Lights Will Not Illuminate the Exits
You’ve never driven drunk. Sure. And you’ve never texted. And you’ve never fumbled with the touch screen to skip “Changes” on Sabbath IV. And you’ve never nearly dozed off into a guardrail or missed a bend in the road indicated by a thousand yellow arrows. You’ve never crunched up a rabbit real good or swerved to miss a woman fishing the Star Gazette out of her newspaper box for so long you’d have thought she was birthing a calf. You’ve never masturbated behind the wheel, which—actually—you haven’t. This becomes a strange point of pride. Your wife has a funny story about how someone in her high school flipped a van while getting a blow job. It’s only funny because no one died and because she describes this particular blow job as “getting a frosty” since it took place in a cold van with a broken heater. You expect the phrase “getting a frosty” will become less hilarious as you get older. It doesn’t.
You are a commuter. Each day you drive fifty-four miles round trip. As the calendar and odometer tally it up, this seems to you a slow form of suicide. Slowicide. Although you do not utter this word to others, your inner monologue likes to bandy it about. You commute to earn a living, though life seems quite removed from what you do, which is to buy and resell goods for a national chain grocery store. You live in the middle of a county whose population hasn’t changed in the last couple hundred years. There are no jobs for which you are qualified that match your salary. So you must venture to the city where there is money and take it back to the country, which, when described this way, makes it sound like you rob stagecoaches.
When you were a kid and kind strangers asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, you said, a bandit! as if this were a legitimate career. According to your father you began to plan quite seriously for it. First, you’d have to learn how to ride anxious horses and shoot a gun, but most importantly, you’d need to come up with some witty last words for lawmen and filthy rich bankers to mull over as they died in a puddle of blood and bourbon.
In a winter storm the roads you drive are quick to become impassible. Everyone has four-wheel drive or a good brain in their skull except you. You have front wheel drive and all-weather tires, a term designed to bump the price and inject a little false confidence. Sometimes the road is whittled down to two little horse-and-carriage tracks and finally nothing, snowpack over which you must drive twenty miles per hour, endearing yourself to no one.
Your wife berates you for going out in storms, you who must get to your job of national importance at a chain grocery store.
In one such storm you are almost killed by a Logicorps truck, a company which, according to your ex-trucker sister-in-law, trains their operators to drive predatorily. Your cabin fills with this truck’s flashing brights, its maddening horn. There is nowhere to go, no shoulder, no plowed pull-offs. You pray for a subterranean ramp to open on the road before you, an emergency exit straight to hell sparing you crushed bones and likely paralysis. So far are you into a death fantasy, you hardly notice the truck is trying to pass. You brace yourself, squint until the road turns dreamy, imagined, as if the world can be fictionalized at your moment of contact with it.
When the collision never comes you are both relieved and yet, strangely depressed—how the closest you’ve ever come to death is repairing shingles or driving to work and for the rest of the trip you listen to your heart trying very loudly to communicate something to you without the convenience of a mouth.
Sometimes you entertain yourself on the road with sexual fantasies, coming out of them abruptly for red lights or deer in the road. You don’t go there explicitly but sort of wander in, like a door in your brain has been left open by mistake and, well, there’s obviously some interesting stuff going on in there.
The fantasies are always populated by faceless women—their faces obscured by steamy showers or behind sock and buskin masks, or the women are bent in front of you with no urge to look back. Sometimes your hands are being tied together by stretchy exercise bands given to you by your chiropractor. Sometimes you are blindfolded but watching from a third omnipotent vantage. You realize with a tinge of regret that some of the positions in your fantasies have been appropriated from porn. Now it’s in there, you guess, like an invasive, and there’s not much to be done. You watch porn rarely, but when you do, you find yourself feeling penitent afterwards and end up cleaning the baseboards in the living room or scrubbing away the thin film of black mold that forms over time on the thin ledges around each window.
Sometimes your wife is in the fantasies, though she too is faceless. You recognize her by her body. These are the most thrilling, though they seem in and of themselves a reason to go to therapy. At times, the fantasies kick up a level and you find yourself analyzing them as they are happening. Sometimes your lovers are the ones explaining you to yourself:
You are not alone in the compartmentalizing of your sexuality.
You watch porn but can’t admit you are the kind of person who watches porn.
It’s not your fault that you’re a man.
You conclude your sex drive was probably more important when humanity was barely sentient, trying not to die off as a species. Now it’s more like your appendix—a curiosity from another time that might accidentally destroy you. As much as you hate yourself, at least you’re aware of what you are. Most animals don’t know even that.
Your commute takes you through several small upstate villages and even a few hamlets. Susan B. Anthony was born in one of them, her house marked with a patinaed placard and candles in all the windows. For no clear reason, you imagine there is a room in said house with a cradle containing her baby bones, which makes no sense as she did not die as a child. You pass this house on Election Day. You pass it every day.
The largest village you drive through has car dealerships and a national chain grocery store, though not the one which employs you. There are residents of this village you see almost every morning. One is Shorts Guy. Every zip code in America must have one of these. The requirement for becoming your locality’s Shorts Guy is pretty simple: you just have to wear shorts every day including during the winter—through weather statement-worthy wind chills and cold November rains, all while Jack Frost is tip tip tapping at your balls. Often you think about what Shorts Guy’s life is like and try to dissuade yourself from assuming various stereotypes, like he lives with his mom and is really good at chess. Shorts Guy is living a life like you, and it is no better, or less worthy, or anything. Sometimes you see him at the Tractor Supply where he also works for a national chain and his face is round and not unsweet as he listens to some skinny guy crowing on about how his chicken waterer keeps freezing up. It’s December then, and sure enough, there are the shorts. Below the knees he has procured a very thick skin. That, at least, will serve him well.
You are extra cautious around crosswalks. Your barbaric state does not require you to yield to pedestrians, though it would seem this legislation is forthcoming. In your sunniest mood you will stop at a crosswalk until a car opposite mirrors your deference and an adult minding a stroller may pass. On darker days, you do not stop. You hate this behavior and the hating feeds it, begets it. Your skull becomes one of those wooden puzzle mazes one must tilt this way and that to liberate a steel marble. On such days pedestrians had best stay up on the sidewalks.
One morning you encounter a car left awkwardly—half parked, half crashed—off the shoulder of a county highway. A woman appears to be slumped inside, her head hanging limply off the seat rest—how the deceased are depicted on haunted hayrides. You feel a sickness stirring in your belly. This is what is called “obligation.” You park a ways down and walk back to the economy car caked in salty white like a stale pastry. Her coat is unzipped, scrubs underneath, and she hasn’t puked herself or bled out from anywhere so you knock ever so gently on the window. As the woman comes to, her eyes roll hither and yon in their sockets trying to figure out who you are. Apparently, she was on her way home from a double at the hospital and kept nodding off. She thinks, though is not completely certain, that she pulled over. You praise her decision. You find this woman to be at once more rational than you and also more comfortably aloof, the second trait being maybe something you should try.
She fishes around in her coat for a cigarette, starts to laugh as it dangles off her lower lip.
You probably thought I was dead, she says.
On a similar winter day, you come upon a girl walking along this same highway. She is wrapped in a bright blue blanket, her eyes red, and she is clutching a phone desperately to her mouth like the silicone of an oxygen mask. The blanket is not the sort one would keep in the trunk of a car for emergencies or impromptu picnics. It has come, you are sure, straight off the girl’s bed. As you’ve gotten older, you’ve become less adept at gauging the ages of people younger than yourself. She could be sixteen. You think of your wife, who hitchhiked and hopped trains at that age for a chance to visit her divorced father.
You think of stopping.
Then you consider how this will look—your dark sedan slowing, the window coming down to reveal an interior reeking of venison jerky. What will you say to her, you with your army surplus jacket and your hair wet from a shower, slicked straight back in the style of a comic book villain.
Will you ask if everything is okay here? Will you ask if she needs a ride?
You cannot stop. You know how your offered hand will be received: as a claw, its talons sharpened, practiced. And so you drive on. In the rearview mirror, you notice the tail of her blanket—still warm, perhaps, from a sleep of dreams—dragging along the dirty ground.
Lately you’ve been seeing a lot of flags at half-staff.
It’s not every flag pole, though enough to make you wonder—which tragedy is being marked by the gesture? You are living in a time when disasters are not separated by weeks or days or even news cycles. Are the lowered flags for those who died at the synagogue, at the nightclub? The razing of Mexico Beach? The California fires?
Some of those people died in their cars. They died commuting.
You’ve scrolled through pictures of this former place called Paradise, color photos that look black and white from all the ash. Here is the dust you’ve so often heard about, to which you will return. You see a photograph of a torched car leaking something silver and molten, like the blood of a superhero.
On one trip home you hear an audio recording made by a family fleeing the wildfire by automobile, presumably on a voice memos app. The father is playing it straight, not a quiver in his delivery as he reassures his son that they will make it out. What choice does he have but to bury his heart as deep as he can dig, lest it rise up into his throat. The mother seconds his confidence, though is audibly less certain, especially when the son reveals that a tree by the roadside is on fire.
Oh my god, the son says. Should we pray?
You wonder if Moses too said this, in an outtake from Exodus.
Later you rummage around the internet to find out what happened to the family on the recording. Instead, you find an article about how the wildfire spared an antique car, a model T, though the surrounding property is nothing but a chimney and smoldering detritus. You examine the many photos of this classic vehicle—showroom ready, its glimmering chrome grill—and think to yourself that god is a sick fuck.
If you want to check hockey scores and not risk hip checking a telephone pole, you flip the radio up to ESPN which barely comes in these days. A Christian station nearby on the dial has upped the wattage on their transmitter. You imagine a preacher somewhere asking the parishioners to take a minute each evening and pray for the vitality of the antenna tower. You’d like to be a believer but don’t feel you need more guidance on how to be self-critical. There was a time when you said you were “spiritual,” in circles where this word meant “not an asshole.” You no longer say you are spiritual.
Often passengers in your car will inquire about your belief system because of the Lucite Buddha cement-glued to the dash. They are awed by how light is able to shine right through his body. Sometimes at night the Buddha seems to glow inexplicably, though it’s probably only from passing headlights. When things go right, you develop the habit of bumping his little fist, folded as it is over his knee in supreme peace.
You inherit the Buddha from your friend one summer at the river. As you’re getting out of your car he asks, Hey, do you want this? like it might be a disco compilation CD or mirror dice. Turns out you’re not supposed to throw away a likeness of the Buddha. Somebody at work told him. You could give it to another person or you could put it in a river. He pries it off the dash.
You aren’t a Buddhist, nor are you religious, but you take the Buddha anyway. Your luck, you think, would take a hard hit from letting a godhead end up in a river.
A few times a year, you commute to work by bicycle. When you show up on the bike twenty minutes late people act like you’re some kind of superhuman.
Oh my god, someone will say. How long did that take?
Yes, it requires will and ambition to bike fifty miles in a day, but it’s not as complicated as performing a tracheotomy, as your co-workers seem to believe. The days you bike in will, hands down, be the best you spend at work that year. You don’t do drugs, so you never go in high. This is the next best thing. You smile and take it as a customer berates you for not having her favorite fat free cake mix in stock. Little does she know, your central nervous system is bathing in a Jacuzzi of dopamine.
Halfway to work you usually take a piss break at what is referred to locally as “the Monument.” It marks a turning point in the American Revolution, and one would assume a positive one, for the Continental Army. On one of your rides, you are taken aback—one might even say “accosted”—by an insanely beautiful woman who has jogged up the steep hill to the Monument. You are a little out of sorts, unsettled both by her presence and the fact that you’ve just been relieving yourself on the far side of this national marker. She bends forward out of breath with her hands on her legs. She is embalmed in sweat, and this is how your mind’s eye will record her: as a woman made of glass.
She smiles at you and says, Hey. She has a lot to tell you about the sunrise and some questions about your bike. Her enthusiasm is such that you think she must know you. But no, you would not have forgotten her. Probably it’s just the hormone-induced high of exertion—how the two of you are both travelers of your own volition, your legs worn down from their intended purpose, which is not to depress a gas pedal. She is asking about your bike because she wants to get into triathlons but gave birth only a couple months ago and is easing into things. You surprise yourself by saying, Congratulations!
Afterwards, as you watch her descend the hill, you realize you meant it. In the distance the sun is cresting the far off mountains. You want to preserve this moment in a locket and carry it around with you through the dark days of winter, to open it from time to time as one does the door of a wood stove when the fire has dwindled.
In the car, you endure radio programming. You listen to pop music and DJs with too much reverb on the talk mix, the endless IV of classic rock and if you ever hear Steely Dan again you are going to maybe impale your eardrums with the pressure gauge. You stomach politics, the slow passage of news into history. The real estate bubble. The election of a game show host. You drive your way through a Senate confirmation hearing for a Supreme Court justice, surprisingly rapt. The nominee has been accused of sexual improprieties in his youth, crimes even. You listen to this person defend himself. He sounds like a cook you once worked under, how he would thrash around the kitchen when he couldn’t find his favorite knife. As he rants, you feel he has likely done the things of which he’s been accused because at the heart of every man is a dark seed that contains enough poison to bring down an elephant. You know about the seed because you are a man and you have it. You have rolled it around in the back of your mouth and known from the acrid trail it leaves on your tongue that it is no thing to bite into.
His accuser has already testified. According to the record, this estimable gentleman sexually assaulted her at a party as a teenager. You are struck by the word “pinballing” which she uses to describe her escape down the unfamiliar staircase to the only known exit.
As this woman’s life progresses, she does not reveal the details of the assault to anyone, even her husband. The topic is finally broached when, in the process of renovating their home, she refuses to compromise on a single, aesthetically questionable design point: the house must have two front doors.
Something about the idea sends a spear all the way through you. Because subconsciously, you too have wished for this: a different door to leave by. One that doesn’t open into a pitfall or a den of lions: a door that is an exit, and not just an entrance into another emergency.
After the incident with the Logicorps truck, you devise a new strategy for winter travel. The plan is not very complicated: go to a bar and wait until the storm’s over. It turns out a couple of colleagues from work think this is a great idea. The older of the two colleagues has had a drinking problem and the younger will likely have one, though who are you to judge? You sit around the oval bar in the lobby of a hotel, a bar you frequent for its proximity to your workplace and the twenty-two ounce mugs they serve at happy hour.
The waitresses are young and lovely and couldn’t give a shit about you but smile like they might. You recognize the smile because you wear it every day for nine hours. Despite the heavy lifting you do, these are the muscles that hurt the most—the two that flank the corners of your mouth.
You drink as snow continues to fall and watch sports television about teams you don’t care about like the Clemson Tigers. The soft-hearted bartender tells you about what’s in tonight’s sangria. (Cranberries! It’s almost Thanksgiving.) You are consistently the youngest people at this bar, which serves things like sangria and port. You and your colleagues argue about what the hell port is, except maybe stale wine. One rule you have about the hotel bar is you are not allowed to look things up on the internet, but must instead, as in the 1980s, fight about them until someone throws in.
The older colleague’s keys are on the table. One of the keys, you notice, is in fact half a key. Where’s the other half? you ask him. It broke off in his front door, is the answer. For over a year he has relied on the two disparate halves to marry in the lock and trigger the bolt. You create a scenario for the older colleague, a hypothetical in which he must escape a danger via the compromised front door—muggers or a pack of coydogs. He concedes his front door situation seems risky, but then again, it is just another calculation. It will work until it doesn’t.
Your drive home confirms you are a genius. The roads have been marginally plowed, but, better still, no one else is driving on them. Yes, you’ve had a couple beers—four beers volume wise—but that was over the course of many hours, not to mention the shrimp cocktail you ordered, having discussed at length how ordering a shrimp cocktail off a restaurant menu as a teen is one of the first great forays into adulthood. Now that the novelty of seafood has worn off, you realize the only reason to order this bawdy and slightly unfulfilling item is to re-live that virgin experience. The over-spilling cup of it.
This is what you are thinking about when the creature ambles out into the path of your car. It is not a deer or a bear, but some form of hulking Rodentia, black and thick. You hit it and it seems to hit back, a fanfare of crunching which may be bones or fiberglass or both. It’s a raccoon, you decide, a prehistoric one by the looks of it. You do not stop, though now hear a significant portion of the sedan’s body dragging along the snowpack, punctuated by a clawing sound when the snow yields to pavement and the plastic is free to connect with the concrete. You only have a few miles to go. You will not stop now. You will not put on your flashers and fumble with bungee cords in the cold and dark, though this is one of your defining traits as an American: a false confidence about how to use bungee cords.
When you get pulled over you are hardly surprised. The cruiser passes you in the opposite direction and in the rearview you witness a nice piece of stunt driving on the part of the officer—a three point turn without any of the points.
You park the car, dig around for your documentation. Your wife has little faith in the law and even less in its just interpretation. You feel lucky she is not sitting to your right, putting you in the position of referee. A female officer approaches along the shoulder. You don’t think you are drunk, though does anyone ever think that? This makes you more nervous.
You greet her as though you might be meeting at a community barbeque. The introduction is too pleasant for this bleak evening. She is not amused. You wait for the question you know is on the way—where are you coming from? You are well-practiced at lying to yourself, but to others, not so much. You prepare to tell her you were at a restaurant. Strangely, it does not come up. Not how much you’ve had, nor where you’ve been—only the fact that when she passed you it looked like the Fourth of July was being observed under the chassis of your car.
I hit a giant raccoon, you say.
In response her mouth makes an unbelieving flat line. She runs your license, and when she returns, leans inside the open window, her eyes coming to rest on the dashboard Buddha who is joyfully pulsing from red to blue and back again in liminal ecstasy.
So if I keep going that way, I can expect to find this raccoon? she says.
You nod. You imagine the cop spotlighting the corpse in her brights, its midsection unzipped by your all-weather tires. How it appears to be baring its insides for all to see, throwing open its skin as a flasher would a raincoat. It is out of this corporeal passage, you hope, that a smaller, more vital portion of the raccoon has escaped.
She shakes her head at you, though it’s possible you imagine this. In the silence that passes, you sense the officer making a calculation of her own.
Get home safely, she says at last.
You can’t remember who is supposed to leave first at traffic stops. Even though you are free to go, you feel leaden, as though to pull yourself forward against the vectors of gravity and drag will require too much of a currency you’ve already spent. You linger after the cruiser leaves, eyeing desolate snowfields as the wind cinches the skin of your face more tightly over your skull. Although you cannot say why, you are free. Perhaps she has decided that on this night, in this empty theater, there is no one else around for you to hurt besides yourself.
Greg Tebbano is employed as a grocery worker and, occasionally, as an artist. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Contrary Magazine, Third Point Press, Jet Fuel Review and is forthcoming in Maudlin House and Meridian. He has been a resident at Vermont Studio Center and lives in upstate New York.