Halfway to Venus

Illustration by Mitch Handsone

Bad things were happening to Virgil Cabin, and he couldn’t figure out why. One morning the toast burned, the milk curdled, and there wasn’t enough sugar for coffee. And then three members of his family — mother, brother, sister — died in separate, simultaneous accidents in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. That night, while having routine sex with his wife, Grenadine, Virgil accidentally thought of Ann Coulter and lost his erection. The following night, he returned home from being fired from a job he’d loved for 10 years to find Grenadine gone and the house gone with her.

Virgil idled in the vacant field there at the end of the driveway, where once his house had stood. At least he still had his car — an old Mercedes-Benz turbodiesel station wagon, pale yellow, with tan leather seats and a good radio. Though devastated beyond comprehension, Virgil couldn’t devise a compelling argument for suicide, so he drove to the home of his old buddy, Biodiesel Joe, for advice.

Joe was his oldest friend, so Virgil felt comfortable discussing the recent spate of badness. Joe replied by installing a 55-gallon supplemental fuel tank in the rear cargo area of Virgil’s station wagon, and topping off both tanks.

“Take a drive,” said Biodiesel Joe. “It always helps me feel better.”

Virgil thanked Joe, and they shook hands. Then Virgil drove off, waving, leaving Joe smiling, waving back through a pleasant wake of deep-fried shrimp.

Virgil’s station wagon always smelled good because the turbodiesel engine ran on recycled mono-alkyl esters — biodiesel made from restaurant grease. The aroma varied according to which restaurants had contributed and what they’d been cooking. French fries, onions, bacon, shrimp, Ma Joad’s breakfast biscuits, chickens — most anything greasy or deep-fried worked: comfort fuel.

Virgil Cabin took his friend’s advice. He drove and drove, more than a thousand miles a day, never straying far from Los Angeles, or eating, or sleeping. Virgil didn’t feel hungry or tired. Didn’t feel anything but like driving aimlessly, and with 73.5 gallons of biodiesel on board, Virgil could drive nowhere for a long, long time.


In 1893, Rudolf Diesel published “The Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat Engine,” and soon thereafter designed and built such an engine for the convenience of artisans and agriculturalists — an engine strong enough to power heavy machinery with inexpensive, readily available fuels. Diesel’s engine ran on vegetable oil — peanut, corn, canola, hemp — all kinds of vegetable oil. Then Diesel died mysteriously while crossing the English Channel in 1913, and shortly thereafter the petroleum industry renamed one of the byproducts of their gasoline distillation process “diesel fuel,” and flooded the world markets. So much petroleum-based “diesel” was advertised and distributed that, by the end of the 20th century, most people had no idea that Diesel’s engine could run just fine on all kinds of cheaper, healthier fuels, yielding the same power as the petroleum goo, with far less post-combustional environmental havoc.

At the time of great inconvenience, when Virgil Cabin lost family, home and job, the federal government was just beginning to promote the use of fresh transesterified soybean oil as fuel, probably as much to secure votes from a struggling soy-agribusiness constituency as to clean up the planet. But with soybeans so nutritious and so much of the world without enough food, it seemed to Virgil that the most profitable use of soybean oil wasn’t necessarily the most ethical. Biodiesel Joe, on the other hand, traded in 100 percent used, discarded, recycled restaurant grease, de-glycerined with lye and methanol to American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM PS 121) standards. Burned just as well and smelled even better.


Twice or three times a week, when fuel ran low, Virgil Cabin would put in a call to Biodiesel Joe, and within the hour, Joe’s 16-wheeler would pull up alongside and refill the station wagon’s tanks on the fly. Virgil averaged 1,260 miles a day for 25 years. At almost 12 million miles, it was by far the longest drive he’d taken, and he was finally starting to work up an appetite. So, on a hot sunny afternoon, Virgil opened his windows and took a random offramp down into the world.

The world appeared to be Lankershim or Vineland in North Hollywood. He could smell fried chicken and knew he must be close to a KFC. He knew there was one over by the Iliad Bookstore, but that was a mile or more away. Based on the intensity of the chicken smell, someone must’ve opened a new one, just a few blocks . . .

Sure enough, at the corner where there used to be a Shell station, a Chevron station and a Mobil station, there was now a Popeye’s Chicken, a McDonald’s and a KFC, all with enormous parking lots.

Virgil pulled in to the KFC lot and found a space. Each space had its own red-and-white plastic Colonel Sanders–head KFC fuel pump, with three different grades of fuel: Original Recipe, Extra Crispy and Honey Barbecue. “Free for customers,” the sign said. “50-Gallon Limit. Cashier has code.”

So Virgil went inside, ordered himself a jumbo cola beverage and a large coleslaw to go, and used the restroom. When he returned to the counter, his food was ready, and the fuel-pump code appeared in large red numerals on his receipt. Returning to his car, he secured the nozzle in place, punched in the code, selected Original Recipe and sat on the hood to eat his food and drink his cola beverage.

It was good to take a break. Lankershim (or Vineland) looked about the same as he remembered. Thick traffic, big billboards, loud pickup trucks. Hm.

It was good to take a break. The Kentucky Fried fuel pump was much slower than Biodiesel Joe’s. It didn’t shut off until Virgil had finished his food and beverage, thrown out his trash and was chewing on ice.

It was good to take a break, but Virgil felt uncomfort-
able without motion. Carefully, he replaced the fuel nozzle in the side of Colonel Sanders’ head. The engine started right up, and Virgil ascended once again to the road, ready to take on another 25 years.


National Biodiesel Board ()

L.A. BioFuel

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