I have a modern car for my commute, and it’s a perfectly nice car, but for the last month, whenever I’ve needed to get out for food or essentials, it’s always been in my old Citroën 2CV, Sister Joanne. My routes, for which I should be making quick, point-A-to-point-B runs in accordance with my civic responsibility, have been growing longer and more intricate in their explorations as a way of being out of the house, out of the neighborhood, and in my element again as the kind of person who needs a little private. meditative time each day to get my bearings, bobbing gently through the side streets and swaying around the bends.
I left the headlamps on a couple days ago when I parked Sister Joanne after running out on a thirty-kilometer trip to pick up food for the dogs and chickens from the farm store three kilometers from home, and I pondered getting the trickle charger off my old motorcycle in the barn, dragging out the tangled orange extension cord to get the charger wired up to the battery, but laziness and inertia overwhelmed me and I didn’t do it. It’s been cold and rainy, and the sort of weather that doesn’t play well to the best strengths of four wheels and an umbrella, so I’ve just been looking out the window with the occasional heavy sigh.
I couldn’t help but think, watching the rain yesterday, how alive and green and abundant the world always looks in that cloak of rain and grey skies, with the green of newly budding plants so lush as to be almost psychedelic against the grey. It’s the contrast of being alive and being here and letting the world freeze into a block of ice around us, and the wild fever struck and I just had to be elsewhere— just for a while—but elsewhere.
“I’m going out for gas and cat food,” I called out to the corners of my house, “and I’ll be out for a bit, because I need to get the battery charged up with some driving.”
I got my mask, gloves, alcohol, and car keys from the basket by the door, and stepped off the porch into the rain as the cat leapt up to the rail and twirled his tail around my arm as I passed by.
I dug out the crank, opened the bonnet, and made a few futile attempts to spin up the little boxers’ quarrel in the cold rain, but decided that maybe it needed more then a whisper of residual charge or the upper body strength of my middle years to get going, so I went into the trunk of my little Fiat, extracted the tiny portable charger that’s another of those modern miracles, and lit up the car for a brisk journey.
You really have to laugh, sometimes, at the absurd simplicity of these cars. I find myself on the switch for the wipers to pause them from the relentless beat, and wonder why the wipers are so regular when the turn signals work at the limping irregular beat of a xenophobic avant garde composer who rejects regularity in rhythm as being too beholden to the guttural impure impulses of sexuality in music. My heater cables require either a quick stop to go in the engine compartment or a careful jockeying of the controls to get the flaps flapped, so I gently waggled them until I had a little heat on the windscreen to chase away the fog.
I have decided, on some poetic or political level, as I felt thirty years ago, when I owned my first Citroën, a battered multicolored ’68 Dyane with the windscreen held in with duct tape, that the absurdity of these cars renders them immune to laws, and the first law I tend to ignore is the speed limit, letting myself settle into the slow, natural rhythms of 1930s French farm tracks and only speeding up when the savages in their SUVs come gnashing their oversized chromium-coated plastic grilles at my heels like mechanical hounds. The rest of the time, I let the dreamy, floaty, boatlike feeling of the car transport me to the realm where my soul lives, untouched by the boring impetus to be somewhere soon doing something empty for no one who matters.
It’s silly, I think, that I’m so moved. It’s just a car, really, out of any context in my country where most of the people have been trained to accept lumpen, oversized trucks as the best possible solution to questions answered decades earlier in simpler ways, and is more an indulgence of my lifelong delight in the unacceptable, and it’s an unacceptable time everywhere, where people are falling, and everything’s frozen, and the leaders flail like sputtering drunken imbeciles handed a microphone in the wee hours at an open bar.
But I can breathe, for now, and I do, in fact, need to put on some miles to recharge a discharged battery, both in my car and—well, never mind. I look out into the rain as I round the next bend, thrilling to that sensation of watching the whole world tip in the windscreen, perceptible only to me and only in that isolated moment in the middle of a landscape, unwitnessed by anyone else, and wonder if the headlamps cancel out the charging to the point that this whole trip will be for nothing. The engine churns, the road unfurls in front of me like a rug unrolled for me alone, then rolled up behind as I pass, and I idly try to do the math with my metric speedometer to figure out exactly how fast I’m going.
In this country, in this car, everyone who ever looks at you either looks surprised or delighted by your existence there, in this refugee from elsewhere, and I wonder, too, if that’s part of why I’ve left the modern car to rest. We all need to smile, and to think of other things; a fleeting respite.
And soon enough, I’ve found myself miles and miles away, back in the old region where I grew up, tracing out once familiar routes where the farm fields are turning into rows and rows of new houses, and the barns are coming down in favor of clusters of franchised restaurants and nail salons and grocery stores and more backlit plastic signs in dreadful fonts advertising the same places as you’ll find everywhere else.
I navigate a series of traffic circles at top speed, resisting the temptation to take an extra loop here or there, and run for the highway home, for the long, dead roads where we swim like schools of fish on our way, and it’s the worst merge imaginable for a 2CV, where, going at full steam, I climb an uphill ramp at 80kph to insert myself into a long, steep uphill incline of traffic rocketing by at 120kph while the rain picks up, but I keep going, a little boat in the rain, paddling for home, head above the water.
With the engine running at the speed of a blender mixing up round of mojitos and my wipers hard at work, I feel content, like I could do this forever, or nearly so, until I reach my exit, ramble back to the house, and park. I’m encouraged how bright the headlamps are when I switch off the engine, and switch them off, leaving the car to cool down at the edge of a lurid green carpet of spring grass.
I realize, as I strip off my damp flannel jacket and deposit my mask, gloves, alcohol, and keys in the basket by the door, that I forgot to get cat food.
Oh yeah. Forgot. I’ll go out tomorrow and get some.
Outside, the rain drums on the roof, the wind blows, and everything is waiting patiently for my return.
© 2020 Joe Belknap Wall