Smithology: Chekhov’s chocolate
Once, a while back, the internet mailed me a chocolate gun. More accurately, several funny people I know on the internet bought me a chocolate gun. The mailman just knocked on my door one day, then left a foam-lined box containing a 1:1 sugar replica of a Colt 1911, no fanfare, as if he had just delivered something as dull as mail.
I didn’t know what to do with this splendid work of art, so I ate it. Slowly, and then quickly, and then slowly again, after the cocoa bomb made every cell in my eyeballs vibrate like a plucked bridge cable.
I forget a lot of things lately. A side effect of parenting, I think, where your kids bombard you with so much distilled gibberish that the brain’s long-term storage starts throwing critical facts out the window at speed. I did not remember the gun until a friend mentioned it on Twitter last week. And for whatever reason, I couldn’t remember why it showed up. One of the side effects of being a writer is a frequent compulsion to log thoughts and events, in case they might be useful later; after the Twitter mention, curiosity yanked me by the collar. I went on an obsessive dive through notebooks and laptop files, suddenly desperate: Why was the gun sent? An echo of some published bon mot? A riff on my adult-inappropriate candy addiction? Maybe even the kind of social-media joke-within-a-joke that stops being funny after five minutes but nonetheless gives everyone involved the creeping titters and justifies spending $30 on a weapon fireable solely at one’s colon?
No answers. In that long-ago mail moment, I logged diddly.
I did find something else, though.
We live in a small town in East Tennessee. Our house is a charming old Craftsman that once held the town newspaper. The two-lane out front carries a constant stream of traffic, mostly from local hills and a nearby national park. Half of the zip code drives by once a week. The downside is obvious: there is a lot of noise outside. Thankfully, the house is quiet indoors. The upside is enough wheeled variety to pass for a mobile Cars (and Motorcycles and Trucks) and Coffee.
When we bought the place, we liked it enough to discount the traffic. I figured I could either gripe constantly or shrug and make the best of it. As part of the latter path, I spent our first six months here free-associating into a notes app on my phone—furious typing when outdoors, logging reactions to road sound.
Naturally, I didn’t remember this stuff, either, until the choco-gun chase.
Without further ado, some of those traffic reactions, below, direct from the brain dumps that birthed them. They are a curious window into what an easily distracted car person thinks—or says, or whispers, or just yells into personal headspace—when overstimulated. (Sugar or wheels, it’s really all the same.)
Gasoline V-10 pickups and vans: Such a silly idea, and yet you can’t look away. They sound exactly like what they are—equal parts thrash and refinement, thrown in a blender. So many faces on the drivers! Generally two types: One looks like sad-trombone noise sounds, and the other has a mile-wide grin. They are best described as either:
- I have replaced the rusted exhaust-manifold studs on my Ford more times than you, or
- HELL YES I BOUGHT THE PICKUP WITH THE DODGE VIPER MOTOR, THIS IS ME DRIVING OFF TO A DATE WITH YOUR SISTER.
Footnote, June 2021: There is also the 1994–2003 V-10 Dodge Ram, but these days, they’re mostly rusted and dead, even in the South, so that’s a rare bird.
V-10 cars: How rare the song! How spectacular! How did we ever live in a world where someone found a ten-cylinder car normal? Every third blue moon, there’s a Lamborghini Gallardo out front. More often, it’s a BMW M5 (E60), a high-mileage one at that. Usually with vomitous aftermarket wheels. Lovely sound uncorked, defiantly motorsporty and high-pitched, which almost makes up for the fact that the car requires a torrent of money to repair. You see one mobile but obviously neglected, you get curious. In the same way that you can drive by an abandoned insane asylum and wonder what sort of guano happens in there after dark, but never want to go in and find out.
Subarus with “performance” mufflers: My friend Ben Thongsai once said they all sound like old Volkswagens with a plug wire missing. I prefer to think of it as McRae and Burnsie and Solberg on a beer-run detour from the Welsh forest ACH AYE RIGHT FIVE OVER CREST, just with huge indigestion and a stomach full of too many baked beans.
Rusty Hondas with no muffler: Half the rusty cars in Tennessee have no muffler, many seemingly by choice. Stock Hondas sound particularly awful like this, as if they’re being abused—like an old SCCA production car with a cam made of potatoes.
Those last few words sound like an excerpt from haiku! When done lazily, haiku is the worst form of poetry! To wit!
Hark, a loud crap can
Soichiro questions you
He will take it back
Small-displacement (400 cubes or less) pushrod V-8 with open pipes: You can hear. Every. Single. Piston. Great people doing great work.
Large-displacement (400 or greater) pushrod V-8 with open pipes: You can really hear every single piston. For when your work doesn’t America hard enough.
Short-wheelbase Dodge Ram plumbing van used by the local union guy, who seems intent on running that 318 with one dead cylinder and a blown downpipe just as hard as he can, every day, permanently floored: [Tips hat at customer front door, nods respectfully] “Just here to check the pipes, ma’am. May I inspect your service entrance?”
Any Hellcat-engined Stellantis (née Chrysler) product: Gurgle-thunder-gargle. Possibly the best-sounding relatively quiet stock-exhaust V-8 of the modern era. Always prompts a stop-and-think moment: I should really pawn one of the kids and buy a Hellcat. After all, of these days, they’re going to stop making them, and then where will we be?
(Stop making Hellcats, not children.)
(Raises a good question, though, a’la Carson’s Carnac: What happens when a bunch of ancient DaimlerChrysler bits and a nuclear-power-plant accident love each other very much?)
Older, gray-haired gentleman in a bone-stock, NA-chassis Mazda Miata with an intact factory exhaust and a top that never goes up, generally spotted on nice Sundays: Sounds like nothing. But this guy gets it.
Younger NA Miata guy, seen slightly less often and generally headed in the direction of nearby good driving roads, his car wearing a roll bar, a suspension on the bumpstops, and a nearly hollow aftermarket muffler with bosozoku tips. Plus a top that never, ever goes up, even in pouring rain: He also gets it.
Middle-aged woman in a new-looking Mazda Miata RF (the targa model) who drives past the house several times a week, all four seasons, faster than either of the aforementioned Miata people, and always with the top open: She gets it more than the other two.
Straight sixes in old BMWs where you can tell the catalytic converter has almost, but not quite, blown out its internal structure: The bliss nymphs foretold in lore have visited us and sung to make flowers grow!
Nissan 350Z hard-stanced with most of its paint missing, at least six degrees of negative camber in the back, some sort of extremely shiny and buzzy rear can, zip-tie drift stitches, and a missing rear bumper cover. (Note: I’ve only seen this guy twice): Not the hero we need, but the hero we deserve.
Gravel dump trucks driving past from the quarry across town and “forgetting” to not use the deafening engine brake near residential areas, despite how everyone involved knows this is a total jerk move: Fascism has many disguises, you see, and that is why the nature of individual choice is worth continued discussion in an evolving and free society, and also why it should be entirely legal to roll out tire spike strips in front of your house at noon on a Tuesday, no reason at all, just because you feel like it.
Same trucks, but no Jake Brake, using as high a gear as possible, while the driver waves out the window to my kids as they play in the driveway:
Just gettin’ freedom done.
(Note: This only works if you say it in a Sam Elliott voice.)
(For the record, I often say many things in a Sam Elliott voice, because it is fun. But only ever in the parts of my house both private and echo-filled. Like the bathroom, where voices sound best, and only in a tone that fits that talented character actor’s lovely sense of mature revelation.)
Footnote, June 2021: Please do not read too much into that final sentence.
The college-age dude down the street with the S550 Ford Mustang—and an ear-splitting Coyote V-8 with sewer drains for cat-backs—who runs up and down the street at redline in second, generally near midnight on weekdays: HELLBOY HAS COME TO RAIN HAVOC AND EAT YOUR BABIES / MY CHILDREN ARE SLEEPING / CALL THE COPS AND STOP THIS ANARCHIC DEATHSONG AT ALL COSTS.
Same guy, same noise, just on weekends: Nice. Doin’ the lord’s work.
1960s Ford “Bumpside” pickup with a straight six: Because this is East Tennessee, these are countless. They are mostly unrestored and generally patinated. There is always an arm on the sill of an open window. These trucks probably sound like something, but that noise is generally outshouted by the stampeding hooves of a thousand coiffured and self-tanned pop-country musicians running in from Nashville in order to be photographed on the tailgate for their next album cover. (Which will inevitably be called Rootsin’ and feature a song about a womanly tractor or a tractorly woman. It will go also four times platinum in the United States and use beats written on a laptop by a Swedish man now residing in Malibu.)
The college-age kid with the nearly new Honda CBR who rips by every Friday afternoon at 9000 rpm, the engine fauceting out that Honda-on-the-pipe scream: So much internal conflict here. On one hand: Good for you! Motorcycles are great! On the other: This is a 30-mph zone, brother. Would it kill you to drop to 7500?
More to the point: Does objecting to this sort of thing make me an old man now? Is the question compounded by the fact that I have in the past done 150 mph in [redacted location out West that was definitely a race track] with the aid of a [redacted Japanese two-wheeler] while muttering [redacted unprintable words about human anatomy]?
I mean, yes? To both?
I am confused on the subject and wish to investigate further, for science. I should probably just buy a CBR.
Maybe this noise barrage makes our house sound miserable, a place in which no one would choose to live. It’s neither. Most of these folks are just normal people, out enjoying a stint on a country road while emotionally useful mechanical noise helps them cope with the stress and turmoil of everyday life.
I mean, I get it. Who doesn’t?
Tennessee is a nice place. Safe, too. No chocolate guns hanging over the fireplace, waiting to go off in some Chekhovian intestinal third act. Come visit.