The Car Dealer’s Daughter

  A modern retelling of “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence

     Thursday evening, when Mabel returns from her shift at AM/PMMarket, a Final Eviction notice hangs from the doorknob of the small house. “Damn,” she says, tearing it off and stuffing it into her purse. Not that she hasn’t expected it. In fact, this last month in the house, her father’s house up until his death, has gone by more slowly than she’d anticipated. After the phone call from the owners, Sorry, we’re selling, she’d assumed that the days would speed along, one crashing into another in an awful final countdown. Instead, time felt like a slideshow of freeze-framed moments. Mabel had even begun to think of herself as a character in this show. Mabel waters the hydrangeas. Mabel empties the trash. Mabel gets depressed.

Inside, the rooms are in a jumble of unfinished actions: half-filled boxes stacked along the living room wall; piles of books leaned against the furniture. In the bedroom, the contents of her closet are strewn across the bed. The refrigerator had been pulled out from the kitchen wall and never returned. Mabel has to squeeze around it when the phone rings.

     It’s her brother, Joe. She tells him about the notice. “So, what now?” he asks. He’s calling from his backyard. Mabel can hear the squeals of his two bossy daughters in the pool. Joe lives in a white-stucco condo in a walled community.

     “I’ve been looking every day,” Mabel lies.

     “You don’t have much time,” he reminds her. He sounds tired, annoyed. “You can always come here,” he says, an afterthought. This, of course, would never work. She knows the smug way his wife looks at her, taking in Mabel’s droopy clothes and ratty hair, collecting evidence to be used later.

     “Thanks, but no thanks,” Mabel says. Mabel feels his relief.

     People would wrinkle their noses when she told them her father was a used car dealer. “Ugh,” said one of her high school friends, “That’s worse than Nixon.” Mabel didn’t feel that way. Since her parents’ divorce, when she was in the third grade and her brother in fifth, her father had seemed to Mabel like a romantic figure. She’d loved visiting the lots where he worked; the tiny triangular banners flapping in the breeze, the freshly hosed down cars sparkling in the sun. Inside the little office, the salesmen wore slacks and sport coats. Mabel’s dad wore a brown fedora. Her father would often take cars home from the lot. “You choose,” he’d say to them. For a while her brother would pick: a Mustang or a big truck, engines thrumming as they drove. Later, when her brother spent his visits hiding behind a book, Mabel would choose. She needed to be careful, she felt the wrong choice might change things in an unanticipated way; the right one could open a new door. 

     Once, when Mabel was in a reminiscing mood, she’d tried to tell Joe about the choices, how they had seemed to expand in front of her, both exciting and dangerous.

     Joe shrugged, “I remember Dad’s choices,” he said. “Bankruptcy was an interesting choice.”

     Mabel pushes aside a pile of clothes on the bed and sleeps. The Santa Anas are blowing and all night the bushes scratch against the walls of the house. Mabel awakens several times with a start. She is relieved when the first rays of light appear.

     While eating a bowl of cereal, her mother calls.Her mother has decided on a no nonsense approach this morning. “Why mope around in that house?” she asks. Her mother has remarried, moved to Sedona. She hadn’t seen Mabel’s father in years. Now he’s dead.

     “I like it here,” Mabel says. She can hear her mother’s silver earrings clinking against the phone.

   Her mother sighs, then brightens. “Oh, listen. Remember those old movies? Women in Love? Sons and Lovers? All that D.H. Lawrence stuff?”

     “I think so,” Mabel says, cautiously.

     “Your father used to love that stuff. It would show up on TV at odd times, he’d stay up half the night watching.” Mabel’s mother is proud; she has remembered something that Mabel might like.

     Mabel tries to picture her father young, still married to her mother, watching a black and white TV. She can’t. “I don’t remember those movies,” she says.

     “They were all the same,” her mother says, “Always dredging a lake, looking for a body.”

     It’s strange to be in the AM/PM Market so early, waiting in line like any other customer. The night manager, Jack, is at the register and wiggles his eyebrows when he sees Mabel. She pays for the Sprite and asks Jack for the paper she’s left under the counter.

     Jack looks at the circled rental ads, squints at Mabel.  “Hey,” he says, “I’m off in ten minutes. Wait for me?”

     Mabel hesitates.  She only knows Jack slightly: some employee meetings, a couple of times to say hello. “Okay.”

     The first place is a few miles away, down Lincoln Blvd. Mabel hasn’t driven in this neighborhood for a long time. Jack has settled in as a passenger. Mabel drives with a friend. He is fiddling with the radio. His legs are long and pulled up, his elbows propped on his bony knees.

     “This place is familiar,” she says. Driving down the wide boulevard, she begins to pick out landmarks. She sees an Italian restaurant in a large wooden home, she feels like she’s eaten there. A lot has changed but she thinks that her father had a business around here once. She wishes Joe were here, he’d know, he’d remember in spite of not wanting to. She drives around the block again. She can almost remember which corner it was on.    

    “Hey,” Jack says. “You’re going in circles.”

      By afternoon, the winds have died down. Mabel feels like they’ve been driving forever, one town merging into another. Finally they reach the ocean and she  drives parallel with the shore. Jack opens his window and lets his arm push against the salty wind. “Want to stop?” Mabel asks. Jack nods.

     They park in the empty lot and trudge across the deserted sand down to the shoreline. The water is gray, the waves choppy and irregular. Jack puts his jacket down on the sand and sits, patting the place next to him. Mabel sits, she hasn’t realized how tired she is. Mabel is exhausted.

     Jack says, “When I first moved here, I came to the beach all the time. I felt obligated, like I was given this huge ocean and it was my responsibility to acknowledge it.”

     “Then what?” Mabel asks.

     Jack shrugs. “Then I got used to it.” He sweeps his hand, indicating the whole scene: the gulls strutting across the wet sand, a few boats on the horizon. “It could be a billboard of the ocean, not a real ocean.”

     Mabel shields her eyes and points, “What’s that?” A brown object floats a few yards out, lifting and falling on the waves. She moves closer, “I think it’s a hat,” she says.

     Jack says, “Hey, what are you doing?” as she takes off her shoes and rolls up her pant legs.

     Mabel strides into the water and immediately sinks up to her ankles. The water is cold and the pull of the waves is stronger than she expected. The brown hat, though, is bobbing only a few feet off and she takes another step in. Now she’s wet to her knees. She swings her arm out, grabs the hat, and loses her balance. She falls to her knees and then over. She struggles to move but her jacket has twisted around her arms. She feels ridiculous; the water is not deep. Yet, she can’t get up.

     Mabel doesn’t know she’s being dragged out of the water until she feels sand scraping against her cheek. She sits up, coughs. Jack squats in front of her. “Jesus,” he says. “You could’ve drowned.” His face, long and worried, hovers over hers.

     Jack too has gotten soaked. Three times on the ride back, he’s reminded her that he cannot swim. He’s driving, stretching his arms out, reenacting the rescue. Mabel feels cold, her teeth chattering, but also exhilarated. She pulls seaweed from her hair. The brown hat lays in a puddle on the floorboard. She looks at Jack’s profile, his determined stare and animated movements. Something has changed for him also.

      They reach the AM/PM Marketand Jack parks next to his car. He leans over, half-hugs her. “Take a hot bath,” he says. “I’ll call you later.”

     Mabel waits for him to get in his car. Then she picks up the brown hat. It’s drenched and smells like the ocean. She leans out the window, holding it up like a trophy. Mabel waves goodbye.

Photo by Parker Gibbs on Unsplash

Published in Best New Stories by AZ Writers 2019