From there to here
The gas here is a good twenty cents lower than it was back home. As the tank fills up, I wonder why that might be the case. I have no idea, all I have is the vague but definite suspicion that prices are being gouged. Not that it matters that much – just a couple of dollars.
I settle back into the seat and make a last spot check. There are no other cars at the pump; no one is hurrying me. I take my time, making sure I fit right into the middle of the seat. There is no one else in the car. I check the passenger seat. Case with dark glasses, in the unlikely eventuality that the sun comes out. Box of Trader Joe’s chocolate covered cherries, in case attention starts to flag. Energy bar. Replacement disks – Phil Lesh and Friends at Bethlehem PA, 11/17/01, sets 1 and 2. Printout of directions, 18-point font. Bottle of water in cup-holder. Dick’s Picks vol. 22 loaded. I’m good to go.
I ease away from the pump, loop to the left, meet the main road at the dip in the tarmac, brush against the sidewalk in the tight turn to the narrow lane, and hit the ramp to the freeway. I’m on the road again.
The first three points on the navigation chart involve switching multiple freeways within city limits. I’ve driven this route a few times now so it’s not as bewildering as it was the first time round – every highway number and exit seemed to involve the digit 7. Two nights ago I’d even driven across town to go to dinner, so the fruits of habit had begun to grow on my branch. I made the transitions relatively comfortably. Soon I am on the annoying stretch – the freeway with the lights.
Fifty minutes of interrupted driving and nothing to do about it. I sit in the right lane for a while, determined to take it easy, but soon my patience begins to flag. I switch to the left – at least it seems to be going faster. But the added pace is largely illusory; there’s no stopping the lights that crop up every time the needle begins to settle at fifty. At one of these stops the sun does come out. I take the opportunity to switch into the shades. A little further down the line a large blue Dodge pick-up barges into my lane from the right. My hand jumps for the honk but holds back. Partly it’s the relaxation from the weekend, partly my friend’s admonishment: I’d honked someone who’d butted into my lane without a signal the previous day, he’d raised his hand in apology, but my friend had warned me about the part of town we were driving through. I take no chances.
The traffic thins out after a bit. Soon there’s a long glorious empty stretch where the road curves to the left in an outstretched concrete swoop. I finally hit seventy, and take it past, to seventy-five. There’s a Merc sitting in the left lane, doing sixty five. I hover behind it for a few seconds. Soon it takes the hint and moves over. I ease past. A quick glance tells me that it’s driven by a young Asian guy, one ear clapped to his cell-phone. No wonder he wasn’t paying attention. The limit in this state is sixty-five, I know, and I have seen cop cars around. But right now, I don’t care. Dick’s Picks v22 is letting rip. It’s a ’68 show, one for which I have great associations moreover. I nudge the cruise control upwards. It’s a sunny day. I wrote a letter, mail it in the. Mail it in the, air indeedy. I wrote a letter, mail it in the air.
And you know by that, I’ve got a friend somewhere.
My mind begins to wander. I pop a TJ’s chocolate. Judge decreed it, clerk he wrote it. That’s almost like the review process. Despite having spent the weekend with friends, I’d been working, mostly. On a revision. Doing what the judge decreed and what the clerk wrote. Soon (I hope) I will write another letter, mail it in the air again.
Viola Lee Blues.
I’m out in open country now. Still doing a steady 74-75. Pushing it up further beyond, at times, when we’re between towns, when the road gets really empty. Touching eighty at times. It’s Sunday, after all, and the cops are likeliest to be close to populated areas. I want to be getting home soon. There’s work to be done.
The sun has gone in but I keep my shades on. Who knows when it might come out again and dazzle me? Little flurries of snowflakes now appear. They zoom at my windscreen in erratic accelerated parabolas, like asteroids in a space simulation; like in the screensaver, bending away like Beckham at the last possible moment. The areas right next to the road are paved with ice. It’s funny how the weather has changed just an hour to the north. The landscape gets progressively bleaker – whiter, starker, the trees barer, more oppressively angular and naked. Or is it just my imagination.
I chance the occasional glance round at the landscape. It is mostly empty and white. Shades of grey. The snowfall intensifies in patches. At one point the road stretches straight out ahead of me. No cars are visible, I overtook the last one an instant ago, and already it is shrinking in my rear view mirror. There are no buildings either, at least, no major ones that I can see. Just land. And road. And sky. In three different shades of grey, meeting, converging, at a point directly ahead of me. The Eleven is playing a riot inside my chariot. I nudge the cruise control up even further. This moment is for me.
I cross the state line in good time. The previous time I’d driven back, someone had been moving a prefabricated house along the highway in front of me. I kid you not. It took up two lanes and had two patrol cars escorting it. Everyone drove at sixty, and cars were backed up all the way. This time, nothing – although traffic does pick up a little. So does the speed: the limit is seventy now. That’s license to go at an easy eighty, which is what the left lane is doing. If not more. A sports car comes up in my rear view, flashes his lights. I let him pass, and ease back into the left lane before I have my style cramped by any farmer who’s stuck at sixty. And I let it out a little more. If that guy can pass me when I’m doing eighty, I can go a little quicker myself. It’s a straight road. The snow has stopped. I hunker down, I frown, I hit eighty five.
I smile when I see the last road sign I’m looking out for. It’s always nice to read the name of your destination. This exit is on the left. I take it, no worries, and I’m on the home stretch. I pop another chocolate and look at my watch. It’s not even five. Not even three hours. Great time.
The last hurdle but one is the exit off the freeway. It has no ramp. The first time I took it I was shocked to see the grassy shoulder hurtling towards me as I departed from the freeway; hitting the brake hard enough to send things flying forwards, easing up in time to remain on the tarmac, severely shaken but not stirred (and marveling at how well the brakes had worked). This time, I was prepared. Ramp or not, I took the curve smoothly, merged into Sunday afternoon traffic headed mallwards.
The pleasure at making the ramp so comfortably evaporated as I drove past what I thought was the entrance to the Whole Foods. Their babaganoush could do with some exploring, was the thought on my mind, and now I had missed it. Once more unto Trader Joe’s? The light turned to red and I stopped, toying with the options. A desi couple in the car behind me – funny how the rearview mirror shows them so clearly but they don’t see me. I decide to head to office directly – make it a late dinner instead of early. The light changes. I drive on. And see the Whole Foods up ahead. What had I been thinking?
I turn into the lot and find a spot. I pull in. The sun is low and fierce. I switch the car off. Once again I have forgotten to note the tachometer readings; once again I miss out on gauging the mileage. I take a long, deep breath and pull on my scarf and hat, step out for a bite to eat.
I am back. I had fun. Now I will get me my baba and kebab, and I will go to my office, and things will be like they have always been. Sleepy Alligator in the noon day sun, lyin' by the river just like he usually done. Call for his whiskey, he can call for his tea. Call all he want to, but he can't call for me. Oh no.
I turn the key and step into my office. The sun doesn’t set at 5:30 any more these days but that doesn’t mean the work gets done any quicker. The drive was fun, it took three hours. Now it won’t be midnight till I get home. Sleepy alligator. Oh no.