A Great Reckoning in a Little Car

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Olive’s fallen asleep next to me in the passenger seat, which is nowhere near its full upright position. Out the driver’s side window the sunset is coned sheets of thin paper sliced through a gathering halo of clouds. A trickle of shimmered almost-yellowing light stains the pale hues of sky with the radiance of an under-cooked omelette. I can’t stop looking at it. But some finicky voice in my head tells me to keep my eyes on the road, and I swivel my noggin back and forth from road to sunset, and I can’t not look at either, and I can’t quite look enough. There’s the piquant edge of frustration scraping through my skull: something I enjoy and find distasteful at the same time. Somewhere, I am sure, somebody is singing for me, but not here.

I click on the radio. A staticky voice murmurs, “People who are against it don’t really understand why they are against it.” I laugh and cough at the same time, thumbing the dial a bit, getting some Mexican radio stations, more static, and finally the gruff twang and cracked whine of a country music song. It’s not good. I flick the radio off again. The darts and stalls of traffic along the two-lane highway give jittery tones to my mood, and I chew my gum way past its flavor, tucking it under my tongue, holding it hostage for a brief moment, and then swish it back around in my mouth and chew some more.

Olive’s been reading to me from The Book of Job. But she’s way past the point of being too tired to keep her eyes open. I’m letting her sleep for now. I’m reaching that point of weariness too, that dizzy lopsided feeling that capsizes your concentration, makes your hands shake, and leaves you unbalanced and lint-headed. There’s an understanding that leaves little to say between us. We still tend to talk through what we can, though, and there’s kelp left to wash ashore, still, too. I wonder if Olive dreams of cowboy-hat lampshades.

A signpost up ahead: Crows Landing. A flutter, wild. An explosion of birds and a feverish scattering of wings, like cockroaches when the lights go on. I’m thinking of a pulsating mass of them so thick it blacks out of the sky, like passenger pigeons used to before we all banded together and shot them out of existence. We have so little left. It has all happened before my memory even existed. Counting helps, but it’s not a permanent solution. I bite my bottom lip. I scratch behind my left ear, nabbing a white flake of dandruffy skin. I am helpless and completely in control of the situation. Sliding, and it is almost smooth and steady, from lane to lane, as headlights beam bright in the rear-view. Hurrying is done with. I am slowly approaching the speed limit, here. Maybe a bump or two as I veer. And then, I straighten. A craned neck, cracked.

The sunset’s diffused, a powdery specter that gleams in a soft indigo bath and is spinning speckled pixels and thousands of clear marbles, and I can’t take it in properly. Can’t get the right amount of it. Can’t make it stick so I’ll be able to tell Olive about it later. I keep trying. My eyes. Kept off the road. And on it, too. I am stuck. Behave. It’s an earnest tickle. We don’t need electricity for stuff like this.

“Very much, it’s different, and spaces, this, well, we don’t need, and I want to tell you about this very particular thing that happened to me, once, this thing, it did, and more so, it will do, for now, to fit’s well and good, but you’ve got to, well, when you’re sleeping with jackhammers, you must pull the covers over your head, get some way, or find, I should say, find a way out, somewhere where you can be in charge of your own head, tell things within your power to control, things that’ve got no business escaping, to tell things, well, that you’re the one who’s keeping them in line, and it is you who will not be deceived. Yes?”

Olive shifts. It’s a whole-body twinge of dream shuffling. Her head rolls to the side, and her face looks disheveled and lost, her split and wiry strands of clumpy auburn hair spread like a place mat on the headrest. She bends her knees and brings her legs up on the seat with her, and now her body turns towards me on the side, and she slips both hands beneath her cheek. It’s almost like she’s wistfully staring at me with her eyes closed. It’s a sense I get. I don’t know how it happens. She rustles, adjusts the seat belt over her, and goes back to splashing around in her soft puddle of sleep. I am leading a cellophane-wrapped life.

Very soon, and even now, some, I get to crossing myself without the sign’s conviction. It’s a habit I’m trying to develop. Not often. I’m listening, though, and it is very serious, in here. Bottled only to be broken. “We’re far from here.” “It’s non descript. It’s reasonable. Flowers in the gas tank.” “I’m finishing…” “…your sentences for you.” Sleep talking. Farmland stretches into inconceivable distances. Even from above, they would be. Only shapes. Flat plots. Rectangles of slightly varied hues. A checkered pattern that fills more than an airplane’s lozenge-shaped window will allow. From nearer, this way, motoring through on the ground, it is still vast, flat, and you roll by it too quickly to get more than a glimpse’s stare of its reaches. The skidding, or more of a skim, over its surface leaves nothing but an ache for its space: something that seems at once open and binding, and a place that seems to offer the freedom of quietness, of being far from things without clogging another drain of who I might become. Welds of there. Yes. Air dribbles in through the shut vents. I am somewhat not okay to steer. The tart stink of manure bowls over my senses, smarts me awake, for a second, and then it’s back to the drowse of drifting, unsteady and slow, on and off, blinking just to stay cognizant of the other vehicles arranged around me, blocking me in, and deftly maneuvering their way in and out and beyond where we all are, and never are all at once, too. I cannot rely on shapes. Telling is getting harder all the time.

“Olive. What are you doing?” “Waking up.” She stretches her arms out, straightens out on the seat, lays her head back, and yawns. It is a giant, eyes-closed yawn, and I love the way it makes her feel. The unfolding of previously crushed things. A blossoming. “You’re up and at ‘em.” “Yep. Up and at ‘em.” We are radioactive isotopes in search of stability. We are the distance to the moon. I think about Elvis all the time. The universe is eternally inflating. This girl, my girl, she swears she won’t ever run away. The show’s gone on. We’ve all moved a stone’s throw from where we’d rather not be. My girl. I’ll play my clarinet while the moon fills the windows with things we’re too scared to dream of. I’ll take the wheel. My girl. Take it sweet or don’t take it at all.

“Pass on the left, please.” “I’m not moved by this, by these, and we’re just objects too, you know?” “Moving objects.” “Objectionable objects.” “Weld, weld, weld.” “Cursive!” A song on the radio. Blinked awake, not suddenly. The weight of atoms. The random luck of being alive. Things we don’t think about. The brake lights brightening as dusk lingers. The sun robbed of its powers. Violet horizons skewed with motor-oil nightmares. The chemical makeup of my thoughts, a chugged fuzziness, a distress signal skewed and gorged. And I let myself bathe in lethargy for a moment. Talking is just beyond my ability. Plugged into factory-made happiness. This isn’t the me I thought it was. We breathe slowly, carefully, and then hurry towards this peculiar bend in the road: flexed mediocrity.

“We’ve been loafing, right?” “Sure. Something maybe pent up. Something that’s ruined the course without running.” “Bullying, right?” “No. Pragmatic as hummingbirds. Quick darts from here to another here, almost stationary, but not quite.” “Leveled.” “It might seem so. Like watching invisible particles collide.” “A neutrino for your thoughts.” “Well, as a kid I wasn’t allowed to laugh. It was restricted. I worked on it. I sat alone in my room and thought about what my laugh would be like. I perfected it through slow deliberation. I stripped the laugh down to its essential parts, its essence, and built it back up again during my teens. Somehow, now, I find myself squelching the urge to belch. Is this a mode of the same kind? I wonder.” “Habits get the best of us.” “The lord plays in mysterious ways.” “Bah. Just like deep-forest green’s invading my dreams.” “It’s all plain blah to somebody.” “Uh huh.”

We’re stringing along through the state. Cal-E-Four-Nigh-Aye. This golden place named after a make-believe warrior queen. Nose-diving into the shallow end of our past. I can’t relate to this plucky push of resilience Olive’s gotten the hang of lately. Or maybe it’s that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel a certain way, to measure out the importance of life’s derailed tchotchkes of thought. There’s so little of my life left that I get to share. I want certain qualities to remain important. If fits of mum clack sorted, this way or heavy, yielding famous results, and the afternoons go shallow, too, then surprises come packaged inside their own smallness, just different enough to make a lilt of boom in the difference of what plays regular with its own cause of, reasons to be, well, reasonable. Timed out, this hard-to-swallow now. Yes gets its favors from why, still, and I’m jostling around mud-flap troubles, bottomed towards heading blank, lean and sallow, whatever nowhere will take me in for this appetite’s while. If Olive’s playing loony, answering the shots, then there’s holiness in the glove compartment, or at least a holy-water loaded squirt gun, and the windows are steamed with loss, and we shove off lumbering with uncasted shadows, with where the hours go, with the plop of large rocks lobbed in a river, with the uncanny aftertaste of artificial sweetener, with the brisk chill of a dewy November morning trickling through our veins. I am anxious to be calm. She ties my guts on knots, this girl.

A pull of clouds, lengthwise incisions carefully stitched to fluff and scar a purpling whirl, the window roller’s handle scotch-taped on, and we’re slicing through it all cold as a subway token, faster than sleep, longer than the unenviable errors our mistakes make in the night’s tarry skin. Under and in. Wiped off like window-splat bugs. Very adroit, I tell myself. Almost lively, for a few minutes here and there. Of course, there’s always tomorrow’s coffee to think of, to look forward to, even if the weather of tonight endlessly gets the best of us. Could be a pang of regret gnawing the hazy blur of headlights that scatters my eyes. Everything pastels for a moment. A stretching out. A pixilated graininess that reminds me of the word “hover” for some reason. All the mush I’ve got upstairs, maybe that’s what it’s doing. Things I don’t want to tell myself, reminders of who I used to be, some bored guy pleading for attention that’s never enough. Hacksaws tearing the early morning into sheets of emptiness. Car alarms shrieking all through the night. My arms fall asleep all the time; my head never rests.

“I’m just trying, trying, trying to be nice. It’s not easy for me, you know?” “You’re just pretending to try. That’s all. It’s not the same, you know?” “There’s no way to tell the difference.” “Some things you can just tell without knowing why.” “A votary instinct for telling the manipulative ways of others, I guess.” “I’m not that excited about these things, trust me.” “Well, in the meantime, let’s just say I won’t be getting any speeding tickets.”

The speckled brown shades and spots of cows are like camouflage in this landscape of wild grass and wheat fields and plains. A life of ease without luxury. A privacy made public. A way of seeing that is never seen. Chew. Nap. Fall in love. Get milked. Lie down on bent legs, supper bell rattling around a waddled neck, and rest more than easy. I drowse through it, chapped-knuckle fingers gripped tight to the wheel, making up landmarks in the passing scenery, making note of places I’ll only ever drive past, never into: Los Banos, Firebaugh, Lost Hills, Maricopa, Shafter, Kettleman City, Buttonwillow. My mind wanders. Marcel Duchamp. A urinal I once used in a small Chinese restaurant in Joshua Tree that was almost art, with a tinge of camphor.

“I want you to take me out to eat Chinese food in Iowa.” “Iowa. Yes, mam. There’s no place like Iowa for Chinese food. Iowa’s tops. The Chinese food there is legendary.” “Please, please, please, please. Take me. I want to eat Chinese food with you in Iowa.” “Okay.” “I’ll let you beat me at checkers, and then we’ll swim in a heated outdoor hotel pool at night. No moon. It’ll be so dark, and we’ll watch ourselves in the steam misting up off the pool water, back floating, somersaulting underwater. And we’ll be nude, too.” “Sounds grand.” “Please, please, please. Let’s go to Iowa.” “Motel Six?” “Motor Inn.” “Okay. To Iowa it is…one of these days.” “One of these days.” “I’ll bring my surfboard.” “And we’ll get pedicures. We’ll buy movie tickets and stay in.” “…” “I’m glad this car’s our home.”

You go through life hoping, maybe even expecting to meet wonderful one-in-a-million people. Perhaps people famous for performing some exceptional art form. But you don’t. You just meet ordinary run-of-the-mill people. And you pretend your life is fascinating, and that you go out and do incredible things, spend your time lost in excitement, daring, always on the cusp of a new adventure. It wears thin. Look around. Look. There’s everything. The world doesn’t need to catch up with you. Nothing’s fallen behind. You are still there. You are.

I write postcards but don’t address them. They collect in a shoe box I’ve been keeping in the trunk. Mostly they’re pictures of Elvis at various phases of his career. I write things on the back like, “thought we were going to die today in a rainstorm. but we didn’t. so here we are in a motel 6, drinking beer, watching infomercials, and listening to the thud and whop of thunder and a vacuum cleaner banging against the wall down the hall. it’s not lonely here at all, though you think it would be, what with all this emptiness out here, the road’s landscape bleak and dotted every so often with grain silos and telephone poles, the occasional sparrow or deer, as your eyes hunt out faces in the clouds and your hands grip and slowly slip down the wheel, and your ankles ache from staying down on the pedal so long. it was like being pelted by iceberg shards, as if we’d driven into an exploding planet, and the windshield wipers were useless.” Elvis’s rendition of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face gets stuck in my head. I hit cruise control at 77 and start humming. Soon I’m belting out the chorus in a rich, deep baritone, and Olive is lying on her side, softly smiling at me, wrinkling her eyebrows, and her lips are curled in a purr. Our homemade sound is unique. It evolves daily, struggling to unfurl, to escape the prisons we build for it, while shrinking backwards all the while, all the way back farther than home, spending weather-less seasons on the mend, toothpicking its way through barbed wire and sirens, and if we give it half a chance, giving up too. Our silence sits between us.

Clearly, there’s no way around the way of this. The rest stops offer a small solace, a detour from the way of all flesh, and we meander, we hip-check God, and then go around sinking ships with off-hand remarks. It is a slow business, an aside mixed in the scraps of what we’d rather not say aloud. “For Customer Use Only.” That’s the stuff that we’re made of. Bartering is for the birds. We glide into parking spots, and stay stuck between the white lines for as long as their temporary shelter lasts. Coffee spit from a vending machine. A bag of pretzels unleashed, rescued by the mechanical buzz from a silver hoop-earring’s clutches, and dropped with a thud below a long, plastic, push-in door. We rub our eyes. Trees mingle with too-bright electric-yellow light. Somebody spits on the gravel to the sound of a sharp gesundheit. The special drone of 24-hour bathrooms. Truck drivers come and go with the buzz of a CB radio.

Olive and I are slowly parting ways. It’s the sense I get, at least. She’s reluctant to argue about small things. And we only talk to distract ourselves from what we should be talking about: why there’s so much difference between the way things should be and the way they really are. A pattern gone haywire, purblind, porous and unkempt. It’s a hassle just to circle, and we’re nothing but straight lines counting the distance of these angular constructs we’ve fashioned out of loaned misery and rhubarb smiles. Love is a funny thing. Lasting isn’t even on its radar. It just goes until it stops.

“Canned laughter and dull knives.” “Edgy and dull.” “More of us, weaseling into each other’s worlds. I’m coldest in my fingertips.” “My eyes get cold. And my nose.” “Shore, shore. More things for us to shiver on about. Shore. Shore it is.” “Ralph Meeker. Kiss Me Deadly. Gosh. Dead on. Really.” “We get lost in somebody else’s life. Looking, exchanging perspectives, carving little pits out of reflections in the sharded marbles of the shinier things we’ve gathered from memory. Wasting as much time as we can.” “Faking nervous breakdowns. Gathering, but never hunting.” “So, there’s still a, ‘Hey! Look!’ quality to our misbehaving. The cars tilt at impossible windmills. The road wearies of us. Daddy’s little girl turns out to be a sex maniac, after all.” “I’ve seen the fields of folks like us fold over and swallow hope. Simoleons gone astray, lost, or laughed away.” “You remember all the things I want you to forget, and you forget all the things I wish you’d remember.” “It’s too much for worriers like us.” “We’re hemmed in by circumstantial vehicles on all sides. The world’s not saying a thing, but I still can’t keep from listening.” “Overcast but never raining.”

Olive’s becoming more nocturnal all the time. I’m putting pressure on her to do things that should be effortless, and we’re both looking for new ways of defining who we are, to ourselves and to each other. Nobody can be their own object of scorn all the time. The spittle of us drools from rigid gapes; thatched together with sticky threads of boredom, we communicate with yawns. “I keep asking myself, is this stupid or brilliant? It’s getting hard for me to know these things.” “If we can’t be romantic.” “Golly goshes to a crumpled how-don’t-you-do.” “If we are closed to the weather’s open-faced hunches.” “Lonely bastards abandoned to a hit parade.” “I don’t ask myself the easy questions.” “Chinatown tangos with me this time around.” “A double-edged soul dwelling in a single body.” “Cuss at the sky’s constellations all you want. Paying rent will still get in the way of dangling yourself free.” “Bullhunkydory.”

Putting the map away. Making what’s left of haste. Dashes dotting a slight hiccup of the tires’ now and then. We tread the circumstances of our being here, not careful, letting the contagious running of away infect us with the worst it’s got. Who knows what the de rigueur of these inchoate times is? We scratch our dreamless prayers into the breath of cottonwoods. That’s what there is to know. “Clunk. Clink. Clack. Thrum. Drum. What’s it to you?” “Less than a headache. I tell you.” “Bush-league problems Baltimore Chopping through the felled trunks of our demise.” “Colder.” “Ham-sandwiching towards oblivion?” “Freezing.” “Air-conditioned souls mutter brief soliloquies in the un-baptized darkness where the less foxy parts of us dare to wade.” “Almost dry ice.” “Coffee?” “…pull over.”

It’s the worst if you’re getting carsick on straightaways. The white glow of taillights peppered with blinks of red brakes giving you the heaves. You’ve got to realize these sort of things. Also, the radiator is leaking. I get lambasted by odometer nightmares if I don’t keep a steady speed. It’s now or never. King me. We don’t notice ourselves getting older, older all the time. But also we’re always as young as we’ll ever be again. And it confronts you with what’s left staring in the mirror one day; what’s left of what you used to be; and you find yourself mimicking your own gestures, feigning comfort in your own skin that doesn’t feel like yours anymore, as if the body you once seemed to own was only leased to you, depreciating now into this barely manageable farrago of parts. An eye for a look. A tooth for a smile. I hug myself to keep warm.

We’re taking the longest of ways away from home. There’s no back to look at, but we squint and strain our eyes just the same to attempt to catch a glimpse. A bird decides enough is more than enough, and it dives (or was it pushed?) and thwacks against the front fender. It is a boom, a dull thud that is not like anything. My brain rattles. My eyes glue to the road. Everything is broken. There is nothing to be done. We drive on.

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