Palo Alto Weekly 28th Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Adult

Chevy and Tomatoes

By Marcia Beck

About Marcia Beck

Although I have lived in Palo Alto for over 30 years, I was raised in Dedham, Massachusetts, and most of my family is still there. My outlook is definitely based on my New England roots.

The idea for "Chevy and Tomatoes" was based on an experience when my husband spontaneously contemplated buying a vintage car when the opportunity presented itself and the buyer seemed conflicted about whether he really wanted to sell. The encounter was obviously not just a financial decision for the seller, and the emotional decision was a tough one for him to carry through.

During the past year I started writing short essays under the title of "Blogless Nonsense." It's not a public blog, but I send my pieces to friends and relatives. I never know when a memory or comment I hear will start to take over my thoughts and give me the impetus to expand those thoughts into a full piece that I want to share with other people. Sometimes I think what I choose to write about is somewhat involuntary. The reward has been when something I have written has either entertained or elicited some degree of emotional response.


Judge's comments

"Chevy and Tomatoes" stirs together a '65 Chevy (the registration for which is kept in an old gentleman's sock drawer), a collection of friends from church, and a few front porch tomato plants into an emotionally complex story about old age, the regrets behind even the longest of marriages, and the blurry line between friendship and love.
— Meg Waite Clayton

Carl plopped the small, wrinkled, brown bag of tomatoes down on the table in front of Eleanor with a flourish and a smile for her. Carl was proud of his tomatoes and he liked dropping in on Eleanor, checking on her, being the church representative, even though the church was gone. Carl was old, but Eleanor was elderly- it was a distinction he held in his mind; he liked not being the oldest person he knew, and it meant he was more in the world than some of the old church group; he had enough savvy to look out for Eleanor. He had been fond of Earl, Eleanor's husband, and since Earl had passed away, Carl felt a duty to keep the ties up with Eleanor. He could still see her at church right down in the square if the tiny building hadn't been bought out by the Syrian group; they were Orthodox he heard. Now the little Methodist congregation of twenty or so had split up, some to the Congregational church, which was still strong, some to the Episcopal Church, too, but not many, it was too big of a change. Some people just stopped going altogether. Eleanor now went to the Congo, that's what everyone called the Congregational Church, but Carl hadn't made up his mind yet. Avery, his wife, had a wheelchair and the Congo had a large gravel parking lot and it was hard to get Avery and the chair back and forth from the car to the side door of the church.

Carl had just started telling Eleanor how to pinch back the little tomato plants on her front porch when Eleanor's daughter and husband from San Diego pulled in, driving Eleanor's old Saturn. Eleanor said they'd been there about three days already. They had been out getting some asphalt filler for the ruts in the driveway. Carl liked seeing them, they had darling girls and when the girls were little they sang once at church and he used the song for years in his Sunday school classes. Carl liked that they helped Eleanor out, too, because he couldn't do the heavy stuff for her.
Eleanor's son-in-law, Dean, was easy to talk to - and when Carl started to excuse himself to go out back to the garage, Dean ambled along with him. Eleanor had a beat-up garage in the back, but even though the paint was peeling and it was too far from the house to be practical, it was covered and protected from the elements. Carl kept a car in there, a ‘65 Chevy Malibu; and the other space was taken by someone that kept a Model T. Carl had a Model T himself, but he kept that one in another garage, and it cost him. It was hard to find garage space in town, and Eleanor let him keep his Chevy there as a favor; it saved him over a hundred dollars or more a month, and he needed that. Carl also thought it was less apt to start an issue with Avery if the car was out of sight. There was no reason for Avery to be jealous, everyone from church had loved Linda, but still, they had had some strained words over it, and Carl didn't want the fights at home, and he didn't want to ruin his private thoughts when he visited the car. They were his, the car and his thoughts, and he could have privacy whenever he dropped in on Eleanor.

The Chevy was long; while it fit in the garage, there was barely enough room to squeeze by the front end, and no way to get into the trunk unless the car was moved outside again, and there was no need for that right now, not until Spring when he figured he'd have to sell it. He loved the smell of the garage too; it was damp and smelled of oil and old lumber and it was far enough from the house that neither Eleanor nor her grown children bothered much going back there.

He'd had the car for three years now, ever since Linda died. Linda had gone to the Methodist Church too, and he tried to cover the tears that started pricking at his eyes when he unlocked the garage. Linda was a wonderful gal, never married, and Carl did a lot of church work with her, and then helped her with taxes, and then just started visiting now and then; and he just loved her, he really loved her, what a gal. The car had belonged to Linda's mother, and then Linda and it was never parked outside, ever. Carl owed it to Linda to keep it covered.

Dean was so interested in the car it was fun to show him the details, low mileage, unbelievable really, and original upholstery, and that huge trunk. Before they went back into the house, Carl pulled out the photos from his pocket. He always had them – the Malibu, his own Model T, and the picture of Linda, worn smooth on the edges. He didn't leave the house without them in his pocket.

He didn't pull out the photos when Avery was with him, and church people were used to seeing him show the pictures of his cars. He didn't notice that once in a while people exchanged glances when they saw that he also carried pictures of Linda. A few of the old timers were told by their wives that they didn't know how Avery put up with Carl walking around with Linda's pictures in his breast pocket; but to each his own.

Carl was surprised when he answered the phone after dinner. It had been a week or so since he had checked on the car, and showed it to Dean. Avery had cooked meatloaf and Carl always did the dishes, and it took him quite a while to clean that pan up. The stuck on bits were stubborn, and had to be soaked, and Carl wondered why Avery didn't just put aluminum foil in the pan, it would be easier, but he had stopped suggesting it. It was Dean on the phone, calling from San Diego, and if Carl was really going to sell the car in the spring, he'd like to make an offer right now. Dean was recently retired and was intrigued with the idea of picking up a sort of entry level vintage car to see if he'd like the tinkering and the fun of it, without spending too much on it. He hadn't been looking, really, but there it was, right in front of him and his interest was piqued.

Carl felt flustered, excited and unsure; but maybe it was better to make a quick sale – it would save him having to try to advertise it, and he didn't know quite how to do that now what with the internet and all. He heard you couldn't just sell things in the paper anymore, nobody looks in the paper. It would be almost like having it in the family – he could keep track of it if Dean bought it. Sure, it would be in California, but Dean could tell Eleanor all about it, and the transport, and what people in California thought of the car, and Eleanor could tell Carl.

All night he thought about it. Carl wasn't going to drive the Chevy anyway, not with the insurance he'd need; and this way he would know it was with someone that would take care of it. It would be almost like Dean was borrowing it from him. He dialed Dean and told him the deal was on. The next few days Dean called a lot, he needed so much information, and he had questions about transport, and paperwork, and it started to Carl to seem so complicated. There seemed to be so many details, and Carl was fitful at night, and it was hard to get to sleep.

If the car was going to be moved, Dean needed a VIN number and insurance information and where was the last registration? If the car was going to go, Carl just wanted it gone, it was too much, it was just too much to go over there and dig through the car each time Dean called with a question. Carl knew that Mike from the garage liked the car; why didn't he just give it to Mike? He couldn't do that, he had made a deal. And he wanted it out of the garage; Eleanor's neighbor had a grown son, he lived at home again after losing another job from drinking; he kept staring whenever Carl went in the garage; the guy was trouble, you could tell that from looking at him and the whole family had a huge fight sometimes, that's what Eleanor said. The car wasn't even safe in that garage, he couldn't bear it if some punk stole Linda's car.

He found the registration under the shelf liner in his sock drawer. He could have put the paperwork in his desk files, but they seemed more private tucked away like that. It wasn't really any of Avery's business anyway. He pulled the envelope out and saw Linda's name, and her address and he could picture sitting on her front porch in the August heat and seeing the car in the driveway. It made him so sad; she was such a great gal, everyone loved her at church, everyone.

Carl waited until Avery was getting ready for bed before he dialed. He was so angry; he couldn't keep his voice steady. He told Dean that just because he could buy a car when he wanted, didn't mean he should buy it. He said Dean wasn't used to vintage cars and he didn't know anything about them and he had no business buying one. He didn't mean to sound mad, but Dean just shouldn't say one word, the car was not for sale, and nothing could make him change his mind. He was shaking when he hung up the phone, almost dizzy with anger and embarrassment and regret.

Eleanor wasn't home when Carl came by and moved the car from out back. She heard he stored it somewhere else, but she had no idea where. Her neighbor had seen it being moved, he was used to seeing Carl come by from time to time and let himself into Eleanor's garage. Carl and another man drove it right over the grass strip between his house and Eleanor's; they left ruts in the grass and he was put out with Eleanor for having the cars back there. He didn't want to get mad at her, she was an old lady living alone; but it was disrespectful of Carl to do that, to drive right over the wet ground like that.

Carl would come by the house again, he'd bring her tomatoes or his banana bread, he made a good banana bread; and he'd help her put up the storm door pretty soon. They'd see each other at the Congo, on the days when he felt he could deal with the gravel over there. He'd told her he'd be at her ninetieth birthday party too. Eleanor was pretty excited about it, but it wasn't going to be at the Congo. It would be at the Unitarian Church, it was a nice sized hall they had there, and big windows which would be nice if it was hot. He never would bring up the Chevy, or why he moved it, or where; and he knew Eleanor wouldn't either; they weren't the sort of people to make their friendship awkward over something like a car. No, Carl would come to the party, and he'd offer a ride to a couple of the church people who didn't drive any more, he always did that.
Avery would come, too.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.