Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Long Short Trip In Steve's Car: Champaign 1988

This was in the first summer when I lived in Champaign, Illinois. In the winter of 1988 I'd left Seagrove Beach Florida, moved to Champaign to live with Fru, then went to New York City for a few winter/spring months, then returned to Fru and Champaign. So that summer, I had a job doing concrete construction. And I liked that job, liked the people I worked with, liked my life in Champaign for the time being.
We were working on a site in Westville, just south of Danville, east of Champaign, near the Indiana border. I hadn't driven that day and when it was quitting time I needed a ride. There was a new guy, Steve, and he had an old car. I was going to ride with Doug or Kurt, in their respective good old concrete-worker trucks, but Steve wanted me to ride with him. I demurred. He took offense, in some manner, and asked what was wrong.
"Your car will break down," I told him.
And that was the only reason. I knew his car had a lot of problems and this was after a long day of shoveling rock or yanking wet concrete with a comealong or puddling walls while standing on whalers, doing hard manual labor under unforgiving midwest summer sunlight. I just wanted to get back to town, drink a few beers, shower, see my lovely woman, Fru. But Steve was a little hurt. Maybe. It's hard to decipher the emotions of concrete workers sometimes.
So, what the hell, Ok, let's go. I got in the car with him and we drove north and onto I-74 no problem. Windows down, air rushing, work done for the day.
Then there was a problem.
The old car began to act up. Steam rose from the hood as Steve's vehicle slowed and slowed and we pulled off to the side of the highway, near a flat and slight overpass with little but cornfields and fast-passing cars around us. He cursed.  I said nothing. What was I going to say?
We got out of the car, in the heat and hard light. He opened the hood to a great cloud of metallic-smelling steam. We had to wait a while before he attempted to open the radiator cap. I probably smoked a cigarette--probably one borrowed from Steve since I was an irregular smoker. And after a bit he used a rag to pop the radiator cap, more steam and cursing. Then he went to the trunk and pulled out a bucket and handed it to me.
"Go get some water for the radiator," he said.
Water? Where? We were in the middle of farm fields.
"Under the overpass, down there, there's a stream or something."
I took notice of the small bridge-like structure, as flat as the highway, took notice of the line of trees and jungled plants that ran in a line along the green field (still, you could see no water) and I took the bucket and clambered over the guardrail and stumbled down a dry-grass embankment towards the trees.
It was steeper than I imagined, the embankment. The trees taller than at first sight. I was still tired, thirsty, my skin encased in sweat and dust and lime, and here I descended under Interstate 74 when I should have been home with a cold beer to my lips. But down I went, up to the tangle of trees, found an opening and in I went. Into another world.
And that's really the memory. How, from the harsh heat and sun, the shushing of cars and trucks on the freeway, the parched world with an overheated car, I entered into a small forest: it was shaded, cool, dark, trees and bushes thick and undiscovered, birds chirped, flitted about, insects buzzed and crawled and clacked away from me. The world above was muffled, somehow distant. And there was a small stream running there, going close to the trees and then beneath the big highway, beneath the concrete abutments and gravel banks of the overpass and back into more trees on the other side. I took my time as I looked, took it all in--this hidden mini-realm of nature--then I dipped the bucket into the stream, retrieved the water. I had to get back up there, but in some ways did not want to. But I did. I came out of the tender shadows, left behind the redwings and crickets--maybe a turtle or two--and heaved my way back into the heat and up the burnt grass embankment. Back to the blistering speeding cars and Steve and his dead dinosaur-mobile, where he took the creek water and poured it into his machine's thirsty gullet so that we could get on with it. On with the run to our homes and the night and then the return to shoveling concrete the next day.
It worked. The car was mollified and we got back in and he drove me home.
But I still recall that strange dimension, that unknown underworld along a boring highway. Riding home with Steve was worth it after all.

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