Dad Lost the Car
By Ann Levin
Dad lost the Peugeot. Or so our parents told us. For much of my life I never questioned their somewhat fantastic, somewhat ridiculous story even though both of them had a tendency to embellish the truth. As a child, our mother renamed herself Salisha J. Marchél, with the accent on the second syllable, because it sounded more glamorous than Sally Márchel. When we were kids, our father tricked us into eating liver by calling it reindeer meat. And besides, the story was plausible. Dad was absent-minded, preoccupied, and didn’t much like cars. At best, he considered them a necessary evil. His idea of a fun night was to stay home and read.
When we did venture out in what he insisted on calling “the machine,” he’d stare at the streams of oncoming traffic, shake his head dolefully, and say to our mother with a sigh, “Where are they all going?” She did all the serious driving in the family, except for the five times she was in labor and he had to take her to the hospital. Typically, he sat in the passenger seat beside her, exhorting her to slow down and taking occasional nips from the flask of whiskey he kept in the glove compartment for those terrifying moments when she had to speed up to pass a truck.
The Peugeot 403 was the exception to all of that. It was the first model the French carmaker introduced in the U.S., and for a French import, it sold very well. It had a curvy little behind, big round headlights, a classic oval grill, and a long, sloping hood that ended in a point like a Gallic nose. Dad probably saw one in a magazine and fell hopelessly in love. He was a huge Francophile—he loved the food, the wine, the very sound of the language—and along with our mother, he never missed an episode of Julia Child’s “The French Chef.” The Peugeot must have satisfied some deep yearning he had to experience all of France, from the rocky shores of Brittany to the twisty roads of the Cote d’Azur.
I was just a kid, but I still remember the gear shift on the steering wheel column and the pleasure he took as he downshifted along the back country roads of western Pennsylvania. On the rare occasions when we passed another Peugeot on the highway, my siblings and I would stand up on the back seat and wave through the open roof panel.
Back then, not too many people in our part of the world owned foreign cars. Ma and Dad had friends who drove a Saab, but they lived in Pittsburgh. They knew a couple with a silver Jaguar, but they were New Yorkers. They even had a friend or two who drove a Mercedes, but Dad didn’t buy German products.
He had other rules too. As a small-time Jewish merchant in a working-class Catholic town, he didn’t think it was right to drive anything flashier than his customers. Day in and day out, we got around in rattletrap Plymouths because Dad’s first cousins Labie and Milt owned the Plymouth franchise in town. Which was a good thing because the Peugeot was always breaking down.
Dad found a mechanic in Mount Pleasant who knew how to work on the Peugeot, which saved him the agony of driving forty miles to the dealership in Pittsburgh. But at some point, after the umpteenth repair, he must have given up on it and bequeathed it to his mechanic.
Yet it’s the other story that lingers. I can just see him taking the Peugeot out to run an errand, the car breaking down, him walking home, then forgetting where he left it. If I think about it hard enough, I can even imagine what it might look like today: a rusted-out hulk by the side of the road, its tires stripped and weeds growing up through the back seat.
Ann Levin is a writer and book reviewer whose essays and memoir have appeared or are forthcoming in Sensitive Skin, Southeast Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Potato Soup Journal, Main Street Rag, Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine, Porridge, Hunger Mountain, Cutthroat, Uppagus, Bloom, and the Read650 anthologies. You can read her work at annlevinwriter.com and follow her on Instagram and X @annlevinnyc.