Winter 2000, Volume 17.2
Death of a Motorist
Atar Hadari's plays have appeared at the Mark Taper Forum (Los Angeles), Nat Horne Theatre (New York), WOMR "Theatre of the Air" (Boston) and numerous London theaters. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Bomb, Partisan Review, First Things and many others. He contributes a non-fiction column to The Jewish Quarterly and essays to American Drama, Denver Quarterly and the Times Literary Supplement.
Walking along a long and wood lined highway, on the snowy shoulder which allows a hip wide passage through the rush of snow uphill and traffic zooming past and streaming way ahead to disappear into the dark, I see each individual pair of red tail lights that failed to stop for my outstretched thumb fade like matches softly going out. It is past eleven at night and I now have no glow to read my watch by. The cars are fewer and fewer, my own car, dark because I could not find the hazard light on its dark, engine-expired dashboard, is somewhere behind the horizon, now wrapped in fog. And the ring of light which appears before me as a car's headlights approach once more, gets closer and closer, a ring of perfect light floating in the darkness, as if a lens held the end of the road I was traveling down, then the car passes and the ring fades as if it never were. All this because of my romance with the cheap motor car.
When I bought my first car outside Park City, Utah, I knew the girl who'd driven me out there wasn't going to drive me back, so I asked some local friends to get me a mechanic to help look for a vehicle. The mechanic came, his name was Wolf and he was manic depressive. While up, he rode highways doing wheelies and could not be talked to for days; when down you found him in his apartment but he'd wave you away with the whisper, "Not a good day." It took a while but when he did show, all blond and tousled, set for an afternoon of car viewing and staring under hoods, we piled into the overhauled hearse owned by my huge Utah buddies (who were twins) and pulled just out of town to find her on a strip of sand—a sign "For Sale" on her windshield peeked just before the highway led down into Salt Lake and we stopped to look. Wolf sniffed the engine of the Plymouth Volare, looked under the license plate saying `76, inspected leads. He said I'd have to change the battery; I waited two days till I turned twenty five and bought insurance at an affordable rate and with policy slip rustling in my pocket went up to the edge of town again to hand over six Ben Franklins and drive away my very first owned true object of beauty.
I had my doubts though and Wolf, after putting the new battery that he bought me with his mechanic's discount in her belly, asked for a fee—so I gave him half in bills and told him to take the old battery and sell it for the rest. He left it by a pillar in the condo where we stayed in Park City and I believe it's still there, pouring acid through the floor.
The car leaked oil and also brake fluid, so the only way to keep it functioning was to add both say twice a week. The bar supporting the back door broke somewhere in LA, which hurt my back when it would swing down on me and was a pain but she hauled more or less anything, and a desk I stopped to pick up from a street corner in downtown LA, fit, all five feet of it, as if designed to ride on the dark bed of a Plymouth wagon. Six months to the day of my buying it a timing belt broke and two garages I towed it to said, "Scrap." The timing belt broke in rush hour on the central freeway intersection at downtown LA, while I was on my way to a job interview where I hoped to replace the job I hadn't quite lost yet but was encouraged, let us say, to look beyond.
State tow trucks rolled up and towed me off the freeway onto the side. "You got a job?" Crew cut and jowly, fifty and black shirted, the ex-cop tow truck driver with a clip-board wanted to know, but he also looked over my vest and shorts carefully as if irrespective of my job prospects my body might have uses. I signed the forms and to that street corner off the freeway I came two days later by transfers via cross town bus to meet the highest paying scrap auto-dealer in Yellow Pages' truck. "He offered you HOW much?" the portly Mexican, couldn't be thirty, in a grey torn tee shirt on the truck wanted to know. "Did he see the car?" I put my hand out for the bills and walk away muttering, turning at last by the corner to see my pride and joy hooked on the red tow truck's belt to can-dom, a fish slung on a line behind the scrap yard's winch.
One night, outside a friend's garage, it could not have been more than a month after I bought her, when I stood in the shadows of the streetlight over the courtyard where the car was stood, I saw a shadow coming underneath the bright grille of her front and felt terror. Volare front grilles look like teeth, but I saw the car's shadow, cast from the yellow of a street lamp's glow and felt evil. I knew it would betray me, kill me, if it got the chance and as it happened didn't own a car again until three months before this road in New England with the snow running beside it. I left LA three weeks after that white Volare died, cars being always, if nothing else, a means of getting you from one place to another. I went to New York, where you do not need a car. LA towers over you and dwarfs you in streets designed to be traversed by motor-engined beings. I took and failed my driving test in London four times, got to LA and within three weeks took a driving test and passed: I needed, finally, to drive. And when I could not drive there I knew what circumstances had told me: I left.
Walking down a dark highway at just before twelve, I can see lights up on the left—civilization? No, just street lights, over above the highway, across a bridge. The slope rises toward it and I am not happy with traffic whizzing by within a forearm's length. I start, uneasily, to climb the slope. The slope is soft powdered and I sink in past my knee with the first step. My shoes, though sturdy in every way, reach only to my ankle and suck snow flakes like a moviegoer laps popcorn. I reflect that cold, wet feet are better than sports car impacted bones and proceed up the bank. Trees rise between me and the street above. I wear a woolen sweater which catches on branches, but I pull away. My coat is tweed and also caught but I'm patient, I break branches, reach the lip of the bridge concrete and find the light is swimming toward me through a chain link fence. A head and a half taller than me, it has no foothold, no bits of fallen wood to brace on, only spiky tips and a round post in the middle you can't quite get a hold of as the snow riffles and I keep sinking when I try to leverage myself up. There are times when you realize you won't find an easy way of doing this because there simply isn't an easy way there. You keep reviewing the options, looking for the sensible one, and it simply ain't. I threw one arm over the top of the fence trying to catch the spikes under my tweedy armpit, and scrambled bodily up over the other corner of fence, trying to hurl across. Now, a tip for those of you trying this at home: don't wear a woolen jumper, don't wear a tweedy coat and finally, repent! I found myself, successful to a point, hanging on the spikes of fence in my wooly belly, one leg over the spikes and a big metal mail box a mere two feet under my hanging face. To get over I would have to drop my entire weight, still snagged, over the spikes and, if I didn't scratch my face as I already cut my palm on the spikes, land who knows how. I hung upon the fence, seeing the little beads of light on the tarmac of the road and considered options.
Right about then being sped past by sports cars seemed a conservative and highly appealing option. Likewise the tramp down the snowy slope getting more snow in my shoes seemed a joyful stroll. Hell, who knew if there were even people in those houses seven feet from where I hung. Who really wanted to go up to them and say, "Uh, sorry, broke down, not a murderer, can I use my MCI card from your den?"
Getting off a steel fence is surprisingly less easy than getting on, and I picked each loop by loop of my disemboweled sweater from the fence and unpicked my snagged arm from the spokes. Sinking up to my thigh I staggered down the slope in deep and deeper strides and scrambled over the steel barrier onto the highway assbackwards, pawing the snow. I hoped lights passing my butt as I scrambled off the slope would be moved to deep pity and stop but, alas, human disinterest and a preponderance of documentaries about serial killers have done away with the hitch hiker picker-upper in that part of New England. I was miles from an exit and strode down the highway looking at yet another disappearing set of red tail lights.
Somebody stopped. Frankly, when that car pulled up a hundred feet ahead and its tail lights stayed steady on the shoulder before me I had second thoughts about going up. What lunatic stops on an empty road at now gone midnight and picks up a solitary man who, granted, has left an abandoned car behind him but, still, in any reasonable universe must be concealing a big machete or at least some nasty blood under his chewed down nails?
Well, I go up and peer in. A young couple, can't be more than twenty. "Get in," Steve, the specky, freckly blond idealist with a Richie Rich haircut says, and I do. His girlfriend, Marge, redheaded and plump, says as we drive away, in answer to his wonder at why no-one else stopped, "They're sane. You don't know who you picked up." And I say I'd hoped that the deserted car would make me seem legit, and not "just another nutcase roaming the highway." She laughs then and says, remembering manners, "Don't worry about it. You're in a car full of nutcases, so feel right at home."
They drop me at a Dunkin' Donuts five miles down the road, where the single employee chain smokes in the passageway between the store proper and foggy cold outside, still wearing her headphone and wire ("Calling the ovens, Bob. Come in Bob. I need more blueberry. Come in Bob. Over. Blueberry alert.") And I wait for the AAA truck to show, which it does in under an hour as I'm drinking my coffee. I give the guy directions but he's come out of bed or is stupid and we miss it. As soon as we get on at exit three, I realize we're passing the road I walked down while leaving my car and say so. He keeps going. Eventually, around exit two, he asks if I was down this far. I say no. We turn around, crossing left at the tracks dug deep in snow next to the sign that says "No Left Turn". We drive along the empty freeway, this time as far as exit five, then go over again to Route 3 South. We drive slowly, and find, praise God what mystery, the car at about three miles before exit three, where I'd said it was.
When I get in it starts up fine. He says when the trannie gets warmed up it probably kicks out. Earlier, going happily along at fifty, the car gave odd little blips in the gear change and when I eased off on gas and it dropped speed would not recover. Once cooled it starts right up and goes perfectly in drive and reverse, but "If it heated up again," he says, "Kaput. Let's go," and hooks the plates up around the front wheels to haul it like a dead whale, just like the last time.
I sit with him in the front seat and we discuss mileage. He claims the six miles from the Dunkin' Donuts to the car are on my tab. I beg to differ. We debate this. "You want me to drop the car right here? You wanna walk?" This, I find, an unassailable debate position and I let my silence speak to its pungency. I stare at the night air and draft sentences for my call to the triple A. There is no motel by the Dunkin' Donuts. The nearest motel is by this guy's shop, five miles on. I say we can go there if he doesn't bill the five miles. He says, mumbling into the palm holding his face up and eyes barely open, "I can't do that," and rubs his face. I say I can't afford it. He says he'll knock three miles off. I consider calling my destination, another hour or so down the road, and getting friends out of bed to come and help. Wake them up, have them dress, drag a comb across their face, get in the car, drive an hour and some miles to find me, then drive back. It is now two o'clock, best case scenario I am in bed by five, and have a seriously disturbed friend. "Okay, take me to Buzzard's Bay," I say. We tow my pride and joy back to his shop.
He drops me at the all night gas stop, across the way from the motel. "You lost your car?" the night clerk says, pulling his belt buckle closed over his open fly. And the tow driver roars away, still mobile. I take the liberty of lifting the spare license plate inside the car, plus everything, even a pair of boots that rolled around the trunk, out of the back and into the motel with me—if it comes to arguing tomorrow about the tab, I want to have as little to abandon as possible inside the car. If, as he says, the transmission is shot and the car too cheap for trouble, he can keep the clunker and store it exactly where I'd like him to stow his bill.
The night goes on. After long tossing I get to sleep and dream dreams involving negotiations and payments and cost efficiency reports and it all turns out at the end of it to have been a plot dreamed up by one of my up and coming relatives, a cute niece with the disposition of Stalin wrapped up in a marigold print dress. I rise unhappily at ten to clear my room and face reality. Triple A say on the phone there will be no charge since the tow was concluded at his shop. When I get to said shop, ten minutes later, the tow is not mentioned and I wonder if he rose this bright and gorgeous morning revived with a spirit of good will, or looked in his AAA manual, or simply got a nasty phone call while I was on the road with my boots and bag of crap from the back seat to look into his shop where goddamn it my car was abandoned with the window open all night as far as I can see—the scumball!
He took it round the block a few times before I got there, he says, third time it started giving him trouble. Taking lots of gas to get in gear, getting worse and worse. He says I could try and get it the last seventy miles to Provincetown but I'll probably die again on the highway and be back where I started. (Only in daylight, I think to myself, and with a decent tow truck driver, who can navigate according to directions maybe, please God.) Thirty, thirty five bucks worth of scrap, he tells me, wiping his hands. If he finds himself a trannie somewhere that'll fit he might take this shit out and put it in himself, then try to sell the car for three hundred, three fifty. If he can't, he'll go sell it himself for thirty five bucks—"Forty bucks," he says, "best I can do. Don't know," he says, sucking air in his pursed mouth, "what else I can tell you."
While I'm waiting in his shop a tall blond man, Steve, who looks shockingly like a cousin to the mechanic Wolf from Utah, speaks to me in a slow and earnest voice, like a savant from the deep, unreformed South. He asks if I'd be interested in the Escort this guy has for sale. I say, "Sure". We go out back, through a graveyard of deserted cars interweaved through banks of snow and I sink again up to my ankle in powdery whiteness, but hop past and after him. Steve comes to a halt next to a burnt out shell of a Ford station wagon with carbon where its windows used to shine and straw peering out in streaks from its burnt seats. He laughs and laughs as if a great soundtrack were playing in his head and I hear deep silence, and see him doubled over in the middle of the dead corvettes, then turn around and walk back in between the strewn dead parts to the shop where I shake my shoes out, say I'll take the money and walk on out.
Waiting in the Burger King for my friend from Provincetown to drive to get me, (Steve dropped me off in his Lincoln Continental), I consider how we turn from being actor to acted upon the minute a car acts up. While starting the car we are decisive, expressing will, effecting a motion which will change things perceptibly—propelling us from one particular landscape into another, causing change in what we see before us by an ankle push. The walker has no such control—he trudges from one foot to another and eventually the landscape shows a change. The walker also has no world of his own. The biggest change we can experience when we drive is the world—we are our world, we retire from the general world into a world of our own which is moving through that other world. And if we do not like that world we can change how we move through it without being touched, without caring or trial.
When the car fails to start we become acted on and the weather, or our driver brethren, even the car itself, are the actors. The car, in its failure to respond to our off hand command, has denounced us, revealed us for the fraudulent authority we always were. Suddenly you are as naked as you were born, bare to the elements and hoping that someone, anyone, just someone, like this guy here in his red baseball cap that comes strolling in to buy a burger and coffee, he obviously drove up—someone like him, or maybe even one of those machines themselves, might take some pity, might take us back into that world where we do not feel ourselves naked and lonely on this earth as we truly are.
And my friend drove up in his shiny brown two year old Toyota that has never given him a day's worth of trouble in his life, and he smiled at me and said, "You look like you're having a little trouble. Want a ride?" And I took it, but I didn't like it. But do I know if I will ever buy a car again? I don't. And if I do will it be shining, new, reliable, a class object, or like this life we live in—transient, unpredictable and cheap? I can't say. Finally, after burying two love objects, I don't know that I want to add another source of trouble to my hard to start up, difficult to maintain, ultimately faithless heart. And if it comes to a choice between gaining the love of my world for me or a new shell to cover me I know which I'll be seeking the more readily. I know what lasts.
Holiday Isn't About Color, But Freedom
Other than government offices being closed, Martin Luther King Day appears to have gone largely unnoticed by the residents of the Flathead Valley. Granted, the vast majority of the population is not black. But Martin Luther King's message wasn't about being black any more than Ghandi's message was about being Indian or Thoreau's message was about being a New Englander.
Martin Luther King's message was about the basic human right of freedom for all men, regardless of skin color. Keep that in mind the next time you gripe that the post office or City Hall is closed for another "federal holiday." It's a holiday for a reason. A reason, in this case, called your freedom. — Editorial in The Hungry Horse News, Columbia Falls, Montana, Thursday, January 27, 2000