The Volkswagen Beetle is the most manufactured car in the world. It was produced from 1938 to 2003, yielding over 21,500,000 cars that were assembled in 15 different countries over 65 years. That’s just the original model, too—not counting the New Beetle that arrived with the new millennium. The “Type 1” VW Beetle came to America in 1949, and by the 1960s it was ubiquitous enough to inspire its own road trip game. I guess it’s a game; the only objective is to punch someone every time you see one of these cars on the road, which you always do. By 1968, the Beetle was popular enough to star in its own Disney movie: The Love Bug, in which a sentient Beetle named Herbie dominates the California racing circuit while playing matchmaker for his human friends. It was the third-highest grossing film that year.
And yet, when my dad ended up with one of these cars in 1999, there was only goddamn one of them in the whole fucking town. That’s 21.5 million Beetles in the world, 4.7 million in America, and one in Hazel Green, Alabama. My dad inherited this Bug from my Paw-Paw when I was 10, though we’re not sure why Paw-Paw had one. North Alabama received an exodus of German engineers after World War II, and my Paw-Paw worked with them at NASA for 25 years. Maybe this car was a way to honor his lingering fondness for German design after his team’s Saturn V rocket launched the Apollo 11 crew to the moon.
Either way, I thought it was stupid. Not powerful, not fast, not comfortable, and not sexy-looking at all. The appeal of the VW Beetle was that it was cheap—a status symbol for a status I didn’t want advertised. We were poor. And if you weren’t already sure of it, you only needed to look at our car, which was over thirty-five years old and dumb enough to be named after an insect. The inside was buff-colored vinyl that stuck to my skin, and it never stopped smelling like gasoline. My Paw-Paw had the outside painted a nauseous shade of metallic royal blue before he died, too, and this only made it more distinct in a town like Hazel Green—with 3,500 people, two traffic lights, and just one glittery blue Beetle.
Sometimes Dad picked me up from school in this car. I could hear him idling in the pickup line for nearly twenty minutes before he reached the front, because the “Vee Dubya,” as he called it, was loud—in addition to being old and smelling bad and shimmering like the goddamn Pacific Ocean in the midday sun. One afternoon when he got to the tin-covered veranda where I was waiting, this kid John Capps waved to me and yelled, “Hey, Christy! Cool car!” John had thick glasses in the style you only ever see on men who fought in Vietnam, and his hair, buzzed to a uniform inch of fuzz, always looked like it had just been scrubbed by a balloon. He pumped a double thumbs-up in my direction. Once inside the car, I leaned all the way forward and pretended to dig through my book bag. I didn’t want to be seen in a vehicle so stupid that John Capps, the kid with an apparently infinite supply of Tennessee Vols crew socks, thought it was cool.
But of course, people did see me. It was impossible to be inconspicuous in a car you could see, smell, and hear from a mile away. People saw my dad, too, puttering around town flicking cigarette butts out the window, or parked outside the long windowless building on Highway 231/431: Dave’s Bottoms Up, simultaneously the only bar and the only titty bar in Hazel Green. Every night after dance class, I saw that shiny-ass car sitting in Dave’s gravel parking lot and felt a hot circle of light drop down on top of me. In a town that had 22 churches, one bar, and one fucking Volkswagen Beetle, there was nowhere to hide.
My dad drank. That’s the nice way of putting it, I guess—“He drank,” as if it might mean just the once. Usually he would get drunk and watch the History Channel, slumped down between faded couch cushions in the living room. Sometimes he played the fiddle all night. Once, he knocked on my bedroom door after dinner and told me there was something he wanted to show me in the kitchen. I followed him to the other side of the house, and there on the island was a replica of Stonehenge my dad had constructed out of whole blocks of cheddar cheese. Earlier in the week, a fan of my parents’ bluegrass band had shipped them an entire case of this cheese, each slab wrapped in red cellophane and sealed with a cow sticker. At first we wondered what anyone would do with so much cheese. “I call it Cheesehenge,” my dad said. He was giggling. His eyelids were half-mast.
Other times the police came.
I never knew if it was going to be Cheesehenge or child services, but eventually I decided it didn’t make much difference. I wanted all of it to stay hidden. From inside my room, I learned to hear hear the difference between a few drinks and a gathering storm cloud, and I locked my door for both.
Especially on nights when there was violence, the VW buzzed on our front lawn like a neon arrow. I ached for someone to park it in the garage so it wasn’t so obvious whose house was lit up by bursts of rotating blue light, but there wasn’t room. Instead, our garage contained a round breakfast table where my dad would sit and smoke after the police left. Lying awake in my room, I could hear him: the creak of a rush-seat chair. The double flick of his lighter. The chair’s legs scraping against smooth concrete, scooting closer to the table. Then the sound of June bugs, clinking against the ceiling light until morning.
When I was 12, my cat died in this garage. I’d gotten her five years earlier at the Foggy Hollow Bluegrass Festival, where she was coiled tight in the corner of a cardboard box in the grass. A man with a long white beard and overalls let me hold each kitten in the box until I knew which one I loved best. I chose the one with tan and black stripes that started at her shoulders and ran all the way to the end of her tail. Amy was a good name, I thought, because I was seven and didn’t know the difference yet between the names you give people and the names you give animals. She was the softest kitten of the litter, too, which I carefully explained to my mother when she stepped off stage that night.
“Will you at least come look at her?” I asked, pulling on my mom’s guitar straps. She said no without even pausing to hear to my prepared list of kitten attributes: little paws, sleeps a lot, perfect for brushing with Dad’s mustache comb.
I ran to find my dad next, who was packing up his mandolin backstage. So far he’d been responsible for every pet I’d had—from the rabbit that lived in a hutch under the crabapple tree to the stray cat he lured inside with tuna. He listened to my list of kitten benefits and then followed me to the box so he could verify Amy’s softness. Ten minutes later, we wrapped Amy in a towel and carried her back to the record table to show my mom—to her great surprise.
The night Amy died, my dad stopped me at the front door of our house when I got home from dance class. His eyes usually bulged and became bloodshot when he drank, so I didn’t immediately question why they were red. He told me something had happened; he led me to the garage. My tap shoes clicked across cold concrete toward a garbage bag on the floor, and I pressed my hand against its wrinkling plastic. Dad stood behind me with his hands in his pockets, but he didn’t say anything. There was an open can of beer on the round table. I noticed the stepladder was out.
Amy had been on top of the garage door when my dad left the house that morning. She liked to hide in the thin horizontal space between the ceiling and the open door, which appeared and disappeared with a long, echoing screech. That morning my dad reversed down the driveway, pressed the long white button on the garage door opener, and the space disappeared. Ten hours later, he came home and realized what had happened. Amy hadn’t been crushed by the puzzle-piece teeth of curving gears. She wasn’t caught by the neck when the slow guillotine lip of the door sank to the ground. Her leg got stuck in a chain. She dangled, midflight, until she died.
Before I imagined Amy suspended in an upside-down arabesque—or my dad balancing on the ladder’s top step to untangle her crusted ankle—I imagined that shitty blue Volkswagen. I could just see it backing out of the driveway, the garage door opener clipped to its driver’s-side visor. I could hear it sputtering into drive, loud enough to drown out the scream of motorized hinges.
The next evening, we drove the Bug to a field near Scott’s Apple Orchard to bury Amy, and I held her in my lap, still wrapped in her tall-kitchen body bag. I bristled at the irony. It was like being run over and carried to the gravesite by the same hearse.
The last time I rode with my dad in the VW, I was 13. He rarely took me to school because it was hard for him to get out of bed in the morning, but my mom had left town for a week to sing backup for Dolly Parton. Dad and I stayed at home, and I found myself scooting down Butter and Egg Road in the front seat of that dung-beetle-looking-ass car.
The Bug’s muffler was too loud to carry on a conversation, but my dad never had much to say anyway. He drove, and I stared out the window at the lumps of cotton that lined the road—a pillowy trail of whatever pieces had flown out of the module trucks that carried harvested cotton from the fields to the cotton gin at the center of town. It’s called road cotton. I thought it looked like snow, but that was mostly speculation since I had almost never seen snow. I didn’t know the difference yet between road cotton and road rage and road head and snow.
We were almost to the highway when my dad glanced in the rearview mirror. He made a small sound, as dispassionate as if he had just remembered it was trash day. Only when he began to slow down did I turn around to see what was wrong.
The car was on fire. The car was on fire? I looked again to make sure, and yes—the car was clearly, unmistakably, visibly on fire, and I could feel now that the cab was getting hot. This car had no air conditioning, so I didn’t notice the temperature until I saw flickering bright tongues waving to me through the back window. They were climbing out of the engine two feet into the air, whipping around behind us like the suddenly very dangerous scarf of a 1940s movie star. We pulled over onto the shoulder of the road and left tire tracks in the cotton. I got out with my book bag and ran across the street.
My dad crossed behind me, wearing gray sweatpants and holding his coffee mug with the Lynch family crest on it. We stood together on the side of the road, listening to the antagonistic pops and sputters coming from the car as it burned orange and blue like an Auburn football effigy.
Before long, a couple in a black pickup truck pulled up beside us and rolled down their passenger’s side window. The driver wore a flat bill hat with the word “BUBBA” on it in plain stitched letters, and the woman beside him had blonde streaks in her hair so prominent, you could count them on one hand. In perfect unison their eyes moved from the burning mass of hot steel to us.
Eventually it was decided that the two benevolent truck strangers would take me the rest of the way to school. The step into the cab started at about my waist, so the woman reached out a hand to hoist me up. She gripped my wrist and flung me into the seat beside her, and I looked out the door at my dad, who was standing on the ground below. He was still wearing slippers, and his black mustache curled over his top lip. He looked hungover, though I didn’t really know what hungover looked like yet. I would figure that out when I got older—not “My dad looks hungover” but “Hungover looks like my dad.”
Years later I learned that Volkswagen Beetles are famous for catching on fire. Sometimes the fuel line cracks when it gets too old, and gasoline spills onto the engine. Other times there’s a problem with the way the fuel line connects to the carburetor. One end is brass and the other aluminum, and when the engine heats up these two pieces expand and contract at different rates until they jiggle loose and detach completely. In some cases, the fuel filter is made of glass and shatters, or it’s made of plastic and breaks. Occasionally, the battery sparks into flame right under the back seat. There are a dozen different ways for these cars to catch fire, and thousands of people have watched their Bugs ignite and burn. But I couldn’t have known that at the time—wide-eyed and quiet, clutching my book bag on the side of the road. I felt the heat on the back of my neck and thought it was a secret. It would be years before I knew how much of my humiliation wasn’t unique.
I drove away with Mr. and Mrs. Bubba, turned backward in my seat so I could watch that no-good motherfucking Beetle burn. It grew smaller over the rim of the truck bed as we drove down Bobo Section, until we turned a corner and it disappeared. I don’t know how much capacity a thirteen-year-old has for vengeance. Maybe it was just deep satisfaction I experienced as I watched the car burn, scooting me a little closer to vengeance but leaving some room to grow. Here’s what I know. When I finally got to school that morning and told the woman in the front office why I was late, I smiled. My clothes smelled like smoke. The soles of my shoes were slick with fuel.
STORY IMAGE CREDITS: Header image, Flickr Creative Commons/marie-II; image of the author as young girl with her cat, courtesy of author.