Under the Floor
A sample story from “Actual Mileage” for Kit Car Builder Magazine – One of 47 stories in the collection with two photos of the Porsche Speedster I built
In the concrete floor of my garage, in the back corner where I keep my Speedster, there’s a trap door, a two-foot square of concrete with a flush-mounted handle, an inset lock, sturdy hinges, cased in a steel rim like the hole where it seats in the floor. I’ve never had the key. I’ve never drilled the lock out. All I’ve done is verify that nothing vital to the house – furnace, water heater, oil tank, fuse box, septic tank, leach field – is hidden underneath it. My sons have hounded me for years about opening it. I’ve never said no. All I’ve said is that I’d think about it.
And I have. For sixteen years. Where it could lead. Here’s what I have to work with. We live on top of a ridge with a house close in on either side of ours. Young families with little kids. Out back, the ridge falls away in a steep hillside of rock, maybe a hundred feet to where it levels out for forty feet of woods before butting up against the yards of the houses below us. In front, there’s a rise up to the road, and the houses of neighbors on the other side. Not much reason to dig a hideout or tunnel. If we had an old abbey next door, or a skinhead compound, or a nudist colony, it’d be easy. The way it is, wherever that door leads, it would have to go for maybe seven miles to come up under something even remotely worth it.
Back in the seventies I bought a Speedster off a college kid from one of Salt Lake’s wealthier neighborhoods who was studying philosophy. It was a rustbucket, held together with bondo and the tensile strength of maybe eight different paint jobs, a top with half the stitching rotted out, an engine that had lost one cylinder and was barely hanging on to its last three. But there it was. The indestructible force of that ageless shape. He was asking twelve hundred. I offered him four. A college kid myself, an engineering student with a young wife, it was all I had. When he got done screaming, and told me some girl who wanted it was waiting to get a loan approved, I showed him my four hundred cash and told him to keep me in mind. Three weeks later he called. The girl hadn’t got her loan. In the meantime, the Speedster’s tranny had exploded, the rebuild had cost him four hundred, and all he wanted now was the cost of the rebuild back. A friend drove me out to get it after work. I handed the kid the cash, got in my new Speedster, and was firing it up when his mother appeared in the passenger window, all screeching rage and teeth, calling me a thief and crook and hoodlum for taking advantage of her son. She chased me down the street, still screeching through the window, until the engine found enough momentum to handle second gear and leave her standing in the cracked haze of the mirror.
My niece the Harry Potter fan probably has the most fun imagining what’s down beneath my locked trap door. My nephew keeps a real-life Halo World there. My sons and I have this vast garage filled with every car we’ve ever wanted. Toni has herself a tropical island with the world’s biggest karaoke system and an endless line of waiters in Speedos bringing her Cosmopolitans on the beach. My neighbor John thinks we’ve got Dick Cheney down there. Aside from my old GTO and a hundred other wish wheels, the stuff I keep on the other side of that door includes a club where I play jazz trumpet, a Pulitzer Prize, and my favorite landscape – the reservation country of southern Utah and northern Arizona where I grew up.
That afternoon, limping on failing cylinders, spongy with rust, me in the busted driver’s seat, grinning through the cracked windshield like the happy thief I’d inadvertently become, I brought the Speedster home. I’d been married a year and a half to an absolute dream of a girl, beautiful and loving, blond hair, this bottomless reservoir of unqualified kindness. I built mobile homes and went to night school. She worked as a surgical assistant in a children’s hospital. In my dirty teeshirt I invited her for a ride. She still had her hospital smell. She looked troubled in a way I’d never seen her look. I’d seen her hurt. This wasn’t that. This was something intuitive, foreboding, like I’d introduced some turning point into our marriage that she alone could sense the distance of. We headed out. At some point, looking down into her footwell, she asked me what was under the piece of particle board on the floor beneath her sandals. Lift it up, I told her, take a look. She did. And then nothing. I looked over and saw that she was crying. Not out loud. Just her face wet where she was looking through the windshield and the wind blew her hair aside. I looked down into her footwell. There was a ragged hole there big enough to fall through, and this moving smear of asphalt that was the street, a street named South Temple because it originated on the south side of Temple Square, home to the forbidding granite building in one of whose secret rooms we’d been married a year and a half ago.
I didn’t know what moved her to cry. All I saw was street. But sure enough. Within two years I had the Speedster in shape, a floor pan of thick steel and a powerful engine, and was out racing it. Within another two years I was done with engineering school. Within another year, done with racing, sleepless, this night highway of ghost trucks roaring through my head, I was taking the Speedster out at one or two in the morning, the stinger bolted on to drown out the roar of the trucks, pounding up and down the canyons of the Wasatch Front until my head was clear enough to drive down 80 back into the city, pretending I’d never been here and was only passing through. Before long I was done with everything else. A degree I’d been told I needed in order to be responsible. An unforgiving upbringing in a take-no-prisoners religion. A place I’d come unhinged in. Kindness. We sold the Speedster and most everything else we owned. She moved to Portland because she liked rain. I moved east.
It wasn’t the Speedster. It sure wasn’t her. It didn’t take long in the east to discover how lucky and stupid and cruel I’d been. But it took years to get that undeservingly lucky again. Now, at the end of a long day, I take my second Speedster out to get lost in the miles of hills and farmland here in northwest Jersey, and come home knowing this is where I’m from. In the garage, idling the Speedster back into place over the locked trap door, there’s still the reflex to contemplate what lies on the other side. A patch of moving asphalt just through the hole. A street like a river running just inches underneath my house and what I’ve learned how to love.