My good friend Belle worked in the Book & Burger in a small town not far from Missoula. She was a sparky and good hearted woman – quite petite in a chunky way – with a mane of very blonde hair. She was well-liked locally but her real source of respect and fame was her way with cars. She fixed, drove and raced them with great skill. To be specific, she – and her family – were obsessed with the Dodge. By family, I mean parents, uncles, cousins. Her ex-husband was not so keen. The cars were her children so maybe that’s why he became an ex.
She claimed not to have favourites but acknowledged the 70s Charger as the most exciting and the Monaco – Blues Brothers police model – as the toughest. Any Dodge pick-up or SUV was good for her. But deep down and after a few beers, she’d admit to loving her precious Dodge Challenger ‘Wolfie’ with a particular fierceness.
‘Wolfie’ was pretty well known along State Highway 12 and its surrounding region and although he did fewer long distance trips and stopped racing he was a regular in annual town parades all black and red gloss and lightning stripes and breathers and raised rear suspension with wide wheels. Belle referred to it as ‘him’. ‘He’s just my big bad baby’ she would say as she stroked the shiny engine surfaces. He was not her baby of course, more her lover. Belle was happy to confess this. Where many women will readily describe their man as their ‘baby’ and quite possibly big and bad with it they are referring to a man. She referred to her car. She said to me ‘I’ve had all my good sex in Wolfie. The sex is whatever it is, but if it’s great it’s because it’s in that car.’
After a couple more beers she’d tell you why. ‘Context’ she said. ‘Good sex needs context. I lost my virginity to a guy in that car. He was a Hell’s Angel, a real stallion. It hurt like hell but I loved it because it was my car and I became a woman. I just breathed the leather and appreciated the chrome and all that lovely automobile stuff. Since then I only have sex in the car. I’m going with a guy now, he’s a Marine. He fucks me while I’m bent over the engine playing with the carburettors. I’m doing my thing, he’s doing his. It’s kind of fun that way, keeps everything in proportion if you get what I mean.’
Outside town is a side road that leads to what are called ‘the Fields’. They are meadows where Lewis and Clark are reputed to have camped on their famous cross continental odyssey commissioned by Jefferson to open an East to West coast trade route. There is a pull-in notorious as a resort for courting couples. The notoriety is supported by the prevalence of litter – beer cans, fast-food containers, condoms. Belle said she had some long hot nights parked up there in Wolfie when she was in her twenties. ‘And maybe thirties too’ she added with a laugh. There was a pause. ‘I mean, it’s surprising how many folk can get together to have sex in a Challenger.’ She read my silence well. ‘Yeah, gets the imagination going don’t it just. I had four boys one night. Boy, were we out of it. But mostly it was guys and gals. What got people going was doing a hundred miles an hour to get to the place. The thrill, the relief. The girls got wet and the guys got hard-ons. The sex was just therapy’
But that was then and this is now. I shipped off to Europe. It must have been five years before I found myself outside the Book & Burger again. Inside not much had changed – not even the books. There was a fresh faced college looking girl behind the counter. I asked after Belle. ‘I don’t know’ she replied, ‘I’ve only been here for a couple of weeks’
‘Who wants to know?’ A voice came from a corner table
‘An old friend’ I replied, turning. A somewhat raddled elderly man in a lumberjack shirt and beanie who I vaguely remembered sat staring suspiciously at me.
‘You knew Belle?’ he asked. I confirmed my acquaintance.
‘I used to help her polish Wolfie’ I said to establish credentials.
‘Yeah, you look kind of familiar’
‘It’s been a few years’.
‘As a pike’
‘Driving that god damn hot rod vehicle y’all called Wolfie’.
‘How did it happen?’
‘Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you. Don’t know why I should, she crippled my son.’
We sat opposite each other, beers in hand. ‘I’m sorry about your son’ I offered.
‘T’aint your fault. But thank you kindly anyway. She weren’t a bad person and it was an accident and neither of them should’ve bin racing anyway. Still, she had a bad influence, her and her Dodge mad family. ’
It turned out that shortly after I left town, Belle had fallen out with her Marine and taken up with my informant’s son. Like Belle he was a total motor head and obsessed with her. He proposed marriage. It was said she would have accepted but he insisted his supercharged Chevy Camaro was superior to Wolfie. She told him she would only marry him if he beat her in a race.
They decided on a course that would see them start at a neutral place and offer varied road conditions. This led to Waitsburg , west on State 12, north past Pasco on 395, return on the back road through Eureka. The folk who were in on the secret thought the idea was great. Bets were laid, Belle and her beau went into purdah preparing their cars. The great day came. But of course word got out and Waitsburg’s saloon and café did good business. The local deputy sheriff just said ‘ take care guys’ and went back home.
No-one knows quite what went wrong. Belle’s fiancé admits they were dicing on the County road alongside the Snake River but that it was cool until as he put it ‘Wolfie just spun round and I hit him and we both flew off the road into the river.’
He struggled out of the Camaro but with a broken back. Wolfie and Belle disappeared under the water. It took three hours before the alarm was raised and another two before the ambulances found the site. It would have been longer had not a local farmer been driving past on his way home from a neighbor. Belle and Wolfie were found later, a few hundred yards downstream.’
‘That’s sad’ I said at the end of his narrative.
‘Kind of Shakespearian don’t you think?’ he responded.
‘It would make a good movie.’
‘Yeah, but a crap life story’.
There was an argument for that if you wanted to make a comforting formulation for sudden death. ‘It’s the way she or they would have wanted…’ which might have been true for Belle if one didn’t know how much she enjoyed her cars. But very clearly wasn’t true for her beau who only wanted to enjoy Belle.
‘It wasn’t a crap life’ I said, ‘Just a crap way to end it’.
‘Right’ he said. ‘ Staying in town long?’
‘Shame you went away’ he said. ‘Guy like you might have talked the bitch out of it’.
‘The race or the marriage?’
He drained his beer and stood up. ‘Either’.