Post Road Magazine #28

Thin, Brilliant Lines

Patrick Meyers

Somewhere, a photograph. I couldn't say where. A dresser drawer, a coat pocket, a landfill. It could be anywhere. There are two things I know about the photograph. First-it's of me. Physically I'm in the picture. And second-the photograph is black and white. On cheap gloss paper splashes the darkest of darks, the brightest of brights, with only slight traces of gray in between.

~

A wave of fog rolls in on a road in eastern Montana and everything's white. A confused, chaotic sort of white that jumps around at random and at will. Ahead a car drives with all its lights out except for one, the brake light, and the only time it's clear that the car is still on the road and in the fog is when the car slows down and there's a quick, cherry-red blip. The blip is bright enough, barely, to turn all the white red, a large red space to drive through for a moment until the road's all white again. This happens again and again. The road is white, then red, then white, and then red, and the fog stays heavy. In other places, coastal places, fogs are falling down warm and nice, cloaking streetlights, like in films. But there's no coast, no warmth here. The temperature outside is negative two, soon enough it will be negative three, and the sun has set. Driving east is like that; the sun is always set or setting. At least it's been that way for me.

Negative three degrees now and soon negative four. People focus on the numbers but dark and wind really make cold cold on the plains. And the plains are cold, a cold biting and relentless and unforgiving, though the fog is turning the plains into what they're not and they shift and pulse and breathe as seas do. I'm In the middle of the sea and drifting, not driving, weightless. The moon is full and coming up in the sky on top of the road. Before the fog came in, the sky was clear and dark, and before that a gradient gray.

A small sign with simple print marks the North Dakota/Montana state border. I cross over the border and, as if on cue, tank trucks carrying oil pour onto the road. They're behind, a long line of them, some even passing, and they're coming from the other way as well. They come by every minute or so, and they're big and fast, stirring up the snow on the side of the road, which happens violently enough to make the road feel serious. The car with only the one brake light is still ahead of me and its driver starts to feel the same thing, I know, because he begins to brake more frequently. Gas flares pop up on the side of the road-tall, bright flames burning off excess oil from the ground, some of them close and some of them a little farther off, and the fog is still thick, and when the trucks come down the road snow goes swirling up again and the car ahead brakes, and the one red light turns everything red again still, and the flames on the side of the road are red, too. This is how North Dakota introduces itself, with the world white and covered in flames, except for those short moments of total red, and when everything turns red now it's really red, and everything is red, even the whites of my eyes, and all of this together makes the drive seem surreal and frightening and exciting too, in a way.

Negative five degrees. Soon negative six.

Williston, North Dakota is a modern day oil boomtown-a term used imply lawlessness, or wildness, a term seeming to prove true upon my one a.m. arrival. The formerly quiet, small agrarian town is lit up and moving. Oil tankers, torrents of them, fall down the roads, men fall drunk out of bars, and there's enough light from the traffic and the buildings to turn night essentially into day.

My hotel room walls are paper thin. Also there's noise. All sorts of noise-groups of men outside on the sidewalk, tankers falling down on the highway, and the sort of sound machines make when thousands of them run together. Plus the couple next door. They've been yelling since I got here. One voice is deep and aggressive, the other high and defensive. She keeps saying she'll be there for him, no matter what. He keeps saying, "you stupid bitch." The time is four in the morning. The deeper voice goes deeper, nearly to a growl, and one of them stomps across the room-deep, heavy stomps that shake the walls of my own room. The lights are so many and so bright outside that, even with the curtains drawn, the window of the room shines out as a bright yellow square and casts shadows across the bed. Lying down I remember a time driving, not far from here, when my tire hit a nail and went flat. Outside the air had been cold in the usual winter way, so dry it seemed to break and fall apart, and it was cold enough to push me back into the car every couple of minutes as I changed the tire, which took quite awhile, but when the job was done I didn't go back in, not right away. I leaned back into the car and slid down to the ground. The air was lung-aching, the wind furious, making high, angry whistling noises, but the night still felt quiet, clean, and calm. There was no moon, no stars, just a black, unbroken space with wind flying across it, gaining speed for miles all around, and the subtle vibrations from the running car were a reassurance on my back.

One of the couple yells and throws something, some sort of glass or something else fragile, I think, and I hear it break against the wall and fall to the ground in pieces. The woman starts screaming "oh no, oh no, oh no," and her voice is raw and scratched from the yelling. I get up to go knock on their door, to get the man at the desk, something, but stop when I hear their voices turn soft and gentle, their quiet sorry murmurs coming through the wall, and awhile after that the not so quiet sounds of sex. Outside the men are playing loud music from car speakers, and then more cars pull up, and the golden box on the wall gets brighter, and the shadows grow longer against the floor's worn, pallid carpeting.

At a diner bar, the next morning, two men sit close and I can hear their conversation. I can't not hear them. One of them owns a high and piercing pitch that dominates the room, a voice sounding strange coming out of his face, a face heavy and covered by a beard that curls out thick and black like animal hair. The other man, his friend, nods but says nothing. The loud one is saying "let's go down to South Dakota this weekend, that's where all the women are." He tells a story about how he met his third wife, and his friend keeps nodding, but the story is long and involves so many of his other past wives I get lost in the details. A waitress comes by, and every time she does, he gives her a friendly smile and manages to touch her in some way on the shoulder, waist, or wrist, and she puts a smile on and laughs at his jokes. But she looks tired. Her eyes lay dead on her face. All the women working here look tired. The sun rises, then turns, breaking into the room by the windows, and the small, suspended particles that morning light holds so well seem to be missing. Their absence makes the room feel empty. Food from the plate sits dull in my mouth and goes coarse down my throat. The man says, "I just can't stand going alone to that bed another night. I can't," and his friend keeps nodding.

Walking out the diner I see two birds ambling underneath an oil truck in the parking lot. They're Hoary Redpolls, small finches with cone shaped bills and pale plumage across their chest and wings. I'm surprised to see them. Hoarys live in the arctic and rarely come south for the winter, and when they do they won't go much farther south than here. They have a bright, near perfectly circular red dot on their forehead, and they look similar to and would be easy to mistake with their cousin, the Common Redpoll. But these two are Hoary. They're Hoary, not Common, because their feathers are paler than the Common's would be, feathers that blend in well enough with the snow on the ground that when squinting from across the lot, the red dot is all I see. The birds linger underneath the truck, close to the thick rows of tires. They are attractive, unique looking animals. It's unclear what they're doing, but I never find out because before I realize or can react, the truck starts to move, and one of the Redpolls opens its wings and flies away, but the other doesn't, not in time.

I learn more about the Hoary Redpoll then.

I learn that when the tire of a two ton oil tanker runs over a Hoary Redpoll, its body makes several quick, thin popping noises. I learn that after a Hoary Redpoll's been run over in this way, its body doesn't look flattened, or bloodied, or all twisted up like you might expect it would. The bird just lies there, its wings stretched out, like it's still trying to get out of the way, and its eyes stay open, and its body looks so intact that it seems as if it's going to get up and fly away at any second, except for the thin, barely noticeable lines of blood running out of its eyes and bill. Those lines fall over the back of its head and mix in with the patch of red on its forehead, and after awhile the blood falls to the ground and makes slight red drips on the snow.

I pick up the dead bird and place it in bushes away from the road so it won't get run over again. The other Redpoll flies over and lands on the bush next to the dead one. Then, after a moment, it flies away.

Now all there is is black. I feel black everywhere. The road to Williston is black, and the tires of my car are black, and the tires that killed the Redpoll are black, too, and so are the eyes of the waitresses in the diner. The man at the diner went home after his long day of work, and his world was hushed and black, and when I drove, black ran through the engine and underneath my feet and burned up, all of it, smelling black, into the sky. A sky that was grey and dark and might as well have been black. None of it the same black of the night on the road, after I changed my tire. It was down and dirty, it leaked and poured in and onto everything, onto me, even, it was apart of me, I was apart of it, and I needed to get away.

White Earth Valley.

It's night when I arrive in the valley and the sky is cloud-covered and I can only see the edge of the light of my headlamp, which flickers on/off because the battery hasn't been changed since I can't remember when. I walk down into the valley, to White Earth River, hiking along for an hour or so until I find a place that seems o.k. for camping. The ground is dark and hard next to the river, which is frozen, but somewhere still there's a slight trickle of running water, and there's wind too, but besides the trickle and the wind everything is quiet. And cold, of course, but not as cold as it could be. In the tent I wrap up, every inch of skin covered by rigid wool, or fleece, and I slide down into my sleeping bag and more or less pass out.

But the cold wakes me before the sun's up. The coldest part of the day is the moment right after the sun rises, I've been told, not before it, and though I know this and realize I should pack up and move towards the car, I decide not to move, to stay wrapped up and out of the wind. As I grow colder the pain comes in waves, mostly in my hands and face. Every breath I take rises up into the empty space above me before dispersing, and then another breath replaces it. Shuddering sets in after an hour. My eyes clench and my teeth shake. What I think about in that hour is a guess. Maybe nothing, besides the pain.

When the sun does rise I move to the edge of my tent to meet it, but my fingers are dead and stiff, so when I bring them up to the fly it feels like I have to tell them what to do again and again in my head. After awhile I abandon my fingers and grab the zipper with my teeth to pull it down. The flap falls, and I see mist rising off the river, and the rising sun coming through the mist, and everything else I couldn't see the night before. The surrounding valley is subtle, covered in snow and dead prairie grass, and a little ways in the distance, at the valley's mouth, I can see a couple of old buildings that make up the town of White Earth, decrepit and in various stages of decay. And White Earth Valley really is white. A layer of frost covers everything-the shoes I left outside, the fly of the tent, all the dead and dried up shrubs and grasses; it's all white, and the sun is coming through the mist off the river, deepening the valley in a way that makes me forget the cold.

The only visible living thing in White Earth Valley is a dog. I drive out of the valley and she comes running up to the car from a trailer on the side of the road, runs alongside the car and throws herself onto the pavement. I slam on the brakes. My tires lock and slide on the ice. She stands in front of my car as it slides. She refuses to move. Refuses to wince, even. I see her pregnant stomach. I press down harder. My toes whiten from the pressing. The bumper comes within a couple of inches of her before the car comes to a stop. She looks directly at me and begins to howl-long, sorrowful howls, her belly swollen and sagging and swaying with her movements. In her eyes is loathing. She would have let herself die here, on this morning road. She is protecting her place, I suppose. This will be her children's place after it is hers, and after they are gone this place will be their children's place, and then their children's place-a place worth protecting despite the danger or impossibility of stopping what's coming her way. After several long moments she moves aside, though she's slow and reluctant to do so. I drive past, watching in one of the mirrors as she walks back into that same spot in the middle of the empty road, where she sits quietly and follows my leave.

I keep driving, can't seem to stop driving, and later that night my car breaks down, somewhere under the hood oil leaks and the engine runs dry. It's late at night, and cold, still. Negative six or around there. I've stopped dead in an intersection. A traffic light blinks above. In the car, cold pours down into every crevice, in and over the windows and through the sides of the doors, as water might to a sponge. All around the road is quiet, besides the odd driver pumping their brakes and swerving around. One of the these drivers pulls over next to me and opens the door to my car and shouts, "what did you do to this thing?" and laughs a manic, raspy laugh that bounces around and out of his throat. His face is round, bright, flushed from the cold.

The two of us push the car into a nearby lot. He's breathing loud, and despite the cold sweat falls down his face in weighted beads. He offers to drive me to the nearest hotel, and I accept, but he drives like he's blind, and the dash of his car is filled with old paper, dried crusted tissues, and other dark objects that run and fall down onto my lap as he makes his desperate turns.

"It's suicide," he says. "There's an accident almost every week, somebody dying over by Williston, Dickinson, all those towns, they run into the oil tankers on the road. They say it's an accident. I don't believe it. There's too many to be accidents. It's suicide. Just like in homestead days, when guys came and looked for work and couldn't stand living in the cold. They killed themselves, too."

Later that night I would learn more about this man. I'd learn that in town, where he lives, everybody's got heads bowed down out and out of the cold, but he keeps his up and takes it full on, with a face flushed and stretched across by a toothless grin. He goes to a bar called the Mint Bar and he drinks a pint, maybe two, and the side of the bar is painted green with big white letters that say you're only a stranger once. Up and down main street the people of the town have put up small stereos that sputter familiar songs in an unfamiliar, distorted way, but he's been here so long he doesn't take notice. He tells everyone he's a madman, an old Norwegian, and they can see it in his face, in his old blue eyes and wispy wild blonde hair.

Back in the car he says, "watch this," and swerves into the empty hotel parking lot, wrenching the wheel and hitting the gas, spinning the car into a donut. He rolls down the window and barks that same wild laugh around and out of his throat. The lights of the hotel lobby come on and a man and a woman walk out, looking concerned at first, then relieved when they recognize his face. The woman yells, "you stupid bastard!" Both smile and laugh. This is what they see: his bright-eyed, red face sticking out of the window, the car spinning in circles, his hand raised up toward the sky and the breath pouring out of his mouth, rising up to meet the smoke coming off the burning tires. Then the two misty bodies coming together, floating in the air, demurely, spreading out across the sky, threading in and out of each other above the spinning car with its self-proclaimed madman behind the wheel.

All of this in motion, all in flux.

A mechanic tells me the next day that the car is wrecked, that I'll have to leave it and come back for it in a couple of weeks. I can take a train if I need to get out of town.

In the station there's a stagnation to the air, a thick, malleable sort of stillness. The train is five hours late. Pale fluorescent light hits different objects in the room-benches, tables, old crumpled newspapers on the floor-and the shadows that fall off of them feel equally pale. Across the room, a mother sits with her son. The mother sleeps, sitting upright with her head slouched to the side, but the son is awake and wide-eyed. He's holding a disposable camera, and every once in a while he'll bring it up to his eye and take a picture. The snap of the shutter reverberates all over the room, followed by the thick, mechanical click of the dial. He hops off the bench, without waking his mother, and starts to walk around the room. His steps are slow and careful. He spends large amounts of time examining his subjects before capturing them. His subjects are a rotten banana peel, a rubber band, and an old discarded bag of chips. He makes his way all around the room, stands in front of me.

I say, "hello."

And without a word, the boy brings the camera up to his eye, snaps a quick picture, then turns around and walks back to the bench to sit next to his mother, still asleep. He doesn't look in my direction again, just fidgets with the camera and looks out the window. He takes one more picture. The light from the window is soft and composed, and when it hits his mother's hair, the hair glows. Their train comes an hour later, going the opposite direction of mine. The boy wakes his mother and together they leave.

My train comes two hours after theirs, seven hours late.

The cabin I'm assigned is empty. My plan is to fall asleep and stay that way until I reach Chicago, but when then the train pulls away the sun is setting, which makes sense, because whenever I'm headed east, the sun is always setting. But I look out the window and all I can see is red. And this is the red that does it. As to why this particular red, the red most far away, is the red that takes over, that finally pulls me up and out of my vapidity, I'm unsure.

Maybe it's the largeness of it, or the slight tint to the window, that makes the color feel so much more vibrant, so much more alive than it would have otherwise. Or, my best guess, it's that I have a chance to be still and take the place in. The color takes up the whole earth, and I can hardly breathe, and I don't want to blink because I'm afraid I'll miss a second of it. Red washes over in waves, and I can feel it, even inside the train-thin, brilliant lines running and pulling together the places and people. Actual red, like the Redpoll's forehead or of the flushed faced man, but also the cold pain of the night in the valley and the burning eyes of the pregnant dog on the road. Those moments are red, too. If I could, I would walk off the train and surround myself in the feeling, delve into the madness of it, take in its vehemence. But the train moves at full speed. Instead I sit and watch the red out of the window, watch the color fill up everything-the white and even the black, watch all of it become a large red space for me to live in and hold onto for as long as it will allow.

And a wind picks up, running alongside the train. A wind strong enough as to nearly be visible, a wind touching everything. Trees next to the track hunch their shoulders, their empty branches waver, and on the ground, in every direction, dead grass falls and bends, and the train itself even seems to lean over, a little, and the whole scene really, truly, just moves.

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