Roy Keller’s family had his basement redone, creating what his father called a den. It had a mahogany bar, shelves for dozens of bottles, and hooks where all sizes of glasses hung like sparkling hats. My father didn’t drink.
Chris Coleman’s family had an in-ground swimming pool overlooked, on one side, by a redwood deck that was screened to keep out bugs. My father couldn’t swim.
My father loved music, but all his records were 78’s, even in 1958, so I had to buy plastic inserts for my 45’s and play them one at a time. But never when he was sleeping after his night shift and never loudly when he was awake.
However, my best friend was Jack Stankowski, and his family had a Living Garage, a room his father had added to their house where he could park his Cadillac. “The Caddie’s in our house,” Jack said. “For real,” he added, as if the room could vanish, and I had to agree because the only thing separating that car from where we were sitting in his living room was a nearly wall-to-wall double-glass panel that slid open and shut. From our overstuffed pale blue chairs, we could see the Cadillac sitting there like a huge indoor pet. My father drove home from work in a four-year-old Chevy five days a week and parked it in the street.
Jack knew all about the Living Garage. His father subscribed to Esquire, where there was a full-color ad with a picture of what Jack said was a Lincoln, the colors labeled Starmist White over Flamingo. “Bring luxury inside,” the ad said, and Jack’s father had listened. Jack cleaned up after that car, erasing, with dry mop, its tracks from the red tile swirled with white like the marbling in expensive steak. He dusted the chrome, even calling that Cadillac “Alexander” as if it might follow him to the kitchen to beg for food.
Maybe I imagined it, but even if the garage was empty when we watched television in Jack’s living room, I thought I could smell a faint trace of exhaust, as if we were sitting in a tunnel. And for sure, I was always surprised when the Cadillac reappeared, Jack’s father pulling up tight to the back wall, the glow from the headlights pinching small on the rustic paneling like a beachgoer’s pupils. When Jack’s father emerged, his suit looked like one worn by a corporate lawyer from a distant planet where cars had souls. He always locked the sliding glass before he nodded our way and walked past us, turning ordinary as he vanished through the standard hallway door.
That Cadillac had an extravagant sound system that my father would have called “snazzy” but never pay to have in our Chevy. When Jack’s parents went out for the night in bad weather, they used their Buick, and we turned up the radio and listened, hoping to hear our favorite songs surround us. “Only five,” Jack would say, afraid of running the car battery down. “Only five,” even if we’d heard Frank Sinatra and Brenda Lee and Connie Francis, wasting most of our Cadillac time before going inside for television.
It was hard, but Jack kept to that limit until one rainy night when he used his father’s spare key to turn the engine over when the DJ, before what would have been the fifth song, announced he was about to spin a Double Play of Chuck Berry. “Nobody’s coming home for an hour yet,” he said. “Let’s listen like we’re cruising.”
“We should open the garage door,” I said, my father’s common sense coming back to me after “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Chuck Berry #2, ended. “People kill themselves like this.”
“If we open the door, my dad kills us when somebody tells him the Caddie’s been running in the garage. The engine’s been running five minutes. Nobody dies that fast.”
The DJ said, “Come on, turn it up,” and the Del Vikings started singing “Come Go with Me.” Jack slapped the dashboard, mouthing the “Dum-dums,” but I had a better reason to stop besides how sluggish I was feeling. “Your Mom and Dad will smell the fumes when they get home.”
“Okay,” Jack said, but then the Coasters came on, and he turned up the volume another notch. Nosed between the towering cactus and the rubber plant that Jack’s mother had placed in two corners to help make it more living room than garage, the Caddie, by the time the Coasters were finished, seemed to be driving on a line between the Sahara and the jungle. The DJ said, “Here’s Connie Francis,” his voice sounding distant, and Jack turned off the engine. “I feel a little sick,” he said.
Jack opened the garage door. It had stopped raining, and we stood where the tile, right before it ended where the driveway began, was still dry under the overhang, both of us breathing deep. Jack didn’t say a word, but I was thinking we’d been saved because the DJ had played a slow song. If he’d played Little Richard, Jack would have listened, and I would have sat there happy, falling asleep just before the news came on.