The Impala Chronicles (Forty-some Years In A Life), Chapter7
November 22, 1973: The Dark Side of the Moon
It was the best and worst year of his life, and he couldn’t even remember it all.
The best was easy: Mary. After his two tours in ‘Nam, the war ended for the U.S. with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, and he mustered out of the Marines in February to find Mary still waiting, still loving, still amazingly wanting him. Her dad hadn’t been any too pleased, but Mary had been confident he’d come around. Her mom had seemed to like him well enough, and his own folks were just pleased as punch with her. He’d started making plans with the two of them in mind, taking a job with his dad at the garage, going on the lookout for a little place that wouldn’t be too expensive for a young couple just starting out, buying a car their new little family could grow into – although he’d departed from the plan a little there, seduced by the Impala instead of buying the VW bus Mary had favored.
The worst was the part in May he couldn’t remember, the part that ended with Mary’s dad and mom both dead, bizarrely murdered, and with cops frustrated by answers they couldn’t find. He remembered Mary calling him that night, upset and wanting to leave. He remembered picking her up in the Impala and driving to the riverside, to the peaceful place near the trestle bridge where he’d planned to propose to her with the words he’d rehearsed in his mind for days. He remembered botching it in his nervousness, but at least remembering to open the ring box and say that he’d always love her for exactly who she was, and he remembered her eyes shining as she leaned towards him, and then … and then everything got strange. He thought he remembered her dad yanking open the car door and yelling at her, and he thought he remembered scrambling after them and protesting … and then, somehow, he was lying on the road in her arms and her dad was dead on the ground next to them, stabbed in the gut, all of them lit by the headlights of a Pinto abandoned with its engine running across the lane from them. His neck ached like the whiplash he’d gotten that time Harry Dunn had rear-ended his uncle’s pickup, but he couldn’t remember; couldn’t remember the Pinto showing up, couldn’t remember the guy Mary said had attacked them, couldn’t remember her dad being hurt, couldn’t remember doing – whatever it was – that she said made the guy run off even as whatever the guy had done to him made him pass out.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, after he’d hiked to the edge of the park and found a pay phone to call the cops, they found Mary’s mom dead in her house, beaten up and with her neck snapped like a twig. The neighbors remembered seeing the Pinto outside the house, and the car turned out to have been stolen. Blood and a knife on the living room floor seemed to mark where her dad had been stabbed. With no other information to go on, the cops figured it was some kind of home invasion, maybe someone with a grudge against Samuel Campbell who’d killed Deanna, wounded Samuel and taken him hostage, and then gone after Mary, only to be run off by John and Samuel.
It wasn’t a satisfying story, but it explained the Pinto, and Samuel being dead on the road when he obviously wasn’t stabbed there. It didn’t explain how there was no blood in the Pinto, or why someone would have gone after the Campbells in the first place, and it certainly didn’t explain how he woke up with a sore neck in Mary’s arms with memories of her dad’s anger and no memories of any violent stranger. But Mary had needed comfort, not questions, and he, like the cops, had settled for the story that explained at least most of the facts.
The rest of the year had passed in a blur. The police investigation dragged on with no results: the guy in the Pinto might as well have been a ghost, for all the trail he left behind. Mary said she’d never seen him before and didn’t know any reason why he might have wanted to harm her family, and the cops couldn’t find anything, either. Oh, they found that Samuel Campbell had a lot more weapons around the house than anyone might have considered normal, but he’d always been known to be a collector and a bit of a history buff, so that wasn’t particularly strange.
One of Mary’s uncles was named executor of her parents’ estate, and the paperwork and details were endless even though she was the only heir. Burial arrangements – well, cremation, which was a little odd, but not outlandish – straightening out finances, cleaning out the house; it was a hard time for Mary, and her pain made it hard for him. It sometimes seemed that she blamed herself for surviving when they were gone. She couldn’t bear the thought of living in the house, not after what had happened there, so her uncle hired a realtor and sold it. She rented an apartment, refusing to move in with him or his parents or any of her relatives, saying she needed the time alone. He didn’t understand that, but then again, he didn’t understand a lot.
It was an off-kilter year all around. Nothing was normal in the country. The whole Watergate scandal thing just got bigger and bigger as the year progressed. Vice President Agnew resigned and was convicted of tax evasion. Nixon tried to block the Watergate investigation, and the worse it got, the more it seemed – however incredible it was! – that the President would be impeached. That just didn’t happen. Oh, yeah, once in history, but that had been over a hundred years ago. A couple days ago, he’d seen Nixon saying vehemently that he was not a crook. He didn’t know what to believe any more.
Even the world was screwed. Well, the Middle East always had been, but the Yom Kippur War was the worst he could remember, almost a non-stop month of fighting. The resulting Arab oil embargo almost had him regretting buying the Impala instead of something smaller and lighter as gas lines started to form and the price of gas went up and up, until people started wondering if it might even go over a dollar someday.
He took solace where he could find it. He was making pretty good money at the garage and saving every bit of it he could. In his spare time, he made the Impala better than new. He even finagled a newfangled cassette tape deck to install in her console along with the radio. And he finally had a plan to get Mary out of her funk.
He had Pink Floyd playing in the deck as he picked her up, a very deliberate choice on a mix tape of his own making. Breathe, breathe in the air./ Don't be afraid to care. / Leave but don't leave me. / Look around and choose your own ground. / Long you live and high you fly / And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry / And all you touch and all you see / Is all your life will ever be.
He stopped the Impala on the street. The leaves were bare this late in the season, but the neighborhood was still pretty even under gray skies. He watched Mary take it all in: the cherry trees that would flower up and down the block, the neat lawns, the gentle slope up to the house, the big gnarled tree out front, perfect for climbing. He saw it take hold of her, and he smiled.
“I put an offer on it today,” he said. “Thanksgiving seemed like a good time for opening a new book and making a new life.” Right on cue in the background, Aerosmith’s Dream On started to play, like a subliminal suggestion.
“Make it with me, Mary. The years, the laughter, the tears – I want to share them with you. Marry me. We’ll make this our home, all good memories; a whole fresh start.”
When she said, very simply, yes, the things he couldn’t remember didn’t matter any more.
Author’s Note: The end of the war in Vietnam for the U.S. wasn’t the last chapter in the war itself; that came later, with the fall of Saigon in 1975.
I remember 1973 for Watergate, of course, and for Roe v. Wade, the launch of Skylab, and the spectacular Triple Crown win by Secretariat, the first horse to win all three races since 1948, years before I was even born.