The art of racing in the.., p.8
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       The Art of Racing in the Rain, p.8

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  It was not an easy trip, down a steep and snowy, little-used path. But Denny was determined to get his daughter to safety. Down we plunged, back into the valley, as the sky above our heads grew more ominous and Zoë’s face registered her pain, though her words did not betray her. When we reached the car, Denny started the engine right away to get the heat going. He peeled off Zoë’s shoes, and she cried out.

  “That’s good,” he said. “If they hurt, that’s good. That means they’re going to be okay.”

  We drove the rest of the way down the mountain in great haste, and dangerously so, as the car slipped mightily on the hard-packed snow. When we reached the main road, which was bare and wet, Denny hesitated. To get us back to the cabin, he should turn north, but he turned on his blinker for a right hand turn, which was south.

  “Chelan has a hospital,” he said, explaining to me his actions. So we turned south toward Chelan.

  I waited in the car while Denny rushed Zoë into the emergency room. It was my lot to wait in cars outside emergency rooms, I suppose. I’m not sure what good I would have been inside, anyway. So I waited and I watched as the dark storm clouds first engulfed the entire sky and then began to pelt our car with a freezing rain the likes of which I had never experienced. It was frightening, the force of this storm, with its high winds and icy bits of hail being flung about. I feared for my own life, being locked in the car as I was.

  After they had been in the hospital for over an hour, suddenly, Denny emerged carrying Zoë. They ran to our car and opened the door. Denny laid Zoë on the backseat, strapped on her seat belt, and tucked her in with blankets he had taken from the hospital. Her feet were covered with many layers of socks, so they looked oversized and incapable of carrying her. Denny told me to sit in the backseat with Zoë and keep her warm, which I did. We stopped at a gas station as we left Chelan to purchase chains for our tires. And before we started our journey again, Denny made a phone call on his cell phone.

  “We’re in a bit of trouble here,” he said tensely. “Zoë has frostbitten toes—”

  He stopped talking for a moment to allow the person to whom he was speaking—Eve, I assumed—to express herself in loud exclamations.

  “Please listen,” he said. “She’s going to be fine. They gave us some ointment, and they gave her some pain medication; she’ll be fine. But there’s a terrible storm moving in and we’re going to try for home. We won’t even go back to the cabin to get our things. Please ask one of the cousins to bring our stuff home with them. If we don’t get over the mountains right now, we could be stuck for more than a week on this side. Please don’t call me; I have to concentrate on the road. I’ll call you when we get home. I love you and I’m sorry. I’m very, very sorry.”

  He hung up the phone and off we drove.

  The drive south was horrific. The freezing rain accumulated on the windshield faster than the wipers could push it away, and every few tedious miles Denny would stop the car and get out to scrape away the icy glaze. It was dangerous driving and I didn’t like it at all. From the backseat with Zoë, I could see Denny’s hands were gripping the steering wheel far too tightly. In a race car the hands must be relaxed, and Denny’s always are when I see the in-car videos from his races; he often flexes his fingers to remind himself to relax his grip. But for that excruciating drive down the Columbia River, Denny held the wheel in a death grip.

  I felt very bad for Zoë, who was clearly frightened. The rear of the car moved more suddenly than the front, and so she and I experienced more of the slipping and sliding sensation generated by the ice. Thinking of how scared Zoë must have been, I worked myself into a state of agitation, and I let myself get carried away. Before I knew it, I was in a full-blown panic. I pushed at the windows. I tried to clamber into the front seat, which was totally counterproductive. Denny finally barked, “Zoë, please settle Enzo down!”

  She grabbed me around the neck and held me tightly. I fell against her as she lay back, and she started singing a song in my ear, one I remembered from her past, “Hello, little Enzo, so glad to see you. . . .” She had just started preschool when she learned that song. She and Eve used to sing it together. I relaxed and let her cradle me. “Hello, little Enzo, so glad to see you, too. . . .”

  I would like to tell you that I am such a master of my destiny that I contrived the entire situation, that I made myself crazy so Zoë could calm me on this trip, and thus, would be distracted from her own pain and agitation. Truth be told, however, I have to admit I was glad she was holding me; I was very afraid, and I was grateful for her care.

  The line of cars trudged steadily but slowly. Many cars were stopped on the side of the road to wait out the storm. The weather men and women on the radio said waiting would be worse, however, as the weather front was stalled, the ceiling was low, and when the warm air arrived as anticipated, the ice would turn to rain and the flooding would begin.

  When we reached the turnoff for Highway 2, there was an announcement on the radio that Blewett Pass was closed because of a jackknifed tractor-trailer rig. We would have to make a long detour to reach I-90 near George, Washington. Denny anticipated faster travel on I-90 because of its size, but it was worse, not better. The rains had begun and the median was more like a spillway than a grassy divide between east and west. Still, we continued our journey because there was little else we could do.

  After seven hours of grueling travel and still two hours away from Seattle in good driving weather, we stopped at a McDonald’s and Denny purchased food for us to eat—I got chicken nuggets—then we pressed onward to Easton.

  Outside Easton, where snow was piled on the sides of the highway, Denny stopped his car alongside dozens of other cars and trucks in the chain-up area and ventured into the freezing rain. He lay down on the pavement and installed the tire chains, which took half of an hour, and when he climbed back into the car, he was soaking wet and shivering.

  “They’re going to close the pass soon,” Denny said to me and Zoë. “That trucker heard it on the radio.”

  It was nasty and horrible, snow and ice and freezing rain, but we pushed on, our little old BMW chugging up the mountain until we reached the summit where they have the ski lifts, and then everything changed. There was no snow, no ice, just rain. We rejoiced in the rain!

  Shortly, Denny stopped the car to remove the chains, which took another half hour and got him soaking again, and then we were going downhill. The windshield wipers flipped back and forth as quickly as they could, but they didn’t help much. The visibility was terrible. Denny held the wheel tightly and squinted into the darkness, and we eventually reached North Bend and then Issaquah and then the floating bridge across Lake Washington. It was near midnight—the five-hour drive having taken more than ten—when we finally pulled into our driveway at home.

  Denny carried Zoë to her room and put her to sleep. He turned on the television and we watched news reports of Snoqualmie Pass—where we had just been!—being shut down because of a rock slide that had destroyed the westbound lanes. Denny went into the bathroom and shed his wet clothes; he returned wearing sweat pants and an old T-shirt. He pulled a beer from the refrigerator and opened it. He took out his cell phone and pressed a button.

  “Maxwell,” Denny said after a moment. “I assume Eve is asleep?”

  He paused.

  “Tell her we’re fine. We’re back home. She should call first thing in the morning.”

  There was a great deal of shouting I could hear on the other end of the phone, but I couldn’t make out the words. Denny let the shouting go on for quite some time before he said, “Maxwell, I am far too exhausted for this right now. Yell at me tomorrow.”

  He hung up the phone, and when it buzzed again, he refused to answer. It buzzed again and again, relentlessly. And when his landline rang, he refused that, too.

  He didn’t even get under the covers. He lay back on the bed, his knees hanging over the end and his feet dangling to the floor, and he fell into a fast, long slee
p and didn’t wake up until morning.

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  That year we had a cold spell in each winter month. Then when the first warm day of spring finally arrived in April, the trees and flowers and grasses burst to life with such intensity that the television news had to proclaim an allergy emergency. The drugstores literally ran out of allergy medicine. But while the rest of the world was focused on the inconvenience of hay fever, the people in my world had other things to do. Eve continued with the unstoppable process of dying. Zoë spent too much time with her grandparents, and Denny and I worked at trying to ease the pain we felt in our hearts.

  Still, Denny allowed for an occasional diversion, and that April, one presented itself. He had gotten a job offer from one of the racing schools he worked for. They had been hired to provide race car drivers for a television commercial, and they asked Denny to be one of the drivers. The racecourse was in California, a place called Thunderhill Raceway Park. I knew it was happening in April because Denny talked about it quite a bit; he was very excited. But I had no idea that he planned to drive himself there, a ten-hour trip. And I had even less of an idea that he planned on taking me with him.

  Oh, the joy! Denny and me and our BMW, driving all day and into the evening like a couple of banditos running from the law. Like partners in crime. It had to be a crime to lead such a life as we led, a life in which one could escape one’s troubles by racing cars!

  The drive down wasn’t very special. The middle of Oregon is not noted for its scenic beauty, though other parts of Oregon are. And the mountain passes in northern California were still somewhat snowy, which made me nervous. Luckily, the snow of the Siskiyous was confined to the shoulders of the highway, and the road surface was bare and wet. And then we fell out of the sky and into the green fields north of Sacramento.

  The track was relatively new and well cared for. It was challenging, with twists and elevation changes and so much to look at. The morning after we arrived, Denny took me jogging. We jogged the entire track. He was doing it to familiarize himself with the surface. You can’t really see a track from inside a race car traveling at one hundred fifty miles per hour or more, he said. You have to get out and feel it.

  Denny explained to me what he was looking for. Bumps in the pavement that might upset one’s suspension. He touched the pavement at the midpoint of the turns and felt the condition of the asphalt. Were the small stones worn smooth? Could he find better grip slightly off the established racing line? And there were tricks to the slope of certain turns, places where the track appeared level from inside a car but were actually graded ever so slightly to allow rainwater to run off the track and not puddle dangerously.

  After we had traveled the entire track, we returned to the paddock—the infield of the track, where the cars get worked on. Two large trucks had arrived. Several men in racing-crew uniforms erected tents and canopies, and laid out an elaborate food service. Other men unloaded six beautifully identical Aston Martin DB5 automobiles, the kind made famous by James Bond. Denny introduced himself to a man who carried a clipboard and walked with the gait of someone in charge. His name was Ken.

  “Thanks for your dedication,” Ken said, “but you’re early.”

  “I wanted to walk the track,” Denny explained.

  “It’s too early for race engines,” he said, “but you can take your street car out if you want. Just keep it sane.”

  “Thanks,” Denny said, and he looked at me and winked.

  We went over to a crew truck, and Denny caught the arm of a crew member.

  “I’m Denny,” he said. “One of the drivers.”

  The man shook his hand and introduced himself as Pat.

  “I’m going to take my BMW out for a few easy laps. Ken said it was okay. I was wondering if you had a tie-down I could borrow.”

  “What do you need a tie-down for?” Pat asked.

  Denny glanced at me quickly, and Pat laughed. “Hey, Jim,” he called to another man. “This guy wants to borrow a tie-down so he can take his dog for a joyride.”

  They both laughed, and I was a little confused.

  “I have something better,” the Jim guy said. He went around to the cab of the truck and returned a minute later with a bedsheet.

  Denny told me to get in the front seat of his car and sit, which I did. They wrapped the sheet over me, pressing me to the seat, leaving only my head sticking out. They somehow secured the sheet tightly from behind.

  “Too tight?” Denny asked.

  I was too excited to reply. He was going to take me out in his car!

  “Take it easy on him until you see if he has a stomach for it,” Pat said.

  “You’ve done this before?” asked Denny.

  “Oh, yeah,” said Pat. “My dog used to love it.”

  Denny walked around to the driver’s side. He took his helmet out of the backseat and squeezed it onto his head. He got into the car and put on his seat belt.

  “One bark means ‘slower,’ two means ‘faster,’ got it?” I barked twice, and that surprised him and Pat and Jim, who were both leaning in the passenger window.

  “He wants to go faster already,” Jim said. “You’ve got yourself a good dog there.”

  The paddock at Thunderhill Raceway Park is tucked between two long parallel straights; the rest of the course fans out from the paddock area like butterfly wings. We cruised very slowly through the hot pit area and to the track entrance. “We’re going to take it easy,” Denny said, and off we went.

  Being on a track was a new experience for me. No buildings, no signs, no sense of proportion. It was like running through a field, gliding over a plain. Denny shifted smoothly, but I noticed he drove more aggressively than he did on the street. He revved the car much higher, and his braking was much harder.

  Around the turns we went. Down the straights we picked up speed. We weren’t going very fast, maybe sixty. But I really felt the speed around the turns, when the tires made a hollow, ghostly sound, almost like an owl. I felt special, being with Denny on the racetrack. He had never taken me on a track before. I felt sure and relaxed; being held firmly to the seat was comforting. The windows were open, and the wind was fresh and cold. I could have driven like that all day.

  After three laps he looked over at me.

  “You want to try a hot lap?”

  A hot lap? I barked twice. Then I barked twice again. Denny laughed.

  “Sing out if you don’t like it,” he said, “one long howl.” He firmly pressed the accelerator to the floor.

  There is nothing like it. The sensation of speed. Nothing in the world can compare.

  “Hold on, now,” Denny said, “we’re taking this at speed.”

  Fast, we went, hurtling, faster. I watched the turn approach, scream at us until we were practically past it and then he was off the accelerator and hard on the brakes.

  And then he cranked the wheel left and he was back on the gas and we were pushing through the turn. The force of gravity shoving us toward the outside of the car but the tires holding us in place. They were not hooting, those tires, no. The owl was dead. The tires were screeching, they were shouting, howling, crying in pain, ahhhhh!

  He relaxed on the wheel at the midpoint and the car drifted toward the exit and he was full on the gas and we flew—flew!—out of that turn and toward the next and the next after that. Fifteen turns at Thunderhill. Fifteen. And I love them all equally. I adore them all. Each one is different, each with its own particular sensation, but each so magnificent! Around the track we went, faster and faster, lap after lap.

  “You okay?” he asked, looking over at me as we sped at nearly one hundred twenty miles per hour.

  I barked twice.

  “I’m gonna use up my tires if you keep me out here,” he said. “One more lap.”

  Yes, one more lap. I live my life for one more lap. I give my life for one more lap! Please, God, please give me one more lap!

  And that lap was spectacular. I lifted my eyes as Den
ny instructed. “Big eyes, far eyes,” he said to me. Those reference points he had identified when we walked the track moved by so quickly it took me some time to realize that he was not even seeing them. He was living them! He had programmed the map of the racecourse into his brain and it was there like a GPS navigational system; when we slowed for a turn, his head was up and looking at the next turn, not at the turn we were driving.

  But his attention—and his intention—was far ahead, to the next turn and the one beyond that. With every breath he adjusted, he corrected, but he did it all instinctively; I saw, then, how in a race he could plot now to pass another driver three or four laps later. His thinking, his strategies, his mind; all of Denny unfolded for me that day.

  After a cool-down lap, we pulled into the paddock, and the entire crew was waiting. They surrounded the car and their hands released me from my harness and I leapt to the ground.

  “Did you like it?” one of them asked me, and I barked, Yes! I barked and jumped high in the air.

  “You were really moving out there,” Pat said to Denny. “We’ve got a real racer on the set.”

  “Well, Enzo barked twice,” Denny explained with a laugh. “Two barks means ‘faster!’”

  They laughed, and I barked twice again. Faster! The feeling. The sensation. The movement. The speed. The car. The tires. The sound. The wind. The track surface. The exit. The shift point. The braking zone. The ride. It’s all about the ride!

  I floated through the rest of our trip. I dreamed of going out again at speed, but I suspected that more track time for me was unlikely. Still. I had my memory, my experience I could relive in my mind again and again. Two barks means “faster.” Sometimes, to this day, in my sleep I bark twice because I am dreaming of Denny driving me around Thunderhill, and I bark twice to say “faster.” One more lap, Denny! Faster!

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Six months came and six months left and Eve was still alive. Then seven months. Then eight. On the first of May, Denny and I were invited to the Twins’ for dinner, which was unusual because it was a Monday night, and I never went with Denny on a weeknight visit. We stood awkwardly in the living room with the empty hospital bed while Trish and Maxwell prepared dinner. Eve was absent.

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