Lots of paid hobby to do tonight, folks, so in the meantime here's something no one would ever pay me for, promise--what I think is the last short story I wrote, probably back in 1992ish? Note--pre-cell phones. What a simpler world. I like some of this, and some sort of embarrasses, and I bet you can guess what is what. Luckily the main character is totally completely wholly unlike anyone I've ever met.
Oh, and the sucker's kinda long, too, at least for blogtopia.
Past Tom fast the Volvo went, so much so it seemed its logo’s V’s tilted forward like arrows of intent. All he saw was this--Volvo. And this--three antennae. Radio, CB, phone, he figured. Out his windshield Tom spied his own poor excuse for an antenna, bent at 80° from the hula skirts and the brush at the car wash. His didn’t even retract.
He wasn’t one to worry over cars; for him cars were made to go. But this antenna thing was a new wrinkle in the highway. What would be next, satellite dishes? Who wants to be so connected in a car?
So yes, he was driving alone, but that’s how Tom liked it, for it was the lone time he felt safe to let his voice out and into a song. He sang badly and knew it, shocked himself with the keys he could unlock, but what the hell, the noise kept him awake. He particularly liked pretending he could do accents, figuring if he already butchered things, he couldn’t kill the dead deader. There was Billy Bragg, say, all that Briton in his mouth. And no, not the political Bragg, he liked the lost at love Bragg, the one who sang when the world falls apart, some things stay in place. Bragg probably should have been the last but he was just the latest of a long line of pity-pop Tom invested too much of what Hallmark calls heart in.
Superhighways were super, he figured--you could space on them and still not die. Still, there was a flipside: You had to worry about where to whizz. This was the kind of highway you had to get off of to leak, and Tom had a bad habit of picking the exits without return ramps. He never had much trouble finding the interstate again, but he hated the roads that paralleled them, the way they were clearly big shit once, and now all their strip motels were for sale. Highway Darwinism, he called it. Not that he ever stopped at a greasy spoon so slowed the grease had congealed, and it wasn’t just how depressed it would make him. He could be depressed enough on his own. It was the past; he hated how much it hung on like toilet paper glommed to your shoe. It was his past; it just kept getting longer. And he knew he couldn’t resent that too much, because if it stopped elongating like a Slinky pulled away from him, that meant the Slinky was hurtling back, his own personal universe collapsing. If the past stopped, it meant those studies about Alzheimer’s and TV dinners were true, or it meant he stopped, period. Tom couldn’t imagine the dead remember much.
Ah, the highway whizzes of yore, back before Minit Marts and Uni-Marts, when you had Marty’s Esso, and got dinner glasses with each fill-up, and had to ask for the bathroom key, which was attached to a foot long dowel stick too many morons had etched their initials into. Nothing cleared the sinuses like the stink of gas station bathrooms--if they smelled like ammonia they would have been pleasant. They smelled of truckers’ piss, he figured, all that coffee and all those miles. What you pissed would reek, too, if it came from a dick that wore the condoms you could buy in those places, from the machines you had to pull the metal sheet down from, so kids wouldn’t freak seeing the woman with the O-for-orgasm mouth that meant French Tickler or Swedish Massage Oils.
Of course, when a kid Tom never didn’t pull the metal guard down, even faked having to pee on trips to the point his parents took him to a urologist. Years later condoms were boring, he knew that, just as he knew he wouldn’t have to worry about them for a while.
Gina was gone.
He figured exit 38 was as good as any, and lit into the ramp fast, steering with his knees because Gina hated when he did so and she was gone and maybe the car could work as some odd voodoo doll. Gone was dramatic, he knew, he always ran commentary on his own pity like the alternate soundtrack on laser discs when the movie’s director lets you in on the secrets and explains the magic away. But Gina was magic and Gina was gone, so the syllogism was easy to finish.
They had been together only two years, but he never saw a woman half that long, and after six women he had to believe it was partially his fault. Each relationship he took a lesson away: Anne--clip your toenails, Toni--don’t clip toenails in bed, Missy--pleasantly plump isn’t a compliment, Cordelia--read more, Celia--don’t call her Cordelia when coming, Steph--nice people aren’t interesting. But he knew he was being reductive, and he knew he just didn’t talk well, although he could speak and he could listen.
But Gina said, “We don’t talk....”
Tom hated ellipsis in conversation, could feel each period leap to his own tongue as if they were pills he had to swallow. He at least knew enough to turn off SportsCenter.
“Talk?” he asked, like an actor hoping to remember lines.
“I don’t know if you’re capable,” Gina said, both her hands going up into her black hair as if Tom’s words, those right words, might be lost in there, just not making it to her ears.
Tom wanted to say, “Talk about what?” but he knew he was supposed to know. That he didn’t know. “How was work today?”
Gina’s face looked like it tried to smile and it just wouldn’t happen. “We work in the same place. You know the answer. You know Gib’s an asshole and that our computer screens are giving us tumors and that we’ll never get raises and that the boys we work with will be lewd and crude...”
“Ah, yes, I know the dudes to whom you allude...”
“I’m trying to be serious here--quit evading things. Let’s talk.”
They sat there till even the furniture grew quiet. They didn’t even seem to breathe.
Tom had a choice between Exxon and Texaco at the top of the ramp and turned to the Exxon. He wouldn’t buy their gas but took perverse pleasure in peeing in their stations, his own kind of environmental revenge for the Exxon Valdez. Sure enough the Exxon was just far enough off the highway that he panicked and cursed, two actions that almost always followed each other for Tom. He hated waiting for what was promised, and this stupid anger--he called it stupid anger, the sudden, quick rages he could consume himself with, but only over nothing--this stupid anger made him forget about Gina.
Instead he panicked about not wanting. What if one day his want just dried up? He knew many would say that’s what life is about, an asceticism so pure. Yet he was convinced the sound of one hand clapping was the sound of a hand needing a hand, as it were. Yet what if one didn’t get to refuse desire? If it just left, like a lover? Maybe thinking about milestones was a millstone around his neck, forcing his head to look down, look backward. Here he was a half year away from thirty and what shocked him most wasn’t thirty but that he felt nothing, that even his own existence for three decades seemed abstract. Now, a nervous breakdown, that could signal something, a spasm and release, a kind of psychic shit-letting. But thirty, all he could say was, So?
The Exxon appeared at a hill’s bottom, sure enough one of those modern ones with the “roof” suspended so high over the pumps you knew people would get wet from sideways rain, anyway, and what was worse, some engineer, grinning tight-lipped, planned it that way. Beneath this too high canopy sat what appeared to be ten phone booths fused together--the station itself. Vending machines. Lots of white. Fluorescence. Doors to bathrooms. No nostalgic leak would be left here.
By the pumps sat the Volvo, its three antennae gesturing to Tom with what he imagined was the Swedish way of giving the finger. It was revving up and pulling out of the Full Service island, and a sixteen-year-old scrambled to scribble down the license plate number on the credit card slip. As he walked back to the office he asked Tom, “You lost or do you just need to use the lav-or-atory?” saying it like he just watched a Frankenstein movie.
Tom pointed to the bathroom door as an answer. The kid, tossing the credit card clipboard down, sang, “Some car,” in that rising envy singsong teenage boys have for things measured in cubic inches.
The bathroom was spotless. The fan drowned out the kid, if he was still talking, Tom couldn’t tell. Tom was too busy confronting the tallest urinal he had ever seen. Tom was six foot plus, so his worst worry was a crowded bathroom and having to stoop to the boys’ urinal. This was a new experience. He felt he needed a step ladder, or had to perform a trick shot and turn his back and fire a stream up over his shoulder. Instead he just got up on tippy toes. Whose idea was this urinal? He imagined he were still closer to Harrisburg and Three Mile Island, and ever since 1979 everybody had just grown and taken their plumbing fixtures with them. He imagined the mammoth pisses of the nuclearly enlarged. Laughing didn’t make staying on tip-toe any easier; he would have to check his shoes for errant spray. Not that it mattered: the only person who could see him was the kid outside the door, fantasizing about multi-antennaed Volvos. As picky as Gina was about clothes, she never complained about his shoes. Must have been because she was nearly as tall as he, well, not really, but close enough they heard World Trade Center jokes. And she was into eye contact, locked you into those chocolate browns so deep you could feel like a hot fudge sundae melting. It never seemed she looked anywhere but the back of your skull--through the rest of your head. She mostly criticized Tom’s clothes, then, when she was taking them off him. He stopped reminiscing when he realized he was just standing there, his hand holding his penis slowly coming to life. The idea of an erection in an Exxon bathroom, however sanitized, scared the shit out of him, a feeler out for disease. He jiggled, tucked, zipped, flushed, headed out the door.
“Some car,” the boy was still singing, shifting emphasis, getting more out of two syllables than anyone could, unless that anyone had to work a six hour shift alone.
Tom figured the kid needed the conversation, and was curious, so asked, “Why is the urinal so high in there?”
“High?” the kid said.
“Yeah, it’s a good foot further up the wall than most....what if, oh, Mickey Rooney stopped here?”
“Rooney--he’s before your time. He’s short, that’s what matters.” Tom began to worry about his attempted conversational altruism.
“So you’re saying it’s high?” The kid got up and went to the door to look. Tom began to wonder if the kid belonged here--no blue overalls, no name in an oval over the right breast. “Gee, I never realized, you’re right. I just tinkle out back.”
Tom felt an urge to leave quick; even sixteen is too old to say tinkle.
The kid, though, sensed it was a turning moment, so grabbed Tom’s right arm and gave it a little pull as if testing to see if it was attached. “Hey,” he said, “wanna see something really weird?”
Tom wasn’t sure there was weirder and made a face as if he sat on three aces in poker. The kid continued quick, “Down the road? Shartlesville? Roadside America? There everything is small. You have to go that way anyway to get back on the highway.” The kid sat back down nodding his head as if he told his best secret. Tom moved as fast as he could without seeming to move fast, tossing a thank you over his shoulder like flipping a bone to a dog to distract him.
Tom was happy back in the real world of his car. Saw the blue sign for the highway, the sign with the “TO” over it which meant you’re getting hotter but aren’t boiling yet. That’s when he glimpsed the sign “Roadside America--1 mile--World’s Largest Miniature Village.” Why not go? Slowing down on the way to his parents’ house always seemed worthwhile; once there he would merely sit through evenings seeing them both fall asleep in their matching Laz-y-Boys, and he would watch the cable channel that previews all the video releases. They spice it up by using different clips from the same films, he had to give them that. He knew that this time the love stories would pang him a bit, and he would long for love in sixty second doses.
How home did to him he never knew, but what it did was clear--scrape his marrow clean with grapefruit spoons. The hope was to avoid saying anything that could anger anyone, which got harder and harder. The secret was finding the thing outside the family that everyone could hate unanimously--bureaucracy, bad drivers, rotten waitresses, radon. That was practically the whole list. Tom had visiting home down to major holidays, which meant religious ones, and/or major illnesses, which meant his mom’s. Tom would go and sit in the church he hated even more than he wanted to and pray for his mom’s good health.
“It’s a large small world after all!--1/2 Mile” the sign beamed in that paint full of glitter. Tom couldn’t understand how they got around the Disney copyright, but why would the wonderful world of Walt--on ice, Tom joked--care about Podunk, PA? It was harder for Tom not to care. Even as a child he kept confusing maps of America and their red interstates and blue highways with his Visible Man model he painted himself, with its red arteries and blue veins. He joked he couldn’t go because the name was redundant: all America was Roadside, and all Roadside was America.
But he knew such a philosophy meant he was avoiding something. In college he always seemed to learn the tangential lesson in each class, clinging to the aside while the meat of the matter rotted. From philosophy all he remembered was philosophers led bitter lives. Something about Nietzsche in bed with syphilis and a relative charging admission to glimpse him. Having such a life, Tom would seek beyond good and evil, too.
He made his own self-diagnosis years ago--compulsive quasi-impulsiveness. Tom would get himself right to there, then back away. Drive through the scenic town, but never stop. Sit on a high wall as a besotted freshman in college, imagine tilting over just enough, imagine the fall, but never imagine, let alone actually, die. Nearly ask Gina to marry him. He wanted to; he knew it vaguely had to do with her desire for talk. Gina just wanted to know what was next. How he felt about next.
Tom hated next. Even sex for Tom was best when they could both sleep it off, still tangled, somehow, that sudden move from exertion to placidity, from twoness to oneness to nothingness. He loved love in the afternoons and could count on the dreams it would bring. Gina was perturbed by this regularity, he could tell, but even that couldn’t stop him--neither sex nor a nap by itself was ever the same.
Roadside America just appeared, it would be too hard to drive past it. Inside, it was a shock to see the world so small. He expected a train set, or something, but this was frozen moment, ground level. His head bobbed about like the Goodyear blimp above the Astroturf--this odd world small and far away. He thought back to the extraordinary urinal and felt ready for it, now.
Tom wanted to quip, “This isn’t a big deal,” but there was no one to share a sly smile with. What was almost odder than a world in miniature was he could see the superhighway out the window, everybody headed somewhere, like they knew something. That’s what was wrong with Roadside America--whoever set the models up put no roads in it. The diorama had lanes and avenues and all the polite ways we have for pouring asphalt. But then it didn’t need a highway, Tom thought, it had one right outside. He wasn’t sure he liked how large the models made him feel, unsure he was big enough to be who he felt he was becoming.
If Gina were here, he could hold her, fold her into him. He would say, “Who needs words when we are the giants of our world?” realizing as he said it he needed words, he was using them to say he didn’t need them.
Maybe he could get Gina back if they were apart. He needed to get her to Roadside America alone, to let her tower over something for awhile. Maybe then she could feel she could need him and not have to give anything up. Maybe the world, the one outside, is this small. All this size stuff just confused him.
Back out in the car again, he wasn’t sure if he missed the on-ramp on purpose or not. The road he was on ran the right way, edging along the zip of the highway. It was growing colder, the way December does--each minute of the clock is a degree on the thermometer in a late afternoon. He pulled his headlights on even though it was too early for them. He snuggled his parka tighter, thinking how Gina gave it to him on one of their last kitsch excursions together. They would do discount stores on Sundays like religion; almost bought one of those cleaners that smoke slowly like hookahs at the center of most stores.
“Oh divine,” Gina shrieked in her shopping voice, the one full of sliding stress and exaggerated joy.
Tom came running, not much into the hunt for the day, trying to hide his sudden boredom, worrying they were losing each other. He knew from past failures each relationship had a moment it ticked off like lights going out, and it was just a matter of how long the couple would sit there in the dark before exiting though separate doors. Didn’t the couple that thrift-shopped together bop together? At least that’s what one faux-Chinese scroll they bought read.
“Put it on. Put it on.”
So he did, the pea green parka with the hood with the indeterminate animal fur fringe.
“It’s so you.”
“I had one of these when I was, geez, twelve, I guess.”
“There you go.”
“There I went, you mean. I don’t wear my Qianna anymore, either.”
Gina pouted. He hated when she pouted because he found her so cute that way, and worried what that meant. He also hated knowing she knew he loved her pout, her full lips pursing as if they’d just been kissed. Gina had a mouth worth setting up camp in.
“How ‘bout I buy it for you?”
Tom couldn’t say no, now. She always won these battles, mostly because he hated risking public arguments. Or, when he was honest with himself, he admitted he hated risking any arguments. Tom was the Neville Chamberlain of love always willing to sign any of his Czechoslovakias away.
“You have to wear it home.”
He did. Grew to like it. She once made him wear it when they made love, made him tie the hood tight, the kind of hood so deep it made his eyes disappear into it like the space alien on Bugs Bunny. The hood was so snug, she had to force her own head into it, too. Gina loved to be languorous, making love as if underwater and there was too much pressure to bear. So much of time with her was like that, though, the world slowing down. He couldn’t stand future talk because of it. Tom wanted a life like slow sex--those days when they massaged each other so much yet so gently easily that they couldn’t tell when they were touching or not. Burnished, they were. Ah, to gleam like that, bright bodies.
He shook his head to wake himself up to the roadway, knowing full well side roads don’t allow for as much inattention as highways. Sure enough he came up fast on a truck hauling out Christmas trees, folded tight like umbrellas. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” he said aloud, “or there’ll be no Merry Christmas, Thomas.” His headlights beamed into the green and chick wire, spinning emeralds. Gina and he had used a fake tree last year, an aluminum jobby with one of those turning wheels of colored light you point at it--they got it at a thrift store, of course. It wasn’t just a case of what Tom called “kitsch as kitsch can”--they hated the idea of chopping something down. Or as Gina said, “O lord, we welcome you as a baby into our world by killing this innocent evergreen. Happy now?”
The truck made a wide right onto the highway, another entrance Tom missed. But Tom knew that following the truck was like passing a black cat’s path--he would have to renounce too much before he was ready. He continued on the smaller road, half giggling at himself, for the highway was always nearly in sight--some hero he was.
Some Christmas this was going to be; he hadn’t even been able to tell his folks Gina wasn’t coming with him. They would be cordial about it to his face, but happy behind his back for he knew Gina was too weird for them. She represented another step on the de-evolutionary ladder away from who his parents were. They feared Tom would mutate into her, leaving them alone, wishing for opposable thumbs, or nose rings. That just showed the gulf between Tom and them--he couldn’t bring himself to get an ear pierced, let alone a nose. There was something he didn’t like about giving up any part of his body, after all, he thought, you never know when it might come in handy. As for Gina’s tiny diamond in her nose, well, that’s all she ever wore. That was her style: do something unusual so matter-of-factly it could stun. He liked to fancy her exotic, a trip to other worlds, like that kid in “Araby” thinking he found the spice of the Middle East in a cheap Dublin bazaar and getting that all mixed up with love. That was one story he couldn’t forget from college, and not just because it got taught to him several times. He couldn’t tell if he’d ever get past such a notion of love--the quest, the foreignness of it all. He always felt as if he were on a secret mission, yet everyone could sense he was a spy. And then finally he’d be found out, unable to speak the language, unable to keep up with the words he didn’t quite know.
Tom got spooked by what was at the side of the road, casting short shadows in the last of the day’s light. Baby Christmas trees, fields of them. They got taller as they grew away from the road and up the slight rise to his right. Imagining himself back at Roadside America with his giant’s-eye-view, he could see the pines as a kind of razor stubble. At dusk the trees seemed to glow green, especially rising out of the winter grass gone white like straw. He could never get over how failing light made the world more vivid, how the contrast between day and night set everything in sharper relief. The trees held the half-light in their boughs. The poor things, Tom thought, just growing unknowing. Filling up their allotted space like cookies going from dough to baked, their purpose was to die, to stand in the corner of somebody’s living room and then lie on the edge of somebody’s curb and then rot in a landfill on which more trees might someday grow. But for now they had the innocence of all little things.
Close to crying as he had been in years, Tom pulled the car over and stopped, not quite sure why he did either. Out of the car he hitched up and over the fence with some grace, his body responding to something, finding its room to uncoil.
He headed up the hill, the trees rising in size, knee-high, thigh-high, waist-high, the air green, the air spruce, his mind a pine cone. He passed his hands so slightly over the trees, damp with their sap, and sweet. He touched so many he wasn’t sure if he was still touching them anymore.
That’s when he spotted one missing. The neat regimental lines, this parade of pines, and one good soldier gone. There wasn’t a stump or anything. Just a space, a six by six with nothing to fill it. I can’t stay here long, but long enough, Tom thought, as he crouched down, flipping his hood up. He felt the cold this once, and tightened his parka against it, burying his hands deeper in the deepest pockets--it was one of those coats with two sets, as if it knew hands had days they wanted back into the body. He never knew green came in so many colors. He never knew so much was waiting and so little waited back. He never knew loneliness wasn’t a privilege, and didn’t make him any more special. These trees are all the same and beautiful, he knew.
Far below him the highway moved what didn’t seem fast anymore, cars off both ways, coming and going. He couldn’t hear it, couldn’t tell if that was distance or the muffling of his hood. When the breeze blew, he felt himself shift on the balls of his feet ever-so-slightly, then rock back to where he was. When the light was gone, he would get up and leave. The trees were whispering, he knew, but they weren’t saying anything he could tell, going empty with green, so, so close to something.
Labels: fiction, lost highways