Taking the Wallby Jonis Agee
As the engines roar and the green flag waves, these stories tear across their rural landscape with the energy of a Winston Cup race. Like W.P. Kinsella's minor league ballplayers, Jonis Agee's drivers, pit crews, mechanics, and their families live in small towns, eat at truck stops, and have a hard time keeping their dreams from destroying their lives. From the
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As the engines roar and the green flag waves, these stories tear across their rural landscape with the energy of a Winston Cup race. Like W.P. Kinsella's minor league ballplayers, Jonis Agee's drivers, pit crews, mechanics, and their families live in small towns, eat at truck stops, and have a hard time keeping their dreams from destroying their lives. From the garage to the kitchen table, from demolition derby to nascar, Agee's hapless heroes open our eyes as they take the wall.
The wildly popular sport of auto racing is a backdrop in these stories for exploration of the creative and destructive aspects of obsession. In farmhouses, mobile homes, and roadside trailer courts, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters all try to figure out how to keep their families running as smoothly as their cars. Taking the Wall is rich with details about racing and rural life, and richer yet in insight into that part of the human spirit that just doesn't know how to quit. Agee takes a personal and compassionate look at a grab bag of individuals linked by obsession.
Reviews Novelist (South of Resurrection) and short fiction (Bend This Heart) writer Agee's collection of bittersweet stories dissects the rough world of auto racing from the working-class perspectives of drivers, pit crews, fans, family and other hangers-on. While "taking the wall", crashing into it, is the worst possible scenario, Agee's characters secretly wish for the excitement, horror and suspense it offers: will the driver walk away from the fiery wreck? Domestic life unfolds around the racetrack throughout the collection. "The Pop Off Valve" is a monologue in which an unnamed narrator recounts her naovet in marrying a man obsessed with racing, and the wake-up call she received on her honeymoon 15 years ago at the Motor Speedway in Irish Hills, Mich., when not even a terrible accident could thwart her husband's devotion to his hobby. Her description of the crash is chilling: "the rescue workers used the jaws of life to pry what was left of the driver from the shattered burnt shell of the car." Nonchalantly, she adds, "We grilled steaks on the hibachi at dark, unable to see the bloody raw meat until we cut into it." Agee's parsimonious language is sta
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Good to Go
Well, we'd mortgaged everything but the baby, and Donnie tore the rear spoiler half off, lost his downforce, and that was about it. Track came up and smacked him silly. That was the last time we had any money to speak of. Since then it's been working at Wal-Mart and a '78 Olds with a hole in the floor big enough for J.P. to lose a sneaker through. Last time it rained I was ankle deep in water floating down the blacktop to Cedar Rapids. Donnie's too busy welding other people's cars back together to put that piece permanent over the floor. He's the nice guy the neighbors call at suppertime to come fix their mower or disposal. We're making love and somebody needs a spark plug. Same thing when he was racing. Bob there needed to finish high enough to keep his sponsor. Frankie Jr. had the wife's medical bills, and then there was the night Spanus came to look over Owen Brach for the Craftsman Truck Series. Donnie, I said, Donnie we got bills and babies too.
You pay for your mistakes in racing, my stepdad Walter says. You miss the setup and you take the wall. Walter has his own garage and Donnie was working there when we met. It's funny, that's where Mom met Walter too. She'd driven me and a car full of stuff through one whole night to get away from her boyfriend and Versailles, Missouri. Needed gas and an answer for the terrible thumping in the rear end. Walter's Friendly Service squatted on the outskirts of town in possession of twenty acres of abandoned cars and a fairlynew, pink and white doublewide mobile home that sat in its own pavilion surrounded by a fence of half-buried tractor trailer tires painted white. Mom always loved their half-moon scallops, and admired a man who would take the time, she said. She's gone, of course. Hers was a restless heart, and even Walter understands how she came to leave with the UPS man right after Donnie showed up. She'd been going away for a while, her eyes shiny with longing of an impossible kind whenever she watched those long legged country singers on CMT. Dwight Yoakam, Alan Jackson, you know the ones. She loved us, Walter and me, with as much as was free inside her, but the rest of her, well, it was always going someplace else, and she was just the wagging tail to its dog.
The UPS man was half-Indian too. That's what she told me the night she left. Walter and Donnie were at the fairgrounds, watching the Demolition Derby that was our town's annual contribution to the Fourth of July. The fireworks would follow and I was getting ready to go out and climb on the roof of the garage to watch. It was my general policy to avoid men wrecking cars on purpose whenever possible. You see, I had that whole twenty acres of torn sheet metal and smashed windows to grow up in. It didn't take a genius to figure out the evolution. That particular family tree don't branch, I'd tell Donnie later.
Mom always seemed to leave places at night. She wasn't a Monday morning, new start kind of person. She waited and waited for her time, and it always came somewhere between eight and ten at night. She'd make all her decisions then, like one of those nocturnal animals whose brain clicked awake as soon as the sun set. I used to wonder what kept her with us as long as she did stay. I helped her pack that night. Maybe that was wrong of me, but I personally wrapped the pressed-glass swan vase she got from her Ozarks grandmother. I was afraid she'd be in such a hurry she'd forget it or not take enough care packing it, and I couldn't bear the picture of her standing there later with the pieces in her hands, knowing she'd lost something precious forever, something she could never ever make up or come back to. She was that kind of person. You wished her well. She had enough desire and longing for all of us, and I was just glad it was her having to drive away from places in the middle of the night, not me. My desire does not have geographical dimensions, I tell Donnie when he suggests we move to the other side of town.
I miss her. Miss how she could make Walter smile and shake his head and turn fast as a pony on a dime and try to chase her down when she teased him in the middle of work. She never minded the grease prints on her blouse and white-blonde hair or the burn his red stubble made around her mouth when they got to the house. Walter's not too sad now, you understand, he's just lost a little bit of air. He's skinnier somehow, like Mom took the fat out of his life. Now he has to live on lean and while that's good in some ways, it's really less than before and neither of us can forget that. I know he wishes I was more like her, that I'd treat Donnie the same way so he could get that lift out of watching us. But like I said, I'm not that kind of person. I leave Donnie to his work, and he leaves me to mine. Mine being J.P., working part-time at Wal-Mart, and keeping track of the salvage business.
It's funny how those twenty acres of cars became my responsibility. As a kid I wanted a horse, begged and pleaded, tried to win one in contests, prayed for some old man to leave me his money anonymously. I knew no woman would do anything that foolish, but I still believed in the crazy goodness of men then. One night at supper Walter put his fork down, finished chewing his Salisbury steak, swallowed, and announced that he too had been thinking hard about my problem, and he thought he'd found a solution. I could have a horse as soon as I cleared enough of those cars away for a pasture. He figured ten acres would be a good start. It was the kind of announcement filled a kid with despair and hope both, tangled impossibly, leaving you sleepless with frantic planning. I was twelve so it still seemed fairly simple to sell or move enough cars for my horse. First, I decided, I'd have to catalog the cars and make a list I could send around. Someone would want those good parts. Later when I came up with the plan to have them hauled away to a place that crushed and recycled metal, Mom gave a gentle shake of her head. Honey, she said, Walter loves those cars, no matter what he said.
And so it was that I came to see that I would have to defeat Walter's love for one of my own, and the unfairness of it struck me for the first time as what it meant to be helpless in the face of your own desire. It had been a year since our bargain, and while I had increased the salvage business by a good amount with my little catalog, the cars never seemed to do more than grow more hollow, piece by piece, until their skeletons rested mossy and black among the weeds that grew higher and higher, and as much as anything they came to resemble untended graves.
What I had ignored was the fact that new cars would be added as out in the world they grew old and died, got wrecked or totaled, and people in them escaped or died. It came to me after a while to look suspiciously at some cars: the black Trans Am that took Buddy Holden's legs, the green and white Chevy pickup that developed a fatal attraction for the Burlington Northern train taking the whole Smithen family with it. By the time I was fourteen, I began to dread spring nights when the high school seniors would scatter their lives like dandelion seeds to the wind in cars that the next day would be hauled through our gates and deposited, sometimes with blood stains still visible on the upholstery and the jagged glass of the windshield.
I avoided those cars on my walks then, hated to see the cats tiptoeing across the hoods, leaving dusty little prints, then pausing at the smashed windshield, sniffing the air, and pumping their tails slowly up and down before springing inside. Mice and field rats seemed to like those cars best. It took me a while to get on any sort of basis with those cars. Sometimes it never happened. I'd try to sell their parts fast, cheap, get their lethal hearts out of there. Still do.
There is one car I don't ever advertise though. One I'd never sell a piece of. I'd as soon bury it, but for Walter. Kids come around wanting a rocker panel, a header, a camshaft. I tell them take anything but leave that one up by the fence alone. I keep it close, you see.
Donnie and I might never have gotten together if it hadn't been for Mom's car, the one that drove us into Walter's heart. It was an old Chevy Malibu with the paint worn off to gray and rust eating its way up the doors and down through the roof and hood. The trunk lock was gone from the time we'd lost the key, and the lid was held down by a bungee cord. Walter always threatened to do something about that car, but the best thing he could manage was to keep the engine strong after he'd dropped in a new one when it became clear that we were staying on more or less permanently in the doublewide. The motor came from an old Buick Roadmaster and was really too big for the Malibu, which made it a spicy little car that spun its wheels at every stop sign and lifted its front end if you stepped on the gas too hard. When the muffler got a hole, it sounded like the hottest car in town. Walter didn't believe in new cars, and Mom didn't care. I was the only one interested in something with shine and glitter, I guess, since I'd had to give up on the horse. I needed to satisfy myself somehow, and I still thought it was going to be something with four legs or four wheels. I had no idea it was going to be Donnie until he came to lean over the engine one day while I was checking the oil. He took the dipstick out of my hand and wiped it clean between two fingers he rubbed off on his jeans while he stuck the stick back in and pulled it out again. Squinting in the sunlight at the light new oil, he nodded as if we'd come to some essential agreement and put it back in the hole. I was watching his tan arm with the veins popping and the hair bleached blonde, the thick wrist with that bone sticking up and it made my stomach hollow with want.
You keep your engine tight, he said lifting the air filter off and checking the white folds for dirt. Big mother, isn't it? He screwed the wingnut down and jiggled the hoses, running his hands down their lengths for tears. Think I could drive her sometime? He pressed the fan belt for give and nodded with satisfaction. Turn it on, he instructed.
We won money almost from the start, drag racing Mom's car on the blacktop three miles away in the middle of the night. Donnie put on a glass pack muffler, leg pipes, and dual exhausts, then went to work on the engine. Walter watched us out of the corner of his eye, kept Donnie working late as possible, and Mom fell in love with the UPS man.
The first time we did it wasn't in the backseat of the car though. It was in the middle of Heison's oatfield. We'd won a hundred and fifty dollars that night from some guys from Iowa City, and they'd gotten so pissed we'd had to take off and hide. Wasn't hard since we knew every farm and field road in the county, and we'd been necking on most of them. That night the wind was blowing hot with an edge of cool rain we could smell from someplace not too far away, so we flung open the car doors and ran into the middle of the field and lay down making angels in poor Heison's oats. In the morning, he'd think it was deer and threaten to go hunting out of season, but we didn't care. The grain was coming ripe and it smelled nutty and sweet as the wind pushed it around and about us like big heavy waves of hissing water. Donnie undid the only button fastening his shirt, and when I saw that smooth tan chest and stomach, I knew what I was going to do. I sat up and pulled my T-shirt over my head. He shrugged out of his shirt, and the wind moaned in the trees on either side of the field, tossing the sound back and forth over our heads as he lay down on top of me, and I licked the salt sweet sweat on his cheek as sandpapery as a cat's tongue. Then I let him put his thick oil-dark fingers everywhere he wanted.
Afterwards we lay there side by side while the storm came up and lightning struck the cornfield on the other side of the trees, and we could feel the razor jolt ripping along the ground in all directions. We made love again in the muddy oats, naked, our clothes drowned somewhere beside us. At dawn we drove home, and Walter and Mom met us at the door. Donnie moved in that day. It only took ten days to get us married. I was sixteen. Donnie was nineteen. But that isn't the car I'm talking about.
I don't know how we moved from drag racing to oval tracks. Probably the junked racer we got the year J.P. was born. I'd just turned eighteen and was still running the salvage. Donnie and I had our own trailer now. Not a doublewide, but it was enough. We had the twenty acres, the garage, and the office to run around in, and Mom and I spent time together too, so I never felt confined or anything. Some days, I admit, while I was nursing J.P., I'd sit at the kitchen window and look out across my cars and think of them as horses, grazing in the snow there, pawing to get down to last summer's grass, their coats shaggy as sheepdogs. I had bays and blacks mostly, with one or two chestnuts or grays. But mostly I liked the good reliable colors, nothing too fancy, nothing that showed dirt or too much personality. I'd read that the browns were best, that all other horses wanted to be brown, that's why the palominos and whites kept rolling in the dirt. It could be true, I decided, leaning into the tugging weight of J.P. at my nipple. It would be nice to go out there and call and have your horses come galloping up to the fence for a carrot. To be able to pat their warm chests, to bury your face in their thick necks, to feel their hot breath blowing on the back of your head. The cars looked forlorn out there in the winter, the only tracks from the dogs trotting up and down the rows, inspecting the ranks like visiting generals. The deer don't bother coming in the salvage yard. People work less on their cars that time of year too, so it could be peaceful and lonely out there, especially when I was nursing. That winter Mom got a job in town at the drugstore, so she wasn't around much either. That way she could see the UPS man more often, I guess, though I didn't know it at the time.
The racecar showed up on the back of a flatbed from Mason City. "Lady says to tell you she doesn't want to see this thing again," the driver announced and backed the rig through the gates. I had him put it right up front so I could go over it when I had time without having to wade through the deep snow. Donnie could use the tractor to drag it back down with the others later. But that's not what happened. I fell asleep after J.P. was done nursing, and by the time I woke up and got us both bundled for the outdoors, it was well past lunch and Donnie was back from his morning job driving school bus for the kindergartners. He'd found the number two red and black Pontiac and was already inside trying to fix the ignition box. Thank you, oh thank you, thank you, he crawled out the window and kissed me and J.P. enough that I couldn't tell him the truth. And so Donnie came to believe that I'd given him the Christmas present he'd always wanted, and I came to be the biggest liar in the family. At least I was then.
So we went racing, taking Walter with us too when he could find someone to work weekends at the station. Mom was working long hours in town, or so we thought, and we were too busy to notice all the changes that were taking place. Me, I thought it was Dwight Yoakam she was in love with, and what was the harm of that, I'd ask Donnie late at night at the track, snuggling in our truck bed camper, J.P. in his own little bed on top of the flip-down table we ate at.
Once in a while we'd win, but it wasn't anything like the drag racing we'd done. We were broke all the time, borrowing from Mom and Walter, taking extra jobs, the both of us, finding J.P.'s clothes and toys in the secondhand stores, rummage and yard sales. Donnie had that true believer look in his eyes though, and I don't think he noticed how it was going for the baby and me. I'd spend my time trying to rustle up deals on parts off flyers I'd make during the week at home, and trying to line up what Donnie needed for his car too. I took to keeping J.P. on a piece of clothesline tied around his waist and mine. Got dirty looks for that, and some laughs, but it was safety really. We were both about half deaf from the roaring engines. But I remembered what it was like all those years before when I'd wanted a horse more than anything else in the world and how it had seemed like both the easiest and the hardest, most distant thing that could happen, and I could not deny Donnie that one little corner of his dream.
Then we went through a time when everything seemed to click. Walter was helping with the engine and Donnie was driving like Richard Petty. Our life started moving faster, we bought a newer pickup and then a decent used car for me. We went to bigger tracks and got to know some of the other drivers and their families. The crowds started cheering for us once in a while. That lasted a year and a half, with our dreams tumbling out hot and fresh like clothes from the dryer. We would move up, get into newer cars, we'd get a team, we'd find sponsors, and so on. We'd just won at Mason City, and Donnie had decided to spend the Fourth at home because the next month he'd be gone part of every week.
He and Walter wanted to go to our town's annual Demolition Derby and take J.P. He was old enough, they said. I backed out. I was tired, I told them, wanted time to just sit and go over the books on the salvage yard and talk to Mom. And I remember we all looked around at Mom like we'd forgotten she existed, and in a way I guess she had. She'd been disappearing so gradually, we hadn't noticed, not even Walter, though as I say that, I don't believe that part is true. Walter would have noticed. He just might not have been able to say anything. There she was, Mom, with this forced little smile on her thin face and her pale blue eyes so long gone you could tell they weren't seeing any of us sitting around the table of her house. She was already out the door, down the walk, past the heavy tire scallops of her fence, stepping into the UPS man's brand new Camaro, a too-good-to-be-true gold yellow. But I wouldn't see that for several more hours yet. You go ahead, she smiled. I'm fine. We can watch the fireworks from the garage roof and when you come home, we'll have some ice cream and beer.
It's the small lies we come to hold against a person, I've decided. Not that she wouldn't be there when they came home, that she'd leave me to face Walter by myself, but that she promised them ice cream she already knew she didn't have in the freezer. Ice cream and beer, that should've been a tip-off, don't you think? Even her Ozarks hillbilly relatives knew better than to offer up a combination like that. What were we thinking, all of us?
So, like I said, when I came back from checking the books on the salvage yard, which Walter and Pugh did not bother keeping worth a darn, there was Mom packing. Wasn't much to say, really. At least I didn't try to say much. She was the determined one in our family, and she had that restlessness. I was a grown woman with a family of my own to worry about. I thought she'd be back, or that I'd go see her. I thought all kinds of things as I wrapped the glass swan in her underwear three, four times and bedded it safely with her socks on top of her jeans and put her T-shirts on top of that. I wasn't thinking about Walter. Her happiness swept all those thoughts up and away like a good strong wind blowing the house clean again as she opened the door and ran down to meet the yellow Camaro's honking horn. I carried the black nylon bag myself and put it in the trunk when he popped the lid, saw it safely resting on jumper cables next to a lava lamp even I knew was cheesy. His clothes were in a cardboard box. I remember a white athletic sock with a frayed heel hanging over the edge, and I reached to tuck it back in but stopped myself because suddenly I couldn't touch anything of his, as if his things were too nasty in a personal, naked way. I slammed the trunk lid and leaned down to kiss her goodbye, only getting the glance of her ear for she turned away too quickly to laugh at something he said. And by the time she turned back, he was stepping on the gas and spewing gravel from the tires that stung my bare legs as the car burst away, suddenly tearing a hole too big to be closed again.
Walter and Donnie and J.P. drove right by the wreck on their way home, hurrying to tell me about it. How they could still be excited by a wrecked car, I'll never know, but I didn't blame them, not at first. Not until they said it was a new yellow Camaro with the front end so crumpled they had to cut it in half to get the people out, and the rescue squad turned off the blinking lights after they loaded up the bodies. Kids, Walter said, and I couldn't look at him again for a month.
That was the end of our racing luck. I never understood how one thing got in the way of the other, and maybe it didn't, but maybe it did. We dug a hole of debt so deep we about drowned, and now even Walter's working twenty-four-seven to keep the bills at bay. We were all good to go, though in some strange way we didn't realize it, and then she went and took it away. So you know now that the remains of that Camaro are right inside the gate here where I can keep an eye on them. I never unpacked the trunk either, the one part of the car intact. I've left it there, the black nylon bag with the glass swan safely nestled in its dark sleep among her clothes. The UPS man's cardboard box molding and collapsing in the wet years since that dream arrived and took ahold of our lives. Because it's like Walter says, you pay for every mistake.
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Meet the Author
onis Agee is the author of four novels, Sweet Eyes, Strange Angels, South of Resurrection, and The Weight of Dreams, four collections of short fiction, Pretend We've Never Met, Bend This Heart, A .38 SPECIAL AND A BROKEN HEART, and TAKING THE WALL, and a book of poetry, Houses. Three of her booksStrange Angels, Bend This Heart, and Sweet Eyeswere named Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times. TAKING THE WALL won the Foreword Magazine Editor's Choice Award and The Weight of Dreams won the Nebraska Book Award. Jonis Agee is a Nebraska native who has lived and taught throughout the Midwest. She is now Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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