published in Volume 2, Issue 1 on January 20th, 1995
I'm looking down at the highway from the front porch. It's early. The trucks roar past, clearing their throats on the hill, and I can read the names off their sides-- Shop-Rite, Coke, Ames, BJ's Wholesale, Filene's Basement. I can hear these sounds in my dreams now; the shifting gears, the exhaust, the noise of heat-blasted rubber rolling between lines on the cold macadam. It's like a language I can almost make out the words to, I know them so well. I can make out the shadowy forms of the drivers from my perch, dark and unshaven, caps with brims pulled low, those men who rocket between coasts, filled with McDonald's and Mobil and Maxwell House, who fly past me, through fields and towns and cities while the air is still pale early in the mornings, when no one's had a chance to breathe it yet.
Inside I hear my father wandering around, bumping into things. "Jeremy," he says. "Jeremy?" I stay out until he's asleep again, then wander around the house with a nearly hairless cat, a book on crop rotation, and the cordless phone. I listen to my Aunt Silkie talk.
"Saw a UFO last night. Pulled right up to the pump next to me."
Imagine my Aunt Silkie as a big, paisley housefly with an incredibly large mouth. I do. She likes to spend a lot of time in her window, watching everybody in the trailer park off route twenty-three, past Jim's Village Deli on the right.
"Regular or Unleaded?"
"A big glowing ball."
"Self-serve or full?" I can hear her suck on the end of her cigarette.
"He was dressed all in silver, from head to foot. He had hundreds of these tiny teeth."
"What did he say?"
"Hundreds." The static of the phone drifts in the air between us. Aunt Silkie's one of my mother's half-sisters. One of, because my grandfather got around a lot before the accident. That and the fact Branchville's a small town make it so that everywhere I go there are these people with big noses and bald spots and eyebrows that come together that I'm supposed to remember, who, though I'm a freshman in college now, point out the hair on my chin as if I didn't know it was there, and talk about my growing up like turkey vultures circling a dead deer. I can't escape them. I have to hitch out to Forrenger's Drugstore on two-oh-six to buy a rubber. Anyway, Aunt Silkie's not so bad. Since Mom died, we're like siblings, sort of. Friends. Only different.
"He wanted to know how to get to Poughkeepsie." I feed Knucklehead, get some Jell-O out of the fridge and eat it with my fingers while she tells me about her lover, this guy who drives for Roadway that I've never met. According to her, he eats pasta plain, without boiling, and watches old movies in black and white on a portable set while he's driving. They meet, she tells me, once a month or so while he's in town. He parks down by the soda machines outside of Chet Wilkinsen's Laundromat. You have to take Aunt Silkie with a grain of salt sometimes. I think the sixties went to her head.
"I like him," she says, with her throaty voice. "He moooves me." She starts to tell me what they do in the back of the truck and I know it's time for me to go. "Talk to you later then, hon," she whispers.
"I watch TV until I fall asleep. It's some sitcom that goes on forever. The actors move back and forth across the screen, sometimes touching, sometimes not. All the girls have big breasts and thin shirts that show their nipples. All the men are clean-shaven and look like they live at the gym. I guess I fall asleep somewhere in the middle of it because I remember a close-up shot of the male lead. His mouth opens and closes, like a tollgate, and I'm letting my foot off a clutch on the ottoman and about to drive down his tongue.
Ever since the transmission fell out of my eighty-one Datsun on route eighty westbound, I've been trying to get out of this town any way I can think of. Can you blame me? Agriculture classes at the county college are not my idea of a life. Still, I'd rather go to class, listen to some ex-farmer go on about fertilizer, than visit my grandfather. Nursing homes depress me, and this one sits just over Sparta Mountain, a low brick building that hunches into itself, with these narrow, slatted windows that watch you if you get too close and a large expanse of artificially green lawn. My father waves to Gus, the maintenance man. He smiles from the back of this lawn mower that has tires like the pick-ups Uncle Ernie and some of my cousins drive.
The nurses at the desk crack bright pink gum as they look us over like wardens. We show them what we've brought. A fuzzy green hand towel. A stiff-bristled, brown handled shaving brush. A mug with Miss Piggy's face on it and a safety razor. Grandfather's room is down on the end, near the ambulance doors, and he switches on his hearing aid and powers up the head of the bed as we walk in.
"'Bout time." He starts off complaining about the amount of time the staff spends discussing floor wax. "They're more concerned with what they're stepping on, than where they're going in the first place," he says. His white, bushed out eyebrows go up and down over his hatchet nose. He has no cheeks with his teeth out. "Now, if those young girls spend more time with those bed baths, well, there we have an idea!" Dad makes me brush on the lather. They watch.
I hate it when they do this. I'm the only thing in the room that moves, and it's as if they catch everything I say or do on film so they can go over it later and decide what I did wrong. The corner of my mouth is too folded; I'm being too sarcastic. The way my left leg dangles over the edge of the bed, swinging next to the half-full catheter bag, means I'm too casual, too careless. I'm dabbing on the lather spot by spot, like paint, and my father says "Not like that. Turn your wrist back and forth like a plug wrench so it builds up the foam." So when my father sits with the razor, and carves away foam and spit, I walk to the window and imagine myself at the wheel of one of those tandem trailers, with three jointed sections, thirty-four tires and eighteen forward gears at my command.
"Pay attention," he says. "You'll have to do this soon," but I'm off, barreling across the bridge between Port Jervis, New York and Matamoras, Pennsylvania doing forty-five. The stick-shift is alive in my hand. The CB is full of other guys all talking to each other about things, like where the troopers are set up, where the best coffee is on the turnpike and where to find all the easy women. Outside the window I watch old Gus cutting the grass with enthusiasm. The sound of the mower fills the room and drowns out my father's voice. Gus jounces in high gear around the lawn, pulling two-wheelers and flying over rocks and tree roots like they're not there. Each bump makes his jowls flap. Each time he turns a corner of the lawn he has to turn in on himself, though, so he drives in smaller and smaller circles. I feel like if I don't get out of here, that this is the way I'll end up. Doing wheelies and doughnuts on a tractor around a piece of Astroturf.
Behind me, my father and grandfather talk about me and my relations in whispers. It'll be hours. It always is.
The next night after class, the girl Kathleen I've been seeing for a few weeks decides it's time. We drive her old Toyota out through Walpack to this place I know where there's a graveyard right on the banks of the Delaware River. We're kind of cold so we leave her engine running while we drink some beer and then get her backseat down and covered with this old afghan blanket she says her grandmother made. It's got elephants and bears and fishing poles all over it.
I have to tell you, it's not all that great. I have to fiddle around with the rubber in the dark and first I get it on upside down and it won't unroll right so we have to use another one, and then the car stalls so we have to get up and start it again so we don't freeze. Then somebody else pulls up in a van and parks, and it's my Uncle Rudy. He wants to sell us some dope.
We talk some afterwards. She drops me home, and I heat up some cheeseballs in the microwave. As I'm chewing I look in the mirror in the bathroom. I move my eyebrows up and down and flare my nostrils and watch my father and my grandfather look out of my face. I put on my running shoes and go out to my grandmother's Dodge Dart that's up on blocks in the backyard. I climb into the seat, work the gas and brake, and shift the gears. There are some mosquitoes batting against the inside of the windshield, and I think this is what a bug must feel like, trapped between the wiper and a hood of a truck in motion. Tiny and powerless and out of control. Carried down a dark road to a place you don't want to go with a ton of wind in your face and thick glass between you and the steering wheel.
Back inside, Aunt Silkie calls and wants to tell me about her dream.
"I'm driving around on the interstate, right? I'm looking for an exit cause I have to go to the bathroom." In the background I can hear the sound of scraping porcelain as she loads her dishwasher. "I'm naked. But instead of passing signs or something, I keep passing crows! Old crows. With deformed beaks and these dark intense eyes."
"What do you do?"
"And teeth. Lots of tiny, tiny teeth." My father comes into the kitchen and opens the fridge. The little light on the door makes him look blue, like metal. "Hundreds. Sharp, like needles." He takes out the red bowl of solidified gravy and tries to figure out what it is. He does this a lot. Knucklehead purrs circles around him, leaning in against his legs. "Then I finally find a truckstop full of old men, but each stall costs a quarter and I don't have any change. I go up to the guy at the register, and it's your grandfather!" Then she wakes up. She tells me about her negligee then, and about this neighbor she met, this guy Todd who's about my age, who she got to undress her on her little fold-out table. I tell her I have to go, but then she tells me that her trucker will be back in town tonight, probably in about an hour. "You should meet him, Jer. Maybe he needs some help or something."
"Where are you meeting him?"
My father stares, clueless, into the gravy, tilting it back and forth and watching it pull away in a clump from the sides of the bowl. "Here, Jeremy. Right here." She sighs, pulls on her cigarette. In the background her dishwasher lurches into motion. "Where else is there?"
I sit in the bathroom deliberating, and smoking a little of Uncle Rudy's finest, until it's about two a.m. and I know I've got to go over and know or not go and wonder, so I go. I know where the keys are, and I ride my father's Escort down the hill on the clutch so I don't wake him. Out on the road, the smoke from our woodstove crawls close to the ground, like a blind, probing worm in the headlights. I take a long way down five-nineteen to exit twelve, and get on the interstate, sliding in between a decorated Peterbuilt, with busty, big-hipped women on its mudflaps, and an old Diamond Reo. We jockey for position. A Freightliner changes gears and howls by in the right lane, hell-bent, and the Peterbuilt leans heavy on the horn. Up and over Sparta Mountain the road goes from four lanes to eight. The Diamond Reo signals, changes lanes, and begins to pick up speed. There's a figurehead of a Doberman on its hood that leans forward, bright silver in the light of the moon. I can make out the face of the driver in the instrument lights. I look over and wave. He nods distantly and pulls away with a deep, diesel throated roar.
I get off at exit seven and work my way back northeast on three-twelve and twenty-three north. At the Cumberland Farms I get some coffee and say hi to Aunt Gert, who's planted behind the counter. At Jim's Village Deli, all the lights are out. At Aunt Silkie's trailer, they're all on. I don't see a truck anywhere.
She meets me at the door in a housecoat she holds loose at her chest with one hand and offers me a bourbon and Coke with the other. We talk for a while, about the nature of things in motion, how something moving will tend to stay that way, and how something stuck will more than likely stay stuck. "Like cavities in teeth," she says. "Once they're there, you just have to make the best of them." She reads my horoscope, burns some incense I'm allergic to and puts my hand up against her left breast.
OK. It goes on from there. My body goes through the motions well enough, but all I can think of is that Diamond Reo and its driver, the way his eyes looked through me without seeing, just looked right on past and I imagine the things he's looking through while I'm under the tapestries of my Aunt Silkie's bedroom. I'll bet he's not just passing crows, but signs for places that I've never even thought of, places with names like Great Bend and Independence and Pocotello. I can see him driving through the long, endless stretch of Pennsylvania. Tannersvile. Reading. Allentown. Pittsburgh. He rolls through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Nevada. I see him at the casinos in Las Vegas, on the beaches of the Rio Grande, chugging frozen drinks somewhere in the Keys, and in every truckstop between here and Fort Wayne, Oregon there's a woman waiting.
"Oh, Jeremy," Aunt Silkie sighs. But out on the highway I know there's a diesel engine with my name on it, calling me too. I can hear it. Right now it's downshifting, working its way up that long, winding hill into town.