Mysteries of the Internal Combustion Engine

Summer, 2022 / No. 49
Matthew Daley

“Then Sara denied, saying: I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh.” 

—Genesis 18:15.

You think you understand it, right? The elements—gas and air—are antithetical, yet somehow the right mixture makes it happen. Makes it happen. First a spark, then cylinders swell, pistons churn, and finally the motor roars, promising to take you anywhere you want to go. But who can say, I mean, who can really say what goes on down there? 

“I don’t know, it just happened!” you say, finding yourself at the altar or waking up in some bed with strange sheets and an unknown landscape outside the window and a name you didn’t even know yesterday now emblazoned on your heart, like a prayer. A question of faith: “I just turned the ignition and . . .”

I don’t know how it happened. Someone handed me the key; I didn’t go around asking for it. I used to walk, ride a bike, take the bus, but I met this guy who was a mechanic and then there I was, rolling down the highway—that stretch between cities where the speed limit is pushed up to seventy—holding thickly to the wheel, stiff, taut, fragments of prayers clouding the windshield. Denying responsibility, as in biblical times—praying only when things go wrong. Someone told me I should call him and so I did, and later he asked me to dance, and later we woke up together, except that he said he hadn’t slept, just watched me laughing through my dreams, like a circus madwoman.

He said he was happy, but then sometimes you think everything is going so smoothly that you forget it’s not all one continuous motion but really a series of systematically controlled explosions taking place under a deceptively still metal exterior, and who’s to say the spark won’t one day refuse to ignite, or that the explosion won’t burst out of its mechanical confines and melt the whole machine down—who’s to say? Something unforeseen happens, his voice started to sound different, every time it was a toss-up: would the motor start or not, or would I be stranded. Sometimes you stop at a signal and then the light changes, and maybe it won’t go back into gear, or maybe it just sputters, maybe I flooded the engine, maybe it’s the alternator, when did I last check the battery, what did I do wrong, baby, tell me where, oh where, did I go wrong? I just want things to be like they used to be, that’s all. Back when there was hope.

Seeking easy answers returns me, unfairly, to the person who set us up. A kindness, perhaps, but where’s the generosity in putting two good people together so they can tear themselves apart? I really wanted—I mean I really, really wanted—it to be simple. He said I was beautiful, and he told everyone we ran into that I was the woman he was going to marry, even though we’d just met. I laughed. Something was wrong. The tachymeter started fluctuating wildly, and the lights flickered and the battery gauge dropped down and soon I was pushing the vehicle over to the unpaved shoulder area with about, I don’t know, a thousand people giving me advice or showing me other ways that it could have been, used to be—don’t remind me—the greater my faith the more unjust the reality.

I’m in the garage writing this. Waiting—what else is there to do? No one knows what’s going to happen until it happens, or not even then. Not even afterward, not until it’s too late to make adjustments. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I slashed my wrists or anything. Just that, ever since all this took place, I’ve been so tired. It’s hard to sleep, to concentrate. My work suffers. That’s what my boss tells me: your work is suffering. No, no, it’s something else. I keep realizing how little I knew him. Know him, I should say. It’s not like he’s stopped existing. He used to be a mechanic, and I thought he could fix things. I’m so sick of doing everything for myself, when all I know is how much I don’t know. Where does the spark come from, anyway? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried rubbing two sticks together to make fire, like they do in books. Nothing ever happens, but still I try to pinpoint the exact moment of transformation, when water becomes steam or when solid wax suddenly melts and drips down the side of the candle, or when red and blue paints together stop being red and blue and become purple—but I can’t find it. If you knew these things you could influence the outcome. If you could see what happened in between you would know why yesterday’s kisses fade to nothing and the voice on the phone changes frequency, turns vague and detached when just the other night it was slipping through the wires and the bones in your wrist and arm and straight inside your veins and taking possession of your whole bloodstream and you had to say—was this where it started to end?—you had to say, “Wait,” but maybe he got tired of waiting or maybe you weren’t worth waiting for after all.

People will tell you a watched pot never boils. Another easy answer. Like going to church, as people do, to avoid the face of God. No one can account for the moment of metamorphosis, is all. A plant will sprout a new leaf while you’re not looking. A tomato is green and then suddenly it’s ripe or rotten. The gas I spill after filling the tank, it just evaporates. When I first met him, I didn’t really notice that much, and it wasn’t until almost a year later that he started to consume every moment of my waking existence. I say waking because I don’t sleep anymore. He said he dreamt of me but I don’t dream about anything. It’s not even a question of what do I want. No one knows what she wants till it’s snatched away.

So let’s talk about the electrical system. As I understand it, energy is transformed three or four times before it starts to make something go. Strangely it starts in my wrist. Everything but the hands and feet are still. The key, the pedal quickly pumped and . . . coils, cables, and energy is converted and produces motion, no, but it’s too hard to explain. Can anyone really say with any honesty that they know how plain boxes of corrosive acid produce the voltage that can take you from your past to your future in, say, sixty seconds flat? 

I exaggerate, my engine is slower, but the concept is the same. I don’t mean “know” like can you draw a diagram or take it apart and put it back together. What I mean is can you really get inside the mystery, immerse yourself in the mystery of it all, and come through to the other side without drowning in the process. Isn’t that why Sara laughed, confronting the terrifying infinity of the divine? Maybe I should have laughed too, considering how not very far I’ve come on faith alone. Except really I can’t think of anything funny anymore. It seemed funny at the time and I laughed, but that was a mistake. He was serious. He would have done anything for me. But you turn your back for a second and the window of opportunity falls shut. Snap! There was this . . . I think it must be a belt of some sort, broken . . . the ignition is working but nothing’s happening. . . . I don’t know, there’s, like, sand in the radiator or something . . . sand everywhere, and I can’t see where I’m going, it’s stinging my eyes, cutting into my skin, thousands of tiny razors, and my feet are so heavy, like rocks sinking in the sand, heavier with every step, and my arms are tired, holding them up over my eyes, and we just have to keep moving forward and not looking back because behind us no longer exists, nothing exists except this sand, this wind, the Egyptian desert, the storm so heavy it obliterates the sun.

If only I could find a way to explain. It’s not like I was handing my heart out on every street corner or something. It was supposed to be special. I mean, not that I saw it coming. Not that I decided. “I just turned the ignition and it happened!” Not even that. He handed me the keys, so what was I supposed to do, use them for decoration? Those weren’t my words, I didn’t make any promises, I didn’t put any thoughts in his head. I was just there, letting things happen to me as usual. Whoever came up with the crazy idea that explosions could be controlled?

I’m waiting here at the doctor’s office, and it’s taking hours. I don’t know why. They are always behind schedule and there are always emergencies and someone always stands up and walks out in disgust. Dripping wounds and all. But if nothing else, I want some medication because, well, I barely sleep as it is, but imagine the torment of not sleeping at all. The more I can sleep, the less time I have to ponder the mysteries. The more I can sleep, the less dangerous I am to myself and others. After all, I have to drive.

And that, finally, is where the difficulty lies. If he never comes back, if I never penetrate the mystery, if I never make it out of this desert, Sara’s mad laughter ringing in my ears, if the seas never part, or if I have to swim the length of the ocean, cry a river, a vale of tears, if there are no more miracles, no blessings, no convulsions, the task remains. The route itself I know by heart—its exits, its signals, its blind intersections, where the school bus stops, the logging trucks turn sharply into the mill grounds, where the county sheriff hides behind a spindly bush. Knowing these things, the ride is smooth.

But once upon a time, something happened . . .