Short Takes: On Wheels

There are many directions a rumination on wheels could go. Towards the metaphorical – like “Hell on Wheels” – which according to Wikipedia was “originally a phrase describing the collection of business locations, such as gambling houses, that followed the builders of the American transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.” Now that’s kind of interesting. As in: who knew?

Or the wheel could take a turn towards the religious – as in that ubiquitous, annoying wheel of fate. (Everything that’s up will come down.)

As religious metaphors go, Ezekiel’s wheel is considerably better – interesting (and mystifying) enough to have attracted singers as different as Woody Guthrie and Louis Armstrong –

Ezekiel saw the wheel
Way up in the middle of the air
Ezekiel saw the wheel
Way up in the middle of the air
And the little wheel run by faith
And the big wheel run by the grace of God
A wheel in a wheel
Way up in the middle of the air

Or maybe Guthrie and Armstrong weren’t all that different. Both of them included this verse whenever they performed the wheel song –

Let me tell you what a hypocrite’ll do
Way in the middle of the air
He’ll talk about me, he’ll talk about you
Way in the middle of the air

So wheels make good metaphors. Sometimes. Not always. There are also those deadening proverbs, invented, I’d venture to guess, by bosses who want to dully harness the wheel – and their workers – to the tedium of labor that’s as boring and meaningless as, well, as wheels that just go round and round:

  • don’t reinvent the wheel …
  • put your shoulder to the wheel …
  • the squeaky wheel gets the grease …

But many people opt to view the wheel as a symbol of freedom: escaping the ordinary, hitting the open road or, in the case of Creedence Clearwater, the river.

Big wheel keep on turning,
Proud Mary keep on burning,
Rolling, rolling, rolling on the river.

And that, I am pleased to report, is where most of our Short Takes contributors took the concept. We may not be as young or fancy free as once we were, we doughty Persimmoners. But we can still remember – or dream about – or even experience – the special pleasure of the wind in our long red hair as we head out on the sunrise highway at the wheel of a perfect pink convertible or astride a super charged 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.



Driving to Hawaii

Get in the car and drive. Just me and the road. The car is moving my body and my mind goes along for the ride. Nothing matters but steering, shifting gears, lines in the road, tires on the pavement, pictures in the mirrors, seat against my back. Point the car straight ahead and follow my nose.

Cigarettes taste better. Push in the lighter. It pops. It glows. Eye on the road while I light up. Smell the burning paper. Slide out the ashtray. A cigarette and the open road. One of the true pleasures of driving.

Driving in the rain? I like it. I know how. Slow down, be careful. Watch out when it starts to rain, because oil on the pavement mixes with the first few drops and it’s slick. Careful not to oversteer.

I’ve driven in blizzards, thunderstorms, heavy winds, 115-degree blazing sun. Winding mountain roads above the tree line, straight roads on the open plains, narrow one-way gravel roads. I drove Route 66, the Mother Road. Memorized all the Burma Shave signs.

I’ve sat on the side of the road in the Great Plains and witnessed a thunderstorm. The sky navy blue, lightning shooting from the top of the sky to the horizon and thunder echoing for miles.

The odometer turned over from 99,999.9 to 100,000 as I sang “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” until my voice was hoarse; I switched to license plate Bingo.

Set up my tent in pouring rain, it collapsed, I ran to the car, slept on the front seat. I’ve slept in tents, campers, trailers, motels, on park benches, under the stars, in hostels, guesthouses, sleeping bags. Washed up in sinks and drinking fountains, under hand pumps and hoses, in rainwater, a handful of water.

Relieved myself in outhouses, filthy gas station bathrooms, roadside rest stops, in the woods, on the side of the road.

“Eat Here.” Road food. Stuckey’s, HoJo’s, greasy spoon diners, cafeterias, roadhouses, truck stops, frozen custard stands.

Driven on bridges, through tunnels, over gorges, in the city, in the country, in rush-hour traffic, over railroad tracks and cattle guards, through forests and woodlands, in the desert. On ice and snow. Mountain passes, state routes, county roads, logging roads, on the beach. Over rivers, lakes, streams, brooks, creeks, arroyos. If I can get there by driving, I will. Hawaii? Oh yeah, soon as they build the bridge.




Navigating the 405 at night,
my car steers untethered
on this highway already known.
As if taking leave of the pavement
is the way an older woman drives:
clutching the wheel,
slowing to 50,
maneuvering close to the right.


Lost, I search for an exit from
this dark, older world.
Attempt to leave the oncoming
highway of night.
Manchester, La Cienega, Slauson.
Which is the way out?


When Aunt Lillian learned to drive at 60
after Uncle Glen died,
she clutched the wheel
of her brown Chevrolet.
As if leaning forward and
holding on to the wheel
would provide more control
of Detroit’s streets in the dark.


Young teenagers,
we scoffed at Aunt Lillian then,
at an aging woman trying
to hold on to the momentum of days.
Not caring how she’d pilot life
as it slipped through her grasp.


Wheel of Fortune

I needed a car, like right now, and so I called. If I weren’t starting a new job and if my son hadn’t burned up the engine of my ’78 Olds Cutlass I wouldn’t have found the ad for the ’82 Olds, Delta 88 2-door, for $3500.

“There’s not much I can tell you about it. See, I do van conversions. I took the car as partial payment. The owner told me he only drove it to racetracks in Florida.”

I listened and sucked on the inside of my cheek. “Is it clean?”

“Oh sure. The body’s rust-free. Everything’s electric – seats, windows.”

I hunched over the paper and ran the pencil through my hair. I wrote the address across the ads and added the directions to his house right below the circled ’82 Olds Delta 88. My level of enthusiasm was south of zero when I grabbed my checkbook and shoved it in my bag.

The Delta looked like a boat. I walked around it checked out the body and shook my head. The massive door sounded arthritic when I opened it. Right away I saw the marks. Smelled the stink.

“He was a heavy smoker. Wasn’t too careful with the butts … listen, I’ll give you a good deal – because of the burns. This guy pretty much lived in here.” The van converter took my check for $1500.00 an hour later. The car had a smooth ride. And a walk-in closet for a trunk. The spare wheel-well even had a full-size tire in it.


I bet I had five blowouts over the years. Strangers would pull over and take out the spare and the tools and when they finished they’d toss the flat back in the wheel-well and work it until it sat right.

I remarried and we bought a new car for me and Ken took “the boat.”

I gave the keys to friends when they visited. Except for the tendency to find nails in the road, it was a good car.

We were all set to move into a condo on the beach – sold our house, packed the boxes, packed the trunk tight, when our realtor called. The lender wanted a bigger down payment; too many owners rented their units. We had to come up with an additional $10,000.00.

Ken flipped. “I knew something would go wrong. Now what?!”

I was scared, too. The owner of the condo was agreeable to our renting the condo while things got sorted out.

I kept my excitement level high, smiling and saying a lot of everything-will-be-okay to Ken. Early the first morning Ken got up and unloaded the trunk.

“Look, I found this under the spare. What is it?”

“Looks like a brick.” I used my fingernail to scrape off the mold. I held it then he held it and we looked at each other for a while. We took it to our bank and learned it was a pack of money. Ten thousand dollars.



Home Turf

It was one of those dismal late fall evenings in Chicago. Rain was falling; the sun was long gone. Even with the heater on high, the car was damp and chilly. We were driving down Irving Park Road, past an unremarkable stretch of small dark businesses, punctuated by the occasional garish fast food restaurant. If I were showing Chicago to an out-of-town guest, this was exactly the part of the city I would certainly have avoided.

My husband, Ron, was driving, and he had been unusually quiet. Suddenly he spoke up. “Isn’t this a great neighborhood! We’re just east of Irving and Damen, forty hundred north and twenty hundred west. We’re two-and-a-half miles from the lake. I always know where I am in Chicago. I was always getting lost when I lived in California. The roads kept changing names and winding around in different directions. I never knew what direction I was driving.”

I knew just what Ron meant. “That’s how I felt the year I lived in Phoenix. The closest water was the Pacific Ocean, and it wasn’t on the east, the way Lake Michigan is. I couldn’t remember which way was west, and I never knew if I was going north or south. I was always turning the wrong way. I know where I am in Chicago because I always know where the lake is – even when I can’t see it.”

“I love Chicago,” Ron said. “And I like the weather. I like it being different. Southern California was boring; I got tired of all that sunshine. Every day was just the same. I’m so happy to be home again. I’m so happy to be with you.”

“You wouldn’t have come back if Rosine hadn’t died. We wouldn’t be together.”

“You’re right,” he said, and we didn’t talk again for a while.



  1. Love the story about the old Olds esp. I could sure use some dough right now. Think I’ll go out and check under the spare in my 92 Mazda. Ya just never know. Wish me luck.


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