Death and the Ute

or Driving a Metaphor Way Past its Roadworthy..

1994 red Holden rodeo dual-cab utility –a humble truck, nothing remarkable, not particularly blokey, certainly not ‘muscle’, nor pleasant on the eye .. and yet.. a vehicle to bigger stuff.

Having given up on the body, I maintain a regular service, dropping off at 9ish in the morning, receiving the customary call at 2.30 of ‘ready for pick up’. In the early years — I bought the car second hand in 2004, trading in a fabulous beast of a falcon (1970 body, 1969 boot) in favour of a car suitable for children (I still resent them) — the take home message was: new brakes next service, a little leak we should keep an eye on, nothing major. And as time has rolled by, the little leak remains so, brakes have come and gone, and of course inevitably more serious concerns have arisen, and with that more serious money, but they too have passed… However, with each visit to George, my revered mechanic, more trusted than the family GP, more capable than any goddamn neuro-bloody surgeon, the stakes have risen, and the very awkward and difficult decision slowly approaches: Sophie’s choice between hard cash and sombre prognosis. One of these quarterlies, I dread the decision to finally pull the plug: the low tones of the call from George, the final retrieval of now worthless keys as shoulders shake in shock and futility, the awkward comfort half extended by a mechanic’s pat on the back… all shot in wide framing, silhouettes, no dialogue, gestural, a moving score ..

But we’re not there yet. Pull myself together, man! Meantime, the ute has much to offer: the sure-footedness between A and B, lugging the odd lumber and rusted fridge, popping the kids in the back for an illicit ride on a country track … but on an altogether different highway, looking deep –well not so deep– into that mottled rear view mirror, my ute has me thinking about death, mortality, the scrap yard.

It has been an odd release, a reprieve from the pressures of keeping it together (almost) on the other fronts of life, to just ‘let her go’ — no washing the exterior, no straightening of the radio antenna (not even an attempt to shape a map of Australia out of its contortions), no concern for the superficial; George does blacken the tires at service, which, a little like garish lippie writ too large on the elderly woman comes across as a little shocking, incongruous, perhaps futile … but I humour him. I waste no time in keeping the interiors clean, decorated as they are by old bills and windscreen mail, by half-carnivored sausage rolls, empty flavoured milk cartons; the window winder has fallen off, replaced by a multi-grip wrench at my feet, rear view mirror is dead and sits face down between the front seats, ably replaced by wonky wall-eyed side mirrors. A shambles you might think, yet an acrid refuge from the pressures of tidy, timely, taught and fucking terrific.

No concern too for the odd bump in the carpark, left by the hapless teenager too young and too stupid yet to drive, the keying of the duco by some nasty person from another suburb. Me and ute let it all hang out. And yet of course there is a nub of unease at the centre of such bravado — what the Japanese call mono no aware — a sense of impermanence, of life passing — the inescapable knowledge that utes can only take so much before they roll over and park/cark it.

But to spin this around, I comfort myself with a gob of wabi sabi, of beauty in imperfection, that the bumps and scratches are more interesting than perfect duco, right? That the road would be a living hell if utes went on forever, gleaming year to year … how shiny would shiny be if shiny never dulls? — taken for granted, yes, appreciated no; no joy in an infinite joy ride. So there’s pathos in that there patina. Unavoidable, and ok (I think) …

And to step further off-road with my ute of dubious capabilities (two wheel-drive, four cylinder), she / he / it .. thou (?) has me mulling over, at stop lights and bottlenecks, the great empty scrapyard at road’s end, and once again, as we (me and ute) see it, it’s another two-way street, or so I urge myself along these lines of (il)logic. You see, as these indulgent reflections may have indicated, death scares me, or maybe more accurately: concerns me — ok, 2am it scares me, light of day: unnerved. Post 40 and now 50, I remember a quote from actor Peter Ustinov: mortality provides life its dimension (or something) — it shapes it, makes it real. And so, finding no solace in heavens and of course no respite in hell, with jury out on re-incarnation and finding not a whole lot of joy in ‘nothing’, I find perhaps a way through via a very limited understanding of the Buddhist concept of emptiness, with ute, of course, as muse.

If the ute never really was a ute from the start, then when it departs, is smashed into oblivion between weights and magnets or however they make those scrapyard wafers, then nothing is lost, right? And if we’re not attached to what ‘ute’ is, then even more (less) so. The classic teaching seeks to find wherein ‘ute’ lies; is ‘ute’ in the whole vehicle, the sum of its parts? Then what happens when inevitably the wheel(s) falls off? Do we still have ute? And when parts are replaced? My ute is hardly the same beast as it started out, more a Frankenstein mongrel of bits of this and bits of that, pieced together with surgical precision by our hero George, and so today’s ute is no longer yesterday’s, and yet I call it so (?). Ute, the wise ones say is an idea.. of ‘uteness’; it cannot be found in any one part, nor in the whole, it’s fabricated, convenient, but ultimately hollow. What we call ‘ute’ is ultimately in flux, and dependent upon its component parts and contributing factors (mechanics, fuel, driver, attitudes, actions, cash, etc) which are also in flux — bit of a mess really, but ..

.. helpful methinks. If I can loosen my steely grip on notions of ‘ute’, spin the view around from inside the windscreen looking out, to a birds-eye view from the perimeter of the carpark, maybe at that last threshold, that last tollgate into off-road uncertainty, ute (that never was) will dissolve back into that holy sump of uteness, nothing lost, nothing gained, always (or is it never?) was … Any case, I’m doing my best to stow self-entitlement in the glove box, to take up a little gratitude as salve to mortal fears, as each new click on the tacometer of the dharma is appreciated as a gift from mother Holden.

And so, I continue to drive thou into the ground, enjoying every bump and scrape, marvelling at each new solar lentigine on a bonnet pollocked with possum and bird shite, and I know someday I need to get her affairs in order. Still, I am reassured that I live in a more humane state than those down south, demanding as they do the ignominy of an annual road-worthy. Ute will not go on forever, but she will pass with grace.