the first car i ever saw on fire was my own. what are the odds of that happening?
a car fire is something you imagine seeing in person along the side of the road (or the highway even) as you continue on about your business. if you’re lucky enough to ever encounter a car fire in person, of course.
“ay, cabron… ”
that was my dad’s response when i called him and told him what was happening. i could practically hear the ellipsis after his statement, each dot gently thudding like a heartbeat during that sterile, passionless pause; i could hear his frustration and/or anger evolving into remorse for not being more compassionate or concerned about my safety. it was a difficult time in our lives and he and i fumbled with our emotions like a pair of infants aimlessly banging together stacking cups.
he added finally: “it’s ok.”
the car had belonged to my mother. she died several years prior. the irony is that she was burned too; cremated and now resting solemnly on the mantle. i didn’t think we’d be giving the car the same treatment, however. it was to be irrevocably gone, a treasured artifact of my mother’s removed painfully, permanently from our lives.
it’s a very mexican thing… or maybe it’s a very generational thing… or maybe it’s just a very “my family” thing to imbue inanimate objects with the spirit of the loved ones they belonged to. watching the car burn was like watching my mother die another death. i don’t remember necessarily feeling that way as i marveled at the flaming drops of gasoline that leaked from beneath the engine block, but i knew my dad would; hence his initial anger when i called.
in my parents’ dynamic, he was the hard-nosed disciplinarian who operated on guilt or innocence. my mother meanwhile handled the subtle nuances of life. she dealt in kindness, empathy. in her absence, my dad was now struggling to do both and finding it to be a very steep learning curve. his initial role of placing blame and carrying out judgment had expanded exponentially and faster than he could appropriately adjust. his “it’s ok” was comforting enough to me as i disconnected the call, but i was still apprehensive as i waited for him to arrive on scene.
the funny thing about my car (or my mother, as it were) burning that day was the unfortunate coincidence that another large blaze was concurrently destroying a nearby structure (before leaving work, i heard multiple fire engines go blaring past my building). this considerably impeded the response time to my little fire emergency, giving me plenty of time to admire the destruction.
it all started out mildly enough. i left work and drove about 100 yards before the car started hesitating like it wanted to die out. i quickly turned off onto a side street moments before the engine quit and i coasted to a stop along the curb in front of a hospital. smoke was coming from underneath the hood at this point and it was black.
recognizing the danger, i quickly grabbed everything i could, exited the car, and jogged to the opposite side of the street. i called 911 and caught the attention of a security guard who tried to handle the issue with a fire extinguisher. then i called my dad.
fire was leaking from the bottom of the engine and flames began poking out of the hood seams. the security guard and his fire extinguisher were quickly outmatched. it was becoming a spectacle now as nurses and other hospital staff who were smoking outside put out their cigarettes and watched. a couple of people came running out after a few moments and moved their vehicles away from mine. patients and staff inside the hospital watched from windows.
at this point, no one knows the engulfed vehicle is mine except for the security guard. it’s our nasty little secret. my embarrassment and shame was masked by the nosy onlookers as i blended with them, became one of them, united by the odds of seeing a car fire in person.
the fire beneath the hood was intensifying as larger flames burst forth from the hood and underside of the car. black smoke billowed up towards the hospital windows from which people watched. as the fire destroyed the car’s electrical system, it momentarily went haywire. i could hear the engine trying to start as if my mom wanted to flee the danger. but it didn’t start. instead, the horn sounded one long, continuous note: a final scream that lasted about 15 seconds and then stopped.
the windshield was becoming warped from the heat as the flames moved to the roof of the car. something popped; a tire, maybe, or a side window blowing out. my dad showed up around this time. he walked toward me and i was thankful that the sadness in his face matched mine. he seemed to understand that this was happening to me, to us, and not that i had done it to him. we were two sad men grieving the loss of a woman, watching her disappear, admiring a car fire.
an engine and its crew finally arrived. from the truck’s markings, i noticed it came from a station beyond the jurisdiction of my emergency, but it was the nearest available unit; the other fire had taken priority. the men made quick work of extinguishing the flames, further destroying the car with powerful streams of water. the fire chief asked whose vehicle it was and i was forced to remove my onlooker mask and reveal my shame.
he asked what happened, asked if i had insurance, and sympathized when i told him it wasn’t full coverage. the car was a total loss.
the ride home with my dad was mostly silent. we had the vehicle towed to his house and it got there shortly after we did. it smelled like fried electronics.
a few weeks went by as the burned out shell of my mom’s car sat in my dad’s backyard. finally, he mustered the courage to have it taken to a junkyard. but before doing so, he removed the rear hatch door, which was mostly in pristine shape, and kept it in his garage because it’s a very mexican thing to do to imbue inanimate objects with the spirit of the loved ones they belonged to. or maybe it’s a generational thing. or maybe it’s just a “my family” thing.
it stayed in the garage until he died the following year.