Weekly Featured Essay
A love affair with driving and the power of mobility.
by Dennis Vannatta
I mustered out of the Army in Ft. Dix, New Jersey, in May of 1971 after spending thirteen months in what was then known as West Germany. I took a cab along with three other soldiers to the airport in Philadelphia. At a stoplight, the driver beside us revved his engine and when the light turned green peeled rubber for thirty feet. We GI’s cheered. We knew we were back in America.
No, it wasn’t the wide front lawns, the blue jeans and sneakers, not even the McDonald’s and Dairy Queens that told us we were in America, it was the sound of that engine exploding next to us, the tires squealing like a live thing afire that nearly brought tears to our eyes. It was a sound we never heard in Europe.
I don’t claim that other countries don’t have their car cultures. In racing terms (except for the monotonous left-hand-turn version favored in the U.S.) Americans aren’t the best drivers. That would be Europeans and South Americans. We don’t make the best cars, either. That would be the Italians. But if we don’t have the best drivers and the best cars, we certainly have the most drivers and the most cars. That’s because for us having a car is simply a part of existing; not having one—except in certain urban enclaves like Manhattan, if that qualifies as America—is virtually inconceivable. Many of the more liberal-minded of us shake our heads at those “You can take my gun when you pull it from my cold, dead fingers” signs, but change the “gun” to “car,” and we’d enthusiastically agree.
Encounter with the Future
by Jarmila K. Sullivan
In a shabby one-room school, a scrawny little boy walked slowly toward the teacher’s desk, hoping to delay the inevitable punishment. The teacher stood in front of his desk and in his right hand held a long, thin piece of wood, which made a swish in the air just before it hit its target. He was tapping it softly on his left palm, as if to test its agility. He eyed the boy and said in a cruel, cold voice:
“You are getting two extra whips for walking slow.”
The boy shivered and sped up. As he was taught, he offered his hand, fingers gathered together like a rose bud, exposing the soft, unprotected tip of his fingers to the cruelty of the wooden whip. He was not sure whether it was harder to withstand the pain or to suppress the tears. Letting the tears appear in front of the teacher meant further punishment.
The teacher was dressed in the latest “hussar” fashion. His trousers were tucked in his boots, which were polished to perfection. His hair, glistening with pomade, looked dark against the white collar that peaked out of his tight jacket. The jacket was held even tighter at the waist with a wide belt, a belt he was not shy to use. Many children had the scars to attest to it. His mustache was twisted upwards at the ends and the boy could see his lips curled in an ugly smile.
“This will help you walk faster,” the teacher hit the boy two times.
“This will help you remember that you are Hungarian and to speak Hungarian instead of local gibberish.” He raised the whip and hit the boy’s fingers hard three times.
Just Another Fucking Day in Afghanistan
by J. Malcolm Garcia
I’m sitting next to this guy on a flight from Kabul to Dubai when he says he likes my pants, all the pockets.
–LL Bean brand?
I’m on my way home from an embed with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Kandahar. Three months earlier, I had flown into Kabul from Dubai and my Afghan colleague, Aziz, met me at the airport. We stopped at a restaurant before Aziz would drop me off at the American military base in Bagram Village. From there I’d catch an Army transport plane to Kandahar.
A Life in Five Buicks
by Linda Boroff
Summertime, Hopkins, Minnesota: I toddle from the back door of the Elmo Park Apartments, skinny in suspendered blue corduroy pants. My dark, water-slicked hair is caught just above the right ear by a bobbypin.
Suddenly, I stop short. Looming before me in the driveway is my father’s new, two-tone Buick Roadmaster, massively at rest on its tumescent whitewalls. The car, jade and loden green, fills my vision like a whale; as if its mighty grille of chrome baleen could suck up the road. Four incredible tunnels in its side, leading to God-knows-where, attest to its pedigree.
The neighbors have flooded out to gawk, as amazed as if dad had taxied up in the B-24 Liberator he had flown in the South Pacific. The women, pregnant in cotton housedresses with bright scarves wound around their pincurls, stroke the monster’s bulging flanks. The men, beer bottles in hand, wear pleated pants into which white undershirts are tucked. They stride up and spank the Buick commandingly, nod at the engine statistics, call it “she.”
At my appearance, all turn with tolerant amusement to savor my response. I am gaping at the giant intruder, eyes smoky with suspicion. Attempts to pull me near for an introduction fail. To everyone’s delight, my confusion soon resolves itself into a drawn-out wail.
Gardening with Mary
by Carolyn Bastick
Mary was the previous owner of my new Minneapolis home. I learned she had died that autumn, only sixty-nine, taken quickly by cancer. She was a gardener. An Army photographer. Her photograph filing cases (disappointingly empty) were to be left in the basement, too heavy to move. I was happy to allow them to remain in my keeping.
My move to this new home in 2017 was not planned. I was not supposed to be in Minnesota. The daughter of a British Army officer accustomed to the upheaval of military life, back in 1981 I had barely given a thought to the consequences of marrying an American and moving to the Twin Cities. Yet for over thirty-five years, I held England close to my heart, waiting for the day I could return.
Eye of the Beholder
by David Raney
Call me male-ish. According to cultural assumptions, men are supposed to like guns, but I’m not really a gun guy. As a boy I wheedled a BB gun for Christmas with the solemn vow not to shoot birds, which I did at the first opportunity. “You’ll shoot your eye out” runs the refrain from the movie Christmas Story, and at least I didn’t do that. But I shot out a bird’s. Stalking the wild sparrow in our back yard, I missed innumerable times before chance brought down a luckless thing from our birch tree, a bead of blood vividly welling where its eye had been. I stood over it dumbfounded until a rap at the picture window startled me and I saw my brother pointing in the dramatic full-body pose we now refer to as J’Accuse! before running off to find my mother and bring down justice. It didn’t surprise me when I later read that the last wild passenger pigeon, out of billions darkening pre-1900 American skies, was killed in Ohio by a boy with a BB gun.
Men are fascinated by cars, too, I’m told, and football and fixing things, and we’re competitive sexbots, comparing conquests and notching headboards. I don’t really qualify as “manly” on those counts either, though I can be adolescently competitive in the sports I care about. But testosterone levels aside, here’s my question: Is it possible to connect with people first as humans, and only afterward as men and women? Unless we’ve taken monastic vows, we interact with each other all day, at work and play and school, shopping, dating. But sometimes it seems less interacting than circling: shy, cocky, avid, wary, desperate for attention, wishing we were invisible.
The Animal Lover at Seven and Thirty-seven
by Hannah Melin
When Avery grows up, she will be an “animal rescuer, just like her Mom!” Every adult in Avery’s life is assigned an animal: a kangaroo for her father, a vulture for her mother. For the first week as her babysitter, I am watched cautiously from behind a stuffed lion. After a week of careful consideration, I am labeled a zebra.
No jokes are made about Erin’s title as a vulture. Erin grins and swings Avery around in a hug when she correctly recites a fact on the wingspan of an African Condor or the lifecycle of a Common Turkey Vulture. Above their television set, framed photos of Avery in diapers are mixed in with fuzz-headed owlets, fledgling eagles, and newly hatched vultures. Foot-long, sleek black feathers are tucked between well-worn romance novels and dog-training guides.
Blood on the Stoop: Four Tales
by Evelyn Martinez
Fat maroon spatters cascaded from the second-story entrance of the Victorian house where I lived on 15th Street to the sidewalk, coalescing into a splashy blob at the front curb, almost dry and shockingly vivid against the grungy cement.
We lived one block from Notre Dame Grammar School. My guardian, Antonia, did not trust me to travel to and from school on my own. Class dismissed at 2:45 pm, and I’d shoot out the door, out the gate, and into the beige 1953 Mercury double-parked out front. While the other girls sauntered out in chatty clumps, I’d be tripping over Antonia’s sharp knees to slither into the back seat behind a grumpy Arturo Hill, her current husband. They were old. I was ashamed of them and of myself.
On that afternoon I skidded to a stop outside the school entrance, confused. Where were they?
I waited and waited. Something was wrong and I had no clue how to respond. Daring to walk home was risking Antonia’s rage.
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Encounters features fifteen eclectic essays originally appearing in bioStories magazine, all focused on some of those chance encounters that can transform our lives.