Broke down on I-40 a few miles west of Checotah, Oklahoma. Service truck pulled over behind me and a well-fed, Spring-tanned Oklahoman boy popped out of his cab and asked if I was alright. I told him that the engine just cut and he took a quick look under the hood, pinching and hooking a few hoses and said that it was probably electrical. After making sure I had a cellphone and was gonna call Triple A, he tipped his hat, flipped his signal and pulled back onto the highway.
A few minutes later, as I was being transferred to an agent in Oklahoma, a small blue pickup was reversing down the shoulder towards me. An unwrinkled, jolly-looking little man in dirty green overalls stepped out and asked what the matter was. I told him that it was probably electrical, that the engine just quit on me. He pinched a few hoses and asked if it was running hot and told me about his boys, who were about my age, and how it was real nice living in Checotah and that he wasn't looking too forward to mowing his lawn when he got home and didn't mind waiting with me for awhile. He convinced me to convince the wrecker company being sent by Triple A to tow me to Shawnee which was a bigger city than Checotah, within a hundred miles and was on my way besides. Once you get there, he said, Since it'll pry be too late to do ay work on it tonight, to make sure to lock it up good and park it in a wel-litted spot, because whether it's New York City or Oklahoma theyre is bad people. Now theyre is gonna be good people too but theyre is gonna be bad ones.
I sat on the guardrail in the humid buzzing direct Oklahoma highway sun and watched the vans and trucks and cars whip past me, their drivers turning their heads to the spectacle, to the break in the line and monotony of the road, to me, and then pass. I was sad that none of them would remember me. And I was sad that I would never remember them. And there was nothing to be done.
A flatbed wrecker spun its orange hazards and slowed and then reversed down the shoulder to my Jeep. Darrell, a beardless man with a flowing Buffalo Bill mustache and a large, taut belly, asked me how I was doing. His arms were covered in cancerous looking pocks and dry sores, scabs and charred looking welts. On his left, dark, drooping eyelid, there hung a pink growth that must have partly impaired his vision. I told Darrell that I'd been better, though I don't know if that was true, or if I would have been able to verify it just then anyway. He chained up my undercarriage, had me put her in neutral and steer her up onto the sharp slant of his wreckerbed.
Forty years ago Darrell went to Paramedic School for three days, they gave him a certificate and a fast car and he spent the next twenty years chasing after highway wrecks. His last call, before he gave up the business and went into towing (wrecking, as they call it in these parts), he responded to his brother's second consecutive heart attack and had to trach him to keep him from choking on his own blood. Not that wreckers is much better, he told me. He's been down the highway more than once with a pillowcase to collect bodyparts in. Just last week there was a woman clean decapitated just a few miles back, and he traced across his neck with his index finger. I had read recently that in the Plains Indians sign language the universal sign for Sioux was the pantomime of a decapitation. People have told me, Darrell told me, that I'm cold-blooded, but I ain't. I simply ain't. He paused, as if he were going to go on and explain, but we both just sat there, in the filthy, ash-stained, over-air-conditioned, cracked naugahyde cab, thinking about it. I tell ya one thing, Darrell told me, I ain't gonna see something that I ain't already seen. Been on this highway forty years now.
He told me that as a child, when he was going to the Indian elementary school, even though he was one/eighth Cherokee, because he still looked white, he was picked on. And he repeated it for me, that he was a minority, as a white person, and that he didn't owe the Indians anything for what some of his ancestors might or might notta done to some of their ancestors, and that the casinos aren't really his thing, though there's enough of em, and he only goes occasionally to win forty or fifty dollars or lose some and see some people he knows that hang around there, and that Tulsa is the most inland port in the world, that ships come up the gulf and up the Arkansas and through a series of locks and canals and man-made lakes all the way to port in Tulsa. He doesn't think either that the Checotah Flying J, where I had filled up a few miles before my breakdown, had anything to do with it, cause even if the gas is sometimes muddy it's always fresh, heck, they got two sometimes three trucks running twenty-four hours up to Tulsa where it's refined. I told him that I didn't know that there were refineries in Oklahoma. Suck it right out of the ground, he said. Conoco-Phillips and some others. This lake here, he said, Lake Eufaula, largest man-made lake on the continent. And they filled it with bass and catfish and some other fish. Record for biggest bass pry weighs almost as much as you. I shook my head in appreciation. Yep, he said, Hundred and twenty six pound, he said, which is less than I weigh.
Darrell and his wife have fostered seventeen children. Seventeen out of eighteen, he told me, worked out, too. One of em lasted only two and a half days, and then he threatened my wife. Didn't realize I was in the house. I was standing right behind him when he said it. Now he did something that he shouldn't of done and I did something I shouldn't of done. Grabbed him by the hair and dragged him outside by it, didn't let go til we got to town either. Dropped him at the courthouse and didn't ever see him again, he said, and there was no pause in his telling, Now we got two kids, wife and me had em four years now, Haley and Jason. Haley is the first girl out of the seventeen we already had. My wife's always liked outdoor stuff, hunting and fishing and all that, and girls don't really like that. Not many of them anyway, that's why we's always asked for boys. We might adopt them now. The parents had to give up their rights to em just a few months back and now we could adopt them if we wanted to. I know the father pretty well. Not a bad guy but got mixed up in the wrong things, started doing cocaine and had too hard of a time giving it up, says he wants the kids back now but he won't go to rehab even though he's off cocaine, but those are the conditions the judge gave and now he's had to give up his rights to em. So now we could adopt them. I only got two rules. No stealing and no lying. No doing drugs either but that usually goes with the first two. Once you win their trust, then you got em. Then you're good. I have two girls of my own too. In their thirties now, have kids of their own.
Darrell took me to the Motel 6 in Shawnee, told me he'd wait for me to get a room and to see where in the parking lot to roll off my Jeep to.
In the lobby of Motel 6, a large woman in a head scarf, with a happy, gap-toothed smile, was talking to a very dark-skinned, factory-uniformed fellow who looked a few years older than me. With the tips of her fingers she handed him a taco and a cheeseburger both still in their almost-melting plastic package, both just out of her microwave and steaming hot. He joked with her, or maybe confessed to her, that sometimes one or two of the packages fall off the back of the truck and she laughed and told him if any more tacos fall outta the truck then she could bring him some, and they laughed again, and I joined in their pleasant laughter, and they both looked at me. I told them my story, that my truck was on the bed of a wrecker and that I was in a sort of hurry. I asked if there were any brokedown specials and they both laughed and the owner, whose pale-brown cheeks were constellated with gray, abundant freckles, laughed a musical, slow series of he-he-he's, and said she had a brokedown special if I didn't mind a brokedown room. Long as it's gotta door, I said, and the three of us laughed. The vending machine worker (his nametagged shirt gave away the profession) said that he had to go, and wished me luck, and thanked and said goodbye to Porsche, who turned to typing on her oldish looking computer.
Your name's Porsche?
That's my name.
Pretty, I said, and Porsche looked at me, and then smiled.
I'm gonna write you in, she told me, for room 212 with the flickering bathroom light, which is ten dollars off the regular price. I told her that that was fine, and it came to thirty-nine dollars and some change, before tax, which added another six.
I told Darrell, who was waiting patiently for me in the parking lot with the engine idling, the good news. While I was booking the room he had meanwhile set me up with Big Wheel Wrecker, and told me that the owner, Mike, would be calling me soon and maybe would even be able to take a quick look at the Jeep tonight. I shook Darrell's hand, he wrote out the number off my Triple A card, and then he sped out of the parking lot and back onto the highway, headed east for Checotah.
I hauled the cooler and atlas and a few of my bags into my room and then went to stand and scope what was left of Oklahoma's afternoon. In the Southeast corner of the parking lot, visible to passing eastbound motorists, was a billboard that read, BE STILL AND KNOW THAT I AM GOD. Psalm 46:10. The landscape over which the white, all-cap letters hovered was an Oklahoman evening-orange, an over-tinted sunset above hills that could have been a rendering of the immediate, timber-studded hills surrounding Shawnee directly behind the billboard. Except, though, except for that the nearly embryonic, computer-dramatized orange was undoubtedly the full-sky orange of a sunset, and not that of a sunrise, and so driving east, towards the always-coming darkness and with the spin of the earth, which would be the circumstance of any motorist viewing the billboard, unless they were reading in their rearview mirrors, leant the message, I felt, an emphasis different from the capitalized and underlined I AM, for indeed there was something somewhat aren't rather than are about the misoriented sign, which gave me the strong impression that the real emphasis, and in fact the real and only message, maybe, forgive me, was: BE STILL.
And the brokedown special light in my bathroom in the room that Porsche gave me didn't flicker at all.
Porsche's daughter-in-law, who was due in December but still ain't showing yet, served me at the Denny's, which was in the same parking lot complex as the Motel 6, along with a Days Inn, La Quinta Inn, and a Conoco-Phillips gas station/minimart. I ordered the 'You Pick Four Slam' and picked eggs easy, bacon, wheat toast and oatmeal. I took the oatmeal to go, overtipped the pregnant waitress and walked back across the cracked black asphalt, past semis and campers parked for the night, and into my room to read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s essay 'The Dimensions of a Man' and wait for another call from Mike to come for the headstart diagnostic on my Jeep.
Mike didn't call until past nine, after he had gotten some food in him, as he said. I met him in the parking lot, where he stood, in the half-dark, holding his computer in its hard briefcase. He was a young man, probably in his mid to late thirties, but already balding. His thin brown hair was greased and brushed straight back on his tanned, slightly sweating head that gleamed through his hair in the warm yellow light.
The computer, he told me, a few moments later, punching its buttons, had trouble communicating with my computer. I leant him my flashlight and together we hovered over the breaker box, which spoke nothing.
A man called from across the lot, asking if we needed any tools. I always travel with my tools, he said. The small-mouthed, red-haired man and his pale, dyed-black long-haired teenage son who wore all black including a black skull cap, came over to peer into my hood. They both held Denny's to-go Styrofoam soda cups with straws and they both held them within mouth's reach and frequently slurped from them. The man raised on his toes, as if in excitement, every time that he spoke. He and Mike talked about the computer, the various models of Solus and Brics, and the complications with foreigns, and upgrading to 07-08's, and what to charge for initial diagnostics, whether with the Solus or the Bric, and what it's like to be a Chevy man with a Titan, which is a Jap manufacture. The quiet, shyly-grinning son murmured something about the batmobile that his father and Mike plainly ignored and I didn't follow though the comment seemed to satisfy him very well. After nearly an hour of un-paused shop-talking, the man and his son shook Mike's and my hand and said how it was real good to meet us, and he seemed to mean it, and we said goodnight and safe travels all around and Mike loaded the Jeep onto his wrecker and I watched him pull away into the night, which was partly illuminated by the Psalmist's billboard and the unsteady headlight stream of highway traffic.
In my room I poured myself a Grouse and watched the last quarter of game five of the NBA Finals. The Lakers won in overtime.
Before falling asleep I thought of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, which I had visited that morning, which had been converted into the Civil Rights Museum. I thought of the view of that hotel, from across the street, from the very room from which James Earl Ray had taken aim, the view of the corner balcony, the balcony where Dr. King fell, the railing over which his foot rested, the view that accompanied the final decision of Ray, and not only the decision but the will behind the decision, and not only the potential and momentum of the will, but the deed, the view that accompanied the deed. The geography, the geometry, the will the motive the decision or the madness or even the witness, I thought, the witness cannot untake the deed. Memory nor legacy nor redemption nor retribution can untake the deed, the deed that bears witness to itself and needs no other witness but we need it and Paul Celan writes that no one bears witness for the witness.
At 9:30 the next morning, Joe, a young Native American boy, on summer break from studying business at Seminole State University, picked me up in a Big Wheel Wrecker. We had to stop at A&R Body for some schematics, and then we turned left down Harrison down Highland, just outside of historic downtown Shawnee, and pulled into a back garage lot. Patrick was already on his back under my Jeep. His son, a frenetic, skinny, four-year-old named Tennessee, who wore elastic waistband camo-shorts, a small camo-t-shirt, and tiny black and blue and silver Skecher velcro sneakers, jumped around and over and under the Jeep and on his back and stomach and on the skate following or bothering his father, giving orders and asking questions and not infrequently telling his father, or Joe, or me, that he told us so, or that he would kick us in the eye, or just looking at one of us in the eye and shadow punching the air in front of him and making the accompanied, spittly, cinematic sound effect. Some of these antics got a chuckle or a smirk or the occasional remonstrance from Patrick or Joe. Most of them were completely ignored. I, trying to listen and follow Patrick's explanations about my breakdown, was distracted, sometimes appalled and often amazed by Tennessee's automobile vocabulary, his precocious social impudence and his mechanical acumen. He rightly reminded his father where my O2 sensor was, described to me the various types of steering wheels, and knew a thing or two about the function of the sundry circuits and fuses that he dug or dumped out of a huge bucket of spare electrical parts. The next few hours, as Patrick fiddled and re-welded on my two new O2 sensors, I watched and sometimes played with Tennessee as he tirelessly investigated and kicked and pretended he was racing and named and spilled and dismantled and climbed upon or into the many loose engine blocks, car cabins, exhaust manifolds, and many other pieces and deconstructions of cars that I didn't recognize and couldn't name though Tennessee all probably could.
I spent most of my time in the garage on a sunken, maroon, well-greased couch. Joe and I took one trip to a bank and an auto parts store in the wrecker. Patrick, Tennessee and I also took one trip to the neighboring Dollar Store, where Patrick bought beef jerky and two bottles of Mountain Dew and Tennessee chose a Dr. Pepper and three lunch size bags of Cool Ranch Doritos. I bought a coffee at the Sinclair gas station next door.
Occasionally, and without provocation, Tennesse, whether in the middle of balancing on a broken cardboard box, or swinging a lead pole in the air in the style of a ninja, would call out to his father that he loved him, a quick, staccato, I-love-you-dad. Patrick, concentrating underneath my car or hood, would not always immediately hear him, and so Tennessee would call again, and again, not desperately but insistently, his proclamation of love until Patrick would finally reply, I love you too little man.
Though he probably did so everyday, Patrick seemed to take particular delight in resting his package of beef jerky on the engine block. And I felt that I understood his delight, in the filthy-fingered tearing and eating, and even wished that he would offer me a chunk or strip so that I too could reach into the plastic package with unclean fingers and taste that wonderful looking dehydrated beef that had sat on my old engine. But he never offered me any.
With my hood closed and almost three hundred dollars out of my pocket, I said goodbye and thank you, and left some of my grandmother's nutbread next to the Mountain Dew on the cluttered desk in the un-air-conditioned, age-stained office, and drove away. In about a mile the engine cut, I lost all power, and then glided to a stop in the right lane still on Highland and threw on my hazards.
Joe, Patrick and Tennessee all came to pick me up. We drove back to Big Wheel all huddled together in the cab of the wrecker, Tennessee on his father's lap, none of us in seatbelts. Patrick put my car on the lift, Tennessee and I played with the bucket of dirty fuses, and in another hour Patrick took the Jeep for a test run. I love you Daddy, Tennessee called as Patrick was pulling away. I told him that his dad couldn't hear and he told me that yes he could, and, indeed, Patrick, as he was already pulling out of the parking lot, without looking, canted his head out the window and called out that he loved the little man and Tennessee said to me, See.
One more test run, a handshake, not another dollar dropped and I was on my way into Oklahoma City. In the raw-stippling heat of the afternoon I stopped at the Oklahoma City Memorial. It is a sheek, very clean, minimalist, almost mutely-minimalist, memorial space. Every part of its construction, from the disconnected, empty walls, to the stiff-backed iron and glass chairs (one for each victim) resting on the gently sloping grass, to the inches-shallow reflecting pool, is nearly completely without dimension. On the western wall (designating the western wall of the old building) is written in large, flat numbers, the time, 9:01. On the opposite, eastern wall is written 9:03. The rental truck, of course, exploded at 9:02. And now, so the design of the memorial implies, the destruction of the building, or what remains of it, or the very lack of the building, inhabits that minute, 9:02. In fact, entering the space, now, as a visitor, implies a similar inhabitation of that minute, 9:02. But it was not a minute; it was not even a moment, but a disfigurement of a minute, a break of a moment, a break of time as much as a break of space. I thought of Picasso's Guernica, perhaps the most famous portrayal of an explosion, and what I see in that painting is a pursing not only of the bodies, and of the space, but also a contraction, a rift, a sundering, an atomization of time, and there seems to me to be a similarity between the horrific beauty of the Guernica and the not-even-austere simplicity of the Oklahoma City memorial: the bomb-folding, that more-than-happening between two moments of time, which actually opens, vacates and then inhabits, envacates, that moment. And it is a moment that has passed and yet it, 9:02, is a moment that passes everyday, and it is a moment that needs no witnesses, and even if we wanted to I don't know how we could witness it. An irreconcilable witnesslessness that despite all perfect or single or stained memory, fate has run its course and it is still running it and it is running it.
Behind the memorial, there is a statue in the place of the destroyed once-adjacent church of Jesus covering his face with his hand. Underneath the statue is written, And Jesus Wept. Is God, then, victim of God?
Paul Celan writes,
Whichever word you speak—
About the author:
John Washington currently lives and writes in Tucson. A previous story, 'Passion', was also published by Word Riot.
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