the brief gravity of the earth and eighteen
and we went to the road, into the last bit of a late sun and the eventual black and all the wonder and myrrh of a thick alabama night. we looked hard for something we hadn’t seen, for some answer to this awkward teenage stretch and thought maybe the headlights would show us something, something at a 100 or 105 that we couldn’t see at seventeen. a chance speed at some secret whispered into the thunder and the heat lightening and a rural road’s soft shoulder, its red gravel roar in the wheel wells and a sudden curve. but all the same questions came back like bells, like eight pistons pounding, our doubts spattered on our newly twisted souls like summer bugs on the windshield.
it wouldn’t rain, but it was hot enough to and we drank already warm beer out the can between breaths and turns, beer we bought cross the state line in georgia, in georgetown, and cheap screw top wine and winston’s. there was the four of us then, my best friends. we were green tree hard and willow whip thin and red armed, white skinned, beneath the sleeves of white t-shirts and stiff blue jeans and boots almost as hard. we took to the road and route 431 like the reverend bowen took them to the river, right sinners ripe for redemption, and him singing “repent and rejoice and know your sins have been forgiven”. and when it was done, this night, our last together, we would know all the world flashing red in the rear view mirror and the hard lesson of god. a night rode hard and busted, worn and torn before we could ever wear it again.
my father was an alabama state highway patrolman and always was and would be in my memory and a department photo from 1960 my mother kept on the credenza. i can see him in his perfect uniform and his boot spit polish and finish, the glean of his badge and his oiled revolver’s handle in its holster, his crew cut waxed and planed, his eyes’ hard blue just beneath his hat’s brim. he was a marine once, but that was before me, when he and my mother were young. he always said “always faithful, semper fi” and “once your a marine you die a marine” and he’d remind us every morning before the sun, flags hung, hats off, anthems sung.
we lived in the town of my father’s birth and my mother’s birth and my brother and my sisters’ births and their order. we lived in a white wood house in the town of eufaula, on a street south forsythe, by the southern railroad rumbling. it was a square house and sturdy and screen porched where my mother sat in the evenings. she’d sit and listen to her radio music and read to the rhythm of slow summer bugs bouncing at the light and the beat of the chattahooche river just to the east and it’s long breath into the gulf and georgia just on the other side. there were big trees that seemed bigger then that lined the streets and our childhoods. spanish moss lazy from their limbs and all the stars hanging in their canopy and the moon and the sun somehow in their shade. trees that were taller than the night and nights too hot too sleep, a heat that still sticks to my bones.
my mother was my father’s wife. she would carry me into 1951 and two sisters into a ‘52 and a ‘54. and there was a brother two years before me, the first son of a southern man and the next man of the family. my mother would have her girls and their girlish secrets and cachets and old family recipes. my father had my brother to be everything he was and wasn’t and everything he wanted and would never be. and then there was me, a middle child, the second son with no real place to be, but in between, somewhere and someone they would never see.
we were the senior class of ‘69 and some summer of love somewhere, me and my three friends, the four of us. my mother sat with my sisters and stood and took my picture and principal hagar’s and the dim look he held c students in as he handed me my diploma. a kodak instamatic picture in her scrap book now, ‘may ’69’ printed on it’s white border, a moment of their disappointment forever captive like a mosquito stuck in amber. my father wouldn’t see me graduate, he paced outside in his sunday suit and white shirt and black tie smoking and saying it was too hot to sit. even in his sunday suit and his street shoes he looked like a cop.
my brother was at alabama learning the lieutenant discipline of dying and the algebra of an army’s full frontal infantry offensive while exercising bear bryant’s three back attack. he would stay the summer so he could practice with the team and hurry off to vietnam when his schooling was all done and give our old man something to brag about at the station. heaven forbid the war end before he graduated and kill his chance to kill like he was born to, born to my father, the marine. he would call that night from an empty dormitory hall and all and we laughed like we were still throwing crab apples at trucks on the 82. he seemed different now that he was away from the old man and yet somehow the same and someone i would want to be. everyone was outside in the backyard, the old man drinking beer as were the other fathers and dickie and tommy howard and mike payne. my mother and their mothers sat on aluminum lawn chairs like stately southern ladies can and smoked and spoke a polite gossip only they could hear or understand. my sisters walked out the kitchen door carrying yellow plastic plates stacked with hamburger buns and bowls of potato chips and potato salad and more beer for the men and finally a white cake with red frosting letters that read “class of ‘69”. i could see them out the window if i stretched the phone cord from the wall. they were all lookin’ like they were on the t.v. and i described it like a football announcer man to my brother and we laughed ‘til there was no more air.
it was the first night of our last summer together and my father came into my room and stood in the door, the hall light behind him and said, “the hour has come to glorify your son so that your son may glorify you” and he coughed and stumbled slightly and slurred “i have glorified you on the earth, i have completed the work you have given me to do, lord” and he breathed and heaved “your god’s now, boy, and god damn you, you’ll be a marine”. and he closed the door and his shadow in the crack below and finally he creaked away.
three men would fly to the moon that week without us, stafford, cernan and young, while we stood stuck in this alabama and its red clay, the same red clay all stuck to us. and we stood in dew backyards or the still warm parking lot of the winn dixie with our heads up at the sky hoping to see something and having no idea what to look for. the four of us, mike payne and tommy howard and dickie and me, drove out to the edge of everything and finally nothing, past the town lights, to the river where we could see the moon, a moon that seemed suddenly closer now and farther away. and we drove on and looked back at our lives across the solid yellow line that plagued the 431 and knew there was no passing and dropped it in third and passed anyway. a tiny nightly victory over a camaro and the pull of the earth and an alabama and the deep root of our fathers’ baptist hands.
guys had been racing on the 431 since i had any memory of such things, probably since the ccc works project cleared the pine and put down the gravel and tar in ’34 and ‘35. every year some hatted trooper would come to our school and talk about the dangers of drugs and drinkin’ and street racin’ and how they was really cracking down this year. every year they’d go on about state route 431 and how its the most dangerous road in america and all in the flicker of a slide projector and its still life of over doses and actual accident scene deaths. every year some truck driver and a mother and three children or some car load of kids from seale loaded on beer and chance would take too much speed into a curve or drift over the yellow line and into the light of jesus and an oncoming car or a pine. and my father would come home and only say they had a fatality today and drink jim beam in front of the t.v. and smoke and say nothing more.
i’d been racing on the 431 since my brother took me that first night in the big blue station wagon my mother drove. it was the first hot night of spring, 1966, a chevy with a 427. he was seventeen and i was just fifteen and the night seemed brand new like i’d never known one before. i remember the air was different and filled with an incense of our teenage fears and an impatient sweat down our backs. all of this life and my life pushed up against the edge of death and the car door and out into the trees blurring. my head filled with blood and some crazy idea and the tires straining and an angry engine pounding out its own beat. we wouldn’t wear a death wish, but a tightrope hope like there wasn’t enough, enough love or luck or life at 35, but at 65 or 80, 90 now, it all bunched up and seemed more. we broke a 100 and smiled at one another like nervous virgins in the backseat at the drive in theater. and suddenly i wasn’t in the in between, but out in front before the sun and the stars where the old man’s eyes couldn’t catch me. and we knew, if only momentarily, life and the idea of death and the freedom of both and the road and the religion of speed.
i bought a ‘61 pontiac tempest le mans with the money i’d saved working the summer before, for the county service, paving roads and fixing guardrails and putting up road signs and the summer maintenance work and such. the old man pulled some strings and got me in, thinking hard work would do me some good. it was eight years old and body bondo and beat up bad by some sort of salesman and a salesman’s miles. his family lived in eufaula and it was a deal even if it wasn’t a dream, but if wishes were horses, beggars would ride all day, that’s what my mother would say. the tempest became the gto in ‘63, the first production muscle car, but the gto never handled the same. the tempest was the first car with the transmission over the rear axle in back. it had balance and an earthly cling to the asphalt and an animal instinct for speed. mike payne and me, we worked on it all summer and tommy sometimes, sometimes and never dickie, he didn’t know shit.
it was an odd day in may and my birthday and i was eighteen and told i was a man now. we had taken to drinkin’ all day as we thought men do, the four of us, dickie, mike, tommy and me. we laid on our backs in the tall grass fishing in the chatahoochee and not really trying to catch anything except some last dash at our innocence. we ate chocolate cake with our hands, the cake my sisters baked for my birthday and laughed like romans knowing that our whole damn world was burning down in this last bit of a spring sun. and we sang along to the rock music station on the car radio and the car doors open and dickie danced like mick jagger. i can still see him and remember the ache in my sides from laughin’. i don’t remember the song.
the old man had taken the night shift friday so he could have saturday off to drive me to montgomery, to the enlistment office and to his glory. he was at my bedroom door that friday night in his trooper uniform and i was changing into a clean t-shirt. he stood straight like soldiers do and with his chest he said, “you get in early, boy, tomorrow is the greatest day of your life.” and i felt the fires again and all an early summer’s heat in my head and in my room and i ran out into the warm night air and star jasmine and breathed in and out and drove into the night like a railroad spike into the ground. i could taste our desperation even thru the beer and the heart quick of nicotine and the thump of “well this is it” and the scary wonder of where we were going.
i was on the bumper of some rich cotton hill kid’s ‘67 mustang when i saw the red lights flashing on mike’s face and the round of a mercury cruiser’s headlights in the rear view mirror. the state patrol drove big block mercs with modified four barrel carburetors then. they were fast and heavy, steady and god straight. i hit the brakes hard and watched the mustang’s tail lights disappear over a small rise in the road and reappear and finally parish into the alabama rural black. the cruiser came up hard on my rear and big in my mirror and the guys were swearing up and down and throwing beer cans out the window. i pulled onto the soft shoulder and stopped. in the mirror i could see my old man’s boots swing down below the cruiser’s open car door with the big star gold on the side and crunch in the red dirt and toward my open driver’s side window. i could feel his anger like a noon day sun. he opened my door and pulled me out by my left arm and around my neck and threw me against the rear fender and “boy i owtta whip your ass” and “god damn the marines will straighten your ass up right quick come tomorrow” and “you get your sorry ass home, now, is that understood”. he walked back to the cruiser and to the engine humming ready and i said “no” to the width of his back like a dog might bark.
i stood on the road, on my shadow and faced him, my maker, as he turned around with a disbelief reserved for rattlesnake miracle faiths at pitched tent preacher shows. for a moment we stood like cowboys, maybe men and i turned and got in the tempest and dropped my childhood on the gas pedal so i thought it might go thru to the earth. tommy was screaming “what the fuck are ya doin”, like he was expecting some answer and dickie was just sayin “oh fuck, fuck, fuck man” and mike looked at me and then at the road ahead and smiled and sat back in his seat. i could feel the old man on us like a nightmare you carry into the dull of the day, my whole life blowing thru the windows, my past flashing in red colors behind me. and all the while stafford, cernan and young were somewhere in space racing towards the moon, somewhere above me like three stars, the moon pulling them, pulling me.
his merc cruiser was ultimately faster and right behind me at a hundred or a hundred and ten, but we were coming up on the curves and our chance to break free. the road made a hard right and i braked even harder. i could hear the tires keeping their word and then his tires and the gravel where he missed and a rise and a right again and a hard left and the sound of the cruiser’s rubber off the road and the rumble of dirt. the cruiser’s red lights caught in the red dust and his taillights were where his headlights should be. mike looked over at me, but he wouldn’t speak, only dickie would utter a “holy shit …” before our eyes stopped him, and then there was only the engine and the wind in the windows and the church of the night.
we would drive into the black only an alabama can make, into an eighteen and a hundred miles up the 431 and nowhere really. none of us said much about what happened, but what could be said that our mothers hadn’t already prayed about. we drank warm beers and blew smoke out the windows. we stopped for gas and cigarettes and drove till we couldn’t see the moon. the four of us were moving towards something and never suspecting that we’d ever left, but its hard to know where you are or where you’re going until you’re somewhere else.
the old man was waiting for me on the porch when i finally came home. all i could see of him was the lit end of his cigarette burning like i imagined he was burning, a sun somewhere on the other side of the earth. i spoke first, my voice surprised me, “i’ll drive myself to montgomery”, i said almost loudly, but things have a tendency to seem more at night. there was only a silence after, my words somewhere, but invisible like the moon dropping under the horizon. there was a brightening ember where he inhaled and he breathed out and said, “say goodnight to your mother before you turn in, she worries about you”. his words mixed in his cigarette smoke and before they fell to the floor i realized his work was done.
three men, stafford, cernan and young, would fly around the moon and back that week, back to the earth and home to the hands that made them. and we would drive to montgomery and back the next day, back to the pull of eufaula and the weight of our age and the weight of the men that made us, me and tommy howard and dickie and mike payne.
(published South Carolina Review, Spring 2005)