The dawn is swathed in an eerie state of twilight as I walk out the front door of my parents’ house. The cold is abrasive, bristling, it feels like a brush is being dragged across my skin, but not a brush with metal bristles; no, more like a brush with plastic bristles. My skin is certainly getting scratched, but not aggressively enough to draw blood. Just enough to remind me that, yes, Jack Frost is still drawing a brush against the skin of my arm, and no, the ambient air temperature is not going to make me feel like existing is even remotely okay this morning.
G-Mah, bored because I turned off the television, rolls her wheelchair over to the freezer and removes a frosty bottle with a cork in its mouth instead of a cap. Captured within the glass is a thick maroon potion – at least that’s what I assume. I’m not sure whether or not grandMother is into alchemy these days.
“It’s time to take the pills,” she sings as the glass clanks against the tile surface of the kitchen table.
While grandMother realigns herself in her spot, my Uncle Bill gets up to fetch her a bottle of flavored seltzer. Then he sits right back down when he sees his mother pull one out from within the box of tissues between her and my laptop.
The cold follows me into my car as I sit down, shrieking with horror when I push the start button and Bessy roars to life. I crank up the heat and get blasted with rushing frigid air – the shriek was clearly just a distraction tactic, a ruse to lull me into a false sense of security. The cold never gives in so easily. As I sit in my car shivering, doing absolutely nothing to block the flow of the acerbic air conditioner, I do a quick spot check to make sure everything on my mental checklist is in the car with me.
“Keys, check,” I say aloud to nobody in particular. “Luggage, check; box of no less than thirty see-dees, check; signed Running for Zak, check; cabinet, check; wallet, che– wait… shit, where’s my wallet?”
‘I swear I left it in here last night,’ I think to myself, madly searching the remaining open space in the front of my car like a D&D player who hit a few potholes on her way to the weekly game and can’t find her game pieces, but alas, no dice. Now I’m forced to do the unthinkable: go back inside after I’ve announced to the whole house that I’m leaving.
‘Oh well,’ I think as I walk back up the steps to the front door, ‘it won’t take that long.’
Forty-five minutes later, I finally locate the wallet. It was hiding underneath the box of CDs, the one sitting on the front seat of the car. Whatever.
So now it’s finally time to go. I’m about an hour behind my schedule but that’s all right, I suppose. This is my vacation, after all; there’s not really a time limit, no predetermined schedule I have to stick to. I have twelve hours and change of vehicular travel ahead of me regardless of when I start, so I might as well take my time. On the other side of that coin though, the sooner I begin, the sooner I will be done. So I should probably just put my phone down and get going.
G-Mah reveals to me that her potion is liquor by asking me if I want to taste some. I tell her, “No thank you,” and I ask if she should be taking her medications with alcohol. She answers me in the form of asking for a small drinking glass.
Twelve seconds of driving later, I decide that I need breakfast.
I pull up at the Montane Deli, a quaint little staple in town that’s been around since my father was but a wee lad. The owners know me as a regular and they prep me a THC – that’s a Taylor Ham and Cheese sandwich, the ultimate in breakfast in New Jersey. If you’ve never eaten one… yikes, you’re missin’ out, homeboy. You should do something about that.
I tell the local breakfast deities, a married couple with the last name of Montane, hence the deli’s name, all about my upcoming trip and they wish me well, a safe drive and all that. They’re kindhearted humans, when I go in around lunch time they always know exactly what I want: one of their timeless frikadellen sandwiches, a delicious amalgam of German beef, onions, and secret spices, with a light hint of mustard, all slapped together between two untoasted halves of a freshly baked Kaiser roll. Untouchable. Anyway, enough screen tapping; the second song off Ces Cru’s Constant Energy Struggles album is already over and I’m still sitting in the parking lot. Time to hit the road.
Now that I’m on the road, allow me to outline my goals for this trip. I have three missions to complete: 1) Hand-deliver the twenty-dollar cabinet; 2) Present to Zak the autographed first printed copy of Running: How To Torture Yourself And Enjoy It, and; 3) Eat me some Taco Bell. Tough terms, I know, but by the will of the Universe I shall complete all of them, and preferably not in that order. Yo quiero, if you smell what I’m sure to be leaking in the near future.
grandMother uncorks the frosty phial and fills a quarter of her seltzer bottle with liquor. A split second after she puts the booze down, my Uncle Bill grabs it and moves towards my side of the table. I go on the defensive and flip my glass upside down.
In retaliation, he flips the kitchen table upside down and the glass lands right side up at my feet.
Uncle Bill says a quick incantation and wills the liquid out of the mouth of the bottle in a stream like a snake charmer does a snake, sans flute. As I’m about to start wildly throwing hand signs to focus my chakra, Mango rushes in and grabs the glass in her teeth, taking off for the litter box. The metaphysics pause and Uncle Bill and I share a look, a knowing look, a look I’ve only seen on his face once but a look he’s expressed many, many times at his Mother’s house.
My first destination is Gringo Hill Wine & Beer, a liquor store in Charlottesville, Virginia, to drop off the twenty-dollar cabinet. I “own” an illegitimate resale company that I operate out of my bedroom, meaning I buy old stuff and try to resell it on Fakebook so I can afford to write books and eat at the same time. A few days before embarking on this trip, some random lady living out near Chicoteague, Virginia contacted me on Fakebook inquiring about the cabinet. I told her I would just happen to be passing through Virginia within a week and that I could drop off the cabinet if she was really trying to buy. A few days later, she made arrangements with a friend who works at Gringo Hill Wine & Beer to intercept the cabinet and take it the rest of the way. Seems like a lot of effort just for her to exchange her money for my material possession, but the way I figure it, nobody really knows the meaning of life, and efficiency might not be all that it’s cracked up to be, spiritually speaking. So why not?
The sound of liquid filling a glass rumbles through the air. Unc flips the table right side up before making for the litter box. grandMother cracks up laughing and asks me if this is Roadtrip yet.
I cruise through Ringwood, taking Skyline Drive to I-287 South and inhaling my breakfast as I go. I love these sandwiches but fuck are they salty, saltier than an emotionally stunted man-child any time he’s mildly inconvenienced. One literally has to chug two and a half gallons of water just to get back to baseline after eating one of these things, but on my cat’s pyramid is it worth it.
As I’m taking my last breath of greasy melted cheese, I notice myself passing the archaic wooden Welcome to Ringwood sign standing tall atop Skyline Mountain. Awh, see ya later Ringwood. I’ll miss you, specifically the trees on the mountain where I hike every day, but I’ll only be gone for a week; by the time I get back, they probably won’t even have realized I’ve left.
Because they’re trees.
As I transition from highway to highway, I quickly lose track of which road I’m on, as if I was paying any real attention in the first place. Eventually I find myself on the NJ Turnpike and the first of many toll booths approaches from the distance, looming over the road like the shadow of a dragon over a medieval village. I squint my eyes to read the price, but all the sign says is take ticket. ‘Take ticket?,’ I think to myself, ‘What kind of sorcery is this? I’ve never had a toll ticket before.’ I slow to a halt and lean half my body out my window to take the ticket; it’s a list of exits off the turnpike and how much it’ll cost me to take the one I need. Great, can’t even drive on a road without paying the damned United States
Corporation Government their share of the nonexistent take. Oh well, I digress.
By the time I exit the Turnpike I get buck-deer’d with an eight-dollar toll, which in hi-
“Eight dollars?!” G-Mah roars, nearly flipping the kitchen table but stopping herself, as to not waste her alcohol.
“Yeah,” I calmly say, adjusting the cushion of my seat. “That wasn’t even the most expensive toll I had to pay.”
“You know hun, back in my slaughterhouse days,” G-Mah begins, grabbing some thread so she can spin me a yarn, “I only got paid two dollars and thirteen cents an hour.”
“It’s true,” Uncle Bill says with a mighty flap of his newspaper. “She brought us there – me, your Mother, your other two uncles – to beg her boss for a raise.”
“Once, I even brought all my kids into the office to beg my boss for a raise!” G-Mah repeats, drumming on the table and completely ignoring my uncle. “He decided to lower my pay!”
I look from a nodding Uncle Bill back to G-Mah. “Wow, that’s really fucked up Gee-Mah. What’d you do?”
“Well, he told me he would give me a raise if I gave him a blowjob.”
I fall out of my chair upon hearing grandMother drop the word blowjob so casually in conversation. The floor is carpeted, at least, so I don’t bruise myself, and Mango comes over to start licking my right foot within seconds of the impact. I look up to see Uncle Bill is unphased; his concentration is evenly split, one half on his newspaper and one half on the bottle.
“Oh get up hunny bun, be a man,” G-Mah growls whilst sipping her homemade hard seltzer through the plastic straw she grips in her arthritic hands, the bends and curves in her bony, Caucasian fingers resembling terrific white claws. “Everybody knows what a blowjob is. Look, I said no, but I do regret it. If I had said yes, I could have bit the asshole’s little friend right off!”
“I’m… uh…” I say, struggling to formulate a real response. “Is it cool if I just keep reading my book?”
grandMother, ditching the limp straw, downs the rest of her hard seltzer in a single gulp, then slams the container down on the table. Another!
By the time I exit the Turnpike I get buck-deer’d with an eight-dollar toll, which in hindsight isn’t all that expensive. But I’m a few hours into this grueling drive at this point; my back is aching, I’ve eaten through all my food, my ears are ringing, and every little thing, every tiny extra variable that gets introduced into this malfunctioning equation is driving me functionally mad. And I haven’t even left New Jersey yet, hah!
I see on my GPS that the end of the state is coming up and Bessy’s gas tank is down to a couple gallons, so I make the decision to fuel up a little early. Shortly after I make this decision, the Universe offers me an opportunity: I see signs for a rest stop with a gas station coming up in less than a mile. I pull into the driveway, bobbing and weaving between semi-trucks and cars that were obviously parked by blind humans who lost their hands & feet fighting whoever’s currently topping the United States Government’s bad guy list, and get my gas tank filled for me for the last time until I get home.
That there’s a “special” thing about New Jersey – gas stations here hire real-life humans to pump your gasoline for you. At some stations, management will literally get angry and raise their voice at you if you get out of your car and even try to operate the pump yourself, if you even make the attempt. You’ll also get the slimy sole of your foot tickled with a governmental fine because, Surprise! it’s actually against the law to complete this mundane task for yourself in the Jerz’. I don’t know if Jersey is weird or if all the other states are weird, but regardless there are pros and cons to this, like anything else. On the bright side, you get your gas pumped for you by one of three flavors of human: a high school or college student or dropout who doesn’t dress up for the weather; a middle-aged human who’s exercising their last capitalistic resort by working at a gas station, or; a dude with a turban. On the duller side, they’re pumping your gas as a job, simply going through the motions of being told, “Fill it with <fuel tier>,” and duly replying, “Cash or charge?” before going dead-eyed like a cowboy and haphazardly ramming the drippy gas pump into your car. When your tank is full, they’ll overfill it to the next dollar (sometimes gasp! without asking if it’s okay first) and carelessly remove the nozzle, more often than not spilling gasoline on your car’s paint. I usually tip the attendants a couple bucks anyway, regardless of gas splatter; it sucks to stand outside pumping gas all day, especially in the winter and especially at a rest stop on one of the innumerable and indifferent New Jersian highways.
“Ah-hem,” G-Mah ah-hems, her arms folded tight. I look up from my softback and catch her leering back and forth between me and her seltzer bottle, which is now so empty there aren’t even droplets of notseltzer sticking to the sides. I look at Uncle Bill (he avoids all eye contact) then back at G-Mah. She still hasn’t blinked.
“What’s up, Gram?”
“The amount of air in my bottle, tell you what. How about you top me off, sweetie?”
Mango hops up on the chair next to G-Mah, but all I can see is her ears & eyes poking over the table. Her stare is loaded with great expectations.
“Gram, please, never ask me to top you off,” I say innocently. “Besides, I’m reading you a book I wrote! Don’t you wan–”
“I know!” she says in a voice that’s only vaguely similar to my own, almost as if she was mocking me. “That’s why I fuckin’ need it!”
After the fill-up, I decide to park and stretch the ol’ legs. My back pain dissipates faster than I can even comprehend after I remove myself from Bessy. Once outside, I immediately lock eyes with a mighty Red Bull vending machine. It’s just standing there on the curb, unwavering, gut full of cans and in desperate need of a dollary laxative. After about ten rejected attempts to feed the thing a five-dollar bill though, I decide that the Universe doesn’t want me to have a Red Bull right now. Defeated, I climb back into Bessy and hit the road once more.
I cross through Delaware, then Maryland, I think; they were both basically just cityscapes and all the gray blended together in my mind. Eventually I find myself in Virginia and, I have to say, it looks exactly the same as my New Jersey – East Coast Suburbia genetically spliced with Strip Mall O’Rama. Charlottesville is still roughly one hundred miles away though; so close, and yet so far.
The road is endless, growing longer with each tire-circumference forward my car rolls. I look around at all the vehicles accompanying me on this journey, all the cars and the trucks and the semis and the semi-trucks carrying a load of cars, all piloted by humans that I share this road with but will never meet. They all have lives that are just as complex, intricate and vivid as mine, they all have a history and a future and their own individual identities and anxieties. For a moment I imagine there are no walls between us, no cars either, just humans floating down the road at high speeds whilst holding an awkward and uncomfortable sitting position. The distance between myself and any other given human on this stretch of long road could reliably be measured in feet; if we weren’t moving so fast, I could easily walk over and pick that unsightly little green spot out of the woman who’s driving next to me’s teeth without breaking a sweat. Yet, it’s as if they aren’t even there, and to them, I’m not even here.
My mind wanders and I begin to contemplate simulation theory; what if I’m the only quote-unquote “conscious” one, and the beings that surround me on this road are all harboring an artificial intelligence? What if this is all an illusion meant to deceive me, to isolate me further from the “real” world while a cabal of advanced beings and/or twisted supra-corporate humanoids harvest my life force for monetary gain? What if the simulators are doing it for benevolent reasons, what if we actually live in the “future” and a planet-wide contest of Who’s Got the Biggest
Phallus Nuclear Warhead? went apocalyptic, and the last flicker of humanity’s dwindling candlelight remaining on the planet voted to put everybody into a simulation machine that cares for our spirits while our real bodies wither away to dust? Worst of all: what if this is true reality, and the only simulation is the global economic society we’re all entrenched in, and all these rules we follow and cultural norms we casually abide by are just an attempt by a very small group of humans to control the rest of the humans because of some unresolved psychological issues the aforementioned small group of controllers picked up during their childhood?
I chuckle and decide that if any of that is true, if reality is indeed some sort of simulation in disguise, it is a cold piece of work, and it’s not likely that I’ll be getting out anytime soon. With about fifty miles left in my gas tank and the soft amber glow of the get gas light illuminating my dashboard, I arrive in the Gringo Hill Shopping Plaza.
I locate the alcohol shop pretty easily and park out front. Stepping out of the car, I immediately notice how much warmer it is down here than it was in Jersey when I left, and even when I got my tank filled. I’m wearing a very fuzzy hoodie over a slightly less fuzzy sweatshirt with the sleeves rolled up and I can feel them both sticking to the skin of my arms, the fibers of the garments literally fusing with the strands of hair poking out of my dermis. No matter, I’m from New Jersey, and north Jersey at that; I’ll be damned if I change my outfit in the middle of the damned day just because of some weather. What am I, a south Jersian? Please.
Where I grew up there are the primary seasons, summer and winter, and then the transitional seasons, spring and autumn. During the primary seasons, the temperature more or less stays the same throughout the day; it’s frigid (or sweltering) when you wake up, stays frigid (or sweltering) all day, and gets frigid (or sweltering) at night. During the transitional seasons though, any given day represents an entire year; it’s cold when you wake up, cool during the morning, hot in the afternoon, warm in the evening, and cold again when you go to sleep. See, Jersians are rugged and we do what we want, often choosing not to dress for the weather; in the winter you will doubtlessly see a white guy in basketball shorts and a tee, and in the summer you will doubtlessly see a white guy in a full sweat suit. Today, I am the summer variant of that white guy.
I walk in and the store is totally empty, save for the bountiful bottles of booze and the owner, a man who clearly takes good care of his facial hair, standing at the register, patiently flipping through a magazine or catalog of some sort. I tell him who I am and he nods, asking how big the cabinet is. I mime it with my hands, assuring him that it’s very lightweight and it won’t be a problem to move. He goes to find a place to keep it for the time being and I head back outside to fetch the piece. When I return, he’s cleared a space between two aisles and I fill said space with the cabinet like a hand fills a glove. We shake hands and I wander back to the car – one mission complete. About a week later, after I’ll have almost completely forgotten about the entire ordeal, I’ll be paid through Paypal.
“A week later?” G-Mah asks, sipping her spiked seltzair through a new straw.
“Yep,” I say, almost proud of myself.
Uncle Bill farts. The sheer flatulent force of his assy gas cloud doesn’t phase Mango in the slightest. I pinch my nostrils shut but Uncle Bill just smiles and turns the page. I look over at grandMother and she’s looking right back at me, waiting for an answer.
“What?” I ask, inadvertently tasting the soiled air. At least it doesn’t stink.
grandMother abruptly cocks her head to the side. “You’re lucky I’m not your manager, boy, because I do not like repeating myself. I asked you why you waited a week before you got paid.”
“Oh, uh,” I stammer, checking my memory files. “I was on vacation so I wasn’t really worried about it. Plus, it was only ten dollars.”
“ONLY TEN DOL–”followed by a fat swig of seltzer and the realization that the bottle is still empty. “Only ten dollars? Hun, money is money no matter what. Now, why don’t you fill my bottle for me before you start reading again?”
Before I get the chance to answer, Uncle Bill slaps his newspaper down and rises both from the table and to the occasion. He shoots me a stink eye when I beat him to the bottle and pour grandMother’s liquor for her.
I look around the plaza for two things: a place to eat (preferably a Taco Bell) and a gas station. There’s no Taco Bell, but there is a pizza joint called The Brick Oven Pizza Restaurant. I could go for a slice, why not?
I walk in and the air conditioner whispers into my ear, letting me know the place is empty. The guy at the front counter smiles and tells me I can sit wherever I want, so I take a booth that’s near the door, just in case they make a habit of turning the lone customers that wander in here into extra pizza toppings. Guy hands me a menu and goes to get me some water. As I look the menu over, I realize that this is an actual restaurant and not just a pizza place, so just getting a quick slice won’t exactly be possible. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to eat a whole pizza myself. The horror.
Much to my surprise, the pizza isn’t terrible.
“Nope,” I say.
The two or three humans I told about this trip warned me about eating pizza outside of the Sicilian safe zone that is the New York/New Jersey area, that it just wouldn’t be the same. Originally I thought, ‘It’s dough splashed with tomato sauce and dandruffed with cheese, how could a conscious human possibly mess that up?’ That said, it’s definitely different down here, and Jersey pizza is undeniably better, mind you, but Virginia pizza doesn’t fail the edibility test by any stretch of the remaining tastebuds on my tongue.
I tip the place a couple bucks on top of my bill and head back to my car, body fed and ready to fuel up. When I pull up to the pump, I’m hit with my first major plot twist that I saw coming hours ago but momentarily forgot about because of the mild driving-induced pseudo-delusional state I’m in: I’ll have to pump my own gas. Evidently, three hundred miles of road has a way of boggling the mind to the point that one forgets that only in Jersey are humans paid to pump your gas for you, even when I wrote a whole damn page about it. The task at hand really isn’t hard though, I quickly pick up on the ways of the rest of the country and before I even know it, Bessy’s had her sip and I’m back on the road.
“Wait, you call your car Bessy?” G-Mah asks, a weathered smile on her face.
“Sure do,” I say, “with two esses.”
“Well how else do you spell it?” Uncle Bill asks his newspaper in a mumbly voice.
I place my hands on my temples and close my eyes. Honing my focus, I pyrokintetically burn the letters B, E, S, S, S, and Y into Uncle Bill’s newspaper, showing him exactly how else one may spell Besssy.
Proud of my work, I look over to grandMother with vibrant eyes and she just kind of stares back, as if she’s used to all these metaphysical antics. Then, “I named my first car Bessy too,” she says with a grin. “A long, loooooooooong time ago.” A moment of silence spent reminiscing about her past, then, “Oh, I’m sorry for interrupting, you can continue.”
“Continue on eye-eighty South for tw-”
“Hm? Oh, that’s how it continues, it’s like my gee-pee-ess said the words.”
“Continue on eye-eighty South for two hundred and forty miles.” Ouch. Ironically enough, for a guy embarking on a seven-hundred-plus-mile road trip, I vehemently hate long car rides. A firm believer of my own phrase, “If you’re driving more than thirty-ish minutes to get to work you’re doing it wrong,” I’ve never had a commute that was longer than ten, fifteen minutes max. Even saying fifteen minutes is a stretch; if I had to be at work at seven o’clock, I could leave my house at six fifty-five and get there with time to spare. The one and only instance in which I would have to drive a full fifteen minutes was if my particular stretch of Greenwood Lake Turnpike was closed for some unforeseeable reason.
When I was a younger lad I would constantly get carsick during long drives, regardless of my sitting in the back seat, front seat, trunk, whatever. Being in the driver’s seat alleviates the carsickness, but I just don’t like being in the car, and this drive is only reminding me of the reasons. It’s boring, utterly monotonous, and the constant rumbling of the road being drowned out by loud and obnoxious (albeit essential) rap music is giving ringing in my ears a whole new synesthetic color. I’m at the point where my eyes refuse to stop autonomously darting back and forth between the road, the clock, the GPS map on my phone in the cupholder, and the speedometer (with an occasional pit stop at the gas gauge) and I still have more than five and a half hours left until I hit the Fishers’. I’m in desperate need of a distraction.
I turn my head to look out the window and, on a shining silver platter, I am served my distraction. The mountains, the glorious mountains! Back in Jersey I live in a low valley between two mountains, one called Board and the other unnamed because it is small and there are houses and a road running over it. Board is one of three mountains in the Windbeam mountain range, one of quite a few mountain ranges that inhabit Ringwood.
When I said Ringwood is a mountain town earlier, I meant it quite literally; there are more mountains than there are individual and unique last names in my town. But the mountains down here in the VA… these are different. They’re massive, mountstrous, towering over the landscape and rolling like rogue waves over an ocean. Ringwood’s mountains aren’t nearly as tall as the ones down here though… hah, I hope Zak’ll be in the mood for some hiking!
Even if he isn’t, I’m sure he’ll go with me at least once during this weekend. The last time I saw him was… I don’t even know how long ago it was, a year or so maybe, but it was when his family came up North for his brother Tate’s wedding. I picked Zak up with another guy we used to run cross country with and we went on a nice hike together, then got some food at a local diner Zak frequented when he lived up here. I think I took a picture that day, I’ll have to see if I can find it.
Anyway, that was the last time I saw Zak, when he and his family drove up this endless road just to step foot on New Jersian soil. Now I’m returning the favor in a kind of but not really sorta way. Cycles, cycles I tell you!
“Did ya find it?” grandMother asks whilst stroking a purring Mango.
“Did I find what?” Uncle Bill and I ask in unison, both of us all too eager to answer G-Mah’s beckoning call.
“The picture,” she says, ignoring my Uncle Bill’s attempt at communication. He buries his head deeper into the news printed on his paper.
“Oh, yeah. So I’m doing two versions of this book, one that’s publicly available and one that’s just for the friend I stayed with during the trip.”
“The public one isn’t going to have any pictures or anything but the Zak one is going to be kind of like a scrapbook in that, in addition to the text, it’ll have pictures printed in it too. Kinda neat, huh?”
“Well that’s nice! Do I get a copy of the Zak one?” G-Mah asks with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Oh, uh, I was just going to print the Zak copy for Zak so he can share it with his family and friends and stuff.”
grandMother doesn’t say another word, although Mango continues to purr like a diesel engine. Uncle Bill, from the inky depths of his printed mainstream media, smiles a triumphant smile.
And my word is this road endless, I’ve been on it for thirty-some odd miles and it just keeps going with no semblance of an end in sight. There are still over two hundred miles for me to drive on this stretch alone, and I know I’m not tackling the entire thing right now. How many humans did it take to build this bad boy? How many years, how many dollars? How many lives were lost so this road could be built for me to drive on it and later complain about it in a book, how many children’s birthdays were missed? How many human births were missed? The real question: if one could take all the asphalt used to make roads on this planet and smush it into a ball, would that ball be bigger than the moon? No matter, it’s just another obstacle for me to overcome, another barrier for me to jump.
As I hurdle further down this endless road, I’m embraced by the unshakable feeling that I’m officially in the South. Virginia is technically the South, right? Well, even if it isn’t, in the wide span of the past two minutes I passed not only a car with a Texas license plate, not only a grassy knoll sporting a Confederate flag hoisted up on a flag pole, but also a barn with Vote Trump 2020 painted on its rusty metal roof in big white letters. Plus, there are more farms and crop fields around me than there are cars on the road with me. Major Southern vibes. If this isn’t the South, it gets honorable mention for highest, tremendous, and utterly supreme Southitude.
It’s about 4:00 now as I speak these words into my cell phone’s Notes app. The road seems to be more never-ending than it previously was, but I think I’m getting there. I guess. I don’t really know, my GPS could be leading me to the wrong place for all I know. I’m pretty sure I put the right address in there, but what if Zak’s dad mistyped it when he sent it to me? What if my phone miscopied it before I pasted it into the Maps app? What if the overlords of the simulation are trying to mess with me and at some point, this road will just lead into a lake?
Yikes, this drive is really getting to me.
With seventy miles down, I still have a meaty one hundred seventy to go… I’ve never fallen asleep while driving but it’s almost happened quite a few times thus far today. You’d think it would be easy to stay awake, what with all the uproarious noise and the bright lights and everything, but then there’s the sleepy feeling, that warm, fuzzy sensation of soft weight right behind the eyes, the sudden heaviness of my arms so desperately wanting (and trying) to fall off the steering wheel. Even my phone is tired at this point, I’ve drained the poor thing to fifteen percent battery. Now I don’t know that you’ve ever wrestled a phone charger out of a bag that’s inside a zipped suitcase, plugged it in to the USB port inside your vehicle’s console and finagled the charging end into your cell phone while maintaining ninety miles-per-hour on a major highway that is as overpopulated with cars as New Jersey is with humans, but it’s no simple task, and if there were any cops at all on this road with me, I’m sure I’d have been pulled over by now.
I almost wish that was the case to be honest… I won’t let myself have a break unless my car’s gas tank is about to bottom out because I want to be off this road. I’m in critical need of a break but I’m stubbornly delaying that gratification in return for what I hope will be a bigger payout… but if a police officer pulled me over, I could stop driving. I might even be able to get out of the hot car for a couple minutes after he/she is finished scolding me. All I have to do is hit the floor with the gas pedal, shatter the speed limit, cross the one hundred miles-per-hour threshold and weave through everyone else until I’m caught and forced to stop.
This drive is def–
I’ve just entered Tennessee.
“What the fuck?” Uncle Bill demands. “When did you get to Tennessee?”
“Well I just got there!” I say with a passive giggle before I feel the presence of an orange cat on my feet. grandMother looks at me like I have seventeen heads, so I say, “Let me just keep reading, it’ll make sense.”
“Oh-kaaaaaay,” more sung than said.
I’ve just entered Tennessee. With about sixty or so trillion miles left on I-80 South, my cell phone unexpectedly died. Apparently, while being used as a GPS and as an outlet for the voices in my head, my phone was using more power than Bessy’s charger was capable of supplying. That such could even happen would have been good to know before I left but hey, we live and we learn, right?
A rapper I listen to, Joey Cool, he once said in a song that, “The biggest lesson in life is life is simply a lesson.” I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that; messing up and making mistakes are vital parts of life, and the only way you’ll learn something and better yourself is by making a mistake. Take my habit of selling old stuff, for example: at one point, I would pay out my ass for my stuff. The more you pay for something the more you can sell it for, right? Well one day, I got a call to clean out a foreclosed house – they claimed to have a bunch of antiques, “Really nice pieces,” yadda yadda yadda. Well, my father, his pickup truck, and I went to the dead house and picked out what I wanted to sell. We moved it all outside. All the stuff had water damage, rust, grime; it was really nasty stuff, as I would come to find out later when I properly examined it. The relatives of the once-owner of the house charged me five hundred dollars for my bunk loot, and like the optimistic little bugger I am, I paid it. Now, just a few months later, I’m out about four hundred on the buy. Oh well, lesson learned.
Anyway, I’m currently pulled over on the side of the road typing the Fisher’s address into my car’s GPS so I can get a move on. My next challenge is going to be finding a ripe opportunity to pull back onto the highway that won’t result in Bessy & I getting utterly decimated into a trillion pieces by the flow of traffic.
It’s funny, as soon as I spoke that into my phone, a large trough opened up between the crests of two vehicular waves and now I’m back on the pavement. I only have a couple more hours of driving ahead of me, the sun is setting and thick dark & gloomy clouds are brewing over the horizon. If this was a video game and the developers of said video game knew what they were doing, I would have just hit a checkpoint.
Like a fool, I didn’t get up out the car when I was pulled over earlier and a dull, throbbing painulet is beginning to erupt inside of my neck, my lower back, my hips and my legs. Driving in a car for more than twelve hours in a day is just… this is just asinine. Truly absurd. To be locked in this sitting position, the constant rumbling of the road, the blaringly necessary music, the stiff angle I have to keep my neck perched at, the uncomfortable and constant switching between heated air and cool air conditioning because my car’s temperature control gauge goes from one extreme to another instead of drifting in the middle… this is too much. I know in my head that today wasn’t wasted, but it feels like it was. I’m a failure.
That’s the worst feeling, isn’t it? When you’re watching the sun set with the overwhelming feeling that your day could have gone quite differently. That it could have gone better. Maybe that’s just a me thing though, I always find something to complain about.
“That’s just an us thing, dear. If you could turn complaints into books, everybody in this family would be an author.”
“Really?” I say, thinking back to all those times that Mother’s asked me, “Why you complain like lil’ bitch, Nesbeau?” back home. Then, “You don’t say. Even Uncle Bill?”
“Bill? It’s Will, dear. But yes, especially him!”
I look over at Uncle Will. He’s wearing a name tag that says Bill on it, probably didn’t get a chance to take it off after work. He works the graveyard shift at the Shoppin’Correct up the road from grandMother’s house; today he finished work at around eleven in the morning. That sounds great, but he started at two.
“Ohhh you should hear him complain about his childhood and how the other kids used to hang him from the doorknobs by his underwear. Ahhhhh, shit!”
With Mango still on my feet I’m immobilized, but I wasn’t going to get up anyway. I look over at Uncle Bill. He’s chomping on his bottom lip and although he’s still holding the newspaper like he’s reading it, his eyes are closed; he seems to be fighting a torrent of tears.
“Really? Uncle Bill was bullied in school?”
“School?” G-Mah spits, reaching for her bottle at the mere mention of the word. “No, by your mom and your Uncle Skylar! Never your Uncle Brob though.”
My good ol’ Uncle Brob, a Bob’s Rob if ever there were one.
I finally make it off the two hundred forty mile stretch of road, and what’s the very first thing I hear? Continue for seventy miles in a computerized voice that, after this maddening journey that isn’t even close to over yet, sounds almost feminine. No rest for the wicked, I suppose.
Side note: I just forgot that I was in Tennessee, that I was even in the United States in general. It’s not like I thought I was driving a different part of the planet or anything, but all semblance of awareness of the larger world around me and the overall state of things kind of disappeared for me, like a melodic fugue state without the hysteria. Well, I’m definitely slightly hysterical right now, but that’s only because I’ve been trapped inside a capsule all day with creative clever humans shouting in rhythm at me over music. What snapped me back to reality, you ask? Just my gas tank telling me that I have twenty-five miles until empty.
Wait… twenty-five miles until empty… and more than an hour until I arrive at the Fisher residence… something here doesn’t add up.
Luckily, I just passed a sign that read Tinkle Road, 1 Mile, and shortly after that I passed a sign that read Rest stop, 1.5 miles. The last rest stop I hit was in Jersey and it had a gas station, so obviously that means that every single rest stop that was ever built in the other forty-nine states will also have a gas station. Whoop!
As Bessy pulls into the rest stop, all hope and color drain from my face and I come to the realization that there’s no gas station here. I park, turn off the car. My head is spinning. My ears are ringing so loud I can’t hear myself think straight. A pale-faced man with elongated canine teeth is tapping at my window with fingernails that haven’t been clipped in years. The Universe Herself is trembling at a molecular level and I can feel it in every fiber of my being. After a deep breath, I do a quick internet search on my moribund not-iPhone and it tells me the nearest gas station is only eight miles away. Suddenly, my thoughts are clear and pristine again – I start Bessy up, backtrack about ten minutes and (finally) get out of my car to fill the tank.
After Bess’ gets her drink I wander into the mini-mart, which is more of a mega-mini-maximum mart now that I recollect it proper, and attempt to use the restroom. I’m stopped, however, by a lady armed with a bucket, a mop, and a wet floor sign. She doesn’t say that she’s cleaning the bathroom, she just grips the mop like a bo staff and tells me, “It’s occupied…” and that I, “…need to come back later.”
My bladder audibly pulsates as I walk away and start perusing around for something to eat. Nothing in this store has a price tag on it, which I don’t love, but Southern is as Southern does, I guess. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.
Eventually a packet of beef jerky springs off the shelf and hits me in the face, knocking me to the very clean floor. Once I’ve dusted myself off, I approach the register to pay. I mention to the cashier that I recently wrote a book and that I’m traveling from NJ to NC to give my friend a signed copy and she says, “God bless your heart.”
God bless your heart. That’s something I rarely hear said in New Jersey, probably because I don’t go out too much. I’m not a religious man but I’m very spiritual, and the existence of god (not God but god), of the intelligence and conscious energy interwoven into Existence itself, is something that I think about quite often. I don’t really know where I’m going with this, I suppose it’s just nice to hear somebody say God bless your heart to me, even if I don’t subscribe to the specific deity’s dogma. It’s a whole lot better than the standard slightly sarcastic and snooty Wow, good for you. Anyway, as I’m walking towards the exit, the bathroom lady calls out to me and says that I can use the lady’s room, she’ll stand guard to make sure nobody walks in on me. If either of those women ever, by chance, read this book, I just want to say thank you, from the bottom of my now-empty bladder. God bless both of your hearts.
At this point the dusk has entered an eerie state of twilight, because cycles, and I still have about forty-five minutes left of this journey. I’m currently driving over a hill and I can see mountain ranges upon mountain ranges in the distance, complete with a hazy dressing of fog reaching up towards the peaks. It’s almost spooky, looks like it’s straight out of a horror movie. Maybe the simulation is about to take a dark turn, maybe I’m a main character on my way to meet some friends at a cabin in the woods. Little do I know, there’s a sadistic tribe of bigfoots (bigfeet?) just waiting to turn us all into sacrifices to the Foot Gods.
My word is this drive getting to me. If there were any bigfi in these woods, I doubt they would have evolved to the point of having conceptualized a god for themselves, let alone gods. Or hey, maybe that’s devolved, who really knows?
The first photon of light beaming in through the end of the tunnel has officially breached my pupil – I just saw the first sign marked Hendersonville. I should be there in approximately twenty-three minutes, I’m so close that I actually can’t believe I’m here. I didn’t even notice myself crossing into North Carolina to be totally honest, but that’s just fine.
Unless the next time I go to blink I open my eyes to find myself back home, that would kind of suck.
The sky is covered by a plume of blackish-gray clouds, there’s a slight drizzle pattering against my windshield, more cars are suddenly populating the roads, and yet, none of that matters to me. I’m almost through with this treacherous escapade. I can almost rest my aching back. Most of all, I’m only twenty minutes away from finally reuniting with my good friend Zak.
The feeling of my journey officially coming to an end absorbs me when I pull up to the gate my GPS has led me to. I was told the gatekeeper would be a grizzled old dude who doesn’t like conversation, but much to my surprise there’s a happy, smiling young lady sitting at the post. She asks me who I’m visiting and I tell her the Fisher family, quipping a quick, “You know, twelve hours ago I was in New Jersey. It’s kinda weird.”
She laughs and buzzes me in.
“Was that Roadtrip?” G-Mah asks earnestly.
I close my laptop and slide it aside, reaching for my throat with my free hand. “Well that was the first chapter, yeah. I still have the entire time I spent in North Carolina and the drive back home to read you about.”
“Oh…” grandMother mumbles, searching around for something.
I look at Uncle Bill, he’s holding the newspaper upside-down but reading it nonetheless; I notice on the back page, all the sudoku puzzles are filled out. He must be a genius.
“If you guys want to take a break we can,” I offer, “my throat is kind of sore anyway, I could use a couple minutes.”
grandMother and Mango share a look and I can’t tell who’s expressing more excitement. Finally, they look back at me and G-Mah accepts the break with tremendous supremity.
She then wheels herself around and gazes at the empty wine glass sitting in the sink, all sparkly and clean and free of civet-smelling cat urine. Reading her mind as she rewashes the glass, I can sense that she wants me to try the alcohol, but I don’t want to – I’ve been sober as a gopher, word to Krizz Kaliko, since I was born. I didn’t even try any beer when I was seven and my dad let Jarome have some, why would I try it now?
G-Mah shouts over her shoulder, “Because you’re at your Grandma’s house and I want to drink with you!” so I can hear her over the running water.
I guess I said that last bit out loud, whoops. Oh well.