In 1967 the Volkswagen Beetle was given a 12-volt electrical system. They also upgraded the engine to 1493 cc. Mine was blue, if I could call my parents’ car mine, and I did, and I assumed some subtle credit for the intelligent way it was designed, the rear engine heavy over the driving wheels and all.
I read a book about the Beetle’s history. It explained how this design helped Rommel drive through the deserts of Africa in the Second World War. Now it helped me drive through the winter in Ames, in the abysmal cold, street lights blurring and warbling through the windshield ice as I drove from work to that girl Cotton’s apartment. These cars had no heater, really. I pulled off my gloves anyway. In the dark driver’s seat, on the empty road, steering with my knees, I pulled out my box of Marlboros and lit one by skittering an Ohio Blue Tip match over the dash, pulling on it for the familiar hit. I steered with my left hand, cigarette clenched between my cold right-hand’s knuckles.
With all the engine weight in the back, I slurred around snowy corners, oversteering to skid straight into the lane, heading up the slight hills of campus and by the giant cyclone—our fatalistic team icon in spiral neon— past the apartment building I got lost in during one very strange acid trip, past Ames Fruit and Grocery where my parents shopped, past the hamburger joint where they said the cooks spit on your burgers, past the trailer park where my brother’s best friend lived, and up Lincoln Way, the main highway through town, the old road that threaded through Iowa from NYC behind me to San Francisco in front of me, my wheels tracking two lines, no traffic, just this car, snow blowing sideways across the gridline highway all the way to her building. It was maybe only two miles but I was shivering now, really cold. It was something like 20 below even before all that wind of the rising storm. The parking lot was unplowed — not a problem for a driver with my skills, of course, executing a 360 on the ice before crunching into place. This ordinary solstice-season dark felt like Christmas. I flicked my butt out the window, turned on the dome light, opened the Marlboros. Inside, one cigarette had been flipped upside down, a dark dot in the box. The deal: If the dark one drops into my lap, it is going to work, she’ll say ok. I tried to be cool about it, as if I were just getting another smoke, not engaging in augury. I turned the box over and tapped. Two cigarettes fell out into my lap, neither one special.
She called herself “Cotton” because she said she was from the south, but I knew she grew up here. She had gone to my high school five or ten years before. She knew the same trailer parks and the grocery stores, she knew the kids who painted the water tower during their graduation year. This hard winter wasn’t strange to her at all. But she came back from Texas saying “y’all” as if she earned it. She came back with a baby, stories about drugs, and with a body different from the stiff, straight lines of the girls I knew. She knew things.
I hunched against the wind on my way to the door. Cotton was pale and wore a nightgown, translucent even in the dim light; she let me in fast and told me to be quiet. There was a daughter asleep in the next room, one I never saw in all the times I went over. Cotton didn’t want to talk, didn’t let me sit down. She sent me into the bathroom to take a bath. I drew the bath and squeezed zits while it filled. I took my Hardees uniform and threw it on the floor, greasy polyester stained with ketchup. I soaked in the tub a while, thinking about my luck, about the danger of pushing too hard and getting over-confident, and about the spooky mechanism that could tell when you were overeager and wrecked everything. I kept thinking about her skin or the way her muscles moved in her legs, her loose breasts that I struggled not to stare at. I knew she wasn’t a beautiful woman. It never occured to me to ask why she lived alone, or where she worked, if she worked, why she left Ames or why she came back. Taking a deep breath, I swooped under the bathwater entirely, getting my head wet and coming up for air, then slid my hands all the way down my Robert Plant hair to squeeze out some water. I shook my head, spraying the walls like sheepdog, dried off and put my clothes back on.
The apartment was dark and she was sitting on the couch, watching the Olympics. All we wanted to see were the long jumps. Being up there, hung up in the air like that, falling for what seemed like a day and half, did they expect to land right, the smooth line of their decent merging with the smooth sleek line of the hill? Or was the whole slow fall terrifying, expecting snapping bones, bouncing and flailing into the ice and snow? How do you learn to do stuff like that, we wondered. I thought of Evel Knievel jumping his motorcycle over 17 semis.
“They say he broke every bone in his body,” I told her.
She agreed he was an idiot. “He’s saying, ‘If y’all are stupid enough to pay me to break my bones on TV, then ok, pay me!’”
The figures on the screen swooped and slipped with skiers. She let her hand fall on my leg, pressed her hip against mine as we looked ahead. When she lived in Texas, on the Army base, she and her husband spent most of their time shooting up, and she told me that if she just smelled dope it would make her throw up now. I wondered what it smelled like, whether I’d take the needle without flinching.
I was damp and warm, and we talked over the announcers about the last Olympics, back in 1972, the massacre — and you got the feeling that everybody was sort of hoping for some action, something scarier than bobsled races. I don’t remember us kissing. Her strong thighs were outlined under the blanket, one foot was curled up under her. She made sounds that gave me some direction, and she moved into my touch, unlike the bony speechless girls who had let me grope them. She pulled her nightgown up and in the jittery television light Cotton flickered in the dark for a second and returned to view. Tonight she turned away from me and I started to despair, but she said it was ok. She reached behind herself, took my hands and put them on her hips while she curled onto her knees. I had heard about this. She pulled up her nightgown some more and stayed there and bent into the cushions and with one hand helped me find my way and pressed back against me. All I could see was TV-jittery, so I closed my eyes and felt my way, heart fast, gasping for air, shaking like I was freezing. She pressed toward me again and I started to understand how we could move together. The television mumbled in and out of ads and announcers. There were times when I thought she was very beautiful, when I felt she had caught me, grabbed me out of the air. Making love was as close as either of us got to being held. She didn’t hurry me or slow me, and when we were done, she rolled back up to sit on the the blanket, leaning against me. “So there are a lot of ways to do it,” she said, and I was silent. There had been no terrorists. Everyone on the long jump had survived.
We were ketchup, sex, cigarettes. The blue balloons of our smoke mingled in the blue light of the television. I looked around for the first time since I got there. She had this couch, a chair, a TV on the kitchen table and a bassinet. I felt — I wondered what she did all day.
I told her why Palestinians didn’t show up to kill Israelis. I explained to her how the VW had been designed for Rommel in the Second World War. I explained that the babysitter my parents hired—her best friend—found my pot.
“She flushed it,” I said. “I told her that it cost $30 an ounce and that she owed me that money because throwing it away was like stealing. So she paid me!”.
“Be quiet, now,” she said, but smiled at the rug. We shook our heads at all the stupid people in the world. She told me a story of sneaking into the Ranch Drive-In down the road, how she and her friends had put some people in the trunk, and how they almost got busted when the clambered out later.
I said I had to go. I walked out into the storm, snow deep on the car already. The engine turned in the thick oil, twisting in the dark crankcase. It started and I headed home, late now. I walked down the stairs past my parents’ closed door, slinking into the basement. I hated their weird relationship in there, the angry sleeping they did, the mumbled arguments they boiled late at night. But there was no light under their door. They were asleep.
I closed my door and groped for blacklight switch. When it flickered to life, graffiti popped out of the walls, drawn with a special crayon on the walls of my room: ZoSo, LSD, giant pot leaves. I put Dylan on the turntable and lay down. The storm surged outside my basement room and clouds of snow billowed under the ambient light outside my basement windows. In the song, travellers are emerging from the dark. They have come a great distance; they are unknown and dangerous:
Outside in the cold distance,
A wildcat did growl.
Two riders were approaching,
And the wind / began to howl.
I lay there with all my clothes on, Hardees uniform, winter coat, feet crossed at the ankles, boots dripping into the sheets. I lay loose and long on my waterbed, smoking a Marlboro that I set on a cardboard box when I was done, filter down for safety. Outside in the cold distance — I listened to the wind blow down from Alberta to Montana and over the Dakotas, surging over half of Iowa and finding me here. It ran its fingers over the house and then kept leaving, arriving and leaving, over all that long distance while I lay still, knowing things.