One year with car part

It has been about one year since the car part turned up in my front yard and moved into my life. It is difficult to capture the essence of the car part in a photo, but Quincy assists. Below is the latest installment on the obsession.


The Lives

I will have to go further back, I thought. But I didn’t know where to start. Then Dana Ward once again sets the wires thrumming. He posts a poem to Facebook by Harris Schiff called “Money.”[i] It stomps right through me weeping, then turns me back to look. Ok, money. Picture this: oil. It burbles up thick and black, residue of creatures from an ancient ocean, molecules erupting out of lives lived a few hundred million years ago. Then, people. Some arrived in their lives on a spot of earth. They brought machines to cut down trees, tear up plants and scrape bare the dirt. Some brought explosives or a giant truck smashing down a metal plate to send shock waves through the earth. Someone set up a geophone to listen to vibrations in the rock, and some ran a computer program to translate the waves into a picture. Someone studied the 3-D map to divine whether pools of crude might ooze beneath rock. Some others in offices made the decisions and paid money to others to do this work in hopes of getting more money back. the ugliest/ strongest/ horse/ Those they paid for their lives brought a drilling rig to the spot and positioned its metal teeth to bite down into dirt. They inserted a pipe, and concrete, and chemicals and sucked the viscous remains up out of the earth. People labored, sweating and straining, some bones got smashed, blood ran, they breathed hard, sucking tiny particles of soot from the diesel machines deep inside spongy lung tissue. you can ride/ in this pasture/ do you want to/

Someone invented a way to crack apart the molecules of the ancient creatures and force them into new shapes, the long, criss-crossing chains that make plastic. In the case of this car part, I guess acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene, ABS, known for impact resistance and durability plus a smooth surface, used for car parts, computer and electronic casings and Legos. It takes two kilograms of oil to make one kilogram of ABS.[ii] Its molecular structure looks like this:[iii] It will take you/ but it might not/ obey you/

ABS by Jen


Some people put the oil into pipes or in containers on a truck or a ship to a refinery. Some others heated the oil until it turned into a gas, then cooled into different liquids: gasoline, diesel, naphtha, amber-colored and thin. Some others heated the naphtha with steam to crack it into smaller molecules — propylene, ethylene, butadiene, and benzene. Some packed these chemicals in containers and carried them by truck or train or ship to the chemical plant. There, some others reacted the chemicals together to form long chains of molecules bound to each other.[iv]

The material comes out as pellets, white. Some people put the pellets in containers and carried them over land or over sea to a factory. In the factory some people took the pellets, melted them down, added dye, and injected the hot plastic into a mold of this car part—four feet long and curved with a complex, irregular shape to fit the chassis. Someone designed that complicated mold, and someone else built it. In the factory, a person, in the living hours of a life, molded thousands of car parts, dwarfed by the beige machine, ears vibrating with its whirrs, and grrs and squeals. If you can tame it/ you might be in trouble/

At each step, some molecules escaped, called “waste,” into air or into ground or water. Some breathed these molecules, they burned the lungs and made it hard to get oxygen, others swam through them or swallowed them in clear liquid from the tap. Some molecules floated high into the atmosphere and stayed there, soaking up waves of heat, causing them to bend and vibrate, jostling their neighbors who vibrated too, everybody heating up. Some of the molecules will float up there for a few hundred years, some will stay a few hundred thousand, just there, molecules out of creatures from an ancient ocean now in the atmosphere, holding in heat, warming up the planet. and where/ do you want to go from here/ anyhow?

The car part curves together past and future, not as metaphor. Look: an old ocean, salty and wet, filled with lives feeding off sunlight and one another. One life runs out, it sinks, one, and another, and another, slow sinking to darkness over years, a few hundred million — so many years who can think them — sifting, layering, compressing ever deeper into earth. Ice advances and retreats, more oceans, a few mountains erupt — think of this as film, time lapse, I guess. Then minds come and eyes and ears with instruments to listen underground for residues of energy left from lives. Then machines come and hands and bodies to draw them back out of the earth. Then trucks and ships and trains and those who load and fuel and drive them over roads and oceans thousands of miles to processing plants and factories. Then the instance of this car part’s coming to shape. The place and time and day of that event. The person in a life bringing breath and thought and muscle to bear in its creation. Then the piece itself, molecules locked in a code decomposers can’t break, so it lasts in this state, far outlasts the bonds among molecules in the person who formed it, in the person who attached it to the vehicle, in the person who drove the vehicle and had some mishap, some accident, some swerving that scraped up the surface of the ABS and left it tangled against my fence. Its bonds will long outlast my own and those of everyone I know or can imagine out into the future, hundreds of generations extended, this piece of plastic just like this or perhaps worn slowly down by sunlight and weather into finer and finer bits dispersed throughout earth, fed to an albatross chick out of oceans rising, ice melting, scorched forests turned to desert, desert turned to ocean lifeless this molecule with its crisscrossed shape a few hundred years, maybe thousands, I touch it, this car part, the future. The past. Its brutal hooves/ the subject of this sentence is money/ cut welts across the weeping world

[i] Harris Schiff, “Money,” One More Beat (Accent Editions, 2012). Lines from the poem appear throughout the section.

[iii] Image created by Jennifer Coleman, used with permission

2 thoughts on “One year with car part

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