Boyd White’s car has been stolen. My friend and a fellow writer, Boyd drives an ‘85 Monte Carlo that he works on when he has the time and the money. Like me, he is both a little poor and a little cheap. His car, like mine, was stolen from the apartment complex where he lives. He calls me for information mostly, though I suspect some sympathy, as well. It’s been nine hours since the theft, and the police haven’t returned his calls. I can see it clearly. I listen to the details of his story, then tell him mine. Our stories are somewhat different, but mostly they are the same. We share experiences, validate emotions. Perhaps this is what the talk-show hosts truly mean when they speak of male bonding.
The Car. Blue Thunder, I call it, because it is blue and sounds like the helicopter from that movie every time it turns over. It is an ‘84 Pontiac. 152,029 miles. The radio has been broken beyond repair for years, and there are Stick-Ups in the trunk to drive away the smell of invisible things dead and dying. The interior door handles are gone. Two prominent dents run the perimeter of the front tire wells, and the side mirrors do not match. The exhaust pipe belches smoke like a dragon when it accelerates. My fiancee is Chinese, almost a banker. “Who would want to steal your car?” she asks.
Violation is too strong a word, a word to describe rape or murder. Yet no other word will suffice. Fear, anxiety, depression, anger. In different measure perhaps, but they are all still present. Only regret seems out of place, as if there were some foolproof method by which it could have been prevented: if only I’d taken the time, spent the money, protected myself when I had the chance. Instead clean up is the single self-affirmation, picking up the pieces, as they say. Aftershocks are common, complete restoration impossible. Involuntarily you will peek around corners, leave extra lights burning, learn to sleep with the TV on, buy a dog, or worse. When something is taken, it cannot be replaced. It cannot be given back except, of course, in pieces.
When the police found my car, they had it towed. They don’t know the phone number of the wrecker service and are barely sure of the name. With detective resolve, I track down the salvage yard, then call for instructions. In a curt, incontestable manner, the woman tells me I must get my car today. “Forty dollars,” she chimes, “cash only.” These are the first and last words she says to me, an all-purpose greeting and farewell, like ciao or aloha.
Keep in mind, this is a story of sorts. I am attempting to tell it as best I can, and to that end I have included characters: Boyd, the woman on the phone, my fiancee. One might even, this early in the story, call the car itself a character. Not that it has a personality. It is not a magic car. It does not speak, and when it sees an attractive lady car, does not pop a wheelie or make U-turns in places where such turns are inadvisable. Nonetheless, the car features centrally, so doubtless it represents something. Or if it does not yet, then it will. You understand, I am trying to tell this story as simply as I can, but complications are unavoidable.
My home. An apartment complex 20 miles north of the city full of people on “fixed budgets” (a phrase often repeated in the apartment brochure). I live with my dog in the shadow of one of the South’s great historical monuments, a gridiron-sized sculpture of Confederate heroes, dynamited from the side of a granite mountain. I am a graduate student at a prominent Georgia university and receive a small stipend each year in return for which, essentially, I agree to read a large number of books. I also teach a course entitled Introduction to Literature in which there are 17 students: Peaches, Frank, Troy, Ajay, Chandra, Phoebe, Sacha, Mike, John, Nadya, Shelly, Stephanie, Cathy, Rikki, Cliff, Lisa and Jason. Their names are in no special order, though this is usually the way, moving clockwise, that they organize themselves around the table in class. We meet for one hour on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On Fridays I keep office hours, as well. In order to get to school, I must drive.
My neighbor Richard likes to sit on his motorcycle and watch the front of the apartment. We are not close but on speaking terms— we grunt hellos or wave if we’re too far apart for words. Today he is polishing his bike with a hand towel and watching the group of Mexicans painting the building. The painters don’t speak English, or as Richard says, “They pretend they don’t.” My mind hurries to make a connection, synapses sparking. If I were telling another kind of story—a fictional story, I mean—I would make Richard’s remark into more than it is. I would have him watch the painters scrupulously and say things like, “Well, someone has to watch them.” There would be an incident, a bucket of paint falling, white drops splashed near the bright chrome of Richard’s bike. He would shake a fist, and perhaps the Mexican painters would curse him in turn, affirming a mutual animosity. Richard would become a symbol, most likely of racism. At any rate Richard the idea would transcend Richard the man. This is the story I could be telling. In reality, however, it is nothing like that. The painters speak no English, and Richard speaks no Spanish. Dialogue of any sort is improbable. Richard merely sits on his bike, polishing and watching. I tell him about my car. “That’s too bad,” he remarks sympathetically, “but what did you expect?”
The problem with telling a story is that other stories invariably get in the way. As I write, I think of things unrelated, except by the most tenuous links, to the heart of what you must understand here. I think of the neighbor’s dog that shredded my right calf with its teeth and the neighbor explaining to the apartment manager how I’d provoked the attack. I think of the small boy across the street who knows not to talk to strangers, runs from other children in the complex, and wishes someday to be as big as I am because he is convinced it will keep him safe. Or maybe I think of the man in my building who explained to me how Georgia blacks are more snobbish than Mississippi blacks. Or the man two buildings down who threatened me with a tire iron. Or the professor who threatened me with a low grade. The two girls raped in the early morning hours a few miles down the road. The essay on Faulkner I can’t seem to finish. The teen-age boy whom 11 other law-abiding citizens and I sent to prison. The 17 students who, thankfully, cannot see the visions of spirits that tumble through my head. My love for a woman hundreds of miles away in a city most authorities consider dangerous. My love for novels a hundred years old which, in their time, also were considered dangerous. I could tell other stories, an infinity of them, streaks of colored light cutting across the gray slate of my mind. But I do not. Instead I sit in a small room under a single, liquid bulb, trying to write a story about something that has been taken from me. Other episodes, like flies, refuse to stay out of the way. Nonetheless, I know what I’m writing about. I’m after the truth. These other episodes aren’t the story I’m telling. They don’t mean anything at all.
This is the story. A black teen-ager waiting at the bus stop asks me the time. One word leads to another and another. He is saving money for college, to be a businessman. I tell him where I went to school, and he says something about the basketball team there. We talk about my car. The overhang of a fast-food restaurant provides shade. A siren crescendoes, then fades behind us. We bad-mouth the Republicans, followed by the Democrats, then debate the possibility of the city’s pro football team getting a new quarterback. When the bus comes, we board together and sit within earshot. I say something, which the teen-ager doesn’t hear, about the team’s strong safety. I repeat myself. Without saying a word, without looking, he gets up and moves toward the back. I think about it, then slide several seats closer to the driver, the only other white man on the bus.
The black teen-ager on the bus is another symbol of racism, both its victim and its perpetrator. The story is becoming more complex. Some readers will object because things are no longer obvious. The black man is not always the victim, the white man not always the oppressor (though such notions exist for a reason and have their place). This story is concerned with neither South Central Los Angeles nor Beverly Hills. This is a story about a bus and two people having a conversation which ends too abruptly to be dismissed by the announcement of racism on either side. Racism is an easy dichotomy, an unexcused belch, a refuge for the blind and the afraid. But clearly we are smarter than that. This story is not about racism.
I have taken the wrong bus. The driver tells me so when we reach the end of the line, a curbside on a one-way road between two walls of thickly leafed trees. “Are you lost?” he asks, though I hastily tell him I am not. The driver, whose name is Al, is drinking coffee, which he pours from a battered silver thermos. We stand outside the bus in the grass, and he shows me where he accidentally broke the side of his plastic cup, making it so he can drink only three swallows’ worth at a time. I tell him about my car, overlooking no detail. I describe the police, my apartment, the inadequate lighting, how I have to pay $40 to ransom my stolen vehicle from the people purported to be the good guys. “Damn,” says Al, referring to where I live, “I know right where you are.” He tells me stories in return, about his son robbed at a highway rest area, or about a friend who had his car stolen from a church parking lot and also had to pay to get it back. “Something’s wrong there,” Al says. “The way the police carry on, you’d think it was your fault that it happened.” Driving again, he considers alternate routes I might have taken to reach the wreckage yard, each one quicker than the last. Al reminisces: “We used to steal cars for joy rides in high school, but that was all in fun. America was a different country then.”
“So what is this thing, an American?” I ask my class, then continue speaking when they offer no response. Politics aside, I say, an American is an absence, a void, linguistic anti-matter. An American is a partly remembered idea. To render in language what being American is, is impossible. Words fit only partially and, when combined, seem to counteract as much as accentuate one another. We add qualifiers—black, white, Native, Asian, Hispanic, straight, gay, Christian, Jewish—in order to define the boundaries, never quite striking the word itself. Where these qualifiers meet, where they intersect, that is American. And where they fail to meet, that is American too. American is located in the gap between the words, the hole in the middle of the doughnut, shaping and being shaped by the many identities around it. American is a noun honorarily. It cannot be wholly defined or, in its essence, seen or touched, yet we agree that it exists. We recognize possibility over actuality, infinite over finite, assert the primacy of thought. The nothingness between you and me, that is our common identity, that is American. “But what’s the point?” asks Chandra, my 34-year-old student from the continuing education program. She is black, lived through the ‘60s, has a white husband, and believes history books should tell all people’s stories in the way people want them told. The point, I continue, is that we agree on the philosophical concept. We start on common ground. The word American is like a mathematical limit. Through dialogue, over time, we come closer to it, even though absolute definition is impossible. We work to fill the gaps and, as such, become more American each day. “I understand all that,” Chandra assures me emphatically, “but what’s the point?”
Hardship heightens the senses. In the subway station, I notice posters advertising car-protection devices and wonder if they’ve been put there for my benefit. I am taking the train into the heart of the city, and from there I will take it out in another direction. In symbolic terms this part of the journey could mean several things: descent and escape, trial and victory, intimacy and rejection, my subconscious. If I were merely telling a story, I would describe the other passengers, the old men who must bellow at one another to converse, the conventioneers with name tags declaring that they are from somewhere else, the girl with dark glasses and a backpack that suggests she is a scholar, of sorts. I would talk about my own feelings of anxiety, the way I alternate between my belief that no one is watching me, then everyone is. I would make the city a metaphor for the estrangement I have suggested all along. Meanwhile the train keeps moving between tunnels and surface, like a worm. Outside the car, the landscape is blurred, incomplete, impressionistic, truncated, sudden and (we fear) real. Inside, we are all only travelers: in transit, between two points, passing through. The subway is quintessentially American.
The Road to the Salvage Yard. Somehow even the horizon looks more distant. Brush fires in the west exhale smoke toward the sky. Earth is discovered in a stone quarry. Men and machines, too far away for detail, scuttle along a rail line. As I walk, I find an ax-handle in the roadside dust, split at the top where the head used to be. I pick it up and feel it contour to the creases of my hand. In another story, I imagine the thief who took my car. I see a young black man and am disgusted at myself for making such an assumption. Then I imagine a white man and am ashamed for thinking poor, uneducated, also. In desperation, I conjure an image of the old woman who said I should be locked up for driving such a nasty car. Her puckered face before me, I swing the ax-handle in great arcs, pummeling the air. My car is not a good car, I insist, but it is mine …. In the story I tell, however, I am afraid to touch the ax-handle at all. An undisputed maxim echoes from my childhood: It is things unseen which harm. I walk on, leaving the ax-handle in the dust.
Revenge. Revenge most sweetly speaks the word of my desire. This is the word the story must learn to combat.
A girl sits behind a pane of glass—behind the girl, a building, behind the building, my car. These are the facts. In both stories, the girl takes my money, after which things become confused. White-knuckled, my hand tenses around the ax-handle, which I am holding below the counter and out of sight. There is suggestive conversation, an exchange. The girl tells me that insurance will cover the damages, but I have no insurance. She says I should buy an alarm, but I tell her that I have no money for an alarm—that I had no money with which to pay her, though I did, anyway. I hoist the ax-handle to where she can see it. The thing is, I say, my car was stolen, and I had to pay to get it back. Does that seem right to you? Do you have any idea how long it took me to get here? The time has come in the story for resolutions, to tie up loose ends, if not to receive enlightenment. The girl says she is sorry about my car, and with her words, an infectious boil inside me is lanced, cleansed. I reach out to touch her in a gesture of…what? Redemption? Transference? Acceptance? Love? Ultimately the damn glass gets in the way. My questions remain unanswered. This ending is in keeping with the rest of the story. The other ending—the truth, we might call it—can hardly compete. I show the girl my license for identification. She has trouble reading the photocopied documents I have brought to prove ownership. As a teacher, I help her understand. The attendant who shows me to my car must also show me how to start it with a screwdriver because the steering column has been torn away. Nuggets of spider-webbed glass coat the back seat. The broken radio has been smashed and the glove-compartment door torn off its hinge. “Damn American cars,” the attendant says. “Somebody should make ‘em harder to steal.” He has been eating lunch, and several flecks of jettisoned hamburger paste themselves to the dashboard. Even in the salvage lot, many cars look nicer than mine.
This story has several problems. To begin with, it is not really a story but an essay, a distinction that makes a world of difference. Stories are fiction; essays, reality. Though we have done our rightful best to challenge them, traditional notions linger like a humid summer heat after the rain. Sacha, who is writing her paper on John Barth, would say such distinctions are meaningless. If post-modernism has taught us anything, it is that all language is self-referential, implicitly concerned with its own processes as much as representing the world as is or discovering truth. Language confuses the issue. The story I am telling is not the one you are hearing, nor can it ever be. As the teacher, however, I am not sure Barth would concur. There is real power here, flexing these metaphors that curl through my brain. The essence of the story: Though we cannot call it by name, we all know it when we see it coming. The story may be a void, a cipher, but it is an absence on which our sense of reality is based. Dejected Sacha, I do not hold this belief as a desperate defense against the postmodern. I hold it because I know the power of words, however improbable—I feel it in every story I bleed onto the page. As a teacher, I tell you something is there; find it. Otherwise you will open Pandora’s box and discover not even vices lurking at its depths. You will attempt to raise Lazarus, only to learn that you yourself are already dead. Like a black hole, the story consumes the universe that conceives it. Not even light escapes. Yet in the middle of that turning space, there is a core so dense, so small, that it fits whole star systems on the head of a pin. At the heart of nothing, everything. To regard that center without being flattened or engulfed in the process: Such is the magic of the story.
279412AT. It is the case number that the officer gives me over the phone. I am not sure what it represents but do not ask. Outside the world is clothed in evening. The windows are open, though the Venetian blinds remain closed. Graying light pokes at the chinks in the metal, and the scent of honeysuckle squats heavily on the air. The officer, before he hangs up, tells me the police will probably never find the person who took my car. Fact: The time is late summer, soon the descent into fall. Two of the Mexican painters are collecting plastic buckets from the parking lot and throwing them into the bed of a battered pickup. I see them when I pull the blinds aside slightly. Perhaps to emphasize earlier themes, one of the painters should do something, look around maybe, like he senses a malicious presence on the air. I pull back from the window until I hear the truck skidding away. My action suggests jeopardy, solitude. I have not overcome the feelings of loss and violation with which the story began, nor will I for some time. Indeed—the story would suggest—to be lost and violated is to be part of this world. The two identities are inextricable, twin motifs in a single narrative or, perhaps better, different narratives with a single motif.
But in reality the painters have left without incident, and there is no one else in the parking lot. Ironically I feel like driving. I am still afraid, of course, but my fear is exhilarating, communal. Somewhere in the world, someone is telling another story, of how he stole a car the previous night and drove it to a shopping center 10 miles away. Maybe he had no bus fare. Maybe his wife, pregnant and craving Rocky Road ice cream, ordered him to the market on her account. Maybe he is evil. Or maybe he picked up the copy of “The Good Earth” that was lying on the front seat and, even as we speak, is reading it and devoting his life to missionary work in China. Maybe he is the next St. Sebastian. Maybe he is already dead or will live to be 122. Maybe we will meet at a literary conference one day and have a drink together, and laughing, though with some regret, he will tell the story of how he stole a car in his youth, how he found a syllabus for a literature class in the glove compartment, read the books, went on to college, how he is convinced the car was a magic car that made him turn to the Lord and embrace all humanity, get married, raise six children who are now successful with families of their own, and how recently, in Columbia, S.C., or Baltimore, M.D., his car also was stolen. However he is telling it, his story is bound by blood to the one I am telling you. Looking at my car in the parking lot, of this much I am certain.
The Sunset. In another story I might be moving into it. But here the highway runs eastward instead. Outside in the dark, the landscape drifts invisibly past me, a presence less seen than felt. I read it like a parchment in Braille, my mind scraping over each church and farmhouse, over each person, like words already memorized yet still to be said. I know it is strange what premises suggest themselves to me through the fact of motion. Like how language does not advocate change but is itself change, phonemes flung together, forging ahead. Or how the story is really redemption, in which we believe because we are at heart creatures of hope and true gods—and because we have nothing else. The road confirms our desire for movement, our elemental need to get from here to there. Not that progress is ever so simple. But after everything that has happened to me, my foot still searches out the accelerator. The car still begs for greater speed. And there is no turning back. From behind the windshield, I am vaguely aware of other cars passing under the orange moon, heading toward the new sun just beyond the night. As for me, destinations seem less important than the voyage itself. Windows open, I listen to the engine’s tale of combustion, grip the steering wheel needfully, and drive.