The old white-haired woman stood on the Great River Road path and waved at a passing long line of vintage cars painted in bright colors, all the drivers white and at least as old as me. Pear-shaped, she danced up and down with palpable excitement. What was going on in her memory, from some long-ago dream? Had she been a cheerleader in the days when cheerleaders’ skirts were ankle length?
I have never been in love with a car. I have owned plenty of them, bought a new one for cash in the 1970s when I was in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” nothing fancy, a Volkswagen bug that was bright black. That was as extravagant as I have ever been. I own one pair of jeans at a time, about ten pocket tee shirts and ten sweatshirts. Ladies, have I turned you on? The worst fight I ever had with my first wife was me wearing a wrinkled tee shirt to the premiere of “Alone in the Universe,” my composition for orchestra and Renaissance instruments.
The woman saw me seeing her, and she deflated and turned and walked west along the river. And suddenly she was slow of foot, slightly bent at the waist, the heels of her walking shoes worn on the outside edges.
What she did not see as she car danced were a pair of immature bald eagles perched on the very top of a tree, fifty or more pelicans fishing in a line along the north bay of Scotch Jimmy Island, a Baltimore oriole flitting from treetop to treetop and scolding me for standing in a patch of yellow bleeding heartland flowers, from which the bird was seeking sustenance.
To each her own.
I will just imagine the woman as a young girl being courted by a car-obsessed boy, and they married and had three kids, and now her husband is in heavenly Car Land, and the kids haven’t visited for some time, damn the Covid-19, and she watches too much TV, and she read about the car rally and put on her finest red sweater even as the heat and humidity were stifling, and she timed her arrival on the path, and now the time of gleaming, waxed roadsters had come and gone in less than a minute. Some drivers had waved back, some not.
She walked up the hill to the parking lot at Clifton Park, climbed in a full-size something, backed out carefully and drove away slowly north, up Clifton Terrace bluff road and out of sight.
And then it was my turn up the hill toward my Hyundai Elantra, passing a long-legged young woman relaxing on a bench, her pale gams perhaps seeing sun for the first time this spring, her tight tee grey tee shirt with a cartoon logo I dared not stare at. I thought about stopping and giving her advice about how time flows with the speed of darkness.
I thought about it.
I mostly just think about things. My four-mile hike was a meditation on the writing god Richard Wright and his masterpiece, “Black Boy,” which I had just reread. How young Richard published his first short story as a three-part piece in a black newspaper, the story’s title “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half Acre,” his evangelical family telling him that writing would lead him to that hell, and how he borrowed a white man’s library card because blacks were forbidden to have a card, and he read and fell in love with, of all people, H.L. Mencken. Whose language and sharp arrows of words inspired the black boy, and then he found Dreiser and Masters, and Lewis, and suddenly he knew Babbitt, knew it was Babbitt who tortured him. And he escaped, from Jim Crow South to South Side Chicago, and as an old man he would mentor James Baldwin.
I wanted to tell someone about this, about how my family hated me being a writer, about how James Baldwin saved me and drove me to myopia as I read his every word by dim lamplight in my basement room next to the coal chute, and Voltaire educated me with “Candide”, and Cormac McCarthy demonstrated to me in blood and gore, the way of mad white men, in “Blood Meridian.” Richard Wright and I were soulmates—save for the starvation thing, and the egregious racism. We were beaten and insulted into silence by our families. I wanted to tell the pale-legged girl this.
I wanted to. I wanted to.