~This essay was previously published in Calyx (2003).
Pluma Piluma and the Utopian Turtle Top: A Bedtime Story for Women Writers
based on many true stories
Once upon a time there was a little girl named Pluma. Pluma Piluma, a name given her for the pure sound of it. In those vowels you could hear the purr of a motor, something smooth and sleek readying itself for faster days, liquid fuel like molten lava and not a harsh consonant on the rolling horizon of those letters. Nothing to signal stop.
That’s how a little girl’s life should start. Purring possibility. Horizons. The pure sound of it.
Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons described sound like this: “Elephant beaten with candy and little pops and chews all bolts and reckless reckless rats, this is this.” A sentence I love for how it curls and creeps and cruises from my tongue to my ear. Sound. Reckless reckless rats, this is this.
I used to drive. All-American pasttime. In Montana the roads are infinity signs stretched , long, sloping to the endless horizon, empty like the beginning and the end. Once upon a time, speed on those roads was limited only by words: “reasonable and prudent.” I liked the sound of it. And then, as always happens, someone realized that words carried meaning and meanings carried people and people carried themselves way too fast. So stop. Replace the sounds. Follow the numbers.
I used to drive. I sometimes still do.
Gertrude Stein drove. An ambulance driver in World War I, she was immersed in urgency. She named her first motorcar Auntie. A friend described her driving: “…she regarded a corner as something to cut, and another car as something to pass, and she could scare the daylights out of all concerned.”
Her driving. Or maybe it was her writing.
Pluma. We’re back with her. One day, motor purring, near to revving, Pluma met another little girl with another funny name, Susie Asado. Her name was like a winding river in a valley, moving fast, beyond even the rolling hills.
“Let’s go out in the world and make our mark,” Susie suggested. “Let’s see where the river and the hills will take us.”
How could Pluma resist? How could anyone? The day was bright, the road wide and full of stones to kick, the horizon so close you could almost touch it.
Together they set out, Pluma and Susie, Susie Asado and Pluma Piluma. Together they walked, hand in hand, chanting. A road is a road is a narrative is a road.
In the fall of 1957, the Ford Motor Company, hard at work on an experimental car, or E-car as it was known temporarily to the inner circle, wanted a name. A real name. A name with permanence, a name with shine. Words carry meaning. Meaning carries people, and by god we want these people to carry themselves as fast as they can to buy that E-car.
Today, an E-car would be shorthand for electronic car, an auto on the information superhighway, something virtual, something you couldn’t keep in the garage. Today that car would need a name even more, because names are what we buy.
Ford Motor Company knew to turn to the namers, the poets. They hired Marianne Moore, still hot off her Pulitzer Prize. They said “give us the magic password.” And she thought and she thought and they waited and waited, cursing the Muse for not understanding that corporations work on deadline. They were so eager, hanging on edge for that name to beat all names. Then Marianne, I can see her black hat bobbing as she cleared her throat, came up with The Anticipator.
Of course they didn’t catch the joke as these men in suits glanced at their watches and each other. Finally one spoke. “Try again?”
Glancing down at the pale yellow sheet of paper officially begging her to help name their car, she answered, “Pastelogram.”
The men looked at one another, trying not to smile at the sweet old poet. “Really,” they said. “We can give you more time. Just let the inspiration come when it will. You can’t rush a good idea.”
Marianne saw how they stood in formation, brushed each other’s suits free of lint, tugged their own long ties. She watched their handshakes, firm, hard, slickly the same.
“I have another idea,” she piped over their manly murmurs. They turned and looked to where she sat at the long conference table, feathered hat still bobbing like a mating bird.
“Why not call it Varsity Stroke?”
Of course they looked at her now like she was a lunatic, and someone said gently as if to an old, daft aunt, “No, no, don’t rush it.” Later, that night, lying next to their sleeping wives, these men did the Varsity Stroke, imagining themselves driving at high speeds, taking the curves too fast, exploding like rockets on the dark highways.
Once, driving in my truck through Missouri where the speed limits are clearly defined, I outdrove the old truck’s limit and ended up, broken down, on the side of the highway. A truck driver pulled over, the back of his trailer labeled with bumper stickers saying “Jesus Saves” and “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart.”
He took one look and said it couldn’t be fixed. Daylight was tapering, the crickets had begun their songs, and the driver told me a story about a young woman named Crystal who, like myself, had broken down on the same stretch of highway months earlier. She stayed with her car and then she disappeared.
He said he couldn’t leave me to that fate, he’d take me to the next town. And it seemed I had no choice, no way to negotiate the open spaces without this knight and his eighteen-wheel steed. Before I locked up my own dead four-wheeler, I rummaged behind the seat for some sort of weapon.
I found a pencil.
And I clutched that pencil the next twenty miles. I clutched that pencil until my fingers cramped, until the driver dropped me at a small truck stop plastered with posters of a laughing blonde girl who answered to Crystal. Her face, laughing at me, everywhere I turned. She was there in the bathroom, there in the phone booth, there at the cash register where I bought aspirin for my aching fingers.
She was there in the hotel room. I wrote her name in pencil in the cover of a phone book. Crystal, Crystal, Crystal.
Trying to bring her back so we could drive each other home.
Alone in her hotel room with a pencil and a blank pad, Marianne Moore remembered Gertrude Stein, eleven years dead by then, and her love for Ford motorcars. Her second one, stripped of the usual accessories, was named Godiva.
Lovely name for a car, she thought. Godiva. God and diva.
She knew it wouldn’t work for Ford as it had worked for Gertrude. Still, nakedness is a good beginning. Marianne, prim poet of baseball and imaginary gardens, stripped bare. She imagined herself riding this nameless car like a horse, spectators staring at her skin, staring at the car. What would she want to be riding? What would it be called?
She picked up her pencil and started to write.
Adam named the animals. Mustangs and impalas and even real toads. Bless him. They needed names. Adam named Eve. She became the Mother of All Living without spreading her thighs or offering her breast.
Eve gave us the knowledge of nakedness. Bless her. We needed that.
Liz, friend and poet, came to Missouri and drove me home. Did I mention that? How I called her in Nebraska from a pay phone outside a K-Mart? How I didn’t want to cry, didn’t want to be so vulnerable, so naked? But at the sound of her voice, I broke. Two hours later she was there, her whole day pushed aside, revving the engine, car door open wide.
A few hours into their journey, Pluma and Susie came to a landslide of boulders and tree trunks blocking the whole wide road.
“Do you think we can climb it?” asked Pluma.
“Or move the rocks?” asked Susie. “Or maybe build some sort of machine to leap us straight over?”
Pluma’s eyes lit up at the thought of ascent, a great leap towards the blue and to the other side. And there we’ll hold her awhile, looking to heaven. So close you could almost touch it.
I’ve been so happy with women in cars. My mother driving the two of us ninety miles to Helena one day because I craved Frontier Pies’ coconut cream. Sandy and I crossing Nebraska for Denver while the thunder split the sky and suicidal tumbleweed sped for our wheels—we told the secrets that bound us, once, so close. With Aunt Erina going home for the holidays, through Wyoming to Montana where that winter there were no speed limits and we took advantage of the clear roads, not really reasonable or prudent. Liz and Ladette as we headed for a cabin in the Black Hills one May, creating our own writers’ retreat for weary spirits. How could we know then that by August I’d move away? Or that I’d never finish the novel I started there in the hills?
Cindy, except we didn’t drive. We flew to San Francisco, and I was terrified then of flying, clutching the armrests until my fingers ached. And later, much later, she said, “I wish you would have let me hold your hand.”
“Hold my hand,” Susie said. “I’ll launch you over this landslide.”
Pluma stretched out her fingers then stopped. “But who will launch you?”
Have I told you I no longer have my own car? My truck rusts in the driveway. I can borrow my boyfriend’s Toyota any time I want. And I do when I must. But its nickname is Uncle RAV, and I see myself in an Auntie or a Godiva. I walk as much as I can, because we all know it’s never the same to drive a borrowed car or take a borrowed road.
The girls, our heroines, were studying the rocks and the timber, looking for a way through, when from behind a bush leapt a huge man with rippling muscles. He didn’t have a cape, but you can imagine one if you like. His name was Hurricane Hirundo, and he carried a shiny saber that he wielded high above his head.
“Ladies,” he purred. “Step aside, and I’ll open this door for you. My Ford Silver Sword can cut anything.”
Pluma and Susie glanced at him, then each other. They went back to studying the obstacles.
“Little ladies,” he repeated, his voice thunderous now. “Step aside.”
Susie turned and did what every self-respecting little lady would do in such a situation. She stuck out her tongue.
Pluma, who wasn’t quite so impetuous, explained. “Sir, we didn’t cause this landslide. It happened before we arrived. But it’s here, and it’s ours now, and if you don’t mind, we need time and space to learn how to scale it.”
Hirundo leapt forward, not understanding, like most super heroes, the concepts of time and space. Pluma could tell what he’d had for lunch. Predictably, a hero sandwich.
“Little lady,” he began.
“The name’s Pluma Piluma,” she corrected.
“Little lady,” he continued. “I could knock this flat in two seconds. Why risk your neck climbing when I can clear you a path right now?”
As Pluma considered this, Susie stepped forward. “Don’t you see? It would be your path then, and the next time we came to one of these landslides, we’d stand around waiting for another hero with another sword.”
“Only next time,” Pluma added, “you’d want something for your services.”
“And,” Susie continued, “we’d be so out of shape and lazy from not scaling the first landslide that we’d give in.”
“And,” Pluma finished, “you might even start creating landslides with that mighty sword so we’d end up giving away everything we had before we even reached wherever we’re going.”
The girls, wise little travelers, made brave by each other, turned back to the rocks and trees and began to alternate--one climbing carefully, while the other found a stable shelf and offered support. Their climb was painfully slow, and once Hurricane Hirundo recovered from his shock at such mouthy little girls, he sat against a tree, waved his Ford Silver Sword, and jeered that they’d never make it without him. Night fell, and he watched them by moonlight, ghostly girls inching up the sides of boulders and the trunks of great trees. At daybreak, they stood together on top, hand in hand, and waved. Their arms and hands were scratched and bleeding. Purple bruises had begun to swell on their shins. But they were smiling.
“Goodbye, Mr. Hurricane,” they called. “It’s so lovely on this side.” And they disappeared over that horizon, bound for another.
Hurricane Hirundo waited a few minutes while his rage grew like, well, a hurricane. Then he took his sword to the landslide and began slicing and chopping and thrashing wildly at rock. The tiniest chip of granite fell to his feet, and somewhere, from far away, he heard the tinkling laugh of little girls.
Marianne Moore is still naked on her hotel bed, inspiration-struck, scribbling. We won’t disturb her just yet.
Skipping through the woods, looking to the horizon, the girls stopped when they thought they saw another boulder blocking the road. But upon closer inspection, they discovered a giant turtle sleeping on the road, its head and legs drawn in. You knew an animal had to show up. What’s a fairy tale without one?
Susie rapped on the shell. “Rise and shine, it’s a beautiful day.”
The creature pushed its wrinkled head from the shell, blinking in the sunlight. “You’ve disturbed my dream,” the turtle said, a bit peckish. “I was orbiting Jupiter at millions of miles an hour. I was about to join the asteroid belt near Saturn.”
“Sounds like a dream alright,” Pluma murmured as the turtle smacked its lips in slow motion, saliva strings stretching by the millimeter. “We’d invite you to travel with us, but I’m afraid space travel isn’t our thing.”
“I can go faster than light,” the turtle confided, indignant. “Haven’t you ever heard of the tortoise and the hare?”
They hadn’t. So they sat cross-legged in the dirt to listen the way you must when someone offers you a story.
“It’s a story where two animals—a tortoise and a hare—are in a race. And the rabbit is so sure he’ll win, he stops and takes naps and eats chili dogs and watches SportsCenter.”
“Oh yes,” Pluma cried. “I do remember. And the tortoise wins because slow but steady wins the race.”
The turtle scoffed and spat in the road, before wobbling up and beginning a terribly, painfully slow plod in the direction of the hilly horizon. “That’s the story they like to tell when they want to slow you down.”
“Then what really happened?” Susie asked as both girls leapt up to follow a slow walk down a slow road. A road is a road is a narrative is a road.
“Get on my back,” the turtle snapped. “You’re too slow.”
The girls obliged, finding the grooves of the shell surprisingly comfortable.
The turtle continued his story. “The tortoise stopped to visit his friends, who reminded him that turtles aren’t as slow as everyone thinks.”
“And the tortoise disappeared in a beam of light, sped over the finish line a thousand times, then slowed down just a mile back to make the story a good one.”
“Really?” both girls asked, watching his blocky feet and scraping, overgrown nails.
In a flash of white-hot light, they disappeared, molecule by molecule, atom by atom, and they felt themselves return, molecule by molecule, atom by atom, to the same patch of road on the same plodding turtle. Only everything felt different.
“Wow,” they whispered.
“Shhh,” the turtle whispered back. “Don’t speak of powers you don’t want to lose. Now let’s enjoy the scenery.” The turtle kept walking and the girls rode on its back, seeing suddenly how everything around them glowed with a power they’d never noticed at their own pace.
Marianne returned to the boardroom at Ford Motor Company, slightly disheveled, her hat cocked further back than she’d ever worn it before. Even the buttons of her dress were askew, and the men in their ties, drinking their coffee, wondered how she’d ever won a Pulitzer.
“Well?” asked the man in the most expensive tie. He was eyeing her notebook, waiting for the magic to launch the sales of their new e-car to the moon, where nothing, not even a U.S. spacecraft had made it yet.
“Astranaut,” she suggested, as if reading his mind. All the men scribbled this into their notes, faces blank as the space for the car’s new name.
“Andante con Moto,” the old poet continued.
“Spell it?” one man asked.
“Doesn’t sound American to me,” grumbled another.
Marianne Moore removed her hat, took a deep breath, and read from her notes a lovely list of sounds, fine as poetry: Pluma Piluma, Mongoose Civique, Hurricane Humundo, The Resilient Bullet, Ford Silver Sword.
Someone perked up at the mention of a bullet and another savored the idea of a sword. All of the men toyed with Hurricane Humundo, something in the name making them feel powerful. But what was this mongoose stuff, this Pluma Piluma that sounded like a low-floating cloud going nowhere?
After a long pause, broken only by the shuffling of chairs and a few random pencil scratchings, the man with the most expensive tie leaned forward and asked, “Anything else?”
Marianne Moore smiled. She’d been saving her best for last. She waited until the room was silent, all the men leaning forward to listen. She savored that moment, knowing such men would never listen to her again. She let the sounds tumble forth from her lips like smooth pebbles slipping from a landslide.
It was a long, long moment, those popping “p”s echoing over the wide wooden table, the “t”s arrowing up to the ceiling, those lovely vowels spreading into white light and pure sound, the kind you can’t manufacture into a motor car.
Finally, someone said, “Mrs. Moore, thank you for your time and efforts. We’ll discuss it and get back to you.”
Marianne Moore returned her hat to her head, stopping to adjust it carefully, to pin it just so. She shook hands with the man in the expensive tie, and she quietly walked from the boardroom. Just before she closed the door behind her, she heard the words that brought a smile to her face.
“Pulitzer, my ass. That woman just makes shit up.”
“Pulitzer, my ass. That woman just makes shit up.”
This story is reaching its end. You could be getting sleepy. And so I must tell you that Pluma Piluma and Susie Asado live large in the world with their friend the turtle, whose name I shouldn’t have to tell you. Shh, don’t speak of powers you don’t want to lose. Our heroines are expert climbers. They love to repel. They won’t try Everest even though everyone tells them that together they could do it. This is knowledge they already have, and they only climb to discover what they don’t know. Oh yes, and for the love of it, the feel of their skin splitting on a sharp rock, the blood they leave behind like a love letter for superheroes and other “little ladies.”
I still don’t have a car of my own. But I have memories of cars and the women who’ve taken me where I needed to go. And memories, not always my own, of those who never got the chance. I have feet, and I walk. I’ve climbed in the woods, scratched my face on the branches, tripped on rocks, and lived to write about it. I’ve never encountered a turtle out there, not yet, but I know they’re speeding all around me. Sometimes I hear them as pure sound.
And now, one last thing, a reminder, another update. The Ford car finally got its name two years after Marianne left the board room. After months of secrecy and drama, the board announced a name that had “personal dignity and meaning to many of [them].” They called their new wonder car the Edsel, and, as you likely already know, it was the greatest automotive failure in history.
Here’s another ending—a return to Gertrude Stein who we last left as a memory in Marianne Moore’s mind. She’ll give us the epigraph I saved for the end, what some might even call the moral of this story:
“When I began writing I was always writing about beginning again and again. In The Making of Americans I was making a continuous present a continuous beginning again and again, the way they do in making automobiles or anything, each one has to be begun, but now everything having been begun nothing had to be begun again."
Reckless reckless rats, this is this.
The End, Again
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
Marianne Moore really was hired by Ford to name an automobile, and when I read the list of names she’d suggested—Pluma Piluma, Hurricane Hirundo, etc.—I was struck by the playful, poetic language so at odds with assembly line consumerism. Some of her ideas sounded like the names of characters in fairy tales, and that’s how the form of the essay evolved, with Pluma Piluma and Susie Asado (of Gertrude Stein’s poem) off on an adventure. As I thought about all the ways I’ve been aided on my own journeys by women writers, the essay developed with personal stories, playing the personal to the political, and the fiction from the fact while staying rooted in that original pure love of language that launches every writer.
I finally have my own car, and I drive it all over the country. I really should give it a name.
ABOUT CHAUNA CRAIG
Chauna Craig is the author of the story collection The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms (Queens Ferry Press, 2016). She teaches creative writing at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her writer’s website is www.chaunacraig.com.