THE VALDEMAR CAR
It's raining so hard that even with the car wipers at top speed I can barely see the taillights of the car in front of me. I'm driving my Datsun B 210 on I-90 West, ready to exit at Clifton Boulevard in Cleveland. The Datsun is an inexpensive import, lightweight to increase fuel efficiency, which is why I bought it used as a drive-to-work car. Regular rain on the roof sounds like hail, so in this heavy thunderstorm the sound is like a dozen jackhammers. It's like I'm entombed in a deafening gray box. As I look into the blinding shower for the exit sign, I see a large black rectangle rise suddenly up from the road. What the hell? It's a wet, flying carpet of death; it wants to wrap me like a mummy. When it lands on my windshield, the wipers stop, making a straining dying whirring kind of sound. I can't see a thing. My heart seems to alternate between beating and stopping. You murderous piece of steel, I shout at the car, are you trying to kill me? The wipers hum in reply. I turn the wheel to the right, to the berm, and put both feet on the brake as I feel the car leave the highway and slide on to the soggy grass. The engine stalls. I catch my breath. The sound the car makes is like sarcastic laughter.
The Nissan "Sunny" was marketed in North America as the Datsun B-210 in the mid 1970's, arriving to compete with the Honda CVCC, which was soon renamed the Civic. Datsun made small trucks, and later the legendary Z series: the 240, 260, and 280, each sleek as missiles. But their big seller was the 210 line, including the B-210, which was marketed as a sporty little hatchback with a 4-speed and great gas mileage; the optional 5 speed could get almost 50 mpg on the highway. The B-210 basic model got in the mid-30's, which, due to the fuel shortages of the period, made them popular. I bought mine used, a two door hatchback, bright green with a small yellow "Honeybee," painted on the side, near the back by the gas cap. Smiling and accompanied by a few ellipsis-like dashes, the bee, and the car by association, was about flying happily along. I was somewhat embarrassed by the bizarre mesmerizing color and the cartoonish bee, and considered, at least once, dinging the bee with another car, just enough to get my insurance to pay for a repair and repaint. If my deductible had been lower, I'd have done it.
Edgar Allen Poe's short story, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," was published simultaneously in December of 1845 in both The American Review and The Broadway Journal, which he himself edited. The narrator is a mesmerist known only as "P—" who uses magnetism to hypnotize Ernest Valdemar, a writer, at the very moment of his death from tuberculosis. P— suspends Valdemar in the hypnogogic state at the threshhold of consciousness between waking and sleeping, leaving him in a lucid dream state in which he is aware that he is dreaming, but not that he is actually dead. For seven months Valdemar's body is cold, pale, bluish, still. Yet he speaks, P— says, as if from a vast distance. "I am dying," Valdemar states, "Let me die!" But P— is ever the scientist, so the experiment continues. Valdemar keeps asking to die, until one day Valdemar claims that he is actually dead. In an attempt to speak with a dead man, P— breaks the spell and—this is a Poe story, remember—all seven months of existing in a suspended state instantaneously catch up with Valdemar. He liquifies, and splashes to the floor. Though the gruesome ending shocked Poe's readers, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to Poe, praising his ability to make "horrible improbabilities seem familiar." Yet Poe had surprisingly published the piece not as a work of fiction, but as a scientific hoax, a sort of 19th Century predecessor of Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of his adaptation of H. G. Wells's 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds. In both cases, Poe and Welles were berated for duping their respective audiences, with criticism of Poe's hoax remaining to this day, refusing to die.
Two design flaws in the Datson B-210 always tricked me. The first was the lousy shock aborbers. I bet I replaced all of them at least once after rocking like a toy horse when I had to brake quickly. The other was the ignition. I'd put the key in and turn it and nothing would happen. I'd take the key out, put it back in, and turn it again. Nothing. I'd try again, and the B-210 would respond: "Let me die." It would say: "I am dead." I added my own custom flaw to the car. I habitually set a ceramic cup of hot coffee on the roof of the car while I put my lunch and briefcase of student papers in the back seat, then drove off. I'd hear the sound of the cup sliding toward the back of the car, the short second in which the cup was suspended in air, followed by the crash, the splash, the mess.
Guapo, the young Puerto Rican girl from Lorain says, as she and her brother return from test driving my Datsun with its taped-to-the-inside window piece of cardboard announcing Car For Sale, All Offers Considered. The girl's hands clutch below her throat, over her chakra, her eyes wide in wonder at the perceived beauty of the weird green Honeybee of a car. Her brother shakes his head from side to side in disbelief over just how totally shitty the shocks are. Feo, he says. Mierda, he says. I'm standing a few feet away, shaking my head in disbelief that anyone would even come and look at the B-210. The brother and sister walk a few feet away, near where there are coffee stains on the street, to talk. Her hand points now and then to the car. He stands solid, feet spread, arms folded across his chest. They speak so rapidly in Spanish that all I hear is a buzz of sound. A few minutes later they walk back to the car, where I'm waiting, and the brother pulls several hundred-dollar bills from his shirt pocket and sets them on the hood of the Datsun. The color of the money blurs into the green finish of the car so that I can only distinguish the difference by the small, rug-like shape of the bills. When they put the key in the ignition, it starts right up. They drive smoothly down the street, the car buzzing along like a honeybee. No coffee cup crashes and dies on the street behind it. I feel duped.
For some people, time is measured by the chronology of cars owned, and when and where, acting as the timelines used to locate events in our lives. For others, it may be houses or pets or books published.