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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Remembering the first car
Like family

It's probably just a myth that the city of Madison requires all new car purchases to be Subaru Outbacks. Still, we complied after our gray van died over the holidays, giving new meaning to winter break. God rest her soul. She was a good 'un, the sixth car we've owned since we got married. Like a lot of things, the first was the best.

Buying our first car together was like sealing the deal on getting married in the first place. Back then we shared an apartment with some bats on Ingersoll Street. I had the credit rating of a meth dealer. Thank God Peggy's was in good shape.

We read about a Hertz rental car sale. On a warm fall day we decided to look over the inventory in a massive Todd Drive parking lot.

We wandered around the rows of cars. Each one gleaming in the sun, newly washed and waxed, looking hopeful, like rental orphans. Pick me! We found our baby at the end of a long row: a perky, gold Toyota Tercel wagon. It was like a play-set toy, and we were Barbie and Ken, circling it, swiping our hand along the smooth finish as we walked.

This was the one. A Hertz guy came over and told us the sale actually began the next day. Then he went over the rules, a format that sounded more like a bad reality show than a car transaction.

In order to buy the Tercel we had to be standing next to it at 8 the next morning. Each car on the lot would be sold to whoever was next to their chosen vehicle at 8 a.m.

We climbed into our dilapidated Bonneville and aimed the big boat back toward the Beltline. The lot came back into view when we circled up the ramp. There, standing next to little Goldie, was another couple. Touching it and everything.

"I like it so much!" Peggy said that night at our tiny kitchen table. A major purchase asks a young couple to gather untapped confidence in their future. Take stock. For a few moments there was only the sound of silverware clacking.

"I like it, too," I said. "Let's get it."

"Let's sleep on it," Peggy said.

In those days we read novels aloud to each other at bedtime. But this night, neither the reader nor the listener was tuning in. We were checked out. Both thinking about little Goldie across town in that soulless parking lot. We turned out the light.

"Are you awake?" came the voice in the dark. It was 4 a.m. Of course I was. A couple, even a couple just starting out, get into a synchronicity of consciousness. If one person is sound asleep, the other can pull a mate up to the surface just by lying there with her eyes open.

"I like that car," said Peggy.

"Me, too," I said.

"We gotta be the first people there," Peggy said.

Starlight twinkled through pinpricks in the black sky. We dressed warm and threw a blanket into the backseat of the Bonneville. The Beltline was empty at 4:30 in the morning. We parked on the outskirts of the Hertz lot and, blanket in hand, made our sleepy way toward Goldie.

"Do you think it'll be unlocked?" Peggy said. "No way," I said.

It was.

The latch clicked quietly and the door swung open to the back seat. Nothing more than a cubbyhole, really. Just big enough for the door to close behind us and press us together beneath the warmth of the blanket, which we pulled up to our chins. Stowaways.

A whisper of traffic noise arose from the Beltline just as we drifted off to sleep.

Falling asleep in the back of a Toyota Tercel is a lot more romantic than waking up in one. I opened my eyes and without moving realized that my spine had been fused into the shape of a square root sign. This time I spoke the words.

"Are you awake?"

We were scrunched down below the windows. The beautiful dawn light illuminated the interior of the car as if from a candle. We laughed as we unfolded ourselves from the backseat and tumbled out onto the blacktop. That's when something very strange happened right before our eyes.

Down the row from us another car door opened. A couple emerged into the morning light. Then a row over, another door opened. A couple got out yawning, stretching. Over on the far end, a driver's-side door slammed shut and a man leaned against a Ford midsize to light a cigarette.

More broke free, like turtles from eggs, as the 8 o'clock hour approached. An occupy movement, '80s style.

There were many happy hours in that car, especially those first ones. Thanks, Goldie, wherever you are.

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