University of Nebraska Press - Spring 2010 Release

First Laugh: Essays 2000-2009

, by Margaret Randall

Pumping Gas

Again I am somewhere else. Or everywhere at once. But as always, every word has its color. Sometimes, when I lose one now, the color rises behind my eyes but the word still plays hide and seek. Taunts me from the sidelines. Or a vast rainbow looms, and I must find my way through hues and the language they mask. Sometimes I sit for long minutes sifting through color on my way to word. Word may try to resist, but synapse eventually takes me home.
I am seventy-three. My father died of Alzheimer’s. He was in his late eighties, but still. In retrospect there’d been years of signs: unmistakable, some even dramatic. Like getting up in the dark of night, demanding breakfast from Mother. Or taking a small list from his pocket to help him order at a restaurant. Several years before he died, he confessed to having forgotten how to subtract. “Can you teach me?” he asked Barbara and me. We couldn’t. A man who was characteristically sweet and—despite all predictions to the contrary—became more so in his final months. Still, denial, like a web, trapped every family member. When denial crashed, the before and after mocked us all.
My father’s story inhabits mine like a prehistoric animal ready to spring. Thought fragments, a sentence misplaces its tail, and I wonder, wonder. Now every lost word draws an exclamation from someone, surely meant to console but I feel them as condescending: “I know . . . I know what you feel . . . it happens to me, all the time.”
I consider contamination from pesticides, hormones, food additives, water, power plants and their billowing stench. I think about how our exposure to radiation from medical screening has grown seven-fold between the early 1980s and 2006. I can see the once-pristine landscape, surrounding the desert majesty of Shiprock, where monster chimneys spew invisible smoke and people keep getting sick. What we breathe, without thinking about it. Toxic waste: corporate gift to so many poor communities.
Now I maneuver the car into the crowded Chevron station, pulling into the space beside the only available pump. Exaggerated satisfaction: I’ve managed to position myself with the car’s tank on the appropriate side. But other storylines continue to intrude. Again I am somewhere else.
There have been so many cars since my first, a muddy-brown Austin more than half a century behind me now. I bought that one for $500 in my early twenties, then sold it for the same amount days before it broke down for good.
I’ve always named my cars. Mónica, after Mónica Ertl, the Bolivian woman who hid Inti Peredo in her home during Latin America’s cruel era of dirty wars. Hortensia, for the kind Cuban woman who cared for my youngest daughter when political repression in Mexico forced us to send the children on ahead. Much more recently, Biko: after Bantu Steven Biko, tortured to death in an Apartheid prison in 1984.
Just one more way of honoring risk and courage. This last name recycles itself; I continue to use it for a succession of replacement vehicles—always referring to them as she.
Slowing down, smiling in spite of myself, I think about the gray-blue Studebaker coup my parents let me drive through my last two years of high school. The one I would leave by the side of more than one New Mexico country road when heading out with a Geological Survey map in hand, following the rises and hollows of the land, passionate to believe I could escape Civilization. With a capital C.
Mid last century: the world was safer then and a young girl could explore that world—its colors and meaning—without a shaming fear. I still delight in memories of those nights spent alone, stretched naked on some warm desert rock, imagining myself before the conquerors arrived. Sometimes before the presence of any human.
There were a few Datsuns, including the one we sold for quick cash when escaping Mexico City, 1969. Then, in Cuba, the little badly painted bright blue Datsun sedan whose brakes were always failing and floor eventually rusted through. I lost that car in one surprising moment when the government confiscated it, claiming it belonged to my ex-husband who’d left the country months before. Such were the contradictions in a revolution often betrayed by anachronism even as it strove for future.
I think about noise pollution, and the confusion brought by avalanches of information. Text messaging, cell phoning, all manner of off-stage conversation assaulting the ear. Nowhere can we escape it now, from highway to airport gate area, restaurant to waiting room. Era of the Internet, pushing us further from one another even as it joins us at the hip. True, the elderly aren’t the only ones who forget a word, the end of a sentence, why they’re holding that particular item in their hands, what they plan to do next. These days ever younger people show symptoms of overload. But on the downhill edge of life it feels unidirectional.
In contrast, perhaps even in direct relationship, age has brought me a new awareness. Unexpected but unmistakable: as memory ruptures along my particular fault lines, difficult to claim. It is as if the last few elusive pieces have fallen into place. I hold the larger picture in slightly trembling hands.
Despite a gnawing discomfort around Volkswagen’s relationship with the Third Reich I, like so many of my generation, drove my share of Beetles. In the mid-1960s my young family and I coaxed one across the Mohave Desert, heat stuck in the on position and all its windows gaping. Since my 1984 return to the United States there’ve been two comfortable Jettas. Then a used Volkswagen van that hauled what Barbara and I took across country when I got that first year’s teaching job at Trinity in 1986.
We couldn’t sell that van for half what we’d paid for it. Priding ourselves on being tough when it comes to cars, yet losing, always losing. And one last Volkswagen, a diesel: just as the price of that once-cheap fuel rose above the cost of regular gasoline. Wherever it went that vehicle trailed its parts: a mirror, a hubcap, handle or knob.
Until we traded it in on our first Toyota. The white Corolla supplemented the also white four-wheel drive Jeep. So dependable, that Jeep: Emma was her name, after Emma Goldman who said she didn’t want a revolution if you couldn’t dance in it. It transported us along miles of back roads in search of ancient petroglyphs, ruins unlisted on any map. We still needed two cars back then, and the Corolla had a trunk that could accommodate Mother’s walker: A Mafia trunk, we joked, big enough for a body-sized block of cement destined for some deep water grave.
After moving from the foothills into the city, Barbara and I were determined to go to a single car. We’d been together two decades by then and the decision was one more milepost on this map of shared aging. We sold the Jeep we’d only used a couple of times its last year: each pre-trip discussion pitting the advantage of off-road travel against its poor sixteen mph.
For a while, then, it was just the Corolla: easy sharing, good mileage, and the satisfaction of a reduced footprint in a world panting its way through these waning years of fossil fuel. Believing we could save our earth, one effort at a time.
Until that Saturday when I put a slow roast in the oven and we went food shopping, never expecting we’d detour via the Toyota dealership and—just for kicks—test-drive a Prius. Now the footprint is smaller still, the hybrid our only family car. Barbara, fifteen years younger than me, mostly rides her bike or scooter. She also handles vehicle maintenance, including filling them up.
Which is probably why, I tell myself, I sit beside this pump unable to remember how to open the little door implacably shielding the gas tank.
Everything grows very still. I finger the knobs and dials on steering wheel and dash, try to recall what unlatched that flush little door on Mónica’s hip, on Hortensia or Emma. Nothing useful floats to the surface. Stay calm, I tell myself. I remember the manual in its navy plastic envelope and open the glove compartment. “Gas,”—in the index—“page 78.”
But again I am somewhere else. Page 78 doesn’t seem to have any information about accessing the fuel tank. Could Toyota have made a mistake? I read it again, slowing my respiration after every sentence; then the previous page and the one following. Clear instructions for how to open the trunk or roll down windows, but nothing about that little door.
People are honking now. Just behind me a guy in a Humvee stares. I avoid his eyes, go back to the manual, read the text again.
Still nothing.
Take a deep breath, I tell myself. This can’t be this hard. Somewhere on page 78 the answer must be hiding. Start again, from the top. Is this about memory, or sight, or something else? I reread and the words come into focus, where they’ve always been: a small button on the floor to the left of my seat, right beside the driver’s door. I look down. The white gas tank icon on the black lever stares back.
With a grateful hand I reach, tap the lever, release the latch. As I get out of the car I glance to make sure the little door is really open. I insert and then quickly remove my credit card from the pump’s slot, remembering earlier times when I’d have saved a few pennies with Self Serve while others handed their key to an attendant who pumped gas, checked oil and tire pressure, and wiped windshields for a tip.
The little screen says my credit card has been approved. Then the message changes: “Remove nozzle. Pump gas.” Now I’m on automatic again as I press the button for regular grade, dislodge the nozzle and pull the hose to my car’s waiting tank. Again, I am somewhere else. Or everywhere at once.
Without denying support for wars of national liberation, I can finally embrace pacifism as the only entirely rational answer. War is always horror. Capital punishment is obscene, no matter the obscenity of the crime. Nationalism itself bears reexamination as it invariably leads to positions of exception, overarching authority and swollen ego. Too many authoritarian leaders, too much dynasty. And far too many dead, who believed they were dying for something different. Their faces wander in my dreams. Their presence, too, bothers my ability to remember.
Return. Reclaim. Reclamar: somewhere between to retrieve and demand.
Tragically, this is how we have raised our men, generation to generation. Not this man or that—your brother or husband, my son—but male people in a system that supports and encourages their basest instincts. A seed born in some deep construct of inferiority sprouts and grows through bullying to war and uncontrolled domination, taking over as the illness of violence.
Religion provides a perfect framework for this distortion; it is the very basis for a division among peoples: those in command and their followers. From popes to gurus, the narcissistic personality claims everything in its path. Class, race, and cultural tradition: all are part of the picture. William James was right when he said the church, in spite of whatever human goodness it may foster, can be counted on as a staunch ally in every attempt to stifle the spontaneous spirit.
I have come to believe that religion also stifles curiosity, knowledge, imagination, and truth: Joan of Arc, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, and Archbishop Oscar Romero. And of course human rights: to life, love, and equal protection under the law. Women, lesbians and gay men stagger at the bottom of the heap; our rights or lack thereof dependant upon the culture in which we live. Justice is always simpler than the experts would have us think.
The Humvee driver looks belligerent now. He displays no visible relief that I’ve solved the problem and am pumping the gas.
Today everything’s Self Serve. And automatic. No human on the other end of the telephone line, just a recorded voice following the answer to each successive question with a cheerfully upbeat perfectly inflected “All right then, let’s keep going!” as if there really is someone there, paying attention to my need. “Listen carefully, as our menu has changed. Press 1 if… press 2 if…” Oblivious to my frustration, the fact that mine is not a yes or no question. Multiple choice doesn’t cut it.
What passes for progress.
Although we span a considerable age difference, memory and its rough terrain are areas Barbara and I inhabit together. Anguish and understanding: a balance sought. I remember a time a while back when she was visibly frightened that I was stumbling toward the downward spiral; I must have done or failed to do, said or failed to say, something important. I caught worried looks, whispered consultations with others. Tension mounted until she understood her degree of concern might itself damage what we have. Despite the age difference, we both clearly suffer from varieties of forgetting: mine undoubtedly more age-related, hers resulting from extreme childhood abuse.
Collateral damage is so often expressed as afterthought. And not only on the battlefield but also in the world of economic exchange and security: credit and derivatives and bundles and foreclosures and leveraged debt. An intentionally complicated swamp, meant to blur the simple fact of a family evicted from its home, a person ousted from his or her job, health and wellbeing beyond reach, a future disappearing beneath such a heavy blanket of greed, or a simple task waiting to be undertaken.
Despite the unrelenting—often mixed—messages, overall sleight of hand is painfully transparent. The latest corporate scheme translates to gross theft: of sustenance and identity. As long as we fail to look through any eyes but our own, as long as every andocentric, egocentric viewpoint guides our vision, we doom ourselves to extinction. Human rights. Animal rights. The right of earth itself.
Nowhere is our vision narrower or more skewed than in our eternal search for life in distant parts of the universe, or in other universes. We seem unable to grasp the fact that other worlds are likely to have given birth to life forms adapted to their discreet conditions. Why should they look or act like us?
Which brings me back to my renewed certainty: justice really is quite simple. I remember believing this when I was very young, not yet privy to all the theories and counter-theories. Along the way, major texts and charismatic figures convinced me otherwise. Experience consolidated those convictions. Isms. Schisms within isms. Then, painfully, the unraveling. A hunger for power and insatiable greed dressed differently for every new occasion.
What was sacrificed was always “necessary.” Except of course for those forced to make the sacrifices. The ends never justify the means. I reject the image of a no-man’s land. Fence-sitting and its devil’s advocates. It looks to me like a land of nothingness, where familiarity eats away at invisible contours, false promises of relief. Where identity is spliced and dignity dies.
Oh those colors: still brilliant in my aging eyes. Losing the sharpness of youth. Taking longer to arrange an image in the lens, camera less sure in my shaking hands. No longer able to drive at night, the oncoming headlights exploding my sight. But oh, those colors pulsing within colors! Cream and orange-red, pink and desert-varnish brown, as far as I can see. Waning light running along a lip of rock. The seam where river meets wall. My landscape: prying me open, filling me up.
I get back in my car and sit for a moment. The Humvee driver waits. Before pulling out I turn and look him calmly in the eye. I force myself to hold the gaze, silently counting to ten. Another advantage of age: no apologies.
Of course I wonder how or if to tell Barbara about my difficulty accessing the gas tank. Then I promise myself I will. We are in this together.