Monday, October 18, 2010

Oil & Hay - 14

Before I did as I was told, I poured a glass of water from the little carafe on the shelf. Some of it splashed on my trembling fingers. If I can't fill a glass with water, I thought with dread, how can I drive a car at speed? I gulped it down morosely, the last sip of a condemned man.

I pull out, past the Esso sign hanging at the end of the pits, between the bales of hay that line the straight, and down the hill into the first corner, a gently sweeping righter, feeling alright so far. I contemplate the ditch along the steep bank to my left with a shudder.

And all these patches in the asphalt! Had they been laid in the few hours since I'd last been at the wheel? It alarms me that I am just now giving them a conscious thought. The chassis rattles and skids over them. I can feel every seam.

I can also feel cold sweat through the palm of my glove when I grip the gearshift. It terrifies me to be strapped to this contraption, out here alone among the fields and the trees and the silvery sky, each blade of grass oblivious to me, indifferent as to whether I miraculously navigate the course or fly into the woods. Is it at times like these that a man cries out for his mother? What a stupid thought. In a succession of stupid thoughts: This is the moment; this is it, it, it. This is what a man does. He does what he's afraid of doing. What am I doing? Here comes the hairpin. The Nouveau Monde. Downshift, downshift, downshift, and around, grind a little shifting up, get on the throttle, a bit too soon: the tail goes wavy, then I'm back in shape. I love to climb, to feel the power at my back as it wrenches the car from gravity. What was Melanie telling me? Something new is coming. But it's not lurking in these woods, unchanged for a hundred thousand years but for this sinuous band of asphalt and its rude freight. Or is it?

I'm driving now, really driving. Scared out of my wits but driving. To press the accelerator requires a tremendous exercise of will but I'm damned well doing it. This is what a man does. If I can get around this track a few good times I can step back into the pits, tell Tex what he wants to hear, find a dark corner somewhere to hang my head and cry. And be alive.

Finally they call me in.

As I decelerated and pulled into the box I began to quake with relief. They all looked at me with bewildered expressions. Was the motor on fire? The chief mechanic, Derek Owens, leaned in to me.

"What's wrong with her?"

"Nothing," I replied, taken aback. "Nothing I can tell. Why?"


I shook my head as he turned to survey the engine and exhaust.

"Are you alright?" he asked with an air of grim concern.

I felt a jolt of shame, suddenly seeing myself as he must see me: freakish, fumbling, incompetent. I decided to let my pride go. To tell the truth. A little.

"I've felt better, if I'm honest. I'm not in tip-top form."

Derek nodded slowly.

"Why do you ask?"

He showed me his stopwatch.

"You're thirty-five seconds off your pace from this morning," he declared.