I remember my father saying once while he drove us to New Orleans one summer, that the sound my mother heard was the tar seams in the road. Not to worry. She sat there and didn't say another word. When the sound became louder, and white smoke began to come through the fan in the dashboard, my father hunched his shoulders and leaned over the steering wheel to avoid her stare. Then the engine coughed and lost a little of its power. A light came on in one of the dials indicating low oil. I was sitting in the middle of the back seat and could watch as this drama cranked up its tension. My mother looked out the window and my father willed himself to ignore the sounds and the signals. He was determined to believe nothing bad was happening.
In a few more minutes, the engine seized up and we came to a grinding halt on the side of the road. No sign of a gas station anywhere. No farms around. Nothing but the cricket-scratching shimmers over the hot fields. We were up the creek, as my mother would say. We got out and dad pulled up the sinister hood of the car and looked down to see a melted hose, some leaking gaskets below, and the curious inertia that surrounds a motor that doesn't work any more. It was just metal. We all struggled to get the car a little further off the road as big semis came roaring through, blowing dust over us. My father's stature as provider and protector had taken a big hit.
Failure has a certain odor unlike any other. It smells of burnt plans and squandered doubts. He had told me before we left home that he wanted to check the oil level, but he forgot to. The traffic was rushing over the bridge out of Philly and we were jockeying for a space in the tightly packed lanes. You didn't look out for a gas station in all that frenzy, you just drove. All the cars ahead of us had their rear view windows stuffed with beach toys and towels. No doubt the back seat was partly crowded with coolers and bags of potato chips, hamburger buns, a six-pack of Coke and another of fruit punch. Everyone was headed for Atlantic City, ready to have fun and come back sandy and exhausted to the hotel to shower off and lie there in the cool of the afternoon. But right now, it was a mad race to keep your spot in the line up of glinting sedans stampeding like wild horses for the turnpike entrance We were part of some national fever to leave school and work behind for a few precious days.
But there we were, stalled in a strip of parched sand.
Not sure where my father got his confidence, but I'd bet it was a hazard of his job as a criminal investigator for the government. If he believed something, it was because he had sifted through the evidence, found the key to its fragments, assembled a logical structure to events, and seized upon a truth nothing could dislodge from his steel-trap mind. He knew how to break even the hardest nut who might change so little as an adjective to describe his whereabouts on the night in question. That was all the flaw my father needed to slip in his delicate probe and to begin to scrape out the corrosive outer layers of a deception. He always got his man. He broke him like a dry sapling, and when it was done, and the man had cried helplessly before confessing, my father stood at the right hand of Descartes, and bathed in the glow of 18th century science. He had grasped the truth and nothing could persuade him that it wasn't pure gold.
So I grew up with a man who believed that most things in this life are made of lead, of corrupt alloys, cheap knock offs of the real thing. Everyone was lying about something, and all you had to do was get some slender sample of the truth to guide you through a waste land of deceptions. But that glorious certainty was nothing now. He stood with the ticking engine and knew nothing about motors. It was all grimy iron and old hoses, a rusting oil cap, some dusty spark plug wires leading to a distributor whose points hadn't been replaced in a decade. The car was this thing that had grown out of the Industrial Revolution, a kind of bastard offspring of the wild ideas about how steam, then coal, now gas could help us to escape from gravity. He had misled himself, and my mother was too clever to remind him of her own superior judgment. She avoided looking at him. She didn't complain. The wind was hot, the dry sand stung our hands as we stood there under the thunderous roar of the semis.
That's an old memory of my childhood. I knew we'd get help eventually, and end up standing in the cool, rank odors of some car repair shop. We'd be on the road after a night in a cheap motel and a breakfast of greasy fried eggs and bitter coffee. It never occurred to me that this episode of family life was an allegory of national life. Instead of my father driving the family sedan, we have a president at the wheel of a juggernaut more powerful than every other nation's rockets and armies. We have a man who toys with the levers now and then, and who has none of my father's dependence upon absolute truth, only a flimsy, eel-wiggly belief in the power of lies to explain everything. My father could have brokenTrump in one of those little Spartan offices he used to crack open his victims. Trump, like his sons and his cronies, changes versions of events at will, and assumes that his "base" of faithful believers will follow him wherever he leads. But even so, here we are on the side of the road while the big semis, i.e., other nations, come speeding by on the way to a future that seems more rational and secure than the one we are being given.
So who is my mother in this allegory? The pouting, resentful press? The intellectuals who are loath to explain what happened in our last election? Maybe, but I rather think it is the women in general who watched this catastrophe happening from the moment the smell of raw gas and burning wires assailed their nostrils in the campaign's early months. Women are not in power in this country; they witness and abide what happens but they cannot grab the wheel or pull on the emergency break. There's simply not enough of them willing to revolt against the male regime. Even though the faith men have come to depend upon over the last three centuries has led to a chain of catastrophic errors in judgment, in the misuse of resources, in the pillaging of nature. The garden was a small sign of rebellion, the geraniums in the window sill, the names like April and Rose were all tendered as the symbols of an alliance with some primordial source of reason and wisdom that had nothing to do with the fatal disease of escapism gripping men.
My mother used to "read" cards at night after we boys were sent up to bed. But I would sit hidden behind the banister and watch as my mother's red enamel fingernail tapped the backs of cards and sorted them into threes, turned up their faces to gaze and then say cryptic things like, "A dark man will call on you," or "a change will come with the wind." My father would lean over with his big round soldiers and his chubby fingers clasped together, listening intently. He never considered my mother an equal; she had no college education. She was intuitive, emotional, lurched this way and that like a puppet on the strings of her menstrual cycles, who would rail at the government in very choice language, and consider the Congress half crazy with its squandering of our tax money. But at night, after a drink and the soft, shadowy calm of the house settled over him, my father would let go his empirical vanity and watch as my mother became a shaman with all of nature to decode in these mysterious cards on the table.
Most women don't read cards or talk about being born under a veil. Let's say that was my mom's Sicilian heritage talking; but women keep their counsel and tuck in their chins when they see the Congress attempt to slash the safety net keeping the poor alive. When Mitch McConnell huffs and puffs about lowering taxes and giving the rich and corporations huge breaks while fighting minimum wage reforms and relief to middle class families, they are in the shot gun seat of a smoking, lurching automobile heading for the shoulder of the road. They know it's a game of titans elected out of "safe" districts and monopoly state machines, and that they don't have to fear recriminations for their reckless acts unless they are so foolish as to host a town-hall meeting and hear the rage and disillusionment of ordinary people, mostly women, hurled at them.
Well, I'm out here with the rest of you on the hot dusty shoulder getting stung by the wind-whipped sand, enduring the wonders and tragedies of a government of men always shaking the foundations of democracy out of some eternal restlessness to master nature, to grab the Earth by its throat and demand obedience. The men hear the rumbles of a troubled world, and know that climate change and melting ice caps will imperil all of us. They know that, but it doesn't stop them from dreaming they can conquer this little blue ball of life floating in the desert vacuums of infinity.