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Authors: Pete Hautman

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BOOK: How To Steal a Car
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That night I couldn’t sleep.
I kept smelling dead fish, so around one o’clock I changed my sheets and took another shower and got dressed and decided to go for a walk in the middle of the night. On the way out the back door I noticed my dad’s car keys hanging there, so instead of going for a walk I took my dad’s Lexus for a drive.

I didn’t really think about it much; I just grabbed the keys and went. Almost like it was a normal thing to do. I didn’t even think about what my dad would do if he caught me.

There are thirty or forty lakes in the Twin Cities area. I drove around seven of them and only got lost once. It was a quiet, dark night with hardly any traffic and no moon. Very peaceful. I didn’t even turn on the radio. I just drove until the gas gauge was on empty, then went home. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as stealing somebody’s car for real, but it felt good to be driving around on my own. When I got home I poured most of the gas from my dad’s lawn mower gas can into the car so he wouldn’t notice that his car was suddenly on empty. Then I sat on the front porch for a while. It smelled like roses and cigarette butts. The rosebushes were sort of a hobby of my mom’s. The cigarette butts that littered the ground between the roses and the house were my mom’s too. She had been sneaking smokes ever since I could remember. My dad and I never said anything about it.

I sat there for like an hour, then went inside and took

another shower and climbed into bed and fell asleep almost right away.

Just so you don’t get the idea that I have only two friends and that we are locked in some weird sexless triangle, I should tell you about the Vails.

Jon and Jim Vail are almost twins, but not quite. They were born ten and a half months apart, but they are both starting twelfth grade in the fall. Jon, the older one, is Will’s big sister’s ex-boyfriend, and Jim is the one Jen had a secret crush on and the one I once almost had sex with in the basement of his house—and I maybe would have, except his mom started yelling something down the stairs and we freaked and quit doing what we’d been about to do.

I guess Jen and I have exactly the same taste in guys.

That thing in the Vails’ basement happened way back in May, and Jim and I hadn’t really talked since. I’d seen him a few times, but he was like, “Hey, how’s it going?” without any hint that he actually cared. I guess I acted pretty much the same, so I was surprised when he called and asked if I wanted to drive up to Taylors Falls with him and Candy Cohen and Jason Harris—Jason had a car—to go cliff-jumping, or what passes for cliff-jumping in Minnesota. I’d never been to Taylors Falls, so I said sure.

I didn’t mention it to Jen.

Jen Hoffman has been my best friend for almost my entire life. When I was nine and got pneumonia and had to spend six days in the hospital and two weeks at home after that, she came to visit me every single day. She loaned me her entire collection of Anne of Green Gables books, and her iPod, and she even brought me Mr. Poo, my stuffed poodle, who I’d had since I was four. I was way too old for Mr. Poo even then, but it was super-nice of Jen to ask my mom to dig him out of the closet where he’d been hiding in a box with a bunch of other stuffed toys I’d grown out of but still sort of missed. That’s how Jen is. Even when we fight I always know she’ll be my best friend forever. We made a sacred pact to be each other’s bridesmaids, no matter what. In fact, we even talked about moving to Utah and marrying a polygamist so we could have the same husband. Like with Will—only for real.

Jim Vail was a different deal. He was Jen’s secret, and even I wasn’t supposed to know about her thing for him. And it turned out he was my secret too, after that one time in his parents’ basement, which was when I found out about him and Jen.

The way it happened was I was walking through Bassett’s Creek Park on my way to the SuperAmerica and Jim was there playing frisbee golf with one of his friends. I sort of slowed down to watch and Jim threw a frisbee at me. He said later he meant to throw it
me, but I wasn’t ready for it and
it hit me right in the forehead. Big drama with tears and a welt on my forehead and accusations and so forth.

I’d known Jim for years. We live just a couple of blocks apart. But until recently our two-year age difference had put us in different worlds. So it was interesting having him hovering over me and touching my shoulder and apologizing and for once treating me as if I actually existed. We started talking. His friend got bored and took off but Jim and I stayed and talked for a long time and then he suggested we walk over to his place so I could see their seven new puppies.

You’re probably thinking,
Uh-oh. Older Boy uses puppies to lure Sweet Young Thing into his lair of Depravity and Sexual Excess.
But it wasn’t like that at all. Jim was extremely polite and chivalrous and never touched me except to put some ointment on my frisbee wound. The puppies, golden retrievers, were amazing, three weeks old and all tongues, ears, milk teeth, soft paws, and sweet puppy breath. They crawled over and around me for a frantic half hour while Jim just sat in his dad’s TV chair and laughed and watched.

“You want one?” he asked.

Oh. My. God. Did I ever want one! But of course I couldn’t, what with my dad being allergic and all.

I said I would think about it. And I did. I thought of nothing else. I knew there was no way, but I just had to see them again so I went over to the Vails’ again the next day for another dose of puppy breath.

That was when Jim told me about Jen.

It’s always kind of strange to learn that your closest friend, who you share
with—like Super-embarrassing Moments, and Dreams for the Future, and Worst Fears—has a secret. I mean, I have secrets from Jen, I guess, but nothing like the secret I found out about that day from Jim Vail, which was that Jen had been calling his cell number like five times a day and then hanging up when he answered.

Caller ID is a bad thing for stalkers. Back before I was born, you could call somebody up and when they answered you could hang up and they would never know it was you. But now all they have to do is check their caller ID. Yeah, I know you can block your number from showing up by dialing whatever-whatever, but here’s the thing: Stalkers do not think rationally. I guess secretly they want the harassed person to know who is doing the harassing. At least that was true in Jen’s case, and I could even kind of understand it a little because Jim Vail is majorly good-looking and two years older than us and therefore both unavailable and highly desirable.

It’s one thing to flirt with a couple of college boys at the country club pool, but another thing altogether to hook up with an older boy who happens to live in your neighborhood and whose parents know your parents, so the way I figure it, Jen was obsessed enough to dial Jim’s number repeatedly, but not crazy enough to actually talk to him. Unlike me.

What Jim Vail said to me as I wrestled with the puppies was “Hey, why don’t you tell your little friend to quit calling me?”

“What little friend?”

“Jen Hoffman.”

Then he told me about getting all those calls, and I just kept saying, “Wow,” while thinking about the utter weirdness of the whole situation.

And then, just to confuse me even more, he told me he liked my hair and said I should never cut it even if it grew all the way down my back to my legs. And then—I’m not sure how it happened—he was kissing me, and even though I’d never thought about him that much before, I was totally into it. I mean, in my heart and soul I gave up my virginity right then even though technically I still was one, thanks to Mrs. Vail yelling down the stairs about sixty seconds before I might not have been.

All that happened before Jen and I stole the Nissan. I never said a word to Jen, and she never told me about her stalking Jim Vail via cell phone, and so as far as anybody knew we were both still faithful to each other and to our possibly-gay boyfriend Will.

But now Jim wanted me to go up to Taylors Falls with him.

Tuesday morning I was awake but still in bed when my mom peeked into my room, then came in and sat down on the end of my bed with this scary blank expression on her face. She put her hand on the bedspread and sort of squeezed my leg, and my heart started beating in my ears like
because I knew she was about to tell me something really awful. Like they were getting a divorce. Or somebody got cancer.

“What?” I said.


That was bad. The last time she’d called me “Honey” was when she’d told me Chipper had died. Chipper was our beagle. Later I learned that he hadn’t really died. They had given him away to my dad’s second cousin in Alexandria, because my dad couldn’t handle all the sneezing and red eyes. He said it made him look like a sick drug addict in court. But still, they didn’t have to lie to me.

“Your grandmother passed away last night.”

“Which one?”

“Grandma Kate.”

I breathed out a sigh of relief. I’d been afraid she was talking about my other grandmother, Grandma Gail, who I liked.

I’d known for a long time that Grandma Kate, my dad’s mom, was sick with emphysema and needed an oxygen tank. She and Grandpa John lived way up in Danbury, Wisconsin.
I didn’t like her much anyway. That sounds really cold, I know, but all she ever did was wheeze and cough and criticize me and my mom and anybody else who came in range. I hadn’t seen her for a while, because lately she’d been too sick to travel. Then I had this weird thought that maybe they’d put Grandma Kate in some sort of home and were just telling me she was dead.

“The funeral is on Friday,” my mom said.

Friday was the day I was supposed to go to Taylors Falls with Jim. My face must have done something, because my mom leaned toward me and said, “Oh, honey, she was ready to go.”

I nodded, still thinking about Taylors Falls. I was disappointed, but at the same time I was a little bit relieved.

“How’s Grandpa John?” I asked. I liked Grandpa John.

“Pretty good, considering. He and your dad talked for a long time this morning. I think in a way he’s at peace—he and Kate had a tough last couple of years. I guess for the last few months she couldn’t even get out of bed to go to the bathroom.” My mom looked into my eyes. “Don’t ever smoke,” she said, squeezing my leg hard.

I don’t smoke. I don’t drink except for just a couple times. I don’t do drugs. I don’t shoplift or vandalize public property or cheat on tests or sell my body or eat with my elbows on the table or pee in the swimming pool.

Grandma Kate’s funeral was on the hottest
day of the summer, ninety-one degrees in Danbury, Wisconsin, which is way up north in the pine trees, where it’s supposed to stay cool. Two old people had to be escorted out of the church all woozy from heatstroke or something. Everybody was using their funeral programs to fan themselves. The coffin had an enormous spray of roses on top with all the blossoms pointing in different directions. One of them was pointed directly at me. I imagined that every rose was pointed exactly at somebody and that if you knew the language of roses, they would tell you what day you were going to die.

Later at the grave site, instead of huddling right up next to the grave like they did at my great-aunt’s funeral, people spread out to stand under trees where there was some shade. But my mom and dad and I had to endure the preacher’s ashes-to-ashes routine under the full sun. By the time it was over I was feeling kind of woozy myself. When we got back to Grandpa John’s, I drank three glasses of cold cider one right after another.

About thirty people showed up for the after-funeral party, which was mostly on the screen porch and outside on the lawn where they’d set up a canopy in case it rained. Except for two babies and a couple of six-year-olds, I was the youngest person there by about twenty years, so after scarfing down some funeral food (Swedish meatballs, sliced ham, potato salad, chips, brownies), I went inside and wandered through
the house. Grandma Kate’s room was on the first floor right next to the bathroom. Grandpa John had set it up like a hospital, with the big metal bed and a walker and a bedside tray covered with bottles of pills and Kleenex and a few quilting magazines, even though I don’t think she’d been doing much quilting lately. I sat down in the chair by the bed, where my grandfather probably used to sit a lot listening to her wheezy complaints. It was sad.

After that I went to my grandfather’s room upstairs and sat on his neatly made bed and tried to imagine what it was like to be an old man with a dead wife. The books by his bed were all about sailing and flying. As far as I knew, he had never done either. That was sad too. I picked up the phone on his nightstand and called Jen—I’d forgotten my cell phone at home—but I only got her voicemail.

Because we were immediate family, we had to stay until everybody else left. I was afraid we might have to stay overnight and I got this idea that they might make me sleep in Grandma Kate’s bed, which would be way too weird, so I went outside and looked at all the cars parked in front and fantasized about driving off in one. I could drive down to Taylors Falls and meet up with Jim and Jason and Candy—except that Jim had probably invited some other girl after I told him I couldn’t come.

There was this sporty little Miata convertible that belonged to Angie Wingert, my dad’s brother’s sister-in-law. The top was down. I opened the door. The car started
beeping the way cars do when you leave the keys in. Sure enough, there they were, dangling from the ignition. I guess Angie figured that way out in the country with only family and friends around, what was there to worry about?

I put my hands on the wheel and imagined driving off with the hot wind whipping my hair, looking good. I turned on the stereo. She’d been listening to a Celine Dion CD. I turned it off fast, got out of the car, and went back inside. I had no intention of stealing my aunt-in-law’s car in broad daylight at my grandmother’s funeral, but it was fun to think about.

The reason I’m telling all this stuff about my grandmother’s funeral is because of how it made me feel like I was living in a completely different reality from everybody else, like I was a ghost or a half-real creature from a parallel universe. A few times, one or another of the adults would notice me and say something like “You must be Michael’s daughter. What grade are you in?” As if they were checking to see how long it would be before I became fully human. The only person I could relate to at all was Grandpa John, and I only got to talk to him for like thirty seconds before we were interrupted, but he did say one cool thing to me. He said, “I bet you can’t wait to get the hell out of here.”

I looked at him all shocked, because we were supposed to be having all this somber, mopey togetherness. He burst out laughing.

“Listen,” he said, “when I was your age, the last thing on earth I wanted to do on a nice summer day was hang out with a bunch of fossils eating Swedish meatballs. So thanks for coming, kid. I appreciate it, I really do. It’s great to see you.” He stared at my face until I started to get uncomfortable, then gave my shoulder a squeeze and looked away. He said, “You know, Kelleigh, I wish you’d known your grandmother when she was young. Before she got sick.”

Then somebody came up to him and said something and he disappeared back into the other world, and a couple hours later we said goodbye and drove back to the Cities.

Three days later a package with my name on it arrived from Grandpa John. Inside was an old color photo: a girl with long, dark hair wearing cutoff denim shorts and a halter top, standing in front of a Volkswagen Beetle. There was a cigarette in her hand. I could see the ocean in the background.

Scrawled in the margin were the words:
Kate—Venice Beach—1967.

Except for the cigarette and the denim, she looked exactly like me.

I knew that my grandfather had hitchhiked to California the summer after he graduated from high school. He met my future grandmother Kate at a rock concert in Monterey, and
they traveled up and down the West Coast, and for a whole summer nobody heard from them until they showed up unannounced on Christmas Eve. It was one of those old family stories that I’d heard when I was a little kid, but nobody talked about it anymore. Once you’re a teenager, adults stop talking about the crazy stuff they used to do, and they start acting as if they were raised by the Amish. But one time I snooped in my grandmother’s scrapbook and guess what? According to the dates on their wedding photos, she had married my grandpa John in January 1968. My dad had been born four months later.

I wondered if she had been pregnant that day at Venice Beach.

I stole the Cadillac out of necessity. It was Jen’s fault.

When we got home from Grandpa John’s after the funeral—it was about eleven—I found six texts on my cell, all from Jen, and every one of them started out with


I called her right away.

“Are you kidding me?” I said when she answered.

“No! Kell, you gotta come get me. I’m like
here in freaking Taylors Falls and I don’t know anybody and I’m sitting in this weird drive-in and they keep
at me. I
think they’re going to kick me out. And I don’t have any money or

I asked her what happened, and she told me.

Just like I’d thought. After I had told Jim I couldn’t go to Taylors Falls, he’d found somebody else, and that somebody else turned out to be Jen. Of course she said yes. So they drove up there, her and Jim and Jason and Candy. Jen said it was fun for a while. Jason had a cooler full of beer and they just hung out and drank it and watched a bunch of guys jump off the rocks into the St. Croix. Jim and Jason kept talking about jumping, but it looked way scary and they never did it. But they did all go swimming, and then, according to Jen, Jim started acting all weird and saying things about her body and stuff, “—except it wasn’t nice stuff, it was sort of creepy and mean. Like he kept calling me
little girl
and stuff, and asking me if my breasts were the same size or different, and making jokes that only he and Jason thought were funny.”

“That doesn’t sound like Jim.”

“You’ve never seen him after about six beers.”

“What about Candy?” I asked. Candy is a year older than us but younger than Jim and Jason.

“She was pretending she was bored. And then Jim started getting really loaded and so did Jason, and it was getting dark and they were trying to get Candy and me to go skinny-dipping and Jim kept trying to feel me up, but not in a nice
way, more like monkey-groping. And I wouldn’t go skinny-dipping and neither would Candy and finally Candy got really mad and told Jason to take us home, except I wouldn’t get in the car with them ’cause Jason was totally shit-faced. So they just
me here. My mom’s gonna kill me. I told her I was going to hang out with you. I can’t call her. You have to come and get me.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“Can’t you sneak out with your dad’s car? Like you did before?”

I had to say yes. Because it was Jen.

The Lexus keys were not hanging in their usual place by the back door. I knew where they probably were: in my dad’s pants pocket. In my parents’ bedroom. I had this icky feeling that he’d somehow figured out I’d taken his car for a drive, and that was why he hadn’t hung up his keys in the usual place. But then I decided it was probably just a coincidence, because if he knew I’d taken his car he would have yelled at me. So I decided to take my mom’s Camry, but she always kept her keys in her purse, and that was also in their bedroom. Even if they were asleep, my dad would wake up the instant I opened his door. He was like that.

I was about to call Jen back and tell her I couldn’t come, when I remembered the Hallsteds’ green Cadillac.

This doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but it would seem weird if I didn’t mention that the Hallsteds’ green Cadillac might not actually be green. I am a deuteranope. That means I’m red-green color-blind, so when I say the Hallsteds’ Cadillac was green, it might actually have been red, or when I say Jen was wearing a pink top, it might actually have been light green. A lot of the time I just guess what color things are and it’s surprising how often I am right, even when a color just looks
to me. Usually I can tell red from green because I know what color things are supposed to be. Grass and lettuce are green; stop signs and apples are red. Unless the apple is green.

What most people don’t get is that deuteranopes see just as many colors as regular people. My dad—who is also color-blind—explained it this way: Deuteranopes see an infinite number of colors. There is an infinite number of blues and yellows, and we see those colors just fine. So even if red looks like
we still see more colors than anyone could ever count. A deuteranope’s infinity of colors is just different.

By the way, my deuteranopia is one reason I dress the way I do. It’s a lot easier to get dressed if you don’t have to ask somebody what color your socks are.

I should also mention that color blindness is rare in girls. You have to get the gene from both parents. My dad told me I
should feel special, but mostly I don’t think about it, which is why I didn’t think to mention it until now.

The Hallsteds are an older couple who live next door to us, but in the summer they spend most of their time at their cabin up on Lake Vermilion. They always leave a key with us just in case there’s an emergency, like a broken pipe or a tree falling on the house or something. The Hallsteds have two cars: an SUV that they drive up to their cabin, and a Cadillac—possibly green—that stays in their garage.

The key to their house was hanging on our key rack, right next to where my dad’s Lexus key was supposed to be.

It took me a while. First the key didn’t work in their front door, so I had to go around to the back. Then I had to find the keys to the Cadillac, and that took me forever because instead of hanging them up someplace like normal people, the Hallsteds put them in a
The garage was a problem too. I couldn’t figure out how to get the electric door to open. There’s usually a button, right? But there was no button, just a bunch of switches that turned lights on and off, and I got worried that somebody would see lights flashing in the supposedly vacant Hallsted place.

I finally figured out to use the remote control in the car. Duh.

So the garage door went up and the lights came on, not just in the garage but the outside lights too—a string of
them all along each side of the driveway, like,
Look! Look, everybody! Somebody is stealing the Hallsteds’ car!

I backed out fast and closed the door with the remote and hoped nobody had called the police.

I knew Taylors Falls was about fifty miles north of St. Paul, but I didn’t know exactly where, and of course the Hallsteds did not have a map in their car, which was ridiculous.

I drove north on I-35 until I got out of the city, then stopped at a gas station and bought a map for
that Jen was going to owe me for. I was thinking of all the nasty things I was going to say to her when I realized that I didn’t have to wait—I had my cell with me. But when I called Jen’s cell it shunted me over to her voicemail. I hung up. And then I started to worry. Because Jen is a person who would never, ever let a ringing phone go unanswered.

Jen had told me she was at the Frostop drive-in.

“There’s only like one street here. You can’t miss it.”

Taylors Falls was only a few blocks long. It took me about thirty seconds to find the Frostop, an old-fashioned drive-in, kind of fun and trashy-looking, with a giant mug of root beer for a sign. No lights, no people, no cars. I pulled in, parked, and got out and looked around.

No Jen.

“Jen!” I shouted. My voice sounded small and loud at the same time. Jen didn’t answer.

Where would she go? I mean, assuming she hadn’t been kidnapped, or raped and killed, or worse.

I tried calling her again. No answer.

I had no idea what to do, so I got in the car and sat there for a while, but that was both boring and nerve-racking, so I drove around the block with the window rolled down. I noticed some lights about three blocks away. A gas station. I drove over and pulled in and there she was slumped against the wall by a Mountain Dew machine, looking like the sorriest homeless girl you ever saw.

According to Jen (I’m going to shorten this because it took her half an hour to tell it), they kicked her out of the Frostop right after she talked to me, and then she hung around on the street for a while, but these nasty-looking guys in a pickup drove by twice, the second time real slow, and they were staring at her, so she ran down to the gas station. She tried to call me again but her cell was dead.

BOOK: How To Steal a Car
4.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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