Thursday, October 13, 2011

I’m driving Adam’s grandmother’s gold Acura V6 coupe. The steering wheel is smooth, covered with stuff they might call glove leather. I turn on the radio. The antenna extends, creaking. I remember when radio antennae that extended and retracted were cool. My sister and I used to turn the radio in our new car on and off and watch through the back window. I notice buttons to the right of the steering wheel that let me control the radio without looking down.

It’s my father-in-law’s old company car, the one he drove to work in the late eighties, driving fast but not too fast, wearing ties zig-zagging with color and a beard, California-executive style. I imagine him crossing the hills, the sky bright blue and the hills brown with drought, toggling the radio switch with his right hand, tuning in Jefferson Airplane. Adam told me he used to listen to Jim Jones broadcasting from San Francisco—engineer’s mind turning over mad utopian mind.

When he got a new car he gave this one to his wife at the time. My eighteen-year-old self observed the curve of her face from the back seat, her coppery skin and stiff hair. She was driving us into Fairfield, dropping us off at the movies. That summer afternoon in Fairfield will probably always flash somewhere in my brain. The sky spread out, the dry flat land, walking across the highway overpass to buy red apples at the Safeway.

The strip of sand between Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter is dark gray and smooth. The wind off the ocean is stilled here. Fort Sumter’s flagpoles like masts ahead of the setting sun, the fort an island, where Citadel cadets aimed their guns, firing the first shots in defense of Southern secession. Charleston harbor’s a small jagged horizon. A skeletal freighter lies at anchor beside the shipping channel. African slaves first set foot on this nondescript stretch of sand. Loaded on rowboats, looking across to the shore, and maybe for a few minutes thinking anything was better than being aboard ship—than that ceaseless motion and the reek and the dampness. Not wanting to think about what would come next. Or planning, already planning to run.

By the time Edgar Allan Poe arrived there were no longer cargoes of slaves being rowed ashore to quarantine. But I think they must have left something for him to find. Poe served at Fort Moultrie—low slice of brick half-embedded in the beach with flocks of white birds flying across the wild marsh behind it, gulls floating amid the grasses at high tide. If Poe had been here two hundred years later he would have hung out at the abandoned bunkers facing the Atlantic, relics of the Second World War, their dark doorways beckoning and repelling. Neighborhood kids go in there, leaving their bikes tossed on the grass. Giddy white boys, jittery, the smell of bodies, slick, sweating, ready to fire.


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