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Road Trip That Day
James L Carey
'In the hurricane of life, sometimes you come across the eye. The very center of it all where as some speculate, everything is as calm as a summer day'.

It's been a long time since that day. When I think back, my thoughts become a whirlpool of sensations. Of memories that led up to and since that time. I never thought I'd be the one to have a story. To have something to share that would be more interesting then the brand of cereal I had this morning or the peculiar thing I saw on the freeway last night.

I never saw it coming. That's how it is they say. You never see the big moments coming, they just appear. Well I don't buy it. I think that you know. I think you just are so used to being unaware, of being cattle, of going about your daily routine and not wavering at all that you don't realize that something else is happening. If ever there was a moment I didn't see coming. It was that. Or in my own personal philosophy, I chose not to see it. I tell myself that I should have known. I should have known since birth. I leave my apartment and walk the crumbling concrete walk to the car. The Sun up above is being particularly ruthless today. It's only about 10:00 a.m., but it feels like the sun is beating down full force. The Earth knows nothing but heat. It's reflects this heat back off it's surface into the atmosphere that just sends it back down again in an attempt to bake the planet from the outside in. The funny way that you can see the heat wafting back up to the clouds creates a fuzzy orange haze everywhere. It looks as though you could get a sunburn in 2 minutes if you wanted to.

But I'm not suntanning today. I'm at the car. Fiddle with the key in such a way that only I know to get the door open and within 5 minutes I'm hastily leaving town and not looking in the mirrors. Like the story of that town so and so from the bible, just in case a brief glance back might turn me to a pillar of salt. But it's never so simple. It wasn't the definitive depravity of the place that drove me withstand the urge of a last look, it was the obscure way that it wore away at the soul while you pleasantly combed your hair.

I arrived at Wade's place some 15 minutes afterwards and left the car running in the driveway. I pulled the rusty screen door open and rapped on the door a few times then waited. It took about ten minutes before he answered the door. Still in his dress pants and untucked white button-down shirt he peered out of eyes that hadnıt seen sunlight in about two days. He quickly ushered me inside and fumbled with the deadbolt until he was satisfied that it was indeed locked. Still without having said so much as a word to me he walked back into his kitchen and I heard a concert of rattling pans and silverware diving from the counter to the floor. I turned away and pushed aside the week old newspapers on the sofa to make myself a place to sit. I can't stay long I told him. I had just dropped by as I was on my way out of town. The ruckus in the kitchen stopped. He walked into the living room with two glasses of some dark alcohol on ice. He had a look as a child does when you mention that the household pet had been the tragic victim of some hit and run. It only lasted a moment. Then he was back to the permanent scowl of displeasure that had been his mask for a long time. Hell. You might think it would be some dreadful raging inferno where you're constantly poked by demons wielding pitchforks. I think it would be like living in a decrepit apartment in a permanent state of paranoia and disgust. He offers me the glass, well offer is a nice term. He slammed down on the coffee table as though it might be an anchor for a ship drifting away with the tide. I tipped it back and finished it in a swallow. Wade snorted at my display and sipped from his glass while staring at the thin line of sunlight that crawled under the front door from where it didn't meet the floor. Anyway, I said standing up, remember what we talked about I reminded him. Hopefully he would. Either way it was done, I couldn't help him anymore.

And with that I left his apartment and lighting a cigarette as I walked down the driveway. I glanced up just once to the upstairs window and saw a hand pulling down the rows of blinds. As I looked up the blinds snapped back into place.

Back on the road.

Two packs of cigarettes and one bottle of Coca-Cola later my tank was almost empty and I pulled off to a dusty truck stop. The manager came out and yelled obscenities at me when I pumped the gas with one hand and flicked my cigarette with the other. I looked at the cigarette in my hand and quickly put it out as if I had no idea how it had ended up in my hand. Which was true. I barely remembered the past couple hours. I could only get fleeting glimpses of billboards and mile markers when I tried. Of course with the heat youıd think the gas station might just spontaneously combust anytime now, but who wants to tempt fate? I threw the bag of food I bought at the truck stop in the passenger seat and walked around to the phone booth next to the pump. About ten rings later Alison answered. "I thought you might call," she said," I talked to Wade earlier."

I didn't remember Wade having a working phone in a few months, but I let it go. Well I had hoped you'd hear it from me first I told her, silently relishing in the fact that I hadn't been. She broke the silence with," I don't suppose you'll tell me where it is you're going." More silence. "I thought not," and then a dial tone.

I counted the exit numbers. 148, 147, 145, endless openings to insignificance. What made my exit more worthy? You could ask me ten years from now and I still couldn't tell you. I knew that eventually I had a destination and that was all the kept me from turning the car around. Halfway to nowhere and Iım starting to grow impatient. You know, sometimes I see myself spiraling towards oblivion. I mean, you live your life, at least I've always lived mine this way, working towards something, knowing that what you are doing in your life is not fruitless, that it has some sort of meaning if not to you but then to someone, anyone. But in the hurricane of life, sometimes you come across the eye. The very center of it all where as some speculate, everything is as calm as a summer day, and the sky above you goes on for miles into the atmosphere. Nothingness. In that raging torrent of commotion, you find the middle hollow. You find it empty.

These are the thoughts that consume my mind when I get tired of reading license plates. Tired of seeing a century old barn next to the wayside and crying, pleading for euthanasia. Burn me, burn me they say. Drop a nuclear bomb on me, turn the sun up a million degrees and let me melt away to nothing, to where I came from, to where I belonged all the time. God, I think I'm losing it. The air conditioning gave about 50 miles back and the air inside the car is about 98. Why hadn't I noticed until now? The sweat that had been collecting in my eyebrows finally started to drip slowly down stinging my eyes and causing me to almost veer the car into the semi in the left lane.

That ripped me out of my daze. I don't know how long I've been on the road now. I know the sun went down and came up again and I was still driving, always driving. I looked out on the long desert highway bending down and up towards the horizon. The heat was pouring down on the few cars going down the four lane road and it gave everything that strange hazy and wet look. Most of the cars where headed in the opposite direction that I was going. Not a huge surprise. The city wasn't really an oasis in this barren landscape. It was just something other than barren landscape.

I need something to keep me awake I decide and pull off to find some caffeine pills at the local drug store. I had the clerk some money from out of my clammy hands and notice that I'm encased in a layer of sweat that comes from either sleep deprivation or withdrawal. Either way, I swallow about 6 or 7 pills and I'm back in the car. Damn. I'm out of cigarettes. I go back into the drug store and walk up to the counter. No sign of the clerk. I hear the jumbled sound of one or another game show in the back. But that's it. No customers, no clerk. I might have been the only person that came in today considering that this exit in the middle of nowhere consisted of a drugstore and some abandoned house next to it. Most of the front lawn consisted of bags of trash and broken beer bottles. Considering there wasn't a soul living within fifteen miles it could have only come from the store I was standing in now. I look to the counter and the cigarettes are on a little display with the latest catalog of fashionable wear and knick knacks from the cigarette company. Kill yourself slowly each day and you'll be richly rewarded an official hat and waterproof lighter. I stare and the display, listen ... nothing. Nothing but the sounds of some person competing for a fabulous prize that will undoubtedly enrich their lives. I grab all the packs I can carry in two hands and walk nonchalantly out of the drug store.

On the road I can't recall how much longer I have to drive. 10 or 15 hours I think, but I can't say for sure. I can't say anything for sure anymore. Not since then, not since that day. I try to think why. People have to go through all types of things in their lives and they come through it. Well they either do that or they off themselves. Whatever's the more appealing option I suppose. I've thought about it, I can be honest on that much at least. But not some cry for help suicide attempt, I wouldnıt slash my wrists and call up all my friends. Or hang myself in my apartment and wait until the stench is so unbearable that the neighbors call the cops. I think if I would have a choice, I'd want some grandiose suicide. I'd want to have a two-minute blurb about what a fantastic event it was on the six o'clock news. Something that would scare people, shake them up a bit. But I can't think of anything spectacular at the moment. At the moment I'm on the road.

About an hour later, I still haven't smoked any of the cigarettes. I look down at them in the passenger seat and they look up mocking me. Come on, they say, there was nobody looking and that clerk probably was out dumping more of his own shit in somebody else's yard. Nobody lived there anyway so whatıs your problem? Like little demons laughing at me for my remorse they glisten in the sunlight that hits them through the windshield. I don't smoke them. Instead I pull off to the next gas station and go inside. I ask the cashier for an envelope and a pen. Wait a minute. Where the hell was that? I ask the cashier if he knows what town was in that drug store about an hour back. Well considering that it was about the only place from here to 150 miles back he knows where it is I'm talking about. I write so and so drug store on the top and the town name underneath. I really don't know the zip code or anything specific, but Iım sure the mailman will know where I mean. It's just to sate my conscious anyway. I put sixty dollars in the envelope, seal it, and slide it in the gas station mailbox. Itıs about three times the amount I actually took, but I don't need the money and it was just something I need to do anyway.

This road is doing something to me. Twenty-seven hours into a never-ending trip and I'm starting to think fuzzy. I can't keep a coherent thought and I'm trying to figure out whether it's the heat or the mind-numbing monotony of the drive. I turn on the radio and the slow strum of a mariachi band comes out of the speakers. It was funny because I was just thinking thatıs what I'd like to listen to. It fit the scenery. No singing, just the desperately slow moving beat and a couple guitars filling the spaces. Fitting. I was like the guitars bringing something more than rolling tumbleweeds and sandstorms that this road only knew. I felt oddly invigorated. It's a strange thing to have epiphanies after going about a day and a half without sleep and still trying to concentrate on not veering into a billboard or some farm animal crossing the highway. Past the next rise in the road I see a man walking along side the road. Hitchhiking it seems, though will the steady flow of about one or two cars every hour, doubtless heıs not having very good luck. His black pants are drenched with the rolling dust of the highway and loose shirt only gives some hint of every having been white in its lifetime. I pull over just in front of him and roll down the window. Where are you headed I say to the man. He leans in the window and says in a thick Mexican brogue, "Not that way," as he points from the direction I came. I laugh and open the door for him. Then you're in luck I say.

As we begin making our way again he looks back at the pile of cigarettes in the back seat longingly and looks over at me. Help yourself I say. He beams joyously and opens up a pack offering one to me and lighting it. "Come far Senor," he asks. Probably farther than you I reply and it's his turn to laugh. "You'd be surprised Senor," he chuckles. Apparently I would be. The next hour or so we spent in grateful silence. It seems that both of us had been spending so much time in forced solitude that we didn't know how to cope with camaraderie once we had it. Introductions were never made, there was no need. And conversation was kept at a minimum. We did exchange some dialogue before I dropped him off about 4 hours after I picked him up. I explained how I was leaving on a pilgrimage for a better life or chance at it anyway. His only reason he gave me for him being on the road was a simple, "I'm looking for something better." We left it at that. When he got out down the road I gave him a few of the packs of cigarettes that had been like an unforgettable sin he smiled. I let him off in roughly the same looking stretch of road I picked him up at, the same endless scenery of dust and nothingness, but he insisted this was where he wanted to be let off. I wished him well and he did the same. I saw him walking still on the shoulder as I was driving over the next bluff. And just before I dropped down below the hill, I looked back in my mirror and I could have sworn I saw him cross the road. And start walking in the opposite direction.

After the next four hours of drudgery passed I saw the thin horizon of the city in front of me. Still a good half a day drive away, but I could already see the towering luminescence of the buildings. They reflected the Sun's light as though reveling in the splendor, they knew no discomfort, no strain against its rays, just bliss. I began to wonder why I had come so far, so far and unrelenting was my journey that I had almost no comprehension of it ever ending. But it was, and I had come a long way, such a long way. I had begun to think back to when I had first arrived here. Not just this stretch of highway, but this place. The circumstances, the reasons. They weren't so much a blur as they had been many months ago. It started to make a strange kind of sense. I had wondered why I stayed back there so long, but I knew now, that I just wasn't ready. You had to be ready, to make a conscious decision to deal with it, that was the whole key. I thought back to Wade and Alison. Hundreds of miles behind me. Decomposing, rotting away the minutes and feeling no remorse for doing so. I felt sorrow and pity then. They weren't ready, and might never be.

About twenty miles outside of the City was customs, if you could call it that. I drove up to the oddly white painted gateway and looked at the row of booths. They looked odd standing out stark white against the orange and dust color that was the universe in this place. Every single one was gated except one. And there were no cars going in, I might have been the only one they would see today. I pulled up to the gate like it was Judgment Day, preparing myself. As if this would be the test of my life. I rolled down the window and a man with thick glasses looked out of his booth at me and just looked. I didn't smile, I didn't look away, I just met his gaze and kept it. The time seemed to stand still or fly by, I wasn't sure. I could have been a moment or an eternity that he studied me. Studied my eyes, looked into them and saw everything. "Welcome," was all he said and the gate opened before me. I drove into Paradise and pulled over after a minute and turned the car off. I had spent so much time in Purgatory that I hadn't thought my time there would end.

It's not like how they say it is you know. When you die, or at least when I died, it wasn't like revelation, it wasn't like everything was made aware to you, it was like bad jetlag. Wade, Alison, and I had lived disreputable lives to say the least. We never did anything out right bad or anything let me tell you. We just lived as though we were dead already. And that was a mistake. See Purgatory isn't like a vast cosmic emptiness. For God to do that to people would just crush them and make them spend eternity in a comatose type state. No, Purgatory is what you would conceive nothingness to be, like a lonely stretch of dusty highway of which there seemed no end. And Hell isn't eternal fire and damnation and all that crap. It what you would think of a living hell would be. Living in permanent despair, afraid of change, afraid of hope. But they have no boundaries save the invisible ones you create for yourself. Thinking you can never leave, thinking you can never choose. Choose not to live in a pitiful state for eternity, choose not to want to be the person you had hoped you always could be. I think I had made that change, well Iım pretty sure I made that change or I would have never gotten through the gate. No, it's not an open and shut case, the afterlife. It's a limitless place where the doors are open to all, if you but wish to walk through it. Or drive through it in my case.

© James L. Carey 2005
email him at careyja1 at msu.edu

see also On Camping the American Way

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