Tuesday, December 28, 2004

chapter 2: north, then home

“Sneaking out” was a phrase his mother used to describe suspicious activity in the dark. Despite its origin, this phrase now defined the loose and shifting realm of stolen night time to Marcus. Sneaking was a fair description of the adrenaline and silence of car-pushing, door-closing, and stair-climbing. And the rest of the night was definitely Out. Sneaking out was done so often now that it had become his primary life, with school and day being a hazily remembered back side spent in anticipation, writing letters, obeying rules and napping.

It’s getting dark now, slight orange and red to the west spreading over to the east and becoming deep blue-violet. The highway is a line bisecting this, I-35 going north northeast, bowing slightly, pulled by the city’s gravity. The highway is an extruded no-man’s land, lofted above everyday life, deadly. He went to New York one time on a band trip and found the whole city occupied. Not even an alleyway to escape the dense crush of eyes and ears and feet covering every square inch with gum and trash and spit and view. He found the most interesting spots the cracks between boarded up windows, the sliver of dark just visible beyond the curve of the subway tunnel, the areas no-one can see, spaces that live alone with themselves, the rest of the city a floodlit exterior, occupied and known.

Marcus likes the shoulder of the highway, gravel and weeds untouched like the moon, likes to stop, wants to stop, but the minute he loses his velocity his power is gone and the other cars can see him, strobelit, naked. Velocity is the frontier of the highway, the texture of the road elongated by speed into a barrier that nothing can cross, a million cars a million isolated pockets of air drifting in space.

They used to go out at three or four on K-10, and pick an offramp, seldom used and isolated, turn left and drive down a country road, perpendicular and away from this extruded civilized frontier, into nothing farmland. They would turn out the lights and drift slowly through clouds of insects with the windows open, no longer a vehicle but part of the landscape now, a moving component counterweighting the delicate trees and fences, ditches and grass that stretched out for miles, rolling beneath the wheels. Everything was the same color, a graphite that reflected like pewter and fell away to infinity. A firefly would strike the windshield and leave a green fluorescent smear that would slowly fade to shining grey. At some point you would have to stop, because the only way back is the way you came, retracing your exact path, being pulled back home as if by a string, by gravity. But the stops were the best part of the trip, the infinite point of rest at the apex of the pendulum’s swing, spent in the backseat.

In the dark, all space is negative, the void filled at points by headlights and billboards and rhythmic yellow and black lines, the occasional green roadsign fluorescing into existence in the corner. One is supposed to pay attention to billboards, but more interesting is the space below and around, scaffolding and eaves, with shadows of every imaginable shape. Marcus has a friend that explores this interstitial space, finds clearings and vistas and overhangs and long winding stairways, with inches of dust and soot and spraypaint everywhere. Spraypaint is dust thrown out of a can with glue to stick it to a wall. Some warehouse somewhere is filled with barrels filled with color.

One of these places is dead center of three monolithic silver office towers, a fountain and steps and a few sickly plants, up a few feet, like an altar for necktied sacrifices. It’s busy enough during the day but in the middle of the night it’s alive by itself- the water is still on and light music still plays from hidden grilles, music just for crickets and empty cigarette packaging. Marcus likes spaces like this, like the highway, better at night, with yellow and blue sodium lighting that vibrates only barely, adding waver and strobe to everything, and a hum that is always just inside of your ear, to the back and right.

The car is moving in a river of positive space created by the road and light, a puddled space that spreads to enclose all available road, sidewalks and parking lots and garages, the asphalt and the blueyellow overhead light symbiotic. From overhead you don’t see the light directly, only the rounded grids of illumination, the darkest areas complete voids. One never sees people or even cars moving in the lit asphalt lots, everything is arrested by light, frozen and static, watched. As a child Marcus used to think of vision being like beams of seeing coming out from his eyes, grabbing objects and making him aware to them. But it’s the opposite—his eyes are passive receivers of the controlling beams thrown by hooded towers.

Locations were always paired by a journey, ends of a string. Home to diner, diner to her place, out of the car hidden across the street and through the door to her bed, making the smallest of noises as moving parts unstuck and stuck again. But it was the string that kept memory, the journey the shape of the car’s interior stretched across fifty miles, tiny orange buttons red dials and the white headlights turning into glowing threads that follow every curve and bump in the road. And everything else charcoal. The car was an aging BMW near to death, with round headlights that were identifiable from two blocks away, as he waited on the corner in a chilled sweatshirt.

The highway splits away to the left and he follows, pulled by the dive into a deep crevice unnaturally vertical, dynamited. The road curves and gives way to another notch and this time he goes right, perhaps north, now cut loose of the infinite grid of Cartesian reality. It is dark here, streetlightless, and he turns the stereo off to better hear the car as it displaces the air, creating eddies and winds. Suddenly, it becomes a street with houses and shops and delicate curbs coded with parking information. Detail is revealed in the lightest of grey shading, the neighborhood the lightest of pencil tracings on black paper.

He stops here, pulls into a diagonal striped space, a notch for his car. This is the point of rest before swinging back. He stops because you always stop. He gets out, feeling the cut of the wind unaugmented by grille or glass. The transfer is from a cocoon of warmth and quiet white noise to one of cold and almost silence, with a faint whistle.

The street goes like this: window-sidewalk-curb-parking-asphalt-parking-curb-sidewalk-door. The street is a room open at the top, traveling for miles in each direction. He starts to walk in the direction he has been traveling, as if pushed by his car’s former velocity. The chill is felt on his cheeks and eyes and ears. The road is so deserted he begins peopling it with memories, friends and people from school, remembering previous drives and how they ended. The memory is a piece of steel that keeps his spine stiff, gently humming at the back of his skull, pushing his head rigidly forward. The memory is numb.

Holy shit it is cold, his coat feels like saran wrap, and thought is impossible. He gets back in the car but does not turn it on. He and the car are the same color as everything else. His coat and the car are thin carapaces that mimic the street and sky, layers in an infinite cocoon, of which he is a homogenous core. He pushes gently and turns and the car shakes alive, producing color and sound. Heat and light and movement, all related in an intangible way.

Marcus grasps the lever and maneuvers the car to face back home. He has a good idea where he is and the journey is a glowing string in front of him, a channel of vistas revealed in gentle curve. Now, with a destination, expedience takes hold and the whole route makes itself known at once, a clear shape in his mind.

Someday these trips will make sense; they’ll have a purpose and a place and everything will work together, he’ll be like an arrow in flight, fired at a high trajectory but uncertain in its target.

Back onto the highway, like a rail this time, why do people even need to be here, you just need to keep the wheel steady and the pedal down. The lights sweep the inside of his car rhythmically, his car motionless with waves of light cascading.

There will be a home, a center that is his, dents that are his, scratches created by his hand. The door will make a noise that is his and he will know this. This is a city that is big but not intimidating, cold in the winter and hot in the summer, dry when he wants it and with huge broadleaf trees reaching towards windows.

When he was a kid the places he was driven were isolated pockets of concrete-plastic newness in a sea of farmland. Then one day he climbed a hill and saw felled trees for a mile in every direction, curved streets and cul-de-sacs already etched in the ground. The huge grids of farmland fragmented and preserved in pockets, recreated as a backdrop for picture windows, only visible from a single angle, like a diorama.

There is some adult place out there with the same raw excitement as the spaces beyond his childhood back fence, and he will find it, show it to his children, a mediated frontier that is not alone but alive, created somehow by occupation. And all around them the grids of asphalt containing these pockets, waiting.

He crests a hill and passes a low rock wall and then he is home, through the big door for the car and then a smaller one, into the ticking woodframed home quiet. Marcus doesn’t want to stop, everything has ended so quickly and he still has some potential energy to spend, his mind racing to compensate for his still body.

There is a schism between the life he likes and the life available, a schism of quality. There is nothing of that childhood space, that stolen time, in any job or home he knows, but it has to be out there, there is something real waiting in the just beyond his view, and it’s only a matter of time before he finds it. He can see his life from a satellite, the regular grids with a twisting path among them, and it’s amazing how much is flattened, how most of what matters is an invisible texture from this scale.

In the house, beyond the sound of the house cooling and shrinking, there is white noise, air pushed off of cars a half a mile away, transmitted across the valley and through the cracks in the window to his ears. He knows what is out of view, over the fence, it is schematically clear to him because he has been there, and will go there tomorrow, after he sleeps.

Monday, December 06, 2004

chapter 1: south

Marcus starts the drive by a right and then a left, a quick lateral jog that maintains a straight southern course. The streets here are compass-true, each crossroads making two lines that perfectly quarter the earth. Longitude is not the same as latitude, to understand the horizontal bands one has to tilt their head until it is parallel with the equator—twenty two degrees, understanding this infinite plane that slices the earth like an orange, revealing the fact that this entire town was created at some bizarre angle to Cartesian reality.

The drive begins with large houses on small lots, crowded together, maximum isolation, maximum comfort, maximum efficiency, cost completing this equation, the envelope of each house swelling and contracting until an optimum figure is reached, freezing it in its thin stone and wood frame. Traveling south the houses get smaller and the land gets bigger, as if each structure bleeds itself to create more space. There are more hills out here—or maybe you just see them more readily, as the land takes control over structure and yellow fields surpass green trees and grass under the blue-white spotted sky. The air is cool and the wind is light, and if he puts the heater on the windows and sunroof can stay open to the air.

In a satellite photograph a car is a tiny dot, maybe you can tell the color but not any real detail, not how old the occupant is or if they have friends in the back seat. Driving has the same perspective to Marcus, everything flattened and reduced to coordinates and flash-frozen at every present moment. Driving was a series of thin slices, like that fat criminal in his highschool biology book that they’d cut like deli meat and splayed out on glass. On the highway at night he would pass by a hotel, and if you looked at the right moment, knew the sightlines, you would see lobby coke machines on every floor out the windows for an instant, the building bisected by a dashed red line. Driving was about tangents, the orbit of a satellite was made of an infinite series of straight lines, with the Earth always pulling at a right angle. The way an object changes shape as you go by it, everything lining up for an instant and then spinning away, it’s perspectival moment spent and gone.

He looks to the side as a bean field passes by, the field opening up as the planting’s row lines point into his eyes, and growing more opaque to the sides until it is a thick yellow blur. It is a moirĂ© that is the result of roundness, light falling at from every angle, but all of the light his eyes receive was pointed straight at his pupils, a sphere of particles bombarding his face at every possible now. The roof of the Volkswagon is reflecting the sun, creating a vertical column of light at a constant angle from the two o’clock sun, perhaps briefly illuminating the interior of some passenger plane, a cloud, or the moon.

The streets change surface from smooth asphalt to a rougher, potholed variety, one without markings and curbs, and this gives way to gravel. One moves to avoid the dust that one creates, constantly running from a white cloud in your rear window. There is a crunching sound from the tires, and Marcus likes to gun the gas and jerk the wheel to send the rear of the car swinging back and forth, until things turn uncomfortable. He stops for a train and watches it go past, slower than his car but massive beyond belief, and long string of inertia, its contents heavy and elemental. He can see in between each train for a moment, as the linkage passes in front of the car. If he took a picture at night, holding the shutter open, the whole train would become blur, semitransparent in the middle, revealing the road that points infinitely South.

Marcus lives in a house that goes like this: street-yard-wall-house-yard-fence-trees-ditch-path-stream-path-trees-field-highway-street-hill-horizon. Sitting in front of his rear window he feels like a suburban talk-show host, an animated diorama with tiny cars and trees behind him, framed and finite. As a child he could see the cars on the highway, especially at night, when he had to go to bed with people still rocketing by, audible even under the covers out of view inside his bed. The highway pushing sound over the gully, through his walls, around corners and deep into his ears, keeping him wide awake late, staring at his glowing red clock, waiting for it to have been long enough to get up and look. Occasionally his parents would take that road and he would desperately look out the window for a glimpse of his house through the trees, the house staring back, diminished and monochromatic.

On a dirt shoulder, it is time to stop. He turns the key and the car rattles to a close, shuddering gently as the aluminum cylinders transmit their force to the frame. The car is a decaying Volkswagon of middle age, red and sagging. Every mechanism in the car seems provisional, voluntary—the clutch or the radio or the seat belt all have an equal chance of working at any one time. The car had survived water, heat, cold, and time, expanding and shrinking until it lost any produced monolithic quality, but was merely a loose matrix of glass, vinyl, and metal. The car was alive, had lost the quality of product and had been consumed by the chaos and decay of the world around it. Gravel stuck in the tires and tiny flecks of white primer showing where the hood had been struck. He periodically filled the car with clear golden oil which it then quickly turned black and proceeded to slowly distribute over the road as he drove. Transmission fluid is a greasy red and radiator fluid, antifreeze, is a smooth neon green. There is water in antifreeze—water in his car.
His insomniac childhood nights, spent staring coldly at the blue/white wallpaper or creating patterns in the textured ceiling three feet from his face, lofted in the dark, his brother gone from the bed below to another room. Sometimes his father would come home late, the headlights briefly creating a sweeping illumination on the ceiling and walls as the car mounting the curb. The light always moved across his room in exactly the same way. His father would come upstairs and Marcus would pretend stiffly to sleep, modulating his breathing as he recieved a sandpaper kiss goodnight. The room always the same dark blue and grey, with the same warm light from behind the door, sneaking out of the cracks.

He stops for a second, enjoys the absence of sound, the void a negative shape, cast, the mold created by constant engine and gravel noise broken suddenly and gone. There are trees along the south edge of this westerly road, and to the other side a smooth bean field. His white cloud has overtaken him. This is not lost enough, and because he is alone and young, Marcus says it out loud: “this is not lost enough.” He isn’t trying to get lost, but it sounds good, like a movie. His voice sounds thin and small stuck between the dust, sun, and car. He gets back in, shakes the Volkswagon awake and turns around, east, to find the highway.

marcus and driving

It's been a while, but I've been working on something longer, a short story based on a previous posting. I'll post it chaper-by chapter below...