Phil Gulley: In A Pickle

Whenever I get depressed, I think about the things that make me happy, like buying a new car. I rarely end up buying one, which makes me happy that I’ve saved all that money, and then I’m no longer depressed. I’m hoping I don’t get depressed anytime soon, because this time I might actually succumb to temptation and buy a new vehicle, since my current ride, a 2013 Ford Flex, has more than 170,000 miles on it. When I glance at the odometer, I hear my Grandpa Hank’s voice warning me to sell my cars when they cross the 75,000-mile mark. I’m 95,000 miles past his benchmark, and I keep expecting the engine to seize, the axles to break, or the transmission to grind down to metal shavings. Instead, it keeps whirring along faithfully, with never a drop in performance, the automotive equivalent of Nolan Ryan.

Whenever I talk with old men about cars, they invariably describe a favorite car or truck they once owned, then sigh wistfully and say, “Sure wish I hadn’t sold it.” That’s how I feel about my Ford Flex. I like it so much I might even keep it if it ever stops running, and set it on cinder blocks behind our garage.

In addition to being my most dependable car ever, it is also the ugliest, owing to its mucus-green color and boxy shape. It looks like something a 4-year-old would sketch if you asked him to draw a car. The thing sat on the lot at Pence Automotive in Danville for months. I drove past it each day thinking to myself how unattractive it was, even mentioning it to my wife.

“That’s the ugliest car I’ve ever seen,” I told her.

“I agree,” she said. “Why would anyone buy it?”

This went on for quite some time before it occurred to me that Joe Pence was probably desperate to sell it and would accept any offer, which is how I came to own it. He didn’t even dicker. I walked into his office one afternoon, checkbook in hand, and offered him considerably less than his asking price. He leapt to his feet, grabbed my hand to shake on the deal, and didn’t let go until I’d signed the papers making it mine. Only then did he say, “That’s the ugliest car I’ve ever sold.”

“It is hideous,” I agreed. “It looks like a giant pickle.”

And so it became the Pickle.

The first Sunday we drove it to our Quaker meeting, my friend Becky pulled me aside and said, “Did you see that ugly green car outside? Who owns that?”

“Joan and I do,” I said. “We bought it this week.”

“Oh,” Becky said, clearly embarrassed. “It’s really pretty.”

“Too late, Becky,” I said. “You’ve already said it’s ugly. But it has all-wheel drive and seats seven.”

Owning an ugly car is like having an ugly kid. You know people talk about it behind your back, so the only thing you can do is acknowledge the obvious, then point out its less evident virtues.

Everyone who sees me in the Pickle knows I’m a Quaker, because it sports a vanity license plate that reads “QUAKER,” which I ordered after a man in my congregation told me I wasn’t a very good one. I went to the BMV, ordered the plate, bolted it on, and told the man I was the only Quaker officially recognized by the state of Indiana. The disadvantage of wearing your religion on your license plate is having to treat your fellow motorists with unfailing kindness, lest you tarnish the entire religion.

Owning an ugly car is like having an ugly kid. You know people talk about it behind your back, so the only thing you can do is acknowledge the obvious.

We also own a 2015 Subaru Forester (my wife’s car, purchased used from the aforementioned Becky) and a 1999 Toyota Corolla (our emergency car, because you never know). Both of them get better gas mileage than the Pickle, but they sit in the driveway and we drive the Pickle everywhere, because it feels like something Queen Elizabeth might ride in to view her subjects—roomy and powerful.

I’m not the only one who favors the Pickle. My sister and her family of six borrow it so they can ride together when they visit her husband’s relatives. She says she doesn’t mind the car’s appearance, though I notice she dresses like Jackie Onassis whenever she’s in it, sporting big sunglasses and a headscarf. They whiz south on I-65, crossing the bridge at Louisville where a camera reads our “QUAKER” license plate. A few weeks later, the $8 toll for crossing the bridge lands in our mailbox, along with a picture of the Pickle and its occupants. My sister is covering her face, but my nephew Clayton is at the steering wheel, grinning. The Pickle is the most powerful car he has ever driven, and he invariably picks up a speeding ticket or two each trip. A nameless bureaucrat has usually written across the bottom of the bill, “This is the ugliest car I’ve ever seen.”

If my parents had owned a Flex during my teenage years and made me drive it, I probably would have stuck with walking. But I’m pushing 60 now, and driving a sexy car is not high on my list of priorities. Once a man goes bald and wears Dickies from the Co-op, being seen in a Ford Flex is the least of his worries.

It doesn’t speak well of the American car-buying public that while the Flex was rated highest in reliability by Consumer Reports for the 10 years it was manufactured, sales never achieved what Ford had hoped. Even in Danville, whose citizens abound with common sense, there are, to the best of my knowledge, only four Flex owners, one of whom is Jerry Vornholt, who bought his Flex the year before I purchased mine. He promptly appointed himself president of the Danville Ford Flex Owners Club. He threw me a bone and named me the vice president, but he does nothing to further the brand, sticks me with all the work, and has recently been seen eyeing a Toyota. Impeachment is on the horizon.

It’s somewhat ironic that the best car I’ve ever owned was preceded by the worst car I’ve ever owned, both of them Fords. My 2007 Ford Freestyle was such a lousy car that I phoned Ford, demanding they buy it back, which they didn’t. I traded it in at Pence Automotive for the Flex, something that haunts me still. A man once confessed to me that he’d had sex with a woman without telling her he had gonorrhea. “I’ve felt bad about it ever since,” he told me. “I shouldn’t have done it.” I felt the exact same way about palming off my Freestyle on an innocent soul. If the Bible is true, and God is a lover of justice, I’ll pay for that one day.

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. Back Home Again chronicles his views on life in Indiana.