What If? Quick Take: 2022 AMC Eagle
Welcome to What If? Quick Take, a new feature from imaginative illustrator Abimelec Arellano and Hagerty. While the cars shown in our regular What If? features are full 3D renderings and can appear in any number of images, the Quick Takes are off-the-cuff expressions of Abimelec’s imagination. Each one is accompanied by a short story. Enjoy! — Jack Baruth
Kristin didn’t recognize the number that was buzzing her iPhone, but she recognized the area code — North Carolina — and she was pretty sure she knew what had happened.
David was dead.
Her first love, her truest love, the gorgeous and talented boy who still appeared in her dreams just as he’d been when they were fifteen years old. From a needle, or a pill, or a bottle. She only needed to answer the phone to find out which. So she did.
“Kristin… it’s Michael. We…”
“I know,” she replied, to save him the pain. “David is gone.” She heard a sigh of relief that Michael caught in his throat before letting it go all the way, then,
“Who told you?”
“Nobody told me, Mikey. But we all knew it would happen. It was just a question of when. Can you tell me…”
“Kristin, he was sick for a long time. He’s been in and out of the hospital down here for more than a year. Something called… cardiomyopathy. From drinking. He’d been clean for a while. No needles, none of the hard stuff. He was sober, for a while. We talked a lot about it. Kristin, he wanted you to know. He wanted to call you. But he was ashamed. Because it was already too late. His heart had gotten weak from drinking so much, for so long. They tried a lot of different things, but… Kristin, at the end he asked for you to come. He asked if you would come to the funeral. He said…” and it was then that Michael finally broke into tears, a swelling crescendo of open grief that didn’t stop even when Kristin agreed to make the trip, over and over again, her Yes like a mantra, from monotone into pleading, until they were both silent and there was nothing left to say.
It was a Tuesday evening and the funeral was Saturday morning. She’d work a double tomorrow, clear her desk, head down first thing Thursday. Michael said there would be a party Friday evening, David’s friends but not his family, they’d washed their hands of him years ago.
Thirty-six hours later she was on the road in her new wagon, this AMC Eagle she’d bought in the middle of the pandemic because it made her feel safe somehow. The fellow she’d been dating at the time, this semi-moronic bulk of a divorced dad named Sean, told her it was just a Subaru, that AMC hadn’t done anything original since the Chrysler buyout had failed and the company had entered into an odd form of manufacturing partnership with several different companies.
“Made in Kenosha? Sure,” Sean had said, tapping the hood in a possessive manner that Kristin found unaccountably infuriating. “But when Uncle Sam bailed them out, part of the deal was that they’d license established car designs. It was super Communist, actually. And that was a time when people thought Communism was bad.” Maybe it was the smug, entitled way Sean delivered his verdict, or maybe that it was followed by yet another night of the worst intimacy she’d encountered in the past twenty-five mostly single years, but two weeks later she blocked him everywhere and refused to answer the door when he knocked. After three days he stopped knocking. Which was fine. He’d been terrible in every way that really mattered.
David, by contrast, had been the very best, though he was also the very first. As a precocious, overly tall and bold professor’s daughter who never got to spend two years in a row at the same school due to Dad’s brilliant academic career, she’d been all but invisible to the shouting and swaggering boys at their Triangle-area suburban high school. Invisible, to everyone but him. They were in drama class together. David was even taller than she was, even more willowy and ethereal, with a face that seemed made of rubber the way it could emote on command during a performance in a manner visible all the way to the cheap seats.
“I know something you don’t,” was the first thing he’d ever said to her, ten days after the start of the school year, before he’d even asked her name. Kristin had risen to the challenge with a fighter’s stance.
“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
“I know,” and he winked at her, “where to get high at this school.” Three nights later, on the roof of an abandoned mill, she smoked weed for the first time in her life, while David looked on with the proud but worried expression of a coach or teacher with an exceptionally talented student. They returned there again and again during that school year, learning how to touch each other in the space between conversations that seemed so profound and meaningful at the time but which she could no longer recall in any detail.
David was everything to her, but she was not everything to him. There were no other women, though she raged at him and accused him of a thousand infidelities on the phone line between her parents’ house and the shack where he lived with his grandmother. His love was different. It was a love of excess, an adoration of inebriation. He started the morning hung over, continued it drunk, and finished the night stoned. Things got worse and worse. By the middle of senior year he was missing too much school. They said he wouldn’t graduate.
Kristin formed an ad hoc intervention with the friends in their circle — Michael, a joker nicknamed Wonderbread, their good-time companion Freddie — and David swore he would improve. He did, for a month or so. Then it got worse. One night she touched him in the dark and felt fresh needle marks in the crook of his left arm. That was when she knew she had a choice: leave him, or follow him all the way down.
“Anywhere you go,” she sang in the strong voice that had fronted a half-dozen mostly worthless college bands, “I’ll follow you down.” The white fields of snowy Ohio had yielded to a mostly dead vista that said North Carolina in winter to her. She saw the glider field where she’d learned to fly, then recoiled from a physical pang of guilt; the older man who taught her to handle a glider had also been how she’d gotten over David. It felt dirty at the time, and worse now. Twenty years had passed since she had taken a tow airborne.
The drive had been so quick, her Eagle skimming fearlessly over the roads where even the pickup trucks had scattered and slid. She liked the AMC, which she’d nicknamed Sam. Sam the Eagle. The woodgrain hadn’t been her choice; stock was always low at the AMC dealer, supposedly because Subaru got their allocation built before the American company did. But she loved it now. It felt like home. Snug in her heated seat, the stereo blasting the Gin Blossoms and Cracker and PJ Harvey, she could feel the years disappear.
Lunch with Michael the next day put all of those years back, and then some. While Kristin listened patiently, Michael told her the full horrible story. How David had “used” until nobody could help or save him. How they’d lost track of him for a few years before he showed up at Wonderbread’s house, rail-thin and bleeding from sores on his face and body. “And then, after he got married…”
“Wait,” Kristin snapped, unashamed of what this revealed about her, “David got married?”
“Yes,” Michael replied. “This wonderful girl, he met her at the community theater. She got him clean, kept him that way for a while. They had plans. He was working, with his hands the way he liked, at the art co-op downtown, putting together wooden frames for the painters there. You didn’t get the wedding invite? It was five or six years ago.”
“No,” Kristin lied, thinking of the North-Carolina-postmarked envelopes she’d thrown away unopened for years.
“That’s odd. I just thought you didn’t care enough to come. Well, he had a big relapse and they separated. Lost his job, was living with Wonderbread again. After the election last year, he got clean and we thought it might stick. Said he finally felt like living in this country, despite the pandemic. But he was already having heart trouble. It got worse and it… it conquered him, I guess. Sally and I were with David at the end. He said she was the love of his life. But… he still asked for you.”
That evening, Kristin almost skipped the party; she’d found a bottle of Bulleit rye at a store and figured it would be better to drink it alone than confront this Sally person. But when Michael showed up at the hotel to pick her up she lost her nerve, or perhaps gained it. Once they walked into Wonderbread’s place it was like being home in a way that Ohio had never been. Her old crew. The old music. And somehow they could talk, and smile, and share stories, like David was there with them.
Walking into the kitchen, Kristin bumped into a chubby little blonde who impulsively hugged her then said, by way of explanation, “I’m Sally. You’re Kristin. I want you to know… David never stopped talking about you. Never stopped loving you.” Kristin shuddered violently enough for Sally to see, then responded with the most hurtful but true thing she didn’t really mean to say:
“Sally, I need a drink.” Half a bottle later, she was screaming at Wonderbread as loud as she could, something about how you all let him die without me. After that, there was nothing she remembered.
The next morning she woke up in a strange bed, undressed and disheveled. Michael was facing a floor-length mirror, fumbling with a cheap tie. “What happened?” she asked.
“Nothing you didn’t want at the time, and nothing that I hadn’t wanted for thirty years, but, Kristin…” His eyes were red and his hands looked weak, flaccid, directionless. She compared them to her memory of David’s long fingers, almost no taper to them. The hands of an artist. It should have been you, Michael, she thought. Then, a moment later: Or me.
“I had better go,” Kristin said, and Michael made no move to stop her. Downstairs, double-masked and bundled for the cold, she waited forty-five minutes for an Uber to take her back to the hotel. The funeral would start in less than an hour. She showered, dressed, did her makeup. Caught her reflection on the way out of the bathroom. For a moment she appeared to herself just as she’d been on that factory roof: young, beautiful, fearless. But in the next moment all she saw was someone not even worth staying alive for.
The AMC had lovely heated seats and by the time she was out of town the rest of the car was toasty warm, to the point that her mascara was running. The fifth time she saw a North Carolina area code on her phone she switched it off and put it in the center console. She turned on the satellite radio, turned it to her Nineties station. They wouldn’t forgive her for skipping the funeral, but David would. He had always known just when she was weak, and when she was strong. Hadn’t she, too, understood that about him? A new song came on and she picked it up, the clear contralto David had loved so much gradually gaining volume until it rattled the frameless windows:
Being with you, girl / is like being low
Hey, hey, hey / like being stoned