Requiem For A Machine

Alert but lazy-headed, stretched out on the sofa, I hear the moan, the sound of a mule’s ghost, as Amy pulls out to go to work.

Just the day before I had watched Amy force her laundry basket through the glassless pukey window, and I thought about the coming winter. I thought about rain. In the coming months there would likely be some. “Normally, when it rains,” she explained to me, “I just carry a big towel with me and only half of my back or half of my ass gets wet. It’s OK. But what does suck is when the rain gets in the driver’s window and it just falls down all by itself. You keep having to push it back up. Just try smoking a cigarette like that.”

Moments after she leaves, my phone rings. “Amy Cell Calling” the readout says.

A 1995 Ford Escort (“Gee Tee” Amy reminds me, swinging her hips with the letters), Purple, the BarneyMobile, the Purple People Eater, the Purple Beast, but lately simply “bitch”. Only the AM radio works, the seatbelts don’t work, and “the airbags don’t work or they would have deployed a long time ago.” Arrayed across the window are countless parking stickers for colleges.

Car Shrine “My car just took a fucking dump on me,” Amy says over the phone, “I’m in the middle of Riviera and people are about to hit me.” She describes the symptoms. Transmission. Probably shot.

“Almost ten years,” she told me over coffee one day. “The longest relationship I’ve ever had. I drove up to New York in that car. I was with my boyfriend. At one point I was driving and I sniffed my armpit and said, ‘I need to shower.’ I found out later he had just farted.” It’s funny the stuff you think of when you’re saying goodbye. Something that was lost almost forever is suddenly right there, never gone. A laugh, a shared fart, a moment in life.

“I’ll be right there,” I say. I scrounge up fresh socks and schlump out to my wheels. The passenger seat is filled with travel debris and luggage, but I decide that time is important if the bitch (I’m referring to the car, of course) is in the middle of the road.

My own memories of the car don’t stretch back so far; tonight I have seen pictures of the car when it was new, and honestly it’s hard to connect the two. For me it will always be the pile of loosely-stacked metal with seats somewhere in the middle. Death Trap. Cop Bait. Moving Violation. It is no more. Tonight we pulled out all the miscellaneous crap that had built up over the years – lighters, CD’s, tapes (no tape player for the last five years), empty packs of smokes, kitty litter, and an endless list of odds and ends.

A shrine stands on her coffee table, heavy with the symbolism of her first true love.


Sex, Death, and Words

Location: Adelanto, CA
Miles: 7819.4

I saw lots of great photographs today, but it was a day of words. It was a day of sometimes violent discussion in my head. As I drove across the desert my sun-baked brain created images that you will have to wait for my fiction to read. Earlier I said that an artist gets close to madness. Today I was an artist. I guzzled a gallon of gatorade as I crossed the desert and was peeing yellow crystals at the end of the day.

I was alone. Really, really alone. I was a tiny ant, crawling over the surface of the universe. I started to think about that empty space, and I compared it to my own soul. I started to think about a photograph, and more than that the story of the photograph. The picture is a nude, her dark skin in sharp contrast to the shimmering mountains in the distance. Her bare feet hover above the superheated white sand. Her long black hair falls straight to the Earth (perhaps with a detour over a shoulder), giving a line for her body to curve against, perpendicular to the unforgiving horizon. It is early morning, and the desert is hot already, but the light is coming from the side, creating dramatic shadows that make the curves curvier and the lines more dramatic. She is the goddess of the desert, cruel and lonely. I imagine the position of her down to each finger, and I imagine the sun dancing over her skin, the shadows playing over her curving neck. Lines and curves. Her face holds rapture. Her image thrills me and propels me.

I join 395 south and it is an easy drive. There are sections where there is a passing lane and others where it is a simple two-laner. During the two-lane sections people were behaving badly. I was putting along in one of those sections when I heard a siren behind me, very close. There was a trooper right on my butt. I signaled and pulled over, and he went blasting by. I slid back onto the highway. I was in the next town when I pulled aside for an ambulance. There was trouble ahead. Actually, for me there was inconvenience ahead. Trouble had already been and gone, exacting his terrible toll.

I watched ahead as a helicopter rose and shook the heavens as it shattered away. Inside was at least one human life on the edge of expiring. That life was surrounded by the greatest people and the greatest technology ever dedicated to preventing the fragile thread of life from being snapped. Our tax dollars at work, and well spent. I thought back to the crosses I had seen at the side or the road in Montana, a state-sponsored appeal to drivers to imagine their own mortality. I came over a rise, and below there were flashing lights and a cluster of vehicles. I pulled to the side to let another meatwagon pass.

As I approached, there was a flagman controlling traffic, They had opened one lane, but it was to be shared by northbound and southbound traffic. The collision (safe driving is no accident) occurred right where four lanes went to two. I know what happened; nobody has to explain it to me. Someone tried to push that passing lane a little too far.

What got me most about the roadside crosses and about this horrible thing I saw was time. Fifteen seconds before the disaster no one knew that they were about to suffer horribly or even die. They were just driving along. I imagined the horror of coming over a rise to see a pair of headlights staring you in the face. As I pulled through the forest of demolished vehicles and fire trucks, I could not help but rubberneck, despite my earlier vows to do no such thing. I had to know the magnitude of the damage. There was a car torn right in half. There was a guy panning a video camera over the wreckage. In an ultimate act of hypocrisy, I wanted to punch that guy. As I crawled through the scene, trying really hard to keep my eyes glued to the car in front of me, I saw probably ten people loading a victim strapped into a total immobilization litter very gently into the back of a truck even as an ambulance stood waiting.

I was barely ten miles south of that scene, driving with people who must have seen what I saw, who must have seen the horrible cost that saving thirty seconds in a six-hour trip can exact. No lesson, no learning. People were still doing the same stupid shit. People who had just seen a horrible accident were completely unaffected as far as their own mortality was concerned. I drove on knowing the the same assholes were going north, and at any moment I would be faced with leaving the road or having a headon.

I am not going to enumerate the endless series of phenomenally reckless acts I saw on 395. The whole time I was on that road I was surrounded by dickheads. There are crosses along that road, not state-sponsored but more ornate, testifying to the price of stupidity and impatience. After my travels, if there is one thing I could teach my beloved country, it’s patience. Slow down, guys, you’ll get there. Pass with care.

I drank a gallon of Gatorade, a gallon of water, and a large Coke as I crossed the desert that day; when I finally pulled in for a rest in Adelanto I was more like Jerry-jerky. If you really can sweat the toxins out of your body, I was pure that night. (Lord knows I picked up some toxins in Ely.) I bought a six-pack at the local grocery and drank only one of them out of some sense of obligation. I was just really, really thirsty. I took a cold, cold shower and finally shed the heat of the desert.

This was just going to be a quick episode. As I moved over the face of the Earth today I was filled with words. All kinds of words, most of them too private not to disguise as fiction. I came to a new understanding with The Fish. I’m a cold one. At least when it counts I am. But out there I got closer to the story. I put in (in my head) a couple of new ideas. As I moved from Nevada to California I was imagining what people would say about The Fish, and while the exercise was embarrassingly vain it also helped me define just what it was I wanted to say. That’s the magic of the desert. There is a stark beauty that dances with you, but there is always the reminder of death breathing hot and dry on your neck. The desert makes a poet of all of us.

Suicide Squirrel Death Cult

Location: John and Janice’s house (map)
Miles: 805.3

I got my first inkling of the seamier underside of this quiet town a few days ago while a passenger in John’s car as we headed up the Glenwood cutoff toward Highway 17. It was a peaceful morning; we had a few errands to run – I needed ethernet cables, John had an item to drop by the tailor’s in preparation for his upcoming Polkacide gig. The sun shone down through the branches high overhead. Visibility was excellent, and the day quiet. Not even a Metro was going to sneak up on a woodlands creature on that day.

Yet, inexplicably, as we approached a tree (map) a squirrel leapt out of the foliage directly in the path of the car. John stomped on the brakes, but it was far, far too late. The squirrel vanished out of sight beneath the hood. John looked in the mirrors while I turned around to see the aftermath, but there was no obvious body. Perhaps he had got lucky.

John and I laughed about it, imagining the other squirrels on the side of the road egging that one on, but John must know. He’s been around here too long to not know about the Suicide Squirrel Death Cult. People keep their dark secrets to themselves in small towns.

It was today that the truth became obvious to me. Driving peacefully up Glenwood from the main town (map), two six-packs of beer placed carefully so that the side-to-side forces of the upcoming twisty road would not dislodge them, a squirrel came dashing out from the far side of the road and ran full-tilt to intercept me. I hit the brake, dumping bottles of beer out onto the floor on the passenger side, but as I slowed the squirrel changed course toward me. I cringed as my car passed over the squirrel. Once again, however, when I looked in my rear-view mirror, there was nothing. No squirrel guts, but no squirrel scampering to safety.

“Who trains the squirrels here anyway?” I asked the sky, as if every municipality had a squirrel trainer and the one for Scotts Valley just wasn’t very good. But after my initial innocent outburst, the terrifying truth began to dawn on me.

A hundred yards farther on lay the body of another squirrel. This one clearly had lost his bet with the gods of steel and rubber.

Yet there are eerie parallels between the two squirrel encounters, the most sinister being the complete disappearance of the mad rodents. Ghost squirrels? Perhaps it is an auto-matador squirrel club, keeping points among its members, who try to get as close to the car as possible without buying the acorn stash. Perhaps. But if had been something that innocent, then the locals would have been able to talk about it. No, the secret must be darker. It must be the Suicide Squirrel Death Cult.


Scratch one cat

It’s pretty common for me to hear the coyotes partying late at night, but last night was unusual because they invited a cat to the affair. The cat must have been cornered or surrounded, because it put up a fight for quite a while but did not escape.

Spike and Lefty were very interested in going out to join the fun, their tiny dog brains not capable of understanding that they would not last nearly as long as the cat. I closed the glass door before the end, for my own peace of mind and to keep the boys from tearing through the screen. For all I know the cat finally got away, but I doubt it.