Avoidable Contact #115: Talisman, Ten years gone

Jack Baruth

Won’t say I love you, babe,
Won’t say I need you, babe,
But I’m gonna get you, babe,
And I will not do you wrong.

My friend Lynn Gardner, who will be familiar to some of you from my personal website, and who will be familiar to all of you as soon as I have the time to get some of his work edited and up here at Hagerty, recently sent me a link to an auction for a nearly perfect 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood Talisman. “It won’t haunt your dreams if you’re driving it,” he quipped. In my dreams I am already driving it, this properly-preserved 233-inch-long gentleman’s sedan in Andes Copper Metallic over Terra Cotta Medici velour, slow and steady along Tamar Drive in my childhood home of Columbia, Maryland.

I was three years old in 1974, but I know the circumstances in which the Talisman appeared. Hard not to think it was the wrong car at the wrong time, this 13-thousand-dollar, three-ton sled with its aircraft-carrier-deck horizontal surfaces and fingertip-light steering, thirsty for fuel at a rate that would shame a modern F-350. The country was battered by hurricane inflation, begging OPEC to turn up the taps, torn by race-related strife, and in the midst of a humiliating military retreat from a disciplined and dedicated cadre of Kalashikov-wielding fellows determined to have sole say about what happened in their Asian homeland. Yet the party just kept going for the fortunate sons among us, as it always does, and why not have the very best?

Huh. Anyway.

On the afternoon of June 25, 2011, I was driving a triple-black Cadillac Fleetwood Talisman down Route 65 when the water pump called it quits. In a modern car, that means you shut down right now, but the 500-cubic-inch V-8 had plenty of heat soak in it so I was able to pull off the freeway and into the parking lot of a KFC with no trouble. I didn’t believe in fate, but there was this: my restaurant resting place was a mile and a half from the home of a woman I’d met at a Christmas Eve house party a year and a half previously. I’d been idling through a game of eight-ball with the fellow who owned the place when I heard the door slam open downstairs, followed by a woman’s laughter. Thirty seconds later she was standing in front of me, raven-haired and perfect and vibrating with an energy that made her skin almost painfully hot to the touch. I suspected I would never go another day of my life without thinking about her, a suspicion that has proven to be more or less sadly correct.

She was 28, I was 38, we were both in what had seemed like very serious relationships until that moment. “I’m moving to Nashville tomorrow,” she said. “Come see me sometime.” Eighteen months later, here I was, finally. I called her and she answered the phone. There’s no sense in telling the rest of the story; if you’re a frequent reader of mine, you’ve already heard most of it, and the retelling only fills me with a sorrow like the buried pain of a bone knitting itself back together in an alignment that is not quite right and will never be quite right again.

Her 40th birthday is at the end of this week. I have not heard her voice in almost a year. This is what I want to do: buy this Talisman and drive it to her, before that day, as I did on that day 10 years gone. See her one last time, at the end of her youth, long past the death of mine. Give an answer for every question she’s ever had. Receive my answers in turn, one at a time, like a series of deadbolts clicking shut. Then never again. I want to bookend our lives together, a trip to start, and a trip to finish. Frank Herbert wrote about chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: ‘Now, it’s complete because it’s ended here.’ And that’s what I want to do.

I won’t do it.

This nearly perfect ’74 Talisman isn’t the slightly ragged, improperly restored ’76 of that original trip. It’s better, finer, more like the ideal. Time has a way of doing that to your memories, if you let it. It takes what was awkward and frightening and unpredictable in the moment and smooths it into an inevitable narrative. Of course the water pump would fail. Naturally it would be right next to her house. It seems obvious that I would love her, then turn away, then come back, again and again, until we were both brittle enough to shatter at the slightest provocation, and so we did.

If you know anything about Townes van Zandt, you know there’s a sad irony in the opening lines of To Live Is To Fly, quoted above. And I will not do you wrong, he sings. But he knows he will. Part of being with someone is that you’ll do them wrong. By a little, or by a lot, but it will be done, until too much has been done. Townes knew this, before he died. I know it, and so do all of you. And what else did he say, in that same song?

It don’t pay to think too much
On the things you leave behind

Happy birthday, Christina, my love. We won’t meet again.

The rest of you: Come back next week, and we’ll talk about cars next time, I promise. Fast ones, slow ones, new ones, old ones. Any car, in fact, but the Cadillac Fleetwood Talisman, which is now officially banned from these ephemeral, electronic pages. From now on it will only appear in my dreams: of a childhood that never was, of a future that will never come to pass, of that singular and weightless moment where I once held a woman’s hand across that midnight-black velour console and tumbled, with her, all the way down into love.

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