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Original Issue


The course was a mind twister, laid out by a rally committee full of fiends. But the driver and the navigator were rolling along in fine shape—until they turned off into the desert

In rallies she drives our Alfa Spyder; I navigate. She feels that driving is the crucial task; in my view navigation is the key to winning. And so it was that I began to get riled as we came up on Checkpoint Number Seven. The sun stood over the desert like a judge's eye. We had been doing almost too well, so it wasn't lack of precision that bothered me. No. I was fed up with this tricky rally committee.

This checkpoint was a familiar trap of the sort resorted to by the more puerile rally committees. Rally committees are like total government. There is the theme of obedience in rallies. He who follows instructions most faithfully wins. Sometimes power goes to the rally committee's collective head, and it begins to dish out practical jokes, loop-arounds, mind twisters. When a team is taken in, one sees an identical smirk on the faces of all the flagmen and stewards and runners at the checkpoint time line and desk.

The last instruction but one was: "28) LAZY R. Speed 25.5 for 1.45 miles, then resume speed 42.0." Then: "29) SEVENTEEN PALMS. Right 4.31 miles after previous instruction. Speed 22.0. (Use caution! Built-up area!)"

Lazy R was easy—the gate sign of a ranch. We picked up the new speed right on the button. She counted down the last few hundredths on the trip odometer, and at "Mark!" I simultaneously checked the time and pushed the reset knob to zero the odo. Then I quickly entered the new time factor for 42 miles per hour in the setting register of the Curta, which I held like a pepper mill in my left hand; 1.4286 minutes per mile. And I began automatically cranking off the tenths on the Curta as they came up on the odo, comparing official time, as the little calculator gave it, with our elapsed time on one of the two sweet little Heuer split-action watches fastened to the top of the rally board on my knees. We were right on.

She leaned forward and craned upward through the windshield. "Hey. Case the hawk."

I found the bird curving its hunger across the sky. A Harris, to judge by the longish tail. A dark, robust soarer.

"See him?" she said, still leaning forward over the wheel. "Wish I was him. Know what I'd be doing if I was him?"


"Watching us."

She usually feels watchable. She has confidence. She says "Vroom!" when she guns the engine, shifting up or down. The engine makes its vroom, and she makes hers in her throat. That's all right, I'm aggressive, too. We are some team. We're not ashamed of winning. I'm sick of all those cracks about the Protestant ethic. I don't care whether whoever wins is Protestant, Catholic or Jewish, white, black or red, as long as it's me. Us two. We know our jobs, we take delight in doing them well. That's so bad?

I could just see us from up there, hawk's-eye view. The point of focus: a glistening persimmon-colored packet of rabbit energy, casting a thin line of shadow along one flank. It has great strength, that small shape down there, because it is pulling the narrow black road in under its belly and pushing it out behind. This glittering little thing stands still at the point of focus and, using the leverage of the road, pulls the whole dun landscape of low houseless hills steadily past it. Through a dark transparency on its body I see two pale ovals. Are they the eyes of the strength?

There is this serious difference between her and me, embedded, I guess, in the difference between our gifts as driver and navigator: she loves the idea of control; what excites me is the value of each hundredth of a second. For her the concentration on driving at a set speed gives a high kind of joy. Some drivers pop Miltowns at breakfast before the start. No such thing for her. She has an iron foot on the pedal, and her sense of timing is tied right in with her metronomic heartbeat. It is only when we get lost, have to stop and think, that she flips. For me the thrill is in those little Heuer babies slicing off the hundredths of minutes like the delicatessen meat slicer cutting and laying out membrane-thin slices on wax paper, and all the time what's left of the ham gets smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller. Beautiful! Once I tried to get her tuned in on this time-love; I told her to look out the side as we were humming along, to take in the chrome flanges of the hubcaps slicing off the even bits of seconds, cut cut cut cut cut cut, throwing off perfectly timed splashes of eternal sunlight—so regular! But when she looked out her hair blew across her face, and bringing her head back in and checking the odo she said, without enthusiasm, "Pretty."

There was this in the back of my mind: I had had a powerful dream the night before. Like everyone else I usually forget my dreams, but I had awakened from this one with my senses on the alert, as if there were a prowler somewhere in our motel room, and when I had calmed down the whole dream was—and it still is—intact in my mind, like a striking movie recently seen.

We were doing well in a rally in the desert—only I, not she, was at the wheel. We came to a checkpoint just before a bridge. A score of young men, wearing long white coats over work clothes, like attendants in certain expensive foreign-car garages, swarmed over the car, some actually climbing up on it. One of them, off to the right, pointed to a mechanism I'd never seen before, attached to the right front mudguard, and said, "That's what I want." Others went to work to remove it. I was afraid to protest, because I had heard stories of gang violence in circumstances like these. But then the car was across the bridge and in a garage; the swarm was all over the car; the hood was up, and the trunk compartment was open. The swarm ran off, carrying something. The car wouldn't start. I got out and found wires disconnected from some part that might have been a distributor, though it seemed to have a liquid in it. I tried to connect the wires, dipping one in the liquid and grounding the other. But there were sparks, a sputtering noise and smoke, when, at a signal from me, she turned the starting key. Peering close into the strange part, I found the stubs of three parallel wires that had been cut, and I felt a devastating despair, a horrifying sense of finality. But now the head mechanic returned and gave some friendly advice about the distributor; I followed his suggestions and got back in the car, and the engine started and ran with a creamy smoothness. With remarkable aplomb she had kept track of the time loss, and she gave me an adjusted speed for the current instruction. I drove off, but everything had changed; an appalling world's-end grief gripped my heart.... Then I was sitting up in bed, awake and afraid.

Seventeen Palms is a small square town laid out like a plaid patch on the desert east of the Salton Sea. Once there was an oasis there, I suppose, a spring, a score of ragged palms, three or four palm-frond ramadas belonging to some scrawny Cahuillas. But now the place is an even grid of a whole lot of sand-fringed Tarmac streets with little baked-white houses, and it has the usual banal main drag with the standard false fronts and gas pumps and Schlitz signs and a big Stop-N-Shop. Brown nearby are the Chocolate Mountains, pale blue in the distance the larger Chuckwallas. With the right turn that's coming up, maybe they'll be sending us down into the green world of the Imperial Valley—Niland, Calipatria, Wiest, maybe even right down to the border at Calexico. From this barren nowhere into the heart of foodland. Now, an imaginative rally committee....

But that's what you can't do. You can't foozle around with the rally instructions. You just have to obey.

Coming into Seventeen Palms we're watching for the right turn, watching the road and watching the trip odo. At 42 miles an hour, the hundredths tick off pretty fast on the odometer. What we're counting down is: right 4.31 miles after previous instruction. Oh, the bastards, the turn is spang in town, at one of a score of its even blocks.

Now I see that there is a rally car just a few hundred feet ahead of us. It is a beat-up BMW 1800TI; not the car that is supposed to be exactly a minute ahead of us. I say, "Boy, they really must have taken a bag somewhere along the line." I look down.

She chooses this moment, when I'm meshed in tight on the odo and the stopwatches, to say, "Did you see the couple driving that heap?"

I say "Huh?"

"They're really zonked out on rallies, worse than us, honey."

"How's that?"

"They're very high fashion. They've got a leather-bound picnic hamper, looks like it might be Fortnum & Mason, you know? He carries it all the time. Know what's in it?"

"Huh?" Coming up on four point two oh.

"Her father's ashes. Honest to God. Died Wednesday. They had him cremated. Postponed the funeral till after the rally. I swear."

"For Pete's sake concentrate, will you? Four point twenty-six, seven, eight—next block—nine, thirty, mark!" I check the time. Perfect!

But she jerks us to a sudden stop. I raise my eyes. There is Checkpoint Seven just beyond the street corner. The BMW has pulled in and is at the desk. The flagman looks invitingly at us—all set, one can guess, to give us that old you-fell-for-it smirk.

She says, "What do I do now?"

I dive my eyes down onto the instruction sheet. I see that the next three instructions—my God, I should have looked at them before this!—are also right turns. I shout at her, "Go on and turn. It's a loop-around. Oh, those cute bastards."

She is uptight. "Speed 22." She has remembered, but she's cranky. As if it were my fault. "How much time have we lost?"

"I have it." I have to do some fast figuring. Time at 22 miles per hour to next turn. Add lost time. Divide by distance to nearest hundredth to find corrected speed. I really grind the pepper. I give her the speed.

Then what she has said about the wife's father's ashes finally sinks in, and I feel angry, and I'm steeped in that appalling dream-sadness. Angry at whom? At those heartless rally nuts in the BMW, reminding me with their hamper how close to the edge we are? At this cool, cool wife of mine logging exactly 22.8 miles per hour? At the rally committee that treats us like children at an over-organized birthday party? I don't know. I don't know.

"Yukh! Look at the yuccas," she says. In front yards. She hates yucca.

Another of our differences: she lives in the region of botany, I know creatures. Along the way she'll see out of the corner of her eye the touches of color and will sing out the names to me: mule fat, stinkweed, bladderpod, goat nut, five-spot; and she'll stab a finger at a lonely saltbush, wave a vague hand over a carpet of lupines.

And yet she will catch me out in my territory, too. Two nights before the rally we drove out in the desert and parked to take a look at the American flags on the moon. And she said, "Ssh. Listen to the scorpions crepitating."


Her verb had taken my ear off the point of what she was doing: walking out onto my ground. You actually could hear some faint rustling. I thought white-footed mice. But I didn't say anything.

She comes out with some of the damnedest words. She isn't in the danger so many of our friends are—of the paralyzing frustration that comes from forcing out more or less complicated thoughts through the tight and rigid grid of a totally flat vocabulary. With her it's the opposite: the thoughts are thin, the mode of expression is what matters to her.

I am fascinated by her. We are a hot rally team. We win a great deal. I am truly upset.

We get around the loop all right and now, going past the intersection where we had turned before, we pull in at Checkpoint Seven. The flagman drops the time signal. Do I imagine a slight smirk all around? We purr up to the stop line at the desk. I hand a runner our time slip from the last control, he takes it to the desk, a steward enters the error points, and the runner brings the new slip back in duplicate.

Before I even look at the points I say to the runner, "You've got a real set of intellectuals for your so-called rally committee."

He snarls at me, "What're you bitching about? You got the best time so far."

I read out loud, "One hundred thirty-seven." That is, one second and thirty-seven hundredths off.

My driver hums a few bars of a Sousa march; she is blithe. I'm teed off. Ours may be, as the runner says, the most accurate time up to now, but it makes me mad to be so far off. We've been within 20 points at every control before this one, under 10 at most. It gets me down to go over a hundred.

But emotions must not interfere with obedience. I have already zeroed the trip odo and the leg stopwatch. We move away from the time line exactly two minutes after our arrival, and resume at 22 miles an hour. About three blocks along I see an SCCA sign attached to a street lamppost. It has two numbers on it: the distance in hundredths of a mile from the checkpoint we have just left, and the number of the next effective instruction: 34.

I read it off: "Thirty-four. Left at MAUDIE'S. Speed 38.0."

I feel some fear. Left. They are not sending us toward the green; we are going deeper into the desert.

We execute four more instructions, plunging deeper into dryness and heat. This may be the end of the world. The hills begrudge cactus. It seems as if time itself has been eroded; the centuries have been pulverized into a fine dust that lies on every slope and plane. This dame at the wheel and I have nothing to talk about. The roof of my mouth is sticky.

I see a bridge up ahead on the road, and I feel it would be wrong to cross it. But I can't bring myself to say anything. I am spooked; speech itself might bring some harm. It is she who breaks things open. "We're lost," she says, and she hits the brakes. "I can't hack any more of this."

We stop 50 feet from the bridge. Noon stands up straight over the desert. The Alfa's engine is so smooth that I can hear the Heuers ticking in their metal brackets on the rally board.

"You're losing time," I say. "I'm not lost at all." But oh, I am.

"Do they say anything about a bridge?"

"No. They wouldn't. Why should they?" My right forefinger is set under the last instruction. I read it out, " 'Thirty-eight. Left after FRESCA.' Remember? Only it was a Coke sign, not Fresca. This flipped-out committee."

"Soft drink ads all over this damn desert."

The bridge expresses itself as a quartet of bare concrete piers, chest high on a standing man, and a pair of simple metal trusses to carry the weight of a slab that spans a shallow dry arroyo. Sunlight beats down on the bridge and on the scene around it. The trusses have once been painted black, and patches, evidently of parts of the metal that have become exposed and have begun to rust even in this dry air, are now touched up with aluminum paint, and the silvery shapes tremble in the brilliancy of light as if floating in the air right off the steel. A brain-splitting sunblast splays off a mirroring slant of the chrome windshield wiper on my side; the hood of the car has an iridescence, showing through a darker transparency of a coral wax finish, a vivid yellowy red.

"I don't like that bridge," she says. "This heat, this heat."

"Don't....Just because...."

It now seems to me that all the territory on the other side of the bridge is forbidden. How could I tell her how afraid I am? I have in my mind a subliminal glimpse of a mechanism—distributor?—with liquid in it. Wires have been cut. I have always known how to deal with disappointment. I have had this knowledge from childhood—of how to hold on and get in to the next minute. The sun roasts the car.

I reach up with both hands and take the Curta from its bracket on the board and, putting my right forefinger in the looped handle on top, take three full turns for the three-tenths of a mile I haven't checked out, then I peer intently at the readout.

"Jesus, darling, we're running 300 seconds late."

"I feel that we're lost."

"I feel that you've decided to boot the whole rally."

"You better believe it," she says. But then she adds, "Next time, you drive. I'll navigate."

"Next time? But you keep saying driving's the whole thing."

"It's too hot to argue."

"Who's arguing?"

"Oh, come on, darling. Where did we go wrong?"

I check the instructions, and at once the scales fall away from my eyes. It seems I dropped into one of the rally committee's idiot traps. So simple it jumps right off the paper at me now. I know by the right-hand stopwatch exactly how much time we have lost. We can make it up. I shout at her, "Turn around! Turn back!" I am flooded with relief. We won't have to cross this arroyo.