Move over, all you AVANT-POPists who've already spilled your guts into type, justified or un. Move over, all you Definitely Postmodern Dudes hellbent on deconstructing what was never constructed in the first place. Make way for the latest literary maverick ramming his grizzled head through the slushpile. Make way for the latest Underground Man. Make way for me: Edsel Relic.
Edsel Relic isn't my real name, but it's close enough for fiction.
My background's as fictional as my name. Look at my face: the WASPish triangle softened by the Celtic red tint between the gray streaks of my beard. Then look at the Eastern European eyes blazing obsidian above the mouth pursed to hawk vile consonants in your face. Could be a dash of Moor or, just as easily, Russian, Polish, Spanish...Don't expect my last name to clue you in. Relic could be English before the spellings went standard or some five-syllable handle a Customs Cop chopped short at Ellis Island. The way the world mixes and matches, who's to say what we really are?
Whatever my roots, Relic has symbolic value: I'm a cultural dinosaur clomping across the stage(s) of evolution straight into a remake of Godzilla or some other '50's horror show. As long as I can knock over high-rises, though, I'm no more extinct than the Bomb.
Now Edsel, that's more to the point: a car that never caught on from a time when I never caught on either. Even now, after the Gas Riots of the '70's...even now, when the Japs make the American cars the patriots dump their Hamiltons and Jacksons on...even now, you are what you drive. And after hundreds of thousands of miles this rustgutted clunker is still chugging forward, the past and future equally dim as the smoke of Time huffs and puffs through its gaskets.
Wear and tear? Definitely! The Demolition Derby of the 50's battered me into peacetime shellshock. My head tics, shoulder twitches and wild-eyed rants...all the things that start you cringing like a leper's advance...might've come from the sledge hammers of my parents' divorce. Or maybe they're just symptoms of my Tourette, which took a circus of shrinks a lifetime to spot. Either way, I'm not what you want to see when you look in the mirror.
Regardless, I floored my shaky front end forward. The race riots of the '60's dented my doors and cracked my windshield. I ran on Vinblastine Sulfate fumes through the '70's and knocked through Reagan's low-octane '80's. Here in the '90's I'm keeping my eye on the millennial gauge. Riding the Eternal Present that links past to future I've beaten the Big C (as much as anyone can) and won and lost a few bouts with madness. The door's sprung, the body's rotted, but fashion or no, I've got a ways to go.
It seems like I'm always driving. Not your coast-to-coast Kerouac jaunts. No, just short hops: the day gig, the jazz club, the stripjoint, the Old LadyC a crazyquilt road-stitching that patches a self out of the shattered continuity of the American Dream. As I seam my routes, I look for rips that might lead to frontiers as yet undiscovered. And find margins.
To navigate this relentless wreck I talk into a microcassette on the Interstate, scratch notes at a red light, tap my PC keyboard at home...try to piece together the home movies and reel dreams of the past, make some sense of them even though the perspective changes at every point: narratives, fragments, bulletins, bedtime conversations, streams of consciousness...whatever way I can rivet memory into place, even for a moment. I've got plenty of time to remember out here -- not that remembering necessarily clarifies experience. Sometimes it just embellishes facts with tricks of the imagination.
After all my time behind the wheel I've learned this much: the car is more than an a V-8 Impala pumping through pimple-faced pud fantasies or a '59 Pontiac with tail fins like rocket-ribbed condoms, a babe at your side, the stickshift stiff and ready. It's the engine of rootlessness that drives us from a gutted past to a future that's gutted before we get there.
It was rootlessness that brought Brod Allen, Dale Hunter and me together, then sent us our separate ways. In high school I figured we'd go down in history, a triumvirate like Caesar and his cronies. Only not as dead. Sic transit gloria and all that! I figured we'd go our separate ways, then meet at self-proclaimed summits to celebrate our triumphs of literature, music and art.
Instead, Brod and Dale exist as whispers of memories, voices...so hard to call them back with any clarity...of tone, of timbre...so hard to cut through the scar tissue of experience to the raw flesh of memory. Whenever I try, I prick a nerve of bitterness, buried but still throbbing through the decades. My mind screams every time I poke it. I'm still trying to sort through the past, to tie up loose ends where I can. And bury it, like my mother's Cancer-raped cadaver, so I can move on. It's a thankless task, one that some condescending editor will call...well, yeah, I guess it is a Coming of Age novel -- Old Age! -- with the development on the arrested side.
Whatever. We play the hand we've been dealt. Bet the rock, bluff the hard place, and hope we win the diamonds instead of the coal. Maybe I wanted my Wild Man persona, my demons. Even if I didn't want it, my genes sprouted enough spooks inside me to create the image as well as the person. Sometimes I confuse the two. It's not easy being your own creation.
In memory, Brod and Dale are my own creations as well. If ambiguity defines contemporary fictional characters, my leaky memory gaskets should help me portray the windows of a mind in motion and the people who helped give it direction. Even after we split, I figured I'd write a novel about the three of us. It was supposed to begin like this:
There it goes!
A celestial sperm whips its tail across the 4:00 A.M. sky, then trails into vapor. Angel glitter from It's a Wonderful Life tinkles against the '54 Plymouth squatting in the driveway hacked through oaks, pines, maples and sumac.
"Did you see that, Brod?" Dale's nasal voice resonates from the shotgun seat. "Like, it was a Shooting Star."
Brod, in the back, stops pawing at his larger-than-life mouth. His lips twist like a horse trying to whinny. "I saw it."
"I think I even heard it." Dale hums the faint whistle of a missile beyond the horizon. "Like that."
"Did you see it, Edsel?" Brod's trying to bring me into the conversation.
"I missed it." The exigencies of first-person viewpoint aside, I was trancing out on the blue after-images floating above the yellow dividing line on the road at the end of Dale's driveway and thinking how the Morning Glory seeds had transported us to a plane where Time existed as an Eternal Present -- except for Shooting Stars and their attendant durations.
"You're so unobservant," Brod chides me gently.
"You've got to be aware." Dale's intonation choreographs a strut. "Only the observant people -- the aware people -- become hip. You dig?"
I dig the dig: I'm not hip. Or not hip enough. I've read Kerouac, bought the banned edition of Tropic of Cancer, tried to smuggle in the banned edition of Naked Lunch, learned that Bird Lives...I've smoked pot, I've swallowed hallucinogenics -- and I'm still not hip. Never mind, it's just Dale running his one-up peer game. No. Brod saw this vapor-rocket light the sky too.
My fingers tighten around the steering wheel. Maybe the Shooting Star is a symbol of Destiny. Maybe the two who saw it will follow it beyond this boondock horizon: Brod to the West Coast tomorrow, Dale to Tufts next week. I've had my chance. Flew like Icarus toward Greenwich Village, melted my wings over Brooklyn and crash-landed back in West Mannamok. I've failed. They'll succeed. Maybe that's why they saw the Shooting Star and I didn't.
Of course, this could just be a hallucination the Morning Glory Seeds brought on...
But if it's a hallucination what's Walter Cronkite doing here in the hipster's grungy sweatshirt and bluejeans? Is CBS trying to boost its ratings by reviving its You Are There show from the Golden Age of television?
America's Most Trusted Man pokes a microphone under Dale's tapered nose. "Tell me, Dale. What is the significance of the Shooting Star? Is it a harbinger, or simply a hallucination?"
Dale lights his Dunhill pipe with studied nonchalance. "I would have to say it has, uh, elements of both. I consider the hallucinogenic experience an intensification of reality, a sharpening of our existing sensual awareness. From the standpoint of our heightened perceptions, it is a 'harbinger.'" His nod tamps a period. When he tamps his tobacco the white dot on his pipestem quivers in the camera lights, then whisks to vapor like the meteor's trail.
Cronkite leans into the back. But Brod climbed out and hopped onto his 1200cc Triumph while Dale was talking. Cronkite starts after him. Brod kickstarts the bike and blazes west through pinwheeling sunrises, across the prairies, over the Rockies, to San Francisco and beyond.
I grind the ignition. Exhaust whirls around my window like smoke rising from Hell. I shift into reverse.
But here's Walter, poking his microphone through the smoke. "Edsel, our reports indicate that you didn't see the Shooting Star. Can you explain to our viewers how you missed what your colleague calls a harbinger?"
"L-l-l-leave me alone, goddammit! My best friend just took off for the coast. And this tiresome Taoist, he and I are barely getting along. When he splits, I'll be stuck in this hick town with nothing but hayseeds --"
Cronkite turns to the cameras. "There you have it, ladies and gentlemen..."
You're just hallucinating this old TV show, I tell myself.
"...our account of the night the Shooting Star soared over West Mannamok's Artistic Triumvirate, which will come of age in the 1960's and...'YOU ARE THERE.'"
Dale snatches the microphone from Cronkite, jabs it at my face. Sneers:
"AND YOU ARE NOT!"
Instead it begins like this:
When I'm on the hang the phone never rings. But when I'm cranking against a deadline...RING! RING! RING! RING!
There goes my concentration. Shit! If this isn't an assignment, a gig or a close friend on a deathbed...
"Hello, Edsel, this is Bambi Belair..."
Bambi Belair! My Aphrodite Incarnate from high school. Bambi Belair! The Circe whose aqua eyes, filmstar figure and creamy-smooth voice reduced me to whimpering about her physical beauty while Brod and Dale wanted to discuss Beauty in its higher forms. Bambi Belair! The cheerleader whose sexual charisma sent the boys of West Mannamok High into Testosterone Overload and Hump Lawless, my nemesis, into a jealous frenzy aimed at me. I stumble toward the answering machine, trashing the studio floor with loose manuscripts. "Hey, it's been a long time."
Maybe not long enough. She "married Hump Lawless"... Congratulations! Mr. and Miss America unite..."have three kids, fifteen, fourteen and twelve"...to breed behemoths amid the nightmare rubble of the American Dream.
I spare her the Cancer wards, the Tourette, my mother's death rattle...all the real shit.
"I saw your article in the paper last week," she says. "It was really good."
"Thanks." I had to become good. Writing was the only way I could communicate without stuttering back then.
"The reason I'm calling, Edsel...The Class of '63...we're having our 25th reunion. Last night, the committee started talking about your article and we realized how long it's been since anybody's seen you. We'd really like you to come."
"Those weren't exactly Happy Days for me down there..."
"It would give you the chance to write about them."
"Actually, reunions have been done to death." The textbooks say Tourette can generate oppositional behavior. If it can't, West Mannamok High sure can. Don't go off on her.
"Well, we'd like you to come, even if you don't write about it."
"Y'know, Bambi, if you and a few other people wanted to get together with me as individuals, I'd be open to it. But the Class..."
"Just think about it. That's all we're asking."
That much I can give her.