Tag Archives: jimmie johnson

By the time we got to Phoenix


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One

Yes, that’s all I had of this post as I thought ahead after the AAA Texas 500 to What’s Next, the title of an old country-pop song from my late childhood, twisted by time and the moon’s taxes to fit the moment in the 2010 Sprint Cup season when it could all be over for Jimmie Johnson’s crack at fifth consecutive title.

Johnson’s now slipped into second place, some 30 points behind surging Denny Hamlin yet still ahead of also-surging Kevin Harvick: Still well in contention but fading, his car, his team, perhaps himself not as up to the task as his competitors.

Looks that way at least from this next vantage from which I write, dark and cold outside, summer over, winter coming, elections done, a harder, colder crew moving into the positions of power, in an age with is harder and colder, haunted by old songs on the radio.

By the time we get to Phoenix, it will all be almost over …

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Phoenix is the next-to-last stop on the long season’s ride to Homestead. It’s the last chance for Jimmie to break away and a slim chance at best, his love affair with Wynona, NASCAR’s Trailer-Park Goddess of Destiny, playing out, as it has all season, bittersweetly, a love affair that has lost its wings, grown, stale, lifeless, Her attention seeming to turn to the figures racing always now just ahead of him. I choose to imagine Jimmie Johnson as the lover who knows he’s been jilted but races on the durable wires of hopes which he knows no longer exist but cannot let go of.

By the time we get through Phoenix, it may be clearly over: But for now, we can enter the mood of a Glen Campbell hit and its time, in the knowledge that our own face, this moment, will show in the silver mirror of song, sailing in the cold night sky of what surely to come.

And I choose to include in that reverie American troops having a last night with a beloved before deploying, and in the cold mountain ranges of Afghanistan taking sniper fire, and dreaming in the dark wards of Walter Reed Hospital, limbless, sorely wounded in mind and heart of their long, lonely, and too-forgotten enterprise of killing and being killed in the name of a country they hardly recognize any more.

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Two

Frank Sinatra once called “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” “the greatest torch song of all time.” It is one of the most covered songs in history, with thousands of recorded versions by the likes of Ray Price, Dean Martin, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and an 18-minute version by Isaac Hayes which includes an elaborate backstory on the events of the song. A country song with a black soul could elaborate on: that’s clout.

Glen Campbell was playing guitar as a session musician in a recording of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” by Pat Boone when he became so enamored with it that he decided to record it himself, which he did following a tour with the Beach Boys. It turned out to be pure payola of Campbell, with “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” earning him two Grammies in 1967 and launching a solo career which would earn him his own hit TV show and role in the 1969 movie “True Grit.”

Webb was 21 when he wrote the song and living in Los Angeles, though he’d been raised in Elk City, Oklahoma. It’s one of three songs he wrote about a broken-hearted love affair he’d had with a woman named Sue (“MacArthur Park” and “The Worst That Could Happen” were the other two).

In this attempt to frame that painful love affair, a man describes his decision to leave his woman. He drives east, presumably from Los Angeles, imagining what she is experiencing and thinking as he arrives different cities in his long and lonely drive:

By the time I get to Phoenix she’ll be rising
She’ll find the note I left hangin’ on her door
She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leavin’
‘Cause I’ve left that girl so many times before

By the time I make Albuquerque she’ll be working
She’ll prob’ly stop at lunch and give me a call
But she’ll just hear that phone keep on ringin’
Off the wall that’s all

By the time I make Oklahoma she’ll be sleepin’
She’ll turn softly and call my name out loud
And she’ll cry just to think I’d really leave her
Tho’ time and time I try to tell her so
She just didn’t know I would really go.

A fan once told Webb that the geography of “By the Time I get to Phoenix” was impossible – the time it would take to get to Oklahoma from Albuquerque is too short to go from the woman at lunch to being asleep at night. Webb replied, “It’s a kind of fantasy about something I wish I would have done, and it sort of takes place in a twilight zone of reality.”

Something about the liminal space of that song –- an imagined journey with imagined affect on a woman who keeps doing one wrong – is like dope to the ears and heart of a torch song. Who doesn’t dream of punishing a harsh mistress with the ultimate payback of finally shoving off and letting go, much to her surprise and, hopefully, filling her with hopeless regrets she will never resolve.

A broken heart for a broken heart: paybacks are hell, but in reality they never work when it comes to love, because an unfaithful beloved won’t wait by the phone for the departed jilted one to call – she just doesn’t care.

“By The Time I Get To Phoenix” is pure opium for the wounded heart, traveling long lonely miles through the southwestern desert, it emptiness filled with thoughts of the Beloved who hasn’t yet awakened to the truth that she’s done a man wrong for the last time. Too late for a final reconciliation: he’s gone, disappearing over the eastern horizon.

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The Glen Campbell version of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” hit the pop charts in 1967 when peace and love was in the air, still deep in the romance of Flower Power, the Summer of Love. (Among its companions on the chart was “To Sir With Love” by Lulu, “Happy Together” by The Turtles, “Windy” by The Association, “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobby Gentry, “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees, “Light My Fire” by The Doors, “Groovin’” by the Young Rascals, “I Was Made to Love Her” by Stevie Wonder, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Frankie Valli and “Never My Love” by the Association.) The time is enthralled – perhaps bewitched – by the belief in the power of love, like a teen in love for the first time.

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Yet those weren’t truths in Vietnam in 1967, as the sorties of B-52 headed out to drop their tonnage of napalm and explosives over North Vietnam and as 16,000 troops set out in Operation Cedar Falls set out to clear Vietcong operations around Saigon, discovering a massive network of Vietcong tunnels they would call The Iron Triangle. American casualties doubled in from 1966 to 1967 (to around 11,000 killed).

Surely a song like “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” making it to camps in the middle of that jungle had the sort of ennui of “White Christmas,” a fantasy not of sweet returns that every soldier dreamt of but rather the homecoming every one feared, to a woman who had moved on his absence. That would be the ultimate irony, to survive the helicopter battles over Tay Ningh or strafing mortar fire on the ground near the Cambodia border, only to come home and find one’s bed occupied by an other, probably some hip anti-war protester with leather fringe and hairy balls. “By the Time I Got To Phoenix” delivered on that fear, and must have made those lonely boys think of what roads lead away from every bad homecoming.

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Three

Jimmie Johnson finished third behind Jeff Gordon and winner Ryan Newman at the spring race in Phoenix, and though he was not leading in the points, many were flush with his possibilities. Monte Dutton had written this just before the Bristol race (which Johnson won) with something close to effusive ebullience:

… He doesn’t win every race, just three out of five so far. At this rate, he will capture a mere 22 of this season’s 36 races. Richard Petty’s all-time record of 27 in a season (1967) will stand, even though in that magical year, Petty won only 56.3 percent of the races and this year Johnson’s hoisting trophies at a rate of 60 percent.

But, seriously, folks, Johnson can’t keep up this pace. One of these days, someone’s going to step out in the street at high noon with an itchy trigger finger. It’s the Curse of the Gunslinger, and so many want to dare the Fastest Gun in the West (as in Western Hemisphere) to draw.

So far, this year and for the four preceding it, the challengers haven’t even gotten to the quick-draw portion of the competition. Before they can even saunter out into Main Street, Johnson’s twirling his pearl-handled revolvers, shooting the gun right out of the challenger’s hands with the right hand and firing at the feet with the other.

The love affair with Johnson’s fifth consecutive championship season was on. If anyone characterized the jilted lover of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” it was at that time probably Jeff Gordon, a 4-time champion who was keeping pace towards the front of the points race but hadn’t won a race since Texas in 2008. He was souring on teammate Jimmie Johnson, the kid he’d taken under his wing at Hendrick Motorsports and then watched zoom off with Wynona into a limelight that must have been galling to a man who surely thought he’d never lose the buzz of that brilliant moonshine. By the time we got to Phoenix in April, Jimmie was on a roll and Jeff was in his shadow.

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But the road from Phoenix in April to Phoenix in November has turned difficult for Johnson as well – true, he won three of the next 26 races, but Denny Hamlin won eight and Kevin Harvick another three. The fabled gunslinger has definitely slowed on the draw, and his Chase mastery is showing tarnish (he’s only won 1 of the 8 Chase races so far, compared to 3 in the same period of 2009, 2 in 2008 and 3 in 2007).

Clearly, Johnson is struggling to hold on to Destiny’s garters. They may have already passed from his grasp. The sense of an age passing is ripe in the air as the haulers make their way now to Phoenix.

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Four

As a follow-up to Campbell’s success with “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” Webb wrote “Wichita Lineman” for the  country crooner from Billstown, Arkansas (Campbell was one of 12 children born to sharecropper parents). The idea for song came to Webb as he was driving along the Kansas-Oklahoma City border and saw a solitary lineman working on up on telephone pole in the middle of nowhere. It struck him as exceedingly sad, making him imagine the lineman as a long-wandered-on lover trying to hear the voice of his lover in the song of the wind working those cables of communication:

I am a lineman for the county
and I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin’ in the wire
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

I know I need a small vacation
but it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south
won’t ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you
and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

Webb recorded his demo of the song accompanying himself on and Hammond organ, and when Campbell went into the studio in 1968 to record the song, the takes seemed lacking to Campbell, missing the feel of Webb’s demo which had so excited him initially. He got that feel down when he added a Hammond organ to the instrumentation. And the chiming at the song’s fade at the end, meant to represent telephone signals the lineman hears in his head—calls he meant to make but didn’t too long ago—were produced by a massive church organ.

The song was another hit for Campbell, taking his album of the same name to #3 on the pop chart, and the song was two weeks in the #1 spot on the country singles chart and six weeks atop the adult contemporary chart. Glen Campbell’s career was assured. He would go on to release some 70 albums, with 27 of them reaching the Top 10 (12 went 4 went platinum and 2 double platinum), selling some 45 million units in all.

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“Wichita Lineman” has been described as the “the first existential cowboy song,” and there’s something undeniably gooey-eerie about it, haunting in a way that made the song seem timeless from the first spin, a song as old as the ache in the heart in every person to have loved and lost.

You can say that “Wichita Lineman” furthers the narrative of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix.” Here the lover who left love behind has settled into a long, lonely existence in Oklahoma, working as a county lineman. Working up there in the wind and cold in the middle of nowhere, he strains to hear the voice of his love up in those wires.

The chorus makes the entire song, layering three lines which pack an infinity of power:

And I need you more than want you, Campbell begins, soft and pained in the plaint of every sorely-wounded lover who can’t stand the exquisite torture of love any more but is powerless to change;

And I want you for all time – Bang, gotcha: no matter how far you flee, the dream of love is just ahead, waiting for you in the next town to remind you how much there is to lost. The wallop of this line comes from its pairing with the first, a doubling which takes you in two directions at once, transversing the entire wilderness of the heart in 14 words;

And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line – This completes the trio of lines with an eerie, lonely, permanent image, the fact of the first two lines characterized by a lineman lost up there in the wind and the cold with the wires of memory pulsing with lost messages from the Beloved who has been forever lost.

The Wichita Lineman is a mythic figure like the Wandering Cowboy or the Ancient Mariner, forever out there in the space between memory and heartbreak, unable to form the words overflowing in his heart, searching for  the lines of communication he will never be able to open himself.

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“Wichita Lineman” is also one of those quintessential fin-de-siecle moments which somehow captured the death of the 60’s, a passing of the Flower Age of just two years previous into the nightmarish realities of death in Vietnam (a Vietcong assault on US bases around Vietnam in February 1969 killed 1,400 American soldiers), the shootings at Kent State, murder during a Rolling Stones performance at Altamonte, mass clubbings by Chicago police outside the Democratic Convention the year before, folk song growing hoarse and loud in the electrified howl of acid rock, the looming nightmare of Charles Manson singing “Helter Skelter” as he carved up the body of pregnant Sharon Tate, the assassination of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, the breakup of The Beatles.

The Summer of Love was over.

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There is a palpable ennui in the culture of 1969, a feeling that the passing of the 1960s was like summer into winter, an intensely bittersweet mood of slow but sure dying. “Wichita Lineman” had many companions in this tenor,  especially in a slough of wry, wistful and bloodily grown-up cowboy movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sunset Kid, The Wild Bunch, Midnight Cowboy,  and True Grit, all of which ended with death -– Glen  Campbell himself taking the fatal bullet in that last movie. A grand, sad, dayglo-to-sepia fadeout to a wild age.

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Paul Newman and Robert Redford go out with guns blazing south of the Sixties in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)

The same fadeout permeated all of Hollywood. The Sand Dollars was the first American movie where the hero – Steve McQueen – died.  Love Story – heroine dies. The animated short Bambi Meets Godzilla – innocence dies. Easy Rider – the quest of the youth culture dies.

A dying which is like the last whisper of a Beloved who turns around once to smile sadly before walking forever out that door in our hearts …

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“Wichita Lineman” has a vibe which persists to this day, soaked in a sweet oblivion that borders on something on the verge of winter, entering longer darker days as the last warm ray fades from earth.

But I’m also sure that “Wichita Lineman” and all those other songs of the late ‘60s are especially poignant to me because it was the eve of my own coming of age–a very bittersweet time, with my parents separating, my father moving downtown Chicago while the rest of the family relocated to a much smaller, rented house in Wilmette before taking a dive to Florida.

Factor in as well that it was also the season of my first hopeless love. Lauren was an 8th grader like me who was (unlike me) impossibly beautiful. For a short while she deigned to smile at me, probably only because she had wounds greater than mine. (She’d smile at any guy to forget that jagged wreck of a man she called Father with cold hostility).

Lauren smiled at me briefly and then turned away, leaving me to curse my ugly fat face in the mirror, beg my God to deliver her to me (He was silent). I’d lay on my lonely bed listening to “Wichita Lineman” on WLS, wondering if those wires carried news of Lauren, too. But it was only the winter wind beating against my frozen window.

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The frozen Chicago River laps against the Marina Towers; my father moved into a 48th-floor apartment on one of the towers after he moved out of our house in Evanston.

The cowboy reaches were not found in cold Chicago, but other cowboy experiences – loneliness, hard realities, wandering, alcoholism, death—were becoming familiar, were painting the age sepia, like the color fade at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

My personal favorite movie that year–give me a break, I was 12 — was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (James Bond is a cowboy of sorts I supposed, with a tuxedo for chaps and machine-gun Astin-Martin convertible for a horse.) It was a movie fraught with losses: Uber-Bond Sean Connery gone; Bond’s polymorphose perverse mojo is lost when he marries Tracy (queen “Avenger” Diana Rigg); and then she gets killed in the end.

The song “We Have All the Time in the World” was composed for the movie by John Barry (the theme song to OHMSS is eerily similar to that of Midnight Cowboy, which Barry also composed. Weird twins, eh?) with lyrics by Hal David (who wrote many songs with Burt Bacharach, including the theme song to Butch Cassidy, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”

Armstrong’s voice seems sure in his own way – a majestic, old- jazz quaver – as he sings the tune:

We have all, the time, in the world
Time enough or life
To unfold
All the precious things
Love has in store

We have all, the love, in the world
If that’s all we have
You will find
We need nothing more …

But Armstrong was actually sick during the recording, too ill to play the trumpet part (which sounded more like Herb Albert), and would die himself of heart failure a couple of years later.

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Tracy (Diana Rigg) was married — o so briefly — to the Georges Lazenby Bond, who himself wasn’t around long.

The fin-de-siecle irony of the song is drawn out as wide and tall as the Swiss Alps where the movie was filmed when, in the final scene, Bond holds Tracy in his car at the side of a mountain road, his bride dead from a bullet in the forehead shot by his arch-rival Blofeld, a few miles down the road from the church where they had just wed.

“We have all the time in the world,” Bond whispers to the only woman he would marry in the series, looking out at those impassible Alps, nuzzling her cheek with his as John Barry’s elegiac orchestral reprise swells to infinity.

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At the time he spoke those words, Georges Lazenby didn’t know they also applied to his tenure as Bond, as he was replaced by Connery in the next installment, Diamonds are Forever.

I have the soundtrack album and still listen to it from time to time, remembering so sharply that profound, bittersweet time. It’s said that you never forget the music of your puberty, and mine is split between those AM/FM heart-wrenchers of the late 1960s and early 70’s (moving from Glen Campbell to James Taylor and Carole King – all of whom still performing the songs of that age), James Bond movie soundtracks (I collected all of them), and the later erotic-demonic eruption of hard rock bands like Grand Funk Railroad, Santana, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

One age answers the previous, and my birth, psychologically and emotionally, into adolescence was right at that hinge between the death of the Summer of Love and the Season of the Witch, from hopeless ennui to opiate thrall, still trying to find out whether there’s anyone at the far end of those Witchita lines.

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Five

By the time we come to the next-to-the-last Sprint Cup race of the 2010 season in Phoenix, the air of immanent finality which surrounds this year’s NASACR storylines lends to this race something of the country torch song written 40 years ago.

The jilted lover of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” comes to that town first in his imagined narrative; for us, it’s nearly the last stop on the road, but we’re still trying to imagine what Wynona’s up to. I suspect Jimmie Johnson already knows what we aren’t sure off yet — that he’s being left in the dust to other championship ambitions. A 9th-place finish at Texas last Sunday put him between Hamlin and Harvick, cut loose and beginning to drift away from destiny.

Oh, it’s not over yet –- Phoenix is one of Jimmie’s tracks –- but something tells us that the fatal shot was fired a race ago into Johnson who, if you may, mythically reenacted Campbell’s “True Grit” character who gets shot before the movie’s end, leaving it up to the unlikely pair of Harvick/Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) and Hamlin/Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) to finish off the quest.

A fade at Phoenix this time — failing to rise to the now-desperate, last-chance occasion – would place Johnson back among the ranks of 2010’s also-rans, Chase faders like Jeff Gordon (who was wrecked, and then fought, Jeff Burton lsat week), Kyle Busch (given the boot from Destiny last week after giving NASCAR the finger) and the other boys, Kenseth and Kurt Bush and Biffle and Edwards and Stewart and Bowyer. Hamstrung by a slow pit crew, the blue No. 48 (blue as those hard-blowing Texas skies) can only think about what might have been as he watches the No. 11 and 29 battle it out for what was once the Queen of Trailer Heaven’s Portion but is now big, big, money.

I imagine Jeff Gordon as the mythic Wichita Lineman, soon dismounting from his crow’s nest up in the power lines along the border of racing oblivion, relinquishing the Lineman’s gear to Jimmie Johnson, the next passed-over champion . . .

Still too early to tell, but the wind seems to be blowing that way …

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Six

Something in the bigger news of the day is closely akin to the late 1960s, the sense that an age is coming to an end. Perhaps that is why the Coen Brothers are releasing a remake of “True Grit” for release on Christmas Day, featuring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn and newcomer Hailee Seinfeld playing Mattie, the girl who hires Cogburn to find the murderer of her father. Matt Damon is in Cambbell’s former role as La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger who has ulterior motives in hunting down the killer of Mattie’s father.  Josh Brolin will play the killer Tom Chaney, who was played originally by Jeff Corey (who would later play one of the backwoods killers in Deliverance.)

Oh, the threads of irony and fate which give current events an eerily familiar feel are many. The True Grit remake is reported to be a shoe-in for Oscar competition, repeating the original’s success in the Academy Awards. Jeff Bridges, playing the drunken lawman Rooster Cogburn, picks up a piece of the alcoholic country singer he played in Crazy Heart. True Grit is the first film he’s made with Coen Brothers since playing the Dude in The Big Lebowski, a character I brought forth early this season as a metaphor for NASCAR’s 2010 season. The narrator of that film, played by Sam Elliott, is a cowboy known only as “The Stranger,” is a Wichita Lineman-type who comes to check on things back at home in Los Angeles. (Love is not present, but there’s lots of bowling.) One of the Coen Brothers early successes was the comedy Raising Arizona (1987), with Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, a movie rich with the Arizona scenery which will surround this weekend’s race in Phoenix. Love was very much present in that film—it is perhaps Cage’s sweetest performance, ripe with an innocence he stripped himself of when he later became a Major Action Star.

And then the Coen Brothers lost their love, opting  instead to follow the Lineman around the United States to scene after scene of desolate Americana with O Brother, Where Art Thou (Depression-era bluegrass Odyssey), Fargo (wasting the locals in frozen Minnesota) and No Country for Old Men (hardcore Texas border noir). That movie was based on the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, a writer who is about the most forsaken in all of contemporary literature, whose language is as primal as the desert and blood-soaked as an Arizona sunset, and whose heart is about as forsaken as Russell Pearce, the Mesa Republican who sponsored the nation’s toughest immigration law, albeit in divergent ways. Pearce becomes the next president of the Arizona senate and means to use his iron-clad Republican majority to side-step the state’s crucial financial problems to get a new law on the books challenging automatic U.S. citizenship to children of illegal immigrants.

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Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage in the Coen Brothers’ “Raising Arizona” (1987): A dream before the nightmares.

All this tucks into the closing refrain of “Wichita Lineman” as the composer / artist / wandering wounded lover fades out by repeating those indelible words,

And I want you more than need you
And I need you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman
Is still on the line …

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Seven

Arizona is no country for old men, even though hard-frozen retirees from the Rust Belt savor its dry, hot weather. Except for the weather, Arizona offers is no escape for dotage; their golden days are just as intruded upon there by what’s upsetting the rest of the country these days – high unemployment, housing market in lead-bottomed doldrums, the economy in arrears, foreign wars dragging on, etc.

What makes Arizona a specially barbed taunt against age -– both old and young — is the unique and special hardness of Arizona’s heart against illegal immigrants.

I can’t be too critical. I don’t live close to a border so soaked in blood on the far side. The mayhem of Mexican drug cartels is approaching the tenor of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridean, perhaps the bloodiest novel about the West ever written.

More than 450,000 illegal immigrants are in the state of Arizona, a fivefold increase since 1990. That’s a very fast change in demographics. And where things change fast, fear holds fast.

One bellweather event was the killing of 58-year old Robert Krentz and his dog in March 2010 on his ranch, some 13 miles from the border. Police failed to name a suspect, but they traced footprints headed south toward the border, leading to speculation that an illegal had committed the murder.

Fear surely played a part in the evolution of Arizona Senate Bill 1070 – The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act – which was introduced by Republican State Senator Russell Pearce and signed into law by Arizona governor Jan Brewer on April 23 of this year, just two weeks after the spring race in Phoenix.

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Arizona State Senator Russell, sponsor of the state’s tough new immigration law, and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer who signed the act into law last April.

The Arizona law adds to federal law which requires illegal aliens to carry registration documents by making it a state misdemeanor crime for an alien to be in Arizona without carrying the required documents. It also bars state or local officials or agencies from restricting enforcement of federal immigration laws, and cracks down on those sheltering, hiring and transporting illegal aliens.

Since its passage, Arizona has suffered a firestorm of controversy both internally, from the U.S. government (Obama is fighting the law) and from further out (a number of nations have joined the U.S. in a suit to reverse the Arizona law, claiming it is excessively punitive.)

You can read fear in the Arizona’s immigration law, but as it usually turns out, greed may have played the quieter, larger role in its passage. NPR reported in late October that the bill was largely written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) task force, a membership organization of state legislatures as well as corporations and associations which include Reynolds American Inc. (the tobacco company), ExxonMobil, the American Rifle Association – and the billion-dollar Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the country. Pearce, who is a member of that organization, attended a gathering of ALEC last December in Washington where the immigration bill was proposed. NPR examined Corrections Corporation of America reports and found that their executives believed that immigration detention was their next big market.

In the story, Pearce, of course, said the bill was his idea. He says it’s not about prisons, but what’s best for the country.

“Enough is enough,” Pearce said in his office, sitting under a banner reading “Let Freedom Reign.” “People need to focus on the cost of not enforcing our laws and securing our border. It is the Trojan horse destroying our country and a republic cannot survive as a lawless nation.”

Fear and greed are the perfect elixir of Republican majorities, and so it’s not surprising that the midterm elections increased the Republican majority in Arizona. Pearce is now State Senate President and aims to enact a further measure of the bill, denying U.S. citizenship to the children of illegal aliens in the state.

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Many now fear that the Arizona economy -– especially the housing market -– will take a hard hit from the Hispanic relocation out of the state in reaction to the law. And although the state legislature faces a pile of work dealing with the ailing state economy, Pearce’s agenda is wholly set on cementing a wall of prohibitive anti-immigration legislation. You know, for the good of all American-Arizonans.

But what to do with all those bodies piling up in the Arizona desert? Over the past year, 252 corpses have been found there, the remains of migrants who died trying to cross into the U.S. illegally. Authorities speculate that increased scrutiny at the customary crossing-points are forcing smugglers and illegal immigrants to take their chances on isolated trails through the deserts and mountains of southern Arizona, where they must sometimes walk for three or four days before reaching a road.

“As we gain more control, the smugglers are taking people out to even more remote areas,” said Omar Candelaria, the special operations supervisor for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. “They have further to walk and they are less prepared for the journey, and they don’t make it.

This was especially true last summer when a heat wave seared the Arizona desert to a crackly crunch. In July alone, 60 withered bodies were found.

Some of these dead have been in the desert a long while – as long as several years. This makes the task of identifying the remains a tougher job. Some 700 bodies going back to 2000 remain unidentified. The Pima County Medical Examiner’s office is ground zero for these dead; when the building’s 200 spaces for corpses became fully occupied, a refrigerated truck had to be rented to store another two dozen of the dead.

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Bodies retrieved from the Arizona desert stack up in the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office.

A lonely place to rot, wouldn’t you say? Especially when you consider that a lt of those dead were people fleeing the violence of their home country, hoping for some form of economic asylum in ours.

Fat chance. Though many border businesses love cheap labor, the will of zealots empowered by greed and fear is strong at this juncture in history, this passing of one age into another.

Arizonans themselves are wildly divided on the issue of immigration. Check out the comments section at the end of a recent Arizona Republic article about Sen. Russell Pearce denial of influence by the private prison lobby, calling the NPR article “a lie.” The arguments for and against the immigration bill are as divided as day and night in the Arizona desert – hot as hell, colder as shit — and are about as dry of solutions as that killing field at any time.

For example, in one exchange “Snaptie” commented,

Funny when you have a Racist organization like NPR with George Soros funded open borders socialistic beliefs society. They have absolutely no minorities as on air personalities. It’s proven the have not one conservative on the air either. Yep i believe them [Sarcasm]

To which “Noonetou” replied,

No, this is called reporting. I know that you are not used to that since you watch Faux News which does no reporting at all. It is not so much that the main stream media is liberal, it is more along the lines that the Right has fallen so far off the cliff that anything that the main stream media reports will seem liberal to you. Want proof? Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater would called liberals in today political climate and would not be welcome in the GOP. By the way Barry and Reagan were, at the time, considered very conservative when they were in office. So what does that say about how far the right the Right has gone? In all honesty I wish the REAL Republican party would come back to life, not this shame that we now call T-baggers and Conservatives!

And on it goes, for hundreds of comments. People in Arizona are obviously raw about the issue, perhaps more so because there’s no middle ground stand on any more.

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Daniel Moynihan once said that while everyone is entitled to their own set of opinions, no one is entitled to their own set of facts. As the journalistic center dissolves and the Internet gets loaded with sites playing fast and loose with the truth, the rancor of the divide grow increasingly fetid because no one knows how to properly call things much less what to know.

A caterwauling mess. I’m sure we aren’t standing in the middle of that squawk in Florida. Oh, wait a minute – Governor-Elect Rick Scott is a big supporter of the Arizona immigration law. Guess there’s no escaping a firestorm, not in Phoenix or Albuquerque or Oklahoma or Florida: Because what you run from inevitably becomes what you run smack into.

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Eight

If I were the Wichita Lineman –- and these days, who doesn’t feel somehow a bit like him? -– I would climb up there and put an ear to the whine of cables in full song.  Swinging in the high cold wilderness of winter, I would ask:

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– I want to know how things are going for the family and friends of Lance Corporal Randy R. Braggs of Sierra Vista, Arizona, who was killed last Saturday during combat operations in Helmand Province in Afghanistan –- about the same time Brad Keselowski was celebrating his Nationwide Series championship after the Texas race). Braggs, 21, is the thirteenth member of his battalion to be killed since October 8. Deployed in late September, Braggs had hardly gotten Over There when he began his travels back toward Phoenix in a flag-draped coffin. Braggs joins fellow Arizonans Army Sergeant Aaron B. Cruttendon of Mesa (age 25) and Marine Lance Corporal Matthew J. Broehm of Flagstaff (age 22) among the month’s dead in Afghanistan:

How does it feel to come home too soon yet forever late, son of Arizona? And will you call the ground you’re to be buried in a place you’d call home?

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Lance Corporal Randy Bragg (right), age 21, who was killed in action in Afghanistan on Nov. 6, 2010.

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– I would ask for the sound of Lauren’s voice, that girl in eighth grade who was the first person I fell for so hard and woundedly and impossibly. She arrived and left almost in the same gesture, standing at a door which she said but a few words from – a hi, a bye – with a smile whose welcome faded faster than the 1960s when they were done. I would ask to  see her face once again, peeled free of composite imagge of all the other women who lingered too short a while in my embrace and moved on, or were left behind as I kept searching for the one face which cannot exist without killing the quest, the desire, the never-fulfilled, at-long-last kiss:

Say hello once again, Love, just once, that once become  forever …

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– I’d would ask to hear  my kid brother’s voice once again,  Timm who died of a heart attack two and a half years ago after an early-evening jog in Salem, Oregon. It was spring and beautiful that night, according to his girlfriend, surprisingly warm and sunny. Not a cloud in the sky. But my brother had been a wanderer for years, leaving behind his family to soothe old wounds with new ones. He was getting better -– some fundamental forgiveness had happened in his heart -– but he still kept like the wind at his back, a smart, lonely guy who took gorgeous pictures of Oregon and cruised dating sites while planning an eventual wedding with his girlfriend and wrote endless resumes stored on this laptop which I inherited from him after his death. He was just like me in physique and in so many interests, even though he was eight years younger and three thousand miles away. I was just beginning to get to know my kid brother when I lost him, and I listen for his voice at night:

Do still you roam the Oregon coast, looking for the last westwarding boat? Or are you near here, standing out in the garden in this depth of night where final pieces of the previous day fall, like silt, from the black sky? Speak … and know you are loved ….

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– I would ask where my stepdaughter is, separated from her now for 15 years after my divorce to my first wife. She was 18 by then and ready enough for the world, but things, I hear, did not go so well for her as she turned to coke and Ecstasy and alternated between good and bad men, having two children which my ex, I hear, is desperately trying to get custody of while her daughter dances in topless bars and hangs with men with lots of drugs. I had never thought to repeat the terrible wounding of my parents’ separation but I did, and in spades, doubling it by losing all contact with my step-daughter, a girl I had cared for as a father since she was nine:

Do you still hear the voice of the sea we once body-surfed in together at Melbourne Beach as I still do, deep in the reaches of your pillow as you sleep, or has the blasting rap and techno as you slither up and down fate’s cold stripper pole all but eliminated that soft uteral sound of love?

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– I would try to dial up on long-distance PFC Glenn Dick Kerns, killed in the battle of Dak To in Vietnam 43 years ago today, November 11, 2010. Kerns was 19 years old and had shipped over the previous August; like Lance Corporal Randy Braggs who died in combat a few days ago, he wasn’t long in the theatre before going home the hard way. His son Staff Sergeant Derick Ray Hunt—who never had a chance to meet his father–survived his tour of Iraq and learned some of his father from Andy Eiland, who served with Kerns and survived the battle of Dak To. Kerns was posthumuously awarded a Purple Heart Medal for his combat related wounds and buried in the cemetery of Deep Branch Baptist Church in his hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina. Not much trace of Glenn Kerns today – you can find his plot in the cemetery at Deep Branch, and his name is engraved on the smooth black marble walls of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, where many have gathered today to stroll and remember:

Letters carved in brass and marble – a name – one grainy picture – so many years silent now: Yet is that you with your ear bent to the radio in the ghostly ruins of Dak To, humming along to “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” imagining an eastward heave far different from the one you made after the gunfire and grenades?

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– I would try to hear that low sexual sigh of the woman I left my wife for a decade ago when I was drinking so bad, during that bad winter of ’00 after George Bush became President and my life became a mad horse in a hurricane. I think of those cold nights we knocked back all those beers together, talking all kinds of shit, making every sort of promise I had no intention of fulfilling, abandoning myself to the booze, the desire, he fury of going at it every which way no matter the cost. Then I think of waking in the hungover gloom of that low-rent apartment and laying there wondering what my wife was doing at that moment in our much-emptier house in the small town we once called home far to the north. Not long after I left that woman, quit the booze and slowly found my way home, made my amends to my wife who made room for me once again in our bed. I never spoke again to that frail, so fuckable, so wrong, damaged woman, herself a mother at age 14 and then losing that son when he was murdered in prison at age 18:

How does the music go late at night in whatever trailer and man you’re now with? Do you remember, or is that too much of a poison to withstand, like the death of your son, like all the jobs you botched and lost, like all the other men’s money you’ve spent satisfying their desire? Do you sigh?

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– I would listen for strangely homeless sound inside this very house I now write in, mostly sweet yet never free of bitter … How is that people who know each other most find what’s truly alien about the Other lies in the mere inches which separates every body,  an unbreachable chasm in the tenderest goodnight kiss just before the lights go out, as if there was no true coming home beyond a certain homecoming of accepting one’s impermeable condition.  All else is imagined and impossible gravy, isn’t it my love, our years together molding our lives’ trunks together like two trees wrapped around each other, become one living entity with two sets of sap rising and falling across a distance measured in inches and yet is infinitely far, as far as the sea, as high as the moon?

Can you hear me singing as you sleep, love? Does my voice reach you like the gentlest touch at first light, or is it only more cold starlight, present yet alien, akin or identical to this lonely walk we call a life?

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– And finally I think of Jimmie Johnson on his way now to Phoenix, with all those championships racked up in a place inside that is somehow paling fast, their grains slipping through the hourglass like so much wind in the wires, this next race demanding everything and more from him, his team and crew chief, just when none of whom quite seem up to the task as much as the No. 11 and 29 teams.  So much else presses in now than when he began to tear up the tracks – marriage, fatherhood, charities, the indulged life of the multi-millionaire, fame’s steady spotlight which nearly shadows the rest of the field. All of that makes Her seem distant, and he knows that the moon is a harsh mistress, and will not tolerate such falterings of devotion, will not tolerate much of anything except Victory and Championship, things which have faded from his eyes:

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Are you still gunning, Jimmie, still in the quest? Are you game enough to go hellbent for a change? Are you willing to give everything of your much larger, richer, wider, happier life to Her in that clinch? Or have you heard the cold wind this dark night, and seen the moon through the window of passage- trailer or car or jet -– the moon with its ghostly semaphor and metaphor of separation, itself wrenched from the sea billions of years ago, the first lonely Wichita Lineman, sailing high over the earth, hauling tides and hearts in its silver wake? Do you see the moon, Jimmie, and know?

Are you singing along right now, not to “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” or “The Wichita Lineman” but that third, perhaps most indelible Jimmie Webb song of all, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” –- the hardest song of all to sing for anyone who has heard Her voice on the wires for so long ….

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon’s a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine
Lord, it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pines
And then the darkness fell
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
It’s so hard to love her well

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart
I fell down on my face
Yes, I did, and I — I tripped and I missed my star
God, I fell and I fell alone, I fell alone
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

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What’s it gonna be, Jimmie? Pedal to the metal this one defining time? Or will you at juncture simply drive on, out of the raceway and onto the long road to obscurity, Phoenix to Albuquerque to Oklahoma, driving all night till you come to that stretch of power lines on the freezing, wind-heaved border to winter.

How much colder it is outside your Chevy, Jimmie, standing there in the place where the winds of winter blow forever? Will you call up to the dark figure working above, the one with a big yellow “24” painted on the back of his orange parka: and call him down —  shift change – and when Gordon climbs down, will you know the look in his face because you wear it now, too, knowing at this end of your career that

The moon’s a harsh mistress
She’s hard to call your own.

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Jimmie at the Blue Door, Again


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One

The last seaside bar on earth lies just beyond the city limits of a small beach town off the Pacific Coastal Highway. The town isn’t on any map; like a bottle with a scrolled Grail inside tossed to the wave in some faraway beach, you can’t find it nor the bar except by accident, turning left where you meant to turn right three miles back as you drove back from a race one late, weary night.

The bar is old and looking pretty beat-up from storms and the a constant stiff breeze which always works the coast—a ramshackle building, timbers worn thin and grey as bone, just a couple of pickup trucks and a battered woody station wagon from the 40’s parked outside, a single blue neon sign which flickers intermittently, advertising a beer you’ve never heard of.

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Getting out of your car—-a royal blue Chevrolet with a big yellow 48 painted on the roof–the first thing to hit you is the breeze, steady and hard, carrying in its fists the sound of big waves crashing in the distance. As you cross the lot toward the bar’s entrance, each wave’s collapse trembles the ground beneath your feet.

It’s dark outside, O so dark, the gas station and diner across the street empty and mute — perhaps for decades, forever — the sky impenetrable with its dim silvery blue glow of unreachable galaxies, the sea beyond a frontier of absolute black, the bourne no racer returns from.

You can make out faint music leaking from the bar’s interior, almost indecipherable amid the hard coastal mash of wind and wave but alluring, like a stranger’s perfume which has lingered on your pillow from the night before. A jazzy, slow, after-midnight sort of music, the purest accompaniment to hard drinking and desperate liaisons.

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You hate that you find yourself exactly here, between the last wild track and the great blue sea so late at night, so late in the season, with so many angry hot cars right on your tail, with all the added responsibilities of age screaming at you to turn around and go home.

But you know no champion can fail this trial. Racing’s Grail Castle is exactly this anonymous bar smelling of fried oysters and brine – never the same one, but always some dive that seems about to be carried off on the next tide.

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This bar is arrived at only after so long a quest -– 30 races so far, this year – and inside there waits the Cup, hovering in the air behind Wynona, racing’s castle Queen. You know — the pale one with the red hair and violet eyes and blue satin dress. The one whose proper wooing means everything, with the foretold words spoken wholly of the moment, not written in a psalter rescued from the bottom of the sea, or whispered in your ear by a dying priest at Machu Picchu, or radioed in by a crew chief who’s tired, tired of all this shit, who only knows how many tires to change out, how many turns of the trackbar will give your Chevy more grunt and growl than the rest of the field for enough laps to get that Top 5 finish, those precious, lead-adding point.

No, no one has told you the words, and you know you aren’t smart enough to compose them yourself: All you have is your driver’s instinct for the moment, a gift for seeing openings and trouble on the track infinitesimal instants before or ahead of anyone else.

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That instinct will give you the words at just the right moment. It must, or her eyes will glaze into a gaze which lets you know she’s already focused on someone behind you and made up her mind to tryst with him, bestowing her silvery blue satin scarf around the next champ’s neck, hoisting him high on that invisible hanging tree that lurks just behind Victory Row, taking her prize just as the man beams and holds the Cup high, as if that were the prize, the end …

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But first, you have to get through that door.

Four times now you’ve walked up to the threshold and grabbed hold of the door’s handle, your heart pounding, the night grown suddenly huge: Four times it has creaked open, allowing you access to a spot at the bar with her as the jazz band plays improvisations of old standards with a remove reserved for the dead. Cool blue jazz indeed, a flicker of a heartbeat above rigormortis.

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Four times you’ve clinked glassware with Wynona til time made no sense, and when she leaned close to kiss you, that immense feminine power of the track goddess enveloped you in a roar of horsepower not found in any car, ever. You then found yourself crossing dreaming winter heavens in your Chevy’s boat-cum-crystal bed with her, romancing the infinite leagues of her abyss, celebrating the New Year in her blue jazz honkeytonk beneath the wave amid the ghosts of so many champions – Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherley, Tim Flock and Lee Petty, Buck Baker and Dale Earnhardt, all of them now dead, all raising their gold cups to you with hard eyes and icy smiles fraught with the knowledge of Destiny’s infinitely wild and deep and ultimately drowning sea.

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Is it just a night you spend there, always on the eve of your next championship? Seems like 300 years passes before you come to on pit row at Daytona walking up to your Chevy, now cleaned of all the kelp and barnacles and shipwreck tackle that got mired in its works by passage, primed and ready the next great run. Someone else stood in for you during Champion’s Week at Vegas; a smiling moneyed and relaxed Jimmie-doppelganger vacationed with Chandra at Cazumel and Capri and Thailand; that picture of you with President Obama with your No. 48 Chevy parked in front of the White House – staged by Wynona’s Powers, her vast blue satin veil of fame settling over our eyes so that all we see is fame and its receipts, hiding the true boon of Victory – Her feast, from November through January, on the mortal bone of her Champion.

No wonder you race as in a daze, preternaturally composed, unsure even which track you are to head for next. That’s because you are less and less on every track you race now, slowly waking to the possibility of that dark blue dream of yet another tryst with Her. The greater the destiny—now a record five consecutive championships in the offing—the cooler you seem, more laid-back than a 14-year-old surfer dreaming on the warm sands of Pismo Beach. You’re almost invisible now at the wheel.

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And here you are again, on the verge of entering for the fifth row in a year — something no one else has done?

Not that the door will open. Nothing was decided enough at Charlotte; you finished third behind non-Chase contender Jamie McMurray and out-of-Chase Kyle Busch; Denny Hamlin was right behind you; Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon lost enough ground to render making it up very difficult. Martinsville this weekend will be the showdown between the leaders; you and Hamlin have won the past eight races there; the fateful checkers may fall there.

But then, Talladega waits …

No one has found this bar so many years in a row.

Few have gained entrance as many times.

Will it open yet again?

And do you have you the strength, the cajones, the unrivaled gall to go in if it does, knowing what you do?

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Two

She explained things to you on the eve of the second Phoenix race in 2007, where you won your fourth straight race in a row and clinched your second straight championship.

That night the bar was closer to ‘Frisco – a fog-bound 2 a.m., freighters mooing to each other in the soup, the night cold, thickly insinuating itself like a ghost from an all-too recent past, a freshly cracked grave with dirty tracks disappearing into the woods.

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The door opened.

Inside, the gloom was cheery in that icy alcoholic dope-fiend way, everything in dreamy slo-mo free-fall, booze providing oblivion’s descending shroud, heroin shutting down the system to barely heart-and-lungs.

Up on the bandstand, the band was playing a version of “Freddie the Freeloader” with country flavors added in – three extra players riffing modally on banjo and jug and mouth-harp. The effect was disastrously perfect, a head-on collision between hostile genres, like a T-bird convertible of hep-cats mashed into the squonking Model T of the Beverley Hillbillies, bodies strewn everywhere. Yet the night was purple, stout and aching with the odd glee of Destiny, always the inverse of what we think. Only a goddess woulda thunk such cool country would herald her next appointment.

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You and her were drinking whiskey chasers with steins of Anchor Steam cold in hand. Her thick red hair almost black in the blue neon beer-lights hanging over the bar, her green dress like sharkskin, working the light so strangly, a huge blue sapphire hanging between her breasts. And you in your firesuit, still reeking of Charlotte.

Somehow your shapes almost merged in the cracked smoky mirror.

Because they were …

She was talking in your ear, loud enough to get around the band’s corn-pone version of “Flamenco Sketches.” “You fly the Oval heavens in your teammate, mentor and former friend Jeff Gordon’s double – a blue Chevy with a bright yellow 48 on the roof. The colors are not accidental to your tale. They are a perfect match for heaven – blue skies forever, the sun promising glory, gain, triumph, pleasure, truth, success. A championship blend, but it’s more than that. Blue is the color of the inner folds of my robe, the scent of my satin lingerie. Your dark blue is the color of that stratosphere you can only access with a thousand horses under the hood and straightaways at 200 mph.”

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She spoke staring at you in the mirror as you listened, staring directly at her. That’s how it works. You know. Fame is all about eyes – of beholder and beholden, the candescent celebrity and those who would see themselves in that light, the way Psyche loved Eros because she could see herself in the magnitude in his eyes. It’s like the Tarot card of the Lovers: the man looks on the naked breasts of his Beloved as the pure sum of his infinite; the woman looks up at Heaven to receive the full bestowal of her desire.

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Wynona took a drag on her Winston and exhaled slowly and thickly, like smoke from a burnout. Her violet eyes were almost black in the mirror’s dark reflection, aged at this game yet still aglint with the silver of wooing. “Blue is the color of your true love’s eyes, the one you will marry and who will bear your children. Blue is the inside of what is now called the Sprint Cup—a forbidding, welcoming blue, like the deep blue sea which folds and crashes on the shores of your beachside mansion, paid for by my secret, unholy embrace.”

Her voice was becoming thick and eel-like to your booze-befuddled ears, as if coming to you from surf instead of barstool.

“Blue is what I have again decided that I love about you. So buckle up and unzip, lover. We’re going to race together every sea and sky.”

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With that, she stubbed out her cigarette and headed out the door. You watched her leave in the mirror, her hips moving with such rounded perfection under that dark blue dress, her red hair caught for a moment in the Exit light beneath the door, suddenly aflame – then gone.

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Blue is color of the odd bittersweetness of achieving an unparalled human height and knowing you shall die unable to return to those portraits of infinity, holding high the next Cup as a million cameras flash like stars.

It is the color of knowing how all of this is out of your hands, though you do what you must. It’s just the color of the car you signed on to drive, though all that winning has made it the color every other driver has nightmares of, off and on the track.

Blue is the color of the door you must go through.

It lurks in all the shadows gathered here.

It endlessly folds and crashes and recedes, just beyond the last bar open at this hour on Earth.

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Following the rules of enactment, you stay on through the band’s final set. The country players file out quickly, jug of sour mash swinging from the banjo player’s hand. The jazzmen recessed to a back room where they shoot up. Boozers and dopers are a different breed, especially when it’s 4 a.m. going on forever.

That year it was Bill Evans who emerged that room and sat with you a while, his eyes looking freshly done up, icing his extraordinary, killing jones for Beauty. (His long-time girlfriend Peri Cousins once said he suffered so every time he took the stage, crucifying himself on an immortal cross of lyric perfection; the dope saved him from Rapture, bleeding him back to earth.)

Evans’ voice was calm and lucid as he continued that year’s lecture. There was much to learn, as the dimension of repeat championship changed everything, making winning big a mythic reenactment.

A Kool hung from Evans’ lips as he spoke, the way one did when he was at the piano onstage with the band. It made him talk in a sideways, almost sinister way. “The yellow of the 48 represents the sun, clear, wide-awake, beaming with precision and beauty. One end of yellow’s spectra is hot as burning sulphur, mad for victory, coming round the turns in a molten blur; on the other end it’s pure gold, like the satch of sunset on your wife’s face as she walks with you by the sea. That gold aura will hover over your future daughter as she sleeps.

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Framed by blue skies, yellow is waking in a bed after a night of passionate surrenders that’s far at sea, floating on uteral blue, the skies so lamped a perfect assent and surrender.”

Evans mashes out the butt of his Kool in a brimming plastic ashtray and taps another one out of the pack, lighting it from a matchbook bearing the insignia of the Village Vanguard in New York. He inhales deeply the mentholated smoke and then lets it ripple back out slowly, like a descending riff on the keyboard. The black hornrimmed glasses would look geeky on Evans were it not for the eyes inside – dark coals of insatiable desire, not for pussy so much as its cathedral mood, the romance of engangement, the enthralling feel of Beauty as the image of it floods the  heart.

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He stays silent, having played the chords of the setup. It’s your turn to solo, showing off the chops you’ve learned which gave you entrance through that door that night.

You begin slowly, turning a shotglass of Jose Cuervo Gold slowly one way then the other in your fingers, like a steering wheel during a caution. “Yellow is the flag which empowers the madness of the double-file green-white-checker restart. It is the streak of Hendrick enginepower which maneuvers around Hamlin and Harvick on the last lap, streaking like a torch under the checkers.

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“Yellow is the high five of blue, the only color apparent during burnouts,” you say. “It is what leaps from the firesuits of the Sprint Cup girls as they stand and smile while I spray their beaming faces with foaming jets of champagne.

“Yellow is the gold beam of the Sprint Cup as I hold it high, offering the Grail back to God. Yellow is the burn in my weary, track-harrowed, season-hallowed nerves, still bright despite the black exhaustion settling down, its triumph lifting me to NASCAR Valhalla once again, that RV in the sky where Wynona lounges with Dale and Lee and Fireball.” That’s all you know so you shut up.

Evans is silent for a while, bent over imaginary keys on the bar, pondering how to climb a pair of notes up and over that in a manner which replicates exactly the pouty red nipples which Wynona reveals when she drops her blue satin dress.

“We will meet again,” Evans pronounces, a statement which is bittersweet, so fraught with yes and no, blue and yellow, Jimmie Johnson and Sprint Cup Championships for more years than anyone can believe. (“We Will Meet Again” is also the song he composed after his brother’s suicide, and the title of the album which was posthumously released.)

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Lighting another Kool from the last, Evans heads off to join the band for another squeeze of the needle’s white oblivion.

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It’s long past closing time, but no one seems in any hurry to leave. The bartender (a beefy guy who’s surely cold-cocked more than a few drunken belligerents in his decades or centuries of service at this bar) whips you up a concoction that is somehow about eighty proof stronger than a combined Long Island Iced Tea, Bastard on the Beach and Zombie–six shots of various rotgut liquors laced with lemonade, seltzer water, fish sauce, what smells like Clorox and a fistful of cherries. A tiny pink umbrella sizzles and melts into the viscous mess. The cherries are so laced with preservatives that they hang out in the bottom of the drink like the balls of varied sharkbit skinnydippers.

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You drink it down in one long guzzle, like a magnum of Sunoco gasoline dumped into the tank of your pitting 48.

“The deep blue and brilliant yellow of the ‘48’ make it difficult to see or even imagine a driver,” the bartender says, completing the night’s, that season’s, lesson. “It is a chariot only a god can command, like Phoebus who rode the sun-car across the heavens every day. The man you mortally are is wholly hidden by the brilliant colors of the car.

“No one will figure out how you will manage to win so many consecutive championships. I mean, look at it – you ain’t no hillbilly Earnhardt, no firebrand Smoke or Harvick, no hotshot pisser Kyle Busch. You’re Jimmie fer Chrissakes, mild-mannered, diffident, Jiminy Cricket. Fame exudes from your countenance like cologne whose scent is too subtle for humans to smell, though she-wolves and sea-witches and certain track-bitches are said to go mad getting just a whiff.

He dumps glassware into a tub of the dirtiest-looking dishwater you have ever seen, swishes them once, dumps them into even dirtier-looking rinsewater in a second tub, then lines them up in a row. An tall, apelike, rough-looking guy, biceps like eggplants bulging from a t-shirt that has Spartacus in his chariot silk-screened on the front. (The back side, which you can see in the mirror, shows a diving sperm whale.) He could easily take on Popeye and Bruno at the same time. His forearms are heavily tattooed with a variety of broken hearts and anchors and dancing girls with devil’s tails.

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“But the ladies know. They have their favorites for different reasons. Those who love you would love to mother champions. Your sperm burns blue and gold, like gold at the bottom of the sea.

It doesn’t seem possible, but this brute begins waxing poetical-mythological. He’s obviously worked a long, long, shift.

“Yer fame, ya see, is growin’ like the visage of Zeus, the  Greek god Numero Uno who was too brilliant for any mortal or subdeity to behold. So when he spent one night with Semele the moon goddess in her silver trailer, he was taken aback when she asked to see her lover man’s face in the raw, in full radiance.

Zeus warned her of the peril, but the bitch was adamant, wanting a piece of god none of the other fillies at the track could claim to have gotten hold of. So the everlovin’ gawdamighty King of Heaven reluctantly pulled off the shroud which allowed him to go callin’ in the trailer chicken house. Semele was immolated by a thousand lightning bolts, crisped to charred black bacon by the full voltage of Zeus.”

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The bartender refreshes your drink by topping it off with a squirt of eel juice that makes your glass glow green.

“To save his child,” the bartender continues, badass Zeus reached into the blackened depths of Semele’s womb and pulled out quivering red mass. He tore his thigh, creating a space for the embryo, and then sewed the child back up until he’d grown to term.

“The child was named Dionysos and became blue-haired god of revelry and abandon, sun’s full gold invested in the blue-black wilderness of lunar landscapes. Whiskey’s fire is in his belly and every blue brassiere flung out a car window belongs to him. Wynona is his favorite booty-call and her come to her silver trailer at the bottom of the sea on nights when the sag of the sun far under the earth draws him to depths you and I will never be able to name.”

By this time, the bar is all but emptied out, the doper jazzmen not so much departed as wholly diffused, like spent smoke, the few lonely truckers speeding home in blackout zigzags on the coastal highway.

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The bartender finishes his assay as he stacks barstools, one by one, like the failed hopes of your Chase contenders.

“The deep blue and sulphur yellow of the No. 48 are the pistoning of Dionysos in Wynona, their cries lost in the thunder of the great Oval, or rather composing the deepest registers of it on race nights when your No. 48 can’t be beat. You’re just driving as you always do, radioing back to Chad the performance news, data to use on the next pit as your team tweaks, in Apollonian fashion, the sun car to its fiercest edge.

He pauses to wipe his forehead with an old yellow rag, perhaps as old as the Golden Fleece which Jason stole from a sleeping dragon.

“And yet it is Apollo’s dark brother who’s working the lanes ahead, pleasuring Wynona like no other, revealing creamy folds of vibrating pink for you to steer directly through, not so much driving and holding on for dear life as your little boat careens the oval vortex which devours all other comers.“

“Where do you get all this shit from?” you ask thickly, your tongue going flat like a tire in your mouth as the dark potion in your glass goes to work.

He stills, looking into a history made opaque by the gloom of the bar, so very, very late at night.

“She and I go way back. Way way back. I rode a championship team in the chariot races in the Arena for almost ten years straight. Then that bastard Spartacus showed up, and there was nothing I could do to keep her from chasing after him. For old time’s sake she hired me to work this joint on the dear edge of Hell.

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He pauses.

“Tonight you got lucky. You got in. You’re her man tonight. Which means you have work to do.

“Closing time, pal.”

Which is fine with you. The booze of that awful concoction (Destiny’s Booty Call, it’s called, served up only in that changeling bar you not so much discover as become lost at on the border between land and sea while getting hot at the end of the NASCAR season) has wormed its way through every conscious node and synapse, causing the silvery blue of your reverie to descend league by league toward the abyss of black. You barely recall leaving the joint –- the smack of freezing foggy late night air jolted you back for a moment -– or that, when you stumbled into your Chevy, she was sitting in a passenger seat which doesn’t exist on race day.

The last thing you remembered that night—before Homestead, actually, was her whispering in his ear:

“Drive, lover. Drive like the wind. Drive like the sun-car racing to dawn. Drive with only clean air ahead. Drive with your pedal to the metal, your balls to my walls. Git ‘er done, love. Drive!”

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Three

Miles Davis and his sextet recorded Kind of Blue over two sessions in March and April of 1959. Davis assembled musicians considered at their pinnacle of cool inventiveness—pianist Bill Evans (for most of the album, though pianist Wynton Kelly was brought in for the two bluesiest numbers), Cannoball Adderley and John Coltrane on sax, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb. Bringing in just a few scribbled notes, Davis sketched out the tunes to the band and they just took off with them, recording the numbers with no rehearsal and in just two takes each.

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As hard bebop was beginning to wear out its welcome with ever-more-complex chord changes, Davis was experimenting with a new style called modal jazz, where improvising was freed from the minor and major key relationships of classical music. George Russell had begun the sea change with modal experiments in his band, and Bill Evans had been a member of that ensemble. Coltrane became an acknowledged master of the form. Instead of bebop’s complex, dragonish boil, modal jazz brought a form of cool detachment which served the time well, just as the young middle class was discovering recreational drugs and sought to silver the heating pace of history with something cold and blue and slower in temperament.

Kind of Blue was released in August 1959 and quickly became a gold standard for jazz. It is considered Davis’ best album, is the best-selling album ever released, and is consistently ranked among the best albums of all time.

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The cut “Blue in Green” is perhaps the most wistful, bittersweet piece on the album. Miles Davis always claimed authorship, but most believe that Bill Evans at least had a part in the composition. The chord progressions are quintessential Evans, gorgeous lattices upon which Davis and Coltrane and Adderley wove their earnest solos.

Imagine a rickety ladder which fails to clear the night to reach heaven although it tries, it tries, succeeding better than just about any other song, making its ultimate failure the quintessence of addict longing – there’s never enough, ever. The final wash of descending chords at the end of “Blue in Green” is like fate’s ebbing wave, exhausted, spent, its waxing beauty now just a fading resonance, soon enough gone forever.

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Play “Blue in Green” at the funerals of every player in the 1959 Kind of Blue sessions save one. Cool blues as they mastered it had cold rungs of alcohol and drug addiction on its modal ladder; you can hear it’s hole-in-the-soul sucking sound between every everlasting note. Coltrane, a fierce heroin addict, was dead of liver cancer in 1967 at 40. Pianist Wynton Kelly was the next to go in 1971, dead at age 39 from an epileptic seizure; Cannonball Adderley suffered diabetes and in 1975 died of stroke at 48. Bill Evans was a longtime heroin and then cocaine addict and died in 1980 at age 51 of bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis of the liver and bronchial pneumonia. (A friend characterized his death as “the longest suicide in history”). Miles Davis kicked his heroin habit and lived to age 65, succumbing in 1991 to stroke and respiratory failure. Only drummer Jimmy Cobb is still alive and kickin’ the kit, now 81.

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“Blue in Green” was recorded during the first Kind of Blue session, in March 1959. About the same time, Johnny Beauchamp won the Grand National race at Lakewood Speedway in ’59 T-Bird. It was his first career win, having been squeaked out in the photo finish earlier in the year at Daytona (he was 24 inches behind winner Lee Petty). Beauchamp would win one other race, the next year in Nashville.

Beauchamp lead all 100 laps of the Lakewood race against the brightest lights of NASCAR’s legendary days–Buck Baker and Tom Pistone and Fireball Roberts, Tiny Lund and Cotton Owens, and Lee Petty, the guy who won the inaugural race at Daytona Speedway earlier that year and who would go on to win his third Grand National championship with 12 wins.

Beauchamp won just once more, in Nashville the next year.

Like Fireball Roberts (who died in a flaming wreck in 1963), Lee Petty might surely have driven to NASCAR’s greatest fame. He won 5 races in 1960 finishing sixth overall. 1961 promised to be a great year, but during Speed Weeks at Daytona he and Johnny Beauchamp locked up during a qualifying run, causing both cars to bust through a guardrail and into a parking lot.

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Lee was seriously injured in the wreck –- he spent four months in the hospital –- and he was forced to retire the steering wheel of his team to his son Richard. It was Richard who became King, the winningest racer in all of NASCAR, with 200 victories and 7 championships. (Richard Petty also holds both the old and modern season record for wins at 27 and 13 respectively.)

Johnny Beauchamp suffered minor head injuries in the same wreck with Lee Petty, yet it was also his last NASCAR race.

Lee Petty was recently named to the second class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Johnny Beauchamp all but disappeared.

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Though Beauchamp’s career was short, fatefully ended tangled in the wreckage of the Petty who Would Be King, Wynona has a thing for the one who almost beat Lee at the ’59 Daytona 500. Actually, Beauchamp was first declared the winner, and would have stayed that way had not newsreel footage made available to Big Bill France caused NASCAR’s governor and CEO to reverse the decision in Petty’s favor.

After his wreck with Lee Petty in 1961 at Daytona, Beauchamp returned to Iowa and local dirt track racing; but his fame – all of it latent – Wynona kept for herself. That part of the man came to work as a barback at Wynona’s seaside bar(s), cleaning vomit from the bathroom stalls, blood from the walls and everything else after the bar’s closed down for the night.

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Actually, everyone who’s found in Wynona’s clamshell dig is really just the projection of their NASCAR fame, for better or worse, wound around the thorny calyx of her strange love for cool jazz. The silver parts of their shadows, the way that the band is the jonesing part of Kind of Blue, a personification of the riffs.

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It is the place where Fame comes to drink, with a thrist so great that it could empty the great blue sea in one long draught.

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It is now late in the night of October 20, 2010, and things in the Frolic Room are settling into the stilling freeze of the pickling process. Joe Weatherley and Fireball Roberts are knocking back empty shot glasses and miming rollicking laughter to a dirty joke. Up onstage, blue shadows of Miles and the crew are playing “Blue in Green,” Evans bent over his piano with a Kool hanging loosely from his lips, Miles silhouetted by the single spotlight trained on the stage, rasping out the notes Wynona loves so well.

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She’s at the bar alone, lost in reverie to the song, her pale white hands cupping a martini glass that’s filled with vodka colder than the ocean at 20 thousand leagues – cold comfort, wild solace, bitches’ brew.

She’s thinking, too, her mind turning on a spit beneath which booze and desire and “Blue and Green” are burning up her loins. Trying to make up her mind. Is love still blue and yellow? Or is it darker this year, blue gone down to a purple so deep its almost black, yellow gone red with frenzy?

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Yes, it could be Hamlin; he’s young and fierce and hungry, o so o so hungry. If only he hadn’t radioed in “All we do is win” ahead of her welcoming kiss. Since then it’s been dicey for the brash Virginian, harsher, harder, more fraught with trackside perils. He still in second behind Johnson, but her four-time champion is slowly, o so slowly beginning to pull away.

She lights a Winston and exhales slowly, the smoke making denser and more spectral Davis’ silhouette. Is it time for a change? Can she get the proper soul mileage out of Denny? Can he surrender the way Jimmie always has, with something between rage and infinite desire, both extremes trapped in the serenest of composures?

Not an easy thing to do, she reflects, turning the bell-shaped cocktail glass, her cold selkie hands warmed by the freezing vodka inside. Davis’ solo makes her shiver with a penetrating eel of pleasure – his horn gruffly barks and coos at the same time, breathing hot in her ear as the man hangs his body on the bloody crucifix of song.

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She delayed making her decision at the Bank of America 600 – still too soon – keeping Hamlin close behind Johnson. She reserves possibility too for Kevin Harvick, only 77 points further behind; his brash style promises a good fuck, but there’s way to much choler in that mustard-slathered No. 29 RCR Chevrolet. He sure knows how to swagger like a champ, she thinks. That would be a change.

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And then there’s her old flames Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart at 85 and 107 points behind respectively, four- and two-time champs who might be good for another roll in the destiny’s hay, if their need for her can burn through the haze of age …

Evans solos, wringing soul out of his piano like none other with Chambers on bass around and behind him, pitching rollers of deep sound like the crashing sea. Then Coltrane works in his saxophone, o so jonesing for big night music with notes more diffident than a suicide’s last look in the mirror. Then Evans again, this time playing with the bass, the two of them like a pair of pelicans scrolling over the sea in search of fish; then Coltrane again, taking the song further offshore, almost out of view of land—

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— And then Evans takes things home, collapsing the song wavelike to its end, playing those fatal falling chords like a Sprint Cup car that’s driven off the coastal highway and dropped into the sea, falling and falling down the shelves of abyss toward her final fatal bed (that’s what Championship looks like from her Otherworldly perspective -– the sweetest song to fall all the way to fame’s perdition).

Wynona lifts the glass to her lips and takes a long, deep pull on her martini, finishing it off in one draught. Her sigh is timed perfectly with the last note of the song.

She sets the drained glass back down and looks at herself in the smoky cracked mirror behind the bar. She’s not young any more -– no ripe maiden, at least –- indeterminately in her middle years (like a Penthouse Pet from the ‘80s), the way aging mortals have a fixed image in their minds of themselves, somewhere in their 30s as the years flood down and out the hourglass. Her red hair down in curly waves, her violet eyes burning cold, lips heavily lipsticked a rosy scarlet, like blood, her pale cleavage plunging heavily into a simple blue satin dress.

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She smiles at the mirror; terrified, a fresh crack forms in  its surface.

She’s made up her mind.

She’s ready to offer her boon.

She stares toward the door. Question is, is he ready for her? For what awaits at Martinsville?

At the horror of Talladega?

How close shall she keep it? Will it be decided at Texas or Phoenix? Or shall her handkerchief fall coming through turn 4 on the final lap of Homestead? How to make this interesting, dangerous, wild, sexy?

Small decisions nonetheless, the details of which she works out in her mind while dragging Beauchamp out behind the bar where the sea wind and surf-sounds are loudest. She kneels, unzipping his pants, taking him in her mouth. It’s the sound of his pleasure – ahs and omigods and gggnmmmms – that weave the final tapestry into place.

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Him spent in her mouth, she pats his rear lovingly like an old friend. She wipes her mouth, stands back up rearranging her bra and smoothing down her dress. Beauchamp’s eyes are closed, lost in the soaring orchestrals of the sated night.

She walks back n without looking back, humming Adderley’s solo to “All Blues.”

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Finale

Your sigh is lost in the ocean’s own, composed of waves which crash in milky smithereens of wet thunder and then expire in a sad Ah, the sound your wife always makes when you withdraw after coming in her. That welcome which grieves your every departure, every media appearance, every race.

You match that sound with a sigh of your own, one which no one can hear this night, a surrendering, grieving sound which has deep in its lungs a requietal no one but a repeating champion could know, to be so close and know how infinitely far away the finish line remains.

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You’re at the door now of the bar, gripping the handle of what turns out to be a heavy oak portal, requiring some muscle to pull open, some heft of heart-spirit and ball-spunk which tonight, at this moment, in your season-long fatigue, you don’t know you can muster. But you must; there is no other reason to be exactly here except to try opening that door.

You hear a singular laughter inside, light as tinsel and blue-throated as the sax solo to “Blue in Green” which you can also hear inside.

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You know who’s waiting in there for you. You know you couldn’t have found this bar unless she wanted you to at least try finding a way in.

It’s time now – should the door open — to have a drink with Wynona, fame’s eternal flame as she is called in NASCAR circles, though she has so many handles: Fortune. Destiny. Queen of Heaven. Aphrodite. Venus. Victory.

It’s time now to get down.

Time to dance.

Time to race.

But will the door open? Other cars are beginning to pull into the lot with the numbers 11, 27, 29 and 14 painted on them. They, too, are still in the mix. Are suitors. In hot pursuit. Most have been here before, but as the reigning knight in this quest, you have first crack at trying your hand. Opening this door is like trying to extract Excalibur from the stone: Only the future champion can.

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The handle is iron and exquisitely carved with dolphins and cupidon, horseshoes and dice, rounded at the top by a pair of naked breasts.

You pause and sigh once again, unsure of yourself. So much have hung in the balance this year, more than before. You have a kid now. There is a cost to this. Are you still willing to pay the price?

Gripping the handle, it’s cold, colder than the depths of the sea crashing wildly twenty yards away. Are you sure, are you sure?

You begin to pull.

The next offshore wave rises to an impossible height – 20, 40, 100 feet? You can’t see it, but you feel its tense breathless stretch as the wave reaches full height, as if the graze the the dreamy porches of the moon:

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And begins to fall as you pull with all your strength.

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Note: An  earlier post, “Here Comes the Flood,” used this same fantasia from the midpoint of the season, which wasn’t going as well for Johnson.

Reversal of Fortune


Wrong way to the Cup, JJ: Jimmie spins out at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 21 after contact with Juan Pablo Montoya. The No. 48 Chevrolet limped into the garage and got back out on the track 75 laps down, resulting in a 35th-place finish.

This weekend is the last one without a Sprint Cup race until the end of the season. The drivers who also participate in Nationwide Series races are headed for this weekend’s race in Montreal.

For many of these drivers, it may be the last season they attempt to race in both series, given that Nationwide purses are being cut 20 percent next year and Sprint Cup drivers may be barred from championship eligibility. But then, if you’re Kyle Busch, wins count more than any series, since he’s trying to rack up 200 wins in combined Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series races.

No break this year for those guys, but next year, Sprint Cup drivers may become more Jimmie Johnsonian in their leisure hours. It’s probably just coincidence, but it is unusual that the guy who doesn’t try to race in both (or all) series is the consecutive four-time champ.

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Still, I hope that Jimmie Johnson will use the time off to address the meltdown in this season. Since his last win at Loudon on June 27, he’s finished 31st, 25th, 22d, 10th, 28th, 12th and 35th – craparoo for any driver, a shit blizzard for a 4-peat champ. It’s not that Johnson hasn’t been racing well – he has led 90 or more laps three times in past seven races – but the stuff of bad luck — pit miscues, part failures, wrecks — are becoming alarmingly more the norm.

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So alarming, you can’t help feel the whoosh of a downward spiral. It’s a bit reminiscent, albeit pre-Chase, of Kyle Busch in 2008, who won eight races (only Carl Edwards had more races with 9) but bonked right at the outset of the Chase and ended up 12th in points.

A similar sort of meltdown occurred during the Miss Universe pageant last night. Two contestants, Miss Philippines and Miss Mexico were neck and neck (or bustline and bustline?) in scoring going into the final round.

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William Baldwin asked Venus Raj, Miss Philippines, the final round question: “What is one big mistake you made in your life, and what did you do to correct it?”

Raj ahemmed for a moment and then, stroking her hair, replied, “You know sir, in my 22 years of existence, there is nothing major, major, major, I mean, problem, that I have done in my life.”

Rigggggggggggt. That wrong-headed response is what prompted the judges to give the final nod and crown of Miss Universe to Jimena Navarette of Mexico.

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Miss Phillipines was a knockout, but she didn’t have the brains to conquer the Universe.

In that arena of competition, beauty and brains disconnect at great peril. Let’s recall the remarks by Miss South Carolina Lauren Caitlin Upton in the Miss Teen USA 2007 pageant. She was asked, “Why can’t one fifth of Americans locate America on the map?” The halcyon ur-blonde replied,

I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, uh, people out there in our nation don’t have maps and, uh, I believe that our, uh, education like such as, uh, South Africa and, uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and, I believe that they should, uh, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, or, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future, for our children.

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Thank you, Miss South Carolina, and here’s to Miss Teen America 2007 Hilary Cruz of Colorodo.

Some other notable meltdowns on the home stretch:

– In 1992, the Houston Oilers were carrying a 33-point lead into the fourth quarter of their AFC wild card game and ended up losing to 38-35 to the Buffalo Bills.

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– In 2007, New York Mets pitcher and two-time Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine pitched a nightmarish first inning against the Florida Marlins, giving up seven runs and knocking the Mets out of playoff contention.

– Zinedine Zidane headbutted a competitor during the 2006 World Cup final which sidelined France’s best scorer and led to Italy’s 5-3 shootout win. (The Italian was rumored to have said something about Zidane’s mother.)

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– Earlier this month, Tiger Woods blew it bigtime at the $8.5 million WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, ending up with a 7-over-77, the highest four-round score of his pro career. I guess thinking about all that wide-open strange he’ll be getting without worrying about what his wife knows made his putter go wild.

Big league flubbing rouses shameful memories in me of watching my own heroes bite it bigtime. The year was 1969 and my Chicago Cubs were enjoying on Sept. 2 a 84-52 record with a solid, 5-game lead over the second-place New York Mets. The Cubs hadn’t made the playoffs since 1945 and won their last World Series in 1908; the whole city (well, north of Cominsky Park and the White Sox) was a-twirl with visions of glory.

And then my Cubbies went into a September tailspin, losing 17 of their last 25 games and the league title going to the Mets, who went on to win the World Series. I was 12 at the time at the die-hardest Cubs fan, watching games from our house in the northern suburb of Evanston, eyes glued the set, fingers, toes, heart crossed as I watched my boys who seemed so certain to win the division title choke and choke big, day after day, week after week, spiraling down the gutter of my dream.

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My heart was broken forever in 1969; never again have I been able to muster much faith in my home team. I’m always surprised when my favorite team is able to do much of anything, like when the Bears won the Super Bowl in ’85 or the Florida State Seminoles won the national title in ’91.

I didn’t have any faith that Jimmie Johnson could win a third consecutive championship, much less a fourth; and now my faith is at an all time low in JJ, confirmed with events of the past eight race. It may be still August, but it feels like the Fall, or that falling season in which grand aspirations overwhelm the brain and start shorting out natural abilities. Is that it? Is Jimmie thinking too hard? Is Chad Knaus getting out-pitted by his own furious calculations?

Johnson seems sure to make the Chase – even in 9th place now he can’t fall out of the points before the start of the Chase — but it looks like he’ll finish the Race to the Chase at about the bottom of the twelve. No matter, you’d say: his five wins gives him bonus points position which will re-set him toward the front of the pack. But right now all he has is reverse momentum, hitting a backward stride which seems to be headed Kyle Busch’s 2008 way.

Midway through the season I posted a fantasia of how Jimmie got his groove back, but fantasy ain’t reality, and what counts on the track is what really happens—a fickle, fateful thing. Early in the season Kevin Harvick said that JJ had the golden horsehoe up his ass; now it seems that Harvick has wrested that happy half-oval free (no comments here on how he achieved that) and has affixed it to his rear bumper of his #29 Pennzoil RCR Chevrolet, where all the also rans can watch it and weep.

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Well—Atlanta and then Richmond and the Chase will be on. Many seasoned motorsports writers who have been around for a while point out that Johnson was never leading in the points when the Chase started, that his racing always became stellar when it counted most.

Johnson has been quoted: “What I keep telling myself is that those 10 races in the Chase, it is its own world.” And that’s true. No matter how badly things go for the next two races, he will start the Chase no worse than 20 points back.  “The people act and react differently under pressure,” he said, “including us, and for the last four years we have done a great job in that environment.”

As a JJ fan, I’m sure hoping for that. But it’s a little like watching a hurricane float toward Florida with the forecasters calmly assuring us that it will turn at the last moment. Skies are getting awfully cloudy and the wind’s picking up. Do I keep faith in Jimmie’s talent and once-golden good luck, or should I start boarding up the house?

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Here Comes the Flood (Blues for Jimmie)


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The night is only halfway over, but it seems like I’ve been driving this rain-soaked coastal highway for days. Maybe since the beginning of time. For the season it least, since smoke started fuming out of the barrel that’s shooting me down but good—four times now, at Daytona and Talladega, Darlington and now Charlotte.

And the rain won’t stop falling. The windshield wipers have fallen into a steady drone: slip-a-slash, slip-a-slash. Like brushes on a snare drum of a moody jazz trio lost in that third set between midnight and forever. A sound so easy and inevitable, almost like the ticking of a clock next to a bed.

Only I can’t find my way home on this drenched highway.

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Tonight I’m all alone out here. It’s been hours since I’ve seen a single vehicle. Much too treacherous, I guess. Back around Santa Monica – or was it Bristol? — headlights warmed the black contours of the next bend and then that blue Corvette’s appeared, tires grappling with the far edge next to the abyss and then speeding by. Was that Kyle I saw at the wheel, giving me that slight smile, both jocular and predatorial? And who was that shadowy female sitting next to him? No one I recall seeing him with. Then they were gone, reduced to red tailights dwindling in the rear view mirror for a two swishes of the wipers and then vanishing into the cold embrace of the ocean night.

Nothing since, leaving me to drive alone in rains like I’ve never seen in southern California. Rains which do not descent from heaven as much as devour up from hell, inch by inch, a surfeit reclaiming this failing, fallen night.

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The radio is tuned to a pirate station on the other side of the border which broadcasts old standards commercial-free: “Laura,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Misty,” “The Blue Gardenia,” “The Last I Ever Saw of My Heart,” “Ocean Breeze.” And—-of course–“A Rainy Night In Georgia,” Brook Benton singing through the static of distant lightning with that sour-mash, red clay baritone,

Neon signs a-flashin’
Taxi cabs and busses passin’ through the night
The distant moanin’ of a train,
Seems to play a sad refrain to the night

A rainy night in Georgia

A rainy night in Georgia

I believe its rainin’ all over the world.

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It’s past midnight now and the roads are a blur, the headlights of my silver Chevy Impala cutting into the murk like every lonely soul’s hope of reunion, searching the world and finding nothing but the next twenty yards of twisting coastal road. Once I rounded a bend and swore I could see the ocean surging halfway up the cliffs from where I remembered it as a teen when I first took to racing this highway late at night.

What the hell is happening? When before there were only certain outcomes—I used to be able to drive these roads with my eyes closed –now I’m peering hard into the murk, my knuckles tight on the wheel.

Now there are only questions. How can you win a championship when you can’t even finish a fucking race? When did everything get so dreary and misty?  Am I driving to season’s end at Homestead or toward home in El Cajon?

The rainy night tells me nothing except to whisper something imperceptible, between the motor’s hum and the wipers’ glissade and the next song on the radio. Something about Her absence. That it’s all my fault. That all that water rising the cliffs was sprung from mistakes I made this year, mistakes which She, for reasons She won’t tell me except in this big night music’s unintelligible, sibylline wet whisper,  has deigned to let me pay for. Mistakes she always corrected with a Her kiss of unbelievable good fortune.

My eyes in the rear view mirror, as I can make them out in such darkness, have lost their faith. But what else can I do? So I drive on, praying that things will right themselves That I’ll find her once again along this long, evil road, make my amends to Her, and finally get racing in the right direction once again.

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It’s getting late and later, the night continually worse in its wet wreckage, weariness gnaws in from my peripheral vision and up from the lonely seat I ride in.

I have my doubts. O God I have my doubts: But I drive on, the whole night through, eyes searching beyond these headlights’ reach for the apparition which once blessed me…

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2 a.m. Another disc jockey has taken over at the station and is spinning contemporary shit I can’t stand, so I turn the radio off and let my thoughts broadcast into the night. Where the hell did She go? Three of the past five races, I’ve finished 31st or worse. I had the car to beat at Charlotte-or so it seemed–but these hands have lost their touch, their intimate knowledge of Her curves. I spun out — something I never used to do — getting wicked loose on Lap 167 and hitting the wall coming out of turn 4. The only thing good that came out of that is that I forced Hamlin, that fucking upstart, into the infield where he blew a front left tire and messed up the alignment but good. Eat my smoke, dipshit …

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On that last bend in the highway I swore I saw water lap up onto the road from the top side of a cliff which use to fall a thousand  feet to the sea. Like a head poking up from a wave, red hair scattered like kelp, eyes almost violet they’re so blue. My career–and perhaps the hight from which it now inevitably, inexorably falls–reflected in them. Reliving the moment, the way perfume lingers in the door She walked out of, never to return.

My crew did their best to get everything back in place – you should have seen Knaus, shouting at the crew as they furiously soldered a plate on the back quarterpanel. How studiously he avoided eye contact with me, furious at  my ARCA-grade driving. I restarted 25th and just got going again but got loose – oh so fucking loose – and spun out coming through Turn 2, then whizzed down the track and slammed the inside wall so hard I my eyeballs almost came out of their sockets.

But maybe it wasn’t the coming impact that had my eyes so wide. No sir. What had everything in me agape was that I I saw Her standing right there where I was speeding into the wall, arms spread on white concrete, her long red hair lifting in the slow-mo breeze of my hellbent approach, her smile somewhere between a smirk and something both bittersweet and wistful. Like a Miles Davis on his horn, very note aching in the jones of absolute midnight.

There She was – in Her full vicious, voluptuous, feline audacity, disappearing exactly when I smashed into the wall. The officials who pried me loose of the wrecked 48 thought I had a concussion; maybe I did have one, because  visions of Her were still spinning round my head in the infield care center. I lurched out of there to be met by the FOX reporter and said what  I could – you know, all that stuff getting loose and bad luck for a great car and team and getting it together next week, blah blah blah. My head was jangling like a churchbell at the crew managed to get the No. 48 back on the track – 37 laps behind the fray – but all I could think of as I went round and round and round to a dismal finish was the look in Her eyes, neither disapproving nor welcoming: something hung in the balance, equivocally here yet gone.

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Gone forever? Tonight I must find out. I must. I must.

Now I sound like windshield wipers trying to fend off a flood: She’s gone, she’s gone, I must, I must.

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Idiot. I did not become a champ on luck—that’s the mantra, right? Only I believe that as much as I believe that the sky isn’t in league with the ocean tonight, trying to drown the world. Downshift, turn, work back through the gears up to 120, brake, downshift, turn, the Chevy doing her work well, as intimate to me as my wife Chandra was when she hugged me on Victory Row. The girl swelling in her womb is as intimate to her as this car is to me: our marriage should be enough to beat all comers, right?

Only why am I out here alone driving all night in what is becoming the very belly of the whale?

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Turn the radio back on, search out another pirate station, this one playing mostly funk from the early 70’s—Songs to keep you awake when you’re driving the dead hours of night: “Do It (Til You’re Satisfied)” by B.T. Express, “Freddie’s Dead” by Curtis Mayfield, “Jungle Boogie” “Sex Machine” by James Brown and, of course, “Low Rider” by War:

All my friends know the low rider
The low rider is a little higher
Low rider drives a little slower
Low rider is a real goer
Low rider knows every street yeah!
Low rider is the one to meet yeah!
Low rider don’t use no gas now
Low rider don’t drive to fast
Take a little trip
Take a little trip
Take a little trip and see
Take a little trip
Take a little trip
Take a little trip with me.

Take a little trip with me … Before the flood claims us all …

Oh the season started great enough, with those three early wins – Fontana and Vegas in a row, then Bristol two weeks later. The media hype machine all but declared my fifth consecutive championship right then, as if the rest of the season could hardly matter amid such dominance. But since then, after the DNFs and middling finishes, all that talk plummeted off one of these ocean cliffs like a jilted suicide.

Jinxed? No– jilted. I feel like I’m driving in reverse around the tracks now, slipping back into the pack, getting left far behind the furor of the next championship race, disappearing into the shadow of the next champion – Kyle or Kurt or Kevin or Jeff, who knows. All I know for sure tonight is that it won’t be me.

Unless I can find Her again.

Take a little trip with me …

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So tonight I’m out driving where She first came to me, south along the coastal highway toward El Cajon where I grew up. It was a night like this – July 2001, just after my first Nationwide win in Chicago. I’d flown back home to celebrate with my family before the Gateway race the next weekend and was out alone, hellraisin’ on the coastal highway well after midnight in a the black Dodge Viper I’d bought with my winnings. Raining that night, too, very strange everyone said; I was humping round curve downshifting at 80 when I saw Her standing thirty yards down in the middle of the road and hit the brakes, twisting this way then that in the rain, screeching to a halt with the chrome bumper coming to rest against the folds of Her green dress.

Her long red hair was curly back then and she was dripping wet, her nipples like headlights against the drenched fabric of her dress. My jaw was hanging wide and my eyes must have been popping out of their sockets, but She just smiled and got in.

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“Going my way?” she asked, her question in her voice more like a command, the way the question of a wave’s collapse and shatter on shore hangs in the air and is yet inevitable. A sweeping blue wild sound, deep and rich and throaty.

I didn’t think I’d be able to speak again, but I did manage to croak: “You are one fucking crazy lady.”

To which She sighed, eyes boring into me from the darkness of the cab, “And you are one fortunate driver.”

“I’d say you were the lucky one tonight, Red.”

“That’s not what I meant. Wrong tense.”

“Whatever,” I said, or something brilliant like that. What do I know about women? I was popping wheelies on the way out of my mother’s womb. She rode with me as far as Malibu, window rolled down on her side to the ocean night, her hair billowing in the breeze.

She had me stop before the exit and pull over. Got out right there in the middle of nowhere, the moon full and brilliant over the Pacific.

“I’ll see you round, handsome,” she said over her shoulder as she walked toward the exit, slender, and lithe and liquid all at the same time. “Now keep those hands steady on the wheel.”

I did. Or we did. I only come to believe that now that these hands are no different than anyone’s anymore.

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Chandra says it’s the stress of achieving the unachievable, but that’s not the same as rolling snake-eyes.

Snake-eyes, snake-eyes, the wipers sing, smiling like Rita Hayworth in “Gilda” when she sings, “Put the blame on Mame, boys.” For a guy who has made a fortune racing as if luck did not exist, the night sure is changing my tune.

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My first Sprint Cup start was a few months later at Charlotte. I crashed, but something told me I was on my way. (She told me, in a dream later that night, coming up out of the sea to wrap her destiny around my hips and hold so tight I woke up believing I had drowned.) The next year I got my first win at Sonoma – where else?—and finished the year with 3 wins and a fifth-place in the points.

The next year I had 8 wins and finished second in the points. In 2006 when I turned 30 I won my first championship; I had just five wins, but She made everything else count, every race, every finish, every great car Chad has engineered with his evil genius.

Five years later, the win count’s at 50 and I have four championships all in a row. Man, how those four cups shine standing together in the Hall of Fame!

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And yet I can’t see a single one of ‘em tonight. My next Cup is shaped like darkness, it’s shrouded somewhere ahead where the world is drowning.

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Seawater is now coming across the road in dribbles and rivulets. I hit them going 90 mph, hydroplaning close to the road’s edge before I can correct and get back in the middle of the road where the inundation is least.

Not much longer and it will all be underwater.

But I’ll keep driving til I find Her again.

She’s gone, she’s gone, I must, I must …

All that’s left of the champion is the determination. Once the cables have been laid, they only transmit one command to every extremity of the body and brain and heart and balls and souls: Pedal to the metal, boys. Put the blame on Mame.

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She’s near here, I’m sure, maybe lounging on a rock a mile offshore, glazed with rain and moonlight and seawater, watching me drive by … Or maybe she’s in the next roadside diner, an all-night affair for bums trying to sober up enough to drive on home and truckers trying to steel their nerves for the next leg and guys like me who are doomed to keep on driving, long past the glory, like the Road Warrior, the last cop on earth gone rogue, no longer seeking justice but wreaking revenge, fighting on til the last drop of gasoline is siphoned out of the last Ford or Dodge or Toyota roadster to take me on, reduced to so much fuming wreckage.

Yeah, She’ll be sitting there, invisible to everyone else yet stunningly aglow to me in the naked light of that hash-joint’s overhead fluorescence, a half-full cup of coffee pushed away from her, smoking a Pall-Mall almost distractedly, plumes of smoke encircling her face like waves of a water that yearns so to wrap her thighs around the entire earth before morning.

Sitting at the far right end of the counter, the empty seat to her left is empty, inviting and threatening at the same time, a siege perilous for every knight who thinks he’s long and strong enough to last a moment next with Her.

Would She even recognize me? Have things changed that much? I still have as many wins on the season as anyone else, right? Doesn’t that matter? Doesn’t everyone say how cool I remain, unruffled by a floodng disaster? How invested Hendrick Motorsports is in the cars they roll out for me? How Chad’s the Evil Genius can pull victory even out of a dead sea turtle’s ass. That still matters, doesn’t it?

But these windshield wipers are singing a different song, sighing going, going, gone to the evilly wet night …

Found by me at last in that all-night diner somewhere down the road, will She turn and smile when She sees me walk up to Her like a lemming rescued from the bottom of the sea, dripping, my hair clogged with seaweed and fishing lines? Will She invite me to sit there with Her and be calmed by the powerful rollers of Her voice, welling, deepblue, womb-soothing, fateful, gilding the nerves of her chosen son-lover and clearing every obstacle to mar a racer’s progress to Victory Lane with an intricate flutter of eyebrows, a turn of the smile?

Will I be able to just sit there and inhale Her subtle sea perfume, a scent bearing equal notes of orange blossom, musk and pure split dolphin, red and dead and offered, like a throat, to the hungriest canines in the land?

Will I fall into the swell of Her breasts suggested by the plunging neckline of her green dress, fall hair nose and eyeballs into hell’s sweetest abysm, plopping onto a bed more soft and gossamer than baby’s breath?

Will She smile and she ask me to dance, right there, when “Laura” comes onto the trusty old jukebox in the corner:

You know the feeling of something half remembered,
of something that never happened, yet you recall it well.
You know the feeling of recognizing someone
that you’ve never met as far as you could tell, well.

Laura is the face in the misty light,
footsteps that you hear down the hall.
The laugh that floats on a summer night
that you can never quite recall.
And you see Laura on the train that is passing thru.
Those eyes, how familiar they seem.
She gave your very first kiss to you.
That was Laura but she’s only a dream.

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Or will She stare at me that long while which says I am no longer of any real use to Her, stub out Her Pall Mall and sashay out the door, leaving me alone in there with the rest of the preterite dweebs and has-beens which the night discards like so many cigarette butts?

Will that be Her getting into a car waiting outside that has the number 2 or 11 or 18 or 37 painted on its side, zooming off into this eternally rainy cold night, become two red taillights quickly enveloped in the mist?

No, I whisper to the sighing windshield wipers, to the ocean waves now lapping at my Impala’s door – I’m driving 40 mph now and slowing down as the rising tide of night comes to claim me in Her empty, gravelike arms.

No. I check the instrument panel which is fluttering now, close to shorting out.

No.

But I’m not the one to master a night like this.

No one is.

If there is one, it’s no longer me.

A last turn and the car’s awash, stuck there in the middle of the road. I turn the engine off, listen to rain on the  roof and water at the door. I close my eyes.

It’s over.

I sigh, distantly relieved. It’s no longer in my hands.

Then there’s a knock at the window. Someone’s standing outside, leaning down to peer in. It’s so dark I can only make out the vaguest contours of her face.

I roll down the window, ocean water flooding in.

“What’s a girl like you doing out on a night like this,” I say, my eyes not yet willing to believe what I see.

“I was going to ask you the same thing,” she says, her long red hair dripping onto me. “OK if I bum a ride?”

“How far you going tonight?”

“Pocono. A ways up from here, but not too far.”

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Somehow I get my Chevy started. The engine roars to life like a hibernating bear. The old silver 48. Silver is just a bluer grade of night, you know, a faster shade of black. Not a shadow. A streak. There’s cherry red and there’s midnight blue and then there’s moonshine silver – pure ocean whiskey poured from the bottomless heaven of Her womb.

Somehow, the water doesn’t seem so deep ahead.

She climbs in on the other side, her red hair soaked, her green dress slick against her every curve.

And then it stops raining, slowly, a night’s-long incessant thrum easing off by degrees.

Comes to a stop. I turn off the wipers. To the left there’s a break in the clouds, out over the water. Moonlight pours through the gap, silvering an ocean which has receded back to its old level.

She leans over to me, still dripping, her breath warm as blood in my ear.

“What are you waiting for? Let’s get this piece of shit moving.” She turns the radio on and fiddles with the tuner til she comes upon a pirate station playing Deep Purple’s “Highway Star”:

Nobody gonna take my car, I’m gonna race it to the ground
Nobody gonna beat my car, it’s gonna break the speed of sound
Oooh it’s a killer machine, it’s got everything
Like a driving power, big fat tires and everything

I love Her and I need Her
I feel Her
Yeah it’s a wild hurricane
All right hold tight
I’m a highway star

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When I jam the pedal down the sound is unlike anything in the world. Nothing can or will ever beat it. She looks at me with those moon eyes wide, lips slightly parted, smiling from here to evermore.

Nobody gonna take my girl, I’m gonna keep Her to the end
Nobody gonna have my girl, She stays close on every bend
Oooh She’s a killer machine, She’s got everything
Like a moving mouth, body control and everything

I love Her and I need Her, I see Her
Yeah she turns me on
All right hold tight
I’m a highway star

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