Studebaker Stories:


By Larry W. Mitchell

Copyright 2005, Larry Mitchell

SCREEEECH ..! Lawrence Staley winced as an abusive parking lot attendant ripped rubber in a patron's car. From the cool, low-lit tunnel leading beneath the high-rise parking garage, all other noises were muffled by a buffeting sound like the wind along the lakeshore.

He entered the parking level two-stories below ground and wondered where he had parked his own car. Staley was a Midwesterner used to the vast expanses of asphalt parking lots that surround acres of shopping mall. You marked your position by store exits and cute little animal signs that divided space into unique coordinates. Not so here in Chicago, Parking rose in the same direction as the buildings - straight up.

Staley's friend, Kim Darby, had been in an automobile accident. Darby probably had survived because of his sports car's large American build. He'd just told Staley, "Read my manual, you take care of your car and it will take care of you." Always the aficionado, Kim called the classic red Studebaker Avanti his Cherry Avanti .

Staley had just left his bedside as the light dimmed outside the hospital room. He thanked God for his friend's life but cared little for sports cars. He thought, Read my lips, you could just have easily been in your MG Midget and crunch.

It was late evening and a wispy few tendrils of fog began to form down there. Sparsely spaced globe lights barely lit the low ceilinged, dark expanse of seemingly abandoned cars. A sign lamenting Out of Order hung chained across the elevator's single door. Staley turned to the adjacent stairs and with only his footfall providing sound, pumped steadily up the steps. Kim's brush with death had made him apprehensive. At 50, Staley was well aware of his sedentary habits and that caused him a fright as he felt his heart's pounding accelerate in his chest.

Staley pushed through the door marked 3 and immediately knew that he didn't have the slightest idea where his own white, utilitarian van was. He was at the intersection of two diagonal planes slanting off to two different altitudes in space--lost.

He tried to spot the van by silhouette shape against the cold gray light from the outside. Not in the first row. He looked out to where the hospital should have been and saw only an opaque fog bank. Sidling between two closely parked cars, he looked over the garage's parapet. There was no ground, no building, no sky. What'll I do now? he thought. Go to the roof? Find high ground? Silly thoughts.

At least an hour of walking followed, and there were too many levels and no sign of his van. The high-rise's construction had crossovers between ascending and descending levels that provided ample opportunity for Staley to lose track of his position.

As he walked uphill, he began to notice an unsettling trend for the cars to be older makes. A few looked as though they hadn't been moved for years. He paused, a little winded. A nearby car, a Jaguar, lay on its belly, its tires flat and most of its wheel spokes protruding and broken.

Off to his side, a dim set of yellow points glowed briefly. Staley turned his head immediately, but there was nothing to see. He had hoped that it was another customer turning his parking lights on. He would ask directions.

No, no one over there.

A familiar looking 1949 Plymouth invited him to heave himself up onto its oxidized blue, front fender. It had sideboards. His father had bought him one like this to learn how to drive when he was in high school when he had turned 17. Two weeks later, after Staley had polished its oxidized gray finish to a decent blue, his father had sold it for twice its bought price. It would be a classic now, Staley mused.

Slipping out of his reverie, he noticed the next parking slab carried the weight of a car that had smashed head-on into the parapet wall. The gray Porsche Spyder's front-end was bent upward like the snout of an angry animal, its crumpled stenciled hood with the number 130 lay at its side.

Drip, drip, drip , the regular sound caught his attention. It came from a car directly across the way. Staley slid from the dusty fender of the Plymouth and walked over and identified the source as a 1956, two-tone blue and white Oldsmobile with a massive chromed front bumper with knobs or horns on either side. Stooping to his knees and bending sideways allowed him to see glints of light bounce off oil drops as they fell. He could smell it and his fingers found a pool of jet-black liquid by his knee. It was warm like blood.

Suddenly, the headlight to the side of his head glowed a glowering yellow-orange and he heard the click and rasp of the starter motor grinding into action. He threw himself full sideways to get out of the way of the Olds Starfire as it lurched across the drive and smashed the boxy Plymouth head-on. Staley ran halfway up to the next crossover and slipped to his knees. He looked back to see the Olds ram the Plymouth once more and to see the Plymouth grind into motion in a vain attempt to push the Olds back. He was up and running again and wasn't witness as the Olds crashed the '49 again, this time back through the retaining wall and into space. The Starfire rolled to the edge of the precipice and stopped, its lights dimmed back to darkness.

Staley ran full out, up level after level, until he stumbled into a low barricade of debris--springs from car seats, strips of vinyl, tires and inner tubes. He fell panting onto a cushion and into a nightmare filled sleep where dim yellow lights glowed in the periphery of his vision like fireflies.

SAFETY, that single word written in the dust coating the windshield of a Pontiac GTO in the middle of a row of derelict cars on some impossibly numbered level of the garage sent a thrill of relief through his heart. He approached the car in a careful motion that allowed for escape. A slow drizzle of rain had replaced the fog, a rain that had the effect of obscuring vision beyond the walls, yet somehow diffusely illuminating. Now there was infrequent burst of lightning followed by thunder in the distance.

Staley extended his hand with fingers spread and slowly cleared a spot on the side window to look inside the GTO's passenger compartment. Good, no desiccated body, no sigh of a malevolent driver. There were no human drivers as far as Staley could discern in his several hours of dodging death.

He popped the door and scanned the dim interior. Lying on the driver's side bucket seat was a prominently placed sheet of paper with handwriting on it. The Goat, as the old muscle car was affectionately called, had enough current left to produce a dim yellow illumination to read by:

My name is Theodore Miller. I'm a lawyer here in Chicago. I love my wife Laura and my little girl

Terry. Call them if things go bad for me.

Don't go up! I haven't found any top level and doubt that one exists. The vehicles seem to fit every description, every time. This is a place for unimaginable animate cars, not for men.

I'll try to go out by simply putting a little Bugeye Sprite across the way out-of-gear and freewheeling down slope.

Pray for me.

Staley's eyes refocused through the blurring mist coating the windshield. A three-foot-wide stream of water had formed and ran down the center of the slab. "Jesus," he said out loud. "Weather! This place has its own weather!" Staley looked around the Spartan interior of the Goat and contemplated his own means of escape. Miller had had a fine idea. It was only right to go out in a special way in the square-jawed GTO.

Suddenly, a beam of bright light flashed across his eyes. Up slope, he spotted the black silhouette of a car moving downhill with lights scanning ahead of it. The air was saturated with moisture, steaming exhaust smoke trailed the car. It ran in front of an eight-foot high wall of water swelling on the curve. Staley saw animal shapes boiling in the watery maelstrom.

Yelling out loud in surprise, he was already out of the GTO and running and without conscious plan, launching himself onto the back of the moving car. Looking back, he saw that the wave had swept several cars into a dike, and the current was ironically slowed by its own destruction. The Goat formed the keystone to the jam.

As they plunged downward into the darkness, lightning flashed and revealed something that would forever be in his memory. Cherry red. He was riding on top of the Cherry Avanti, Kim Darby's classic car. Seconds later, a locomotive-beacon of light washed out Staley's vision and engulfed the Avanti. The last sound he heard as they slid sideways was SCREEEECH !

Staley fell through daylight brightness onto the canvas top of a 1973 Volkswagen and rolled on the top amid the screams of its 18 year-old coed driver and the indignant haranguing of the parking garage cashier. He bolted off the top, and the attendant and driver watch in amazement as the man in the dusty gray suit sprinted out of sight.

Years later, the hospital tore the vertical-parking garage down to make room for a new annex. No one found any trace of a red Avanti or a white van. They built another high-rise parking garage beside the annex; it's still there today.

Lawrence Staley is home and safe in a medium-sized town in Central Indiana that has large, safe asphalt parking lots at its shopping malls and downtown. Although his wife regularly protests, Larry now owns an expensive stable of cars including a classic Apple Green Avanti II, a customized 1965 GTO, and a little red Bug. He still makes business trips to Chicago during the year, but he never parks in high-rise parking garages. Sometimes the curbside parking and the asphalt lots are full, so he double-parks and is ticketed. He has no qualms about fighting the fines, though. After all, he knows a lawyer in town who understands.

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