Jeffery is due to be racing in three hours. For him, this is sacred ground. It is for the ground that we make this pilgrimage. Bonneville is all surface. Formed in the last Ice Age, this has been a wasteland for a hundred thousand years and counting. To move is to feel the salt’s crunch, the sun’s presence. Crunch is presence. The crunch is our exchange of smiles, the redness of our foreheads. I adjust my bra, warmer than I will ever be.
Salt is much more elegant than sand. Salt refuses life. It insists that you remember why you’re here. This is the most perfect place to race on earth. The surface is impossibly flat and concrete hard. On the horizon, there’s the promise of a curve. When winds come, they are everything, pressing at speeds to rival man. No matter how the air scalds, no matter how the wind scours, the salt will remain cool, moist to touch. For wheels, the hardness is forgiving. In moments of miscalculation, moments where control is lost and faith begins, it is more likely that a bike will spin out than flip. To flip, tires need to catch some living earth.
Around me, bodies move with purpose. During Speed Week, there’s no excuse to stand still. At this time each year, racers come to Bonneville to break land speed records that they already hold. Speed Week sits on the edge of August, lazily dangling its legs over the side of the earth. Jeffery and I are among a camp of thousands, bearing life in the middle of nothing. Here, even this largest gathering can be made meek at the liberty of a slight distance.
On this landscape, I am a Y-axis. I have no place being other than my genetic XX. My head is swung low, defeated. Sunglasses are conceding down my nose. Jeffery’s head is also bowed. My husband is not in prayer. This is our pre-race ritual: pacing is a push for focus.
“Will you just let me put the cream on you?”
“Please, Cam. I don’t need it. I’ve told you I don’t need it yet. Just put it on me if you’re going to keep insisting. It’s not worth the discussion. Not today. The wind is already picking up. Do you have my water?”
This is Speed Week, and I am among the many women bearing the heat as a personal assistant. Better: I am Jeffery’s spiritual guide. My incense is motor oil. My medicine is after-sun. To my eyes, cars are cars and the bikes are bikes. It is Jeffery who knows. Jeffery’s a knower. He’ll know even when he doesn’t. My husband will rattle you through years, models, issues, engines, motors, top speeds, RPMs, G forces and all that is made possible between metal and fuel. I only know speed. Fortunately for me, this is Speed Week, and in a world of high specifics, speed is a tasteful tongue.
“Each of these machines is a recipe,” Jeffery explains. “Wait, not a recipe. A meal. They’re not just objects, you know? You can’t treat them that way. Some will taste great, and others need seasoning. Us engineers, we’re like sou-chefs, I guess.”
Jeffery knows himself as tall. For fifty-two years, he’s been the tallest, two full heads higher than I ever grew. Each year in his would-be nirvana, my husband becomes wilting, boiled flesh. For the fifth successive trip of our sixteen-year marriage, Bonneville is levelling us. Jeffery is slouched to the point of convexity. In the dry heat, we kiss on par. As our lips meet, Jeffery is a moist, hunchback shadow, a hundred foot long and two inches wide. He has been dressed for the race since dawn. Over his heart, there’s a patch on the leather: Leighton Gentlemen’s Fellowship – the team name I married into.
As we move, my head stays low. I orient myself by the pearled patches of oil that freckle the floor. Beautiful rings, indexes of error. Before I can escape, they’ll be divorced from the salt by two-inch rock drills.
Revs sound at what could be a mile away. Jeffery looks up to confirm his suspicions.
“They’re here,” he says. Now on duty, Jeffery spreads to full height, poised like a pretty-big-deal. My husband gears into a personable expression, the one from his profile picture: the smile so full, the chin so angled. Now, Jeffery’s pulse is working up his neck. His facial muscles are locked into position, the rehearsed beam that earned those eight likes. Internally, I preserve this pose, blinking two, three, four exposures.
“What are you doing?” he asks through the smile.
“I love you,” I say.
Through the haze of boiled air, a blur is growing larger.
“It could be a mirage,” I say.
“Mirages can be captured on camera,” Jeffery replies, always knowing, his hand in a shading salute. “But that’s them. Dean’s the one on our right. Can’t you see? Nancy’s there in the middle.”
At her name, I grimace and turn away, facing the track.
Racing is a misnomer in Bonneville. Here, each driver takes the run in turn. Races are a test of speed, not time. Here, it’s always a question of speed. Each team gets two runs to set the record. For machines expected to run under two hundred, there’s a three and a half mile track. Speed-readings are taken at a mile and a half, two miles and the two and a half mile mark. An average across the three is what will make the record books. Cars that break two hundred run over seven miles, but for us, that’s uncharted territory, as foreign as the air. The track has no edges, it is just a single black strip. My eyes race the line faster than any car. On their limit, I create a mirage; I break my eyes for want of an escape. I see Mushroom Clouds, the blownback hair of white men. I am the only survivor, singing in the rain of a nuclear winter. I am writing my story. I am a New York Times Bestseller. I am in the last and only library. I am one hundred tearful eulogies from beautiful strangers.
“Kaboom,” I whisper.
“You’ve got to be nice, okay? Nancy’s had a fucked up year. She doesn’t need the bother. She’s here to be happy. You’ve got to let her be happy, okay?”
My mouth shapes out, “Be careful.” He responds with a laugh that I kill with my lips, my tongue.
A hundred metres away, the splodge of Nancy fills my vision. She is too alive to ever be mistaken for a mirage. In waving, my armpits are tenderized by the sun. Earlobes, nose, shoulders: thin skin burns first. The salt too knows this hurt. In places, it has been starved, cut to a crust. Since the 1960s, the once beefy reserves have been mined to an anorexic state. Even wastelands have value. Each winter rain falls, manicuring the damage. I toe into what’s left, winding my foot and my patience. I too force a smile.
“Freeeeeeeeed,” the team roars. To them, my Jeffery is uncle. Uncle Fred: de facto elder statesmen of the group. In Bonneville, racing is a team sport. It takes a team to even reach this point. Each sprint is the result of a year’s planning, construction and fundraising. Raw acceleration doesn’t come from nothing. I am the sole groupie of The Leighton Gentlemen’s Fellowship. As the team comes into focus, Lloyd leads charge towards us. Jeffery has known Lloyd for some thirty years, long before Nancy had intruded on any part of our lives. Lloyd is Crew Chief and Transport Co-Ordinator, a man infinitely more gentle than his hair and tattoos should allow. Behind his bike runs a trailer carrying the key to our victory.
“I feel good. Damn good. You excited, baby?” Jeffery asks.
“Of course,” I lie.
“No you’re not,” he knows. Always knowing. “Thank you, darling. Really. Thank you. I know you enjoy it in your own way. I know you love it really.”
Within a month of her arrival, Nancy had married our Lloyd. She flew in at the end of summer, gifting England with her presence. Nancy promised the sun. Appropriately, our invitation came over Facebook. Theirs had been a relationship formed online. This was Lloyd’s mythical ‘Often Ogled Nancy’, the lady across the pond, the engineer behind the screen. For years, Jeffery had been subjected to Lloyd’s pub chatter about her. I was subjected in turn. Stories of Nancy invaded our dinners, our bed. She was the beautiful girl from Vegas; the girl who flipped houses and built engines on the side. ‘Often Ogled Nancy’ – it was Jeffery who coined the phrase. She had over sixty profile pictures in various provocative poses. She was arrogant enough to keep a blog.
Nancy’s Wikipedia page lists her as the founder of visordown.com, the biggest and best forum for speedsters across the globe. Since the site’s inception, Lloyd had been her most loyal member. Thirty-two people from the forum made it to Leighton for their ceremony. Lloyd had greeted us in a tuxedo, his eyes apologizing, his hair constrained to a ponytail. Nancy wouldn’t reveal herself until the main event, he explained.
“You nervous?” Jeffery had asked.
“About this? Never, man. Nancy’s the perfect girl.”
I have been held up to the standards of this perfect girl since. It was Nancy who pushed for Bonneville. She was a Nevada girl, through and through. Utah and the Salt Flats were only ever a mountain range away. Once the idea of Bonneville had been planted, it rooted itself in Jeffery, eating him like a mold. He had to be there. He had to be part of it. By 2007, forum members had pledged enough money to send us all out. Jeffery set a record that year then lost it the next.
The forum wants its record back. Since ’07 they’ve felt a right to the title. There are twenty-three different classifications for 50cc bikes, but it is only the APS-BF that matters. Every year since, the money has been found, so each summer, I smile in the background of another thank you video while Jeffery apologizes, promising more from next year, destroying himself over and over and over.
On the day of the wedding, Jeffery shared Best Man duties with Dean, Lloyd’s younger brother. Dean had been scripted to serve alone, but was deemed a liability following what was subsequently relayed to me as another episode. When the music started, we collectively turned to the aisle. Dean continued his staring contest with the chapel’s carpet.
Nancy was even better than her pictures. Petrol black hair framed her doll white face, which floated above a trim, curving dress. After the vows, a symphony of engines had roared from outside, their revved approval rumbling through the chapel.
“Isn’t it romantic?” Jeffery had exclaimed.
Within a year, Lloyd made her a mother. Of course, she shone; shamelessly right for the role. It was a role she took against all medical advice. It was a role lost to me, to us.
“Fred! Cam! Darlings!” Nancy cries. In one movement, she is off the bike and in my face. There’s a peck to my cheek and arms around my waist. Nancy smells like mint and diesel. Her breasts press into me, far above my own. It occurs to me that no other fortysomething woman could pull off that nose stud. Behind my eyes, her legs are being broken; I am walking on Nancy’s face, my heel is now her nose.
“Hi Nancy. Hi Dean, Lloyd,” I reply. Jeffery initiates the first team hug, two heads above the rest. A loose arm flails from the mass of leather, flesh and sweat, indicating Dean’s struggle to breathe. Dean is our electrical engineer. On paper, he and Lloyd co-own their Garage. This is a testament to Lloyd’s goodness. Dean is shaped for labor, not business. He’s squat, simple and gentle: the finest kind of worker. His hands have been permanently stained an oily brown.
“Cameron,” Nancy stretches out on release, puckering my name into three syllables. “I love it that you keep coming back. I know this is all nonsense to you, but here you are. Again. It’s really just great.”
I am wailing a chorus of internal fuckyous. I am a psychopath in waiting. For me, this is love, not nonsense. Jeffery brings meaning to everything.
“Like clockwork,” I admit. “You can’t keep me away.”
“I am so relieved that all those problems from last year are set firmly in your past,” Nancy says. “Today is all about positive energy. Today is what we’ve been working towards. Well, Lloyd and I at least.” I smile shit-eatingly: all teeth, no warmth. I cannot immediately recall any problems from last year, but she’s making me think. She’s in my head.
“And there’s my Fred,” she says, reinitiating contact, her hand slipped inside his leather suit jacket. There is just a t-shirt between my husband and her touch.
“Tell me that you going to do us proud. We’re hitting one eighty-eight this year, right Uncle Fred?”
“I sure hope so,” Jeffery gushes; tongue out, tail wagging.
“We really do miss you Fred,” Dean says. It has been eighteen months since we left Cambridgeshire.
“You don’t know how much I miss you guys,” Jeffery says before catching himself. “But, well, Cam’s work is worth it, you know. She’s been doing great. Some really bright kids this last year, right baby?”
“Right,” I say.
“Getting pretty windy, huh Fred?” Lloyd says, his arm stretched up around my husband’s shoulder. “Think she can handle it?”
“She’ll fucking destroy it, man.” Around machines, Jeffery’s eloquence moves to his hands. “Can we see her yet? Is she ready?”
“Be cool, Fred. She’ll be out soon enough. Dean will get started unloading her in a minute. We’ll be ready in time. Still got two hours until the launch.”
“I’m just so ready. We slammed down the road to get here. I’ve got no jetlag, I’ve got nothing to stop me. I’ve been dressed since six this morning.”
“Had any practice on the Yamaha?” Lloyd asks, deftly cutting me out from the conversation.
“Some. Late June, I bombed over to Yarmouth and wrecked the beach. Made one twenty, I reckon. She gave out a little on the uptick. Not like this girl.” Jeffery looks to the box with a father’s eyes. “This girl will handle it. Is the nitro already fitted?” At the word, a charge hums through Jeffery. He begins the dance of a full-bladdered child: the heel to toe swaying, a miniature spot contained waltz. This year, the forum plumped out an extra two grand to source some Nitrous Oxide tanks. On our flight to Utah, I received an intensive lecture on the schematics, tropes and cliffs of Nitroglycerin. As I understand it, Nitroglycerin means bike goes vroom.
“Just look at you two,” Nancy says, looking at Jeffery. “You know Cammy, what you’ve got there is special. You’re just so lucky. A hard man is good to find.” My Britishness winces. “You’re so lucky to have found a man like Jeffery at that age. You were what? Thirty? So you must be mid forties now, right?”
“Right,” I say. “How is Anthony?”
“Oh, you know. He’s a boy. Obsessed with his cars, just like Daddy.” Nancy throws Lloyd a smile. “His Grandma will spoil him all week and we’ll return as the bad guys, left to pick up the pieces. But it’s all worth it. It’s worth it for this place. Isn’t it special here?” she awes, her arms aloft, perfect pits exposed. Her is hair being casually restyled by the wind. “I love it here. Don’t you just love it?”
“It feels very ancient,” I say.
“Please, Cam. Your surname is twice the age of this country.”
“Hey girls, we’re ready over here,” Dean calls.
As the prize is unloaded, Jeffery is all Christmas day. He is toe-tipped, bouncing for the first peek. Dean is on hand with the crow bar, moving into position. Jeffery circles, inspecting the wood like wrapping paper. At the first splinter, his breath heavies. This is the closest my husband will ever come to a birth. Inside this box is my surrogate child. The bike will be weaned on my displaced, unfulfilled love. The bike is all my patience and more.
With a crack, the front falls. Jeffery is beside me, claiming my hand, kneading his thumb into me with a reassuring level of pressure.
“There she is,” he joys.
Jeffery moves to the bike in a gliding motion. His size fades to grace. With slight trepidation, he extends a loving hand. Upon the first moment of contact, he breathes again. His palm works the bike’s spine. Jeffery is stroking the machine like it were a pet.
“Come off it Fred, we want a feel.”
Jeffery steps backwards, his eyes locked. He parses over the bike, examining each element. In this moment, I am invisible to him. Dean has been hovering behind us. When I turn, he is discretely exhibiting a packet of cigarettes.
“Jeffery, darling, I’m going for a walk with Dean.”
“Okay, sure. Have fun.”
“It’s not getting better, Cam. She’s ruining him,” Dean says within our first three steps. “I keep telling myself that I’m overreacting or being a bad brother or something. I tell myself to forget it. But I don’t know. She’s just such a bitch, Cam.”
I am not a smoker, I am a friend. One cigarette cannot qualify as self-abuse. Besides, I have no real choice. In this moment, I am an altruist, sacrificing my health for the good of another. This isn’t letting myself down. It’s not like I am making the selection, dialing through all the brightly colored packets. I am under no illusion. One cigarette can be justified. Smoking breaks time. Smoking creates five pure minutes. Smoking is space. Smoking is reprieve, therapy, potential. With a cigarette in my hand, Dean can allow himself to be vulnerable.
I am led to a point behind the Porto-O-Potties. Dean promises that Jeffery won’t see us here. As he churns at the lighter, struggling against the wind, a woman joins us. She twists her head to register our presence, a cigarette toothpicking out the corner of her mouth, and then stands with her back to us, facing into the wind. This place must be a sanctuary: a haven for the stationary. I hold the lit cigarette Dean passes me like a friend.
“I’m civil and everything,” Dean says. “But I have limits. I won’t let her talk down to me. She’s got no right to my business. Always sticking her head in. I hate it, Cam. I don’t know what to do.”
I take my first drag of nicotine for twelve months. I am the glamor of a horrible and painful death. Look Jeffery: I can take risks too!
“The garage has three grand of its own out here, you know? That damn forum don’t cover everything. We can’t afford to be here, Cam. Nancy’s forced us out. We’re going under and no one’s saying a thing. Lloyd’s too proud, that’s his problem.”
“But how are you? In yourself, I mean. Is it getting any better?”
“A little, maybe. Being sad is funny and interesting at first. The pity can be sweet, I guess. It is fun to suffer, to be the victim. Then you realize how true it is, the sadness. That truth becomes nothing, then you’re doing nothing and there’s no way out.”
I take a long drag to punctuate Dean’s confession. The wind has eaten my cigarette. It is dead before its time. Upon release, the butt is blown twenty yards before I can exhale.
In the longflat distance, Nancy has earned a crowd. Here, she is a known entity. Visor Down is a global brand. Nancy stands still, gesturing with the prestige of a leader. Often Ogled Nancy – in the flesh; the damp, sweating flesh. She’s here all week. Men inspect her, suspect, in want of a flaw. Nancy sponges the attention, pushes her chest out into their affronts, their challenges, swelled with the high potency of a surviving artifact. We have gravitated towards the group: our feet fooled by her magnetism, the wind forcing our complicity.
My husband is stood in the position of a lieutenant. He motions me to his side. The wind has whipped fumes into my hair; I cannot let Jeffery smell my weakness.
“Personal space,” I mouth to him – nondescript, vague, cunning. Her tricks have infected, poisoned me. They are carried on the gale of her laugh.
Jeffery shrugs and moves off, setting into the direction we have come, walking flat into the burning wind, the path that I have left. I watch as he enters the toilet, my gaze sealing his fate. It is now that the wind works hardest, pushing against my husband, against every hope we share. At its fulcrum, the Porto-O-Potty seems to pause. The moment is almost calm. My head feels very clear. I know that this is love, and this is what love does. I will serve and serve and serve.
When the wind wins, the crash is muffled. It is my gasp that causes others to turn. The door falls like a curtain. Jeffery is a body of brown, laid flat, spitting and recoiling from himself. He rolls out, leaving a trace made of many men. His groans are long and deep. Rising six foot from the salt, he shakes off his hands, then each limb in turn. With my side to the wind, I begin moving towards him.
“No, Cam. Stop,” he shouts over the wind, extending two flattened palms. “Please, I’ll deal with this. You get a hose or a bucket or something, anything. Please, be quick. I have to race.”
“I don’t think you’re going to be racing today, darling. We’ve got to clean you up.”
“Please just get the fucking water, okay? I can’t race covered in shit. Don’t throw more shit at me. Not right now. Not today.”
“Okay, okay. Stop yelling,” I yell.
As Jeffery removes his suit and shirt, a crowd begins forming. There’s an atmosphere of tragedy. Cameras are coming out. From the floor, Jeffery’s top has been caught in a gust, dragged over the salt to an unreachable distance.
When I return with Dean, Nancy, some restroom soap lumps and six pitchers, the crowd has swelled to four deep. Jeffery is stood in only his pants, a pure spectacle, bent gagging against the burning wind.
On the salt, we clean him. Jeffery is reduced to his knees. Under my instruction, his teammates hurl long arcs of water from a splashless distance. I stand over my husband, baptizing him, soaked by his side. Jeffery’s head hangs back, swallowing the sun.
“I did need that cream,” he whispers.
“Don’t be too disappointed, my love,” I say. “We have the second run tomorrow.”
“I can still race. I can race if you let me do the ritual.”
“The run is in ten minutes. Lloyd’s already set up. Can the ritual fit in?”
“I can’t let everyone down. I can’t, not again. We’re ready this year, Cam. We’re really, really ready. We can get it back!”
“Fred, man,” says Dean. “That was the only suit in your size. I’m sorry, bro.”
With a protracted, kinking movement, Jeffery looks up, the ebb of defeat in his soap-red eyes. He beckons my hands and takes them to his cheeks. After a moment, he greets them with his own, meshing our fingers. Putting his weight in my hands, Jeffery comes off his knees.
“Nancy,” he calls without releasing me. “Get over to the car. You have to race.”
With a nod, she’s gone; no pity to her run, not a hint of turning back, all progress, all glory, charging onward, onward through age, onward through sensibility, onward to the end.
“You taste of smoke,” Jeffery says.
“You stink of shit,” I say.
As the sun blooms, the crowd is peaking. Jeffery and I have joined the spectator stands, a ten-dollar option designed to draw in more casual fans, the fans that Jeffery would commonly dismiss as speed junkies. We sit among their stares. Dean’s t-shirt reaches to the bottom of Jeffery’s ribs. He wears his arms over the exposed skin. Around us, noses are being whiffed. Jeffery has been doused down with a full can of deodorant. He squirms beside me, huffing and ticking.
“They should have called us by now. They’re taking the piss,” Jeffery says. “I can’t take it. They can’t do this. Not now. Not today.”
“Stay calm, my darling. We all need you to be calm now,” I say, speaking on the world’s behalf. On cue, the tannoy calls.
“Would 50cc APS-BF attempt sixteen, run ninety-one, team one-one-three please now approach the Measured Mile.” The voice comes through clearly, crisp like a verdict.
“That’s us. That’s definitely us right?” Jeffery pats himself down, in want of a number. “You got the details, Cam? That’s us, right?”
“That’s us alright. Look darling, Nancy’s coming up now.”
Nancy walks the bike slowly, filling the moment to its limit. The leather holds her like a second skin. Turning to us, she blows a kiss to the crowd. Cheers come fast, the whistles strong.
“Rip it up, Nancy,” Jeffery calls.
The helmet slips on. The light turns green. The bike flares. And like that, she’s gone.
I am the thumping sound of held breath. I am the calmness of a well-worn lie. I am the turn of a card, the turn of a smile, the fall of an empire. I am salt, the barren incarnate. I am hope at the earth’s edge. I am hope beyond all limits.
My reaction comes second-hand, as epitaph, brought on by the gasps of others. Jeffery is the first to scream.
“The bike! The fucking bike!”
In the time it takes him to look away, some two thousand people have begun to boo. Their noise is full and round, a ghostly groan. Disapproval and frustration lash like the wind. For no reason, I am blushing. During Speed Week, spinouts mean delays and delays mean cancellations. With no apology, Jeffery runs towards the track, his binoculars swinging wildly behind him like a loose leash. Lloyd has reached the ambulance in time, but Jeffery is still fifty meters away as they set off down the track, down towards the rising smoke. Now, he has slowed to the pace of defeat; now back to his knees, now head to the salt.
My chest is tight and my head is light. I try to flatten the smile that is kicking up into the corner of my mouth.
Our room is mostly bed. In the warm of Jeffery’s neck, I kiss. He smells of soap and clean. There is no trace of my husband’s scent. His eyes are ripping through the roof.
“Jeffery?” My husband gives no sign of response. “Dean will have it fixed up by morning. You can trust that Dean will manage.” I try to fill my words with belief. “And she’ll be fine, you know. Nancy, I mean. They all said so, didn’t they? She was smiling, almost.” Jeffery rolls from me. In the night of our sheets, it is clear that his hairs are showing the first notes of grey.
It was the Nitro that forced the crash. In her attempt to flick the switch, Nancy moved off the bar. Against the sheer speed and wind, she didn’t have the strength to move back to the handle. For once, Nancy lost control. Off before the spin-out, she flew four feet across the salt. Her jacket lasted three. The raw, coarse friction ate through to her side. They found her more dizzy than dead. Just a lot of ruptured skin, six broken ribs, a smashed clavicle and fractured cheeks. Just, they told us.
In bed, a minute has passed.
“I’m pregnant,” I threaten.
“No you’re not,” Jeffery knows. Always knowing.
“Please hug me. I need you close. I need you, now.”
“I’ve been recently covered in shit. I don’t feel too tactile. And what of your ‘personal space’?”
“I’d shared a cigarette with Dean. I didn’t want it to distract you before the race. Besides, you are my personal space. My personal space is a matter of convenience.”
“Fuck you,” he loves.
Alexander J. Allison (b. 1991) was educated at York and Manchester. He is the author of The Prodigal (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2013).