Death and the Toyota Corolla
By Sean Molloy
Some people have pets. Brave people. Not because these people clean out the kitty litter, or
walk through the rain to buy pet food, or hound their cat into a cage to visit the vet that their
cat despises. I agree these are burdens. But the deeper burden is that unless the pet is a
tuatara, or a tortoise, or a turritopsis nutricula jellyfish, the pets die before their people.
My wife Helen and I do not have pets. We have a car: an ageing Toyota Corolla 1992. And
there is enough heartbreak in that relationship to fill my little heart.
When Lazarus died before his time, Jesus brought him back from the dead. A miracle. When
we took our overheating car to our closest mechanic, rather than working a miracle he told us
her engine head was cracked. At an estimated two and a half thousand, the cost of the fix
wasn’t worth it. We prepared to say our goodbyes.
It was Helen’s dad who came in with the solution: drive the car away and see how long she
lasted. Sixteen years later her engine head still works fine. We dubbed her Lazarina. She was
raised from the dead by a miracle or by a healthy scepticism in the automobile trade.
From then on, we took Lazarina to Four Star Auto. One reason was their name. Four Star Auto
indicates a solid but not expensive job. Five Star Auto is extravagant. But mostly we took
Lazarina to Four Star Auto because they cared for her. The sign of a great mechanic is not their
technical prowess but their willingness to describe a car as “your girl”. Safety matters, of
course. It’s just that ‘harsh but fair’ is, in the end, still harsh. Love is what I seek in a mechanic,
with a willingness to accentuate Lazarina’s best features.
Because as she grows older, Lazarina gathers many features to add to her best ones. I think of
these as signs of character. For instance, she follows the laws of central locking, except in
summer. Through autumn, winter and spring, when I turn the key to the right, all four doors
unlock. But then Christmas comes around. When I issue commands, only three locks snap to
attention. Lazarina’s front passenger door lock barely obeys, sensing there are better ways to
live than going up and down all day. By January, the lock refuses to do anything, taking a break
until the cool breezes of April roll in.
“She’s got character” is what I say, when puddles collect in her passenger footwell because her
windscreen leaks. “She’s got character” is what I say, when I realise her clock is eleven minutes
fast and getting faster every day. “She’s got character” is what I say, when I can’t budge my
seatbelt when facing uphill and need to drive until we’re level before I can slip the seatbelt on.
Helen publishes books, and books lead to book launches. For some people, launches are the
best things about books, though I remain fond of books. What some people like is the free
food and wine provided by publishers at book launches, and these people go some way out of
their way to attend a book launch, though never to buy a book.
As part of a publishing family, Lazarina is used to ferrying very cheap wine to, and occasionally
from, launches. One night, we left a couple of bottles of wine on Lazarina’s back seat within a
repurposed Johnny Walker box. Next morning, her window was smashed, and the box
ransacked. I doubt the thieves were happy with their ill-gotten gains.
We replaced her back window, but it kept sliding down, which wasn’t good for security, or
much else. We were forced to jam the window shut, never to open again. “She’s got
character” is what I say to any passenger who wants fresh air but can’t figure out how to open
the left back window.
Lazarina is generous. One bright morning, I opened her right rear door to find a spider. The
spider was large, magnified by the whiteness of Lazarina in the sun. The spider’s house, for
that was what Lazarina’s right rear door jamb had become, was dirt grey, welcoming the deep
black of the new owner-occupant. The spider’s tight legs, little but lithe, flew frantically. It
darted under the metal hoop that was built to clasp Lazarina’s door but was repurposed as a
rafter, somewhere to hide now that the roof was gone.
I’d interrupted the spider in the middle of its domestic bliss – perhaps the equivalent of sitting
down to watch House Hunters International while having its dinner – and I felt its sense of
shame. Why hadn’t I called ahead, let it know that I’d be popping by? I felt my own version of
shame – having a spider living in your car isn’t done. What would the neighbours think? What
kind of person lets their car run down so much that a spider decides that your car is the perfect
home? Do they make reality shows about this sort of thing?
But then, I realised Lazarina was more generous than I was. Not only was she willing to take
my ample frame within her humble frame, she was willing to take in this lonely refugee from
the cold. Should I follow the example of my car’s better nature and allow the spider to keep its
new home? Or should I expunge it with a (large) paper towel or two, strong enough to keep a
distance between the spider’s legs and myself?
I decided to be generous and let the spider be. My generosity overlapped with laziness, but
that was a point in its favour. I could co-exist with a spider. I was willing to live with the shock
to myself, and to the spider, when I periodically opened that door and we brutally reminded
each other of our existence. I was willing, that was, until one grey morning when I opened the
door to find the eggs and the hatching babies. Then out came the paper towel, obliterating my
fantasy of détente. Lazarina was ultimately more generous than me.
She’s gathered a lot of love as well as quirks. When Lazarina’s former owner Joeli is in town,
she enjoys taking Lazarina out for a drive, and kindly ignores the changes of the years. Lazarina
once belonged to Joeli’s mum, who was a Member of Parliament and bought Lazarina for
$25,000 as her electorate vehicle. Lazarina was a white trophy car wrapped with a blue
political party ribbon like a beauty contest sash. Miss Toyota Corolla 1992.
Joeli’s mum occasionally asked about Lazarina wistfully and we offered to visit when passing
through Kerikeri ten years ago. All the way up, Helen and I spun promises to Lazarina about
how we were going to get her a carwash. Helen gently stroked Lazarina’s dashboard while I
conjured up visions of how she would get the best that money could buy – high-powered jets
of water rinsing off soap suds and leaving her freshly perfect.
When we got to Kerikeri – late, we are always running late – the North was in the middle of a
drought. The carwash was shut. We stole some dribbles from an abandoned green watering
can and wiped down Lazarina’s windscreen. It was like pitching in five dollars when the group
bill comes around at a restaurant – a nice gesture but woefully inadequate.
Through lunch, Helen and I sweated internally as we discussed life and politics with Joeli’s
mum. Eventually she casually mentioned it would be nice to see the “old car again”. We took
her out to the driveway for a reunion. Joeli’s mum kept a poker face upon seeing her old car.
She mentioned it was impressive that the car was still on the road.
Impressive Lazarina is. She’s had new tyres several times over. We’ve changed her fan belt, her
battery, her lights, her window wipers, her license plates, her ignition. Rust has not stopped
her. Some say rust never sleeps but I can’t say I’ve watched it long enough to tell. It certainly
has a stubborn grip, a mulish intransigence to match Lazarina’s quiet fidelity.
But there will come a day, not tomorrow, but too soon nonetheless, when death stops circling
and comes in for the kill. The scene will be a graveyard, or rather a graverobber’s yard,
crowded high with hulks of vehicles.
“It was the engine head that finally did her in,” I tell the man with the clipboard, the one with
grease on his hands and a lip quivering for another cigarette. “Okay,” the guy ticks off
something on his clipboard I can’t see. Or maybe he makes a cross.
“How much do you think she’s worth?” I ask. “Her name’s Lazarina.” I wait for him to ask why
her name is Lazarina. The man kicks each of her tyres. “I can give you fifty for it.”
And that is the end of the transaction. Not because of the fifty dollars – even I know that’s a
good deal – and not because this guy is a bit of a jerk – the transaction is over because he used
the ‘it’ word. Lazarina must leave this world in the company of those who love her.
It looks hopeless but suddenly Helen’s Dad will be there, and he’ll suggest the perfect solution:
why don’t you just drive Lazarina away and see how long she lasts. I’ll start her up, even
though I know the engine head is busted. Helen and Joeli and Joeli’s mum and the spider are
all going to be there, smiling and waving me on. And we’re going to drive and drive,
somewhere far away, where the good cars go. We’re never going to stop. All the dead cars are
going to rise up on that day: the Suzuki lacking its windscreen and headlights and the Hyundai
missing two tyres.
Miracles do happen. Lazarina is proof of that.
Sean Molloy is a writer based in Aro Valley, Wellington. where he lives with his wife Helen and his car Lazarina.