VERMILION, part 3
My first car after graduate school was a 1963 Ford Falcon station wagon. My husband, Cliff, hates reading this part about the Falcon because he remembers the details differently, but so it is: our memories are unreliable and often our version of things can be as annoying to others as our personality quirks. The 1963 Falcon wagon had the first automatic window Ford ever installed, which meant the back window rolled up with the push of a button at the driver's seat instead of the crank of a handle at the tail. Theoretically. Ours was more inclined to jam than to close. Cliff worked long and hard to fix the problem, but once the back window was down, it could never be relied upon to go back up. The 1963 Falcon wagon sported the first-ever transistor radio installed in an automobile, which meant no more vacuum tubes and so no more waiting for the radio to warm up: it was like magic. But then the rainy season came and the show was over. Some things just can’t be put back the way they were. In 1963, the new Falcon hit showroom floors in a variety of designer colors such as aqua and lemon chiffon. Ours was vermilion. That’s the twenty-dollar word for blood red, but by the time we bought it in 1991, our vermilion car looked more like tomato soup made with milk. Bottom line, my Falcon wagon was a two hundred dollar car and looked it. All the same, after grad school I was so excited to get a car, any car, that I hung up on a long distance friend only to call him back with a tail-to-grille description.
Humphrey, for that was my new car's name, was a steady-as-you-go three speed -- three on a tree, for those of you who remember -- and while I might have wished he were faster, I always loved the clunk-ka-chunk sound of his shifting gears. It was a sound that suited the plodding pace of an out-to-pasture gelding with the sturdy, friendly face of a mule. My internal combustion steed had a faux air scoop nestled into the hood where a nose might have been, and on his sides were branded what appeared to be chrome rockets but were, in fact, industrial age falcons. For inspiration only, I'm afraid; Humphrey was a slow starter. Oh, he ran well enough when I got him on the freeway, if I got him on, and therein lay the challenge. Portland is a city of freeway on-ramps that double as off-ramps, and so each time I tried to set Humphrey to running loose, I also faced 500-horsepower stallions cutting us off both left and right. We didn’t always make it. Sometimes, just as my old mule was getting up to speed to merge, the two of us got herded off in another direction. However, back on the streets of my city neighborhood, I loved the slow, whining wind-down sound of the engine as I let off the gas and rolled to a stop. It was a comforting sound, the sound of something sturdy and reliable, and I enjoyed it all the more for the fact that I had little comfort in my life at that time. Not long after I got my new car, for example, the same long-distance friend I’d hung up on, a man of 5'9" who’d longed to play professional basketball and who made his living as a sports writer, called looking for my reaction to Magic Johnson's announcement. My straight friend was stunned at the news. I was stunned. But his was the disillusionment of hero-worship, while mine was just plain disillusionment. A philandering celebrity sports figure was worthy of concern because of his HIV status, but not my friend Jose. No matter how I drew parallels, this friend did not -- could not -- see Jose’s situation as being worth his attention.
When I got Humphrey, I was working as a part-time writing tutor at the Alternative Learning Center, a drop-in center at a community college on the north end of town. It was the first job since I'd completed my degree nearly a year prior for which I’d been hired to do the work I'd been trained to do. It took me two buses to get to the Learning Center and cost me a dollar and an hour each way. I worked a four-hour shift twice a week. After we got the Falcon, I was often tempted to drive. Who knows what that cost me. Humphrey got maybe eight miles to the gallon, and I'd rev the engine up to the top of every gear before shifting, getting the most power I could out of my three-in-tree speeds. I drove that car as fast and as hard as I could push it, like it was my own body, my anxious legs pumping and churning hard, harder, hardest. So, while on the bus it seemed I sleep walked to work and back, in the Falcon it seemed like I ran. Then, one day, not twenty yards from the uptown freeway off-ramp and the circuitous route that winds me round the edge of the city and across the river to my rented home, I hit the wall.
The wall runners hit.
The wall writers hit.
The wall families hit. And friends. No one warns you about that wall.
Things fail. The people we love, the bodies we rely on, the cars that get us to our jobs and homes, they break down on us at the moment we least expect. It can’t be helped; we are not immortal and although they remain longer than we in the world, neither are the mountains nor the seas nor stars. It is a universal truth that all things perish. Fast or slow, with warning or without, it all goes. One day I’ll go. I find myself looking at old people (that’s over seventy or eighty by my current definition) and thinking, Someday that will be me. But even though we know this, even though we know our loved ones will cause us pain, our cars break down, our houses collapse, our lives screech to a halt, we are surprised when it happens.
I wonder if a star is surprised when it finally winks out of its existence as a being of adoration and light and tornadoes into the gravitational unknown. Star, supernova, black hole; even on a celestial time table, the end -- the transmutation from this form to that, from motion to stillness -- must come as a shock. And so it is no less with human beings. We super-glue and duct-tape and patron-saint our cars and our bodies, hoping they’ll take us that last extra mile, deliver us to that last important destination; and in the midst of nothing important, a run to the grocery store, or of everything important, rush hour; they stop. The vermilion of their days spilling like pollen onto the airwaves.
It was on a spring morning, the same spring that brought me Humphrey that Jose called to tell me he had AIDS and more: he was sick. Fever, chills, night sweats, all the result of some opportunistic infection, no doubt, but he didn't know what it was. Worse yet, the doctor didn't know. It would actually be more than two years before the infections and diseases overtook him, but we didn’t know that then, and Jose was alone: alone in fear, alone in pain, alone in a body that no longer worked properly, and too long alone in a house in the mountains with no companionship but the dogs. He began commuting into the city, Frank dropping him off at six in the morning in a neighborhood just across the river from where I live, and there Jose would sit on the curb, in the dark, waiting for the HIV Day Center to open. Without discussion, Cliff and I gave him a key. We said, Come and go as you like. In my journal I wrote:
Jose has come twice this week. This morning I talked with him briefly before dropping him off at the Center. This afternoon he will have tests run on his liver. He thinks perhaps he is experiencing the beginning of his death. I am at a loss as to how I can reach out to him. I am reaching, but we're not connecting, not able to touch, only sending sound signals (and silences) across the distance.When he got no better, we said, Move in. You and Frank both. We gave them the attic, narrow stairs made narrower by a sagging handrail, moss green carpet, a futon lying on it, a bare bulb in a ceiling so steeply sloped that only a child could stand under it, and plywood walls that the previous renter had painted bright public-swimming-pool blue. You could lie on your back and feel like you were drowning. It was what we had to offer. They stayed the night one time. Then another. Then two nights in a row, then three. . . . Jose just kept getting sicker. In my journal I reminded myself:
I wished for this. In the wake of deaths experienced at a distance I invited Death to walk a little closer to my door. I wanted to better hear this song. And now Death walks down my street humming under his breath, softly humming.Each morning, when Frank got up, Jose would come downstairs to sit on my sofa. It wasn't a proper sofa but the loveseat-sized end of what was once a sectional, cunningly striped in two shades of golden brown like a brindled cat, but that would have been back in the days when the Falcon was just a colt. The sofa Jose sat on was a straight-backed, one-armed, taxidermied version of the original with the stuffing poking out of one corner. There was no love left in this loveseat, which made sitting awkward and lying down impossible, but each morning there Jose would hunch under a blanket, brown skin ashen, mouth clamped shut. His mother, who normally visited this time of year, did not know he was sick, not how sick. His father did not know he was gay. I knew everything but what to do. Normally unwilling to speak before coffee and at least half a newspaper, mornings found me chattering endlessly as I waited for my turn in the bathroom. One morning I hit a spin, like a car on black ice. Skidding in slow-motion circles, I ran on and on and on about the transformation the women in my family make every day before going to work or out shopping, and when I ran out of my own tale to spin, I began asking Jose what rituals the women in his family had. I suppose I was apologizing for my disheveled state, or perhaps for the fact of living in close quarters, but mostly I was longing to fill the silence; I who craved silence.
Running late more and more, I began driving to work. There I began to hear laudatory remarks from my co-workers as I let out, like a slow leak from a punctured tire, the fact that my friend with AIDS was ill; that he was staying with me because he and his partner lived an hour away; that he couldn't be that far from a doctor; that he had nowhere else to go. The lauding came in hushed tones and included words like "brave." Brave. In pursuit of a career in writing or something like it, I was slowly going broke; putting off my student loans just one more quarter and then one more so I could bus to a part-time, eleven-dollar-an-hour job at a community college, a job I loved, in the part of town that news-watching suburban whites regarded as our version of the Bronx; and then drag myself through drug-infested Old Town to an afternoon job in a repo department in the suburbs. Each was an hour's commute by bus; one way. When I drove, it was in a red rust bucket with lint-covered seats and bad brakes. I may have been a lot of things, desperate comes to mind, but I don’t know that brave was one of them; I was in no danger, except for feeling sorry for myself. What I felt was ridiculous. Wearing my eggplant colored Valerie Steven's suit or my heather gray Jones New York, purchased on close-out, I must have looked like a neon advertisement for the do-good-white-women's-society as I rushed to arrive on time to teach teen mothers and displaced middle-aged homemakers to read college texts and write compositions on outdated Apple computers. From my point of view, bravery was what was going on around me; from the man in his sixties who had raised up a family and held down a job but was just now learning to read, to the overweight, gap-toothed woman in tight pants who talked about loving Jesus and wrote about sexual abuse and being beaten; black, brown, white, I tutored a spectrum of adult basic education students most teachers never see, mostly women, mostly middle-aged. There were few men at the Learning Center, and they tended to be shy with me, except for the young blond with palsy in his limbs and on his lips. He had arrived at the Center by way of collision: drugs, speed, and the immovable object. He kept trying to get me to go out with him, out on a date, out to the parking lot, out to his car; he didn't care, anywhere. I adored them all, even the woman who wrote about kicking her son out of the house when he confessed his homosexuality. She loved her son, she said, but she loved Jesus more. At the Center, I helped her to read the literary essays assigned in her comp class, word by word, sentence by sentence, idea by idea. The day I left that job, she pressed a five dollar bill into my hand, and when I declined, her eyes got teary and she insisted: You need to have something to see you through, she said. At home Jose, my one-time student, my dearest friend, and now my housemate, sat on my couch in silence. No matter what I said to draw him out, he would not talk. Then one morning, he said, “I want to die.”
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