Hands on the Wheel–Story # 10


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I mentioned at the outset of these blogs about the story collection that I almost titled them “Trailer Park Stories.” Interestingly enough, there are only two stories in the collection set in trailer parks. “Hands on the Wheel” is the second one.

As you can see (if you’ve been reading these blogs the last few weeks), I’m not always sure how a story will end. Often, I have to move in with a character for a while. I might have some specific scenes in mind and I generally have a sense of how I want to start a story. All those things may change before all is said and done but once I start writing I have the basic story arc in mind. Of course, characters sometimes hijack those initial plans, but we all have to start somewhere.

When I started “Hands on the Wheel,” I knew the story would end with the narrator outside a bar in his dad’s old truck looking at his hands on the steering wheel. I knew his dad would already be dead and that the narrator was in the process of making a decision about his life after encountering an old friend from the trailer park of his youth. This is only one of two stories that ended exactly as I thought they might when I started the story.

I told someone the other day that each story has little bits and pieces that I like. In “Love is Not a Dirty Word,” there’s a scene where the narrator stops in front of an antique store that I think is pretty slick. In “Coitus,” I think there’s a funny moment involving a mobile Bill’s crazy ex-girlfriend leaves on his door knob, and as big a jerk as Nathan Dumbrowski might be (he should have died–sorry bastard that he is) there’s a quote in there from Nietzsche that I think works pretty well.

“Hands” also has one of my favorite sentences. There’s nothing special about the wording, but each time I read the sentence within the context of the story, there’s something about the sadness that pervades the story at that particular moment.

I’ll willingly admit that you (should you read the book) might not have that same reaction. Words and sentences work like that, though. Each of us brings our own historical and contextual baggage into our confrontation with language that our reactions vary. That moment speaks to me for some reason.

Hopefully, if you read the book, you might find one or two of those sentences, also.

Hands on the Wheel

I first met Jolly when I was 15. My dad wasn’t real happy when we started running together, but he never said anything—not directly anyway. Jolly is one of the many things I’ve realized over the years my dad got right.

I was sitting in a bar outside of Abilene, watching the Dallas news when the story broke. Police had found three black men, two shot and one stabbed, at a southside carwash/laundrymat. Early speculation was a drug deal gone bad, and the lead suspect was Jolly Henderson. The news showed a grainy surveillance photo on one side of the screen with a black and white mug shot on the other. I was working as a framer for one of those build them quick home companies, and my hands were cut and calloused in ways that would disappoint my father but afforded me some measure of respect in a place like this. It was 9:30 and I was hot, tired, and normally able to ignore the bad news that invariably signaled the end of another day.

“I been knowing Jolly for about five years now.” The guy on t.v. was a large, toothy man with a scraggly looking beard. He looked like that actor who always plays the fat biker—he’s mean and tough but too ugly to have any lines. There were good reasons to keep him silent.

“His name was sort of ironical, if you know what I mean. I’ve not ever seen the man smile.” The guy was enjoying his five minutes of fame. “Hell, he was just flat out a mean as a snake, if you ask me.” He looked behind him toward the run-down shotgun house. “Still, I never figured him for nothing like this.”

(If you want to know a little more about Jolly, or try to guess the sentence I like so much, click on the link above to buy the book.)


We Can’t Always Be Our Brother’s Keeper

Dear Mr. President,

I’m sure your presidency has been a great disappointment. To date, America hasn’t become a socialist republic nor has the Constitution been revised into Sharia law. While the budget is still a mess, we are not bankrupt, the employment picture looks much better than it did a few years ago, and, according to the paper today, people are buying cars again. You’ve failed to destroy the second amendment, incite a race war, create death panels, or force workers into unions. It would seem your desire to be king has been thwarted by too many centrist ideas.

I was a little surprised, though, that you didn’t follow your supposed fascist tendencies and just bomb Syria. Perhaps you are just using the democratic process as a ruse to trick your critics into thinking they might have a voice? In the best of all worlds, of course, our elected officials would debate the merits of military action and consider the implications of American intervention in a civil war. They would debate our moral and ethical obligations to our fellow humans suffering at the hands of a totalitarian butcher. Thankfully, Congressman Joe Wilson is smart enough to tell us your move is really an attempt to distract the public (or at least the 15 Tea Party members who still care) from the IRS and Benghazi scandals.

Tricksy, tricksy. It’s a kind of political rope a dope. You are a cagey fella. Pretending to care about Syrian children. Sly dog.

Unfortunately, I have absolute faith in our elected officials to get caught up in partisan bickering and backroom cowardice on this issue so I am taking it upon myself, as someone hoodwinked by your intelligence, your strong moral character, and someone who voted for you twice, to write you this open letter.

Please do not bomb Syria.

I realize the horrific loss of life. Men, women, and children have suffered at the hands of a man so callous, with such a disregard for human life, that he authorized the use chemical weapons. I recognize Assad’s essential cowardice, symbolized by his willingness to stand in his luxurious palace and order the murder of human beings with sarin gas. I fully understand the ethical responsibility you feel as the leader of the most powerful nation on earth to help save lives and stop more bloodshed. Clearly, Assad’s neighbors have neither the willingness nor moral fortitude to hold him accountable. You feel a responsibility to take action in the face of regional indifference. I applaud the sentiment.

I don’t pretend, as some might, the path is clear and the choices easy. You are faced daily with the images of children who have suffered.

In Voltaire’s 1759 novel Candide, we are reminded that in the 18th century the price of sugar in our coffee was slavery in the Americas and various parts of Europe. I teach my students that Voltaire challenges us to recognize that one of the essential moral choices we face on any given day is the human cost of our comforts. What, I ask, is the human cost of our tennis shoes? Our vehicles? Our freedoms?

Voltaire also reminds us that we can’t pick and choose when we value human life. A child murdered in Syria is no less valuable than a child murdered in Spring, TX.

But, we are also reminded that we must tend our own garden. Far from an isolationist ideology, Voltaire doesn’t advocate we stop being active and involved but he does, at the very least, imply that we must put our own house in order before we can go next door and help our neighbors.

And, while America is the greatest country in the world and I love living here, our house is not in order. Simply put, I must remind you Mr. President that we can’t afford another armed conflict. Regardless of how short such a battle might be. History tells us that military conflict in the middle east is a black hole from which we might never extract ourselves. Our constant intervention, our well-intended actions, are in too many cases hurting the very lives we want to save.

Yes, there are times when we are our brother’s keeper. But there are also times when we must step back and demand that our brother help himself. We must recognize that our attempts to provide welfare run the risk of creating a dependency that leaves both of us morally, ethically, and physically exhausted. It is possible our attempts to offer a hand up are being interpreted as a hand-out. We must recognize that our desire to help is often seen as a colonial arrogance.

But price and perception isn’t the issue.

We can’t afford the human cost, not just in American lives but in the lives of innocent civilians who will die by our weapons or because they support us.

There are times when we must band together as a nation and willingly sacrifice for the greater good of humanity. Lives lost in battle are not wasted deaths. There are moments that warrant a “just” war, moments when war is the only path to peace.

Violence, at times, is the solution.

But we must ask ourselves if this is such a moment.

I don’t ask you to disengage and turn your back on Syria, Mr. President. Send diplomats, encourage our allies to pull people to the table, isolate those who willingly place self-interest and self-righteousness above our shared humanity. Expose those who stand by and do nothing as calloused, careless, and outside the realm of justice. Ask the American people to sacrifice the comforts of cheap oil and energy. Compel Arab nations to stand up for democratic ideals and human rights or learn to live without American financial intervention and aid. Most of all, put the world on alert that we will stop sacrificing our sons and daughters simply because no one else will act.

I feel certain you can think of many more ways to push for peace in Syria. Let’s find a way, Mr. President, to promote peace without preparing for war.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > U.S. > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)