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Nick Ellis

 

Monochrome

Time flies.

For a moment I resign myself to the fact that I'm not going to make it; that the light's going to be red by the time I get to the intersection. Then for some reason my resolve renews itself and I hit the accelerator, feeling the Mustang shudder and respond, lurching ahead to close the gap. I'm closer, closer and the light's still green.

Christ. I'm not going to make it.

Sure enough, thirty yards too early the green vanishes, replaced by yellow as my heart sinks. No, I'm not going to make it.

And I'm not going to stop in time, either. I'm about two months past due for new pads, which ought to put me at right about the center of the concrete cross if I try to brake. My teeth grind together as I shove the pedal down another inch.

This was not a good idea. Slamming two thousand pounds of metal into a traffic intersection at a speed far past acceptable boundaries for the sole purpose of avoiding a five minute wait at the stoplight never is. The scream of the wheels as I go into the turn confirms my stupidity.

The brakes do enough of a job to keep me from raising two wheels off the pavement as I round the corner, and while I jerk the wheel towards the left lane long enough to keep the rear end from sliding sideways, something catches my eye.

Some guy in a Saab convertible with a license plate that reads "WDFLD 24." Woodfield? What the hell does that mean? Why does the guy have vanity plates named for a shopping mall? Christ. What a waste of money.

Then the car grabs a firm hold on the street again, and I let go of the breath I held on to back when the light was still green. The cross traffic gets permission to go, and they slink towards me in my rear view mirror. I've got to stop doing this.

Of course, my thoughts turn to Sarah, who used to get such a kick out of those stunts. "Evil Ken-evil," she used to say, after I'd pull something stupid. "Suburban daredevil."

I look over at where she used to sit, but the empty chair doesn't reveal any secrets. For those I've got to reach deep in the back of my mind, back where I keep all the junk I won't throw away.

Christ, it was hot that night. I didn't think it was possible for it to be so dark and still feel like the sun was bearing down on us. Sarah kept talking about the cool breeze that was going to come bristling through and rescue us, but I didn't buy it.

"Let's just get inside," I said, "where it's cooler." I stood up from my spot at the old red picnic table, expecting her to do the same. She, of course, stayed put.

"We're out here for a reason," she said, looking past me, past the fence her father built and into the field behind it. "We're waiting."

"For what? Dehydration?"

"Sit down."

I kept standing just because she had told me to do otherwise. I'd do the same today. "You're acting really strange tonight, Sarah. How come you keep--" Suddenly there was a light from high up. I looked at the second floor of Sarah's house and saw the illuminated curtains through an upstairs window.

"There," she said, standing up. "They're going to sleep. Come on." She took my arm and pulled me to the fence, letting go of me and hoisting herself over the wooden planks in one fluid motion. I heard her graceful steps swishing through the long grass of the field as I looked for a foothold.

Sarah was perpetually a step ahead of me, in so many more ways than one. That summer, a month before she was to leave for college, we had spent as much time together as we could. I still had another year of high school, even though Sarah was younger than me. I had been held back a year in grammar school the same year she was pushed forward. It was funny, the way it worked out. If either one of us had just done things the normal way, we would have been together. Instead, we missed each other completely.

A minute later I finally caught up with her.

"I'll assume you know where you're going," I said, sweating now but grateful for the motion that was forcing the still air against me. If she smiled I wouldn't have known it; the night was pitch black. A few times all I had to go on was the sound of her walking. The rest of the walk was silent.

I felt her hand against my arm a moment before the grass stopped coming to my knee. I guessed that we had come upon the grounds of our old school. Sarah's house could be seen from the classroom windows in those days, before I cared to look.

"Do you know where we're going?" she asked, and I was grateful to hear the sound of her voice.

"No," I answered in a whisper, although I doubt there was a soul within a mile of us. As we neared the building my eyes made out its shape against the sky; cold and dark sharp corners set in the blistering night heat. I recognized the corner Sarah was leading me into.

"We're going up?"

Her answer was to let go of my hand and grab hold of the metal pipes jutting out of the school wall, exposed essentials of the inner workings of the building. I saw the blond shape of her hair rise up, becoming a shadow against the fairly brighter night sky. Then it was my turn.

I poked through memory to find the handholds, reliving motions I had performed many times before while trying to adapt them to my full grown size. My clumsy vertical journey finally found me on the roof of the school, watching Sarah glide to the far side of our new level.

This had all taken on such a strange feel that I wondered if I was dreaming. When I reached Sarah I put a hand on her shoulder to remind myself that this was real. She touched my hand and held it, bringing it down around her waist.

"Hold me."

I closed my eyes, noticing that the world didn't grow that much darker, and complied. Both arms around her waist, my face buried in her hair, I took it all in-- the feel of her, the smell of her, the things that I loved. She was going away from me, I thought, but not yet.

When I opened my eyes my mouth was pressed to her shoulder. I looked down at the ground in front of her and saw a blanket at her feet.

"Say good-bye to me tonight, Kenny," she said, "because I don't know what's going to happen now. We're both going to grow so much these next few years, and we'll do it apart. I don't know what we're going to learn alone, but there's one thing I want to learn together before I go."

It was so strange, hearing her say that. 'I don't know.' It just didn't seem to fit, the words coming from her lips. Sarah always knew-- what she wanted, what she felt, what was best. She just did. And me--

I was feeling the blanket against my skin, feeling Sarah beside me, feeling things for the first and last time. I sometimes tell myself that I am five years old, that my first moments of life came on that rooftop years ago.

Later, as I held her in the darkness, a cool breeze came bristling through the night and did not rescue us but instead made us retreat.

Time crawls.

A semi truck makes a left turn across my lane from a cross street into the oncoming traffic. For the moments that the steel giant is stretched out in front of me, I power past the car by my side to reach a clear path around the truck. Why am I accelerating toward a wall of metal?

Christ. What a stupid way to live.

Now the guy next to me gets his pride in an uproar and hits the gas, crawling back past my bumper to try and keep me from getting in front of him. In the time it takes to decide whether I should give up or go faster, I pass the point where I have a choice and am forced to commit myself, coaxing a few more inches out of the tired old engine. I glance at the car next to me, still blocking the path. It's a smaller car, which means I can probably beat it out. Still, it's going to be close. The pedal can't go any further down.

Then the semi grants me a reprieve and floats into the left lane, and I've only got to drift to the right a few feet to get around it. I look back at the car blocking me and discover that I really wouldn't have made it. I slow down and look at the guy driving-- he's an older guy driving an uncomfortable little car, and he won't look at me. I can't get mad.

Then I notice that even though I'm slowing down the speedometer reads fifty miles per hour and I'm breaking the law by about twenty miles. The brakes protest as I push a little harder, trying to get down to a legal level before I get another ticket. It's been a long time since my last one.

Even though I had been looking forward to seeing her since the moment she suggested it, I still managed to walk out of the door thirty minutes later than I should have.

I figured I'd make up for it on the highway. One of my less intelligent friends had told me once that the police only got on I-55 in response to complaints, and I believed him. I guess a good indicator of your own intelligence is the stupidity of the person you listen to.

Halfway there, surrounded by the immeasurable nothingness of farms and fields, I saw the lights in my mirrors. Another testament to my lack of brainpower is the fact that even though I was the only car visible on the road, I really thought the cop was going after someone else.

Twenty minutes later the officer was still sitting in his car with my license, and I decided at the time that somewhere during his life somebody from Chicago committed some unspeakable offense against him, and he had chosen his profession so that he could mete out justice to all who hailed from that demonic city.

Ten more minutes passed, and I let go of the delusion that the band Sarah had tickets to see would hold the show until I got there. Nobody has manners anymore.

As the cop was walking toward my car ten more minutes later, I looked at my watch and guessed that the band would be taking the stage at that moment, and Sarah was sitting next to an empty seat in the fourth row.

No. No, she would be sitting next to a large, tan, smooth talking, well-dressed, sensitive, charming, millionaire ex-pilot. Why did he give up flying experimental supersonic jet planes for the air force? Why, to pursue his first love of neurosurgeory, of course.

The officer handed me the yellow slip and explained it to me: My punishment for speeding would consist of a seventy-five dollar fine, a court appearance, and a hellacious earful from Sarah. I think that last one was actually written on the ticket. I thanked the officer, a courtesy I regret to this day, and resumed my ridiculous pace. Can't teach a stupid dog new tricks.

A lifetime later, I reached the lobby of Sarah's dorm, where she had told me to meet her at precisely an hour before I actually got there. I sat down on a couch and waited, going through every possible complaint she'd have so I'd have a response to each one. I even considered writing some of them down, but decided it was bad manners to cheat on an argument.

Close to two hours later she walked in. I was surprised to see a smile on her face and outstretched arms. I crossed the lobby and held her, immediately noticing the changes. She left my embrace before I let go, stepping back and smiling at me, waiting for me to speak first. She had changed her perfume.

"I'm really sorry," I said, jamming my hands in my coat pockets. What was wrong with her hair? "I got pulled over on the way down and the cop wrote the Declaration of Independence on the back of the ticket."

"Don't worry about it," Sarah said, standing in front of me and nodding, still waiting for me to say more. She had cut her hair.

"Did you go to the concert?"

"Yeah."

"I'm really sorry."

"Let's go somewhere and talk," she said, turning and walking away. I followed her through a twisting maze of hallways until we reached an elevator. She hit the up button.

"We're going up?" I asked, smiling. She either didn't get it or didn't think it was funny. My money's on the latter.

We took the elevator to the top floor of her building, a level that had laundry machines in a center room and windows lining a hallway that circled the outer area of the floor. Sarah sat down on top of a desk and looked out a window at the lights of the campus. We talked for a little while, about what was going on back home and what was going on there at school and what I was going to do with my life. That last subject wasn't very promising, and we were left in silence, which she finally broke.

"I had a moment in mind tonight," she said, taking her eyes off the window for the first time for long enough to glance at me before turning back. "The Waterboys-- the group we were supposed to see tonight-- have a song called A Life of Sundays. I think of you every time I hear it. I don't know why, but I do. So when I heard that they were going to be here, I waited in line for hours to get good seats. I figured that when that song came on, I'd turn to you and tell you it was our song. I kept imagining the look on your face-- here I am, telling you that this song you've never even heard before is our song. I wondered if you'd try to fake it and act like you knew what I was talking about. But I wasn't going to do it for a joke, Kenny. I really wanted to share that song with you. I kept thinking about that moment over and over again, and tonight it came and went without you. I sat there and heard the song and decided it wasn't such a great song after all."

"Do you have it on tape?"

That got her looking at me again, although I couldn't figure if it was good or bad.

"What?"

"The song. Do you have the song on tape?"

"Yeah."

"Well, why don't we go listen to it, and then you can have the moment."

Sarah stared at me for a second before answering. There was no question about that one. Definitely bad.

"You're completely misunderstanding the concept of a moment, Kenny."

"I misunderstand a lot of concepts, Sarah. But that doesn't mean I don't care about you. I'm just trying to fix things."

"I don't want it fixed," she said, standing up and facing me. "This is one of those things that's just not going to get better, and--"

"Jesus, Sarah, I'm sorry. How many times do I have to say it before you--"

"Of course you're sorry," she said, "You were sorry when you forgot my birthday, you were sorry when didn't call for a whole week, and you're sorry now. I mean, that stuff was bad enough when I was back in Chicago, and now this is the first time I've seen you since I came down here."

She had painted her nails. She never used to do that. She had painted her nails and she was talking about things that never used to affect her. Sarah was so different that way. I would hear stories about other girlfriends who cried and moaned about anniversaries and forgotten dinners and . . .

And "our songs."

Suddenly something clicked. I'm not a very bright guy, and it takes me a while to get things sometimes, but sooner or later it all clicks. I'll get a joke, I'll finish a puzzle, and I'll figure out what someone is really talking about in due time. And this time it only took me a few seconds longer than your average stupid guy.

"What's this really about, Sarah?"

Long pause.

"I don't know what you mean."

There we go.

"Did you meet a college guy?"

"Kenny--"

"That's what this is about, isn't it? The moment, the special song meant just for me; they're not bothering you as much as something else is. You're looking for a reason, aren't you?"

Sarah laughed a little at that, the laugh she used to give when I'd catch her making fun of me to my face; after she would say something clever that she really didn't think I'd understand. A long silent moment came and went, and I gave in to the difficulty of the situation.

"How about if I make it easy on you, Sarah," I said, looking toward the elevator. "It's probably not a good idea for us to keep this up when we live two hours away from each other. Why don't we just put the two of us on hold, and maybe during the summer..." I heard myself just trail off, because I really didn't know what would happen when summer reached us. "Is that what you want?"

Sarah looked at me and was back for a moment, back to the way she was when I fell for her. The whole thing would have been much easier if she had just stayed hidden. Instead she was back, and kissed my cheek.

"Thank you, Kenny."

Just like that. I nodded, being at a usual loss for words, and moved to the elevator, waiting to be stopped. She did not rush after me, did not take another elevator and race down to the lobby, did not dash out of the building toward the parking lot to catch my car before it lumbered back north.

I know. I checked.

I look at the guy in the car next to me and he looks back through a pair of those sunglasses I hate. They're composed of one piece of plastic, the kind that changes color depending on the angle you look at it, and they wrap around the guy's head like a cockpit window. Within a second I hate the guy's guts. Then, while he's looking right at me, he lifts a beer to his lips and takes a sip. Hanging from the rear view mirror is a little statue of the virgin Mary.

God must grade on a curve.

I took a few hours off work once to see an eclipse. I had heard that it was going to be the most incredible phenomenon to hit my area in over a hundred years, not to pass again for a hundred more. I figured that I shouldn't miss it.

I read in the paper that looking directly at the thing would cause permanent retina damage. The thing of it is, I figured that since this only happened every hundred years or so, why not take the chance? Then I figured it was pretty stupid to do after all, so I kept reading about how you can make this little projector thing out of a cardboard box and some tin foil. I decided to do that instead of blinding myself for life.

So I took those couple hours off work and went for a drive with the top down to see what this thing would look like. I've got to admit, when it really got going the whole thing was pretty damn eerie. I mean, the city wasn't plunged into darkness or anything, but everything kind of took on this silvery look to it, and I kept thinking I was wearing my sunglasses but then I'd touch my face to remind myself that I wasn't.

Then, while I'm driving around, I remembered that I'd forgotten to make my projector thing. The most phenomenal event of my lifetime, and I was going to miss it. I thought about looking right at it again, and this time I even kind of peeked, but the whole thing was just a big glare and I wouldn't have seen anything even if I stood and stared at it for a while. So, the hell with that.

I pulled into this nursing home parking lot, because it was the only place around with trees and a few benches, and I thought it would be nice to be sitting in a place like that when this whole amazing thing was going on, so I'd be able to remember it in a good way. Only when I got out of the car I walked toward this little bridge over what looked like a river, but it turned out it wasn't a river but just a big line of mud with some ducks walking around it. Suddenly the whole place started to seem kind of cheap and fake, but I stood on the bridge anyway and looked around at the place. I touched my face to let myself know I wasn't wearing sunglasses again, and it worked. I felt a little weirder.

Then I saw a lady carrying a cardboard box, and like an idiot I actually wondered what the box was for until she raised it up to the sky and looked through it. Another lady came up to her and asked if she could see, so I figured it would be all right for me to ask. The lady seemed pretty happy to have people to talk to, and she let me look in the box at this amazing thing. I looked inside and saw a little half circle of light projected onto white sheet of paper inside of the box.

That was it. The most incredible astrological phenomenon to hit my town for the rest of my life was a little half circle of light. I couldn't believe it. I was about to say something to the lady about how we'd all been had, but she seemed pretty impressed by the whole thing, so I kept my mouth shut and waited long enough to make her think I was enjoying looking through her projector thing. After a couple more minutes I said good-bye to the lady and got back in my car, touching my face again. I stopped feeling weird and started feeling kind of dumb. On the ride back to work I saw a guy looking at the sun with a pair of binoculars, and suddenly I didn't feel as dumb. Looking at someone dumber than you always makes you feel smarter.

I got back to work and shut the car off, but a good song was on the radio so I just sat in the car with the top down, looking at the silver world. Everyone else had gotten tired of the whole thing and gone back inside, but I felt like I had to stay out for a while longer, even though I wasn't really that impressed, just to make sure I experienced the thing enough to remember it. I wished that there were more people outside looking, so I wouldn't feel like I was making a big deal out of something that wasn't, but nobody else came out and I pretty much felt like a sap. The song got to the end, where they're basically just repeating the same stuff over and over, so I switched off the radio and got out of the car. I took another quick glance at the big glare, and the spot in my vision made my head hurt a little. I hoped that I didn't do any permanent damage, but luckily I didn't. I don't want to remember the thing that badly. I mean, who needs it, really.

The on-ramp comes into view, and I drift to the right. Instinctively, I hit the gas to build up some speed, even though I know the car's not going to be able to handle the curve at the rate I'm going.

I like to go fast on the on-ramp. Sue me.

Sure enough, the ramp curves a little too sharp and I'm forced to hit the brakes. They don't quite produce the effect I'm looking for, and the tires squeal in protest as the car goes into the turn. I wince a little, as if that's going to help the tires hold, until finally the ramp straightens out and I'm ready to merge.

I swear, someday I'm going to kill myself in this thing.

The other day I went over to my friend Chris' for a Labor Day picnic and had a lousy time. The food was good, and the people there were all really nice, but the thing is that Chris thinks he's about twenty years older than he really is, so while I just wanted a beer and a hot dog, he's walking around with a brandy glass and an expensive cigarette asking how we all wanted our steaks done. Liz made a crab dip.

I brought little powdered doughnuts. Chris looked at me funny and put them on a silver plate.

I guess it just reminded me that everyone's got to grow up sooner or later, and it's taking me longer than it should. Maybe it also bugged me that I was the only one there without a girlfriend. I mean, Maria was there, and she made me laugh a few times, but I know her too well to start anything serious. She's one of those girls who always has to be doing something crazy, like getting in the car and driving to Wisconsin for no reason or going to some all-night club and dancing on the bar.

I know, I just contradicted myself. I don't care.

Anyway, the whole thing ended with me telling a story about a party I was at where someone stuck a cat in a microwave and tried to make it explode. The cat, that is. Well, Maria was the only one who thought it was funny, and I even think Jennie started to cry. I felt pretty bad about the whole thing but I didn't want to apologize, so I said it was time for me to get home and left. On the way home I ran over a squirrel.

Suddenly I realized why Sarah left me. She was moving forward, and I was just standing still. While she was talking about her classes and job prospects, I was still telling her about racing with the idiots on the road and working for peanuts in a factory. I guess I would have left, too.

The problem is, I don't want to change. I look at all the people I know who have gotten their act together-- good job, a mortgage, a wife-- and none of them are happy. All they ever do is tell me how lucky I am to be so young. So, I take their advice and I stay young.

In the fast lane forever, that's me.

Time twists and turns, snatching memories away and forcing them back.

Now, on the highway, there's one of those guys who's got to be five inches away from your rear bumper to get the sensation that he's getting somewhere. I hate these guys. He can't want to pass me, because he's got tons of room to get around and I'm going pretty fast anyway. I never could stay legal for long. I can't even see his grill in the rear view mirror because he's so close, but it looks like he's driving a much cheaper car.

That's a consideration because if the car was nicer than mine, I'd hit the brakes and let him rear end me. Then he'd have to cover the insurance costs and I'd have an excuse to get pissed off over something that's my fault anyway.

But this guy probably doesn't have enough money to buy insurance, so that idea's shot to hell. Still, I slow down enough to get him nice and mad, expecting him to go around me and leave me alone. Instead, he shortens the distance between us to about an inch and a half. I sigh and hit the gas, changing lanes and slowing down to get a look at him as he passes by.

This one's younger, and he looks right at me with this expression that makes me think I've done something wrong. I think about sticking my tongue out at him, but decide instead to smile and wave. They hate that. He shakes his head and powers past me.

Sometimes I'm such a jerk I could just cry.

About a year ago Rick left town for good.

I first met Rick in second grade, when we were both in the same school. We became friends pretty quickly, mostly because we lived two doors away from each other and it was unavoidable.

The first few years we were pretty good friends. Rick would always be building things-- first out of legos, then wooden forts in the field past our backyards, later bicycles made from parts our neighbors had thrown away.

Then when we got a little older Rick kept getting smarter and I stayed about the same. By the time we were in high school I didn't know what the hell he was talking about half the time, and he got frustrated always having to explain things to me in words of one syllable, so we drifted about as far apart as you can get living with one house between you. Rick went to The University of Illinois, and I sunk into the Illinois State University mud. We visited each other once in four years.

Then I graduated, and Rick went on to grad school for engineering. Suddenly, at the point where we never should have gotten along, we became close again. I don't really know what happened-- suddenly we were having these long talks in front of his house or mine, working on our cars together, or just sitting at my kitchen table watching TV. Suddenly we were best friends. I think it had something to do with the fact that Rick was beginning to think that all there was to his life was one equation after another. I think he was starting to burn out. And then there I am, taking him out to bars and getting him to talk to girls and showing him that sometimes it's okay to stop the uphill climb and relax. Only I did it too much, and Rick didn't do it at all.

About a month before he finally graduated, Rick got a job with Ford in Michigan. It was his dream job, a culmination of all his effort and hard work. He was ecstatic. And me--

Somewhere in the back of my head, a ticking noise started.

By then we could tell each other anything. By then there was nothing I wouldn't do for my best friend Rick. And all the sudden, he was going from one house away to four hours by car. I knew it wouldn't be the end of our friendship, but I also knew that it was the end of a chapter in my life-- maybe the longest one.

I knew that the days of just walking out the door and over two houses had ended. The days of calling Rick and asking if he wanted to talk while we washed our cars, or if he wanted to grab a bite to eat, or if he just wanted to sit in front of the houses were over. Now it would have to wait for a weekend, when one of us had the time to pack a bag, fill up the car with gas and drive out across the states. Now it would have to be planned and worth the trip.

More than that, it was a big glaring notice that one life was moving forward while the other was standing still. I started to panic, wondering if I'd be stuck in that factory for the rest of my life-- worrying I'd become one of those people who kept talking about the life they were going to have as soon as their lottery ticket hit. My worthless undergraduate degree laughed at me from its dusty spot on my dresser.

When it finally came time for Rick to go, we talked about the way things were going to be. Rick talked mostly about starting his life in Michigan; meeting friends and maybe falling in love. I talked about when he'd be back to visit. We both said we'd still get together at least once a month, and for a while we did.

I last saw Rick three months ago. He's getting married next year. I called him last week but no one was home.

Distance kills.

My exit's coming up soon, so I pull into the right lane to get ready. I hate the slow lane. Invariably, you run into that one safety-conscious guy who's going forty miles per hour and you end up waiting ten minutes to go one mile.

I know, the math doesn't work. Sue me.

There's a grey Buick on the shoulder with its hood open. As I approach it I see an old woman standing behind the car looking out into the oncoming traffic. For a second her eyes meet with mine, and that's the end of it. She's somebody's grandmother. She's got to be. Before I even know what I'm doing I'm slowing down to pull over and getting out of the car.

"Everything all right?"

"I don't know," she says, walking toward me. I start to jog a bit so she won't have to walk too far to meet me. When I reach her, she touches my arm gently.

"Thank you for stopping."

I smile a bit in spite of my mood and nod. "What's wrong with it?" I ask, looking under the hood.

"It just stopped," she says. "You're the only one to help, and I've been standing here for twenty minutes."

"Well, it's happened to me before, so I'm sympathetic. And besides, you don't look like a mugger."

She laughs. I feel a little better.

I never really knew my grandmother that well. She died when I was six years old. The most I remember of her was one day when me and my older brother Pete were visiting; we decided we wanted to have a contest to see which one of us was fatter.

Don't ask; I don't know either.

Anyway, there we were, me and Pete, about four feet tall and sticking our guts out as far as we could. We had asked my Grandma to judge. She stood in front of us for a second, studying us intently. I remember being really impressed that she was taking this so seriously. Then she gave us both a little swat on the belly and snapped, "Straighten up!" at us. We both sucked our guts in.

I lost.

Years ago I found out that when my Grandfather bought Pete a bike I cried so hard that my Grandmother made him get right back in the car and buy me one. He came back about an hour later with a little blue Schwinn Pixie that I rode all over creation.

Score one for Grandma.

About a year later we suddenly had to make all these trips to the hospital. My mother told me that we were going to visit Grandma, but I never got to see her. Me and Pete had to sit in the waiting room while everyone else went upstairs. That whole thing went on for a few months, until finally my mother sat us down for a talk while my father stood in the background. She told us that my Grandmother had to go away, that she wouldn't be coming back. And I looked back at my father, watching us with a sideways look and wiping tears from his eyes.

Tears! There's only one other time I've seen my father cry.

My grandfather cried plenty of times after that. We'd be sitting down to dinner at a family gathering and he'd just start crying, talking about how happy he was to be there with his family. I didn't get it, but seeing him cry made me kind of tear up too.

I tried not to get like that. When bad things happened, when I got hurt, during sad movies-- whatever it was-- I never cried. I wanted to seem strong, but somewhere along the line I just grew cold. I don't know when it happened, but there came a point where I decided it was easier to just never feel the emotions that end in pain, even if they started out good. Somewhere along the line I decided that to fall in love would only mean that someday I'd hurt like hell.

Then my grandfather died, during the last few days of my senior year in college, and I was like a waterfall. I'd be in the shower, and I'd just start bawling like a kid with a skinned knee. I found a Bruce Springsteen song and listened over and over again to the words "everything dies, baby, that's a fact; but maybe everything that dies someday comes back."

Fat chance.

And my father cried again. Little, strained sobs that he sounded like he was fighting all the way. And me, I just let it all out. I never knew how much I loved my grandfather until he was gone, and when he died I think everything that was good inside me died along with him. I stopped trying to do the things I wanted with my life; stopped pushing myself for the good stuff: Career, stability-- the whole shot. I got a job at the factory and started paying the bills. And three years passed like they didn't even exist.

So now I'm standing here with this little old lady, and I feel it all coming up again. I turn to look under the hood and knot up my brow so the tears don't come. This is ridiculous.

Her radiator cap's hot, and the main hose is soft. The car's overheated with no fluid. I pull my sleeve down to cover my hand and unscrew the cap, turning away a little in case it makes like a geyser.

There's a soft little hiss as the pressure releases, but no fluid sprays out. I breathe a little sigh of relief and look inside the spout.

Nothing.

"Your radiator's dry," I call over my shoulder. "You must have a slow leak." I turn around to face her; she nods a bit after I'm done talking, considers what I've said, and then in the most straightforward tone imaginable asks:

"Have you ever thought about being a clown?"

Now, call me crazy, but this is not roadside emergency service conversation. Radiator fluid, gas cans, drive shafts, sure; but clowns? No. Can't say that's a topic that usually comes up in these situations.

The strange thing is, I don't answer right away. It's almost if I have to check with myself first. A clown, eh? Lets' see...

"No, ma'am. Can't say that particular career move ever entered my mind. My ex-girlfriend would argue that I'm something of a clown already, but that's an entirely different story."

She smiles, as if she was expecting that joke. Well, who wasn't?

"My husband was a clown for forty years; right up until he died. I used to paint his face every day before he'd go to work. That's why I asked. You've got a real clown face."

I don't really know how to take that.

"Very expressive, bright, cheery; but there's a little sadness in it, you know? Just perfect." She reaches out and places her hand on my cheek.

There's a thin line between a touching scene and a downright weird situation, and we're starting to teeter.

"I'm sorry," she says, pulling her hand back and folding her arms. "It wasn't very long ago that my husband died, and every now and then I don't act myself. I'm standing on the highway, for heavens sake."

She doesn't cry. It's the perfect moment for her to burst out into tears and bury her head in her hands; but instead she stands there shaking her head and looking out into traffic. I hear my voice come up above the din of the cars flying by, so steady and loud that it actually surprises me a bit.

"Come on. I'll give you a ride wherever you're going, and we'll call a tow truck for the car. Let someone else worry about it."

She comes back to reality, smiling at me and touching my arm again.

"Thank you, young man." And with that we're on our way.

The last time I gave a ride to a stranger was a few years back. I had bought a basket case 1967 Firebird convertible with every intention of fixing it up, but then realized I hadn't the faintest idea how to go about doing that. But it ran; got me from here to there, and it was pretty damned fast, which was high on my list of priorities back then. I've got a bunch of stories about that piece of junk, but this is the only one that applies right now.

I had been four tolls north on the 294 to visit a friend at work. It was about two in the morning and I was on my way home. After the first toll, I realized that I only had twenty cents left for three more forty cent tolls. Now, I'm not the brightest neon in the Miller sign, but even I know you can't stretch a couple of dimes that far. I pulled over at an oasis to see if there was a cash machine around.

When I got out of the car, I heard a voice call out to me from behind. I turned around and saw a little guy, maybe five foot six, skinny, about forty years old. I'm not a tough guy, but this one didn't really give me much cause for concern. He strode up to me, wearing a satin jacket, jeans, and a blue baseball cap without a logo. He had shoulder length hair spilling out from under the cap and a beard that looked like it just kind of happened. He caught up with me, out of breath.

"Hey, man, can you help me out? My truck broke down and I need to pick up some parts." I opened my mouth to speak an excuse I hadn't made up yet, and he pulled a roll of bills out of his pocket.

"I'll give you a few bucks."

I looked at the thick roll of money, then at the darkened oasis building. The two dimes in my pocket clinked together.

"Where to?"

The Firebird's growl turned into a familiar hum as we sped down the on ramp from the oasis back to the highway. Now, when you watch a movie where a guy picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a psychopath, it's usually a slow and suspenseful process by which the hitchhiker's true mental health is revealed. You're treated to a few charming quotes, than an unreasonably angry outburst, followed by the dreaded "nervous tic." Once you reach the "nervous tic," you know the driver's pretty much ground round. But until you get there, you're getting mixed signals.

Not me. I got gypped. Right away my guy started bobbing his head up and down in what I thought was a nod of approval until I noticed he wasn't stopping. There he was, a stranger plus two minutes, convulsing to a rhythmic beat without music (the Firebird didn't come with a radio-- well, it had one when I agreed to buy it, but when I came back with the money, signed the papers and started driving it home I noticed that the radio had mysteriously disappeared. So, let that be a lesson-- always bring the cash with you if you're serious about the purchase. Otherwise, there could be integral parts missing when you come back for the commitment. But I digress.) and giving away his "nervous tic" without even giving me the benefit of a little suspense.

He started slapping his hands on the dashboard to accompany his head bobbing. I hadn't said a word since the parking lot, and the funny thing is I was starting to worry that he'd think I was rude. Finally, he did a little drum solo thing with a flourish at the end, and sat back in the seat. He turned to me and asked in an almost desperate voice, "Hey, you know about that aids stuff?"

Not good.

"I've heard of it, yeah."

"They're gonna cure that, man. They got them Live Aid concerts and everything, and they're coming up with money to fix that aids stuff."

"Isn't Live Aid for starving children in Africa or something?"

Here's where I went wrong. You see, when you're faced with a person who is definitely sick in his head, and that person makes a statement you know to be false, you LET HIM GET AWAY WITH IT. Now, I don't know why in god's name it mattered to me that this guy's information was incorrect, but for some unknown reason I felt that he simply could not function properly as a human being until I corrected him (because except for that one little oversight, the guy was a real prince).

He turned and looked at me, and I can honestly say I'd never known what people meant when they said "glassy eyed stare" before that moment. It's a good thing I had to keep turning my head to watch the road, because I truly believe that if I had kept looking directly into that expression on his face I would have gone a little beans and rice myself.

"You know who I've got in the back of that truck?"

This is it, I thought. This is where he tells me he's got the body of every man who has ever doubted the true motivation behind Live Aid, along with his mother, sister and all the other whores that wouldn't date him when he was a teen in the back of his truck. This is where he has me dress up like his father so he can kick the shit out of me like he should have done to the old bastard back when he would have been in eighth grade.

"No. Tell me. I'm dying to know who you've got in the back of that truck."

"I've got Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Rod Stewart, and Whitney Houston in the back of that truck, man, and any one of them will tell you that they're working it for aids."

Okay. Now, Crosby, Stills, and Nash; maybe I could see them riding in the back of a semi truck if their tour bus had broke down and they absolutely had to get to the next gig. Rod Stewart, he's iffy. But Whitney Houston? Whitney "Queen of the Night" Houston? Whitney "Waiting to Exhale" Houston? Whitney "I didn't marry Bobby Brown and make forty three platinum records and a bunch of hit movies to ride in back of no damn truck, honey, now go get me a Stolie on the rocks" Houston?

Nah. I don't think so.

"Really? In the truck you got them?"

"I got all them motherfuckers in the back of that truck, my man."

Yeah, I figured, that's it. I'm never gonna be heard from again.

"You ever do drugs, man?"

Yup. Dead.

"Uh, no."

The passenger nodded for a little while, this time for real and not to an imaginary beat, and turned his eyes to the road.

"Yeah, me neither. Here, take this. 290 East."

For the benefit of anyone not from Chicago, I'll explain something. The 294 and 290 highways intersect at a very nice suburban area. The kind of place I'd like to raise kids if I ever find someone possessing the sufficient intelligence to genetically balance my stupidity enough to ensure a child who can count to ten by the time he's actually that age. Now, head east on the 290 for a few miles, and that's another story. Something told me that the passenger wasn't going to be asking me to get off the 290 anywhere affluent.

"We just got to head up to this one place, I got to pick up a package, and then we can head back."

"Back?" I asked. "Back where?"

"To the truck, man."

Here's where I learned my lesson. At two thirty in the morning, while heading toward a nasty section of town with a psychopath who not only believes he's got several famous recording artists in the trailer of his semi, but has also reached the "nervous tic" stage prematurely and believes that you're going to cart him all the way back to that trailer thirty miles away by now, you always AGREE WITH THE PSYCHOPATH.

"Sounds good to me, man. I'm with you."

So we flew down 290 for a while, and the passenger told me to get off on Cicero avenue. Cicero avenue and the 290, incidentally, is precisely the kind of area I expected to end up in on this little field trip. We pulled up to a brownstone with a bunch of guys standing around it who looked like they could dismantle a Buick and sell the parts in the time it takes me to check tire pressure.

"Just gotta run in, take care of a guy, and run out, man. Keep the engine running."

Take care of a guy. So right about now I'm thinking that he's either buying drugs or killing someone. Either way, the guy who's driving the getaway car goes to the same prison as the guy who did the real crime. Now, I'm not exactly pretty, but something tells me that in maximum security I'd have plenty of gentlemen callers. And Joe Walsh here wants me to wait with the engine running. Maybe not.

"Sure thing, man. See you in a few."

He got out of the car, looked around, and walked into the building (which, incidentally, wasn't difficult seeing as it had no front door). I put the car in gear, turned my eyes to the road, and...

Looked at the red stoplight directly in front of me.

It's funny how screwed up your priorities can get sometimes. I had just driven a nut case I had met at an oasis about forty miles so he could either traffic cocaine or push a button on someone, and I pick that moment to grow a conscience about running a red light.

Just then a police car drove past me, right through the red light. Perfect. I hit the gas and plowed through the intersection, fully expecting the cop to notice, throw on his lights, pull me over, understand my predicament, arrest the perpetrators, and recommend me for a special commendation.

The police car kept its steady pace, right through another red light. Who did this guy think he was? I followed him through that one, too. Now, this had to be it. He had to notice the second light I drove right through.

Nothing. Who was this guy, Barney Fife? We sashayed though another red light before I finally just flashed my brights at him to get him to pull over. I stopped my car behind his, and got out to talk to the cops. The officer driving looked at me as if I had just interrupted a session with his therapist.

"Hello officer I don't know if you noticed but I just went through three stoplights and before you arrested me or anything I wanted to explain that I gave a ride to this guy and he turned out to be a total frozen waffle who thought he had musical groups in his semi trailer and then he had me drop him off at this building where I'm pretty sure he's either buying drugs or killing someone but either way I can point out the building and identify the guy if you need me to-"

"Where you from?" The driver asked.

"Oak Lawn."

Was he going to put me in protective custody? Would they find me an apartment close enough to my parent's house so I could make it to dinner? I can't cook. I hoped the building had laundry machines in the basement. I'd hate to have to lug my clothes all the way over to a laundromat. Hey, maybe they'd get me a better job. Anything would be an improvement, but I had my heart set on something where I wouldn't be just sitting at a desk all day.

"Okay, head back to the 290, take it west..."

The moral of the story is that justice vs. therapy and a jelly doughnut is no contest at all.

I drop my surrogate grandmother for the day off at a family restaurant at the end of the next exit. Of course, she offers me a few dollars or lunch or something for my trouble, and of course I say that's all right, no trouble at all. I get back in the car feeling a little better about myself.

Sometimes, when I'm somewhere cold and dark-- somewhere angry-- I can leave without going anywhere. I can go back; back through the years to the roof that summer. Back to Sarah, when we were alive together and something greater than I am happened to me. Back when I felt something other than anger and frustration. Her skin is smooth and flawless, her hair smells like strawberries. She's so much smaller than I am, but it feels like I'm surrounded by her-- engulfed. She's warm and soft, loving and pure; I can close my eyes and drift into the depth of her, forget who I am and where I am and lose myself with her. Be alive. But then I hit a bump; someone yells, a horn honks, the world intrudes on me and I'm back to nowhere I want to be.

This time it's not a bump. I hit the gas a little too hard, and the cracking noise I hear is all at once unfamiliar and instantly recognizable: a motor mount just broke, and the engine has shifted in its compartment.

The car lurches a bit, unnatural; and I feel a tug at my stomach. I let off the gas, but it continues to accelerate. I try to shift out of drive, but the transmission has locked. There's something wrong, something hideously wrong, and I don't know how to make it right. The brakes fail and the steering goes dead, both probably crushed by the weight of the engine's unplanned shift. Something broken in the column holds the ignition in place; the car's final act of rebellion, a gesture just to make sure I die here on this lonely road.

And now it hits me-- this is it, you dumb son of a bitch; this is the last thing that's going to happen to you; the story you'll never tell. And in a second I live a lifetime.

I think back about this day, about how all these memories have come flooding back to me like a stack of old movies I've seen before but forgotten; spilling back into my head to teach me some lesson I'm too damned stupid to learn. And then I realize that when they say your life flashes before your eyes, maybe it's not in the moment before death, but rather the course of the day. Who would know? Who tells the tale?

I became a man on the roof of my childhood. I loved a girl who will to my mind forever be a girl; a laughing, wonderful, vibrant thing that caressed my clumsy life for a moment and was gone.

That night, as the cold air moved in on us and we bundled ourselves back into our clothes, she took hold of one of my shoes and laughed. The sole had cracked and torn, and I had taped it back together. She asked me why; it wasn't as if I was poor, I could have bought a new pair. Why try to save a ragged pair of shoes? I didn't answer her then, just smiled and continued to dress. I didn't know how to explain it.

I hated to throw things away. I saw in an old pair of shoes the miles I had walked, the things I had done and seen. It seemed as if throwing them away would mean I would lose those things-- as if the memories, too, would fall into a dark and dirty place, never to be seen again. So I saved shoes. I saved everything-- keys to lost locks, pens I had written dry, wallets and belts worn useless-- everything that held a memory, and one thing in particular...

An old car that once held a girl who said she loved me.

And the memory returns, folded up in an object that won't be ignored; a monolith come to destroy me.

 

oh god Sarah

The road bends to the right; my hands try to trace the path with the wheel, but the car stays faithfully straight. A section of guardrail comes up and bats us playfully back to the path, and my head slams against the side window, shattering it.

Two years ago, the side window wouldn't open. I took the door apart and in trying to fix the electric motor, twisted a wrench too far and broke the window. I found a good one at a junkyard and haggled the guy down to twenty dollars-- the first time I had ever stood my ground and gotten my way. My father smiled when I told him the story, although I know for sure he thought I was an idiot for breaking the damned thing in the first place.

 

please

Careening now to the right side of the road, the steering catches for a moment and makes things worse. The wheel jerks to the left; I slide halfway out of the seat and the car follows suit, flexing as it turns. One of the front tires explodes in an almost comical popping sound.

Tires. Just a month ago, I was washing one of the rims when a little neighbor girl came over and asked if she could help. I gave her the hose to spray off the tires, and she soaked the whole car. I didn't have the heart to tell her I had just dried it.

 

not like this

Now that same rim begins to grind itself into nothing and the steering fails again. I try the brakes, almost out of spite, and the car laughs in its silent defiance. I feel the car sliding now instead of rolling, deprived of the traction the front tire once offered. The guardrail again comes to meet us, violently knocking us back on course across the center of the road. As we make contact I jump at an unexpected noise.

 

I saw Matt Dillon in black and white

The tape player, broken and silent for months, makes a twisted connection and jumps to life. The cassette inside picks up where it left off, and Pete Townshend wails a eulogy.

 

There ain't no color in my memories

The scraping noise announces that another tire has been lost, and a second after the realization hits me I feel the car turn sideways.

Just when it feels like we're about to flip, the car makes an almost graceful spin and turns itself backwards. I hear the tires screech as they fight against the car's natural motion, and for a moment I find hope-- it feels like we're slowing down.

 

I gotta stop drinking

I turn around to see how much time I've got before we come into contact with something solid, and see directly behind me the end of the guardrail-- the edge of the road.

 

I gotta stop thinking

The car hurtles off the edge unspectacularly, dipping down immediately as opposed to flying out in mid-air like every action film I've ever seen. We hit the bottom of the ditch with a muffled crunch, and I'm thrown back against my seat. The seat gives up its hold on the floor and tips backward, dropping me almost affectionately into the back seat. The front end of the car settles to the ground, and we bounce twice.

 

I gotta--

The tape player breaks again. Go figure.

I sit there for a minute. Darkness takes the day.

"Sorry I'm late."

She looks up at me with those eyes, the ones I could get lost in forever, and smiles knowingly. "What are you talking about?" she laughs. "Right on time."

I check my watch. She's right, as usual. Plenty of time. Plenty of time for the show. I look back up at her, smile and shrug. "Who are these guys again?"

"The Wallflowers," she says, smiling knowingly. She's seen my forgetful side a million times before.

That's not right.

"The Waterboys," she says, smiling knowingly. She's seen my forgetful side a million times before. For some reason though, she's stuck with me through all of it.

"I love you," I blurt out, surprised by my own words. But I can't stop them; can't even slow them down to review. "I love you so much. I sit in the dark sometimes and imagine you beside me. I have conversations with you when you're not even there."

"We're going to be late," she says, smiling knowingly.

"Please," I cry, desperate. "Just let me say this. I have to tell you this, I have to let you know."

"Where's the car?" she asks, smiling knowingly.

"The car?"

The world blinks.

 

please

"Sarah, please don't leave me. Please don't go. Nothing makes sense, nothing feels right. I spend all my time reliving the past, wishing I could take back the bad--"

"Where's the car?" she asks, smiling knowingly. The world flickers and stirs.

 

not yet

"I love you," I say, and she smiles knowingly. A flash of heat stabs my face.

 

please

"I hate you," I hiss through clenched teeth.

Sarah smiles knowingly.

"Where's the car?"

I come alive violently, and the breath I pull in is thick and hot. My eyes are open but I can't see. Something is covering my face, but when I press my hand to my head I feel nothing. Where--

Where's the car?

Christ. I'm still in the car. That's where the car is, I wrecked it. It's not something on my face, it's smoke. The car's burning. I close my eyes and feel around for an opening. The rear window is shattered; the tiny shapes of glass crumble away from the sides of the window as I feel along the edge.

"Sarah?"

No. Sarah's not here. Sarah's at the concert. And that was years ago.

I pull myself halfway out of the window, feeling the glass dig into my back as I slide across the trunk. I open my eyes for a second and catch a glimpse of a cloud that looks like a Smurf. I try to slide myself off the trunk, but the ground stops me.

That's not right.

No. Not the ground. The side of the ditch. The car's in a ditch. I'm all right now. I've got a handle on it now.

I roll off the side of the car and stand up straight, only to have the ground come up and slam me in the head. Darkness comes in from the edges, and I see a flash of Sarah's face.

Not now. I can't black out now. The car--

The top goes up in flames, and I hear a crackle as the tape player comes to life one last time.

 

--stop smoking

I'd laugh if I could take a breath. I get up to my shaky feet and crawl out of the ditch, scrambling across the road to the divider. I slump over the concrete slab, letting myself fall to the other side just as the crack of an explosion fills my ears. Darkness comes in, and I see a flash of a Smurf.

"He's coming around."

Silhouetted against the bright sky and white clouds is a stranger's face. I take a second to search for the Smurf, but he's long gone.

Well, the hell with him, it's not like he did me any favors.

"Do you know where you are?"

I try to turn my head to look for an answer to that one, but there's something attached to my neck.

"I think you know better than I do."

The silhouette snorts a little laugh, shaking as he does. "This one's a comedian," he calls over his shoulder.

Well, what the hell kind of question...

"You're going to be fine. Looks like you had a nasty wreck," he says. "Do you remember anything?"

"Accelerator stuck, and the steering went out," I mumble. The neck thing is holding my jaw pretty tight.

"Why didn't you just shut off the engine?"

"Ignition fused."

"Jesus. Well, what about the brakes?"

"Dead."

"Come on. At the very least, you could have shifted-"

"Transmission locked."

The silhouette cocks his head. "Now, that's just plain ridiculous," he says. "The statistical probability of every major function of that car either failing or jamming... I mean, I don't think the numbers even exist."

"Lucky me."

A voice floats in from overhead.

"We all set here, Jack?"

Silhouette Jack turns his head away for a second, then back to me.

"Yeah. Yeah, we're all set. He's got no signs of neck or spine trauma, but we should keep him secured until we get to Little Company." He stands from his crouched position, and I feel myself rising. I float a few feet in the direction my head is facing, and then the ceiling of an ambulance glides over me. Doors shut behind me, and I hear Silhouette Jack next to me.

"I'll tell you something, kid," he says. "I been an EMT for twelve years, and I never heard of anything even close to what you're talking about."

"Jack, can I give you some advice?"

I hear the snort again. "Sure kid," he says. "Lay it on me."

"Every day is a new experience. Stop living in the past."

For a second there's silence, then Silhouette Jack bursts into laughter; great big hearty laughs that bring a smile to my face. He slaps the wall of the ambulance.

"Let's roll," he manages between laughs.

The ambulance begins to move.

Time flies.

Nick Ellis, 1997

I saw Matt Dillon in black and white

There ain't no color in my memories

He rode his brother's old Harley across the TV

While I was laughing at Dom DeLuise

Now I'm sorting through all my videotapes

I'm crying and I'm choking

I gotta stop drinking

I gotta stop thinking

I gotta stop smoking

After the fire

the fire still burns

the heart grows older

but never ever learns

the memories smoulder

and the soul always yearns

After the fire

the fire still burns

Pete Townshend, 1983

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