I went out to the garage where I had some metal Diebold bank cabinets that I bought years ago at a surplus furniture place on Main Street in Buffalo. They’d followed me around from house to house.
My marriage had disintegrated. I’d moved and was setting up my new place. What I was looking for in the Diebold cabinets was a Porsche Carrera badge that I thought might be in an old plastic bag I used to store mementos from the sixties. The badge was brass script and had two sharp prongs that had attached it to the Porsche. I was thinking I’d tap it into the drywall behind my desk, under a thick Sacred Heart of Jesus Auto League membership card I’d already stuck up with double-sided tape.
The bag had been in one of the drawers for years, sliding back and forth as I rooted around looking for small tools. It was torn and cloudy and when I grabbed it my wisdom teeth, extracted in 1964, fell out, and so did a scratched stainless-steel Glenn R. Martin Company promotional Zippo lighter. What it was promoting was the SM-68 Titan I intercontinental ballistic missile, an image of which was nicely engraved on it.
My girlfriend Karen gave it to me in 1961, and I remembered asking her who, exactly, was supposed to be influenced by the Zippo. Was it to attract buyers in need of an ICBM, perhaps to threaten annoying neighbors or launch at a distant government they didn’t like? Or was it meant to steer buyers away from the SM-65 Atlas missile? Did she know if there was an Atlas Zippo, or had General Dynamics used Ronson for their lighter promotions? Ronson made military flame throwers, so it was possible. She thought my questions were amusing, but this was before the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Karen returned from Christmas break with news of the latest weapons development, a Death Ray. Her father, source of the Titan Zippo, told her about it in confidence. It used a special kind of light, and it vaporized whatever you pointed it at. Even without Death Ray lighter to back it up, I believed her.
The missing Carrera badge came from a Porsche wrecked near Carpinteria, California in late summer, 1961. I was working for an avocado rancher who was the father of a kid I knew from the freshman dorm, Tom. My family didn’t have enough money to bring me home from college, so I drove down to Carpinteria with Tom.
That summer I had a hillside to myself, me and the ditch-digging tools and piles of plastic pipe. I dug trenches for the irrigation system and laid pipes in them. On the hillside I encountered rattlesnakes and a tarantula. In fear I killed them with my shovel, and was ashamed of myself.
In the middle of the summer Karen came out from Colorado, and I took her to the hill and showed her the work I had done, and made love to her there. Afterwards I lit our cigarettes with the Titan Zippo.
One day after work Tom’s father said, “Boys, come with me,” and he drove us in his pickup truck over to the California Highway Patrol substation. He took us around the back and there was a crumpled Porsche Carrera, and he said, “Look inside,” and we did, and there was blood everywhere.
“Boys,” he said, “Two people got killed in this car last night on 101, took that curve too fast and now they are dead. And I want you boys to remember this because it’s one thing to see a wrecked car on TV, but it’s another thing to see it up close, and that’s real blood there, two people, a man and his girlfriend, they died. Now you see it. Don’t forget it.”
Later when we were hanging out at the A&W Root Beer, the kids were saying that when they opened up the girl’s mouth the guy’s dick was in it. That obscenity might have pulled me away from what was important, except I had the script Carrera in my pocket and its mounting prongs were poking into my thigh. That kept me focused on the simple true thing I’d understood: there are boundaries you don’t know exist, and if you push past them you can die.
I won’t claim I wasn’t titillated by the blow-job-of-death, but even at seventeen I understood that was not what I needed to remember.
Standing at the Diebold, the script Carrera lost, it came to me that in my new life, my aides-memoire would be the Titan Zippo, simulacrum of a deadly weapon never launched, my wisdom teeth, then wise in name only, and the razor-edged broadhead arrow point I had forgotten was in the bag – it, too, from that hot Carpinteria summer, when, after the digging and laying out, I took my bow and went among the scrub oaks after deer, killing in the old way my father taught me before Karen and the Titan. Before the death ray. Before the Carrera.