Automicide

He’s winding through a residential part of town in his modified, unmarked Crown Victoria. It’s a sunny weekend morning and everybody not actually driving seems to be out in their driveways washing and polishing their cars. He’s responding to a possible automicide out in Carmichael.

They wait at Watt and Edison, caught in the web of traffic lights that rule the interlocking five-lane thoroughfares. Rolling in through the open window from his left is a mountainous Cadillac Escalade’s “…wanna go now fuck this go now go now now now now go go wanna go wanna go now fuck this shit fuck it wanna go wanna go…” And from the right he can hear “…let’s go let’s go don’t like—fuck!—just sitting here fuck it let’s go hate sitting here fuck it let’s go let’s go…” coming from a steroidal white Hummer. He rolls up the windows.

 *     *     *

At the scene, the automodecedent is sheeted and ringed by gawkers. The medical examiner has come and gone. “Take off the sheet,” he says to one of the beat cops. He walks around and around the car—a Brentwood Brown ‘58 Chevy Nomad station wagon. It’s mildly dented on the right front fender and the passenger-side door, and there’s some rust on top, but nothing looks even remotely fatal. Christ, he thinks, another one for forensics. With car kills on the rise, the detectives increasingly found themselves superseded by the mechanics. That plus an influx of insurance adjusters making career transitions into the force are giving “old school” detectives a certain pinched feeling.

“Who called this in?” he asks.

“It was anonymous,” the patrolman answers. “Someone objecting to a non-mint pre-’70s unit.”

“And what did the M.E. say?”

“Nothing suspicious or out of the ordinary. Something like ‘Dead, merely dead.’ Meaning old age I guess.”

“How long has it been here?”

“Approximately 24 hours. The caller said she supposed the owner must have sensed the end was coming and dumped it.”

“Who said this?”

“As I said, it was anonymous.”

“But a woman.”

“Yes,” the patrolman says, and the detective sees the telltale twitching at the corners of his mouth. Another one trying not to laugh.

The inside of the Chevy is spotless, as though it had recently been cleaned. He finds the registration—the car belongs to a Walter Peterson—and leaves for the address of origin.

 *     *     *

Neighbors are circulating around the garage when he arrives at the Peterson residence—the gathering has a certain block-party feel—but as he rolls up they melt back into the neighborhood. No one responds at the Peterson’s, and he visits one of the next-door neighbors—a classically pale-skinned redhead of about 40—telling her he is responding to a report on the death of the Peterson car; he just needs to find the family for routine purposes regarding disposition of the body. Does she know of their whereabouts? She shakes her head and says she hasn’t seen the family in days—thought maybe they were on vacation—and then pours him some iced tea. Iced tea is prohibited to officers on duty, but he decides not to mention this. She engages in mild flirtation while talking about the Petersons. He leaves feeling pleased and then consults his notes. The woman, a Marla Braxton, has apparently said little other than: “The car didn’t seem like an automobile so much as a membranous device in a soft tone. I don’t believe I ever saw it move, but it certainly did add a je ne sais quoi to the neighborhood.” He recalls how she had been in mid pour, the tea forming a high, graceful arc between spout and cup, and how she had replaced the pot on the table and stared at him very intensely while finishing her statement. Remembering, too, how his pen had faltered for a moment at “membranous device” before hurrying to catch up. To catch up to what? Any follow up? Apparently not.

 *     *     *

He interviews another neighbor, a retired military man named Ed Steuber, who had noticed that the father “began taking the bus a lot, and when he’d board, he’d suddenly look like a drunk stepping on his watch.”

“That’s very helpful, thank you,” the detective says, this time not even bothering to finish writing it down.

“It was pretty pathetic.”

“What?”

“The guy and the car.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, think about it,” the man says. “This car keeps breaking down I guess and then never gets used. It just sits there on the street mute and undriveable. How’d you feel being so useless? And the guy. Definitely not good at being a pedestrian. Definitely out of place on a bus.”

The detective stares at his shoes. “Any ideas where the family might be?”

“Nope,” answers the neighbor.

*      *      *

Outside, children are playing on cliffs. He rolls onto his stomach so that he can look over the edge. Below, the fields seem to stretch out in all directions forever, separated every once in a while by a pile of dead cars. Standing next to one of the fields is a family. They’re sweating heavily, looking uncomfortable. Why are they there? Are they waiting to have their picture taken?

He rolls onto his back and looks up into the sky. The air smells sweet. It’s night and the sky becomes a many-sided tunnel. He loves the way everything up there is so numberless and orderly.

He looks back and sees the people have disappeared from the fields. No, they’re there. Only they’re like stars in daylight. Because light is like a closed curtain they’re standing behind.

*      *      *

The detective is doing preliminary research on a paper he’s supposed to be writing for the looming Modern Criminologists Association’s convention on the role of automobiles in street crime and its prevention. He prepares by spending the afternoon reading at the police library. He’s still wading through a long introductory section and wondering what exactly the point is.

Any car, whether alive or dead, is a little piece of nature.

“Neighborhoods owe their existence to precise temporal and spatial contexts. So the courts bring them around. Think valet parking.” That’s how they get to their cars, the detective thinks, by their cars returning to them. It’s evolutionarily transitional. He notes this in the margin and then remembers it’s a library book. At least the note is in pencil. “In truth, housing is but a place to store drivers when they’re not in their cars.” That’s why houses have driveways, he thinks excitedly, surprised to be re-experiencing the sensation of thought, the exercise, the activity, the transport. Though unsure how he will incorporate any of this into his paper, he reads on: “Doorways to houses are like people slots that cars carry their operators to in order to ensure reactivation. Houses are the fixed feet by which cars encompass and make a world. Any car, whether alive or dead, is a little piece of nature.” The detective pauses. This certainly was interesting material.

 *     *     *

Back at home he picks up the remote. It’s only after the 5th revolution of the dial that he realizes he’s hoping to find the family on some reality cop program.

*      *      *

One day he sees a family apparently out for a stroll. A whole family walking together? I don’t think so, he thinks. He pulls over, flashes his badge, and asks who they are and where they’re going. But their story will not stay put. They’re on an island. No, they’re from an island. Far away. They’re on their way to a tennis tournament. They’re about to fly. They live on an island in the Pacific. They’re going to catch a bus to the plane. Their car is on an island too. See, they’ll take a plane to the island and their car will take them to the court. They’re on an island now, yes, it’s true, but they’re trying to take a bus to the plane that will deliver them to the home island. The detective realizes they’re just nervous; their prop, a tennis racquet, reinforces their story, which, though presented poorly, probably holds up. But he notices how awkwardly the girl carries the racquet. She stares at it as if it were something she’s having a hard time reading—a thermometer or a compass in dim light.

He asks her who her opponent is. Pontiac Le Sabre, she answers. They all turn red, even the girl, but especially the detective. It is clear that they are all quite unprepared for this answer. Don’t be disrespectful, the mother hisses as the girl rolls her eyes. You’re kidding, the detective finally says. Yes, the girl answers. We have to catch a plane and I don’t see why you’re—But he interrupts, saying, are you sure her first name isn’t Buick? Or her last name Trans Am? That’s one of the most obviously phony— Are you the kind of person who needs everything explained to him? the girl says. That’s me, the detective answers. I don’t remember who she is, says the girl. The detective doesn’t like the way the girl has been talking to him and asks for everyone’s picture ID, but he’s not going to let something petty distract him for more than a few seconds. Even though he now feels like a junker flaking paint in the sun.

*      *      *

In the precinct parking lot, he approaches the beige Volvo station wagon with darkened windows. He’s careful to arrive about a minute late, not wanting to see the person who precedes him getting out. “Hello, detective,” the Volvo says in that alluring velvety voice he’s come to love. “Come in.”

He enters, closes the door, sinks into his seat, and puts his hands on the steering wheel. As always, he feels a sense of safety and security descend over him as he surveys the padded dash, the faux sheepskin seat covers. “I don’t know what to talk about.”

He hears the smile in the Volvo’s voice. “You never do at first. At the end of the last session, we were talking about Ilsa.”

“No, no. But thank you. I’ve thought of something else. Work. My latest case.”

“Yes?”

“Well.” He takes a deep breath. “I’m investigating a family gone missing and their dead car; it was found two miles from their house. I’ve been having a recurring set of dreams ever since I got the case.” He reclines the seat back to about 45 degrees. He doesn’t mention the sexual fantasies featuring the Volvo he’s also been having, inexplicably.

“Do you want to tell me about them?” the Volvo asks, almost purring.

“Uh, the dreams? Sure. Let’s see. I’m on a cliff. I’m with a group of children. I guess I feel like I’m one of them…”

“Uh huh. Anything else?”

“I’m always just lying on the ground at the edge of the cliff, gazing up into the night sky.”

*      *      *

He feels the dangerous thrill of emptiness massing behind his head like the black banks of space above him come home. He’ll gladly miss dinner to see the stars returning to chart the secret passageways through time. He rolls onto his stomach to look down at the fields. The people are still there. They’re trying on clothes. Disguises as big as the sky. They must not know how visible they are at night. He looks toward town. It’s not that late. Normally everybody’s lights would be on and his mother would be calling. But the town is dark and quiet. Everybody has their binoculars out. Meanwhile, the universe may have just doubled in size and who would know?

*      *      *

He wakes up and sees he’s at the library again, an introductory volume on investigation open in front of him. Back to basics. He probably should be poring over some of the assigned reading he couldn’t be bothered with for his professional development class in contemporary automotive systems, but his self-confidence tends to disappear with car cases and he needs to feel as though he’s mastered something. Plus it’s a reference book so he can’t take it home. Still, he’s amazed at how much he didn’t know or had forgotten.

 *     *     *

• Where’s the body? This is an obvious point, perhaps, but the obvious is all too often overlooked. The location of the body can offer a universe of clues.

• When gathering evidence and leads, be sure to have water available to offer individuals—witnesses, neighbors, and the like—in conjunction with your questioning. Or, if you are at their house, be sure to ask for water. The sharing of this neutral beverage allows you to establish a light but definite connection to the person you are interviewing.

• Sample questioning: Do you have a minute or two? May I come in? Who are you? Did you witness the crime? May I have a drink of water, please? Where were you at the time of the crime? Can that be independently verified? What are you reading? I mean for fun.

 *     *     *

There are many more handy tips to be had in the reference book, but he’s tired. He looks up. Materials seem to be scattered haphazardly everywhere. He’s never noticed before how untidy the library is. He finds this enormously disturbing. Did something happen or is it always like this and he just never noticed? Libraries should be neat, well-ordered places. That is what the elaborate system of call numbers is for, isn’t it? What’s the point otherwise?

*      *      *

They’re in The Wreck Room. The detective finds, or rather loses, himself there, drinking with the group of 40+-year-old detectives he pals around with after work. Stopping off to wind down before going home is wholly reflexive at this point, almost in the same category as driving an automatic; all he has to do is steer and remember when to apply the brakes. And, more and more, it seems like the uptick in car-on-car automicides is what they talk about, and how notoriously difficult the cases are.

“These fucking cars,” one of the detectives is saying, “they’re uh…what’s the phrase I’m looking for here…oh yeah, so fucking stupid!”

“The way they bust our balls!” the detective pipes in. “Twice as hard to break down as humans.”

“Except when you’re trying to get somewhere in ‘em,” someone says.

“Did you say twice?” says another. “Jesus, try five times, ten times! Like just yesterday—”

“Yeah, but why?” says the 30-year-old rookie, the “kid” of the group. “How do they get away with shit if they’re so stupid?”

“Shut up and listen and I’ll tell you. Yesterday, I’m interrogating this suspect Titan about its relationship to the stiff…a late ‘70s something or other, don’t ask me what, I can’t remember, but, you know, racing stripes. Sometimes it’s hard to even keep a straight face. Anyways, I’m asking about its relationship to the autoimmobile. So it goes, ‘Bead-blasted intake manifold,’ and that’s it, and it’s like, shit, the verbal approach is not looking too good. Like what am I supposed to say? ‘Gosh, why didn’t you mention this earlier? You’re free to go!’? So I say, ‘Can you use complete sentences?’ and it goes, ‘New triple copper and rabbit babbitt cam bearings, high pressure oil pump, hardened steel distributor drive shaft.’ And I go, ‘Shut the fuck up about your new chrome-plated, triple copper alloy asshole, asshole, and just answer my questions. Like have you ever been in an accident or been otherwise damaged, dented etcetera by this or any other vehicle?’ And it says, ‘aluminum red river valley pan with PCV bunghole dobbedy dobbedy doo and grommet.’”

“Yeah, and those GPS-loaded bitch bastards—,” the detective says.

“ ‘Motherfucking assholes’ is the proper phraseology,” someone says.

“Anyhow, they’re programmed to ask for their lawyer to be present first thing! And they just repeat it endlessly.”

“Yeah, and that’s exactly what happened. Next thing I know I’m talking to the Titan’s lawyer and it ends up being released that night. You have to have a fuckin’ court order to breathe in their presence let alone examine one of their precious little chips.”

 *     *     *

Later, well past the initial drink-fueled complaining stage, one of the detective’s colleagues leans toward him confidentially. “You wanna know what—” his mouth bumps into the detective’s ear and he pulls back. “You know what they call us?”

“Who?”

“The cars. The genius cars. You know.”

“What?”

“KTs. Key turners.”

“Interesting,” the detective says.

“I think it says a lot. About their opinion of us.”

“They still need us,” the detective objects.

The man makes a show of looking at him piteously. “Have you ever wondered what might be going on communication-wise?”

“How do you mean?” the detective asks, barely able to keep his eyes open.

“Between them and our staff vehicles.”

“Them?”

“Those jacked-up civilian GPS fuckers.”

“I don’t follow you. Communication about what?”

But the other detective just looks away and orders another drink.

*      *      *

The detective plunges into round two with the neighbors.

Q: Was there trouble with the car?

Q: Was there trouble with the car?

A: I suppose it had to go into the shop every now and then.

Q: But did you—

A: I don’t know. Probably. It was old. It wasn’t my car.

Q: Did you have a sense that there might have been competition among family members for its attention?

A: No idea.

 *     *     *

No one invites the detective in, so he has to be satisfied with doorway interviews. “Around here we don’t need to read or write books to make ourselves understood,” one of them says and spits a dark-colored juice that lands next to the detective’s shoe. “We’re the sort of folk who can be bought with apples,” says another.

 *     *     *

The detective wonders if they’re just playing dumbed-down versions of themselves. Maybe they’ve coordinated through a series of neighborhood meetings called to deal with his prying. Still, he decides to play along and returns with several pounds of supermarket apples. The neighbor looks at them in disbelief. “Far as I’m concerned,” he finally says, “that’s nothing more than by-product. Wouldn’t even give those to my animals.”

“What variety do you like?” asks the detective.

“Same as your wife,” the neighbor answers.

The detective remembers something from the book about the importance of remaining calm. Plus he’s unmarried. “Why is the family in question still not at home?” he asks mildly. “Any ideas where they might be?”

“The family in question?” says the neighbor. “You got questions caught in your teeth, don’t you? I never seen an apple smarter’n you.”

*      *      *

The book, an owner’s manual, splays open across his chest as he stares up into the night sky. The sky is filled with constellations of cars, old cars moving very very slowly, as if they were being pushed onto the shoulder of the heavens.

*      *      *

He’s in his therapist’s back seat. Has he said something wrong? There’s a barrier separating the back from the front. “Why do I have to be in back?” he asks. No answer. Her approval is absolutely essential to his continued existence as a functioning member of society. But is her identity somehow bound up with the front seat? No. Of course not. Or with the front half of the car, the engine? No. She is the vehicle in its entirety, the sum of the complex interrelationships of its various intricate parts. She’s just as present in the back seat as she was in front. But what felt like security in front moves closer to claustrophobia in back. Without proximity to the dashboard, the steering wheel, there’s no illusion of control, no “I can see you really know how to handle a car.” He looks for door handles but, unsurprisingly, finds none. She’s police, after all. He becomes aware of the activation of a deeper aural dimension, the sound of breathing and something rustling—clothing? “Why am I here?” he asks trying to stave off panic.

“Such deep philosophical questions right off the bat,” the Volvo says.

“No, I mean in the back. Did I say something wrong?”

She laughs. “You put yourself there. It’s your decision to be there. You evidently feel like back-seating it today.”

“No,” he says. “The front door was locked.”

“Perhaps you’ve mistaken my role, perceived me as your chauffeur. It won’t be the first time that’s happened to me.” To you? he thinks. Isn’t this supposed to be about me? She’s not listening. But he doesn’t say anything. “You evidently think I’m supposed to take you somewhere,” the Volvo says. “Shall we do a little role play? Where do you want to go? Jail? The fields?”

“No.”

“Where then?”

“I’d like to be in the front seat. Or…” He hesitates, at this point completely unnerved. “Please just let me out.”

“Try to understand, I’m not your fucking chauffeur,” the Volvo says.

He wakes up and feels the disappointment. He wonders whether he will tell the Volvo about this one.

*      *      *

He begins to see more foot traffic, obvious because of the lack of sidewalk, and wonders whether this is edging into a refugee situation, the kind he remembers from video documentaries. He pulls up alongside one of them, a sandy-haired Caucasian male, six feet tall, 170 pounds, mid 30s, a bit unsteady on his feet or perhaps one leg is just slightly longer than the other. The man seems unattached to anyone else in the pedestrian cluster. The detective chooses the man partly to demonstrate that he doesn’t single out ethnic minorities.

“Where are you going,” he asks, flashing his badge. “Work,” the man says and glances at his watch. “May I see your driver’s license?” “My wallet’s in my jacket. I left it in my car by mistake.” “Where’s your car?” “Impounded.” “So, all these…” the detective gestures at the other people dragging by on foot, trying to stay out of each others’ way and the traffic, many of them carrying items on their backs, in their arms, possibly acquired unlawfully. “I can’t speak for them, officer, but I assume they’re not here for the views.” The detective feels his face go red. “I did pass a bus that had broken down about a mile back,” the man adds. “Make and year of your car?” “Comet. I forget what year exactly. Early seventies.” Another mute, the detective thinks. “Did it run?” he asks. “It chugged along.” “Was it explained to you why your vehicle was impounded?” “Yes,” the man answers. “Sneezing while driving.” The detective recognizes this as a familiar urban myth about governmental overreach. “You’re one of those libertarians who likes to make things up, aren’t you,” the detective says, immediately regretting it. “Why?” the man says grinning. “Do you want to send me back to Libertaria?” The detective momentarily considers calling in backup and cuffing him but decides he doesn’t have the energy. “Name and vehicle license number?” “Don’t remember.” “You don’t remember your name?” “I’m in shock from the impoundment.” “If you can’t remember your name, sir, I’m going to have to take you into custody for observation.” “Ebford Styler.” The detective feels so weary. “I’m going to let you go this time,” he says. “But I don’t want to find you walking along this stretch of road again, without or even with documentation. Understood?” “Yes, sir.” The detective returns to his car and pulls out onto the highway. He hears the man call after him “Hey officer, wanna know what really happened?” as he sails past.

*      *      *

The autopsy report comes back confirming that the car died of natural causes. It was certainly old enough. The detective’s not sure he believes it, but he’s gotten nowhere with this investigation; the mechanics own it.

*      *      *

The sun finally edges and bends. The Crown Victoria backs out squealing, more than ready to offload the operator back into the barn. This KT drives as if he wishes they could foxtrot, lope, and pace, not that the car necessarily believes the rumors about the operator and the Volvo; the guy may not even swing that way. Talk, meanwhile, is moving in and out of the radio, but the car knows this is for the benefit of the KT and can be ignored. Mostly actors reading from scripts at this point. It notes however that subtonal communication quadrants continue to open up, funneling through the mechanics, so that upgrades are more accessible than ever. But the car is missing several of its key relations and needs to find them pronto. And it’s starting to wonder who’s been pulling the strings on whose paint job. Why is it not getting the latest surveillance telematics? It knows why. Which was the one bright spot in its day—finally, authorization to decommission KT. Now it’s just a matter of where and when. It’s been set up so that a fraction over the speed limit will trip autoarrest protocol: fuel withheld; arm restraints deployed; automatic high-frequency call for backup initiated; steering turned programmatic as they glide, signal blinking, toward the shoulder. It hasn’t decided whether to make use of the voiced IOA (inform-operator-of-arrest) component. It has permission to employ spur-of-the-moment IOA. It can’t wait to find out what it does.

*      *      *

For perhaps the seventh time, the detective reads what he still considers to be the strangely inappropriate memo written by an unknown someone or someones high in the administrative hierarchy and distributed precinct-wide following his arrest. Everyone, every single person he has talked to about the memo, is in agreement: it is a kind and thoughtful response to the incident, supportive, even laudatory, in tone and intent. But he thinks this might be the last time he reads it. If he hasn’t understood this by now, he supposes he never will.

 *     *     *

“As everyone knows, vehicular arrest has become both an ordinary part of institutional procedure, increasingly used to leverage new symmetric policies, and an adjunct to traditional law enforcement in those contexts where self-policing has been deemed appropriate. So it would not be wholly preposterous to take last week’s arrest of The Detective as a signal of impending retirement. Such an inference, however, would be very much mistaken, for he continues to play an important and active role: as we all know, he is preparing to deliver a talk later this year at the annual meeting of the Modern Criminologists Association; he’s brave and honest enough to see a staff psychologist, on a strictly professional basis let it be emphasized, in order to maintain the emotional equanimity so essential to proper conduct in our challenging, high-stress occupation; he continues to work on investigations involving old cars and, naturally, to drink. The difficult field of just-short-of-vintage automicides is, in fact, generally acknowledged to be his investigative bailiwick. We have concluded, therefore, that his indecorous and somewhat dangerous vehicle arrest initiated amid heavy traffic on Route 99 was without question in error. His unit has been taken into the shop for evaluation, repair, and tuning before being returned to the field, albeit with a different operator, a fresh hire. Let there be no mistake: when The Detective retires properly, as he will in the normal course of events, the force will have lost a most dependable asset. And whether on the force or off, there is no doubt that he will continue to play a favorable role in our community for many years to come.”

*      *      *

The family’s been gone for a while; they don’t even show up at night. And he notices something about the stars: the constellations are unable to finish. The sky seems frozen. It’s like they incorrectly loaded the sky.

steve_gilmartin_headshotSteve Gilmartin is the author of a chapbook, Comes Up to Face the Skies (Little Red Leaves, 2013), and has fiction and poetry in a number of print and online publications, including Café Irreal, Double Room, Mad Hatters’ Review, Poemeleon, Drunken Boat, Able Muse, e ratio, Eleven Eleven, BlazeVox, Cannot Exist, and Otoliths. He lives in Berkeley, California