Economy Car

David Lance Goines

June 16, 1993

Adapted from a story told by Steven Sloane

Kevin Jackson was a nerd before there was a word for it. If he'd known about them, he would have become a Technocrat. One of those guys who makes a big deal out of everything anyway, fixating on the trees, entirely unaware that he was lost in the forest. You didn't dislike him precisely, but you didn't like him either.

We worked in a large engineering firm in The Valley, designing parts for things that we hardly even knew what they were for, they were so secret. Hard to do. Late at night we'd hear the incredible roar as they tested one of the monster rocket engines, held in check from flying off the face of the earth by thousands of tons of concrete. You could feel the ground straining to hold on.

In 1959, when American cars had gotten so big that you almost had to have a rear driver--like on a hook-and-ladder--and were styled after Buck Rogers space ships and painted to outdo a carnival, Kevin bought a black Volkswagen bug. The thing was comically ugly. Like somebody had actually sat down and tried to figure out how to make a car that looked and sounded as dumb and wimpy as possible. A car that resembled an insect when GM was turning out fairytale dragons. Like some sort of big-time lunacy. Not many people bought them, and up against a Dodge or a Chrysler Imperialist they looked like a kid's toy.

He was unreasoningly proud of it, loved its ugliness, dwelt on its virtues and made virtues of its faults. I mean, he was aggressive about it. For reasons of foolish economy and Calvinistic Kraut self-discipline, they made them without a gas gauge, so you had to keep fairly careful track of your mileage, or you'd find yourself out of gas in the middle of nowhere. This was meat and drink to him, and he logged his odometer readings and crowed about the great gas mileage it got. So what? Gas was 17 cents a gallon, for Christ's sake.

Something about this stupid car of his evoked gales of mirth and the primal urge to play practical jokes, like picking it up bodily and putting it in the hallway. Half-a-dozen strong men could easily hoist the beetle-shaped car and tote it up a flight of stairs. One day we did just that, and there it sat until maintenance rounded up two long boards and he carefully drove it down out of the lobby, giving us all a sheepish grin. Somebody in management with a sense of humor posted a memo that parking was to be in designated areas only.

Every day somehow he'd work its fantastic mileage into the conversation. My boat got about 16 miles to the gallon; he got about 32. More or less, sometimes he got up to 35 if he drove real careful. He never put it into Scotch overdrive I don't think, where you turn off the ignition and coast down hills, but he came that close to being weird about it.

Those 20 gallon tanks made you careless, and one afternoon I actually ran out of gas coming into work and had to walk a couple of blocks. At noon I went back to the corner gas station and got a gallon of gas. A gallon would start her up and get me to a fillup. As I was pouring the gas into my car, a little devil sat on my shoulder and said, "Pour a little into Kevin's tank. Go on." So, not being much on resisting guys carrying pitchforks and wearing red union suits, I popped his hood, unscrewed the gas cap and dribbled about a pint of gas in. It was super, but I doubted that it would make any difference. The thing had a little 39 horsepower four-banger that would run on whisky, cheap perfume or liquid fertilizer. Not a delicate machine, if you follow my drift.

The usual litany about great gas economy and so on and so forth, and the next noon hour I poured another pint into his tank. Every day I did this. Pretty soon, he was reporting 37, even 38 miles per gallon. I started putting a quart in. His mileage rose to fifty. He visibly swelled, casting condescending looks at his co-workers in their gas-guzzling behemoths. I started keeping a record of his odometer readings, and doing calculations to figure just exactly how much gas I had to put in to get his car to have whatever mileage I wanted. His mileage gradually crept up from fifty to fifty-five, to sixty. I threw caution to the winds and over the next year I worked him up to 170 miles per gallon. He never caught on. What a sap.

Then I started reducing his mileage. It dropped to a hundred miles per gallon, 75, 60, 50, 40. When it got back to the original 32 he was frantic. He wasn't sleeping. He came into work looking like death warmed over. I started siphoning gas out, until he was barely getting two miles to the gallon. He could hardly get from work to home without running out of gas. He would get a fillup on the way home, and that night I would go to his apartment house and siphon it all out, leaving a quart or so. He was frantic. He got big bags under his eyes and his hands shook when he drank his coffee. As high as the high, so was the low low. He got tune-ups, oil changes, valve and ring jobs. He adjusted the points to within an inch of their life. He did air-turbulence analysis. He wrote the manufacturer and plagued the life out of the dealer. All to no avail. Gradually, I restored him to the 32 mpg claimed by the manufacturer in the ads, and then I left him alone. He didn't talk about his mileage anymore. He sold the car and bought a Plymouth Valiant. Years later, he would recall with the deepest mystification the wild mileage fluctuations of his old VW. I think if I ever told him what I'd done that he would kill me.

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Economy Car

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