Your problem, So-and-so said sympathetically, is you think that you don’t exist.
From somewhere somebody heard her. Nearby and far away and saying so, just the two of them there.
In 1982, a band of Yale students called The Blues Astronauts recorded their album No Sanctuary. They sang: “I put a pebble in my shoe, / and I walk, and I walk along so / the pain in my heart won’t delay me.”
One of So-and-so’s selves and one of mine had listened repeatedly to a cassette recording of the vinyl the following year as we drove my dark blue ’75 Camaro out to Los Angeles. It had belonged to my older brother first and was never really either of ours.
“I am writing this letter to give you a brief report about an automobile collision involving my 1975 Chevrolet Camaro on which you carry insurance.
“My son Mark Dow was driving the Camaro on I-5 near the City of Commerce, California, approximately twenty miles north of Los Angeles on Saturday evening, May 3, 1986, at approximately 7:20 p.m. Traffic was heavy but moving fairly rapidly. Mark was under the speed limit at all times.
“A Mercedes Benz 380 SL, license number OIL CPA, was immediately in front of Mark. The Mercedes was driven by Marian K__. The Mercedes stopped very suddenly because (according to the Mercedes driver) the car immediately in front of the Mercedes stopped suddenly and without warning. Mark was unable to stop in time to avoid hitting the Mercedes and did, in fact, rear-end the Mercedes. There was damage to the rear bumper and rear fender of the Mercedes and one tail light was broken.
“There was also damage to the radiator and headlights of the Camaro.
“There were no personal injuries either to the driver of the Mercedes or Mark or the passenger in the Camaro.”
A voice breaking is not a personal injury, but it might tell of one. Twenty-seven years west and three miles east/southeast of the accident, at Mariscos La Sirenita in Pico Rivera, an all-woman mariachi band called Ellas Son sang at supper time, family-style, grilled. They sang in Spanish except when they sang “Blue Bayou” and “Crazy.” Air passes through the opening between the fleshy flaps called vocal cords, heads out. The waver or quaver may be involuntary, as when knees buckle because one can no longer stand something: circumstance v. will. But one can break one’s own voice, too, duplicating the involuntary, divert and re-channel the stream around the note so that the sadness in the memory of sadness gives pleasure. Go back some day, come what may. There were maracas, guitar, guitarrón, trumpet, violins. There were shrimp, lobster, red snapper, Idaho potato slices, and whole green onions. There was a violinist named Swemi who soloed on the song she sang. In the middle of “Crazy,” she stepped to an empty table to take a paper napkin to tuck between her chin and violin. Between sets she switched to sandals from her heels. On stage she never smiled, and off she couldn’t not. Swemi, said Swemi, is Mayan for morning flower. In their writing system, one figure was squeezed to accommodate another in the limited space available for inscription on stone. It was her mother’s name and would be her daughter’s.
Sin siquiera, without even, you left without even saying goodbye. Figured you’d look for me later. Along the border near Calexico/Mexicali, Ana Gabriel’s defiantly heartbroken, mannered rasp was broadcast from Radio La Dinámica into my vehicle, baby. There’s this particular strain of sentimental Mexicality in the willed waver, but, see, your desires have failed you. The accordion trill is followed by vibratoless holding. My Panasonic cassette recorder is steady on the dash. Summer, desert, roadside refreshment: coconut a woman chopped the white meat of with her machete into almost-bite-size, trapezoidal chunks, put back into the half-shell, and squeezed green lime and sprinkled burnt orange chili sauce across the top of. This will cool you down like nothing will, but when we add it all up, you’re the one who missed me. And now you come to tell me all about your sadness. You want to “clarify the situation.” Coconut is pussy in every known tongue. When I dreamed I touched my teeth with tongue and they crumbled, So-and-so said that’s a sign of change. When I split my chin open in an accident, the cop said you’re lucky. Could’ve knocked your front teeth out.
The Camaro’s header panel had to be replaced. This is a narrow sheet the width of the car that fits between the front edge of the hood and the start of the front panel where your grill and headlights are. I found the replacement at Town and Country Auto Wrecking, “Instant Parts Service, Chevy Specialists,” farther south off I-5 on East Fifth Street in Santa Ana, corner of Poinsettia. Lee’s business card says that: “Corner of Poinsettia.” Lee Schiefelbein, the owner, he was building his own race car in the back. On the front counter, next to a squawk box through which parts places in the area shared inventory information, was a stick shift and gear box Lee was working on. He was sure he could make the shift from fourth to fifth lose less time in the teeth of shift linkage and differential than anyone could. He suggested I not replace the header panel myself if I hadn’t done it before, because you have to remove the hinges attaching the hood to the frame, and it takes several hands to realign it when you put the thing back together. The new bluish-grey header panel looked good unpainted so I left it like that, two-tone. Where the well-warmed rubber meets the half-baked asphalt, there is a third zone, short-lived but continuous and thin, which is neither rubber nor road but something both are. One stays oneself and if so how. I didn’t know what So-and-so meant but I knew she was right. We were sitting on the floor in the doorway to the bedroom in a house I had an apartment in in Santa Ana, Orange County, south of LA. Somewhere along the way, watching, one may start to watch one’s own watching but only see so much later.
It was a round trip. Back the other way, headed east/southeast from LA, we detoured north to the Texas Panhandle to see the Cadillac Ranch, a row of ten of the cars buried in 1974 about half-a-car-length deep. They leaned east to eleven o’clock, the row of them parallel to the road, out in a field. Summer dirt was dried to dustiness, and weeds nested each sedan. From a distance they looked like abandoned farm machinery. Between frontal lobe and inner skull, film floats now of syrupy asphalt wavering above the wavering asphalt film of the main road west of Amarillo in August. We had approached from the west, in the dark, slept to wait for daylight to see it in. Looking back on it, from east of it, what I most clearly recall, and recall with a sort of inflated precision, is Interstate 40 in medium close-up, everything around it blurred into some numb amniotic wash. The stretch of asphalt mirage water-wavering above that asphalt stretch has been being seen by me steadily now for years, re-recording itself in a long shot from above at an angle of some thirty degrees, but here’s the thing. I was never above it like that. We’d seen the road from the road. It was just after dawn. The way she remembers it we drove through the night. The sun was sharp but hadn’t gotten hot yet. We were on our way from LA through the Panhandle, then on down to Houston where I come from and absorbed through years of trying to keep still the way the slow, thick, humid blanket’s heavy buzz can weigh you down and also be a lullaby.
Mark Dow’s writing has appeared in PN Review (UK), The Threepenny Review, Boston Review, and elsewhere. He is author of American Gulag: Inside US Immigration Prisons (2004) and co-editor of Machinery of Death: The Reality of America’s Death Penalty Regime (2002). His poetry collection Plain Talk Rising was a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry, the New Issues Poetry Prize, and the Yale Series competition and a semifinalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press. He teaches English at Hunter College in New York. (updated 9/2018)