In “Quiet Days in Malibu,” the last essay in Joan Didion’s The White Album collection, Didion meditates on her family’s move to Malibu: the name evokes visions of “the easy life,” the kind of clear and hopeful vistas Chevrolet hoped to conjure when they named a car after it in 1964. Coming just after her tumultuous years in Los Angeles during the sixties, the little town north up the PCH promises a redoubt, refuge from everything that man’s ruined and failed. But over the seven or so years she lives there, Didion learns, we all learn, that there’s no such thing as an easy life. In the present moment, whatever it is, your memories and your lifestyle are always under siege. But at least in Malibu, you’ve got the hills for defenses.
My brother drove a 1976 Chevy Malibu, body colored gold, and most days, we traveled with the windows up, the ashtray filling with the camel lights he smoked, the car transforming into a smoke filled bullet. The music was loud and louder. Once, my brother drove for two miles on a country road oblivious to the policeman, sirens flailing away, in mid-speed pursuit. When my brother noticed the policeman, he pulled over, but he didn’t act ashamed or embarrassed, didn’t apologize for not pulling over sooner or the cloud of smoke exhaled by the car like a fog when he rolled down the window; the policeman could fine him, or write a ticket. But the state didn’t have the power to make a good day bad, to change the power we felt in the music into powerlessness.
In Alex Cox’s movie Repo Man, Emilio Estevez plays a younger punker named Otto who runs out of friends when his bestie Duke gets out of prison and steals Otto’s girlfriend. Otto wanders dark LA streets, a sad sack singing Black Flag songs to himself till Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) tricks him into repo-ing a car and inducts Otto into life of the repo man. The A-plot, if a movie as loose as this one has plots, is to hunt down a 1964 Chevy Malibu. The car, we learn, might hold the remains of some aliens crisped in Los Alamos years before, though when we see a photo of the aliens in the trunk, they look a lot like breakfast sausages.
Repo Man was one of the favorites in the Dube household growing up, especially among the boys in the family. It might’ve been the first VCR tape we owned, and we watched it so many times the picture started to degrade, dust and fizz creeping in at the edges of the screen, a wobbly line that shook from left to right.
“You like music?... Then that case, you’re gonna love this,” Lite (Sy Richardson) says to Otto when he pops a tape of nondescript lite R & B into the dashboard tape player of a car they’ve just repo’d. My brother’s car didn’t have a working tape deck, but we didn’t care. He had a silvered plastic boom box that took a dozen D batteries, and he drove with it on the seat beside him. He had the soundtrack to Repo Man on cassette, and that’s where I first heard a lot of the famous punk bands: the Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” and others that stay with me now, like The Plugz version of “Secret Agent Man,” rerecorded in Spanish as “Hombre Secreto” which maybe made sense in the LA setting of the movie but which sounded gloriously otherworldly in Central Mass.
The parking lot at the high school my brother drove me to every morning of his senior year, the same year I was a freshman, featured a raised blacktop lip around the perimeter and dipped down into a crater that filled each morning with maybe one hundred cars, my brother’s gold ‘76 Malibu one of them. And because this was in Central Massachusetts, three dozen times that winter, the spaces between the cars, the lanes into and out of the lot, the concrete dividers and small strips of grass filled up with snow. When the Malibu’s bald tires couldn’t get traction enough to pull us out of the swimming pool of a parking lot, I was the one who had to get out and push, shoulder against the trunk, tires spinning and throwing dirty snow against me, and then, when the car inched forward, scrambling to catch my balance before pushing again.
One snowy day after escaping the parking lot, my brother took us on a detour, to the pristine, unplowed parking lot of our church. I was sure the car would get stuck and I’d be the one to push us free, sure that my brother didn’t care what he did to me because I was the younger brother, lower in nature than the slave. My brother drove full force into the four inches of wet snow in the lot, then turned the wheel sharp to the left and flooded the engine with gas. The car didn’t stall; it spun out with a satisfying slide like the slow motion replay of a high speed chase on Starsky and Hutch. My brother cut the wheel in the other direction, sending the car’s lazy backside fishtailing in the other direction. By this point, we were close to the center of the lot, and my brother turned donuts with abandon, spoiling that perfect white field with his corrupting influence. I cranked my window down and whooped along with him.
The Chevy Malibu my brother drove, model year 1976, was labeled as gold but the actual body color was less luxurious, whether because it was a decade from the assembly line when he got it or because it was never what was promised, I never knew really. Instead, it was dust colored, a kind of faded gold, a tan with highlights that sparkled in the sun in a way that taunted you for a sucker.
A month ago, I told my brother about writing this essay and I asked him if he had any pictures of that car; he told me he didn’t have any pictures from the time before he met Beth, his wife. I asked my mother the same, and she told me she didn’t have many pictures from that time, a year when she and my brother yelled at each other daily. It was a deal they made, no pictures to show for it.
One of the heroes of Didion’s “Quiet Days in Malibu” is a lifeguard with the fishy name Dick Haddock. Haddock’s been a lifeguard for 26 years, but in Didion’s narrative, what happens in the water is more play than work. What Didion fears, and she’s got good reason to fear it, is fire. Fire stalks those scrubby and barren hills, and Didion perches heroic doomed Haddock on a tower watching the fire advance, while Didion watches soot fall into the water, turning it cloudy. Swim all you want, you won’t wash off the ash.
Another of Didion’s favorites in “Quiet Days in Malibu” is Amadeo Vazquez, who breeds orchids, mostly for Arthur Freed, who made his money in the movies. Didion admires Vazquez for the recondite quiet of his work, breeding orchids slowly, wasting money at it, holed up in the hills, patient.
Being punk rock put you in a weird spot. At least for me, it meant I tried to communicate by my dress and manner that I wasn’t like most of the hypocritical assholes and lazy non-combatants I knew. “Ordinary fucking people,” Harry Dean Stanton’s Bud calls them in Repo Man, and I didn’t want to be mistaken for one of them. But the people I did admire, the working stiffs at the clothing warehouse, the old black woman on the bus, they thought I was too far out to interact with at all.
“So the salesman says to the farmer, why’s that pig got a wooden leg?”
I watched Repo Man so many times when I was in high school, I knew every line. I memorized it, even though I couldn’t remember the right words to Wordsworth’s lonely, cloudlike wander or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. At my factory job, folding big and tall jeans into boxes and putting those boxes away, I found a coworker who knew the movie as well, and we’d spend the afternoon shift going through the movie, line by line. I was sure I’d know that movie forever.
So it’s with some regret, some hesitation, that I have to admit I’ve forgotten most of the movie’s dialogue. I watched the movie again to write this essay, and surprised myself with scenes I’d forgotten existed (Otto in the grocery store; anything to do with the United Fruitcake Outlet, including Leila and her friend with the metal hand; Otto handed a beating by four strapping brothers who play in a family band), scenes I recited from memory a second after the characters on the screen said the words.
There’s a car chase in Repo Man whose Mad Max-style balletics evoke Didion’s poetic ruins. Bud and Otto are freestyling in the sluicework viaducts that shadow and capture runoff from LA’s ever-present overpasses. It’s all paved over, there’s no one else around, and you almost feel like the world has ended, until the Rodrigues brothers, driving some amazing drop top roadster race alongside them. Both drivers risk death, driving up the steep sides of the viaducts and splashing through rain run-off, and it’s all shot in a dusty desert light. It’s just the kind of thing Didion imagined would be left after we all burn: concrete, and cars, and water that’s not irrigating anything, that’s just turned rotten.
At the end of her essay, she tells us that she and the family went back to Malibu for a visit, some months after selling their house. This is always a mistake, a strategy doomed in essay or fiction, fantasy or real life: orchid breeder Vazquez’s orchid farm is burned up; a friend of Didion’s daughter drowned. Nothing lasts, except concrete, and once you’ve gone, you’d better not look back. If it doesn’t turn you to salt, it’ll turn you soft.
A car as old as that ‘76 Malibu, maintained and driven the way my brother did (irregularly and like hell, respectively) was bound to have problems. More than once we waited in a parking lot for my dad to come and jump the dead battery, which seemed incapable of keeping a charge. I learned to change a tire on that car; I don’t think my brother ever changed the oil, even though we’d both learned how to from our dad, just a shade less helpless under the hood than either of us. But the most memorable incident involving maintenance was, in the end, the most easily solved.
The road from the high school to home ran along a highway that connected suburb to city. The highway went over a bridge with a water view sufficiently dramatic that several restaurants opened there based on the beauty of the view alone. One spring afternoon, my brother’s car died in traffic on the wrong side of that bridge. As other cars honked and threw on blinkers to pass around us, I did what I’d been trained to do: I got out and pushed. I leaned hard into the muddled gold of that trunk and my shadow showed I was there but without even detail to make out anything else: how I felt about it, smiling or resigned, angry and fed-up, puffed up to be strong enough to push a car across a bridge, smiling to be in the middle of another adventure. I leaned into it and pushed. Pushed till we made it to the other side, where my brother steered the car to the shoulder of the road. Then, pocketing the keys with an elegant nonchalance, he ambled out of sight to the nearest gas station, where they’d charge him five bucks as a deposit for a plastic can and a gallon of gas. He left me behind with the car long enough that I got tired of standing beside it and took a seat. Till he got back, he left me there, sitting on the trunk of that car, silhouetted against the sun and just the right color to almost become lost in it.
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