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When You Are Locked in the Trunk of a ’69 Bonneville

My parents hailed from New York—my mom from Hell’s Kitchen, my dad from Queens, but they were back-to-the-land-ers, and I grew up in the rural southwest corner of Massachusetts. In the early ’80s we had a shifting stock of about 18 goats, two horses, lots of chickens, and even a couple of pigs. I was between eight and ten years old, and during this time one my favorite activities was to lock myself in the trunk of the family car.

It was a’69 Pontiac Bonneville. There was a metal prong, part of the lock mechanism, and if you got it right, you could pop the trunk open from inside with a pair of pliers. I would have to ask someone to close me in—my dad, or more likely my brother, ten years my elder, who clued me in to the little trick to begin with. It was one of these large, tight-jawed trunks that needed some force behind it. They’d slam it shut, off-hand, on their way to somewhere else. Sometimes, I’d stay a long time, listening to the sound of chopping wood, or the radio, tinny and muted through the metal walls. I’d stretch out, curled around stray tools and boxes, and watch the light seep in through a rust hole near the spare tire. Other times, I’d race to get out fast, to find the switch and—pop—escape. Sometimes, I’d go in without tools. There were times I couldn’t find the switch at all. I’d panic, get clumsy, scrape my knuckles trying to escape. I never brought a flashlight. That would have been against the spirit of the enterprise. I just groped around in the dark.

Near the end of my trunk entrapment period, my family went to Canada for the summer, to the very eastern tip: Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. My mom was a typist for a sex therapist who ran a camp for teens there in the rural rocky eastern Atlantic remoteness. Camp Discovery, it was called, and my parents were going there to take it over. It was a different kind of camp before we arrived—much more…groping. Guided groping. Guided group groping. Or so I suspected. Its founder, “Ranger” (her self-selected nickname) had her own books displayed prominently on her shelves—Sex with Love and other titles for teens—lending some graphic backing to my hunch. Ranger, already in her seventies by then, sunbathed naked on the stark black boulders that lined the shoreline: the beached whale, we called her. My parents turned the place into more of an outdoor adventure-style camp. We drove up there in the Pontiac Bonneville, 24 hours of round-the-clock driving—me in the back seat this time.

It wasn’t long until I decided to lock myself in the trunk again. By now I’d discovered how to do it myself—a rope, woven through some open cavities in the hood, so I could pull down hard. I lay in there, listening: to the sound of the ocean in the distance, hitting the cliffs, to people walking by, their stray voices, talking, occasionally leaning there, sitting on the bumper, compressing me closer to the ground. They had no idea—this of course was part of the point—that I was there, quiet, inside. But then one day I heard a new sound. It started with a deep metallic groan as the front door swung open, then slammed heavily shut again. I felt the car shift to the weight of the driver. I was going to pop the trunk, but—I didn’t have time. I was going to pound, but—someone turned the ignition: click, a hoarse whinny as it turned over, then the full roar of the V8 spreading like fire from the hood to the trunk, and we started to move. We backed up, swung round, and began to mount the hilly driveway out of camp.

The road to town was cut out of the cliff—with a rock wall to one side, and to the other, a thin fringe of straggling pines before an otherwise unmediated drop, a thousand feet straight down to the sea. Big jagged rock reefs jutted out below, like a giant’s teeth. It was steep and sharp, dramatic and beautiful. And if you came across another car coming from the opposite direction you needed to back up, sometimes around a hairpin turn, till you found an indent—there weren’t many, and they certainly weren’t deep—where you could tuck and idle, while the other car crept carefully by. There was never a time we drove that stretch when I didn’t feel my stomach in my mouth, my hand clutching the door. From the trunk now, I could feel the broad behind of the Bonneville fishtailing. I could call out, yell, but surprising the driver—was it my father? or had he pressed his keys into someone else’s hands?—was in neither of our best interests. So I simply swayed quietly, back and forth in the musty dark cave, gripping my pliers and watching the particles of the road blur with speed through the cracking rust fissure in the floor.

I don’t know why I liked to lock myself in the trunk. In my mind, it is inextricably linked to another, slightly earlier trip we took as a family: to the World Trade Center. At this time the Towers had no greater meaning other than being the tallest buildings in the world and our destination. I remember driving downtown along a city street, oddly dark and deserted in the daytime, lacerated by the occasional slant of daylight through the tall walls of skyscrapers that lined our path like the banks of a canyon. My sister and I sat in the back seat as my father shot back admonitions: “Stay close, girls,” he said. “Don’t stray from us. In this city, there are men who will kidnap you, get you addicted to drugs and turn you into prostitutes.” I felt a surge of excitement—guilty excitement—as my father’s comments completely missed his mark.

Once inside the towers I straggled behind, trying to appear alone, not part of them, as we approached the long lean escalator shafts, the walls of sheer glass like a cathedral, the elevators that shot us up to the top of the world. I glanced curiously at stray men, before settling into the crook of my father’s arm, my forehead pressed to the window of the observatory, looking out at the dizzying view, my knees queasy as he pointed and named the bridges for me: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Verrazano and Williamsburg, which I assumed was named after William, him. Prostitutes, hookers, what did that mean? I pictured the scantily clad, vaguely exotic women lining the streets along 10th Avenue. One of my parents had called them that, hookers, muttered it, as we drove past—like it wouldn’t get back to us, an arm’s length away in the back seat. From then on, every time I heard we were going to New York I would slip into a fever dream and wake up vomiting with the excitement—strange men, unknown possibilities, possible abduction!—ironically thwarting my much-anticipated visit.

I would like to report that, back in the ’69 Bonneville, veering from the steep-cliffed Canadian back roads into some lovers’ rendezvous, it was the shock of witnessing my father in an illicit tryst with Ranger—the White Whale, beached on the sticky hot vinyl back seat—that cured me of my trunk-bound abduction fantasies. But that would be veering perilously into the gorges of fiction.

In any case, my time in the trunk was over by the following year, the autumn of 1982. I know this because that’s when my cousin came to stay with us for a while—to dry out, extricate him from the drugs and city influences—or rather, more accurately, set him loose on the country innocents. Regardless, the Bonneville became his wheels. Later that winter, no doubt high on something or other, he slid off the side of our long steep driveway, gunning it on the ice, spinning the trunk, my trunk, against that of a tree, smashing it shut in its final repose. I remember hearing about it. Shut in my bedroom now, listening to the mayhem of voices rising from downstairs, my ear pressed to my wooden door, I remember thinking: What would I have done? If I were in there? Would I have escaped?


Emily DeVoti


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 08-JAN 09

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