With a rental car still in my possession, at least for another day and change, and sleep still just out of reach, I decided to take definitive action and go nowhere in particular.
“One album or two?” asked my imaginary friend, drifting out of memory and reminding me of our old means of regulating time spent on fruitless journeys.
One, I think. Itʼs almost midnight and Iʼm not a teenager anymore.
One album, back in my day, was about forty-five minutes long, or one side on a ninety minute TDK chromium dioxide cassette tape of assorted mixed-up wonders and clinkers from the era when one of the most personal and satisfying thing you could do for those you loved was to sit by the stereo with a stack of LPs, coming up with the perfect musical journey for the ear.
So one album it was, and I am not a teenager anymore, and am an entire teenager and an adolescent away from when I was. Is this the way we are, by nature, at this age, when friends and family accelerate along the curve of dying off, leaving us to marvel at all the time thatʼs gone by? Sometimes, though, it is more satisfying to surrender to that sense of things, and to the maudlin celebration of retraced steps along the way, and so I set off.
Plug the tiny music player into a cable, plug the cable into the car, select AUX on the controls, dial through the music for the album instead of the shaggy and nearly worn out cassettes from my day, and I call up Holger Czukayʼs On The Way To The Peak Of Normal, a mutual favorite of my imaginary friend and I on our way to the peak of nowhere, click on the headlights, and pull out.
I still live in the town where I grew up, albeit in town for the last twenty-six years instead of just outside, and the streets are crammed full of familiar faces, if only in my head as I pass sites still wired into the deepest parts of the old archive, and it seems strange to pass them in this strange, futuristic car that smells a bit too strongly of old church ladies and harsh cleansers, but the road unrolls like charts of probability and possibility nevertheless. I take the back way to Scaggsville, and linger in the old neighborhood long enough to name the houses by the people I knew, long since departed from the area.
Thereʼs Paulaʼs house, and Lindaʼs, and Anitaʼs, and Keithʼs, and thereʼs Mattʼs house with his horde of mean brothers, and Lelandʼs, now on a loop that didnʼt exist in my day, and I tuck back down to the sweeping road that runs to the reservoir. Thereʼs Robinʼs house, and I just found him last month after trying to track him down for years, only to find a cemetery entry, complete with a photo of a headstone from eight years ago, and so I pick up the pace, tracking the curves, racing to the lake with Czukay on six speakers of amazing sounding hi-fi goodness, then cut out, up Pineway. Thereʼs Nickʼs house, and I think where George Gee lived, and he was mean, but I think heʼs probably handsome now, and then Iʼm cutting over, diving down the huge hill and heading to my old Howard County stomping grounds.
“Where are we going?” asks my imaginary friend, and I shrug.
The roads are still the same, mostly, except where curves have been straightened to suit the minivans and SUVs belonging to all the new families that have crash-landed in garish vinyl-sided oversized faux colonials on tiny lots with no trace of interconnecting sidewalks, because in this world, we drive to meet, and strive to avoid doing so whenever we can, because, well, you know — good fences and all. The deer are everywhere, a sort of living series of speed cameras that work by fear of collision, and I am torn as to whether I should amble along at a relaxed pace or revel in the fact that Iʼve been talked into paying seventeen dollars and ninety-nine cents per day for full collision protection on the car in the same sort of fear lecture that underpins the timidity of most people these days.
I have hit two deer in my life thus far, and neither experience was particularly rewarding or worthy of further exploration, so I aim for the middle ground, generating excitement with more volume on the stereo until the car is just thrumming, a resonating tin can in which I am traveling in time.
Thereʼs my teacherʼs house, tucked away just off a side road from a side road. She changed everything for me, and I visited her back in the late nineties, then recently pondered doing it again until I found her, too, in a cemetery, since 2007. Her smile is always close, a brilliant point fixed in time and punctuated with lines at the corners of her eyes that only appear in her most genuine expressions of delight, and while I could frustrate her to the point of teeth-grinding exasperation, I could bring on that smile.
So long, Noreen, and thanks. Is “Noreen” okay, now that weʼre both grown-ups?
“Good Godfrey, Joe-B,” she says, “Are we really both grown-ups?” or at least I imagine she says, because sheʼs one of my imaginary friends now, too, along for the ride.
I whip through the old haunts. Allview and Simpsonville and Clarksville and Columbia, all familiar roads littered with the remains of old conversations Iʼve had. I pass the steep embankment I once drove down to show off to my friend Ruth, one of the ones I found alive and well and full of all the things I remembered treasuring about her, and then Iʼm on the big road, now more of a highway, then off, then into the strange landscape of the city thatʼs being built, all at once, where there were just farms not so long ago.
Route 216 still follows the same route once you pass the series of recent circles and shopping centers, and I am still there, all along the way, on my spindly, heavy old red metal-flake Schwinn Varsity Deluxe with a peach Nehi sweating in the bag under the seat and my blue Toshiba cassette player making me completely oblivious to the dangers of the seven-point-nine mile trip each way to my imaginary friendʼs house. My friend is there, too, either ahead of or just behind me on his yellow Keno, all of those trips just layered up like multiple exposures on a single frame of Kodachrome.
The giant power line tower is there, too, a single monopole capped by a surrealistic pentagon that now carries millions of volts to thousands of consumers, but when it was new, when I was still a fool, I unbolted the plate at the base, climbed inside, and made my way all the way to the base of the pentagon, thinking Iʼd stand there, triumphant, with my arms spread wide. Instead, I climbed out, immediately started crying, and yelled for my friend to call the fire department.
He didnʼt, of course, because that would have meant going to a strangerʼs house to make the request for access to a land line, and I got my nerve up to climb back down.
“I told you,” my imaginary friend said, and says, and he did.
The deer are everywhere, just munching the brush at the side of the road, and I keep it slow, and snake through the well-trodden routes. Here is where my Datsun flubbered to a stop with a flattening tire, there is where I rounded a corner on a hill in the same station wagon at a speed at which I became airborne, flew over a ditch, and touched down sideways in the yard of a house, cutting two staggeringly deep trenches before slicing through a row of well-tended privet. I was able to escape, though, too shaken to laugh until many minutes later.
In 2014, there is a galvanized guardrail there, and the privet finally matches again.
We make mistakes.
It occurs to me that I need to go rocketing across Brighton Dam at eighty miles an hour, something you did in your foolish youth because it lies at the base of a steep hill that will let even a Datsun station wagon accumulate that kind of speed and because it is one of the few places in Howard County where you are unlikely to hit a deer. I tuck and dart through the tree-tunnels on Brighton Dam Road until I reach the ridge, turn the music up until itʼs almost knocking my teeth out, and make the run.
You forget, almost, the way the dam looks just there, where all it would take was a blown tire to throw you either into the reservoir or over the wall, and the water is sparkling in the silver light of the full moon, and the rental car is from an era when economy cars no longer content themselves with fifty horsepower engines, so when the sound of the road changes on the dam, I am moving at ninety-two miles an hour and laughing in the way you laugh when there is nothing else but gleeful foolishness in front of you, and consequences just behind…if youʼre lucky.
“What kind of car is this, anyway?”
“Hyundai. I know, right?”
I live to fight another day, and the album ends, perfectly on cue, as I turn ninety-two miles an hour of forward momentum into four very hot brakes, and so I dial through my playlists for one thatʼs more energetic, pick out an appropriately facile and engaging pop hit and take off for New Hampshire Avenue and the miles of churches and temples and mosques and synagogues and spiritual centers that have, for some reason, been drawn to that spine of the regionʼs traffic. Itʼs a good enough location, still forested in parts despite the surges of suburbanization, and I feel the vibe of the divine there, too, though mine is less orthodox.
I meander back through the countryside, all the way back to the last surviving farms, then loop around past the barn on a tight corner that I marvel at never hitting with that old Datsun, then Iʼm on Route 29, heading south, and I go looking for the fire tower on the other side of the reservoir. The roadʼs all crazy now, rerouted when 29 stopped being a minor artery and became a major one, and now the fire towerʼs on the other side of the road somehow, and harder to reach, but I get close enough to see myself and a guy I knew a long time ago on the spindly metal stairs to the top, heading up to take in the amazing view of the area around the reservoir before climbing back down.
We sat in the dark in his impossibly large 1968 Cadillac Eldorado coupe, an absurd oxidizing black monster with one of its ugly ornamented headlight covers forever stuck halfway, giving it the face of a bloated drunken wrestler checking out the world with one bleary open eye, and talked about life and philosophy and religion and sex with Christian heavy metal grinding away on a cassette deck hanging under the dash like a sonic parasite. He smoked several cigarettes as we danced around that sort of aimless, intense, and yet completely idiotic conversation that is the province of boys of that age, in deeper exploration than our normal standard of discourse as we walked from our class at the community college to the distant parking lot.
I never smoked, but always loved watching people smoke. The orange tip of the cigarette floated in the air, darting like a firefly for emphasis.
“Doesnʼt it bother you that youʼre not living Godʼs plan for you?” he asked, over the screech of Godʼs plan for distorted guitars and shrill voices.
“No. I am as I was meant to be,” I said, feeling momentarily wise to have phrased something so philosophically over heavy metal and menthol smoke in an Eldorado.
“Huh. Do you think you were supposed to be the way you are?”
“Sure. What are you supposed to be?”
He shrugged, took a long, crackling drag, then flicked the cigarette out the window. “I keep hoping Jesus will make it clear.”
I rolled my eyes. It was the early mid-eighties and I was in my late mid-atheism, but he couldnʼt see the gesture, and suddenly, he was across the nylon brocade of the bench seat, almost on top of me. I could feel his breath, and then the bristles of his thin teenagerʼs mustache, and then lips, then tongue, and —
And it was a bit like kissing an ashtray, just like they say, but what an ashtray. He reached up, fingers meshing with the mass of wavy hair that I kept way too long in those days, and he twirled my little braided rattail around a single digit, and —
We drove off, out of conversation, some time later, and returned to where Iʼd left the Datsun, in the community college parking lot, and that was that, on the day when I first kissed a boy, and holy crap, did I ever like it.
“Iʼm sorry, man,” he said, finally, on our way out of class, after a week of studiously ignoring me. “I really fucked up. Iʼve been reading the scriptures all week and I fucked up.”
“Seemed okay to me,” I said.
“Well, it would, to you.”
He lit a cigarette and stalked off to the Eldorado, which sat there, winking at me, until it lumbered off, Stryper blaring on the stereo.
I donʼt remember his name. How can I remember all this and not that?
I noted how beautiful the spidery framework of the fire tower looked there, backlit in the cool wash of moonlight, and was sad that the floorʼs missing from the observation deck now, so there will never be another chance to survey the landscape from that perfect high point of nothing. I flipped on the headlights, put the rental car in gear, and headed north.
On the cut through to the back way home, I slowed down on a long hill, watching two small deer standing their ground in the middle of the lane, and slowed and slowed and slowed until I was right there, lighting them up in lush brown and white and black in the headlights, and they just stood. I just sat, they just stood, and the impasse continued.
I inched forward. They stood. Inched forward again, and they stood. My thumb rested lightly on the horn button, but I did not press.
With a mild grin, I inched forward, delicately, and bumped the smaller of the young deer, hearing the little thud of its hock on the plastic of the rental carʼs bumper. It looked up, then at the car, then back down.
This is my landscape.
The larger deer walked around, very slowly, from the front, hooves clicking on the asphalt like high heels on linoleum, until it was right at my window. It was lit grey in the moonlight, and suddenly, it ducked its head into my open window. Itʼs surprising how large even a small deerʼs head is when itʼs suddenly in your car, but it just looked in, huffing as it did.
I could feel its breath on my neck, and then it sniffed at the steering wheel.
“Is this really happening?” asked my imaginary friend, and I smiled at the thought.
“Would you be a deer and move on?” I said, out loud, laughing, and reached up, wondering if deer are prone to biting, to give it a poke, but it had already decided it was done with me and its little friend was, too, and so they both turned their attention back to the world, fixed their focus on something else as mysterious as the where and why of things, and walked off with the indifference of continents drifting.
I raced for home, pausing only to wonder if my seventeen dollars and ninety-nine cents of additional coverage would actually work if I stopped at the lake and pushed the rental car off the bank in one of those inexplicable grand gestures you only find in French movies about people who meet and fall in love and then go their separate ways forever, just because thatʼs just how things are, but I decided instead Iʼd rather just curl up in front of the TV and sleep. I unwound the roads, paused in front of the house in Scaggsville where Iʼd grown up to momentarily fantasize about it burning down, so it would forever just be our place, where lives were forged and explored and refined until things all fell apart, but that, too, is best saved for that celestial French new wave film, though I rubbed my lips with my thumb like Jean Paul Belmondo, thought of terrible Christian heavy metal music, and deer, and all the endless open roads that lie all around us, to carry us forward, or home, and that was enough.
“That was fun,” said my imaginary friend, and I smiled back, watched him fade away for a while, and headed for the bedroom, leaving my wrinkled clothes in a trail to where I flopped down, face first on the bed, socks still on, and slept the sleep of the damned.
It was fun.