BOOTSY AND I, clad only in bathing suits, are lying on a blanket spread out on the trunk of a 1982 Cadillac. The front of the car is crumpled, air bags exploded and compacted like wads of Kleenex. The driver's side appears to have been ripped open with a giant can opener, and a bloodstained windbreaker cut into shreds lies across the dashboard. "Could you hand me a Fig Newton?" I ask lazily, shading my eyes from the rays of the dying sun. We've been grilling our flesh on this post-apocalyptic beach for so long, I have to strain to remember how we got here, but blurry bit by bit, it all comes back.

Packing for the beach is like preparing for a space mission. Magazines, snacks in Ziploc baggies, urination tube--no wonder I only make it once a year. But today, determined to absorb every precious drop of vitamin D from the atmosphere, Bootsy and I are going to Madison, the People's Beach, where naked babies and tattooed bartenders alike frolic in the filthy water.

I have high expectations for our excursion until Bootsy suddenly asks in a tone of stunned wonder, "Did somebody steal your van?" Indeed, the space where it was parked now boasts only a shallow puddle of toxins. Several panicked calls later, a bitter public servant informs me that my 1982 VW Vanagon has been towed away due to 14,000 or so unpaid parking tickets. This is actually a relief and much easier to visualize than a gang of crack-smoking hooligans rocking out to my George Jones tape while chugging along on a 45-mile-an-hour joyride. When he tells me the car now lives in the tow yard at 125th and Aurora, I am momentarily speechless. I didn't even know the street numbers in Seattle went that high, but still clinging to the concept of rest and relaxation, Bootsy and I clamber aboard a bus.

Lurching along like an aged dog with hip dysplasia, the bus takes us past the decaying concrete elephant, past the Cutting Edge Computer Store with boarded-up windows, past the motel with the neon sign of a circus seal flashing, flashing, flashing, until we come to the place where the cars are caged behind a chainlink fence. Still hauling our beach bags, we step into the tiny office, the flip-flop of our sandals echoing against the sterile linoleum.

A note that reads, "No public restrooms. Thanks! Roadone!" is taped at eye level on the smeared bulletproof glass. Trying to smile at the woman behind the counter, I ask, "Hi, are you Roadone?" She looks up over her reading glasses at me as if I were wearing bloodstained pajamas and a wristband from the loony bin. "The company is ROADONE. My name is TERRY."

After signing a stack of pointless paperwork she would spend the rest of her life pushing around, Terry buzzes us out the side door. "You're in Sector C," she says cryptically. Bootsy and I step into the yard where row upon row of automobiles shimmer in the heat. Through dust slippery with oil and glittery with broken glass, we trudge toward what we hope is Sector C. Burnt cars, smashed cars, cars with thick wads of tickets spread out beneath their wipers like useless paper wings--all wait silently for owners who will never come. "A swim sure will feel good, huh?" I ask in a transparent gambit at sustaining morale. Bootsy's feeble response worries me. It's too soon into this disaster to lose hope. But when I finally spot my van, I, too, feel my heart sink.

Parked in on all sides by smashed and mangled vehicles, I can hardly squeeze in to open the door, never mind trying to drive it out of this automotive morgue. Bootsy's visibly going into shock, so I act quickly. I carefully seat her in the passenger side and push play on Donna Fargo's The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A. before jogging back up to the office.

When I tell Terry of our plight, she's as sympathetic as a potted plastic plant. "All of our guys are busy right now, so you'll just have to wait." I am given no choice but to walk back to Sector C and simmer. Barely out the door, I spy a tow truck roaring past the van. Like a shipwreck victim waving futilely at a receding rescue plane, I sprint uselessly after it as it pulls out the exit. Livid, I am already fully prepared to eat Bootsy if we are not saved soon. But when I reach her, my anger dissolves. Her eyes are glassy and her pulse is fluttery. Drastic measures are required if we are to survive. When I brandish a fat Vogue and a spray bottle of sun block, her eyes light up, and when I peel off my clothes to reveal my very best Baywatch bathing suit, she smiles for the first time in hours.

When the next tow truck driver comes by hours later and slams on his brakes, he manages to extract us without a single glance at the sweaty cleavage incongruously on display, though he must have wondered for a moment if his Mountain Dew had been spiked with PCP. After effusive thanks, we actually make it before nightfall to the lake, where the water is warm, the tattooed boys plentiful, and it feels wonderful to be alive. But Bootsy lifts her head off her towel and murmurs, "You know what? I think I liked the other beach better." And for some strange reason, I can only nod my head in agreement before closing my eyes and drifting, like a truck whose gears have slipped softly into neutral, down a steep hill into daydreams.