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- These Altered States - America Trying to Become Itself
- The Worthless
The Morose Man and the Demon of Steel
That is how it started. That is how it ended. There is much in between but, recall, my memory is queer and strange.
A sputter, a blare, and a stop... a river of petroleum pissed out of the old Buick Roadmaster. Nimbler beasts surely had been forged but none more reliable, none more stately. No tears were shed for my fallen fell beast. None were available and, if they had been, no one would see. Rain ran heavy from darkened clouds on the side of the Turnpike. A strange green haze hung in the night, wafting from side to side, despite the witching hour at hand. One more fallen heap of Detroit mechanics and a stormy night fit for noir of old.
That is how it started. That is how it ended. There is much in between but, recall, my memory is queer and strange. The events I speak of may have happened, may not have happened, or may be gravely divergent from my speech.
A huffing whirl creaked out of the Buick. A sad last gasp at glory for a dying mule. Another senseless death in the night before the madness came to me. Skipping ahead or skipping behind, the story repeats itself the same. A broken car. A friendly face. And then the blood.
A tired t-shirt clenched in my fist worked as a makeshift what's-it. I lifted the hood, hoping by some miracle of science to suddenly understand the finer points of this infernal combustion engine. The basic premise does not allude me but the engineering does. An explosion and a piston moves. How many times in those 200 thousand miles? How many pistons moving up and down? And then tonight, in the rain and the dark and the haze, a mechanical failure. Steam kissed my face as if to say, "goodbye." A swipe of the brow and I left my old friend for the vultures outside of Toledo.
Modern conveniences be damned. My cell phone, old reliable technology, did not join me on this journey. It sat, cold and calculating, monolithic on my work desk. I left it there long before the madness came. Long before the midnight laughter. Had I missed any calls? Would I get a signal? A thousand asinine tidbits clumped in my frontal lobe. If only I remembered it. One thousand times I, and the other damned, remembered their phones. And once I forgot. And once I needed it. The black, unlit screen surely mocked me. It knew it was of no use to me this night. No use to anyone again. Fie on it. Fie on Steve Jobs.
The rain grew harder. A deluge began. The sweat of the Summer wicked and churned, mixing with hydrogen and oxygen in a strange orgy, blinding me and causing me to limp slightly off the road, trenching through the thickening mud. The mud gurgled up and splattered my denim pants like pussy boils on a Medieval merchant, oozing and splattering in spots and lines. After a few more paces I slipped and fell directly on my glasses. Lenses popped out and washed into a ditch. My blindness was certain now, where before there was hope. I saw only hazy shapes, flickering of light, and the faces of forever.
A brave soul, with kind, Midwestern eyes stopped. She honked her horn and motioned to me, this much I could discern. I stumbled forward like an infant from a womb new into this sad world. Reaching blindly, I clunked onto the familiar metal of a Foreign machine.
"Hey, are you okay? Do you need to call a tow truck?" she spoke. Her voice shook with uncertainty. Was I an upstanding citizen? A monster?
"Thank you. My car died. Any help would be greatly appreciated," I said.
Before I knew it, I had somehow forced my way into the backseat of her sedan through bland pleasantries and confusing warbles. Her fat fingers fumbled for her phone through a phallic purse.
"Oh, shit. No signal. Maybe it's all the lightning," she spat.
"You can just drop me off at the next rest stop. I'm sure they'll have a pay phone. Who uses pay phones anymore, am I right?" It was here the sounds started pounding. My eyes grew flush with blood. What terrible beast was I conjuring? What events would transpire?
This woman, this kind Samaritan, breathed heavy and smelled of ashen soils. Her chubby fingers glistened with moisture and her jowls shook as she talked. I caught myself staring, once or twice, at one large mole located just outside of her sleeve above her clavicle, betraying a story of her youth: tan and toned, attractive and thoughtful. But the years were not kind. Her looks were not just gone; they had been beaten into submission by forty years of pathetic life. Was she married? Was she a mother? A light ring stood heavy where a wedding ring should've been. A recent widow?
"I hope you don't mind this radio station," she said.
"I don't. It's your car," I said. But I did mind. Conservative gluttons spoke doublespeak about politically discouraging garbage. Shut the fuck up, I whispered over and over. Just quiet enough that her wheezing, her elephantine gasping, covered it up with a forced silence. The white noise of modern society chattered on and on. After a few more miles a rest stop came into existence, rising through the mist like an oasis in the desert. Golden arches replaced palm trees. This was where we would both end. Disgusting.
"Thank you so much. Can I at least get you a drink or something for your troubles, ma'am?"
"Sure. I'm making good time. Maybe I'll stop inside," she said.
We walked in. The pounding in my eyes grew heavier. What was this new sensation? Was this truly madness? Was this the end of days? Still blinded by the loss of my glasses, I tripped and stammered into a glass door. Muscle memory, always reliable, sent my hand into the right direction and a quick push allowed ingress. The lumpy shape of my roadside hero followed me, waddling into the exposed archway. A strange chill filtered through the breezeway. Water was welling up into my cheap shoes, creating sludge and suction that grew louder by the stop. One single neon bulb flickered in groups of 2 or 3. On. Off. Off. On. Off. Off. Off. Each flickered causes shapes to shimmer and dance in my failing vision. Each flicker greeted and exacerbated the thud in my brain. My eyeballs and frontal lobe pushed heavy in my skull. Each flicker created new, dancing visions. A sprinting shadow. A floating ball of light. The sounds in my head grew and changes. All at once a freight train of pain and suffering and screaming skulls.
"Do you want a Coke or a Pepsi?"
"I'll have a diet, please. I only ever drink diet," she chortled. Of course she only drank diet. Empty calories to offset the steady stream of fast food and stationary action of her lifestyle. A computer chair? A desk chair? I imagined she was some kind of administrative assistant, plopped motionless for hours at a time, clicking and clacking away on a Dell blanketed in the crumbs of a thousand lost souls and snack packs. Each time she spoke, a new flaw jumped out. A new tragic event in her life unfolded. One stray tooth, whiter than the rest as if to mock its own God, erupted out in a near horizontal manner just off center and to the upper left. It glared at me like one shining diamond in a sea of yellowed rocks. It mocked me and mocked her. I almost felt sorry for this flawed, noble tooth. It had such great hubris, knowing well and good that it was an affront to nature, a dread mistake made by some random gene turning on. But it stood proud and flamboyant, like some homosexual parade master.
As I stood in line a certain event unfurled in strange, slow motion. It sped up, slowed down, reversed over and over in my throbbing brain. At first there was a shout. A young man demanded money from the till. A dark skinned man from some unnamed dark corner of Asia stood quivering on the other side of the walled counter. His English, fine was it was, broke more and more as nervous sweat replaced quiet confidence.
Several pops broke through the night. Each pop was amplified in my surging mind. Each pop rang for an eternity, ricocheting off of old memories and learnt skills. A desperate wince overcame my entire stature. I turned and contorted and bent. After a few moments, I stood erect. Before me, a shop keep spitting darkened goo from his throat. Was this his American dream? Dead at an Ohio truck stop?
He reached one hand slowly up, grabbing up toward the counter. I leaned over, twisted halfway toward him and halfway toward the ceiling. I had to look, to gawk and leer, but I did not want to go further. I refused to elicit a response and lend some kindness. This man, unknown to me just moments ago, would die alone and I would not stand in the way of that fate.
I stumbled back, tripping over my own Samaritan. She lay crying and coughing, adipose tissue and dripping blood splattered all over beef jerky. Her one jaunted tooth screamed for freedom. Her mouth gaped open, looking to the world like a walleye on a hook. That tooth, that one tooth screamed for life and new memories. It hoped to have new flavors and bits stuck in its gum socket.
She, in her final acquiescence, did not reach for me. She did not look toward me. She reached, whether she had some concept of the events or not, toward a Frito Lay stand, toppling chips and foodstuffs onto her bloodied torso. I could not help but smile in the humorous depravity of it all. I, still blind and now muted and deafened by the coming madness, fell forward and crawled several feet. I laughed louder and louder. The young man who fired the shots was gone into the night and the rain. And, in his place, several onlookers lurched from the terror of the food court and ran into the shop.
"Are you okay? What happened?" A voice from the remnants of reality rung out. I shook my head and stood up. I pushed and pried through a few more yokels, crying out in the tomb of my mind but only gargling spit and mud onto their slacking ears.
In the parking lot, I ran. Not from fear of violence or guns, but from everything and nothing all at once. Louder and louder the thing grew in my mind. Throbbing pain and twanging sounds became a scream. The scream of ten thousand ancient evils raged through each fiber, each speck of gray matter. A stammered and sprung and twisted and jumped. I saw nothing. I knew nothing. In that moment I had ignored the sirens and the lights, the rain and the night.
All at once, as if to dangle the last grasp of sanity in my face like a worm on a hook, it became clear. The sound stopped. The rain stopped. With a thrusting squint, a few small shapes could be made out in the green haze. Two lights. Two bright lights like reflecting pools surrounded by dancing halos.
My body, flesh and bone, tossed up and over the metal leviathan. I heard the brakes, like owls in the night, cry out and stop. They had found their prey in a small and immobile mammal. My legs bent and crunched. My back twisted and pushed, lumping into several breaks and knots. In a few moments I would be dead. A car, a brief moment to escape the confines of gravity, and then the reality of it all.
My head throbbed again. The screaming and creeping came back. My skin became warmer and warmer, starting to burn. I focused, as best I could, playing simple games in my head. Variations of pong and math games but they became harder and harder to see. I pushed my one motile limb, my reliably left hand, hard into the cold and gray ground. Pressure. I could only sense pressure. I knew not where or what I was. All at once a bright, white light came. Then speckles and crackles of other colors. A hue of blue. A dab of green. A hunk of red. The white. The rainbow. Then nothing. A sputter, a blare, and a stop.