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(C)ars Poetica
D.A. Griffith
illustration by Mario Rossero

We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.
“The Joy of Mechanical Force”, F.T. Marinetti, 1909

My father is not a patient man, his tolerance is thin, almost transparent; you can see the anger pulsing, red, ready to erupt, in his cheeks and ears. I learned to drive stick shift on a lonely two lane country road with no dividing line, just a raw glistening piece of road that had recently been sprayed with oil and then scattered with gravel. This was how Macon County public works dealt with its rutted and pot-holed back roads after a long difficult winter. The car was a ‘89 Nissan 200 SX, maroon, with grey cloth interior—89,000 miles plus when I got in on that day in late April.

I remember the car bucked and stalled, the awful sound of the RPMs racing beyond the red line my father told me to keep my eye on. It is not an exact science he said, you have to listen to the car, hear when it is time to shift. This is probably the most abstract thing my father has ever said to me. He would make an awful teacher—nowhere in him is the urge to create analogies or try to bring two disparate things together. But for him, the automobile is driven by something like a soul—a difficult to capture essence, yet essentially good if nurtured and fed responsibly. He changes his own oil, has fixed transmissions, installed solenoids and siphoned gas from a car, putting his mouth on a length of plastic tube until he could taste the fumes rise in the hose. For him, the sound of a car starting in dead winter is like a newborn’s cry or the breath of freshly mown hay.

I remember a farm truck appearing way off the distance, the Illinois prairie so flat that it was still a half-mile distant. As it floated toward us, its windshield winked in the harsh light, and my father said, “Pull over till they pass.” And we waited there in deep silence, wet half moons forming under our arms until, minutes later, the truck finally rumbled past and the driver looked down from his cab with a curious look, at which point my father said, “Okay, let’s try it again; this time easy on the clutch.” By the time I had become coordinated enough to gently ease off the clutch while giving the car gas the sun was coming down in the sky and my father had broken blood vessels in his eyes.

The automobile's role in my development as a writer is dubious. But consider the fact that we traveled a lot when I was a kid, and I had to learn how to make friends fast. I’d just tell people stories about where I'd just come from: the smell of roasting soybeans, the strange hunched over grotesques living next door, the man growing marijuana in our garden, the deer my father killed with his .22 rifle from our back porch. Or the bat that flew down our chimney and was killed by my father with a wooden tennis racket next to the china closet, the eclipse I saw through a welder's mask, the heart attack victim during Midnight Mass, the manufactured lake where the body of the young girl was found. I did not like to be outdone. I have a boring family: no criminals or military heroes or ventriloquists; just railroad workers and truck drivers and a private first class cousin who got discharged for being gay, which is something for sure, but nothing to grab a thirteen year old kid’s imagination. So if someone was telling stories about their convict uncle or their double amputee sister who became a nun, I would invent relatives out of whole cloth: a grandfather who plumbed the depths of the Atlantic in a bathysphere, an incontinent dog, my distant cousin the French-Canadian counterfeiter, my aunt who makes quilts out of oily rags, my great, great, great, great grandfather who took a bullet at the battle of Bull Run. And much later, upon moving to a new city, telling beautiful and intimidating women that I was an intern at The New Yorker, or that I had a book of poems forthcoming from Harper Collins and that my name was Wally Stevens. Quickly I learned to be anyone but myself.

In college I was self-sufficient. I lived near the campus and walking was, for the most part, safer than driving. It was nothing to walk a mile or so back from the bar. Once we even walked six miles to a bar just across the Michigan boarder because there were no Blue Laws, and it was Superbowl Sunday. When I would drive, the cars were often Volvos, Lexus', and Land Rovers; one time, a white Porsche. Every time I drove one of these cars I would have the thought, I will never own anything this nice.

In the meantime, I grew away from my friends. They had all secured jobs by the beginning of the spring semester, and I was still waiting by the mailbox for word that some graduate school wanted me. I would hide away in the upper floors of the library until it closed and then walk the mile home to my apartment, down an access road, flanked on either side by the football practice field and the tennis pavilion. I remember being so content just walking, even when it was deadly cold, just one foot in front of the other; nothing was going to happen to me. I will be okay; I will write, and I will find love, and it will be pure, and we will grow old on a cape extending into the ocean, and young writers will stop by every so often to sit with me, have a drink and tell me what is going on in the world beyond. Never could I have achieved this perspective if I drove. The trip would have taken three minutes instead of twenty. The stories I told myself would have remained stillborn, interrupted by the Play Station tournament and tequila drinking going on in my apartment. Instead, I would return to the apartment, cold and damp, and sit at the kitchen table and talk with the girls who had drifted there out of neglect. Here were people that could understand. Here were people that would listen. Bless those girls: Theresa and Carrie and Molly and Kerry and Paige and Kelly and Emily. Saints of reassurance.

Perhaps they felt sorry for me. They often said, "David, you walked all that way?" I would shrug, "Yeah, it's not too bad out there.” And then I would launch into some Boy Scout of a story about how I had a paper route for six years, and how the wind blew my cheeks raw, and how I had once found a dead crow, its huge black wings splayed, as though it had frozen in mid-air and dropped to earth, The girls would always knit their brows with genuine sympathy for the crow. I don't know how many times I've told that story—so many that I can't even remember if it's true or not, if I actually saw that crow, or if it was something I'd always hoped to see as I trudged through the snowy dark.

I got fired from the university’s daily student newspaper and began writing fiction. Everything I wrote was about people driving in cars: people driving to places they’d never been, people driving away from the places they hated to the places sure to make them happy, another state of life. For me it was Illinois to California. I spent a month in the car with my best friend in the whole world to see this girl with whom I was fiercely in love. She was blonde and tan. She was a surfer, a deep-sea diver, a volunteer at the zoo, a combination of Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau. I was sure she would become a marine biologist, dive down into shipwrecks and pull up barnacle-crusted steamer trunks, Spanish galleons, and the long lost diaries of sea captains. None of this was true of course, except that she lived in Santa Barbara, and she sometimes mentioned surfing and that she had passed her scuba certification test. But there was no end to things she would accomplish, and I would be her husband waiting for her on the veranda of our jungle homeæa home on stilts to protect from the seasonal flood waters—with a Remington portable typewriter, the kind I once saw James Baldwin posing with, a cigarette dangling from his profound lips. I knew that this was a few years away, and that if I drove out there she would realize that we were meant to be together. So we drove through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, then south to New Mexico, to avoid the mountains, and then over to Arizona and the Grand Canyon and then up through Nevada and Las Vegas and vegetarian quesadillas and cheap beer in a Casino far down the strip, where we could afford to eat, and then to Los Angeles and Hollywood and Venice Beach with its bums and its muscles and my friend’s tiny apartment overlooking the ocean where he lived with his girlfriend, now his wife, and the walk along the quiet streets of dark water, and the elaborate gardens and the small boats waiting to carry us out to the sea. And then, finally, up highway 1 to Santa Barbara. By that time the car was a chariot, a chopper playing Ride of Valkyries. We flew past the beaches and the unbelievably clear sky and the preternatural mountains rising in the east, which ensures that the city seldom sees rain. My sense was that this was a paradise. It could be nothing less than one. But when we arrived, she was distant and cold and working as a schoolteacher and not happy at all. She met us at a restaurant on the wharf dressed in a blouse and a long skirt, covering her wonderful legs. She had cut here hair and she said things like, “That’s really good to hear. I’m so glad. I wish we had more time to hangout, but I’m jut so busy with school and…” I was a stranger to her. It began to rain. All around me people stopped and looked to the sky with disgust. She said to me, astonished, “This is so strange.” The whole trip was a waste. The drive, which became increasingly more legendary, its love story sweeter and more aching as the miles passed had now become James Joyce’s “Araby”. I had arrived too late for the fair.

That car still runs. It was my friend’s car, and he sold it some time ago. I now think seriously about who bought it and what purpose they have for it. By now the engine must sound like the proverbial hamster wheel, and the tape deck eats tapes, and the tires are bald, and the muffler full of pinholes.

As a child, when we would travel, I wrapped myself in a blanket and slept on the floorboard of the car. I would form a kind of cocoon with headphones. I would close my eyes and listen to the whine of the road passing beneath us and feel as though I were floating through the night out there in the dark woods—down in the valleys and hamlets and hollers and ditches and ravines, especially the ditches and ravines, the places where animals hide, and bodies are dumped, and cars careen into. Those low places, outside the car, choked with weeds, deep in the pines. These are the places I think of when I drive. These are the places that seduce me, the place where I could easily end up if I’m not careful, or it didn’t matter anymore. All it takes is a little jerk of the wheel. Close your eyes and let go. Just drift off into the world. My good friend Czury, a poet, tells me that in the next life, he wants to come back as a deaf mute. He says, “I would love to never speak or hear, just listen to the language in my head.”

I think I’d like to come back as a car, to be continually surprised each time I arrive at some place new. Is that too much to ask, to be surprised again and again and again?

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