A Thousand Miles From Nowhere© 1993 Robert Saar
I am driving across the great prairie with two women and a baby.
We are going back in time to our small Iowa home town. Each of us is unsure about what we're doing with our lives; our futures extend only across today, no further. The baby doesn't know what a future is. Perhaps she's lucky this way.
Life is beautiful. We are life.
We left Boulder late in the morning. Rising early, we planned to be on the road before rush hour. Long after a leisurely breakfast we were still sitting out back on the patio, doing nothing about leaving. Our friend had returned from taking her kid to school. Min smoked with Etta while I played with the baby Nora. We were all waiting for someone else to say okay let's get in the car and go because we are all accustomed to traveling with dangerously compulsive people who seek the responsibility of shoving everyone else along the travel path, and we have all lived that role ourselves. No one wanted to be that this morning. We waited, vaguely wishing for someone to provide an impetus, secretly hoping no one would. We ignored our unavoidable departure, pretending for hours, blowing our early lead. The sun crawled onto the suburban rooftops like a fat lizard slowly sliding over hot rocks in a parched, lifeless riverbed.
Min took us on a two-laner east out of Boulder. She really wanted to drive this morning, once we got off the patio and onto the driveway, where we stood around shuffling our feet and saying goodbye to the friend and her neighbor and anyone else we could make into an excuse for not leaving. Min is returning to Iowa after the Great Flood. Her house has been inaccessible for so long, squatting hopelessly in one of the rivers that drove people out for so many months. The water is still too high for her to get into her house without a boat, and it gurgles beneath the floor of her kitchen even now, as she navigates us down this river of black Colorado asphalt. She is unsure about her future. Her husband is driving a truck somewhere; Montana, maybe, or Pennsylvania. She doesn't know when he'll return to Iowa. She has Nora with her. Nora is the only thing Min is sure about today.
Central Colorado is flat, populated by scattered scrawny oaks and oil rigs that look like lethargic, end-of-summer grasshoppers drugged by the sun. Big prehistoric grasshoppers. They seem to be looking for something in the weeds but never finding it. Looking and not finding, never stopping in their bobbing quest to wonder why do I look or is what I seek what I really want or some other form of vapid grasshopper, dinosaur introspection. They dip their heads up and down, always looking, never finding. Dumb lethargic metal grasshoppers, sucking the earth dry.
Etta is returning to Iowa from Santa Fe, where she had attended summer school. Like Min and me, she's in her forties. Like us she will never be completely done with school, or driving cross-country, or finding herself in new and bewildering situations. She lives with her father in his father's house, high on a hill over the Mississippi. In that respect, she is safe from the flood. Etta isn't sure how long she will stay in Iowa. A lot depends on what her father does next with his health.
Here and there are rows of crops, a fence line, a power line, a roof line. Lines leading to us and away from us, carrying messages and signals we don't care about or need. They are not lines of power for us. We drive past them, unconcerned with their banal chatterings and alarms and calls in the heat of this afternoon.
I am wandering over the face of the American West, roaming aimlessly on an undetermined and convoluted route back to Oregon. I don't know or care why I'm in this car today, except that I am with my friends and the sun is warm and I feel relaxed for a change. I feel like a grasshopper, hoping for a few more days of lazy summer heat. I know I do my best not to suck the earth dry.
The sun pours in my window; we're heading east in September and our right sides will cook for the next two days. It's so hot and arid and windy and lonely here.
We have all ostensibly been everywhere in the American West. At the least, we've journeyed to the places we needed to live in and leave and miss and grow in. Like all good spirits we wander the landscape of the collective soul, looking for something that resembles reality to us. We are all on the road. Physically, we are all in this car on this journey together. Spiritually, that's something else. Our internal journeys weave about one other, sometimes touching, sometimes pulling away. We have all lived on the Coast of the American West in our pasts, leaving dusty and unsettled ghosts to wander uneasily along the mountains and ocean shores back there.
Min wears a purple cotton shirt and baggy white pants. Her hair is short. She smokes with her left hand as she drives, tipping the ashes out the vent window. She wears a ring on each wedding finger. Her eyes search the landscape as it rolls by; she's looking for something but doesn't say what.
Etta is Min's Yin today in the clothing realm. She's wearing purple shorts and white tee that advertises a long-gone fundraiser for some women's organization. She reads Sun magazine in the passenger seat, her bare legs stretched out in front of her. She smokes with her right hand, unconsciously mirroring Min.
I am scrunched down in the back seat. We all wear glasses to read, and sometimes we wear them when we drive.
We are sailing the ancient Colorado sea in Etta's station wagon. A black raven feather hangs from the rear view mirror; we are hopefully guided by the Guardian of the Great Mystery. A small white vase stuffed with a nosegay of tiny purple flowers rests on the flat dashboard. Scattered around the vase are a pack of low-tar cigarettes, a package of clove chewing gum, several mongrel rocks picked up one afternoon in New Mexico, a partial roll of cherry Lifesavers, a small flashlight, and a book of matches that boasts a cafe's green chili on the front cover.
Nora is on the seat next to me, directly behind her mother. Surrounding her are an ice chest with bottles of juice and water for her, some newspapers, a bag of potato chips, a pillow, a diaper bag, a baseball cap, a loaf of Italian bread, and a bag of rice cakes. She is facing backwards in her car seat, doomed to another day of nystagmus.
When my sisters and brother and I were children we played a game called Statues. Whoever was It would whirl the other children around, letting go when certain the whirlee would not be able to navigate the parental front lawn. The idea was this: you staggered around in the summer twilight with your eyes closed until you fell down. This was done with as much drama as you could muster. Once prone, you were to hold your fallen pose until the It Child picked the best one of the lot. You would lie there on the ground, spinning happily through the universe, waiting to be found and claimed as what you were pretending to be.
A medical dictionary defines that whirling dizziness we felt as nystagmus, or the brain's attempt to correct the prevailing information of ‘whirling around’ into what it believed was the real world. Years later, a psychology professor explained it to me this way: when you sit in the back of a pickup truck, relieved to have finally hitched a ride back to Iowa City so you can go to college the next day, that strange visual sensation of going backwards when the truck stops is a superior example of nystagmus, better than just plain dizziness.
Later that night, after the professor had dropped me off on campus, I sat in the darkness of my dormitory room and came up with my own definition: nystagmus was the mental and emotional sensation of going in the opposite and incorrect direction to the perceived-as-correct direction. Nowadays, I use this word sometimes to explain anything I don't like or understand. Reagan suffered from acute political nystagmus, I like to say at parties. It keeps the conversation moving.
Well, Nora was going to see where we'd been a lot more than she'd see where we were going. As if either view was more important. As if she would suffer more than me because of our reversed viewpoints. Perhaps I would be the nystagmic one at the day's end.
There are pouches on the backs of the two front seats. The left one is nearly empty, holding only a road atlas. By keeping this pocket so unfulfilled, unable to achieve its pocket destiny, the navigator can reach back and grab the atlas easily, without fussing in piles of debris.
The right pouch is alive by comparison, a real traveler. It overflows in cornucopia fashion: maps, People magazine, Sun magazine, Homes and Land of Northern New Mexico magazine, the Santa Fe Reporter and Santa Fe Sun and other counter-culture newspapers; a nickel ad newspaper, a brochure about Indian Pueblos, and a cookbook; literature about my yoga instructor, the Indian Vendor Program, the Humane Farming Association, and the Rancho de Chimayo near Milagroso; a Stephen King novel, Susan Faludi's Backlash, two AAA camping guides, my latest threats to and from the Internal Revenue Service, a resume, someone's credit card bills, a tattered airline ticket, a Greenpeace application, another bag of chips, and some red liquorice.
What can't fit in this pouch is behind me, in the form of bags and boxes and jackets and boots and everything else we have with us on this journey.
Years ago I rode on the overnight train from Iowa to Denver, back when I still felt like zooming all over the American West for whatever reasons I could create. I ate breakfast in the dining car early in the morning, and was looking out at this very landscape, but traveling in the opposite direction and opposite mindset. A nervous man in a tweed jacket sat down across from me; he wore jeans, no tie, Oxford shirt, penny loafers.
“Nice view,” I said after he'd had time to read the paper. He furtively darted his eyes at the panorama that receded from him in all directions, then riveted his gaze back on his plate of shimmering, shaking eggs. I sipped coffee and read the menu again, hungry for conversation. When he finished his eggs, he drew the curtains across the window on his side of the table and told me he was the head of a clinic in Boston that specialized in helping burned-out executives find new meaning in life. I nodded as he droned on about unhappy rich people on the East Coast. As he talked, he risked peeks at the desolate, empty countryside. Finally he told me that he suffered from an intense fear of open spaces and was taking the train instead of flying. In this way, he hoped, he would heal his affliction through overexposure to the stimulus.
“This makes me incredibly uncomfortable,” he groaned into his plate of damp toast crumbs, “but I'm going to go all the way to Los Angeles.” He clenched his teeth. “No matter what.” When I said goodbye, he was still sitting there, hurtling backwards and alone through his fear.
Now I'm out on this landscape again. Clouds are immersed here and there in the blue haze. Everyone is silent. Nora is asleep next to me, slumped over in her car seat, her head lying on my hand. I keep it there so she won't bang her forehead on the hard plastic retainer when we go over bumps. Don't the people who design things for babies know how to design things for babies? What do I know about babies except that they drool and poop in their pants and I will never have one of my own?
We ride past a cluster of furiously pedaling bicyclists. They are following a van as it rolls at bicycle speed along on the shoulder of the road. The tailgate is open, and inside the van, a man with an expensive camera is filming away with intensity.
“It's a Coke commercial,” Etta says. No one questions her. Nora drools on my thumb; perhaps she overheard and is dreaming of a plastic bottle filled with sweet, brown, warm liquid. The conversation between Etta and Min soars over the intellectual landscape and falls squarely on our current event of journeys.
Etta says, “I remember when I was maybe fourteen or so, my Dad loaded us all into the station wagon and put a big box on the top that said California or Bust and we went everywhere: Taos, Carlsbad, Disneyland. My uncle got us in to see them making the movie version of Music Man. When we went swimming in the ocean, Jeannie kept losing the top of her suit in the surf.” She laughs as she looks inside her head at the memory of her skinny, bare-chested sister splashing in the sea. “We had a wonderful time.” Min laughs and asks a question. They continue to talk back and forth and my mind wanders.
The woman I am learning to forget runs through my consciousness. She looks good in her blue flowered summer dress. She is running through a field in France; blue sky, green grass, yellow hair. I want to chase her and catch her and make her real, but I let her run. It's easier for me when she runs away now, before I can invest time in remembering the good things. I have other nonsense to do with my mind I shout after her. She turns and laughs up into the sky like a five-year-old.
Etta turns on the radio and twists the knob, searching for country music, and I'm distracted and the field disappears and I'm back in Colorado.
“Damn,” Etta says, “I can't find that new song about bugs and windshields.”
“We're in Statler Brothers country now,” says Min. “That's why we don't hear any of that new stuff.”
“Yeah, I guess they have to have songs about love around here,” says Etta, looking out the window. “Or America.”
“No existentialism needed out there,” Min declares, “and no introspection allowed.”
“Or torn jeans,” says Etta. “Too much uncontrolled sex.”
“Irresponsible victim behavior,” I snort.
A man drawls another forlorn song on the radio, nasal, twangy, lost, heartbroken. Another victim.
I'm no victim, I think. I'm just driving out of Colorado with two friends and a baby and the sun feels good and we just left Boulder and so we can't be a thousand miles from nowhere. I sneeze.
“When I was going to massage school,” Etta says, “we always had four different responses to anyone sneezing in class. Someone would say bless you, then John would say gesundheit, then Alisha would say salud, and then Carla would say something in Italian, but I never knew what.”
I sneeze again.
“Bless you,” says Etta.
We are Out West. What an incoherent concept that is for most Americans. East Coast dwellers think this means ‘anywhere beyond Pittsburgh’ and to West Coasters it means “anything east of here and west of New York”. Out West doesn't include California, Oregon, or Washington, as far as Californians, Oregonians, and Washingtonians are concerned. To all Americans, Out West means ‘the place where the cowboys and Indians did horrible things to each other’, so of course no one wants to claim it except the people who are forced to live in it. I once overheard someone accusing Iowa of being in this mythical western predicament, but the nearby Iowans weren't interested in defending their socially abused territory against this aggression, and they continued munching on their pork chops, undisturbed.
Etta and I visited the art galleries while we were in Santa Fe. I saw one picture that struck some resonant chord in me. It was a pastel pencil drawing, showing a window in an adobe wall. Through this opening a southwestern desert scene is revealed. On the left of the vista stands a child's plastic cowboy toy, dressed like Roy Rogers. He's pointing his plastic pistol at the plastic Indian over on the right. The Indian is clutching his chest with one hand, recently shot through the heart by the brave cowboy. His other hand clutches his futile tomahawk. The caption reads This land is your land, this land is my land.
Paul Harvey comes on the radio. I smile at his familiar squeal as he yips, “Stand by for news!” as if someone has goosed him. He talks about what he thinks has happened that's important, beginning with a typhoon in Okinawa and going on to a brutal murder in Detroit and a corrupt politician in Connecticut. I'm not paying much attention; I enjoy listening to his voice.
He does his Paul Harvey thing by throwing in an anecdote about some fool who's locked himself into a crypt out in Oregon. Then he's wistfully serious again, oozing his little-boy mawkishness, talking about how our tomatoes are all from Mexico, and how they're green when we get them here in the United States, and how they're gassed with ethylene to make them turn red, and that they never really ripen, they only change color. He doesn't say anything about the Mexicans who pick them, or what their lives are like, or how picking ripe tomatoes might alter either nation's economy, or what could happen from eating unripened tomatoes basted in welding gas. He doesn't suggest anything about what the Mexicans who picked the tomatoes get to eat, or when. That isn't his job. He's simply supposed to tell us what's wrong with our world. We're supposed to do something about it, but it looks as if most of us never will. Not in time to make much difference, anyway.
Paul talks about some more of his news, singing “page tew!” before launching into an ad about clothing for senior citizens who want to exercise, “they come in happy! colors!” before Etta loses interest and begins questing the airwaves again, stalking music.
We drive past what looks like a train wreck. The freight cars are large dead brown-and-green beetles stacked on top of each other, seeping slowly away into the earth. Too far out on the prairie to salvage, they lie on their backs in big patches of yellow sunflowers.
“What are you writing?” Etta asks.
“Oh, nothing. Just doing exercises,” I reply.
She lights a cigarette. She and Min talk quietly, and the wind blowing in Etta's open window muffles their voices. Etta is telling Min how green the desert was in Santa Fe, due to a lot of recent rain. I watch Min's face for a reaction, but she doesn't flinch. I wonder if she's thinking about her house, sitting there with the Iowa River gushing beneath her bed. Her plants are probably all dried up, dead from thirst in their desert above such excess water. She's been away from her home for months now. A thousand miles from nowhere.
Now there are no trees or lines of power; only the slightly weaving interstate and a meaningless fence on either side. Everything looks barren except for the dull green sage. The light is very bright outside the car. Etta reads. Min drives in silence.
I wonder if I should remove the story about the Santa Fe drawing. Maybe the artist wants to tell it himself. Or retell it with words, having told it once already with pencils. I wonder if other writers dismantle their stories like project cars, using a good paragraph from a bad story, the way a mechanic salvages parts from a wrecked junker to build a decent racer. Artists don't do that; they just paint their paintings and draw their drawings over and over again. Van Gogh recreated his own face until he was daft.
I decide for the nine millionth time that it's okay to think I'm an artist because I do my own essence over and over again. I write about journeys because they seem to be the only thing I can understand. Sometimes journeys are the only consistent thing about human life. Sometimes I think I get this journey-telling business right, but then I see another facet glinting in another day's light, and I try to tell it all over again. Maybe it's just that artists are compulsive and nothing more. If that's true, I'm absolutely an artist of some peculiar variety.
Journeys are good things. You always get from where you were to where you are. Then you can look back on where you were, and from that perspective, lessons are easily seen. My first family used to travel to Minnesota in August every year, and I learned that the journey was the best part, and the arrival was nothing more than a waystop between the prevailing expedition and the next journey.
I wonder where she is and what excursion she's on now, that woman in blue, and my gut falls for a moment like a narcoleptic stumbling over the top step of a long flight of stairs. I remember laughing together in Berlin and I'm so sick with yearning that I want to leap into the autumn sky. The Metro roars into my head and she gets on and the doors close and the train takes her away to Luxembourg and I am alone again.
I look out the window and see huge cornfields. For a moment I think we're in Iowa already, but it's just a green spot in Colorado. We must be up along the North Platte now. This is irrigated land. This land is their land. It sure isn't mine.
“North Dakota!” Etta whoops. She takes a small spiral notebook out of the glovebox and writes in it. It's a list of license plates she and Min have seen since they drove out to Boulder together, earlier in the summer.
Another car goes by. “Iowa,” says Min, squinting after it. “Woodbury county, where's that?”
“Sioux City,” Etta answers. “Ask my Dad sometime to name all ninety-nine counties in alphabetical order. He has a lot of really strange things he can do. Stuff with his hands, word games, things like that.”
We return to silence, and I return to my notebook. Etta squirms in her seat, twisting around to look at what I'm doing.
“Are you writing down what we're saying?” she asks with a suspicious smile.
“No,” I lie, “I'm just doing exercises.”
The day slides into afternoon. We stop to change Nora's diapers and let her ramble near a picnic table under some trees. I lie on my back in the grass next to Min and look at the clouds, and I notice the sky is now full of them. I wonder if they found us or if we found them.
“We never get clouds like that on the coast,” I say.
“I know,” they reply in unison. They both must be thinking of California right now.
“I think the sky is one of my favorite things about the Midwest,” Min says softly. We all look up into the blueness and remember our own favorite things for a few minutes. Then we take some pictures of Nora and whoever happens to be next to her when the shutter clicks, and we get back into the car and back onto the road. We have agendas that urge us to keep going, details that demand some kind of getting to and doing of.
It's my turn to drive. Min gets in the back seat and falls asleep with Nora.
“I'm getting worried about this thing of actually liking country music,” Etta says. Tiny forehead wrinkles map her concern. “It's a sure sign that we're getting old.”
I nod in agreement. We have both been guilty of looking down on this music in the past, passing it off as insignificant bumpkin moaning that could never be classed with our own cerebral melodies. It didn't matter how many times the Beatles or the Rolling Stones played country songs, it was just plain righteous for us to hate the honky-tonkers and their cowboy boots and hats.
We ride in silence through the hot, broken-down landscape. No trees. In the distance, two white grain elevators look like missile silos on Cape Canaveral. I imagine a space launch and follow the rocket up into sky, corn spewing from the exhaust pipes. Above us, the clouds look like huge white ships floating on the surface of a bright blue Atlantic bay, and we're on the bottom, scuttling from hill to hill while the cloud people peer over the edges of their immense vapor boats and marvel at the trivial life down there in the depths.
I wonder why I'm thinking about Florida like this and if maybe it's because she's there for some reason and then one of Etta's favorite songs comes through the radio static and we sing along and I forget Florida. We swim along the underside of this huge blue sea while the white ships cruise overhead and I sing with my friend and it's okay again.
“The white silos look like Cape Canaveral,” I say to Etta.
“What?” She takes her shoes off and drops them on the floor in front of her seat.
“Could you write that down for me? In your notebook?” I nod at my hands, busy with guiding our squatty turtle car across the sea floor. She gives me a look like oh brother and gets her little pocket-size spiral notebook out of the glovebox and enters my profundity on the back page. Her printing is neat and precise.
“What do you need that sentence for?” she asks, putting the notebook back in the glovebox.
“Oh, for a story I'm working on,” I say offhandedly.
I drive and listen to the radio and hope for some Merle Haggard and the woman runs into the music and I think go away you don't exist anymore and she laughs at me and runs off. You're a zombie I yell after her, but she can't hear me because she's flown off to Greece or Italy or some other far away place. It's getting hard to figure out where she might be these days. As if it mattered.
“Florida!” whoops Etta. “We got it, Nora!” She writes it neatly into the notebook. A blue van whooshes by my window, stuffed with shrieking kids and red-faced parents. I wonder what hellish affair obliged them to drive all the way up here from the Sunshine State. Maybe they were hoping to see some cowboys and Indians when they arrived Out West.
Min wakes up and she and Etta smoke cigarettes and talk some more. Other zombies creep in and out of their conversations. I recognize most of them, two in particular. Once you've been stung, deep down where it really hurts, you never stop hearing the warning buzz of the one who did not do what you hoped they would do. There's always a little sizzling noise up there in your bonnet to remind you. It keeps you from stepping on that particular hornet nest for the rest of your life. It keeps creeping into your conversation, like beetles into a carcass.
It's the good things that cause pain. The bad memories are the ones that eventually get you pried away from the good ones, where you can forget the bad ones and enjoy the good ones. Initially, though, it's the good things that hurt the most. Someone takes them away from you and leaves you nothing to replace them with, and you hurt until you connect the pain to the lesson and then you get up again and walk on, a new teaching in your pocket.
We stop for gas in Gothenburg and decide to get chocolate shakes and pie. The first two places are closed, and two more advertise fried meat specials. Finally, we find the Western Cafe and sit in a huge booth, grateful to be off the road and out of the sun. We discover that this place doesn't have anything to eat except cream pies, but we order the dream-shakes anyway.
Nora happily gums some crackers. She's such a tolerant traveler. I think about how quiet and calm she's been, and remember the incredible battles that were the childhood trips with my own family. It was warfare in our car. My father was the United Nations, doling out his impartial authority. My mother was Switzerland, an unquestioning haven for any who fled in dismay from skirmishes with each other or with my father. My sisters and my brother and I were small, angry, emerging nations, bent on claiming as much emotional territory as possible. Nora isn't like that. Maybe it's because she has no brothers or sisters to compete with.
The waitress brings our order, and the shakes are tasty and have whipped cream and a cherry on top of each one.
“Hey Nora,” I say, bending down to her face, “when we get back in the car, I think maybe a good cry ought to get things back to reality.” She gurgles back into my face.
“Are you talking about her or you?” Etta smiles at me. I hesitate. She puts her arm around my shoulder. I think she's been listening in on my thoughts.
“Either, but I really meant her,” I laugh finally. I wonder if this is another lie. I pull away from the subject and Etta by turning around to look at the people in the cafe.
The waitress is tall and thin and dark-haired and young. She looks as though she might be Sioux, but it isn't obvious. She glances shyly at us as she brings and takes things for us. Several men in farmer caps sit at one booth; an older couple sits in another. You can tell by their cutting glances and occasional whispers that they can't figure out who Nora's parents are. They can't tell whether Min or Etta is my wife, or even if I'm the father. We all touch each other, we all touch Nora. We must be some kind of little roaming commune to these people.
Who would want a father like me, anyway?
The whispers and glances remind me of old potential dangers from thirty years ago, but that's an ancient, unnecessary feeling and I push it away. I remember other crossings of this plateau and remind myself that I survived them and that I have nothing to fear in this world now.
She runs through my thoughts again, wearing her blue dress again, laughing and barefooted, on her way into the Mediterranean surf. I close my eyes and suck warm North Platte river air deep into my lungs, and it draws the damp-black mud memory up through my soles and into my soul, and it replaces the sour loneliness of loss with warm caresses. I can smell the summertime cottonwoods soaking their long toes in the inky river ooze, and her laughter fades immediately. I'm getting pretty good at this, I think.
Etta drives when we leave the cafe. I lean between the front seats to talk. The first thing we discuss is splitting up family treasures when we lost our mothers. The subject brings up more sibling rivalry pictures. This is a little too depressing for both of us, so we return to singing along with the radio. Nothing but country music out here in Nebraska today. Min reads the paper and drifts in and out of the conversation.
A country dude sings “I promise I'll stay with you forever,” or the equivalent. Pure victim song fodder.
“Oh, sure,” Etta snorts.
“Oh-I'll-never-leave-you,” monotones Min, flouncing her head from side to side with each word.
“You can believe every word I say,” deadpans Etta, pointing one finger at the sky.
“You're my everything,” sighs Min, clasping her hands to her heart. Her eyelids flutter desperately.
“I'm totally in love with you and want to be with you for the rest of my life,” I say, in that familiar sing-song voice.
The ensuing silence is full of zombies, and our automobile ambiance is a roving Night of the Living Dead outtake. I wonder how many of us were quoting their favorite zombies directly.
“I don't hate Nebraska anymore,” Etta says to the window. “I actually like it. Look at it out there, it's so pretty and pleasant.” We're following the North Platte through river bottoms full of cottonwood. “I wonder why I ever disliked it.”
“I think we all did, Etta,” I say, “because it stood between us and Colorado.”
“It stood between us and everywhere we wanted to go!” she laughs. We look at each other and she laughs again, and I laugh with her.
I retreat to the back seat and lie on my back, my head at Nora's feet, knees in the air. The upside-down trees float past, just like they did when I was not much bigger than Nora. It's almost as if Mom is sitting up front with Dad, and we're on our way to Grandma's for Sunday dinner and then Nora kicks me, squealing, and I age forty years in one second. The white cloud boats float across the invisible sky-blue surface of my imaginary sea, and I sit up and look for my notebook so I can attempt to retain a tiny scrap of what I've just felt, but of course there are no words for feelings like these. That's why we have music and animal noises. That's how we tell each other we were once children.
Etta drives on past sundown and into the night.
We stop outside Lincoln for dinner. Etta parks in front of a huge, brightly lit truck stop. It appears to be full of roughnecks. A Sixties-born horror resurfaces, spreading an old sick fear of those angry, peace-hating men through my blood. This is the same sixties fear I felt when the police lashed at us with their nightsticks, and the cowboys threatened us with their phobias, and the rednecks would blast shotguns into cars filled with our longhaired friends.
We called them rednecks back then. We were afraid of them. Southern drawls cemented their hostile words into threats. They listened to country music. Maybe that's where our original hatred of those hick ballads was bred.
I discreetly remove my earring as we go into the truckstop.
We stand around the car after eating scrambled eggs, and finally we decide to take a two-laner across Iowa. Min drives and I navigate. The full moon shines on the clouds and all around us, gleaming on the flooded farmland; we're close to the Missouri now. Min pilots us determinedly through the sea of moonlight, leaning forward into the star-filled windshield. A red-tipped cigarette glows in her lips. I wonder if Min is following her own star now, or if she's looking for it up there in the September sky.
I am the navigator and I misinterpret the map and send us down an unmarked road that never arrives at the town I'm trying to intersect. We drive aimlessly in the night, trying a new road here and there as I scan the map with my pocket flashlight. Finally we turn onto Highway 34 again and slide into Iowa exactly at midnight. We drive across an old steel bridge that spans the Missouri. I look down as we rumble between these two Midwestern countries, and the river is a shining ribbon of quicksilver that floods away into the black trees and fields.
On through the night we glide, floating on a sea of lunar light waves. Everything about this journey now seems so smooth. It feels as though we're sliding safely home on the luminosity, and nothing can harm us or turn us aside. The moist air forms a silver mist in the gullies and draws, and everything is shining and magical. I feel like a child, riding home from Grandma's in our old Mercury.
We sing along with the country songs until Etta falls asleep in the back, curled up next to Nora. I look back at her. In the moonlight and sleep she looks twenty years old again, and for a few moments I also become twenty, and I realize I have to go through the past two decades again and I have to do it all the same again and that snaps me back into the night, and Min drives on through the hills and hardwoods and gleaming mists of my native land.
This night seems so full of power. I wonder if we've fallen into some kind of Twilight Zone place where we get to go back to some more youthful locus, and I suggest this to Min.
“We can only hope,” is her quiet reply. She glances at me as though she is my mother. The left side of her face is perfectly outlined in the moonlight that streams through the windshield, and I am convinced she is a college student at the University again.
The one motel in Red Oak has its no-vacancy sign on, so we buy gasoline and Etta drives again. It's late now, and we talk softly and laugh quietly so Min and Nora can sleep in the back seat. The motels are full in the next three or four towns, but we finally find a room and carry our things up and sit on the beds talking. Nora sleeps on the floor in one corner. No one bothers to turn on the television.
“Hey, it says here this town is the Gummy Bear capital of the world,” Min exclaims, reading the local paper. “Where are we?”
“Creston?” asks Etta.
“I though it was Chariton,” I say.
“Wait, let me look at the hotel receipt,” says Etta, unfolding pieces of paper from her wallet. “Here, it's the Mercantile Feed Store in Red Oak.” She's getting woozy from being on the road for so long.
Min and I look at her. She looks at us. We burst into laughter.
“Oh, who cares where we are!” It's a statement and will never really be a question for us.
“Let's tour that candy factory tomorrow!”
We chatter like children until Min and Etta giggle themselves out of their road high and crawl into one of the beds. I go outside to the car to get my notebook, and to be out of the room so the women can have some free space. I suppose I need some space, too.
Outside, the moon drenches everything with bright, pure, clean light. I don't go to the car; instead, I walk across the lot and into the open field behind the motel. The moon steams like a huge round egg in the aboriginal cornfield mists.
As I trek through the wet weeds, my running woman pops up and grins, inviting another chase from me. After a day like today it doesn't really bother me, and I gently brush her away. Go now and be happy somewhere, I think. This time she doesn't run off. She stands there, looking at me with her head tilted to one side, curious. Her mouth moves, but I can't understand the words. The whole business with her really feels distant now, as though I saw it in a movie long ago, or maybe a friend told me about her during a drunken interlude, about how much it hurt when she ran away. I can't feel it out here in the warm night. This is good, this peace. I need it.
“Dance your freedom.” I say, smiling to her, and she vanishes.
A voice comes into my head and says you dreamed her while you needed her and I hum a scrap of song I remember writing when I was a small boy:
My mother's the moonlight, my father's a dream, he runs in the night on silver moonbeams.
I am going home again for the hundredth time in the last three years and I still feel that resistance inside. She'll be there like she always was, a little boy's voice says, but now it's talking about the real truth, about my mother and her illness. She'll be okay, this didn't really happen the boy voice says, and I think shut up because I know it's a lie. She'll be the same as she was the last time I went to see her in the nursing home. She'll be that way forever.
My father and I will go to visit her and she won't know who I am or who he is. She'll huddle there in her chair, staring at the wall or the window. She doesn't care what perspective she has now, she just goes in the direction her chair is pointed. We will roll her backwards and forwards as we navigate the scuttled souls that litter the nursing home corridors, and she won't care. She repeats herself continuously, rolling back and forth over random fragments of memory until something distracts her. She's lost forever in her bewildering void, unable to do anything about her life.
She and my father traveled all over the world, teaching me about journeys with their leavings and returnings. When I was very small, it seemed my sisters and my brother and I were always going down to the train depot to watch them go, or to wait for the train to bring them home. Watching the train disappear, watching a speck become a train. Now they only travel out the front door, where my father pushes her along the little path in front of the nursing home. Her jaunts in this physical world are over. The only train she sees now is the jumbled wreck of her memory, lying in a decaying field of confused thoughts, and it goes nowhere. The vastness of the barren terrain surrounding my mother's reason is terrifying.
I try to drive these visions away by thinking about the woman in the blue dress, but this time my little mind game doesn't work. I have to deal with this going home duty once again, because I am going home again and it will be this way again until she dies. Then I will never have to go home again, ever. Unless my father pulls the same trick.
As usual, I start to cry.
A thunderstorm flickers and flashes on the western horizon. Faint boomings can be heard, like far off cannons. It's as though some little town back in Nebraska is being bombed. Maybe God is attacking that truck stop in Lincoln.
Fireflies trace luminescent curves of greenish light around me, weaving peculiar patterns in the grasses. If I were to set up a camera and leave the lens open all night, what illustration would the fireflies design? What message would be created out of all those seemingly random little journeys? Could someone with a photographic memory decode these buggy artists? Is this where we can finally locate the True Meaning of Life, straight from Buddha's own eye?
Now that I'm deep into the meadow, I am surrounded by voices. Initially it's only insect babble, but as I squat quietly on my heels, and listen, and let go, I begin to hear the individuals. I can identify crickets sawing their sleep-destroying song, cicadas announcing the temperature from the trees, toads and a tree frog and a bullfrog twanging like many rubber bands. There must be a pond out there in the darkness. Nighthawks flap like crazy moths across the face of the moon, sputtering their weird buzzing cries. A thousand varieties of grasshopper animals click and jitter and jabber in the grasses.
The night is filled with trilling and squeaking and chirping and peeping. It's a constant background life noise that welcomes me. It will not stop until the first frost, and then Iowa will lie silent until the following spring, when the descendants of all these howling night creatures begin the identical song again, without rehearsal.
These innumerable pitches of steady droning pulsate in volume, the different frequencies beating against each other and blending together to create new voices belonging to not just one single individual, but many, or none. I wonder if this is the voice of the Creator.
I am certain about the firefly painting that streaks over my shallow frame of time and the three simple dimensions of depth; I'm sure of this huge chorus of tiny critters; I'm convinced these things conceal whatever it is we all go looking for. It's directly in front of me, this answer I seek and seek in my life, but I can't see it or make sense of it. If only I could stop listening in defense, the way society taught me, and listen as one of these night talkers.
If I could listen as a child again.
Sometimes I think I'm doing that, just before I fall all the way down the tunnel of sleep, or when I dance without caring about my feet, or when I gaze up at the clouds and forget who I am. That's when I am a child again, and I see the world without the filters of language and culture, and sometimes, sometimes I can almost see the Word of the lightning bugs and sing the Word of the crickets and the wind feels like Buddha's very breath.
I stand up and close my eyes. Slowly, I begin to spin in a circle, my arms outstretched, my palms skyward. As I revolve with increasing speed, I picture the sound as a blanket that lies over Iowa and stretches all the way down into Missouri and back into Nebraska and on into the future, broken only by the rips and tears of the towns that nature bombs with thunderstorms. I fancy the fireflies as a gigantic net of light fragments, flashing and slicing the dark into pieces of cosmic puzzle, diluted here and there by the streetlights of Red Oak and Omaha and Tarkio.
I twirl faster and faster, and I learn that the thunder gives power to the Voices and the lightning gives power to the Lights. Each storm is a gigantic cosmic battery that recharges this eternal flashing, humming message. On I whirl, creating a small whirlpool of wind, and it draws the Voice and the Light closer and closer to me. I gyrate alone in the middle of this journey of mine, in the middle of the firefly excursions and the song of life in the middle of this seemingly insignificant meadow in the darkness, and I dance without caring any longer who I am, or where I am that these radiant clouds touch my upturned face with brilliance, and then I hear the Voice.
Just for one instant, so brief I may have imagined it, the churning cacophonic tongues come together and I hear the Voice:
...life is beautiful we are...
My mother sings with God and the bugs and the frogs.
Life is beautiful. We are life.
I fall from the clouds and crash into the earth, panting. My head swirls and I hold as still as I can, trying to hold on the magic as long as I can. Then I open my eyes, silently pleading to see the Word burning in the night sky, but all I see are fireflies.
I lie on my back, wet from the dew, drinking in this symphony of sound and light and life. Then I get up and walk back into the world and the United States and Iowa and into our room in the motel. I climb quietly into the empty bed. Min and Etta are asleep, curled together under a thin blanket.
A truck drives by on the highway. The tires whine into the distance, crying a long, slow, ever-descending note of the lonely black asphalt path that leads wherever the driver needs to follow.
A train whistles its way down to Missouri. It wails its loneliest Hank Williams lament, calling all the homeless and torn and abandoned to climb aboard and go with us in the search for something, or somewhere, or someone who will give reason to their aimless, wandering journeys.
A cricket calls into the warm mist. She waits for an answer. There is none. She calls again. The mist carries her searching plea far into the dark green land, and she stops and waits and asks again. She calls and calls and only I can hear her, and I can do nothing for her anymore.
I cry a little for my mother, and for the woman in the blue dress, and for Etta and Min and Nora, and then I close my eyes and begin the long, sweet submission into sleep. This day began in darkness, and like all journeys, ultimately ends in darkness.
For some reason I smile as I fall. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I think I heard the voice of God. Maybe it's because I'm home. Maybe it's because I lived this day with my friends. I think, really, that it's because I'm on a journey again, and this time it feels like I'm doing it right. This time I'm going toward something, when for years I've been going away.
I have my face into the wind again.
I fall silently into crickets and trains and highways, and baby Nora's soft breathing becomes a blanket my mother pulls over my head as I sleep.