"Then he's gone. A branch comes by. Another branch. And I go in."
My father retired some years ago after a lifetime of manual labor, but like many his age (and with his lifelong Midwestern diet of meat and potatoes), he was diagnosed with cardiac problems. They put him on the table for a triple bypass and valve replacement, as if he were an aging car. When my daughter and I flew back to visit my parents, who retired to a small house on the shore of Lake Ann, Michigan, he seemed suddenly very old and very tired. He said his energy had vanished and he looked like it had—washed out and used up. "What good," he said to me, "is this? What can I do?"
I thought of that conversation when I recently reread Louise Erdrich's "The Red Convertible," a story from her 1984 novel, Love Medicine. She tells the story of two young brothers, Native Americans on a reservation, who buy a car, a red convertible, and as they are entering adulthood, it gives them a brief illusion of freedom, like my dad's few healthy years after retirement gave him: he had freedom from work, from all the worries and responsibilities, from the 4:00 a.m. alarm clock. Henry and Lyman were free, with the car, to move out beyond their small world and discover themselves beyond their Chippewa existence. But like so many retirees find, the freedom that came with the car proved illusory and transient, though it started off with all the promise of a car commercial featuring the image of the great open road (with no traffic, of course).
Lyman is the younger brother, Henry, Jr., the elder, and when Lyman's diner is destroyed by a tornado, they find themselves free and with pockets full of money, and they come across the car like something from a vision:
We were walking down Portage, anyway, seeing the sights when we first saw it. There it was. parked, large as life. Really as if it was alive. I thought of the word repose, because the car wasn't simply stopped, parked, or whatever. That car reposed, calm and gleaming, a FOR SALE sign in its left front window. (463)They spend almost all their money on it, leaving just enough for gas to get home. But it's theirs, like a in a dream, this red convertible. And it transports them immediately, magically, to Montana, where they (as magically) find "the girl."
The car ads on television and in magazines always suggest an ideal world, connecting the idea of the automobile to freedom, openness, endless power and possibility: the Jeep Wagoneer that's climbed the mountain, the silent Lexus, with Vivaldi massaging the ear, the mini van parked on a beach at sunset. But unlike those myths of the car fulfilling us, Lyman's red convertible really does transform their lives. They find themselves far from home, yet free to offer to Susy a ride home. How's this for a car commercial? When Lyman says, "Where do you live?" she answers, "Chicken." "'Where the hell's that?' he asks her, and she answers, 'Alaska.' 'Okay,' says Henry, and we drive.'" (464)
In a few paragraphs, then, they've purchased the car, driven west, met "the girl," and driven her home to Alaska. Truly magic! But does it really change their world?
In a way, it begins to. These Native boys have grown up on a reservation, with all the well know problems of those often unhappy places: alcoholism, poverty, poor resources, poor schools. If they had a strong sense of culture and history, we don't see it in the story. They hardly mention anything "Indian," but when they get up to Susy's home in far-off Alaska, we see some images of them connecting with their heritage. Henry has Susy jump on his shoulders so that her long hair hangs over his head, like a brave from long ago, and they feel a closeness to, or at least recognition of, nature for the only time in the story: "And things would grow up there. One day just dirt and moss, the next day flowers and grass." They "race the weather" back home, to arrive in time for Henry to end up in the army, his draft number having come up, in another magical turn of the story, though this is a darker magic.(464)
Dark or light, the magic wanes. The car is parked. Henry lands in the heart of the Vietnam war, in 1970. He is captured by the enemy. Lyman is home, feeling his absence, the red car up on blocks. He says:
I always had good luck with numbers, and never worried about the draft myself. I never even needed to think about what my number was. But Henry was never lucky in the same way as me. It was at least three years before Henry came home,. By then I guess the whole war was solved in the government's mind, but for him, it would keep on going. (465)Like many who fought in that war, on all sides, Henry continues to bear it, to live it and suffer, after he comes home.
He is silent, or he is "jumpy and mean." (465) The family has no help, no access to medical care. (466) Their life, which had been so full with the miraculous car, is now still and quiet. They buy him a color TV, but he only gets worse. Finally, in desperation, Lyman smashes up the red convertible with a hammer, throws dirt in the carburetor: "…It looked worse than any typical Indian car that's been driven all its life on the reservation." (466) This inspires Henry to become angry, and he works for a month to restore the car. For a moment, he—and Lyman—seem to have a chance, but as in a car commercial, it is only an image, and not a true one.
Lyman has in his closet a photo their sister took of the two of them. "My face is right out in the sun," he says, "big and round. But he might have drawn back, because the shadows on his are deep as holes. There are two shadows curved like little hooks around the ends of his smile, as if to frame it and try to keep it there—that one, first smile that looked like it might have hurt his face." (467) Erdrich juxtaposes the image of the smile, such a relief after the long depression, and the image of hooks, of being caught, trapped, of being hurt. In the end, Henry jumps into the river, and Lyman sends the car in after him. The beginning of the story makes sudden sense: "Now Henry owns the whole car…Lyman walks everywhere he goes." (463)
Henry's death seems an inevitable result of not just his war experience, but also of reservation life and the terrible domination of Native Americans—of the poverty and despair they return to after a glimpse of beauty and freedom. I don't want to draw too strained a parallel, but my dad's close call seems similar: connected to his lifetime of hard work and frustration. I can hope for years of peace for him now that he's recovering, and Erdrich's story is not without hope, for Lyman survives. With his luck, maybe he will live to make a difference, though he would do so without his unlucky brother.
Erdrich, Louise. "The Red Convertible." In McMahan, Elizabeth, et al., Eds., Literature and the Writing Process. New York: Prentice Hall, 463-469.
Mike Martin (February 25, 2002)