It was too early on a Monday morning when the doorbell rang with a jarring noise that wrenched me from daydreams and rudely dropped me back in reality. I struggled with a robe and stumbled down the stairs.
It rang again, harshly. "Okay, okay," I shouted. When I opened the door, a huge trailer was blocking the driveway and a man in overalls stood before me.
"How much do you want for it?" he asked.
I had nothing for sale. Of course, my husband occasionally surprised me. Phone calls have come at 7 on Sunday mornings about African masks, Indonesian ikats, Afghan rugs and American folk art. But this time he hadn't placed any ads.
"That old car," the man said, thrusting his thumb at the '72 Cadillac parked outside.
"Yeah, your old car. I pass it every day. It's rotting away there."
"But it's a Cadillac," I said.
"Lady, it was How much do you want for it?"
I thought for a minute, and looked at the rust spreading like wild mushrooms over the quarterpanels, the broken taillight, the fender dented into permanent pleats, the paint a faded, sallow tan.
"It's not really for sale," I said pridefully. "Anyway, how much would you pay for it?"
He took a while to answer.
The Caddy had been a presought our '71 Volvo was dreadful -- its silver color sobered into dull gray, the trim stripped from the sides, its bruises too traumatic to appear in their Scarsdale neighborhood. The Cadillac had been treated with loving care. They had driven it only to the train station a mile away or on occasional forays to Saks. They had it washed every week, serviced every month, and when they gave it to us, its coat of enamel had gleamed like mellow gold, the smooth leather interior was worn to a polished patina, it smelled of burnished luggage and it showed only 20,000 miles on the odometer.
We were delighted. It was reassurance, if the Volvo broke down. We loved our sturdy Swedish car, but having a Cadillac was something special, a symbol of luxury.
I glanced at the tail fins and memories of my family's first Fleetwood floated before me. I was about 8 years old when my father came home early on a summer evening and announced we were going to look at the new Cadillacs. During World War II we were privileged to have a DeSoto. With postwar prosperity came a Buick, then an Oldsmobile, a two-toned '98, light green on top, dark green on the bottom, "a baby Caddy" my dad had called it. But we all knew it wasn't the real thing.
We lived in Brooklyn and the Cadillac agency was downtown. Walking into the showroom was entering a world of wealth, and more than that, another class. The salesman wore cuff links, spoke in whispered tones and called my father "Mr. Weil." My father, an entrepreneur who had hardly enough money for a trolley ride when he was a kid, picked out a baby blue Fleetwood; the color matched his eyes. When we left, the man gave us a glossy catalogue that we pored over for days.
My dad took the car as his newborn. He drove it carefully so as not to disturb the carriage. Once we ate a piece of fresh rye bread in it, and he said people were looking at us because whoever ate rye bread in a Cadillac? He paid the garage attendants extra to look after it. It was the only Caddy in the neighborhood, so they kept it up front where it could be seen. The neighbors all said we were rich, and as I passed it every day on my way to school I thought of myself as an heiress.
"A hundred dollars," the man said.
"A hundred dollars?" It was worth more than that just to have it sitting in our driveway.
We had sold the Volvo for scrap about a year ago, and my husband was still feeling the agony. It was a last link with his youth, bought in the final days of bachelorhood, an acknowledgment of a time to settle down. Before that there had been a sporty yellow Fiat and a steady stream of blonds.
We dated in it, romanced in it, drove it to Maine on our honeymoon. For 11 years it stood by us, plowing through a snowstorm when a baby was due, lugging antiques from all over New England back to Georgetown, gradually growing old under the weight of 18th century corner cupboards strapped to the top and canopy beds wedged inside. Its very endurance brought about its defeat.
Our friends laughed at us: "reverse snobs," they said. They drove off in their Mercedes and BMWs, and at times I looked on in envy. I had owned a Mercedes myself once, when I was married to a Wall Street stockbroker -- a '65 230 SE convertible, white body, black top, red leather. It was smart and sassy, but it didn't last and neither did the marriage.
Now we choose furniture over fancy cars. But the Cadillac gave us the illusion of affluence. It was enormously comfortable to be in, with lots of leg room and plenty of space to spread out. It still had its emblem on the hood, and up until recently it still drew an admiring glance from passersby. It had style. And class. And sentimental value. It came from New York where we both grew up and it was, after all, a Cadillac. Our teen-age son had even suggested that if we kept it long enough it would be worth a fortune as an antique.
It did take three normal- sized spaces to park it, and it drank almost a tank of premium gas just to go from our house to the Gulf station. It was too wide for narrow Washington streets and too powerful for stop-and-go traffic. Now, I admit, we hadn't taken very good care of the Caddy. Maybe because it was a hand-me-down. We had put it out in the cold when we turned our garage into a sunroom. We discovered it could haul a matched set of eight dining room chairs or a tiger maple highboy. But mostly, it sat in our driveway.
"A hundred dollars?"
"Lady, that's a lot for what you got there. It'd cost you that to get it towed away."
Towed away? How did he know it wouldn't start?
"Well, lady, whaddyou say?"
We had replaced the Volvo with an aging Peugeot wagon. Peugeots have a reputation for surviving the roughest of roads in the African jungle, so once again we felt secure. I fought off images of suburban station-wagon lives by reminding myself that the car was French. It was gentle to guide, quick to respond, and faintly hummed with pleasure. But after a while we found that the power steering had stopped, the doors opened only from the outside, and the heater worked only in the summer. When it broke, we used the Cadillac. But wear and tear were plaguing us again.
Our children complained: the kids in the car pool were making fun. I had flirted with the thought that if we sold the Cadillac we could put something else in the driveway -- a Honda, a Ford. I looked at the man standing in the doorway and smiled.
"Not a chance," I said and closed the door.