I'm not sure I knew I was setting out on an important journey, but there was something unusual in the air that day when Brenda pulled into my drive in a candy apple red GTO. "Get in, don't ask any questions." She motioned me over. Which, of course, meant that I was full of them.
"Wow. Where'd you get the car? Where are we going? Where's Leroy?"
She swatted my questions away like gnats. Soon we were just a plume of dust down State Road 12, and I wondered when she would let me in on what we were up to. With Brenda, it could be anything. It was only in the past month that she was allowed out of the county. My parents had warned me about girls like her, but I'd been trying to be one ever since I'd seen my first Motley Crue video.
When we passed into Wisconsin, I knew it had to be big. We pulled over at a Woodman's and Brenda bought eight kinds of beer and a bottle of nail polish the same color as the car. "We have a date."
"You, me, this car, Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wisconsin. Classic car night and ladies night have converged. All the stars are aligned." I didn't know if it was the excitement or the 360 horses under us, but my body vibrated at a frequency I'd never felt before.
"Sunday—Sunday—Sunday," pounded in my head, to the rhythm of the pistons. Those commercials were a staple of my childhood as much as peanut butter and jelly.
Walking to the stands at the racetrack with Brenda was like strolling the red carpet at the Oscars with Nicole Kidman. Everyone in Hebron might have called Brenda white trash behind her back, but I knew she had that crazy way about her that every movie star who has ever left a small town in the middle of the night must have. The guys at the racetrack knew it, too, and there was always a sense of desperation about them to keep her in our small town. "Hey, Brenda," "Hey, Gorgeous," echoed around us as we climbed the bleachers. She played it cucumber cool. She set the Styrofoam cooler in front of us and handed out the first round of beer to the guys. Then she took off a strappy brown sandal and started painting her toenails like she didn't even care that a car race was going on.
Usually, at the racetrack, Brenda just watched me. Mark, my boyfriend, used to say that Brenda was a lipstick and I was a dyke. Then he admitted that that wasn't it, but he stopped coming to the races with us anyway. It wasn't anything like that. I just fell more in love with the cars than anything else, and Brenda liked watching it. It was a different kind of love every time. Sometimes the kind that makes your body thrill like a fiddle string. Sometimes a sudden dizzy rush to the head. The worst was when I saw a 1969 Camaro—deep purple with Nitrous Oxide coolant—do a quarter mile drag race in 5.4 seconds, and I had to go to the bathroom and splash my face with cold water. Something in me was sick that that car would never be mine. Brenda said she couldn't blame Mark for being jealous after that.
Even though the guys at the track flirted with Brenda and cat-called, the policy was strictly hands-off. Leroy had rebuilt and modded out almost all the cars out there, and everyone at the racetrack had their priorities straight. Brenda was tall and blonde and always had that hippie dreamy look about her that could convince even her parole officers that she was innocent, but she wasn't worth more than a rebuilt big-block open chamber engine to any of these guys.
When Brenda flicked her bottle opener out of her Swiss Army knife and started downing a Logjam, I wondered why we had the GTO. If she was drinking, she wasn't racing. And though Brenda was a flashy kind of girl, it wasn't like her to be all show and no action. I figured it out when she pressed her keys into my palm.
"You're up tonight, Kid. The second heat of lady racers. Unless you want to race classics with the guys."
My heart dropped further into my stomach than it had when I watched the '69 Camaro disappear in a cloud of exhaust only to reappear at the end of the track. "Oh, Brenda, I can't."
The rest of the crowd was roaring about a contested outcome and Brenda pulled me closer. "And it's your car now. My gift."
"What did you have to do?"
She popped the cap off a Leininkugel's Sunset Wheat and read the label the way some people read the bible. "Leroy said I could have any car at the shop if I had another abortion. This is the last one I can have, the doctor says. I'm done with Leroy. For good. You should at least get a car out of all this. You love them more than he does."
I wanted to say something really inspirational and important to Brenda. I wanted to tell her that it would be okay. Without Leroy anchoring her down, she could go anywhere, do anything. But even if I had said it, it wouldn't have made a difference. Brenda would end up with another grease monkey or a fat factory foreman. But the loud speaker announced in that "Sunday—Sunday—Sunday" voice that all ladies who were going to race needed to get to their cars.
I took the keys from Brenda and ran across the green. My feet felt light like when I was seven and barefoot and running through the field at night with Brenda catching fireflies. I slid behind the wheel of my GTO. My GTO. I understood I had finally come home.