my grandparents died, or when my ex girlfriend and I broke up. I made it through 9/11 without shedding a single tear. But now I’m going to pieces over a fucking car? How stupid is that?”
“Yeah, but it’s not really a car, though,” He mused. “It’s everybody you ever hung out with in that car. It’s everywhere you ever went in that car. It was part of you.”
I should’ve held out for more than $300.