My friend Mary Beth (a.k.a. Turtle) had a car called Kermit, a frog-green Renault Le Car (a.k.a. Le Frog). Somewhere I have a picture of it lashed to the bed of a tow truck on I-84 in Connecticut. Mary Beth, who lived in Ohio—mostly in Cleveland, for a long time in Youngstown, and for a while in Cincinnati and across the river in Covington (Sin City), Kentucky—had come East, and we had driven together to Massachusetts by some screwy route that was my idea. We passed Hotchkiss, the boarding school—it was the first time I ever saw a school that had its own golf course—and ogled the horse country around Litchfield, and then found our way by some tortuous route to Worcester.
Le Frog’s gas gauge was broken, but Mary Beth delighted in believing that she was getting miraculous mileage. I don’t remember when it was that we actually ran out of gas—I expected it, so it was not traumatic. But on the way home the car kept stalling. Once we got it started, it was O.K., but if we stopped or if it stalled, it was hard to start up again. Le Frog finally croaked just outside Hartford and refused to be resuscitated.
This must have been in the early eighties. What did we do back then, in the days of no cell phones? Somebody, or even maybe the cops, stopped and offered us a ride to the nearest mechanic. By that time we were so furious at each other—I at her for her pigheadedness, she at me for my insufferable “I told you so”s—that we split up: Mary Beth went off with the Good Samaritan, and I stayed with Kermit. I realized as soon as she rode off that it was a mistake not to stay together. I tried to pass the time by reading—I can almost remember what book it was—but I couldn’t concentrate. I fumed by the side of the road, full to the brim with bad faith, not knowing what was going to happen next. I had not even been able to enjoy pointing out to Mary Beth my favorite landmark on 84, the tangle of overpasses near the exit for Farmington.
At last, Mary Beth reappeared in the passenger seat of a tow truck. It was a Sunday, so there was no way we were going to find anyone to look at the car before the next morning. I vaguely recall that we rented a car, and had it out on the drive home. She drove back up there the next day, and I went back to work. In the fullness of time, we forgave each other, and even lived to travel together again.
The verdict on Kermit was that once its gas tank was completely dry, debris entered the gas line and the gas filter, and the whole fuel-delivery system got mucked up. When the time came, Mary Beth was not sorry to bid Le Frog adieu. She liked a flashier car, anyway—I seem to recall a little red sports car—and, over the years, she got her share of speeding tickets. Once, en route to New York, she had an encounter with a deer. A fender bender had a way of turning into a bitter law suit, and an accident in Ireland, where they drive on the left, turned into a prolonged transatlantic battle with a car-rental agency. When Mary Beth felt she had the right of way, woe betide the person, car, or rowboat that failed to yield.
Mary Beth Richlovsky died last Wednesday, January 27, 2010, at the age of fifty-seven. The cause of death was cancer. From what I understand, she did not know she had cancer until three days before she died; she was at the end of such a long run of miserable luck that maybe it came as a revelation. Among the many memories that surface from a friendship that lasted more than forty years is this: She taught me how to drive a stick shift. It was 1975, and I had applied for a job driving a milk truck, and needed a crash course. We went out to Parmatown in her car, and she introduced me to the stick, with its "H" pattern: first, second, third, reverse. She explained about the clutch pedal, and about stepping down on the gas and letting up on the clutch. And then she turned the wheel over to me and gritted her teeth as we lurched around the parking lot. There is no better friend than that, no more generous gesture.
The news of Mary Beth's death arrived on the same day as that of J. D. Salinger and of Howard Zinn. I think she'd have liked that, being both a rebel and a history buff. I didn't know either of those other guys (though I liked Salinger), so of course her death overshadowed theirs. I like to picture her speeding past them on the highway to heaven.