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.

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