There was a station wagon framed with wood paneling. Painted the icy shade your tongue turns when you get to the end of a Bomb pop. Blue as a soft contrast to the rusted edges. It once carried the four of us to St. Louis on vacation, scraping its belly across I-70. Each bump, sending the kids into the sillies. For twenty miles any word starting with the letter ‘b’ sent my brother and me to near tears. Bubble. Bumble. Boat. Bobby. Beetlejuice. Boob. The sillies distracted from the defensive driving happening up front.
Marc Maron on the artist Lorde, a barely legal popstar who dances to her own music for three minutes. No singing, just moving her lanky body all over the stage like a funky, smiling scarecrow. Unadulterated emotion. Reckless. This is moronic to Marc.
Watching, listening to intense joy—stuck in a car without the ability to switch off the tiny laughs in the backseat. It can make you start holding your breath while you switch lanes, lips pursed tight around the Fuck you buddies as you avoid the rearview.
There was a maroon Oldsmobile Cutlass with a cracked grill. And a Mercury Topaz, gold with a prominent rubber line sweeping down the sides. Partially peeled, black Sharpie used to fill in for continuity. Drawing on metal with marker like an outline in a coloring book.
All of our family vehicles were close to the ground. In first grade, we drove to Disney in a silver Plymouth Voyager. The Voyager had a cloth ceiling that hung low, tickling our hairlines on the way to school. I went from the sillies to asking mom to drop me off a block from the movie theater. In his craft class, Darin Strauss talks about characters as machines. Mr. Stevens in The Remains of the Day is a dignity machine.
Dad is a machine of despair. Telling stories with a brown tint. And that’s why I can’t own a gun. He likes to end with a punch line.
I was driving back from Wathena with cousin Davey and his girlfriend. We were in high school and out of our minds. The car bounced against the guardrail. Have you ever heard teeth smack together? They make a clicking noise – like flicking a lateral incisor with a fingernail.
His sister, Aunt Carrie, also was a raconteur. This house was built on an ancient burial ground. I think she is the kind of machine that believes in ghosts. There was the time she saw a young boy in the middle of the night, dressed for the coal mines, perched on a stack of towels at the foot of the bed. His cotton terry boot print still there at sunrise. Sleepovers were spent trying to catch a look, praying for a silhouette, but I saw nothing.
Uncle Mick did, though. At least according to Carrie. He rode to work with him one morning in the cabin of his truck. Red eyed and on his way to a 10-hour shift packing batteries, and there the boy appeared in his pointed shoes laced up to the knee.
Sophomore year I took a class called Haunting and Healing, where I learned about the ‘Restless History’ of the Hudson River Valley. Did you know there are more tales of the supernatural upstate than any other place in America? Have you ever been to Columbia County, just south of Albany? I took a Ford Contour up the BQE and ran my fingers along the gritty brick walls of hollow brownstones, now mere etchings showing the Dutch influence, or what is left. I stopped at the House on Ten Broeck Street, picked paint off the white columns, and tried to rouse the man inside. Dressed in the clothing of a 17th-century Dutch soldier, he was last seen on the top floor holding a metal helmet and fistful of blonde curls. The most unusual hauntings familiarize the foreign, help us process trauma.
My aunt and uncle were having issues as the ghost child showed up. The kind of issues I would experience decades later, like when you can’t keep stories straight about how the remote control broke, or what happened to the red vase that used to sit near the corner of the couch. How Black Dog developed what was called an associative disorder with parts of the floor – the areas where things happened. The ex-husband saw a little girl standing by our bedside, in the spot Black Dog avoided. It’s her that keeps him from lying with us. The conviction in telling me how she smiled at him while I lay still.
Every dent in the dry wall smelled of burnt brussels sprouts and overpriced Malbec.
My Dad told me to keep an eye on you.
We used to take the Dodge Stratus to the vet, leaving small dots of oil in our path.
The way Uncle Mick did from the kitchen to the garage, skin smelling of gasoline from nights at a work bench decorated in Kools empties. Playboy. Poster. Poontang. Topless girls above the lawn mower, high enough for all, including his elementary aged daughter, to see. She saw other things in the garage. Then she would go and reenact, making her cousin rub privates together like she had seen those other women do. Kids left alone, not knowing. Hiding, sneaking.
Aunt Carrie rearranging furniture. Maybe one day he’ll come home, think he’s in the wrong house.
Fourth of July was always at theirs. High on a hill of gravel I learned to not trust young boys with bottle rockets. Adults scattered outside, kids in the bedrooms: my cousin and his girlfriend locked away. You’re going to poke a hole in that baby’s head.
Juvenile hormones with no impulse controls.
Like losing my virginity before my first menstrual cycle. Before I’m old enough to drive. Spending eighth grade hiding used latex in Nintendo 64 boxes, soiled tissues behind cartoon faces with oversized mustaches.
Rachel Cusk says she doesn’t believe in character development. That traits are more oceanic, seasonal even, and that people can and do change. Maybe we aren’t machines.
My first car was a red Pontiac Sunfire.
Graduation weekend, I was driving back from Wathena with a friend riding shotgun. Fighting blurry, tired eyes. She leaned out the window, wishing to touch the guardrail, then sprayed undigested Smirnoff down the side panel.