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.

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