A Great Reckoning in a Little Car
The rear-view was bent crookedly, and it dangled a Polaroid of two scruffy women in cowboy hats. They looked worn and exhausted in their well-faded denim outfits. Dents and scuffs and scratches pocked the dash’s PVC surface. The red leather seats were shoddy, sporting wens and blebs, rips and tears stitched up like wounds with white thread. Into the brown tufted carpet fibers of the floor mat were engraved the rubber white letters: S O B. The girl liked how it felt to trace the letters with her shoe’s welt. There was a smoothness to it, something that ran counter to most of what was left of what she had to feel or know now. A crack was spiderwebbing out from a stray rock’s pit in the windshield’s glass. The radio was playing Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin by Ernest Tubb. The man driving was not paying any attention to the music, or the windshield’s crack, or the floor mat, or the girl in the passenger seat. He was giving all of his attention to the road, which snaked and whipped and skidded the tires of his pickup something rare and complex as he loosely handled the wheel from the bottom at about 7 and 4. He thumbed the radio’s knob until it quit making noise. The chassis plunked and bucked along with a steady vibration that never really quite started or stopped. He flicked the vents down, and they trickled a sickly whine as bugs kept up their constant assault, one by one splattering their bodies onto the glass. The small pickup drove on.
‘Calamity Jane, the Heroine Of The Plains.’ That’s what was going on in her head. She was singing it. In her head. Singsong. That would describe it. The rhyme helped. It swam undulant through her mishmashed thoughts, shredding tumbling breakers of thoughtless foam, and she skimmed over the surface of the opaque, aquamarine-tinted glass of a memory that was willing itself up from a muffled roar stowed somewhere indistinct, lost, and closer than comfortable all at once. She was nauseated. Not nauseous. She knew the difference. It wasn’t what made you sick to your stomach; it was the feeling of being sick to your stomach. It didn’t do any good though, knowing things like this. It wouldn’t help that horrible feeling to go away. It’d stay stuck in her gut no matter what she called it. She started humming the song aloud, or maybe it was more like muttering the song, just a tiny light drawl of a voice barely above a cantor-like whisper. ‘Calamity Jane, come heal my pain.’ It was almost a canticle. Something to soothe her, to make the darkness a tad more light, a temporary joist to keep disaster’s ceiling from crumbling, allowing the soot and scattered mess of her temblored past to come raining down on her as she lay lost in the minutiae, the unalterable fact of being aware of the smallest precise details of every last thing happening around her, even in the spheres of dust molecules that could be like galaxy-sized things to some tiny creatures, for all she knew, and didn’t know for that matter, about such less-than-microscopic events. Something in the realms of M-theory, perhaps, might mitigate the current situation allusively peening around the inside of her skull, tinged, as it were, with the dust of forgotten moments like the gaps made by fallen or somehow disintegrated sections of a bridge, a crossing she wasn’t quite prepared to make anyhow, like this, shaky and uncertain, though one it seemed as if she were always now in a constant state of preparing for, if that made any sense.
‘Come steal away the rain, Calamity Jane.’
They both were born on the same day, Beltane, and also it was something in the cognomen that made her identify with this lady sharpshooter of the Wild West who may or may not have been romantically involved with Wild Bill Hickok at some point just before he became a decedent one fateful night at a poker game in Deadwood, S Dakota. It had something to do with Jane’s homeliness, an aspect of her character that was dirty, tawdry even, the rough and tumble sort, if you will, and it was all packaged in a tidy carefully cultivated persona of a tomboyish scrapper who wouldn’t back down to any old anybody ever. It made her happy to hold Miss Calamity, or at least the idea of who this lady might have been, in her thoughts. She thought of Calamity Jane as a crusader for wildness and freedom, and against slogging through the rote banausic day-to-day doings of life. Everything about her was heroic and capacious on the grandest scale, reigning across the planes, Calamity Jane, almost in a cartoonish way, to the girl, she rode through the country in search of adventure, kind of how the girl envisioned herself, a modern-day adventurer, saddled to a dream, bucking trends and spurning conformity, hopping trains and hitchhiking, leaving a trail of wrecked lives in her path; though hers, at times, included in the wake too — of being wrecked, that is.
A speed bump or pothole, something to disturb the delicate balance between awareness and that away feeling she’d get that meant she wasn’t quite part and parcel of this body, a renter and not an owner, and which she’d think of as “hovering” — such a state that was rare and unique and that she never wanted to think about too deeply lest it fall apart and never return. It was like those times during Social Studies when her head felt limp and light, and she’d nod off at her desk, chin on the glazed fake-wood surface, hair pulled over her face, a carefully placed elbow set to impede the teacher’s sight and make it seem, at a glance, as if the girl were taking studious notes with her head very close to the open notebook next to it. It was as alone and as safe as she could ever remember feeling, outside of everything, the teacher’s voice just a blur like in The Peanuts cartoons, all the pencil-on-paper scratchings and scrunchy movements of kids fidgeting around in their desks, the purr and drift of the air conditioner, the feel of the institutional fluorescent tubes glaring from above with a slight buzz and hum that was in some strange eerie way comforting. The girl took great pleasure in being able to return to this state, though it was becoming more difficult now to make the transition, as if the further she got from it the more abstruse and hard to connect with it became.
Well, it seemed, now that she’d re-emerged into wakefulness, that they were in the bumpy rattling process of being shepherded through a car wash. The splash of water from sprinklers, the thwack of rotating robotic arms brushing the windows, foaming and soapy, as the swoosh of the mitter patters by, the obstreperous grind of the conveyor track below squeezing the wheels, and the surprise plunk of the high-pressure nozzles’ spray. It was all rather like being thrashed awake in the sudden throes of the pandemonium of a war zone. The girl didn’t feel well.
Soon the road was calling again, as is its wont for people like her who are only born to listen. The freshly soaped and rinsed and dried pickup puled and puttered back up to highway speed as the on ramp merged back into the highway.
“You’ve got a bad case of l’esprit de l’escalier, huh? I can tell.”
His hands were not being kept to himself.
“Lest we forget…”
The girl strummed the air vents in the dashboard with a few fingers. If she did it fast enough it sounded like baseball cards in the spokes of a bicycle, like she used to do, she used to, do.
“Give up.” His smile was like something etched into hard plastic, something permanent and completely devoid of emotion. “And the dust gathers…”
Her eyes shaped the swerve of the road, the white dashes streaming by, blurred and streaking into each other, and the monster-head polygonals of the road signs and the clear white letters on big flat rectangles of green and the next-gas-forty-miles and the mile-counters like hogtied scarecrows, and she heard the hushed hustle of the wind speaking to closed windows as she bit a big-knuckled finger harder than she’d ever bit anything.
The man screamed like a little child. It made the girl laugh. The man slapped his hand around and screamed and called her all the usual, ordinary, and to-be-expected names the situation called for. ‘Originality is sorely lacking in this individual,’ thought the girl.
“Young love. I make you out to be indifferent, but I’m a bullshit machine.” The man was crying. “I was paying attention and distracted at the same time. You didn’t notice. You never notice. I could immolate over here and you’d just keep going about your business. Look, we’ve got starts, stoppings too, I guess, and then there’s all that stuff stuffed in the midst of things. It’s time now that we took a leap in there and started flailing around in it, together. Don’t you think? From these shores. From this perspective. This seeing. Well, don’t you? Don’t you ever, think?”
The girl rolled the window down all the way. She stuck her head outside. The stars were getting all over everything up in the sky’s sludge, runny slugs of sparkle and dipped flashes whirlpooling into and out of and all around each other, blips and beeps gone pulsatilla in fast, tight circles, without edges or separation, more like a thousand tiny stirrings in a vast pool of mud, sight’s tremolo on the grandest of scales. They were all that mattered, and her eyes gushed towards tears in the gusty assault on her face as she spun her head and looked directly up, her hair gone Bride-Of-Frankenstein wild to the side. Nothing else was happening. This was all there was. There were no hands on her legs or middle, nothing pulling her back inside, no panicked hook and weave of the vehicle she was now hanging almost all the way out of, but for something holding her, gripping her as tight as it could, hands, a body in there, a thing, in there, a place that wasn’t warm or safe at all, not like out here, in the wind, something vibrant in the sky, in the stars, out here, alone. No. She’d just stay here. She’d just stay. It wasn’t hard at all. ‘I have this,’ she thought. ‘This is what I have.’ It rattled around like a crushed beer can in her head.
It seems the girl was immersed in the inchoate feathers of a nap’s fugue-like temper when the yawing of the car’s wind-beaten ways woke her, and she culled the just-out-the-window landscape for recognizable features, trying not to whinge or work herself up into a swivet of back-to-reality plunging that she just knew would leave her with skin pebblings, red jumpy eyes, and a chronic wince. Crust-lidded, groggy, diverted to the dullness of what was playing ordinary with the dream-melt still dripping into her rattle-to-consciousness, the girl, whose forehead had been mashed against the window for the last 10–15 minutes leaving her bangs sweat-stuck crooked and misaligned, was now in the hand-dye-slow process of glossing over and then looting the outside world (the one outside the window’s glass) for clues as to her current circumstances in this place she happened to be now residing in (a place for which she was for now unsure of why she’d come to be in or obviously where that place was in the now extant realms of a reality, hers or an objective one, that was for some reason eluding all attempted nabs at.)
The sky curdled with messy throngs of soapsud clouds. They passed small towns where the buildings’ bricks’ soot glistened and got scrubbed gold by escaped flecks of custard sun, and there was traffic here and there huddled, massed, honking and weaving too, and the girl washed her eyes in this newfound lightness, this calm trespass into the fields of now. Everything felt suffused with emptiness, and she too was part of this emptiness, and she felt alive, simple, and brushed with a wonderful and joy-encased emptiness.
“You sleepin’ there, shit-for-brains?”
The car hit a rather obnoxious pothole and the two people inside of the car, a male and female human, had their respective asses lifted for a sec and then plopped back down where they’d been. The girl’s elbow conked the window roller. A sharp twinge of pain. She held her breath.
Mosquitoes were unavoidably part of the air you had to keep breathing all the time you had to breathe because well now you just had to suck in air even if you were juggling cans of beans or whatever it was just something you had to do and those damn mosquitoes wouldn’t leave you alone in the dark it seemed worse and that buzzing always by your ear almost mechanical or like a windup toy and if you could slap one away or smash it crushed blood-splatted in your palm like a cranberry stain then that would be something but there were always more and what could you do anyway just being you and having only this one body and being this one person who couldn’t fight against all of them even in their all-at-once-but-one-at-a-time way of fighting?
Eat more limes.
A distraction. There is nothing boring. An escape is what is always there, something that’s followed so habitually that it is never seen. Keep an eye out, peel it if you can, for TV, for sirens, for chatter in the airwaves, market reports, hangings and firing squads, the last of the typewriter repairmen. Youth kicks its own ass for missing out on being young only once, and you’ve got a hairline to worry about, the weather’s charm, and then socks to put on one foot at a time and pants to try to wear. Ablating thoughts that go before they arrive. Let’s work with an inflated excess of glyphic pre-tax kindness here while we can.
The man was rubbing her knee, just below the frazzled threads of scissor-cut jean shorts, and the girl didn’t quite know what the feeling was that she should be having so she made one up, an absent disenfranchised drone, and it seemed to suit. It was a vacant place she could occupy without actually having to bother to be anywhere.
There was always more emptiness available to her, and with the window rolled down just a tad she could let her brain rumble and starve full with repetition’s endless burrs. A rocking. Not a gentle soothing, but still a soothe of a sort nonetheless, though its grainy skein was replete with sour grapes and horticultural terms and the names of dead first ladies. Her mind could glean from innumerable gold pots, flit and find furrows any old place therein. Comic books, the Harvard Classics, The Anatomy Of Melancholy, F.W. Murnau movies, dental records of rock stars, transcripts of famous trials, recipes that call for mandarin oranges, flow-charts for assembling various Rube Goldberg-type contraptions, the seasons of lawns, classic one-liners from sitcoms and standups, pre-election polls during Reconstruction, lives lost at various WWI battles, uses for various and diverse chemical substances such as lignon liquor and cashew-nutshell oil. She knows a few things about some stuff.
Her knee was no longer part of the picture. She was setting out for other disconnected pastures, and there was something there, in all that emptiness, that kept her the best company she’d ever get to know. Being disentangled from the her that others knew, or could touch, was how she came to know it. Or, also, not being smeared with the stuff of others. It was thinking herself away, and the fantasy was better than the truth. The girl internalized this, and it became a large part of who she was as a person, inflicted in this way with a fractured sense of what it was to be, well, the girl in this story, which was her story, of course, and one she couldn’t wish her way out of, but the trying in that was something she often failed at for the most part so it was hunky-dory for her way of thinking, though it unfortunately couldn’t be applied to her flossing habits.
A scalped swipe was the wind’s scream. The girl applied for a passport out, decided it was unnecessary, and got to know the gravel road very personally for a few scary seconds, scratching and tumbling her way away from the desperately unlocked and then pushed open door of the place where she’d formerly been biding her time. It was quick but lasted forever. The lights bashed and leaked and went in and out of fuzzy blurs that were pink-orange-yellow spins like tracers but more opaque and wavering, that were there and then not there all at once and then back in almost circles that were never done completing but always churning and spilling the split of their difference, cartwheeling as she barreled over, bit the pavement and spit blood without knowing it, praying for the condition of her teeth as with flayed arms and a rock-battered head she limply somersaulted like a rag doll. One of her shoes had gone AWOL. Stunned, dazed, epidermis completely annihilated, eyes clenched shut in this new sudden all-over pain. There was nothing fun about any of it. A sharp gust of hot desert wind scratched across her limbs. She rolled on her side and let go a trickling laugh.
When she was in her pre-teens she’d found, for reasons never specified or explained properly, a Gloria Estefan cassette tape in her x-mas stocking. She had no idea who Gloria Estefan was or what this particular music was supposed to be, except that it was something that seemed tinged with adulthood for some reason, a possibly off-limits things, but not quite. She’d played the tape constantly, sometimes at a very high volume, as she lay in her bed and listened to the strange sounds. She played the tape over and over, so much so that she knew ever drum fill and precisely how long the gaps between songs were. Dancing to it was beyond her, but she grew to love the music blasting from her stereo’s speakers. It did somehow happen though that after much over-listening to this same cassette she came to develop a bit of a neurosis, which then turned into a fevered anxiety attack, and the girl was, on one cold afternoon, found in her bed crying, cover-pulled-over-head frantic, by her older sister who immediately attempted to yank said covers off of her younger sib, but was met with much resistance. The older sister, who was wise beyond her years in matters of pop culture as she was an avid reader of Teen Beat and 16 among other less-well known fad fan mags of the 1980s, continued tugging away at the covers as she was trying to attain what the matter was with this obviously delirious child. The older sister eventually proved victorious in this effort, and revealed the tear-laced face of a scared and shaky little girl. The girl kept muttering something about, “it’s going to get me,” which soon turned into a fearful scream of, “Stop! It’s going to get me!” The older sister inquired as to what the younger girl believed was going to get her, to which the girl exclaimed, “The Rhythm! The Rhythm’s going to get me!” The older sister began a laughing fit which didn’t stop until she’d left the room. From then on the girl had always imagined this Rhythm as being an abominable snowman-type creature with very wooly hair all over it and sharp saber-toothed cat teeth and with claws like scythes slicing through anything in its path. She was convinced, someday, that The Rhythm was going to get her.
The cartoon on TV was about a bull being shoved out of an open window by a team of mice wearing orange construction vests and white hardhats. The mice were struggling. A lot of heavy breathing and exaggerated grunts. The bull was calm. It had the stem of a white rose in its mouth and appeared to be smiling. The girl supposed she should be giggling, but she wasn’t. Instead she was on the verge of tears (her mother would say, “Aren’t you always?”)
A fly wasn’t a thing to be afraid of. So she ran. She ran away. There were lights out there somewhere brighter than any she’d ever known. She just knew it. Swat. Shoo. Get away. Be gone. Like things. Love others. Try not to hate yourself. A woman might walk on the moon. Get out.
The carpet was coarse, its thick curls the color of cooked ground beef, and stained in more places than it wasn’t in various colors and shades and shapes of dropped substances. The girl sat barefoot on it in lotus position, picking at her toenails, riveted to the TV, pretzeling her legs a bit, eyes bugged, head malted with snack food. The ceiling was cottage cheese. Behind her lay a glum fat man snoring on the couch. A yeasty stale beer stench hung about him like that dusty cloud that followed Pig-Pen around. This is how the girl imagined it. A dust storm that stunk. His snores were a volcano sputtering up its guts, a dinosaur choking on a lively hamster. The girl wished and wished, but the man would not just go away like she wished he would.
“Us worriers got to keep away from things that’ll make us worry. If something’s bound to make me worry, well, I just gotta forget it exists, if I can.”
A slice of baked and slim light snuck through the slits in the billboard, skittering and wrapping around the bends and breaks in some abandoned furniture set down by the roadside. The girl was seeing everything as smushed. The sofa and armchair tandem was puffed and distorted in a trash-compactor way, as if they were built for a family of skinny dwarfs. Something was off with her eyes. The taste of blood would not leave her tongue alone. She spit into the dirt and it was a deep brandy-colored slug. Things spun and her head felt lighter than those balloons they let go outside of Raferty’s General on the first day of summer. An itch was scampering around her legs, hopping from one place to the next without warning. The more she thought about scratching it the worse it got, and every time she scratched at it to try to catch it mid-leap it would just leap away anyway and go on itching and itching. She gave up and lay down in the dirt.
A small burgundy and gray Toyota pulled up on the emergency lane. A man and a woman sat there trying to figure out why this girl was lying in the dirt by a billboard and some discarded furniture.
“Hey! You okay?”
There was too much distance, and then it was too close, everything was, and wouldn’t he be coming back to find her? And how could you trust anyone, anywhere at all, ever? She wanted to respond, but there was nothing left to say. She heard a door slam. And then the gravelly cereal-crunch of footsteps in the dirt. Voices were calling to her in some distorted wallop that capsized her ability to comprehend the situation. Ring. Ring. Buzz. Sorry, the number you are trying to reach has been disconnected. Please try dialing the number again. This particular one is out of service for the foreseeable future. Do not try to reach out, to reach me, as I will only drift farther away, or further if it’s only my head that’s drifting. Knowing is a third or so of the battle. Thank you. Have a pleasant rest of your day.
She was lying supine on the dirt, almost meditative, but babbling uncontrollably when they finally got to her.