The Getaway Car

Dr. Bradford’s old Corolla broke down again last week and Chick had to bring the wrecker and haul it over to the garage. Chick let him use an old Pinto as a loaner for a small fee. It was little improvement. But at least for the time being, nobody tailgated him.A Healey1

It’s been quiet down at the Farmer’s Co-Op. People mostly come in to buy a little feed and play checkers in the tack room. Lester from the loading dock has gotten tired of checkers and says he wants to take up chess. Dr. Bradford suggested he might want to reach for more attainable goals.

Word is that Cindy, the bookkeeper from down at the clinic has been sleeping over at her sister Camilla’s house the last couple of days. Seems as though Cindy and her husband Fred had a bit of a falling out and needed a cooling off period. Last Tuesday evening Cindy came running and screaming into the living room where Fred was reading the paper and told him she had just seen something horrible in the closet. Without looking up Fred responded, “What was it dear, the vacuum?” Probably not the best of answers. Dr. Bradford told Fred the swelling would go down in a few days.

Like everywhere else in the country, it’s been terribly cold in Watervalley these past weeks and everybody was feeling the pain of it. Especially Mildred Strum. Or I guess, more accurately, Mildred’s not feeling any pain anymore.

Mildred passed away earlier this month at the regional hospital over in neighboring Gunther County. She was sixty-eight. The obituary in the Village Voice was short and factual, stating that she had gone on to her reward. Most of the people in Watervalley that read it snickered, thinking she probably wasn’t finding it very rewarding. They were all pretty sure she had moved on to a warmer climate.

The common consensus regarding Mildred’s lack of standing with her maker wasn’t because she didn’t go to church. It had more to do with her scorn for those who did. She loved to talk about the Pentecostals with their big hair and denim skirts, or the Episcopalians and their pew aerobics, or the Baptists who she affectionately referred to as the dunking dimwits. Mildred was a test of everyone’s faith.

She was a scornful old harpy, a shriveled up little woman with a hard, mean face that was invariably adorned with a dangling cigarette. She was loud and spiteful and barked more than talked. As well, she regarded anyone she talked to with a contemptuously sour face, as if they were a waste of her time. Everyone that did business with her eventually found some reason to loathe her, usually sooner rather than later.

Mildred owned a lot of property… cheap run-down property. She rented a row of small frame houses and duplexes in a tucked away area behind the old warehouses near the Farmers Co-Op. They all were shabby and badly in need of paint. The yards were small, un-kept with chain link fences, and were cluttered with old cars and trash that seemed to overflow from the porches and small out buildings. Mildred also owned a couple of ratty trailer parks tucked away in desolate areas on the outskirts of town. She was ruthless with her renters and indifferent to continuous requests by the city to clean her properties up.

She died of pulmonary and liver disease; the benefits of years of  two-pack a day smoking and excessive drinking. Harrington Funeral Home had to use their own men to be pallbearers and only two people attended the funeral. One was Reverend Charles Peebles of Watervalley First Methodist. He had heard that Mildred had gone to church there when she was a little girl so he felt obliged to say a few words during the service. The only other time she had set foot inside the Methodist Church was when she wandered into an AA meeting one Thursday night. It was an encouraging event until they realized she had only come to corner one of her renters and extract some money from him.

The other person to attend the funeral was Luke Bradford. People thought it was a nice gesture since he was her doctor. But Luke had come for a very different reason.

He knew Mildred’s story.

She had inherited the property from her dad who had died many years ago not long after Mildred graduated high school. An only child, her parents had divorced when Mildred was three. Soon after that Mildred’s mom moved to California where she died fifteen years ago. Mildred hadn’t seen her since the early seventies.

High school had been a hard time for Mildred. She was not very attractive and not particularly athletic. Her dad had money so she wore nice clothes but she still didn’t exactly fit in. So she dreamed of getting away, of going to California and living near the ocean, like her mom had done. She had seen pictures in Life magazine of young people at the beach, driving around in convertibles and living grandly. She wanted to go there, to be part of it, to live life in a warm, sunny place… happy and carefree.

Austin-Healey-3000-MkI

Mildred Strum’s Austin Healey 3000 Mkl

She had inherited some money from her grand parents so on the week after graduation her dad drove her to Nashville where she bought a 1962 Austin Healey Mark 3000 convertible from a man who lived in Belle Meade. The car was only four years old and had 2,800 miles on it. He bought it for weekend drives but had fallen ill and needed to sell it. It was her dream car and she could see herself driving across the country with the top down, dark sunglasses, and a scarf on her head; wheeling along the open road to the dream of California.

But two days after they got back from Nashville, her dad had a stroke. He was only forty-four. At first it looked like he might recover, but he never really did. He lost motor control one side of his body and couldn’t drive anymore. He had moments of lucidity but he was often confused, distant. Mildred parked the Austin Healey in the barn and stayed in Watervalley.

He lingered for fifteen years before finally dying from complications of pneumonia. By now Mildred was thirty-seven and had in many ways just let herself go. She had always been on the plain side of pretty and the years of smoking and constant care of her father and the worries of managing the rental property had taken their toll. She looked old before her time.

She thought about selling everything, about getting the Austin Healey out of storage and driving west like she had always dreamed. But when she looked in the mirror, she didn’t see that young girl with sunglasses and scarf, smiling at the world from behind the wheel of a convertible. She saw a haggard woman. She stayed. The years ebbed forward, drawing her further and further into a forgotten life, one that was full of resentment and bitterness. By the time she came to see Luke Bradford at the clinic last fall, she already knew she was dying of cancer.

At first Luke began to recommend an aggressive treatment plan of chemo and radiation. But Mildred, in her sharp voice told him to forget it. “I just want something for the pain,” she snapped.

For the longest time, Luke stared at her without responding. It was late, and Mildred had been the last patient of the day. He asked her to wait a minute. He left the exam room and told Nancy to go on home and that he would close up. Upon returning, he told Mildred to follow him to his office. Reluctantly, she did.

Disgruntled, she seated herself in one of the wing back chairs across from him. Luke reached into the bottom left drawer of his desk and retrieved an unopened bottle of twenty year Scotch. It had been a gift from John Harris. He found two glasses and poured an inch into each of them.

Mildred regarded him flatly. “What’s this?”

Luke responded casually. “You said you wanted something for the pain.”

“Not exactly what I was expecting. But, suit yourself.” Mildred drank it down. He refilled her glass.

Luke sat back in his chair, studying Mildred meditatively with his palms neatly together and his thumbs under his chin. She regarded him dryly.

Eventually, he pursed his lips and nodded. “Tell me about your pain, Mildred. When did it begin?”

She said nothing, but looked at him deadpan. She drank her second scotch. Then a wry smile began to form. “Fifty years ago.”

Luke nodded impassively. It was pretty much the answer he had expected. “Tell me about how you first noticed it.”

Mildred poured herself some more of the Scotch and stared at the glass reflectively. “High school. Probably a little earlier. There were a lot of dances down at the bandstand in those days, almost every Saturday. I always went but I was generally a wallflower. The girls didn’t like me because I always wore expensive dresses. And I guess the boys didn’t like me because, well, I wasn’t really that pretty.”

Mildred paused for a minute, looking down with a kind of bitter resolve. “And I wasn’t willing to do the things some girls did to get the boys to like you. One day at school, I overheard some girls laughing. They were talking about me and saying I couldn’t get a date in a lumber camp… saying that I wore the chastity belt of ugliness. High school can be kind of cruel like that. The problem, I guess, is that I always believed them. Anyway, I knew I needed to get away from Watervalley. So for graduation, Daddy bought me a car. It was beautiful. Let me tell you about it.”

She spent the next two hours telling Luke about the Austin Healey and about her dreams of driving to the coast. She also told him about how her plans all unraveled. “I never drove it around town because it would only bring on more ridicule from everybody. They’d all be saying, ‘Who does she think she is?’ Somewhere along the way I decided I didn’t give a damn who they thought I was.”

Luke listened on while Mildred poured out the full measure of her heart. Occasionally, despite her invective and bitter tongue, small tears would form in the corner of her eyes. He quietly nodded, taking in all her words, her thoughts. She finally exhausted herself and a long silence ensued.

Luke regarded her with soft, patient eyes and shook his head. “Mildred….. I’m sorry.”

For the first time in the entire encounter, she smiled at him. “Oh, don’t be, doc. Hell, I’ve made my choices. I don’t much care for the people here, and they’ve done a nice job of returning the favor. But I love the valley, always have. I love the hills and the fields and woodlands around here. I just always wanted to know what life might have been like somewhere else.”

They sat in silence for a moment longer.

Mildred exhaled sharply. “Thanks, doc. I better get going.”

“Mildred, let me drive you home.”

“Not a chance. I can hold my whiskey better than you know.”

“Alright. Then I’m going to follow you.”

At first, Mildred refused. Then after a moments thought, she responded differently. “Tell you what, why don’t you do that. I’ve got an idea about something. Something I want you to do.

Luke followed and Mildred got home safely. That was in September of last fall. In late December, Luke had her admitted to Gunther Memorial. She lingered there until she died after the first of the year.

So, Luke Bradford went to her funeral knowing a side to Mildred Strum that no one in Watervalley had ever seen, a side she had carefully kept hidden.

Three days after the funeral, Luke received a package from Mildred’s attorney. Inside the attorney’s envelope was a sealed letter from Mildred. He read it slowly.

Dear Dr. Bradford,

I want to thank you for caring for me during my last days. You’re a good man. My estate is going to be divided up between several cousins of mine. They’re greedy little shits and I hope it gives them huge headaches. But I want you to have the Austin Healey like we talked about last September after you followed me home from the clinic. I know you refused but I don’t care. Take the damn thing. The title is enclosed and signed over to you.

It was going to be my getaway car. Now it can be yours. Although, I have to admit, I don’t think you’ll ever get away from Watervalley. I don’t think you’ll want to. Don’t ask me why. I just see it in your face.

Anyway, get it fixed up and show some pretty girl a good time. Or maybe even a plain one like me. We all have dreams.

I hope you find yours.

Mildred Strum

Luke called Chick once again and had him take the wrecker out to Mildred’s place to bring the old Austin

Chick McKissick does his magic!

Chick McKissick does his magic!

Healey back to the shop. Chick spent  two days cleaning it up. It looked incredible. But Chick told Luke it would be a couple of months before he had it in running order. Luke smiled and told him that was fine. He wasn’t planning on going anywhere anytime soon.

I’m Jeff High and for now in Watervalley, that’s pretty much the highpoint.

 

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  1. Kris says:

    An Austin Healey and a daughter’s obligations. Thank you for the story.

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