Car Wash Dreams
By David Daniel
It was in August before my senior year in high school when the new car wash came to our small town. A fresh concept in automobile care is how it was advertised, and it opened with a lot of fanfare. Robo-Kleen’s promise was to get your vehicle shining bright without a human hand ever spraying a hose or laying a sudsy brush on it. Nowadays that’s nearly every car wash, but in those days the established local operation was strictly manual labor, and lots of us kids had held summer jobs there in years past.
Then along came Robo-Kleen.
It was a big deal, like I said. Exciting. Seems nearly the whole town turned out for the grand opening. Red and blue balloons bobbed in the air. The owner of the one insurance agency in town, who also led the Chamber of Commerce, was the first customer in line. As he eased his Bonneville forward, acknowledging the crowd with a wave, his practiced grin faltered only for a moment as the machinery took hold of the front wheels, and then the car was drawn into the hissing bay. When it reappeared at the other end a couple minutes later, sparkling, we all cheered.
For a while there it became the rage to take your car to Robo-Kleen. Machines bustled around like stainless steel monkeys, soaping windows, spritzing chrome, and whooshing air. Diminished, the old hand wash operation struggled on, its future uncertain; and we felt a little sorry about that, but we consoled ourselves that such was progress, that our town was on the way up, growing modern. And we liked our shiny cars.
But the machinery had a tendency to snap off radio antennas and sometimes scratch hubcaps. And in winter one or the other of the two bays was often down for repairs. And there was the matter of cost: two dollars, twice what the hand wash cost. In the end I guess something wasn’t quite there yet, or we just weren’t ready for the change, and perhaps that’s what made us most sad.
Robo-Kleen sat for another season, doing little business, then less, then none. A FOR LEASE sign went up. Cowlicks of grass sprouted in the cracked asphalt and sparrows nested in the machinery. One day men came with two flatbed trucks bearing out-of-state plates and un-installed the equipment. Townspeople turned out to watch. Passing through town on their way back to the highway in a kind of reverse parade, the trucks looked like a cortege, hauling away bodies after an android war, taking something indefinable with them. The old hand wash gave itself a new paint job and went on as before, still one dollar a wash, no hard feelings.
When you got down to it, I guess we were a one-car-wash town. In fact, if you subtracted schools, churches, barrooms, and graveyards, there was barely more than one of anything there. My friends and I looked forward to graduating and getting out.
Sometimes at twilight that summer—okay, bored—with pizza and sodas, we would drive over to what had been Robo-Kleen (the sign was still there). With weeds brushing the rocker panels, we’d pull into one of the vacant wash bays and park. It seemed made for double dates.
“It’d be cool if there was a place where you could pull in, something would take you by the hand and guide you through and you’d come out the other side, far away and already established in life. Spouse, decent job, kids . . . settled, y’know?”
It sounded good.
Facing out the wide exit door, one couple in the front seat, one in the back, we would contemplate the deepening dusk, and as the car radio played soundtrack, and the distant trees and sky served as a screen, we would imagine our futures, conjuring them as movies.
“What’s this one called?”
“Escape from the House of Robots.”
“Gnarly. Hand me another slice.”
“Or how ‘bout Knowing How Way Leads on to Way?”
“That’s familiar. Where’s it from?”
“Longridge’s English class.”
“Or maybe August Night with Fireflies.”
“Dig it. Pass me a Pepsi.”
“Wait . . . how ‘bout Copping a Feel on an August Night with Fireflies?”
“Okay, then . . . Kisses as Way Leads on to Way?”
“Mmm . . . how about just . . . Dreams?”
David Daniel, a frequent contributor to this site, is a prolific novelist and writer, and a former high school teacher.