"Turning Over A New Axle"
This story exists in the universe of the Phaethon books. If you haven't read book one yet, you can find it here. Book two is coming soon, so now is a good time to catch up. There will be three books in the complete series.
This story introduces a character you will meet in book two.
Zelda scuffed her toes down the dusty dirt road. She’d looked at three cars today, each worse than the last. Out in the southern sticks, online listings were sparse.
She wasn’t really a car girl. She tried. With her Bettie Page haircut, her cherries and dice motif, and her propensity for moving fast, a certain set of greaser abilities seemed only fitting, but Zelda had set out to learn about cars and instead learned what many girls do; that boys don’t want to teach girls a damn thing. Since middle school, Zelda had been trying to learn
about cars, guitars, and skateboards, and each boy who’d offered to teach her had pressed ulterior motives instead, a turn of events that frequently ended with the judicious application of Zelda’s knee to places the boys would rather not remember. She hadn’t found a female mentor anywhere in rural Mississippi. The internet had taught her a thing or two, though, and she’d just turned down a ‘98 Nissan Sentra over a cracked axle.
It was time for her to blow this popsicle stand. She wasn’t going to Tetris all her material possessions into some rustbucket and then have to turn back fifty miles outside of Magnolia when the wheels started coming off.
Zelda shook her head to unstick her bangs from her brow. The thin thighs of her tight black jeans were damp with sweat. It was too hot for this. But the next listed car was only a mile down the road, and she was out of close friends from whom she might have cadged a ride. Her ex had kept all their friends, leaving Zelda with a wobbly heart and a potential dating pool of approximately zero lesbians in a very small town. Just one more reason to get the hell out of Mississippi.
Biting bugs gathered around her as she passed a stand of scruffy trees. Too hot and tired to swat, she lit a clove cigarette to chase them away.
This was going to be her year. She quit her awful job. She dyed her hair black. The possibilities suddenly seemed, if not endless, existent. She just had to exchange her mattress savings for some wheels, put them under her, and drive off into the moonrise.
She turned from one dirt road onto another, and soon the car came into view. The PT Cruiser, purple as a grape lollipop, looked like Zelda felt. A shiny lady sticking out like a sore thumb, dusted with rust from spending too long in this nowhere nothing; a little beaten up, missing a few pieces, but still strong in the places where the world hadn’t been tough enough to dent her.
Zee stepped onto the stranger’s yard and walked around the car in the overgrown grass. The Cruiser was missing a bumper. She circled it.
A screen door banged behind her. The double-wide trailer at the end of the short dirt driveway had disgorged a woman in a leopard print-robe. She held a grumbling ball of fur with one arm. The woman approached. Her sandals flipped and flopped audibly.
“I hate to ask, but would you mind putting that out? I just quit.”
Zelda dropped her clove cigarette and crushed it under a clunky heel. “Good for you,” she said, trying to sound like she gave a shit.
“Yup,” the woman said. “I’m changing my life.”
Zelda wanted to fistbump her but shook her hand instead. “I’m here about the car?”
“Yeah. Look, I’m just gonna be honest with you. It’s basically a rebadged toaster. It purrs like a cockroach and it doesn’t like making left turns. The radio only works on full moons. There’s a little piece of duct tape on the bumper; that’s where you kick it to open the trunk. But it runs, and it’s basically okay in the bones. Oh, and it smells like Chihuahua. That ain’t never comin’ out.”
Zelda put on a very serious face as she inspected the parts of the car she could name, but gave up the pretense after one full lap around the purple behemoth. Oblivious to the hot metal, Zelda hugged the roof. “She’s perfect.”
“I’ll take a hundred bucks off the price if you get it off my lawn quick.”
Zelda stuck her fingers in her too-tight pockets. “You got the keys?”
The woman shifted the dog in her arm and pulled a keyring from her robe pocket, jingling them and smiling sincerely. Zelda nodded.
“I’ll take it off your lawn right now.”
Zelda tried to hand over the full amount to be polite, and the woman handed back her hundred dollar discount. When the pleasantries had been exchanged, the woman disappeared back into her trailer. Zelda dropped into the driver’s seat. It was like sitting on a felted rock.
The world looked different through the windshield. Like it was going to start flying by at any moment.
The plates were still good. She’d checked. The tires were full enough for now. Sooner or later, she would have to take care of registration, insurance, and all the other paperwork, but she could do that when she got where she was going.
She only had half an idea of where that was. LA was too cliche. Portland was too far. New York was too big.
Zelda turned the key, held fast against the ignition while the engine considered starting, and eased off when it gasped to life. She threw it into gear and eased off the nice lady’s lawn. When she pulled up to the stop sign beside the state highway, she paused, remembering what the woman had said about left turns.
She went right.
Saint Louis was too close. Nashville was too conservative. Miami was too hot.
She’d think of something.