By Millie Noe.
It was dark.
It was icy.
And then I took a corner a little too wide. And then I overcorrected the wheel the way a twenty-one year old does. And somewhere in the middle of that accidental donut, there was a loud bang.
Norbert and I came to an abrupt hault.
I opened my eyes.
And I climbed out, into the quiet neighborhood.
It appeared that the fire hydrant was in perfect order. But there was a pretty nasty looking abrasion on Norbert's driver's side, back quarter panel.
I pulled away from the fire hydrant. Drove a half a block and parked on the street in front of the tiny house that Jason, Del and I were renting, and went inside.
Jason was asleep.
The next day as the sun bounced off the blinding snow, Jason says, "It looks there's a hole in the gas tank."
It's not that Jason was an amazing mechanic or anything. He just noticed the river of gas.
"How much do you think it'll cost?"
My husband got in and turned the key and pumped, fumes.
"I don't know. But first we're going to have to pay to have him towed somewhere."
We didn't have a charge card.
It wasn't pay day.
And then there was a snow emergency.
Which, in Wisconsin means you must park your car on the even side of the street on even days and the odd side of the street on the odd days, so the snowplows can get through.
I had inherited Norbert from my parents.
He had been in the family for many years.
Norbert was everybody's favorite white station wagon with the fake wood paneled sides.
All eight of us would attest to that.
We went to the Milwaukee Zoo in Norbert and then stayed at that hotel where we jumped on the beds since my brother was in charge for a couple of hours.
We drove all the way to the Black Hills one summer and a donkey stuck his head inside the window trying to get a bite of my little brother's ice cream cone.
We all saw Mount Rushmore and "Oohed and Ahhed," out the windows before parking and scrambling up the pathway.
We had a picnic in Chadron Nebraska where that loose bull happened upon us.
We even took a ferry ride over to Madeline Island.
That's when my mom said it.
"I'm really worried about Norbert. I sure hope he's okay down there."
And then my dad said, "Poor Norbert."
All of us kids said, "Poor. Poor. Norbert."
The woman next to us says empathetically, "Is Norbert a family member?"
My mom says, "Yes. He's our station wagon. We had to leave him parked below the deck."
That woman scurried off.
And we burst out laughing.
I blame half of my brain damage on the gas fumes that Calvin and I breathed in, there in his back seat, with the tailgate window down.
He is also the reason that I have Dysnavigatoria.
But it's not Norbert's fault that I liked sitting in the way back of the bus.
Where I faced the direction we were leaving instead of heading, most of my informative years.
It just so happened to be the best spot in the car to view the millions of stars in the black sky on those late night trips home from our Grandmas and Grandpas homes, in Oshkosh.
Norbert was with me on the worst day of my life. When I did not get my driver's license.
And then he was with me on the best day of my life. When I did get my driver's license.
We were never really sure how we bluffed our way through that one.
He had been a handsome dude back in his hay day.
Very distinguished, with faux-wood side panels and racks on top.
Of course he'd aged some by the time I was handed the keys.
He was rusty, but reliable.
He always got me to work on time.
Which is where Jason had to drop me off the next morning.
I punched in.
Scooter, as we liked to call him, scooted on by and went straight to the restroom, as he always did after his twenty minute city bus ride to the restaurant.
His real name was, Old Robert.
Old Robert ordered the same breakfast every morning and always in the same fashion.
"One egg, over haaaaaard, with whooooo-eat toast and black coffee," he would say. And then laugh because his black coffee was already waiting for him.
He would return each afternoon for an early dinner, and he always sat in the front section of the café for this meal.
He usually ordered the special, especially if the special included mashed potatoes and gravy.
And he never did not order pie for dessert.
Old Robert loved pie.
He entertained the wait staff with his jokes and his tales.
According to Old Robert, there was nothing he had not done.
His shaky spotted hands would unveil his latest carving, to us, his audience of admirers.
And Old Robert was a ninety-year-old flirt.
"Come and see my etchings," he'd said.
So, Tracy, Julie and I drove over to his apartment one afternoon.
It was there, in his small, dark and stuffy efficiency, with just one window that faced University Ave, that he lent me a few books.
I don't recall what they were about or why he'd insisted that I take them.
But I had.
And then I could not remember to return them.
Finally, I opened Norbert's tailgate and I set them there, on the back seat.
And there they sat.
They went everywhere I did.
We were like a family.
Today, as I look back, I think it was Norbert's soul that made him so special.
And I think it was Old Robert's heart that made him so unique.
Both of those very special reasons were why I looked out the front picture window of our tiny house the next morning, noticed that Norbert was missing and screamed, "Jason!"
They take snow emergencies very seriously in Wisconsin.
That's why they are called emergencies.
They will tow your car if you do not move it across the street.
Jason made a call and found out that they were holding Norbert in some sort of a halfway house detention center for troubled cars.
And, like many parents of troubled cars, we were no exception.
First, we had to come up with the cash to spring him loose.
But then, he had that expensive hole in his gas tank.
"I just don't think it's worth it, Millie," said Jason.
I could have at least gone to say good-bye to Norbert.
I could have at least gone and gotten the books out of the back seat.
I saw Old Robert's watery-blue eyes flick as I confessed that his books were gone forever.
The flick of an old man's eyes are a powerful lesson.
They can't change the past.
But they can help mold a future.