The Love Song of Dale Earnhardt1

Fiction by Justin Carter

I was three-wide at Daytona, coming out of turn four. It was lap 143 of the 500 and I
couldn’t stop thinking about T.S. Eliot, about that one line in Prufrock—I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.// I do not think they will sing to me—and the next thing I knew, Buzz was into the outside retaining wall and I was sliding across the infield grass, slamming into the pit wall. It could have been worse—no one died2 and the crew for the sixty-eight car was only in the hospital for a week—but it could have been better too. We’d been running in eighth place at the time, finished back in thirty-ninth. It wasn’t how we’d wanted to start the season, how we wanted to begin defending the championship we’d stumbled into the year before, but it wasn’t the end of the year either. There were still thirty-five more races to go.

Wendy was touching my neck in the hauler after the race, after I’d lied to the reporters, told them the car was just a little loose going in. We’d been struggling all day to get it moving in the right direction, I told them. One more adjustment and we could have been in victory lane.

“Look,” Wendy said. “Shit like that happens.”

“I was distracted,” I said. “I was thinking about Prufrock again.”

Wendy took a long sip out of a Coors Light bottle3.

“Stop reading those goddamn poems. They write them for two kinds of people and you
ain’t a woman or a queer.”

“It’s just so powerful, so meaningful. Prufrock must have been a bootlegger or a dirt
track racer back in the day. He knows what this is like.”

Wendy took another sip of the “stuff.”4

***

By the Bristol race in April, we’d strung together some good runs and got back into the top ten in the standings. Not what we wanted yet, but it was progress. Jimmy, the crew chief I’d put in the ICU, was back at the track. The night before the race, I bought him Yuenglings5 the night and shook his hand so hard it left us both red.

“Goddamnit man,” I said, “I’m so sorry. The car was loose. Buzz moved down on me.”

“Don’t fucking worry about it,” Jimmy said. He balanced the beer bottle on top of his leg
cast.

I walked past Buzz, socked him in the shoulder, and told him he’d better watch out tomorrow. He didn’t laugh, opting to punch me in the arm instead.

I hadn’t thought of T.S. Eliot in weeks6.

***

We were leading with fifteen laps to go when my crew chief came on the radio.

“Check the gauges7,” he said. “I’ve been calculating it and I think we can make it to the end. Does everything look normal?”

“I think so,” I said. “Let’s risk it. We won’t run out of gas.”

With three to go, we run out of gas. I get rear-ended by Buzz, who looks at me like he’s a shark and I’m a goldfish.

Later, the reporter comes up to me to ask me about the end of the race.

“What was going through your head when you ran out of fuel,” she said. “We heard you on the radio saying you were good to go.”

In a minute,” I say, “there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

The reporter looked around, smiled. “You heard it,” she said. “Now back to the booth.”

***

An email I received three days later:

Dear Mr. Temple,

My name is Richard VanDorfenstein. I teach experimental poetics and literature of the oppressed at Harvard. I recently heard your reference to T.S. Eliot on a broadcast of stock car racing. I would like to speak with you further about Eliot. Please consider this an open invitation to come by Harvard and speak with me when NASCAR returns to the Northeast. New Hampshire may not be perfectly close to Cambridge, but I believe we can make something work.

best,
Richard VanDorfenstein

I called Wendy over and showed her the email.

“Should I meet with him,” I said.

“He probably wants to fuck you,” she said8.

She took a sip from a bottle of the “stuff.”

***

1 This title is not correct. It’s the love song of Lefty Temple, but I showed this to my new girlfriend and she said “Lefty, I know you’ve won a NASCAR championship and all, but no one who reads short stories watches NASCAR. Put Dale’s name in the title.”
2 Though, this is not entirely true. One of the other cars involved in the accident, the number eleven Barry’s Bagels car of Nick Romo, went airborne and hit a fan who ended up dying two days later. His family sued Daytona International Speedway for an undisclosed sum.
3 Coors Light is Buzz’s sponsor, so Wendy drinking it has always bugged me. If you’re dating a NASCAR driver, you drink his beer, not his rival’s.
4 To keep my own sponsors happy, I am referring to Coors Light as the “stuff” from here on out.
5 One of my two primary sponsors. I am contractually obligated to mention them in every piece of writing that I do.
6 Another lie. I’d been reading Murder in the Cathedral before going to bed each night.
7 Without an actual fuel gauge in a stock car to tell us we’re running low, we have to resort to checking the fuel pressure and making educated guesses.
8 I know that Wendy isn’t the most culturally sensitive girl, but it’s the South.