In 2010, I sold my Citroën. It’d taken me about eight years to come to grips with letting it ago, and if that says something about me, so be it. I’d put eighty thousand joyous, cantankerous miles on it, all up and down the eastern seaboard, from spending four hours stuck in a solid traffic jam on the Cross Bronx Expressway with the ARRET! light falsely warning me that the car was about to overheat to moments on Route 301 in South Carolina where I did the little mental arithmetic to translate kilometers to miles to confirm that I was indeed doing over a hundred on a lazy old trunk road. I’d lived out a French fever dream, but I went broke, the car developed a few faults beyond my means or technical ability to correct, and I fell into a premature middle age fugue state where I thought maybe, just maybe, I needed to grow up and stop living like a cantankerous continental eccentric.
I drove a practical four door economy sedan for eight years.
It had air conditioning and a great stereo I installed myself.
I grew up in a log house in Scaggsville with a pipe organ in the attic. It wasn’t a functional one, alas—just a meticulously-dismantled pipe organ my father salvaged from a church being torn down nearby. Ranks and ranks of wooden and sheet lead pipe sat up there, taking up a full third of our attic, with the huge console a huge dark hulk in one of the eaves. My father was a tracker organ fan, and we’d vacation on routes where one could stop and visit as many old tracker action organs as we could along the way. My mother was a patient woman, and we were all circumspect, wondering, from time to time, where you’d even install a full-size pipe organ in a modest farmhouse, and the organ sat there, a boxed chorus of angels waiting for a new day to sing, just over our heads.
My father had a motorcycle, too. It was a 1972 Triumph Daytona 500 sports model with dual carbs and lots of little modifications that my dad had carefully noted in the owner’s manual, documenting that he’d moved the turn signal from one side of the handlebars to the other and that he’d done it to eliminate the possibility of accidentally tripping other switches. He’d rewired a section of the wiring loom altogether, making a note punctuated with “BRITISH ENGINEERING!” in his most sarcastic handwriting.
In the eighties, our family business took off, and went from an operation run out of our living room to a national operation with eighty employees and twenty-four million dollars a year in gross receipts, and he got a car phone, a huge thing with a full-sized handset on a coily wire and a box under the front passenger seat that kept you from moving the seat into a position that might remotely be considered comfortable. We didn’t care, and made hundreds of obscenely-expensive calls that started out with “guess where I’m calling from!”
The motorcycle was ridden less and less, and had a number of little faults that aggravated the situation. My dad got a new, handheld cell phone that was handheld in the way that a full-sized collegiate dictionary can be handheld, and it rang and rang. The Triumph retreated into the darker spaces of my father’s workshop, and I’d dig down to it when I was bored, mainly to switch the big three-way toggle mounted in the headlight shell, which made a luscious mechanical clack with a trailing aftertone of a tapped wine glass.
The phone rang and rang. Life is a practical thing, sometimes.
One day, I came by to find that my father had pulled the ranks and ranks of organ pipes out of the attic and was laboriously crushing each one flat with a sledgehammer, tossing it into a pile with the previous victims.
“What are you doing!?”
“I need the space in the attic, so I’m going to take all this lead to the scrapyard. I’ll cut up the wood ones and burn them in the stove out in the ‘shop,” he said, letting the hammer fall in a methodical progression down the grey cylinder of a pipe. I’m a guy with an unnatural attachment to inanimate objects, as well as a guy who’d spent many happy, happy hours rooting around in all the crazy stuff in the attic, and each thump was like an axe falling on a branch of my material world.
“Dad, that’s the organ,” I said, almost in a bleat. “You’re going to put it back together one day!”
“Son, there are times in your life when you have to let your dreams go.”
So I sold my Citroën, and as the guy who bought it struggled to get it onto the trailer he’d brought from the other side of the state, it was all I could do to not tell him I’d changed my mind, and I didn’t want to sell my car, my amazing magical outer space French supercar, and that I wasn’t ready.
“Sheesh, we’re having a hell of a time getting it on the trailer, aren’t we?” the guy asked, and as he pushed hard on the rear fender, trying to shift the car a bit, he put a big dent in it with his shoulder. “Aww, well, I’ll bang that out when I get home.”
She doesn’t want to go. That’s why you can’t move my car. She doesn’t want to go.
It struck me in that instant that part of what was killing me wasn’t the fact that it was the most sublime piece of fringe engineering ever sold on the mass market stuck halfway on a trailer. It was the cold, wretched fact that that Citroën was the last car I’d ever argued with my father over, and it would always be so.
“Son, the French are diplomats and makers of the world’s finest wines and cheeses. Cars are not something they’re good at.”
Philistine, I’d think, but I’d still dive into the argument. I loved arguing with my father, who’d argue as wildly as I would, with words hard, sharp, and precise, the two of us locked into an escalating spiral of dialogue until someone else in the family would try to jump in, often resorting to a scream to pull us out of it, and we’d retreat, breathless, and laugh, because you only throw yourself into something like that when you know it’s just play, just the ebb and flow and challenge of authority being beaten around like a tennis ball.
“What?” we’d say, almost in unison, as we were being threatened with being ejected from a restaurant where we were celebrating my sister’s thirtieth birthday.
“Can you two please, please stop arguing about the firebombing of Dresden at the top of your lungs for five minutes? The manager just said he was going to ask us all to leave if it didn’t stop.”
My sister just scowled at us. This was the way of our world.
The cell phones got smaller and smaller, and rang more and more. My brother took the Triumph and rode it for a couple years. The family business collapsed after a trusted number two had a psychotic episode, demoralized the company, stole a third of a million dollars, and disappeared, taking half our contracts. My father sat down one morning in the small office he’d rented back from the people who bought our building, unfolded his paper, and died with my mother in the other room going over the debts trying to figure out who was most likely to sue us first.
The motorcycle went away, along with my house, my mother’s house, the last traces of our money, and just…everything.
After a lot of intervening existence, I got a wild hair and bought another Vespa to get back on two wheels again after having my happy little P200E stolen in 1991. My riding buddy’s on R-bikes, lovely clunky German things with an engine that sounds, to me, exactly like the engine in my other old Citroën, a Dyane, largely because they’re both air-cooled boxer twins. I was this close to buying an R65, at my friend’s suggestion, but damn those things are expensive, and expensive to repair, and wait—how many miles do they get per gallon? My car gets better mileage than your motorcycle!?
And so the motorcycle returned, early this summer, after my sister’s ex-husband’s estranged sister called around trying to see if someone wanted the motorcycle that my former brother-in-law had dumped in the shed thirteen years earlier.
I called my riding buddy and we drove out into the grim landscape of central Pennsylvania to pick up the bike. It was buried in the shed, covered with snake skins that had been shed in situ by snakes after the mice who’d built what smelled like a million nests over the years. As we rolled the grimy, stinking bike out into the sunshine on miraculously non-flat tires, it just looked like an awful, neglected mess, and when I put it on the center stand behind my friend’s Sprinter and opened the seat out of morbid curiosity, a mouse with three babies clinging to her teats popped out and ran for it into the road.
I got a box, scooped up the squirmy four-headed gestalt mouse. and set it aside. We hunked the bike up into the van, strapped it in place, and drove it back to Baltimore, after a quick stop to put the mice somewhere I hoped they’d find comfortable. We dropped it off at the best motorcycle garage in the city, with me feeling apologetic to impose a British nightmare in the midst of a wonderland of wunderbikes from the vaterland. My buddy’s mechanic is amazing, and willing even to work on an ancient assemblage of potmetal parts and half-assed electrics from a country whose best years in engineering had come and gone before the sixties. I gave him a little seed money to store it there and left it to simmer on the back burner, an atavism from my own past.
The days came and went.
And, well, there I stood, with the Citroën finally groaning and rolling into place, and the guy chained it down, and I ran inside for a plunger, because I just couldn’t stand to see my car go off with that stupid fresh dent in the fender. I shook the guy’s hand, asked him to be good to my his car, because it was a good car, and I—
—Well…fuck it. I’m a big boy, right? I took a picture as they drove off and it all came rushing in and I just sat on the porch and cried over a stupid car, and over more pointless arguments over French engineering than you’d ever imagine anyone could entertain, and over how things are when you know that it’s finally time to let a dream slip away.
On my lunch break, I pedaled my bike from my office downtown to the mechanic’s shop, counting out the cash in groups of a hundred, adding up to a sizable stack of bills, and handed it over.
“Do what you need to do to get this stupid thing on the road, okay?”
As I walked back out of the shop to get my bike, I slipped between my buddy’s R69S and a pair of R90 cafe racers to where the Triumph sat, looking grimy and lifeless, and flipped the three-way toggle on the headlight shell. It still had that perfect clackwith an aftertone of wine glass, a little sign of a life it had a long, long time ago. I waved and pedaled off.
I sat and I watched this video, and all I could see was my own father, superimposed over the guy who’s really in the frame, and it’s just one of those realities that won’t ever come, but you still just take it in, let it sink in deep, and feel so glad that someone, somewhere, got to make that moment happen for someone they love so very much. I want to feel envy—I really do, but I’ve got a great life now and I can’t rewind without undoing the loves, the friendships, and all the history I’ve mapped out since then. I’m just happy for all of them, and the chance they have to do it now, while they can.
Still, I like to think that my father would take issue with me on something about that damn Triumph, enough for a nice rowdy argument, even as it’ll one day take me farther from all the things that did him in, and this time around—I’m gonna let that fucking cell phone ring until the batteries die.
© 2010 Joe Belknap Wall