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The monstrous Thing that lurked in our K-car's ashtray

DREW SHANNON/The Globe and Mail

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When I was a kid, my family had a K-car. It was, for the most part, an entirely unremarkable vehicle – white in colour, automatic drive, six-passenger seating, synthetic upholstery.

Lurking in the back seat, however, it had one permanent fixture that set it apart from every other K-Car on every other North American street in the early 1990s – the Yucky Bucky Thing.

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My family has since cycled through minivans and hatchbacks, road trips and learners permit classes, but the Yucky Bucky Thing continues to conjure up an image in my mind so vivid that I often wonder if I'm suffering from some kind of K-car-induced post-traumatic stress disorder.

I have stared for hours at textbook pages, willing the words to sear into memory; tried in vain to recall places and faces that I desperately didn't want to forget; but I couldn't forget the image of the Yucky Bucky Thing even if I wanted to.

In the ashtray on the back seat of the right side of the car was a piece of gum, faded pink in colour. By chewing-gum standards, it was huge. The Yucky Bucky Thing was not merely a discarded Chiclet. Some previous owner, at some earlier time, must have been rigorously working on a golf-ball-sized wad of gum before their jaw began to spasm out of control and they concluded it was time to retire the gob to the ashtray.

Now hardened and dull, the Thing was no doubt once a vibrant coral before the years faded it. The tiny, brown flecks embedded throughout the Thing suggested that the chewer had probably been eating some sort of multigrain cracker, and still had significant remnants in his molars before he commenced shovelling 12 sticks of gum into his mouth.

There must have been a time when it was just a Thing, before it was yucky. Certainly before it was Yucky Bucky. Like many legendary antagonists, the Yucky Bucky Thing had no clear history and no foreseeable future. We did not know who was responsible for its inception or in charge of its removal. It was just there, as essential to the car's persona as the steering wheel and the dangling green maple-leaf air freshener that had probably lost its scent in the mid-1970s.

Never once did we take action to eliminate the Thing. It quite simply continued to exist, and we feared and loathed it like we feared and loathed the room under the stairs, the smell of the dentist's office and the oil separation in natural peanut butter.

When getting into the vehicle, the general idea was to sit as far away from the Yucky Bucky Thing as was physically possible. The driver's seat would be ideal, but I was 6 and that would be illegal. The front passenger seat would be a close second, but K-cars did not have weight-triggered airbags. Thus, family car trips would require the four of us to squeeze into the back – my two older sisters, me, and the Yucky Bucky Thing.

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Even when the ashtray was shut, we knew what it held, what was lurking beneath its thin metal cover. The aura of its presence permeated the air around it.

If you were the last one to the car – if you dragged your feet a little too much, were given the unfair disadvantage of having lace-up shoes instead of Velcro ones, or if you were outsprinted by your siblings as you tore toward the backseat's designated "safe" end – you would have to sit next to It.

If you were brave, you would open the ashtray and look at the Yucky Bucky Thing. If you were unfortunate, the ashtray would be opened for you and your face would be shoved progressively closer to the Yucky Bucky Thing before your tormenters were yelled at from the front seat.

If it was one of those days when you could defy the limitations of fear, you would actually touch the Yucky Bucky Thing and become God for the duration of the car ride.

One year, the car spluttered and died and my parents replaced it with a swanky new forest-green Tempo. They say it takes seven years for gum to digest in your stomach. Who knows how long it takes to biodegrade from the metal ashtray of a 1986 K-car in a scrapyard?

I don't know what became of the Yucky Bucky Thing, but I would like to think that if I encountered it today I would still feel the nauseating thrill of revulsion, that the horror of seeing it would still invoke a sense of disgusted captivation, that the thought of its texture would still make my skin crawl.

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I hope I never learn to tear my eyes from the grotesque wonders that you simply cannot not look at, like the contents of the forgotten Tupperware in the back corner of the fridge, or the frozen puke on the curb outside the town's local dive, or the neighbour's terrier eating its own feces.

If some sort of revolting artifact wedges its way into my daily life, if I ever get a car with some hidden horror in the right-side door of the backseat, I would like to think I could come up with a better name than the Yucky Bucky Thing, but I hope I would never cease to be fascinated by it. I hope I would drive that car with a sense of pride, both eyes on the road, but always vaguely aware of what lurks in the ashtray.

Miranda Batterink lives in Hamilton.

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