Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The Spider's web

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When Chrysler announced it would be bringing the Fiat back to Canada, a little part of me cringed. There have been hundreds of cars in my life, but only one Fiat.

It was 1984. She was a cheerleader at Kelvin High School and I was the captain of the football team. One day I finally mustered up enough courage to ask her out on a date. "Sure," she said with a shy smile as she leaned against her locker and twirled her curly blond hair. "Pick me up at 7."

As I drove home from school that day in my rusty tan-coloured 1976 Pontiac Lemans sedan, all I could think of was how much I liked that girl, and how much I hated that car.

Despite my magnificent mullet and my shiny new football jacket, I knew this beautiful young lady would be less than impressed with my battered and bruised Pontiac. The muffler was gonzo, the vinyl interior was shot, the AM radio only had one speaker, the tires were bald and the body was covered in so many dents it looked like it had been kicked around like a discarded tin can.

It was better than the bus, just barely.

But as I pulled into our driveway, there it was -- the answer to all my troubles: My big brother Allen's car, a bright red 1972 Fiat Spider convertible.

Back then, we called him Big Al. He was already in university, rode a motorcycle and rocked that Fiat like a rock star. Big Al had no trouble with the ladies. He had the car, he had the clothes.

And he was at work.

I knew he'd be home from his job at Eaton's by 10 p.m. and surmised that, with some careful time management, he'd be none the wiser if I simply "borrowed" his prized Fiat for a few hours. He thought the keys were well hidden, but any self-respecting little brother knows where his big brother hides everything. After digging the Fiat keys out from under his vast collection of argyle socks, I put on one of his Polo shirts, splashed myself in his Polo cologne and went for it.

It was one of those adolescent moments I'll never forget. When Ferris Bueller's Day Off hit the theatres, I honestly thought they'd stolen certain elements of the plot directly from my life.

The roof was up as I wheeled the noisy little Fiat down our street, but as soon as I was out of sight of any nosy neighbours, I pulled over and dropped the top. I slid an Elvis Costello cassette into the Alpine stereo and cranked the volume. I was on top of the world.

When I pulled up in front of her house and knocked on the door, she was even more beautiful than I'd remembered.

"Wow, nice car," she commented as I opened the door of "my" shiny red Italian job for her. "How come you don't drive it to school?"

It was the moment of truth, and of course I lied. "I like to keep it nice, so I just drive that other car most of the time."

Things were off to a great start. Italian food may have been more appropriate, but I'm reasonably certain our meal consisted of a Big Mac and fries. After dinner, we still had more than enough time to go for a little drive and get better acquainted. I vividly recall her blond hair swirling in the wind as she laughed at my lame jokes. I wheeled that little Fiat around like the second coming of Mario Andretti.

"I'm going to marry this girl," I thought to myself. "I wonder what our kids will look like."

That's when the black clouds rolled in. The rain wasn't far behind. And it wasn't that gentle, romantic rain that would have made this story perfect either. It was the kind of rain that smashes down on the Red River Ex every year.

No worries, I thought -- I'll just pull over and put up the top. The car may not have been as cool with the roof up, but the tiny interior made for an intimate setting. Back on the road, the rain continued to fall at a feverish pace. The stereo quit about this time. Elvis wasn't singing anymore, and my date wasn't laughing.

Then the train came off the tracks.

Just a few kilometres from her house, and with only fleeting minutes to beat Big Al home, the windshield wiper on the driver's side flew off like it had been shot. Unable to turn off the switch in time, I watched the metal arm carve a massive half-moon scratch across the windshield. Not that I could really see it, though. The rain was falling so hard I couldn't see anything but the terror in my eyes in the rear-view mirror.

I pulled over, again, and removed the wiper blade from her side and hastily installed it on my side. I removed Big Al's Polo shirt and carefully wrapped it around the metal nub of the passenger-side wiper arm so it wouldn't scratch the windshield again.

"Holy crap, my brother is going to murder me," I yelled as I jumped back in the car shirtless. Oops, did I say that out loud? Now a proven liar, my date wouldn't even look at me.

We were back on the road and I was in a hurry. Maybe it was the velocity of the wind, or maybe it was because I didn't know how to properly engage the latch on the roof. Regardless of the reason, what happened next is forever burned into my memory. The roof flung open and literally shredded like a piece of cheese cloth.

We were in heavy traffic and it took a while to finally pull over. When I did, it was too late. Her beautiful blond hair was now sopping wet and her mascara was running down her face like she'd been crying. Come to think of it, I think she WAS actually crying.

There was no long, good-night kiss. There was no second date. I saw her riding around in a Camaro a few days later with a kid from the band.

As it turned out, I actually managed to beat my brother home, but the damage was done. When he walked in the house later that night I was cowering under the covers in my room, cold from the rain and terrified of the beating that only a big brother can administer.

For reason's known only to Big Al, when he opened the door to my room and I frantically explained the carnage, he was amazingly understanding. "You owe me 200 bucks for the damage to the car and a new shirt," he muttered as he chuckled at my pathetic story.

To pay off my debt, for the next two months I washed piles of dishes at the Bombay Bicycle Club that would have easily reached the moon. Big Al sold that Fiat Spider shortly after I coughed up for the repairs.

Years later, I asked Big Al why he hadn't killed me.

"That car was a piece of crap," he told me with a grin. "The stereo barely worked, the wipers always flew off in the rain and the roof would never stay latched."

willy@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 10, 2012 F7

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