“What are they doing?”
“That car—the woman in the passenger seat just took our picture.”
“Why would she do that?” my father asked, leaning forward to look more closely at the passengers of the ponderously long older blue station wagon flanking us to the left on Route 301.
“I have no idea, but they’ve already taken more than one picture, and it looked like they were behind us, writing something down before that.”
My father shrugged, leaving my mother to her vigil behind the wheel.
There’s a kind of majestic boredom to the road when you’re a passenger, all the more so on these fading southern highways that run along their newer replacements. We’d sit and talk, listening to the radio stations phasing in and out as we’d race through their transmitter ranges, or read, working our way through the pages of a paperback, but sometimes you’d just slip into that certain trance state, turning to look out the windows with the farms and forests rising and falling in a blur beside you.
In your youth, you’d profess boredom at every available moment, acting out the deflating shrug of increasing desolation like a Kabuki player, but the trance, and that state of suspension that it brought, wasn’t bad at all. You’d sit there, obsessed with your utter disconnection, just watching the world flying along, until something chemical would start to happen in the curliest parts of your brain; a kind of gentle acceleration that would let you activate your mental ejection seat and parachute into the little towns along the way until they’d disappear around the bend, snapping you forward again like a piece of elastic.
Our silver and maroon Suburban was a sort of flying fortress, a perfect vantage on the world below, and you could peer right down into the secret interiors of all the normal cars on the same trip. I’d usually hole up all the way in the back, building a cozy space among our luggage, using pillows and our rolled sleeping bags to line my tiny redoubt.
I’m so rarely a passenger anymore that it’s almost lost to me, that moment, but only almost.
On the longest stretches, you’d start building strange relationships with familiar cars, flanking them for dozens of miles, losing them as we’d pull off for gas or small town stopovers for grilled cheese sandwiches cooked in waffle irons, only to find them again hours later.
“Mom, is that car like your old Plymouth?” my sister asked, pointing out a well-kept survivor from an earlier era.
“No, that’s much more recent. Mine was more round.”
“What is that, then?”
“I think it’s a DeSoto,” my father said, and I straightened up to get a better look. The car sidled by, a long, long flank with a contrasting streak of color trimmed out in chrome, and passed us, tall tailfins like a frozen salute. “Mercy, all that car and it’s a two-door.”
We didn’t see the DeSoto again, but other cars came and went and came back again, swoopy mid-seventies Buicks and Carter-era barge-sized wagons with those seats all the way at the back that left you sitting there on white vinyl, staring at the back window and wondering if that tailgating truck was going to cut your legs off at the knees in a sudden stop.
The blue wagon showed up somewhere in North Carolina, and it became a sort of friend to our Suburban in the way we gave every inanimate object personality and human qualities at that age. It’d catch up with us, flank us for a stretch, and pull off at an exit or drift off, then return, a fellow traveler carrying an analogue of our own family—parents, two boys, and a girl, looking a lot like us. The boy in the far back seat would look up from his own road reveries and we’d have prolonged instants of guileless, curious eye contact before the road would separate us again.
Catching up after lunch, the wagon sidled up, and I looked out, seeing the kid there, and smiled. Friends come easily on the road, where no one knows you and you have no history to speak of, even when you’re just strangers in separate cars, looking out over the lines between lanes. The kid ducked down, digging something out from the floor, then came back up with a speckled composition book. He took a second to write something out. He opened the book and pressed it against the window.
WE’RE GOING TO FLORIDA
I looked around in a brief panic, trying to find the little coil-bound sketchbook I had so that I could doodle along the way, and I found a pencil and wrote out a response.
WE’RE GOING TO GEORGIA – I THINK
I have no idea why I added “I THINK,” but that’s sort of how I did everything back then. The kid had a quizzical look and shrugged back at me in the gesture of “huh?” I wrote quickly, in a fevered way, flush with the wrong kind of inspiration.
THIS ISN’T MY FAMILY
The kid’s eyebrows went up, but my mother finally got tired of being stuck behind a huge truck taking pine logs to the local paper mills and passed it by, then sped up. I watched the kid, clinging to the glass in the blue wagon, as he dwindled into the distance, and I couldn’t help but relish a fact that had just then occurred.
No one knows me out here.
I could be anyone.
The bullies can’t find me, and the old stories can’t catch me; the waves of rolling eyes and whispered news delivered to the new kids who’d never heard that I was, in fact, a histrionic nerd of the first order were all something we left behind, all the way back there in Scaggsville, along with our TV and our beds and our sofa and everything else. On the road, you can be anyone, which is why so many people escape to the network of rolling asphalt when things get rough, to strike out for new territories and fresh starts. At ten, you don’t really have the option, but in the interval between familiar places—
I wasn’t sure why I’d never thought of it before. We were always signaling on the road, always smiling at people in other cars and making that one-armed pulling gesture to passing truck drivers that meant you wanted them to please please blow their horn, which would often invoke a caution from my mother.
“You know, Joe, getting them to blow their air horn might cause an accident,” she’d say, with the satisfying gravity of a grain of truth, and so we’d wait till she was driving to pull the routine, because it was even more fun to watch her flinch and turn back to holler at us. It wasn’t that we wanted to cause an accident, but the prospect that you could was heady stuff.
It probably gripped me most profoundly, and I’d hide in the back, ducked all the way down, until I could hear the roar of a car coming alongside, and when I timed it exactly right, I’d leap up, face in a wild grimace, waving my arms around just as the driver of the passing car would glance over, and in the rare instance where you caught them just right, and startled them into recoiling visibly, I’d just laugh uncontrollably back there like a perfect little sociopath, reining the giggles in with a snort as the drivers would beep and curse at my parents, roaring off in a huff.
“Did you cut that guy off back there?” my father asked. “He seemed to be pissed off about something.”
“I did not cut him off, Cleve.”
The blue wagon found us again, several counties down the road, and the kid in the back was ready. He’d prepared a question ahead of time, ready to press it to the glass as soon as I was within range.
WHY ISN’T THAT YOUR FAMILY?
I looked up front, wanting to be completely surreptitious, and wrote out a response.
I’M BEING KIDNAPPED
The reaction was perfect, the silent cries from the back of the wagon were so clear I could read them perfectly, making out the “Mom! Mom! Mom!” that went with the pointing fingers, and my own mother was destined to be exasperated for a solid fifty mile stretch, as the wagon jockeyed for position on the road so the passengers could look in and figure things out. The cat and mouse miles didn’t last, and eventually we lost them again. I dug out a book and let the road roll out under me.
Thing is, I am always crossing that border about the world, about whether to reach out and make friends along the way or just play it cagey and disappear back into my book and the contained world of storytelling, where details curl out of the dark like roots, sending threads and tendrils through the labyrinth of brain matter, almost more real than what is real.
I never know.
“I wrote my address down, so you can write me, if you wanna. I live in Hartford, Connecticut.”
Another kid, from one of our trips up north, where we’d pull in to Boothbay Harbor, Maine and park in the crackling pine needle bed alongside a little cottage named “Bon Arbi,” which we rented every year. Another week of that certain kind of high latitude sunshine, swimming in the cool-cold waters of Linekin Bay, another series of acquaintances made in the log palace of the Sprucewold Lodge that sat at the center of all the cottages around us, and it was always over too soon.
It’s occurred to me that I finally can’t remember the kid’s name, but we’d had a good run of it, running under the pines, diving into the frigid depths of the bay to snatch confused, angry crabs out of the crevices, and sitting in the hot sun on broad planes of rock, watching our crabs walk around tentatively over the dry surfaces, desperate for water. They’d find an edge and you watch them dive in again, shells like hatchet blades fading into the rippling murk that they knew and craved.
We played that game on that trip, too, our cars catching up, drifting off, coming back and going away, smiling and waving and holding up signs with each renewed acquaintance until we reached that point on the highway where the signs mentioned Hartford by name, and I sat up and waved to my friend, watching his car take the exit ramp and then dwindle away to a spot of color that disappeared behind a stand of trees. There was something I felt then, a kind of yawning, frightening emptiness in the face of just how big the world is, and it’s become a manageable condition, but it’s still there, all the time, reminding me that I am just one of billions of people, and it’s actually possible that you’ll never see someone again once you part.
Lifelines part like branches on a tree, and that’s all there is.
I stepped out of the fluorescent brilliance of a truck stop gift shop, littered with countless items of questionable taste for the people who really spent their whole lives out there, on the unlimited range of the highways, and realized that our Suburban was sitting in the pool of light by gas pumps with the blue station wagon pulled up behind, and my father stood there, talking to the driver of the car, chuckling in that sort of alarming way he’d laugh when he was coming to a conclusion. They’d fueled up, hit the restrooms, and composed themselves in the time it took to fill the dual fuel tanks in our monstrous truck, and I just sort of haunted the place in front of the glass doors, watching everyone come and go with the jingle of bells for each entry, waiting for them to leave.
“C’mon, Joe. Your father wants to make it to Orangeburg before we stop tonight.”
“Is that far?”
I followed my mother and sister back to the car, relieved as the blue wagon pulled out around us as we walked over. The kid in the back wasn’t even looking over, and the flank of the car was like a shark, slipping off into the dark sea under a blue-black sky. We all climbed in, got situated, and headed out. I wouldn’t make eye contact with my dad, except in guilty flashes, wondering exactly what he’d said, but nothing was mentioned.
The miles rolled under us, and I sat in the dark, watching the moon skimming the tops of the trees along the highway like I always do, comforted by the way that it’s always there, following us like a friend.
The signs started naming Orangeburg, and I noted the dropping mile counts, thinking of the crisp and alien delights of a motel room and a TV burbling away and the sound of the heater on the wall shussshhing us to sleep, and I could hear that something had my parents amused, all the way in the front of the car, but I couldn’t make out the details. They whispered back and forth, a sonorous, sweet concerto of a mumbled phrases and the hisses and pauses you hear when you can’t hear the words, and my mom laughed along with my father.
“Are we almost there?” asked my sister, drifting in from almost-sleep in her seat.
“Sign said it’s about ten miles to Orangeburg, Jenny.”
As we unpacked, I felt like I’d gotten away with it, free and clear, and as I handed out suitcases from the back, my father chuckled again, like he’d told himself a favorite joke.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Son, you’re a piece of work,” he said.
“You know why,” he said, and carried two armloads of luggage into the room, but that chuckle came back as he disappeared into the doorway. I climbed down with my own duffel bag and my knapsack full of books, and headed into the room, taking a deep breath of that amazing, inexplicable motel room smell, as pure and potent as a drug in how it brings back the best of a long ride in a strange place.
I make the same trips, most of the time, from Maryland to Georgia, and from Maryland to West Virginia, and from Maryland to Massachusetts, as I’m a creature of habit and ritual, but the roads get so crowded. The signs rise and fall, and they’re all tied into that storytelling place, where I remember all of it, and I catch sight of a sign for Hartford, and smile a bittersweet smile.
I never wrote my friend, and he never wrote me, either, but kids rarely follow up.
“When you say goodbye to people on the road,” my father explained at some other stopping place on some other trip, “You should tell them to have a good life, because you won’t see them again.”
“But that’s not true. You might see them again.”
“Maybe, but you probably won’t.”
“That’s awful,” I said, my voice suddenly small.
“That’s life, kid.”
Sometimes, I fantasize about being somewhere like that, stopping in Hartford on a lark, maybe, and getting into the phone book to look up that boy, all these years down the line, to call and say “hey, I don’t know if you remember me, but we were friends in 1980 and I thought I’d stop in and say ‘howdy’ and catch up,” except it’s true that I’ll never see him again, just like almost everyone else I meet along the way. I suspect they would agree that I’m a piece of work and it’d be an awkward meeting, but I like to think someone, somewhere, would remember what I remember, so it would be real.
The miles just roll on, anyway.
It’s just life, right?
© 2010 Joe Belknap Wall