“Burnout – Edinburg, TX,” by Camilo Ramirez, from the series The Gulf. Instagram: @cam.ram and @anothereternitybook
By David Searcy
I just got off the phone with a middle-aged hot-rodder/drag racer (not yet sure of my terms) named Dudley Cooper who runs a 600-horsepower, cobbled-together, mostly ’66 Mustang at the ancient and notoriously unsanctioned Yello Belly Drag Strip outside Dallas where we met six months ago. Dudley thinks it would be fine for us to meet out there again and talk some more when I have time. I’d scribbled notes and taken photographs to paste into my journal, but another project needed my attention and, besides, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Nor, I guess, am I much clearer now except, perhaps somewhat, upon reflection, paging through my barely legible notes and two-by-three-inch photocopied snapshots—Dudley, husky, goateed, smiling from the shadows of the covered staging area where the cars prepare and to which they return again and again to make adjustments and to regain their composure in this strange recirculation, mostly noncompetitive timing runs, just racing for the pure and lonely hell of it that night when I was there—but, no, not clearer what to make of it, just more and more convinced there must be something.
I don’t know about this stuff. I’m not a car guy. But it seems I’ve always been aware of Yello Belly Drag Strip as a place an only child of somewhat fearful disposition would not ever want to go. I’m pretty sure, however, (odd to be uncertain, but one wishes things, one tends to make things up) I went there once when a business associate of my father’s came to town in his brand-new ’59 Impala (you don’t have to be mechanical to know that was the very best year for fins—in this case arcing, horizontal; almost practical, anticipating flight) and wanted to race it. Or, more likely, simply time it down the track. All I recall, or believe I recall, is sitting up there in the stands in the dark with my dad and watching something tense and loud and way too (what to call it?) maybe fundamental for my comfort going on down there, not knowing what to make of it.
Still not. Beyond a sense of its peculiar situation. That it seems to occupy, within the country of the heart, a low, flat place. The bottoming out of that depression one descends into when driving out of Dallas to the west, or from Fort Worth the other way, down what was once the Fort Worth Pike, a major thoroughfare, though now Highway 180, just a vestige since the interstate arrived and yet retaining, rather magically, like objects inexplicably left standing on the table as the cloth is jerked from under, a good portion of its 1930s–1950s complement of used car lots and tourist courts, these latter for the most part unimproved and yet, incredibly, still open (as are the BUY HERE PAY HERE car lots for that matter) to our simplest, most immediate concerns.
As you head west, you pass the Shady Oaks (conjoined brick thirties bungalows), the Comfort Motel, the Inn of the Dove (the Triple R Ranch in the forties), the Flora Motel, the Shangri-la, the Texas, the Palace (sandstone cottages—the Palace Courts on an old postcard), the Tourist Court Motel, the Midway Hotel, the Golden Chalet Motor Inn, Neal’s Court Motel, the Trade Winds, the Fiesta, and the Caravan with possibly the saddest aging signage of them all—its once inviting and exuberant and restful grove of sheet-steel palm tree silhouettes as green as green could be gone chalky, faded to the color of the pallid afternoon. And all declining, tending, all along in here—the tire shops, car repair shops, pawnshops too, the whole mood of it—all, it seems, subsiding from the east or west, depending how you come, toward even older, even simpler, more immediate concerns down at the bottom of the hill where Yello Belly lies, I’m told by my geologist friend Paul Larson, dead-atop a twenty-thousand-year-old unconsolidated layer of Pleistocene alluvium.
I liked cars. In a superficial way. I was excited in the fifties, early sixties, by the wildness of the annual redesign. The marvelous urgency and fluency of fins and random sculptural inflections. Lord, the future was upon us. One could go there in the right configuration. One could drive. Or just be driven, which was fine with me. I’d no particular interest in the actual operation—any more than in the actual mechanics. It was all about that gesture that exceeded practicality so far as to suggest the limitations of the practical. Which gave me hope and compensated somewhat for the practical and tedious half-hour or so it took to wash the car—a ’57 Ford whose fins, though rather modest, were enough to take the spray and shoot it up into the air to make a fine and satisfactory, as if trailing from some supersonic aerodynamic surface, sort of mist.
I think I feared the fundamentals. Unlike most my age. I think. And certainly unlike Bobo Riefler, the most fundamental kid I knew, who lived just down the street and seemed to know about such things as the varieties of sexual inclination, proper use of simple tools, and where his father, pretty frequently away, would keep the keys to their big Buick. He’d come get me when the time was right. His mom, a shadowy presence, still asleep. And lead me through it: to the secret place where the keys were hung, to the kitchen where he’d climb upon the counter to retrieve from an upper shelf the big, round cookie can—The Cookie Can, whose symbolism, now that I think about it, seems complex—upon which he would sit to grasp the wheel and see above the dash with the seat pulled all the way up so he could reach the pedals. It was one of those huge and heavy pre-fin Buicks—’55 I think—with the round ports in the side. No good for the future, I would say, but perfectly fine for around the block. No showy stuff. Just easy does it, back it out the gravel drive and down the street to crank it wide around the corners like an oceangoing vessel with that Brodie knob. A Brodie knob. As it is more politely known these days. Weren’t those disreputable? Weren’t those to signify a certain irresponsible willingness to drive around with one arm dangling out the window or around the girl next to you? So: both recklessness and passion—hence the frequency with which these plastic doorknobs clamped to steering wheels displayed imbedded images of dice and grinning skulls and naked ladies. I suspect that Brodie knob was not his father’s. But installed, with proper tools, for the occasion. I believe it bore the image of a semi-naked lady. Though of course one wishes things, one makes things up. I’m pretty sure. I see him grasping her like nothing. Like it’s nothing. Nothing sly, just how you do it. All the fundamentals operating here to get this done. And really not so much a joy ride as a duty. Somehow. Thought about. Prepared for. How he’d sit atop the cookie can and grasp the naked lady and proceed on down the street. And so forever I suppose.
A very brief article in the Dallas Morning News for June 3, 1965, reports the city of Grand Prairie’s disannexation of the Yello Belly Drag Strip and immediate surroundings. Such a burden had it become on the city’s police department. “Formally divested” is the phrase. Consigned to the harsh and godless no-man’s-land of the county. One imagines the ceremony: Hot-rodders, urged to quiet their engines, squinting across the blowing dust at figures in top hats reading something from a temporary stand beside the concessions. Followed by silence. Beer cans hissing open here and there like crickets. Then the dashing of the candle or whatever, hurried departure of the limousines, and slowly, very slowly one by one, the engines starting up—that ominous and uneasy, growly gluggedy-glug of racing cams in cars just waiting, cars up on the line, all excommunicate, anathema, exploding up the revs all over the place into a howl, into a new and terrible freedom.
Look at a color map of the city of Grand Prairie—I’ve a copy of one I found online—and there it is on the eastern edge, a splotch of white surrounded by the city’s healthy pink. An ancient wound, unhealed but isolated, grown around. You feel it now and then. It tugs at other parts of the body.
It’s the middle of December. I’ll get back with Dudley Cooper after the holidays. He blew his engine up not long ago, so he’s not running. Working on it. Dropping in a bigger engine. Has disc brakes now—on the front, at least. At least a measure of comfort, I suppose, for Shawna, his wife, who likes to accompany him, attend him at these things, but has concerns. Who’d rather he not come down here to Yello Belly by himself. It’s an “outlaw” track. Unsanctioned and ungoverned and unruly, and the only strip, says Dudley, that will allow him to race that thing with drum brakes. Drum brakes tend to fail, burn out. When called upon to slow from, say, one hundred miles per hour at the end of the eighth-mile track to make that sudden hairpin turnaround. Nor roll bars, helmets, seatbelts even. Come as you are. As you have always been.
How have we been? It’s hard to say. I imagine a sort of settling out, a sifting down toward fundamentals. I should say I fear to imagine, I suppose. I’m not less fearful—only older and more used to it. And more inclined to wonder that the Yello Belly Drag Strip has not washed away by now. Or drained away. Or silted up. That whole unfathomable depression really—all those tourist courts and used car lots and bleak necessities that one reduces to. There is a convent, of all things, at the very top of the hill where the real descent, the steepest slope, begins on the Dallas side. Is there an allegory here perhaps? A cautionary diagram with the drag strip down at the bottom like a sump, the place you never want to go? What gathers there, of course, is fearful. Fundamental.
So why “Yello Belly”? What is that about? I always felt it was directed outward, somehow. Toward the passerby. Toward us, toward me, in our complacently futuristic ’57 Ford on our way to Fort Worth past the beckoning tourist courts and drive-in theaters and burger joints. But “Yello Belly.” Surely not suggesting where the timid come to race. But maybe only a sort of blurted impoliteness emanating from a place like that, where challenge tends to take abusive form. And yet so strangely formalized.
The standard story has the oddball millionaire—who, for some reason, in the fifties, owned that sad expanse of Pleistocene alluvium down there and didn’t mind, and sometimes even came to watch, the suicidal kids who used it as a racetrack—at some point issuing that taunt. To goad them on, one assumes, an emerald to his eye. And so the taunt, the insult, stuck. He let it stick when he improved it with an asphalt track, concessions, and an entrance fee. And, oddly for a drag strip, these long, shadowy, corrugated tin–roofed spectator and staging areas much like you see for livestock at the fair. And which in fact, I think, or allow myself to imagine, do enclose, after all, down here, a faintly similar sense of insult, doomed assembly.
A “Battle of the Bands” rock and roll conclave turned into a battle of the fans Friday and resulted in 37 arrests by sheriff’s deputies . . . (Austin American-Statesman, 9-6-59)
A Sunday night raid on the Yello Belly Drag Strip . . . netted . . . 15 arrests. . . . Three months ago . . . a special police officer . . . was jumped by several men, beaten and his gun taken away. (Grand Prairie Daily News-Texan, 8-21-62)
A fight between two men over a 15 cent bet almost flared into riot proportions. . . . More than 27 squad cars from the Grand Prairie police department, Dallas County sheriff’s office and the Dallas police department were dispatched. (Dallas Morning News, 4-12-65)
A racetrack smashup left a drag racer dead Sunday when his car overturned. (DMN, 10-23-67)
Six men were injured when mobbed by 25 to 35 [others] at 6:30 p.m. Sunday during drag races at the Yello Belly Drag Strip. . . . Six sheriff’s deputies and more than a dozen police officers restored order. The races continued. (DMN, 3-25-68)
One man was killed and four were hurt, two critically, when two racers crashed in flames. (DMN, 11-9-70)
More than 100 angry fans rioted because a race was cancelled Sunday, then laid siege to the box office of Yello Belly Drag Strip . . . [taking] $2000 from two cashiers. (DMN, 4-28-75)
Sunday’s crash of a stock car that killed four people and injured six others is only the latest and worst of numerous incidents and disturbances at the drag strip. . . . Since being disannexed, responsibility for patrolling the drag strip has fallen to the sheriff’s office . . . Whenever deputies can’t handle a disturbance alone . . . the Grand Prairie police department are called to assist. . . . [Grand Prairie Police Chief Ken] Burr said that happens about twice a month.
About an hour before the disaster Sunday, Burr said, Grand Prairie police were asked to help disarm a man with a gun . . .
“Someone is injured in a fight or something at least every other Sunday,” he said. (DMN, 6-12-79)
A 37-year-old stock car driver—the same man who two years ago spun out of control at the Yello Belly Drag Strip and crashed in a crowd, killing four spectators and injuring six—was killed Sunday in a fiery crash at the same . . . drag strip [and] burned beyond recognition. [The] crowd [which] left the stands . . . to watch the burning car . . . became belligerent when officers ordered them back. . . . Eleven Dallas tactical officers and four patrol units from the Southwest Oak Cliff substation, along with six units of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department and Grand Prairie police[,] were called in to help control the crowd. (DMN, 4-6-81)
A man was charged with two counts of capital murder in the fatal shootings of two men . . . in front of a crowd of hundreds. (AAS, 6-9-88)
No serious injuries or arrests occurred in the brief melee, which started when about 700 raceway spectators mistakenly thought deputies were arresting a race-car driver. In fact they were trying to pull him from the wreckage of his burning vehicle. (DMN, 3-4-91)
The shooting happened about 8 p.m. at Yello Belly Drag Strip . . . in an unincorporated part of Dallas County surrounded on all sides by Grand Prairie. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 9-29-97)
This year, an angry fan ran over a man who stopped a fight. Last year, a man was killed over a $10 bet. (DMN, 8-19-01)
The Yello Belly Drag Strip . . . has been the site of at least four officer killings between 1988 and . (DMN, 12-10-05)
One person is dead after a crash at a Grand Prairie drag strip. (CBSDFW.com, 11-18-16)
“I hate Yello Belly,” [the dead racer’s brother] says. (Dallas Observer, 12-6-16)
In my journal with my notes and photographs of Dudley leaning under the hood adjusting something; filling up with special racing gas (a propane torch–heated bottle of nitrous oxide visible there in the weird blue light of the open trunk); the loud, fierce preparatory smoking of the tires to heat the rubber at the starting line; the blur as he takes off—along with these, on a separate page, I’ve pasted my Yello Belly Drag Strip proof of admission wristband stamped May 17, 2018. It is a delicate shade of orange. It’s like a flower pressed in there. A sweet memento. How peculiar. Such a tenderness about it.
How have we been? Well, maybe not so good, I think. What in the world to make of this? Online, if you look up the geology of the area, there’s this colorful stratigraphic chart, an east/west geological section that happens to take a line quite close to that of the Fort Worth Pike. Cuts down for a billion years or so beneath the problem. Clumps of cartoon skyscrapers, right and left, for Dallas and Fort Worth. Each cleanly set atop the end-grain of the stratified Cretaceous—uniformly tilted beds in tints of green. Below, distorted and more ancient, less intuitable formations—nonetheless quite clearly demarcated, shaded in pastels of blue and lavender and yellow. All this vast, compacted mass of time presented like stained glass. Yet note that thin black line at the top that marks the surface, represents the present moment, running between the ghostly cartoon cities. See where it takes that sad, depressing dip below the convent (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity hidden behind the trees) down toward that low, flat place whence gradually ascending—how that thin ruled line suddenly spreads, as from a leaky pen, into this linear blotch, a spill of black beneath the tourist courts and used car lots and all those fundamentals with the Yello Belly Drag Strip at the bottom. A little arrow indicates “Flood Plain and Terrace Deposits.” Which is to say the Pleistocene alluvium. Which is to say uncertain, unconsolidated residue of cold, opaque millennia preparing for all this.
Dudley lives in a bright, clean, newish little neighborhood of similar small brick homes set firmly atop the Paluxy sandstone west of Fort Worth on the western edge of the little town of Weatherford. Everything is so clear and open. It’s a planned but somewhat tentative incursion into farmland, toward the prairie that you sense not far away. He’s under a truck in his garage as we walk up. It’s Saturday afternoon and Dudley’s on his own time. It’s a friend’s truck—jobs like this provide the money for the racing. The new engine, disc brakes, roll cage—even a roll cage if he wants to race at more respectable venues. He slides out from under the pickup truck. I’ve brought my friend Mike Edgmon along—he drag raced in his youth, knows all about engines and can translate, fill in silences. Which works pretty well because I find I’m at a loss. I mostly listen. Dudley seems to have replaced, rebuilt (or both somehow) the engine in the pickup. It’s a small and rather dark garage—no room for an overhead crane. He’s got a cherry picker, Mike points to a small hydraulic lift type thing on wheels that seems too slight to hoist an engine. Ah yes. Cherry picker. Helps with changing engines in the dark. They speak of engines—good ones, bad ones. This is new to me—that engines, Detroit engines, could be fundamentally, deeply, good or bad. For example the famous Chevy 409 was bad. No matter that the Beach Boys sang about it. Beach Boys couldn’t have known how the complexities can tend to get away from you. I guess. Were not aware of subtle problems with the “valve train.” The uneven flow of gases. At the back of the garage is a door beyond which there are sounds of domesticity. Clatter of dishes. Voices of children. I’m not sure what I expected. Did I think I’d find some trouble? Maybe get a closer sense of settling out and sifting down into some readable uncertainty like you see sometimes—a scatter of undiscardables like tea leaves in the yard. But no. The line that represents that present moment is too thin, too clearly drawn out here, I think. I feel already. Dudley’s race car sits on a trailer parked on the grass beside the garage, a small blue tarp across the roof. It doesn’t seem to cover much. Perhaps just what he had. Perhaps a certain tenderness. “I see you got a trailer,” I contribute. He’d been having to drive his race car to the track. Change out his rear tires for those monstrous treadless racing slicks. And of course it makes for problems if your engine blows—like last time, though he managed to drive it home. It seems an engine can blow in a number of ways—spectacular to subtle. In this case the worst confirmed with the discovery of metal filings in the oil like blood in the urine. As with most things, I suppose, the greatest efficiency, the clearest realization, is achieved right at the verge of self-destruction.
So few trees out here, the day seems even brighter, clearer, bluer. Present moment even thinner. In a minute Dudley will ask us in to meet their three dogs, two grandnieces—Sera, three, and Gracie, four, who visit on the weekends. We stand around in the kitchen as Shawna straightens up, note the refrigerator appliques: a 2018 Texas Rangers baseball schedule, photos of various older kids in sports uniforms, an anthropomorphic elephant in a red T-shirt emblazoned with a capital letter “A,” a couple of thank-you cards, an air-conditioner repairman’s card, and a pair of tiny flip-flops with a red and green and blue design of starfish. But for now we’re out in the clear blue day regarding Dudley’s sad, disabled, arbitrarily black-and-gray-primered Mustang on its trailer, a pair of much-abraded Mickey Thompson slicks stacked on the tongue. New roll cage visible through the window. Heavy, welded tubular steel to keep the roof from collapsing on him should he roll it. Which can happen. Everything can get so twitchy when it’s all about the suddenness, the brute acceleration. Which is odd to think about out here right now. This little neighborhood so pleased to be so still. So barely captured from the prairie.
It must take you away. The simple acceleration. That must be the thing, the feeling—of removal. Gone. Escaped. Like death, I imagine—both so far outside my experience. I remember, though, the feeling of the little mechanical rocket ship for kids to ride outside the neighborhood grocery store. The thing with that, I remember, having dropped your nickel in and pressed the button, was that sudden initial kick in the back. That sense that, damn, it’s real. You’re off. This time it’s going to work. Just for that instant. All that followed—half a minute or so of stupid oscillation—simply had to be endured.
I’m trying to learn, but I think you probably need to grow up with this stuff. Your mind entangled from the start as with the violin or the bull ring. Understand it to emerge along with all the other natural engagements and expressions of the world. Then you can feel it. Small mechanical adjustments, subtlest proddings feeding right through toward that moment. That sweet kick in the back. Which doesn’t last for long, of course. A quarter mile. An eighth. Then make that turn and bring it around to try again. Someday it’s really going to work. What happens then? To your wife, your dogs? Your little grandnieces who come visit on the weekends now, but not so long ago, right after your brother died—their grandfather, who’d been caring for them—had no one to take them in but you? And all that kindness, all that easy generosity whose evidence assembles on the refrigerator? What about all that? Well, I’m inclined to wonder if that might not be the point. That nickel rocket ship was simply there outside the grocery store. Right there on the sidewalk, after all. You’d climb into it. Sit a moment. Calm and ordinary life around you. Passing in and out. The voices of other children’s mothers. Clatter of grocery carts. The point may be, in a fearful world, to clarify that place from which departure is inevitable. And even with those crazies down at Yello Belly—who knows where they come from or what evidence accretes to their refrigerators? (I spent half a day just driving around down there and trying to find if there might be a place where ordinary life impinges, but no luck; the habitable edges of both Dallas and Grand Prairie fray to nothing well away from the lower regions, and the vast and sinister trailer park on the other side of the highway somehow doesn’t seem to qualify.) But even those crazies in their unconsolidated, unincorporated freedom when they’re not engaged in mayhem and they’ve found some brief composure at the starting line and manage not to jump the gun, forget about the gun and all the crap that must afflict them and must count as ordinary life, must hit it just right now and then (sometimes you’ll get to see the engine give a bull-like snort just to purge the nitrous oxide line) and bring their foot down, put it down, we “put our foot down,” as we say, and get it right, and off they go.
I used to be afraid of everything. I think that’s what we do in any case, though children feel it much more clearly. Recognize fear for the simple thing it is. A sort of ground state. Not so terrible—just there. That subtle all-pervading substance from which kindness inexplicably condenses. Fear unspecialized. The lowest-energy state of things you sense as a child—at bedtime, say, world still barely light out there, some bird still singing. It’s a redbird. It’s a sad little song. A cardinal. Cardinals sing a number of songs but there’s this one with these descending notes as if that brilliant toy-like bird were running down at last, at end of day. As if that might be how it is for us as well.
So, what was there before the scream of burning rubber? Roar of engines? What was there before we had these things? Just wind? The crack of river ice? The sound of slamming doors and angry voices down the block? In that same neighborhood where Bobo Riefler lived, there lived the cool and unapproachable older brother of another friend of mine. This older brother’s name was Mick and he would loudly screech and burble about in a black, raked, glasspacked ’58 Impala. (The Impala was much favored.) Which, especially in the evenings, was the cause of great displeasure on the part of Billy Joe Pinter down the street who, with his wife and eight or nine children, had, it was rumored, come from Kentucky or some other hilly, rustic place and didn’t seem to understand that picture windows needed to be curtained after dark if one were not to make a spectacle relaxing fully lit in La-Z-Boy and Jockey shorts, and whose older children would race out of the house with cries of “Get out of our country” should anyone venture into their yard. So unhappy did Billy Joe Pinter become—all his complaints and threats ignored—that he decided on a more direct approach, and I remember being across the street from the Pinters’ house in my friend Wayne Flemming’s yard and noticing Billy Joe Pinter standing there in the dusk by his curb holding a brick and waiting for Mick to pass. I had to go home, but for a while in my room I listened for the terrible growl and burble of Mick’s Impala. However, the night was peaceful and after I went to bed I wondered how long Billy Joe Pinter might have stood out there with his brick. Light fading. Dark, at last, descending. Billy Joe Pinter, you can’t hit it with a brick. You might stand out there all night long but it’s no good. It’s like those sounds I imagine you must hear at night where you come from. The wolf. The owl. The frozen river breaking up.
We’re barely here. As children we are able to sense that. Barely here and fully lit. It feels like that—from dawn to dusk, just grades of noon. So bright and tentative are we. A bit like photographs of ourselves, flash photographs—as clear as anything but very thin somehow.
I feared whatever disease was current—polio, tuberculosis. I feared turning into whatever monster featured at the Saturday morning “kid show” at the Inwood movie theater. I feared mad dogs. In the summer there’d be talk of rabies outbreaks. I was given to understand that rabid animals were more likely, then, to come around. To be out there like robins in the spring. Like any seasonal visitation. What a dreadful thing—to think there might descend upon some waggy-tailed, devoted creature such a transformation. And remember, kids and dogs ran loose back then. One had to keep an eye out. One could never know. Such possibilities condensed out of that subtle, fearful background state as readily as kindness. No accounting for it. One would pause sometimes in the overexposed dead summer grass to take a long and careful look all up and down the street, across all those unwatered yellow lawns. For what? The critical transformation. In whatever manifestation, I suppose. Some common thing, distorted. What is that? Way down the block. One squints into the brilliant afternoon.
Don’t you imagine Dudley Cooper’s kind and quiet life upon the thin, clear moment drawn above the early Cretaceous Paluxy sandstone way out there at the edge of the even greater quiet must contribute, if not to his actual speed, at least to felt acceleration? Insofar as he departs a deeper calm, a deeper stillness, than most of the others down at Yello Belly Drag Strip. Don’t you imagine all the inefficient, self-indulgent turmoil and the threat of it must tend to part around him? He wouldn’t run anything he couldn’t drive on the street, he says. Which seems the essential stance in all of this—the fundamental and originating principle. The drag strip just an extension of the street. Of that old highway, at the other end of which, the Fort Worth end, he works at one of those used car lots as a mechanic. But that highway, so descended, so reduced to our immediate concerns, that Yello Belly at the bottom seems a natural sort of runoff. No constraints. And no distractions if you’re Dudley, I imagine. After all, it’s just the street. And one has always had this freedom. Don’t you imagine as he grasps the wheel and waits for the “Christmas tree” to get to green, he feels that street that runs behind him straight back through those grim necessities to home? The nearly treeless post-Cretaceous lawn and house and those within it? Just to feel. Not to consider. One is past considerations here at Yello Belly Drag Strip. Here at Yello Belly Drag Strip even the crazies know, however, they are up against the stillness. What may briefly count as stillness when you put it down just right, it screams and smokes and grabs just right, your head slam black and there’s that ancient, vast reluctance of the world. Then shut it down (sometimes they don’t) and bring it around as if to say just kidding. Didn’t really mean it. Not this time. You can’t escape it in an eighth of a mile. It used to be a quarter but that got to be too much as speeds increased. And all those trees and all that dark down there at the end. So pull it back. Yet still some fail to give it up, as if compelled—okay let’s do it. And they do. Some kid will keep on going right into the trees. The fearful stillness. And so strange how others love it. Come right down out of the stands to watch it burn. Here one is past considerations—there should be a sign like that above the entrance.
It occurs to me to wonder if the mayhem ever rises to a level such that sisters in the convent in their stillness at the top of the hill two miles away can hear it. With their windows open, maybe. Curtained windows. In the summer late at night. What time do sisters go to bed? And if the breeze is from the west, the curtains gently lifting in with little more than a suspicion, as of thunder or a sudden flight of startled birds somewhere out there. Then sirens. What is that? What can that be?
I had a cousin—I believe she was a cousin, distant cousin on my father’s side—who for a number of years belonged to the order, lived in that somewhat austere, Italianate, two-story, tile-roofed building glimpsable from the highway down at the end of a very long and narrow drive between tall cedars. Her religious name was Teresa, Sister Teresa, or Theresa, and when I was about thirteen my mom and dad and I, in our ’57 Ford, for reasons I cannot recall, paid her a visit. I remember the narrow drive (if not an eighth of a mile, then close) that finally opened onto a court surrounding a stone or concrete Archangel Michael, armed and armored, stomping the Adversary, flanked by lesser (almost wincing) prayerful angels. We were admitted into a sitting room. My sense is grayish green and softly formal. Sister Teresa entering shortly, wearing the habit I believe, but very easy, happy to see us, happy to talk. Years later, ten years maybe, she would leave the order, marry a Native American person, live on a reservation (I imagined, of course, a tepee) where, I was told, she set about producing children. Of the conversation, though, I can remember very little except the part about her working to finish her doctoral dissertation on existentialism. Regarding which philosophy my understanding has not much advanced—except to have settled on a sense of it as more a sort of mood than an idea—but sounding then (with that word “exist” in there like that), too strange, too broad to be addressed from within so kind and protected a place. Yet she seemed pretty happy with it. And I have no trouble thinking of her writing late at night at a little desk below an open curtained window in a simply furnished room. A bed. A small upholstered chair. And maybe something of her family, if allowed—a photograph somewhere in a little easel frame. A mood upon her that will take years to develop an intention. And perhaps, after all, best understood, addressed, from such confined and private circumstances. Curtains softly luffing with the dark air from so far away it seems to bring the far-awayness in. To fill her room with it—and, so I have to imagine, with that thrill, that sigh, that comes when certain opposites—being and nothingness, say—combine.
I’ve never drag raced in a meaningful way. A meaningful way, I’m pretty sure, involves prior intention. And, ideally, modification of the engine to perform up to the point of self-destruction, use of exotic fuels or oxidizers, stripping away all comforts from the shell (and this is important) of what once was just a car. A family car. Here’s where your true acceleration comes from. Deep departure. Not unlike the program of the sisters on the hill. Nor, for that matter, of the wolfman that so terrified me. Anyone might suffer this affliction or some similar—there were many, all the worse those Saturday mornings at the Inwood movie theater, having sat through the cartoons and silly contests and, a time or two, the Duncan Yo-Yo man onstage to show us tricks and sell us Duncan Yo-Yos. All that only made it worse. And even the crappiness of the movie—in that way that the monstrous crappily presented can seem all the more convincing. Poorly lit, which is to say in broad daylight, the light we have. And poorly imagined, which is to say as we imagine such a thing might appear to us. As something awkward. Ill-considered. What is that? Way down the street in broad daylight. Oh, what is that? What awkward, ill-considered creature has condensed, as such things must, out of the brilliant, supersaturated stillness?
I am worried about the stillness. What I mean by it. May come to find it meaning. For example, can they really both escape it and pursue it even into the trees at Yello Belly Drag Strip? We don’t know. We do not care. It is beyond consideration. Though I think back on that nickel-activated rocket ship outside the grocery store. It seems to me that one was probably meant to understand that stupid back-and-forth that followed upon the initial kick as representing motion in a general sort of way. As a condition of unstillness. Stillness having to be shaken off continuously. And maybe, if you kept on dropping nickels, as a struggle that accumulates toward something. A departure. Even. Somehow. One invests in this idea. A contradictory sort of progress that should average out to stillness as the natural oscillation of a cradle or a swing, but can’t. Or mustn’t. Here we go. Or not. Just kidding. Here we go. Nope, not quite yet. But here we go. Nope, sorry. Not this time. Just bring it around and try again and again until your engine blows or worse, the crowd goes crazy and the starlings in the trees two miles away are startled up into the dark.
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