On a muggy August afternoon in Fargo, North Dakota, I accidentally stole a car. Nobody got hurt and I didn’t have to go to jail, so after my heart rate returned to normal, I was glad for the experience. As a good Mormon girl growing up in Utah, I had never felt anything close to the excitement of being a car thief for twenty minutes, and I was pretty sure my North Dakota neighbors hadn’t either. Outdoor felonies were rare, exotic events that North Dakotans only heard about occasionally on the news as they huddled under blankets and around fires for refuge from either frigid winter temperatures or kamikaze summer mosquitoes. Because I had probably just doubled the crime rate in Fargo, I figured that my story would be in hot demand at parties. And like any good English major, I began crafting the story in a letter to my new husband, Ralph, who happened to be out of town for a few weeks.
Twenty-six years later I can only marvel that I was ever naive enough to inform my husband of this event. In fact, I rarely mention it in his presence anymore because he inevitably contributes far more information than anyone—party guest or otherwise—needs to know. I don’t mind telling people that Ralph and I met in 1983 on our missions in Finland. It’s fun to explain that after our missions Ralph borrowed a hundred dollars from his brother for gas and drove 1,200 miles to visit me in Utah and to talk me into applying for graduate school in his native North Dakota. Certainly our listeners need to know that by 1986 Ralph and I were poverty-stricken NDSU students living in married student housing. And of course we have to tell them that Ralph was working that August as a counselor at a youth language camp in Minnesota while I stayed in Fargo to edit a textbook on agricultural cooperatives. But my face burns when my ex-farmer husband then finds it necessary to comment on the blessed miracle of that editing job, given my inability to distinguish between a combine and a tractor. I start planning my escape route when Ralph muses that he should have known better than to leave me alone.
Picture a tall, athletic bald guy relaxing in a lawn chair next to me and chewing on his private stash of sunflower seeds, pretending to consider the event for the first time. Friends in our conversational circle recognize by the gleam in Ralph’s eye and the sweat on my brow that it’s time to pay attention, and Ralph begins with an innocence intended to fool absolutely no one.
As soon as I accepted the job in Minnesota, I started worrying about Denise. Who would she call when she locked herself out of the apartment? I figured that at least she couldn’t lock herself out of the car—or drive down the highway with all her books on top of the car—because our only car would be safe with me in Minnesota. I guess I decided the damage she could do to herself would be minimal. [He pauses reflectively.] Turns out, I underestimated her abilities. By the time I’d been gone seven hours, she had managed to steal a car.
You have to understand that Ralph views the car story as only one event in a long list of events that demonstrate the danger I pose both to myself and to everyone around me. In his lighter moods, he describes my behavior as gifted and talented.In his darkest moments, he suspects me of devising unusual mishaps solely to torment him. So when strange things happen to me now, the first thing I do is check to see if Ralph is anywhere nearby. If I have been lucky enough to avoid his radar, the second thing I do is swear (okay—bribe) all witnesses to secrecy. What Ralph doesn’t know won’t hurt him. What he doesn’t tell won’t hurt me.
But here’s the thing: After twenty-eight years of marriage, Ralph’s viewpoint is as much a part of me as my own. I hear his voice in my head all day long in response to everything I do, say, or think. The car story especially just isn’t the car story anymore without his asides, and because he isn’t what he calls the writer type, I feel obligated—for better or worse—to provide his commentary for him.
Recently, I found my letter to Ralph about the car snatching. The text is surprisingly short, considering the trauma I experienced, but Ralph’s voice in my head provides twenty-eight years of context, exposing both the strengths and limitations of our marriage. Picture him again in his lawn chair, this time perusing the contents of my letter for the benefit of family or friends. He would tell them that the first paragraph starts by buttering him up with some mushy stuff and ends by confessing to grand theft auto. Then he would pay me a backhanded compliment:
I guess I have to give her credit for not beating around the bush. Normally, she tries to break this kind of news to me slowly, inventing a bunch of details which are supposed to show how understandable her actions are. I see here, though, that she cuts right to the chase. [He pauses to read ahead in the letter.] Ah, but then she adds,
Actually, I didn’t intend to steal anything.
Well, I guess I can believe this. She probably didn’t intend to murder me either when I took her out golfing a few years ago and she broke all the laws of physics—whacked that ball backward and sideways into my chest. If the ball had hit me in the head, I’d be dead now . . . and maybe she’d regret laughing so hard she had to cross her legs. I don’t suppose she intends to burn the house down when she uses the stove. She doesn’t intend to leave her glasses in the fridge. She doesn’t intend to file her junk mail and throw away our pay checks. She doesn’t intend to leave half the groceries and her wallet in the cart at the end of her shopping excursions.
Brian and Sue Brayton told me I could use their car to take back those videos we watched before you left. Brian handed me the keys, said, “It’s that blue car there,” and pointed to a light blue car in Visitor Parking.
Brian probably said, “It’s that blue Mazda there,” but in Denise’s world there are only cars and trucks of various sizes and colors. Words like “Ford” and “Mazda” are just synonyms.
Now I admit I should have realized that Brian’s car would not be parked in Visitor Parking. Actually, I did realize that. But he seemed to be pointing to that car so clearly that I thought, “Well, he must have parked here for me so I wouldn’t have to walk all the way out to his regular parking spot.” You know what a nice guy Brian is.
This is a decent excuse. Brian always was a gentleman, and Denise likes to think well of people. But don’t you believe for a second that she even noticed she was in Visitor Parking. I’m sure she made this part up later—after she returned to the scene of her crime and finally took a look around.
The driver’s door was unlocked, so I climbed into a beautiful new car and thought, “I didn’t know Brian and Sue got a new car. I sure wouldn’t leave the doors of this car unlocked if it were mine.”
This is a classic example of Denise inventing the facts for the sake of good drama. Denise never locks a door unless she doesn’t intend to.
When I discovered a key already in the ignition, I thought, “That’s really dumb to leave his key in the ignition of an unlocked car—especially in a new car like this.”
I assure you Denise never thought twice about the keys in the ignition. She was editing her textbook in her head and operating the rest of her life on automatic pilot. Still, this excuse is believable because Denise would never leave her keys in an unlocked car. She would make sure the car was running, most likely with an infant in the back seat, and then she would lock herself out.
I also wondered why Brian had given me a set of keys when there was already a key in the ignition, but I decided he had probably done so unintentionally. Also, there was the possibility that Sue had left her keys in the car and Brian did not know that.
Logical conclusions, both, based on her experience. Denise routinely leaves her keys in the ignition unintentionally, and she does her best not to let me know about it.
Well, I started driving (and enjoying) this car. But by the time I got to Broadway, I remembered that Brian had told me his car was a stick shift. This car was an automatic. I considered that maybe Brian had just meant that I would have to shift into reverse and drive, etc., but after a few blocks I concluded that this explanation had no logical basis.
I guess I should be grateful that Denise is an unconventional thinker. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have talked her into moving to North Dakota. I promised her she would be safe because the arctic winters and summer mosquitoes would always keep the riff-raff out of my home state. Little did I know that she would devise a way to become the North Dakota riff-raff.
Feeling a little uncomfortable, I looked around to see if I could find any kind of identification. There was a notebook by the gear shift, or whatever you call it.
She’s been driving ten years, she’s working on her second degree in English, and she still isn’t sure that a gear shift is called a gear shift.
When I got to the stop light on 7th Avenue, I looked inside the notebook and found an NDSU grade report for some girl by the name of Jacobsen and a receipt for a boy with the same last name.
Here is the moment of truth when that old, familiar knowledge descends upon her: she is in deep doo-doo.
For a moment, I was sure the police were pounding on my window, but then I realized the source of the pounding was my heart trying to leap out of my chest. I turned north and headed back toward University Village but seriously considered continuing on to the Canadian border. When I reached the apartment complex, I somehow found the courage to turn into the parking lot, and I promised God my first-born child if He would just help me get the car back in its original spot and sneak away unnoticed.
It’s too early just yet for her to start laughing and crossing her legs. First she has to make sure that no one is dead or permanently impaired because of her actions.
I guess I’d already offered my quota of first-borns. There, in the doorway of one of the apartments, stood the horrified new owners of ‘my’ car. The wife saw me first. She pointed at me and said something to her husband. I can’t begin to describe the look on his face as he headed toward me—all 300 pounds of him.
I leaped out of the car, gasped, “Please let me explain!” and told the whole story in such fragmented fits that eventually he realized I was more terrified than he was angry. After a moment, he looked as though he might laugh, though he obviously still wanted to knock me down.
You know, I feel for this guy. And for God. And for the men hunting for their carts in the grocery store after she takes off with their ice cream and leaves them with maxi-pads and dog food. Can you imagine what it’s like to live with this kind of drama on a daily basis? But if any man were to knock my wife down, I would have to seriously shorten his life. This is the predicament I inevitably find myself in whenever Denise is around.
Looking back, I see great purpose in the whole affair. I was able to cheer up so many people! Brian and Sue had a good chuckle when I returned to their door, still shaking a little, and asked them to show me just one more time exactly where their car was. (Can you believe those nice people still let me borrow their car?) When I got home, the videos finally returned and the Braytons’ car safely back in its parking spot, I called your sister and told her the story. After she had finished wheezing and gasping for air, she called your mother and made her day. And now I have something to write to you about! You know, Ralph, I think stealing a car beats taking all those pictures on our honeymoon with no film in the camera! What lengths I go to, to entertain you!
That’s my Neesy.
Of course, Ralph isn’t a bit fooled by my bravado. It took him a few years to really get this, but he understands now that I laugh at myself so I won’t cry—and, to his credit, I have to say this understanding has mellowed him considerably over the years. Given the right circumstances, he can be downright charitable.
For example, ten years ago, while moving into our current home in Salem, Utah, I intended to put a special heirloom quilt—a quilt which my grandmother had started and I had finished—into a large, black garbage bag full of fine linens. Somehow, the quilt ended up in an identical bag full of old clothes which I left on my front porch as a donation to be picked up by the Friends of Multiple Sclerosis Patients. When I realized my mistake, I made some phone calls and traced the quilt to the Savers thrift store in Taylorsville, Utah. The employees remembered it vividly and regretted to tell me that it had sold immediately for $39.95. I never saw it again—despite my frantic offers, both in the Salt Lake Tribune and on the Channel 4 evening news, to buy it back.
Initially, Ralph couldn’t resist making a few pithy remarks, but as time passed and the quilt failed to materialize, he exercised increasing self-restraint. Ralph knew better than anyone what the quilt meant to me. Years earlier he had held me up at my grandmother’s funeral, and a few days later he had witnessed my delighted discovery of the unfinished quilt Grandma had started with the ladies in her sewing club. For the next year and a half, Ralph had stumbled around quilt frames in our bedroom while I hand quilted around potted tulips and sewing club member signatures artfully embroidered into the quilt as a permanent record of their forty-year friendship with each other. When the finished quilt finally had hung on the wall of my guest room, Ralph had repeatedly heard me tell visitors how happy I was to have finished the quilt for my dear grandma—who enjoyed visiting with her friends much more than actually sewing. And now that I had recounted my blunder and shown my grandma’s photograph on the evening news, Ralph frequently heard me commiserating on the telephone with sympathetic, tearful callers who had experienced similar tragedies.
Several weeks after my graceless television debut, I lay awake in the middle of the night envisioning my exasperated grandmother telling her dismayed friends in heaven about the granddaughter who had shipped their quilt off to complete strangers and then confessed her stupidity on prime-time television. That night there was no wry commentary from the other side of the bed. Just a protective arm around my trembling shoulders. I understood then that at the day of reckoning I would not have to face God or my grandmother or angry college students or confused grocery store patrons alone. For better or for worse, Ralph would eventually show up to vouch for my good intentions.
I don’t mean to suggest that Ralph and I have resolved all our issues. The car story is, after all, still with us. It lurks just beneath the surface of our daily interaction and reminds us both of the challenges we present to each other. But nowadays our memory of that story sometimes helps us to deal with new drama. Recently, for example, I stood in front of Maceys grocery store, impatiently waiting for Ralph to pick me up at the end of a long, tedious day of errands and appointments. When Ralph’s white truck finally rolled to a stop in front of me, I reached for the door handle but was startled by a quick honk coming from a second white truck which had just then pulled up behind the first. Ralph poked his head out the window of the second vehicle and winked at me. I smiled unenthusiastically at the driver of the first truck and climbed reluctantly into the second, refusing to make eye contact with my husband.
We pulled silently out of the parking lot. Then Ralph said quietly,
I couldn’t let you drive off with that guy. Thirty years later you’d remember that your real husband didn’t have any hair.
It was a moment of pure grace. I bit my lip and tried not to smile, but it was no use. We both chuckled. Then we shook and wheezed and snorted. By the time Ralph pulled into our driveway, he was wiping away tears; I was half-sprinting/half-hopping, cross-legged, into the house; and the next twenty-eight years didn’t look so bad.