Excerpts > Fall 2001, 75th Anniversary Celebration and Conference Issue

Christina Adam
I is for Impala

I is for Impala


My husband is a terrible driver, not the worst I’ve seen, but dangerous. He watches the scenery instead of the road, and he’s the only driver I know who, sober, seems to have serious trouble driving inside the lines. I will be talking to him, and suddenly, I feel the rough bump of the asphalt shoulder, the jerk and swerve as he corrects the wheel and pulls back into his lane.

He, naturally, denies that there is anything wrong with his driving, but I come from a long line of bad drivers–so I know. I remember particularly a drive in California with my mother, who, having had a few drinks, took a winding road up through a canyon to visit my aunt and uncle. Even as children, my sister and I were not quiet. Though we were in fear of our lives, we begged my mother to slow down and stay in one lane.

I still ride with my husband, because car trips are our happiest times. We are driving across the desert in New Mexico, heading for Carlsbad Caverns. He has been telling me that north of where we are, near the White Sands Missile Range, there are feral emus. Feral emus? I have a hard time picturing this, and I am skeptical. He says he has it on good authority that, years ago, emus were imported and released for sport hunting, that some escaped and have become wild.

When he bumps just slightly off the road, I sit rigid.

“Relax,” he tells me.

“I can’t,” I say, and tell him how, while my mother worked, my grandmother picked us up from school for appointments at the doctor or the dentist, and drove us from Glendale to Burbank, avoiding the freeway. We lived on a long, narrow street where cars parked bumper-to-bumper on both sides, and on the way home, my sister and I cringed. When we could, we called out like river guides, helping my grandmother navigate between the looming doors and fenders. We learned to be vigilant.

It was my mother, though, who taught us how to drive–my mother and the CHP. People may make fun of California drivers, but the highway patrol instilled a fear in us that made us perfect drivers. In California, you may not just signal and glance in your mirror before changing lanes–you must turn your head and look to see that you are safe.

My mother drove us out to huge, empty parking lots, and taught us to drive in her tiny red Studebaker Lark--with a stick shift. She kept up a sing-song litany that we can imitate to this day: “A little bit of gas. . .and a little bit of clutch.. . . .a little bit of gas. . . AND a little bit of clutch. . . BRAKE BRAKE BRAKE!” My grandmother had bought the car for my mother that we might make the trip from Florida, where my father had deserted us, back to California in safety. We didn’t mind the car–we loved the “new car” smell, but we knew it was the cheapest car on the market. We knew, because my grandmother, despite her stocks and bonds, was cheap.

My sister and I did learn to drive, but we lived in terror of backing out our driveway, where stucco walls loomed close on either side. This was just possible with the Lark–but one day my mother drove home from the school where she taught--in a brand new Chevrolet..

This was around the time that John F. Kennedy was president, and cars, up until then, had had unique designs. My sister and I had watched each year for the new models, and we could have told you in an instant the make of any car. But this car was one of the first with no fins, no portholes, no distinctive grille. It was a huge, generic car. A Chevy Impala.

Our lives were instantly improved and complicated; the car was a dream to drive–IF you could get it out of the driveway and down the road without scraping a fender. We lived in dread of hitting something, but on the freeways, it drove like a huge parade float, making the driver the commander of all she surveyed.

My husband looks at me, a thought forming on his face.

“Watch the road,” I say.

He turns back to the road which stretches straight across the desert, as far as you can see. There is not another single car in sight.

“It wasn’t emus,” he says. “It was ibex.”

Walter,” I say. “An emu is a bird. An ibex is an antelope.”

“Antelope,” he says. “I meant an antelope.”

My mother, who set great store in such things, was dismayed that my first boyfriend drove a Volkswagon. She invited him out to dinner–then insisted that he drive her car. I was embarrassed and sat in the back, but Bill was older than I, a safe, methodical driver, who unbelievably was amused by my mother. He settled into the drivers seat, adjusted the mirrors and familiarized himself with the controls. Out on the street he turned and informed my mother, “I’m only driving my half of the car. You’re on your own.”

Eventually, my grandmother stuck mostly to driving herself back and forth to the market. She accomplished this early in the morning, before the roads were crowded. My mother, who drank, never lost her job, but the jobs became less and less desirable and farther and farther from home. My sister and I worried about my mother spending so many hours on the L.A. freeways, but there was nothing we could do.

The day came, of course, when I was riding with my grandmother, driving along our narrow street toward home, and she hit a car parked at the curb. I heard the metal-on-metal scrape, that awful sound. But my grandmother heard nothing. When we were home, I convinced her to let me jog back and leave her phone number–but she hadn’t felt a thing. She didn’t know she’d side-swiped a car.

When my grandmother died, she had a new, metallic green Ford parked in her garage–purchased without one single “extra”–no air conditioning, no clock, no radio–and my mother had bought a new Mercedes. My sister and I, however, did the driving.

My husband pulls safely into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn in Carlsbad, New Mexico. We both gaze in wonder at the desert landscaping, the spiked ocotillo blooming flame red against the stucco walls. He comes around the car to open the door, and help me into my chair. Though I can do it easily myself, he wheels me to the door and opens it.

Inside the air conditioned room he says, “It wasn’t ibex . . . I think it was an African antelope. The one with the black and white face. What is that?”

I shake my head. I don’t know.

It isn’t until the trip is over and we are back in California, in our house in the hills, that I pull out the dictionary: Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language; College Edition, copyright 1965. This is the book my grandmother presented to me when I went away to college. In it, I find ibex, “Any of several varieties of wild goat of Europe, Asia, or Africa,” and oryx, “Any of a group of large African antelopes with long, straight horns projecting backwards.” It is the oryx that has the black and white face and it is the oryx that–in fact--runs wild near White Sands National Monument. But nowhere, under any spelling, not even in the Oxford English Dictionary (abridged, I admit) do I find the word impala.

I haul out all the dictionaries–paging through them one by one. It isn’t until the 1967 edition, printed in 1979, that I find “impala,” a Zulu word--introduced into our language, as far as I can tell, by Detroit. I wheel myself out to the garage to find Walter rummaging for bolts. Though I’ve begged him to call a security company, he’s taken it on himself to install bars on all the windows facing the canyon and dry hills. I wait for him to stop what he is doing.

"They had a wild antelope in L.A. when I was a girl,” I say. “They appeared about the time I was in high school–and ran free all around here. . .” I twirl my hand in the air. . “with the Mustangs.”


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