When you’re a kid you want the world to stop while you finish growing up. When you’re old you want the world to at least slow down while you finish living and finish dying.
I once met a false friend
On a filthy country road
She said you’ve always been
Just an ugly little toad
I said I’m an old man and this a lonely place
Be with me
But she turned away her face
And this road is all I see
Down that road I’m easily led
Past a crow on a dead light pole
Death’s a snarling puma ahead
And my heart a lump of dead black coal
I turn my back to the wind
And try to flee
But that puma’s always been
In that seething locust tree
Hey Pharmacist, you lying bitch
Fork tongued cunt with too much guile
Give me dope, make life rich
And let me die in style
Vicodin, you’re the answer
That makes my questions disappear
Forget it all, forget my cancer
Forget the lies I hear
Doctor Sphincter, you’re an ass
I am dying, do you think I care?
Am I addicted, how dare you ask!
You have a backbone made of air
Just give me my dope, you evil shit
That puts me beyond the sorrow
So for a while I can lie down and quit
And forget about today until tomorrow*
*Forgive this shameless borrowing of Dylan’s line
Some people are afraid of the dark
Some are more afraid of the light
Some think if they just hit that mark
It’ll make all their evil right
This wants to be a baby, that wants to be dead
But it dont matter what you say or do
They’ll always rip off your head
Even when you’re just passin’ thru
Pray you dont die for others’ mistakes
But only for your own
They say you’ve already lived your life
Before you’re even grown
Man asked me the other day what is it that i do
I said it aint your business anyway, i’m only passin’ thru
There’s a Hoosier moon risin’ and the big dogs howl
And i wonder what i should do
But i guess none of that matters anyway
‘Cause we’re all just passin’ thru
Standing under a dark sky in western Kansas. An angry crescent has set and stars pepper the sable firmament. The Great Plains wind ruffles our clothes and sets the prairie grass to gnashing and murmuring. Orion has risen like an electric kite.
Tonya points at it and says, How far away is that?
Your mind cant comprehend distances that vast.
The stars there in Orion’s belt are about four hundred light years away.
How far is that?
Well…the nearest star is about four light years away. A light year is about six trillion miles. Or six times ten to the twelfth if you think of it that way.
Stop showing off!
I’m not! Light in a vacuum travels at 300,000 kilometers a second. Or a hundred eight-six thousand miles a second. Seven times around the equator and then some. The light from those stars has been travelling four hundred years to reach us.
I cant imagine how far that is.
Your mind can only conceive it by scale. Imagine the sun the size of a basketball in the middle of five points in downtown Atlanta. The Earth is the size of a marble orbiting about a hundred feet away. Pluto is the size of a grain of sand orbiting a mile away. Now Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, is in Seattle, 3,000 miles away. By the time we get to Denver tomorrow we’ll have only gone half that far. I thought that since you’ve been travelling mile after mile after empty mile this would give you a grasp of the distances involved.
It does, she says slowly. This country is huge but on that scale, i cant imagine.
Look at the stars in the belt again. If you see a picture of the nebula in a book it will be spectacular. But the only way to appreciate it is to look at it thru a small telescope. When i was ten years old they got me a six inch Newtonian reflector. It took me weeks to put it together since nobody around me knew how to assemble one. When i finally had it ready i took it outside and pointed it at that nebula. I’ll never forget the sight. It glows green like Kryptonite and has the consistency of a piece of very stretched out cotton. Wispy like that. The pictures of it in books do not do it justice. They cant.
You did that when you were just ten?
I wish i’d known you then.
You werent even born. Not for nearly another sixty years.
Sometimes i forget how old you are.
I try to forget how old i am.
You can be a bore when you’re self conscious about that. Stop worrying about it.
Easy for you to say.
I dont even know your name, she says.
No? Havent you looked at my driver’s license enough times?
I only looked at it once! And i cant even remember your name.
My name is Seth. Seth Joiner. Happy now?
No, she says. It’s chilly. Let’s go back inside.
We have been driving for days. This day we have been driving for hours. And we’re nowhere near a beach. In fact we’re about as far from one as you can get.
On I-70 going west thru Kansas. We have been thru Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, and the eastern part of Kansas, all of which look alike. But now we’re on the Great Plains, and IDK of anything else that looks like the Great Plains. Big sky, grasslands. A tree about every 10 miles that was brought in and planted next to a farmhouse to break up up the incessant, demon wind that never stops blowing. The sky over the road ahead is clean and pagan blue but there is a thunderstorm on our right and you can see the lightning leap from the black thunderheads to the ground. On our other side you can see snow falling miles away. Here it is sunny and hot as hell. You have no idea how overpowering this is to someone who grew up in a place that is heavily forested like Georgia. I’ve seen it before but Tonya hasnt and she is spellbound, which is good. It’s shut her up for a while anyway.
There hasnt been anything on the radio for hours. Just white noise. For almost an hour i got a station in Nebraska somewhere but all it played were polkas. Now there’s nothing. I havent seen a vehicle for at least two hours. Windmill spinning like a chinese toy by a house every few miles. Once in a while something that looks like an oil derrick in the fields. Or an oil something, hammering relentlessly against the ground. I think of those apparently empty farmhouses we pass once in a while and wonder if there are strange, fucked up people in there watching the road, waiting. Maybe they’re cannibals who eat people they hunt for outside. Or eat each other. I shake my head. Sometimes i give myself the creeps.
Suddenly Tonya sticks her entire body out of the car and looks around and i grab her by the shirt and yank her back in.
Hey! She says.
You’re like a bratty 18 year old, i say. Or a little older but still a brat.
She opens her mouth to say something but thinks better of it and says nothing. I smile tightly at her and say, It’s really something, isnt it?
You werent kidding, she says, shaking her head. You’ve been out this way before?
Yes, i say. I was 27 years old.
Did you come out here to work?
No. Well, yes but i was looking for work. Right out of graduate school.
Were you alone?
Were you with a girl?
Who was she?
My first wife.
Tell me about her?
I shake my head.
Come on! Dont make me fence with you. What was she like?
Well…she had a monkey on her back.
What? Smack? Meth? Or…
I start laughing. When i stop i say, Not that kind of monkey. One you wouldnt ordinarily think of.
Well, RU going to tell me what it was?
If you’ll shut up and let me talk i’ll tell you.
When i met Hannah she was a little overweight, i say uncomfortably. Not enough to matter. She was that way when we got married. A few years later that bitch weighed 305.
We are both silent for a moment. I havent been watching the road behind me and a motorcycle, a chopper shrieks by and seems to disappear in the heat. Tonya screams and shuts up. I look down at the speedometer and i see i’m going 85. That chopper must have been doing 120. After a minute or two she opens her mouth to say something but i beat her to it.
She couldnt stop eating, i say. One day in Brunswick she told me she was an addict and she was addicted to food. I laughed in her face. But time told the story. She was right. She reacted to any kind of sugar like a junkie on smack. I looked back on things she’d done that never made sense and it all made perfect sense. One day years before we had a bunch of errands to do that were infuriating and unpleasant and we had to do them together and by near the end of the day she was nuts. There was one errand left to do but i could do it by myself so i dropped her off at home and did it by myself. Forty five minutes later when i got home she was in front of the TV and was like a different person. Have you ever been around a heroin user right after they shoot up?
You know how they are? Kind of not there at all but everything is completely okay with them? Dopey but not like a drunk?
Well that’s what she was like when i got back. If she hadnt been such a little miss perfect i wouldve thought she was on something but she was too much of a pussy about things like that to ever even try such a thing. The most she ever did was smoke some weed with me once in a while. But in the kitchen garbage can there was some kind of wrapper that wasnt there that morning. It had held some kind of pastry that was pure sugar, or pure fructose corn syrup. They havent used sugar for a long time. Anyway, it made perfect sense. In her own way she had shot up. She finally got off that habit and went to a Twelve Step group for compulsive eaters.
Well, i’m glad she…
I wasnt, i say, glaring at her. She got rid of that habit by herself. Those groups are like cults, and all cults are dangerous. All she had to do was change her diet. I’m glad she did that but all she had to do was change her diet..
You dont know anything about that, she snaps at me. Those groups are the only things that….
I dont know anything about it? I dont know anything about it? You dont know a fuckin thing about it! I’m the one that lived with her. When she was clean she was sane but mean and resentful. When she was using she was just like a goddamn heroin junkie. But those groups never made sense to me. Replace one dependency with another. One obsession with another. Things she said that werent her words. Somebody else’s words. That was scary. But it just meant somebody was filling her head with bullshit. Sorry, i’m going to have to pull over..
I pull onto the shoulder of the road and stop the car and turn the engine off and pocket the keys.
Stay in the car, i say and start walking off into the head-high grass and when i am sure i am not visible i take a long, satisfying piss. When i am empty i go back to the car and start it. She looks hurt and i feel guilty.
Sorry i yelled and hurt your feelings, i say.
That wasnt what hurt me, she says.
You didnt leave the engine on. You turned it off and took the keys. Like you were afraid i’d drive off and leave you.
Oh, shit, i’m sorry, i say. That was automatic. I didnt think, i just…well, i’ll have to get you a set of keys. We need another set anyway. I’m really sorry.
It’s okay, she says, sighing like a martyr. At your age i guess you have to…
Have to what?
You know, you suddenly have to…
Have to what? You mean old-age urinary urgency? No, i just didnt see the point of waiting for a an exit with a gas station, since they’re only about every twenty miles. I just got out and leaked and came back and drove off. Dont start trying to provoke me with that old man shit.
If you’re trying to get inside my head and fuck with it find something else because that wont work.
Allright, she snaps at me. What about her? The rest of it?
The rest of what?
About your wife..
I could spend months doing that. We were married ten years.
Did you leave her because she was so big?
NO! You think i’m that big a son of a bitch? No, i’d never do that. Toward the end of that marriage she’d gotten up to three fifty. She’d lost 100 pounds and hit a plateau and couldnt handle being stuck there so she went to eatin’ and gained it back and then some. She wouldnt tell me what she weighed the last six months but at the very end i swear i think she weighed about 400.
No. When i left her it had nothing to do with her weight. Even if she’d weighed 700 pounds. It was because she was such a Passive-Aggressive bitch. Actually, when i left it was because she’d manipulated me into having to leave. That’s a long story. And that’s all i have to say about it except for one thing. One thing to show you how she could hurt me and give you an idea why i finally left.
I force back tears and take a deep breath, trying to see the road as we move right into a western sun that will be a torment for hours until it sets. I’m almost at the point where i need to let her drive.
When she was in that 12 step group for overeaters she was working the fifth step. The one about ‘taking a fearless moral inventory,’ whatever that means. The healthier groups interpret that to mean to ask yourself if you are honestly doing everything you can to stay straight. If the answer is yes, that’s all there is to it. Unfortunately the group she was in was one of those that thought you needed to make lists of everything you ever did to hurt the people you were close to. A list for the people that were closest and most important to you.
She did that?
Yes, Tonya, she did that. She was sitting, writing something one day and i asked her what. She told me she was listing everything she’d done to the people she loved to hurt them, yak,yak, yak. It was one of the worst things she could have done because it fed right into her obsessive, pathological guilt. It was sick.
But get this. She was making two lists. One for her mother, one for her sister. I asked her where my list was. Of the things she’d done to hurt me. Surely she didnt think she’d never done anything to hurt me. Her face got really red and she stammered and i left. I just walked out and didnt come back for hours. I would not let that fuckin bitch see me cry. And i cried. For hours. I couldnt stop. After that i dont know if we ever talked about it. But we both knew she didnt do a list for me was because i wasnt important enough to deserve one. Get it?
Yeah, she sighs.
I’m pulling over, i say. Your turn to drive.
Near sunset we get off the interstate at a little town in western Kansas caled Oakley and find a motel for the night. Tomorrow afternoon we should reach Denver.
What’s it like to be old? Tonya asks me.
I give her a dry, poisonous look but say nothing.
She puts a hand to her mouth and says, Oh, I’m sorry. I didnt mean…
Restate your question, I say. Something like ‘What’s it like to be sixty-eight?’
Okay, what’s it like to be sixty-eight?
Specify, I say.
Maybe a good question would be about how your attitude toward death changes throughout life, I say. At your age death is something that will happen to you someday and is pretty abstract. When you hit forty it suddenly seems much closer, more concrete, and scarier. At sixty it affects everything. You may not expect to die right away but you’re forty years closer than when you were at twenty. And that means death affects your decisions and perceptions about everything.
That gives her pause and we both look down the escarpment where we’re sitting to the Dog River and at the half-dozen or so old men fishing there while she thinks of what to say next.
Were you ever married? She finally asks.
Yes, I say.
What’s it like? What happened?
Next question, I say.
How many times? How long? U have any kids?
Twice. Many times I wondered what happened but I dont really know because it was never clear. No kids. Never wanted any. Since this is turning into Twenty Questions, How about U, Tonya?
Never married, she says. Just boyfriends. You ever go to college?
College, yes, I say. Why do you ask that in particular?
You know a lot of big words. Speaking of death, do you ever wish you were dead?
No, because as long as I’m alive there’s that ahead of me and I’ll take it, even if it’s only another five minutes.
Do you ever wish you’d never been born?
Many times, I say.
She turns thoughtful again and I say, Tonya, what do you do for a living?
What do you do for a living? She says defensively.
You first, I say.
Trust fund money, she says and her face colors.
Okay. But why be defensive about that?
I’m not being defensive, she says, raising her voice.
You get the money from your folks in Marietta?
Yes but it’s not that they care. It’s to keep me from asking them for money all the time. And the checks arent generous, just enough to live a middle class life. They know I couldnt even hold down a minimum wage job. Your turn. RU retired?
Yes, I say.
You have a trust fund too?
No, I say. I do odd jobs. You can always make money doing things nobody wants to do.
I guess I really dont want to know what kind of odd jobs?
No. You really dont.
A vagrant zephyr redolent of trash cans winnows itself around us. It makes me sneeze and sets the old men that are fishing to cursing.
I’ll bet a hundred years ago this part of the river drew a lot more people to sit over there and fish, mainly because there were more people, I say.
So it begs a question, Tonya. Down where I came from…
Yeah, I say. Did I tell you I lived there?
When we were high the other day, she says.
I think it’s odd that when the world was seriously overpopulated a few centuries ago everybody always seemed to be outside and in each others’ faces because there wasnt much room. Now there’s a lot fewer people and a lot more room and a lot more food but everyone seems to be in hiding. Brunswick’s creepy because any time I went outside I could feel that I was being watched. Several times in this planet’s modern history people have suddenly moved underground into the steel and concrete caves their ancestors built. But there was no apparent reason for it. No plague or war or zombies or anything. People just went underground for a while and later a few ‘heroes’ would brave their agoraphobia and move back into the abandoned cities and the cycle would repeat. Even the big depopulation didnt seem to affect it. People got suddenly afraid and no one knows what of. People are weird.
You think too much, she says.
I know it. Further on out that way is Cascade Heights, I say as I point west. And Destiny Road. It was a WASP version of Eldorado. Everybody out there was rich. Now it’s a ghost town.
Did you grow up around here? She says.
This and a few other places.
I always wondered why they named it Destiny Road. Seems an odd name.
Maybe somebody had a dog named Destiny.
Or a wife, she says.
Or a daughter.
What did you say your name was? She says.
I didnt say, I say.