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A car, the ocean and a moment in time

The Honda was on its last legs the day I stopped to gas up in Bath. It was starting to look as if engine problems would kill the car before the rust finished eating the frame, and I was pretty sad about that. Yeah, it was just a car, but it was an important car to me, a good, cheap ride that had taken me through some very tough times and helped me get back on my feet after a rough patch. I was going to miss the Civic.

I put the gas cap back on and headed in for a quart of milk. As I waited to pay, a man pulled up outside in a red BMW and stopped just inside the entrance to the lot, essentially cutting off access to and from Route 1.

Well, I thought, that’s a little eccentric.

By now he had the cashier’s attention, and we both watched as he got out of the car and walked unsteadily toward us. I couldn’t figure out what we were looking at until he more-or-less crashed through the door.

He was a small man in his late 60s or early 70s, I figured. He was dressed in a very good three-piece wool suit and wore a pair of what looked to be hand-sewn wingtips. His shirt was white and immaculate, his tie pin identified him as a Freemason and there were fancy rings on his shaking hands. His watch probably cost what the Honda cost when it was new. He had undoubtedly been quite the dude at one time.

But he wasn’t much of a dude now. The fancy duds hung loose on his bones, and he was ragged enough in his own person to create the impression that he had just stolen the whole rig, car and all. His hair was matted and greasy, he hadn’t shaved in about two weeks, his eyes were red and rheumy, his parchment skin mottled and blotched. He held himself upright by holding onto the magazine rack.

“Hey,” he said, his voice thin and dry. I don’t think he used it much, or hadn’t lately. “I want…I’m looking to…you know…”

I looked at the cashier, who was slowly shaking her head at the man.

The man coughed a bit and tried again.

“That is, I, I’m trying to…where’s the ocean?”

A fairly elementary question. We both pointed in the general direction of the Gulf of Maine.

“No, I mean…I want to drive there…you know, drive along the ocean, seeing the ocean…”

And suddenly I knew what he was trying to say, but if there’s one thing you will not find in Maine, it’s a stretch of road overlooking the ocean. This is not Big Sur, and he wasn’t going to have that experience here. The cashier tried to tell him, but he cut her short.

“I just want to drive and see the ocean,” he said, red-blue eyes wide and earnest now. “I just want to drive and see the ocean. You know?”

Yep, I knew. And knowing made me shiver. He wasn’t just looking for a beach, he was looking for a moment, for a last transcendent encounter with nature on his terms, for that scene from the movie of his life that would take him out of his sickroom squalor and place him once again in the sunlight, with the smell of the ocean in his nostrils and the wind in his face. May they come, the days that enchant us…

Yeah, I knew where he was going. He was going on his last ride.

“He wasn’t just looking for a beach, he was looking for a moment, for a last transcendent encounter with nature on his terms.”

Maybe he shouldn’t have been there. The way he parked his car suggested that he wasn’t in total possession of his faculties, and his appearance would not recommend him to any cop who saw him. But I wasn’t a cop, and he didn’t smell of booze, and all he wanted were directions to a landscape that Maine doesn’t really offer.

I had thought about this last-ride thing a lot. It was something I had done with dead and dying pets, taking the scenic route on the way to the vet’s, a touch of grace in a difficult moment.

I had a neighbor in Providence, Rhode Island, a wiry little guy named Ted, who was about 80 when I met him, a former attorney and a pretty good conversationalist. He saw me vacuuming my car one day and crossed the street to talk. He said his son didn’t want him to drive anymore, and asked if I could take him to get a few groceries. Sure, I said, and took him to the store.

On the way back, Ted asked if I wouldn’t mind taking him to Fox Point to see the boats on the river. I told him I wouldn’t mind, though in truth it wasn’t exactly on the way. We did that a few times after that, first the groceries and then the ride. Sometimes it would be Fox Point, once Federal Hill, a few times up and down Benefit Street. Ted had a lot to say about the history of the place, about the people he’d known and the stuff he had done there as a kid. He was pretty cheerful on these trips, and talked nonstop most of the way.

And then one day I was pulling out of my driveway and noticed a meals-on-wheels package on Ted’s front porch. I stopped and knocked, but there was no answer. Fearing the worst, I called his son Chick, who drove up from Warwick to find his father dead in the living room.

A sad day to be sure. I was a little shook; Chick just took it in stride. They had been expecting this for more than a year, he said, but Ted insisted on staying in his home, alone.

“My wife and I want to thank you for driving dad around,” he said. “He loved it, and he loved you for doing it.”

Well, I said, your dad needed the groceries, you’re all the way down there in Warwick, and I really didn’t mind driving. Chick shook his head.

“All of the groceries he bought with you are still in bags on the back porch,” said Chick. “He hasn’t really been eating for quite a while now, just some oatmeal and rice now and then. I think he just wanted the ride.”

I thought a little about Ted and Chick, standing there in the gas station with a quart of milk under my arm, wondering where to send this pale, mortal, trembling man. May they come, the days that enchant us…

“The road to Fort Popham,” I said. “About a half hour south of here.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Get on Route 1 north, take the first exit in Bath—High Street, take it south, turns into Route 209. Follow the signs for Popham. Keep going past the state park. The last stretch parallels the beach, and you’ll see the ocean from there. Nice place to park by the fort, can’t miss it.”

I exaggerated a little bit then, guaranteed him ospreys, eagles and seals, pristine beaches, fabulous vistas, nature writ large. He thanked me and left. He peeled out in fine style, merged and disappeared over the hill. I saw him coming back the other way, watched him take that High Street exit and head south.

I got into the Civic, got it started—not a given, unfortunately—and headed back to Brunswick. But I couldn’t shake the thought of that guy following my directions to his last rodeo, and I just had to know how it came out. So I flipped around and headed north, then down 209 toward Fort Popham.

There are a lot of pretty drives out there, but the ride to Popham is one of the prettiest. There isn’t a better view of a salt marsh that I know of, and the egrets own the place. You want nature? We got nature.

But I didn’t see him. I drove slow and kept my eyes peeled, but there were no red BMWs on Route 209 that evening. I drove to the end, parked next to the fort, walked out on the point and watched the sun set. I got cold after a while and headed for the parking lot.

The Civic wouldn’t start. I thought about just leaving it there, at the quiet end of a lovely drive, and thought about how appropriate that would be. But it just wouldn’t do; the fine for littering can be pretty steep here. I checked my phone: two bars. I called for help.

With friends on the way, I grabbed my jacket and got out. I leaned on the car and sort of patted the roof for a while, one old friend to another: Miles to go before we sleep, buddy. Help is on the way.

And besides, it’s all about the ride.

Will Cutlip’s 2005 Ford Focus is audibly rusting outside his studio in Brunswick, Maine.

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