I didn’t much care for the Scion Xb, aka The Magic Bus, when it first came on the car market. It was squat and square and, I thought then, butt ugly. At the time I was in the carnie/trinket selling business and needed a vehicle with more cargo space than my poltergeist-possessed VW Golf. Only after I saw the Scion’s price tag and the gas mileage did I realize that the homely little Xbox Toaster was my road tripping solution (and possibly vehicular soulmate). An unexpected benefit to owning this shoe box on wheels is that for a while, Mike and I were “hip.” It was the must-have car of the next generation and we were pretty freaking cool for having it. The Magic Bus with its square, low body is still a standout among today’s ho-hum, round-edged, kidney bean-shaped cars.
We’ve driven lots of those kidney beans as rentals for Mike’s job. They’re basically all the same with dark interiors, confounding seat controls, various cup holder configurations, and maybe Sirius radio on a good day. Mike once had a Mercedes by chance for a rental. He was so enthused about its ride and interior quality that he came to take me for a spin so I could experience the luxury and comfort and fine German engineering. I didn’t get it; the car seemed like all the other kidney beans we’d driven.
We rented a car in Toronto a few weeks back, a car that I also didn’t like when it first came on the market but have been giving a second look after the monotonous stream of kidney beans. Luxury and comfort bore me — I want FUN. I personally thought the advertisement for the car which featured J Lo missed the mark; Neil de Grasse Tyson or Bill Nye would have been much better spokespersons for this car. You know which one it is — the Fiat 500. The car rental agent didn’t even get the offer out of his mouth before I pounced on the car. If The Magic Bus is a shoe box, the Fiat is the shoe.
We compressed our luggage into the compartment that imagined itself a trunk and squeezed ourselves into the bucket seats. Being a small (but fierce!) person, I rolled the driver’s seat all the way forward until the front cup holder disappeared into the seat. No matter; the fun factor would certainly outweigh any such small inconveniences. And the car had the definite advantage of needing only half a parking space.
After a brief twirl around Toronto, where all young office workers seemed to wear black, I inserted our tiny car into westbound rush hour traffic. The spritz of rain that began near the city was pummeling us viciously by the time we neared our suburban destination. Darkness had fallen, making the unfamiliar freeway a hellish racecourse. Our tiny Fiat was about the size of one of the tires on the tractor-trailer dragons roaring around us. I finally jettisoned off our exit, spitting expletives like a wet cat. I hoped for better weather the following day for our drive to Niagara Falls.
And I got it! The sun, hosted by a clear sky, beamed as if not a drop of rain had fallen the previous day. If there had been sheep in the area I’m sure they would have frolicked happily, particularly since their heavy coats would have held at bay the now very crisp one digit Celsius temperature displayed on the Fiat’s dashboard. Back onto the Canadian highway these two Texans-via-Virginia in the Italian car rolled, our female English-speaking GPS sounding flat and dull beside the French-speaking announcer on the bossa nova radio station. All was well.
Abruptly, another voice filled the car — a female voice, speaking French. Who was that? I eased off the gas pedal. There she was again — repeating the sentence in French. The only word I could catch between the radio and the GPS demands was “possible.” What was happening? Why was the car talking? I immediately assumed something was terribly wrong with the car (despite the continued placid dashboard lighting) — surely the engine was going to freeze up and we would have to pay for the entire car since we hadn’t taken the extra insurance the rental company always tries to sell. Or, was it Customs? Had Customs checked up on me and found that I had a few undeclared grapes rolling around my backpack when we disembarked the plane the previous day? Could Customs track me somehow to the Canadian suburbs and call me to account this very minute for those grapes? I was in a panic. My deodorant failed. The righteous arrest I wanted to achieve in my lifetime did not include grapes, a rental car, or Canada.
The great dragon semis were huffing past us again on both sides, filling the rear view mirror, and showing no mercy to our suspected government spy mobile. (In fact I was a little surprised at just how fast the Canadians seemed to be driving overall; I thought American had a corner on the speed market.) I had to find a safe place to pull over and figure out what to do about the car.
Then, I had a really terrifying thought. What if this was God? What if God was in the Fiat — Deus ex Fiat! Hadn’t there been bells along with the voice? Was I being called to account for my not infrequent willfulness or my unrestrained mouth? Had God seen that I had used electrical tape on The Magic Bus’ license plate to make a line above the “E” so people would understand “IM QUEN”? Did God disagree with my contention that all the unopened soap in the hotel room belonged to me because I had paid for the room? Was I being judged for all the extra fast food napkins I’d stored in the glove compartment of the car? Had God heard about my firing candy pumpkins off my toy catapult over the heads of the Amish at the Hershey trade show? Had God seen me write “drag queens and freaks” in chalk on our ruraburban driveway?
Wait, I thought, trying to calm down and not be run over while I searched for a pull-off spot. Wait. Did God speak French? Did Canadians even believe in God? And above all, the voice was female. God was supposed to be male, wasn’t he? Wasn’t he?? Which was worse: God, God being French, God being female, or Customs and those damn grapes? Given a choice between God in any of those forms or Customs, I’d take God. Either way, reckoning was assuredly at my driver’s door. I just never thought it would happen in Canada while driving Fifi the Fiat.
I finally veered onto a side road and pulled into a dirt driveway with potholes bigger than the Fiat. “Here’s what I’m going to do,” I said to Mike, who had borne the entire episode with shocking calm and stoicism. “I’m going to turn the car off, then turn it on again and see what happens.” I fully expected it to either blow up or not start at all. I turned the key and the car quit. I took a deep calming breath, then turned the key to “on”. The Fiat restarted.
A message, in English, scrolled across the dashboard: “Significant temperature drop, possible ice on road.”
We continued to Niagara Falls, and saw a rainbow. Neither God nor Customs had anything further to say.