When I was maybe five, my mom bought a brand new Toyota Corolla. It was her first new car, a tiny four-door gas sipper with shiny brown paint and four matching tires. This was definitely a step up for her, a young nurse, and a few days after she got it she came out twirling the keys and told us to put on our bathing suits, we were going to the lake.
For once we had a car that would make the trip. My older sister took her place up front. I stretched out in the back, admiring seats without stains or rips. There was no oil smell on the floorboards and no drooping tapestry above our heads. This, I thought, rubbing my grimy little hands over the seats, was something I could get used to.
My mom worked swing shifts, weekends, and I still remember those dark, predawn shuffles out to the car in the winter, teeth chattering as she coaxed her various crapshoot vehicles to crank to life in the cold. But all of that was behind us, now. It was summer, and I couldn’t tell you if the new car had AC, because Mom rolled down the windows, fiddling with the stereo and letting the wind blow in her hair.
Her dream car at the time was a Datsun 280ZX. But with that breeze and her good spirits we were all happy to settle. The music just right, and our zippy little Toyota was churning up the expressway. Life was good.
The lake was the lake. We spent a great summer day at the lake. That afternoon, packing up the Toyota, Mom even let us grab something from the snack bar for the way home. With my hair still wet and my toes still sandy, I was ready for sugar.
Big League Chew bubble gum caught my attention. With the bulging, cartoonish baseball batter on the re-sealable pouch, cocked back, ready knock a homer. resalable pouch, just like chewing tobacco. Even the gum inside was shredded, like chew. In the car I started packing it in my mouth. One pinch wasn’t enough. A blast of juicy sugar, I kept plugging away. My sister had her chips. Mom had her car. We were burned and spent and ready to get home.
I went on a binge, physically unable to stop packing the gum away. My jaw worked the mass. I pulled air through my nose, my throat plugged by the wad. As the miles piled up I continued on, pinching shreds of gum until there were only a few shreds left, not worth saving. And as tired as my jaw was, I wasn’t going to give up. I was a big leaguer. A few more labored chews and I got the last shred of gum in my mouth.
I sat back, my head against new interior of the car, chewing like livestock, watching the passing landscape. My sister turned around, offering up her Doritos. I loved Doritos. But the gum, it was still bursting with flavor.
But man, I really wanted those Doritos. So I peeked in the bag, wishing I didn’t have a pound of gum in my mouth. Being five, my decision making proceedure wasn't exactly complex. I liked sugar. I liked cheese. So I took a chip and thought, Why not?
Not bad. Another chip. Then three or four, until the crunchy Doritos began to mingle with the gob of bubble gum. Nope. Not good. Not good at all. I winced. Swallowed. The bubble gum flavor overpowered the cheese flavor. Gum wasn’t supposed to be crunchy. It tasted like I’d dropped it in the dirt and then picked it up and stuffed it back in my mouth. A few more chews and I knew I had to get rid of it.
I rolled my window down, stuck my head out, reared back and flung the wad from my mouth and into the wind. Much better. I sat back and enjoyed all the open space in my mouth. My jaw muscles ached from the workout.
By the time I polished off the rest of the chips, we were pulling down our street. A great day in the books. Everyone washed out from sun and sand. My sister was picking up her things from the floorboard. Mom told me to gather my trash and we headed for the house.
At the steps, Mom looked back at the car. Maybe she wanted to see it one last time that afternoon. Just see it out there on the street, shining in front of the house. But the way her brow slammed down. The way she tilted her head and said, “What is that?”
A hitch of panic in her voice. I followed her gaze to the Toyota. Her brand new car that she’d had less than a week. I couldn't remember seeing that basketball size splotch on the back fender.
What in the world is it? She asked again, this time dropping her things and marching for the car. I looked at my sister, who then followed Mom. My stomach sank. Or it could have been the toxic gum/Dorito mixture breaking down my stomach lining.
She leaned closer, studying the splotch like a space meteor, which, it did sort of resemble, the shards of tortilla in the pinkish substance.
“What did you do?”
She hadn't used that tone since the time I tore out the screen from the window so that I could use the frame to make a sword. I mumbled, “Gum. Chips."
"Why does it have—" she shook her head. It's a headshake I now know. One of absolute futility. One that means You know what? It doesn't matter. I'll never comprehend it anyway.
And it was incomprehensible. Somehow my wad of Dorito bubble gum had clung to the car like Gorilla Glue, the chips working to give it just the right kind of grip. A smear of disgusting is what it was.
Mom did some muttering. About why she couldn’t have nice things. My sister gave me her best secret smirk, which she vanished into complete angelic solace when Mom whirled around, still confounded as to the how or whys. Why was I eating Doritos with bubble gum? I still don’t know. How did it stick to the car?
I didn’t have an answer to either one. But the sun and the wind had worked to spread the gum on the paint like peanut butter. Extra crunchy. It was going to stick.
I spent the rest of the evening picking Doritos out of gum. Gum off the car. I can't really say what happened next, but I'm pretty sure Mom imposed a strict, no gum policy for the backseat passengers. That was over thirty five years ago, but it was a lesson that uh, stuck.
How to make a great paint remover.