Later, I heard the once-commonplace but now increasingly rare sound of a Volkswagen bug. It buzzed up the block and parked in the driveway next to the freshly manicured lawn, where it has remained since. They had tidied up for company, it seems.
The sound of the Volkswagen induced a fit of nostalgia. I was rather surprised at just how many memories it brought back. Until now, I had never realized how many events in my life had involved those strange little cars or their larger cousins, the VW Microbus. I recall now that the first VW in which I ever rode was a Microbus, the day after I graduated from high school. I went back to visit my favorite English teacher and pick up some things of mine he had read. We went to lunch at a local coffee shop, driving through the familiar streets with the windows of his Microbus open to the hot summer day, and the streets were all as strange as though I had never seen them before, or as though I had suddenly found myself in a place I had only seen in dreams.
A couple of years later, I carpooled to Pasadena for a while with a guy who had a noisy VW. He always took the back roads through the plush neighborhoods of San Marino, and I remember speeding along the narrow, winding streets, catching brief glimpses of huge old houses set behind hedges, and sometimes seeing an early morning gardener cough in the cloud of smoke we trailed. I don't think that particular VW lasted very long.
I also remember a trip to the beach in a VW, and how the driver squeezed it into a miniscule parking space on a narrow street, I imagine how it must have looked to passersby when five of us clambered out like a bunch of clowns from a clown car, toting bags and a cooler and two cases of beer and an umbrella which had made the long ride with each end sticking out of an opposite window. It was a perfect day at the beach, and when we returned home late that night, we brushed about a quart of sand out of the car. I don't know how it ever fit in.
A few years after that, one of my friends acquired a Microbus, and for a long time we went everywhere in it. They were ubiquitous by that time, and we often had to spend some time picking it out from among its clones when we had parked it in a large parking lot. There was one night when we went to visit another of the owner's friends, and from his house we went to a coffee shop in his VW, where we chanced to meet some other people I knew, and I ended up going to yet another place with them in their VW. Another night, the Microbus broke down on an industrial street near Lincoln Park in East Los Angeles, and we had to walk more than a mile to find a public telephone from which we called another friend who came to pick us up in yet another VW.
Once, we were almost killed in that microbus. A group of drunks in a huge sedan ran up on the guard rail on a curved section of the San Bernardino Freeway and spun out directly in front of us, skidding across all four lanes and back again until coming to rest sideways across the two center lanes. As they were spinning, we saw beer cans being flung out the windows, and it seemed to me that they were moving in slow motion, the liquid spilling out in great arcs that took forever to fall to the pavement. When we had come to a stop inches from the passenger side door of the stalled car, I glanced out the back window and saw a huge truck skidding to a stop just inches behind us. The drunk got his car started again and faced the right way and began driving, but both the steering and suspension of his car were damaged, and he weaved and wobbled all the way to the next exit. That was the second closest I ever came to getting squashed by a truck, but the other occasion didn't involve a Volkswagen, so I won't discuss it.
I think that the last time I rode in that Microbus (or any Microbus) was when the friend who owned it had moved to Santa Barbara, and I went to stay with him for a few days. It was aging and noisier than ever and nearly falling apart by that time, but it managed to make the trip back to Los Angeles without incident. The streets were beginning to fill with vans made by competitors then, but the Microbus was still such a common sight that I never imagined that it would soon become a rarity.
The last VW in which I ever rode was a standard bug with which I became very familiar for more than a decade. I remember how cold it was on winter nights, and how hot on summer days, and how the noise of it penetrated the thin walls and dampened all but the loudest conversations. But mostly I remember how, after we had spent a night playing marathon games of backgammon or scrabble, I would be driven home and then listen to the sound of the engine diminishing in the distance, and I never gave a thought to time other than to note the lateness of that particular hour on that particular night. It has been years since I've ridden in a Volkswagen, and I only notice how rare they have become on those occasions when I hear that distinctive noise of that air cooled engine. So uncommon have they become that it is likely that someday soon I will hear one for the last time, and I won't even know that I'll never hear another.
It was a bit cooler today, and toward evening the cumulus clouds multiplied into great gray flocks which concealed the sunset and rushed northward trailing complex fractal edges which dissipated into a sky the palest shade of lavender I can imagine. Though it smells like rain, there is none, but most of the stars remain blotted out and the moon makes only a rare appearance. The spirits of the crickets have not been diminished by the cooling, and they fill the night with chirps as enveloping as any rainstorm.