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Post Road Magazine #33

In the Middle of the Middle of Everywhere

Nicholas Patrick Martin

The radio is broken and I know this. Before I turn the ignition. Before I leave you behind in Georgia. Thousands of miles of asphalt and unbroken landscapes punctuated by a windmill or forgotten oil derrick or large oak unfazed by summer heat, its limbs fracturing a diminishing sky that bleeds a stark palate of light, endless. I will be alone. I am alone. But the proximity of people, even those living above or below, thudding feet and foul cooking smells and crying children and slammed doors and thin-walled sex, even those people, well, I would welcome them into my senses, would cherish, however briefly, a cumbersome encounter at the mailbox. I will miss the grim stare, or ignored smile, a fresh dent in my car door—no note.

No radio.

I sing to myself. I make funny noises and do weird voices and laugh, the audience of me enjoying every minute. I roll down the window and suck in a wall of wind that smells and tastes like another America. The air is a newly-discovered species, the heat a unique kind, unstudied, the moonscape of southern Wyoming, though charted and mapped and seemingly inhabited—between vast distances fast food signs gesture skyward indexical of space, illuminating the strange geologic formations submerged in night—is alien. The people here must have been body-snatched, their cowboy hats and belt buckles and rigid, starched jeans composed of other materials similar-looking to ours but unique in composition. My god, they look just like us.

* * *

I stared at the lamp. The "free" sign I'd taped to one of the bulbs flapped in a hot September wind. Everything I owned was in the trunk of my car. The rest I sold. A cute mom and her son who was getting his first apartment took the hand-crafted dresser that had been a gift to my parents for their wedding. A browbeaten couple in their forties took the washer and dryer. A nerdy middle-aged guy with horn-rimmed glasses and wavy gray hair took my Robert Crumb collection and thanked me, sincerely, his smile childlike as he flipped through the pages. He waved goodbye.

A kid in his early twenties was thrilled to get a box of empty CD cases for free. I don't remember who got the nightstand, maybe the mom and her son who took the matching dresser. The couch, the one you and I sweated into naked and new and bumping against happy, that buyer is a blank face too. The cagey guy in his forties who came for the TV gave me the heebie-jeebies. He wore stained sweatpants and was sweating for no discernable reason, fidgety and distressed. I mean, he was just buying a used TV. I told him we'd have to carry it together—it was an older boob tube and huge. Take an end. More nervous jerky limbs and nose-pinching and micro-spasms. Be right back, he said, and hurried out of the apartment. I'd never unlocked my revolver from its case with the intention of possibly shooting someone, but without hesitation the metal was heavy in my hand. I looked out the window and watched him speed off in a shitty hatchback with a bad muffler and wondered if he'd changed his mind about the TV or if it was me. What if I gave people the heebie jeebies.

* * *

The old lady with a corrugated face explains the rates from behind glass, her voice percolating through a slotted metal medallion similar to a movie theater box office. Cigarette smoke swirled in the tiny booth, and when she spoke into the fixture tiny plumes emerged, corkscrewing into a thick Mississippi night. The smell was reassuring. A train plowed through dark nearby, metal on metal, concussion of the horn a living thing signaling I was in the middle of somewhere. I didn't want the train to end. I took comfort in the sound, the brutal metronome of what was once progress, and pictured the engineer alone staring into oblivion thinking of home. The thumping sex of rail and train faded and a washboard symphony of bugs swelled in its wake. The old lady handed me a key and smiled.

The room reminds me of the one in Charlottesville. You met me there, made the drive from Atlanta, your face a tired smile that crowded everything out, the sweat from an early summer and long drive puddled under your arms and the smell of you, sour and so familiar I almost cried. You smelled like home. That room was a shitbox and so too, this room, with its matted, almost shellac carpet. Cigarette burns and cancered walls. Even if I can't see it, I think about cum on the bedspread—I know it's there. If a lozenge of bristly fabric cracks and flakes like an old old-fashioned doughnut, I will barf. I don't even want to go in the bathroom. The sign outside reads FREE ABLE. I wonder who this Able is, how in the South people like novel spellings of names, and what it was Able did to find himself captive. Who's got a beef with Able? I decide I'm rooting for Able. On your side, Able, wherever you are. I eye the remote with suspicion, the one object in the room on which I can almost hear germs setting up shop, erecting whole thriving cities of disease with bustling streets and a swinging nightlife. I say, Fuck you, germs, and walk over to the TV, which I discover is broken. Another train divides the night. I am with you, Able. You are not alone.

* * *

Meet me there. I thought you might when the angle of your face turned toward the chance of something better, or unbroken, anything but this—in Mississippi, in Louisiana, deep green and laden, in Texas hill country where dusk threatens to obliterate all pasts and the gesture of night opens up to the sad silence of forgiveness, a black ribbon of road disappearing into itself without anger, only quiet in a windswept coolness that passes over and through everything here. Feel it on your face. We should be silent together, our interiors adjacent, adjusted, your seat slightly reclined, no radio, just imperfect warmth, howl of a cracked window, tremor of the engine in our bodies.

And road. Road road road, Sweetheart, for miles when miles become an abstraction, not so much a measure of distance but time, hours without anyone around, no lights behind or out there. We're alone, you and I, and don't you love the sound of it, of nothing, of us. I can see the stars out here. No one. The sky looks like oil, a huge puddle of oil that wants to reflect all this but can't. Nights should be longer, I think. I wish you'd have come with me. Where are you? It's so dark out here. You can see the stars. I miss you. I'm the only…the wind is cold and moves things…one out here. I don't know where you are. Can I come find you? Say something. I don't want to go. It's dark. I'm tired but there's nowhere to stop. I am nowhere. It sounds spooky when I say it. It's so dark. Where are we? You should be here. I'll come back if you ask. I'll come back. How much farther. I want to close my eyes. When I close my eyes, I can see the stars.

* * *

I told you once compulsion was an originless need. Because I thought it sounded good. Anything aesthetically accurate can seem true. Sometimes oblique and tenuous connections make the most impressive-seeming bullshit because they sound more meaningful than they are. Most things with any real meaning don't require festooning. They exist alone and reveal themselves in silence, stark as any desert—they just are. I have the compulsion, on the road, to kill myself. Suicide is a kind of deafening silence, a filamented anguish that strings together everyone able to remember the lush tenor of a true laugh, a ruefully clumsy gait, endearing and missed. An expression of bewildered love at having been loved at all. I pull off the road in Colorado or Utah or Wyoming; place has become no place, or not place, but I remember the moonscape of Wyoming and the aliens who passed for us, their disbelief at my tattoos, foreign car, and short stature, so I must not be in Wyoming. I drive down a narrow gravel road that should lead somewhere, but I've had enough of roads and stop before I reach a signpost or mailbox or weather-beaten wood fence. It's just me and this road and on either side paradox—ramshackle corpses of enduring history—fixed in dust that spills out in all directions, expanding out and away from itself like the universe, only uninspiring. I don't feel insignificant and humbled before the vastness and incomprehensibility of space. I feel massive and crowded by the emptiness surrounding me, as though if I were to breathe, or swell my chest, the whole suffocating nothingness of it all would crush the buttress of my ribcage, shrink my skull to a point of infinite density with me squished inside.

This road is thin as one of your long tobacco brown hairs, taut as all get out, and I balance on the edge, more afraid of splitting the strand than falling off. The spotless click of a cocked hammer is an unassailable sound. It has a way of bending a mood toward apprehension, even dread to some who're unfamiliar with guns. There is a potential and definitive end extending in a straight line from the revolver's barrel that terminates so far into the future it may as well go on forever. Two parallel lines, even if infinite, will never intersect. I think of the geometry of rooms, the physics of exploded things. The noonday sun is liquid, sky sun-sky, a timeless blue burned away from heat that pools in recesses, eye sockets and nostrils. Nobody is out here. I threatened to kill myself once and you asked me politely not to. There was something stilted, Sunday prim about how you delivered the remark. I wasn't sure whether to be sad or glad, whether your response was simply a formality. The gun is heavy and I'm tired. Maybe something moves on the horizon that has become light. Road weary is a saying. Air-conditioning is a modern miracle. The sun is liquid out here. It floods everything in sight.

* * *

Idaho breaks my heart. The panhandle is all I have left. Before I cross into Washington, nearly home, the last few hundred miles to Seattle. I don't know why but it's always the place that comes before the end that's most painful. Prisoners of the Gulag would call those so worked and wasted by hunger that they'd become zombies dokhodyaga, "goners." The word is derived from the verb dokhodit, "to arrive." What place had they finally arrived and from where had they come? I won't extend the analogy only to point out there are types of arrival, not all of them pleasant. The radio, briefly resuscitated, gropes for a signal and dies. I pass isolated towns, never destinations except for those who live there, those who call such places home. I think of our home that's now no longer ours, only yours, and wonder in a way that I hadn't before why someone who'd lived there before us sealed the fireplace with concrete. I think about that a lot, and the emptiness of the mantle after you'd taken down pictures.

* * *

The steps were crowded, huddled couples and mothers kissing away sons. No more hidden notes this time, snuck into my wallet or backpack or between pages of books. No more notes at all. Of course I checked. As soon as the train started moving. Funny thing about trains: sometimes when I'm looking out the window it seems instead everything outside is moving, my body fixed in space and the world—with me somehow inscribed—that's leaving. How can someone leave something they're inside? But all movement is a departure. The disorienting truth is everything moves, out and away from everything else, whether you want to believe it or not. Even if the train didn't leave, you would have. That's when I knew it was over. I'll come back after my family's vacation and when you pick me up we'll both know it's finished. During that trip my sister will ask if everything is ok and I'll say yes and the lie will hurt worse than what I know to be true. I'll read The Pale King in D.C., where my sister and mom and nephews will burn walking under a spotless sun and we'll feel the fatigue of our shared histories. I am pale and will also burn. After visiting the Library of Congress I'll seek out the Jefferson Memorial, because it reminds me of you, when we met in Charlottesville and visited Monticello. I flipped a nickel and you smiled. There it was, in our pockets all along.

Jefferson owned a map of the world resembling aesthetically but inaccurately the continents and their relation to one another. He knew, as most cartographers probably did, that a map scaled to the world is the world. You and I walked through gardens that had been tended by slaves. The great ice house dug deep where they'd store huge blocks of frozen river hauled up from the Rivanna. Ice would keep for months underground. There were trees, are trees, with massive branches and canopies, wires wending down their trunks to channel lightning into the ground. I'm afraid of lightning, which is hotter than the sun, and not as indiscriminate. People struck by lightning must feel chosen. Franklin invented the lightning rod, didn't he? I don't know if Jefferson and Franklin were friendly, my history is spotty. But I think Tom would be glad his trees were saved from the splintering sky. The train did move with me inside and unmoved, oblivious to how much I will miss you in a few months, when I drive away for good. Everything moves away from everything else. They've proven it—there is no boundary, no edge from which to fall. If that's true, we're all the center of the universe. And equally far away.



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