Susan C. Ingram
Alexa Alexandra rose early in the dark of that autumn morning. After pouring a mug of black thick coffee from the dented copper samovar she had managed to procure for a small sum at the Sunday flea market, she donned her threadbare but well-cared-for No. 6 Mark Martin crew jacket and made her way bleary-eyed to the rusty but perfectly serviceable Ford Escort slumped in the parking lot of her graying tenement.
Alexa Alexandra drove alone the very nearly two hours from her very modest home in B — to the startlingly down-on-its-heels town of D — . Startling because one could only suppose that the grand race track with its equally, if not more so, grand casino, restaurants and hotels, would have in some small way at some time had a notably improved effect on the overall mercantile endeavors of the shabby little town. Alas, only the race track and casino seemed to be prospering.
As the sun rose into a perfectly clear-blue autumn morning sky, Alexa Alexandra pulled into the gigantic parking area and maneuvered into a grassy spot among the sea of shiny, mostly late-model, richly appointed vehicles.
She noted just how poorly her transport shaped up against the lot of sporty, low-slung cars and muscular pick-up trucks. She wished her tedious work at the doughnut shop would afford her the pleasure of even contemplating the purchase of a new vehicle or even a new paint scheme. Nevertheless, she took some small pride that she had earned every cent it had taken to purchase her homely, if reliable, little coach. And she took great care to keep it tidy and clean, as she did with the rest of her small, unremarkable life.
True, her life was so small that she had come to the races not to watch. She could never afford the $50 ticket to pass through the gates. No, Alexa Alexandra drove the nearly two hours to the shabby little town of D — just to hear the giant engines roar, smell the tang of the racing fuel, and mill among the thousands of fans outside the track where she could at least for a day feel a part of something exciting, something monumental, something bigger than her solitary existence.
Strolling through the sparse early morning crowd outside the towering metal super-structure that corralled the mile-long stock car track, known to race fans as “The Monster Mile,” Alexa Alexandra began calculating how long it would take to save up for the down payment on a new car if she hoarded her measly tips, stopped treating herself to a movie once a week, and switched her cat Ivana from fancy canned cat food to bargain-store dried kibbles.
Just the thought of the many sacrifices she would have to make on top of the many sacrifices she already endured made her head hurt, so she paused at a small stall with a placard advertising Deep Fried Oreos and treated herself to a coffee and a paper basket of the batter-dipped, chocolate-cookie confections.
“Yum,” she said, strolling down the long lines of tractor trailers hawking every conceivable turn of driver and racing souvenir imaginable. “Deep-fried Oreos every morning for breakfast and a new car. Now that would be a life worth living.”
Alexa Alexandra popped the last still-warm Oreo pastry between her chocolate-rimmed lips, the crowd parted at the end of the line of tractor trailers, and there, shining in that crystal-blue morning light, was a fiery-orange 2012 Dodge Challenger.
A sudden fever struck her. It started in her eyes and she felt the burning heat ignite her head, then her heart, which was by now beating wildly under her shiny blue No. 6 jacket. Then it inflamed her whole being. The vision of the Hemi-orange pearlescent paint slashed with bold, black racing stripes made her light-headed. Alexa Alexandra could not now imagine her life without the car. She would die, she thought, if she had to drive her embarrassing Escort all the way back to B — and endure the snickers of her fellow workers all of whom managed mysteriously, on their barely more than minimum wage salaries, to afford stylish transportation like Mustangs, Jettas, and Cherokees.
Like a spirit, the stricken Alexa Alexandra floated through the crowd toward the vision crouching like a tiger waiting to spring away from the black velvet ropes that tethered it. Arriving next to the display, she, somehow through her fog, came to understand that the young collegiates smiling in a nearby booth were helping the crowd fill out chances to win the car in a drawing that same day, after the race.
And so, hour after hour, through the whole of that perfect autumn day, Alexa Alexandra, dizzy with longing, filled out slip after slip, one hundred, one thousand, five thousand. Her pens ran out of ink. Her fingers cramped. People who couldn’t spend all day filling out chances became hostile. Some berated her. One woman in a Kyle Petty T-shirt and matching sweat pants even spit on her. But the young collegiates, who had called their superiors after Alexa Alexandra had stuffed her hundredth entry into the Plexi-glass box, assured the restless crowd that nothing in the rules stated Alexa Alexandra could not do exactly what she was doing.
Eight hours later, as the echo of cheering race fans roared up and out of the track and onto the surrounding grounds where Alexa Alexandra had spent her day in furious determination to win the car of her dreams, the young collegiates rang a bell and not one more chance was allowed.
And in an unannounced surprise, none other than NASCAR driver Kyle Petty (who drives the Wells Fargo Dodge for Petty Enterprises race team) appeared out of the blinding sunset in his fireproof Nomex racing suit and helmet and stepped forward to select the winning ticket.
At that moment, Alexa Alexandra felt her knees buckle and she sat down on the hot asphalt next to the Challenger, holding tight to one of the velvet ropes for support.
Without a sound Kyle Petty reached his gloved hand into the tightly stuffed box and stirred the chances like so much whipped cream. Then, lifting his hand out with one tiny slip clamped between thumb and forefinger, he held it out to one of the smiling collegiates and Alexa Alexandra stood up on shaky legs to hear her name called.
“And the winner is… Pinkie Pinkarov!”
The crowd roared and a woman wearing a Kyle Petty T-shirt and matching sweat pants glowered at Alexa Alexandra and, shrieking with delight, stepped past her to claim the glittering Challenger.
Incidentally, this perfectly true story is not yet at an end, for Alexa Alexandra, sick with fever from her day-long frenzy, swooned and passed out at that moment, her head coming to rest gently on the car’s wide rear tire. When she awoke, the racetrack doctors were bent over her, pressing an ice pack to her pounding head and asking her who the president was.
“Hillary Clinton?” she slurred, and the doctors laughed and said she needed to stay still for a while longer because she had lost her senses in the heat.
An hour later, full of orange juice, saltines and headache powders, the doctors released her, and Alexa Alexandra made the long lonely trek back to her Escort, now looking quite alone on the dark, grassy field. Like an automaton, she climbed in, turned the key and pulled away for the very nearly two-hour trip home.
But who could imagine this was not all for Alexa Alexandra?
For as she drove across the vertiginous west-bound span of the Chesapeake Bay suspension bridge, something came over her. Caught in the reflection from the neon red lane markers she imagined for a moment she was at the wheel of her own Hemi-orange pearlescent Dodge Challenger and, feeling the tiger’s power beneath her, she stepped down hard on the accelerator and waited for the roar of the perfectly tuned 425-horse-power engine.
The humble Escort responded in its own fitful way and Alexa Alexandra, the tidy unextraordinary doughnut shop employee who lived a singular modest existence with few dreams and many sacrifices, rocketed along the empty bridge and for a few dizzying and exhilarating seconds she felt the weight of her life evaporate amid the churning salty air whipping through the open windows and ruffling her hair. And for once, she felt light, giddy, and free.
SUSAN C. INGRAM, Baltimore native turned Hollywood camera assistant turned suburban newspaper editor turned starving adjunct writing instructor, lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her cats
Myrtle (RIP), Catwoman and Scamp.