By David Searcy, from Shame and Wonder, a collection of essays that was published this month by Random House. Searcy is the author of two novels, including Last Things (2002).
In the early Seventies, as the arcs of our postgraduate expectations seemed to be losing loft and conviction and the music seemed to be playing somewhat slower and the need to find a seat before it stopped had occurred to most, although not all, and everyone had already lived with everyone else for a time, it seemed, and the whole idea of domicile and self-reliance made for reluctant conversation — in this sad, departing summer of our lives, my friend the poet Robert Trammell lived for a while with me and my mom. My mom, an old freethinker herself, enjoyed my arty, pseudobohemian friends, and Bob, perhaps the artiest and most deeply pseudobohemian of us all, fit in quite happily, picking through her rather strange selection of books and, in the evenings, watching bad TV — though Kung Fu was pretty good. We really got into Kung Fu’s tests of enlightenment and reaction time, sometimes well into the night out on the patio, drinking our way toward the true way, snatching pebbles from each other’s open hand. It was during this time that Bob — responding, perhaps, to these simple domesticities — conceived that it would be a most amazing and important and poetic thing were he to go and make his home beneath the big pink Cadillac we’d noticed always parked in the drive of the house, not far away, of a wealthy cosmetics manufacturer.
He basked in this idea for a while. We’d joke about it — his becoming something like a moral visitation, like gout, the painful consequence of opulence and excess. Or, a little more dramatically, the Phantom of the Opera or the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the dark imponderable at the center of our loftiest affections. He began to imagine what he’d actually need: a few small tools, the means to siphon fuel from the gas tank (for his camp stove) and water from the radiator. He would need lightweight, dark-colored, water-repellent clothing. Maybe a jacket for the colder months. A flashlight and a radio. A picture of his Scandinavian girlfriend — in a little oval frame, perhaps, with a magnet on the back. A pen, a notebook. Bungee cords and marijuana. He would probably need to consult one of those Chilton automotive guides, the one devoted to that particular year and model. He would have to make a study, as would anyone preparing for an extended stay in some exotic country. As did Dracula, of course, before embarking on his fearful journey west. As did Thoreau, don’t you imagine. Take your time and figure it out, devote yourself to the idea, and then, when it’s right — you might want to wait for a storm, a terrible night with lightning scattering all across the city, rushing, twisting wind and bending trees and window-rattling thunder all night long — then you go in, in the middle of that, insert yourself as if the moment had developed from within the actual process of the storm. And there you are. It seems impossible at first. But then you feel around and touch the blackened surfaces, inhale the mix of fluids spilled and burned. The lightning flashing off wet concrete gives you glimpses of a structure obscure in its reality, like the history of the underclass, ungraspable except in slow stages. Not till dawn does the rain let up. The tattered clouds withdraw before the pink and golden light that, from an upstairs window, shows it’s all okay — blown leaves and twigs and a branch or two in the drive, but all is well. The pink of the Cadillac has never shone so purely pink before, as if there could be any purity in pink, as if it could be understood as fundamental, even primary, in some way — the blush of passion as experienced or as skillfully applied.
Bob felt that there ought to be a point at which, living under the car, his instincts should turn inward. All his cunning with regard to stealth, his concealment of the evidence — the smoke, the smells, the residue, the groanings in his sleep, those soft, unbidden little noises that emerge on contemplation of the photograph, whose bright, clean, snowy Scandinavian distance stretches out behind his girlfriend’s fading smile forever — when all that has fallen away and he no longer needs to care, it is because he’s come to inhabit the Cadillac truly and completely. He has come to understand his place within it. He has found the yogalike positions corresponding to the circumstances, become adept, as he clings to the undercarriage, at snatching raw materials from the street. Half-eaten meals and bits of clothing if he’s lucky. All of life in its disintegrated forms comes back around to him. He’s at that deep, regenerative level. At the level of the barnacle, the saint perhaps, the Cadillac infused with him at this point. They reduce toward each other, and inevitably there are compromises — subtle at first but gradually more detectable. Gas mileage begins to suffer — hardly an issue ordinarily, of course, in such a vehicle. But noticeable after a while. A sort of lassitude or something about the steering, about the functioning in general — you can tell when something’s changed, a general change, you know. Before you know it, even. An alteration in the basic terms of things.
And so at last the car is taken in and hoisted up. And there is quiet in the bay. Pneumatic power tools fall silent. From within the glass-walled waiting room she watches with her driver till she’s summoned. Eyes of four or five blue-uniformed mechanics fix on her. They withdraw at her approach, then stand around not saying anything. Not getting back to work. A radio somewhere across the shop plays Mexican songs of love and loss. Her own mechanic stands by quietly with a work light and a look of vast apology, as if to say there’s nothing he can do. As if, were she not dressed in such a delicate print, her presentation of herself so near the fragile verge of passion, pink and saffron shading into frail translucencies of age, all love and loss as it turns out, he might reach out to take her shoulder, guide her under. But she follows, gazes up with him. A short, soft phrase in Spanish is repeated over and over right behind — they’ve gathered in.
The light’s too bright and she sees nothing for a while. What should it look like, anyway? What should she be expected to find, in any case? She’s never looked beneath her Cadillac before. She’s never listened to Mexican music on the radio. She knows, of course, those mariachi bands that play in restaurants — so exuberant and colorful and festive. Not like this. What is he saying over and over just behind her? Like a prayer. She looks and looks until the picture strains and starts to darken at the edges. Light draws in to a sort of halo, which surrounds a sort of face. Is that a face? What sort of face is that — so battered and composed? Is this what she’s supposed to see? What is he doing under her Cadillac? A couple of the mechanics and a woman from the office have knelt down. Can she emerge from this somehow? She must look awful in this light. Is this a miracle? Is there another car that she can take? Can she be beautiful again?