I changed lanes and got onto the exit ramp marked “ASSATEAGUE – 3 MILES” catching sight of myself in the rear-view mirror: three-day heard, drooping eyelids, sunken cheeks, pasty complexion, matted hair, sweaty brow, bloodshot eyes. Over the course of two weeks I’d gone from mild respectability to this: a gin-soaked death’s head melded to the road via steering wheel and gas pedal. From man to monster on a diet of cigarettes, greasy meals and flops at roach-ridden motel rooms.
I can’t say why I was throwing myself into self-destruct mode with such vigor. It seemed the thing to do. I suppose I was trying to kill off whatever humanity was left in me and slip back into society better equipped to face the failure I’d become. I wanted to lose my dreams, become comfortable with life as it is, not as I wanted it to be. I was trying to stop trying.
Pressed hard enough, I’d also admit to wanting to rid myself of the final vestiges of feeling for a woman who’d never want me. She was also there, even plowing down the highway at seventy couldn’t dislodge her apparition from my hood.
The money would be gone soon. The ten grand from the accident settlement – what was left after the lawyer took his third – went fast. I’d never thought I’d be a litigant. But when you’re stopped at a red light and a Checker cab slams into you, you dial 1-800-LAWYERS pretty damn quick. I took the money and ran. Bought a mint-green 1966 Chrysler 300 convertible, a big boat with a white interior and a 440 V-8. It was a fairly well-maintained specimen, not cherry but what car collectors call “a driver”. Previously owned by a retiree on Long Island, he’d become bored with its idiosyncrasies and longed for something more fuel-efficient. Strangely enough, his wife didn’t want him to part with it: “It’s the only thing that reminds me of better days.” He ignored her and warned me of the car’s brutish acceleration and tendency for brake fade: “A bad combination...” he said, “...like violence and stupidity.”
I gave him three grand in cash and pointed the car south for New Orleans and Mardi Gras. On Dauphine Street I leaped up and grabbed a pair of Zulu panties right out of the hand of a stunned Krewe member on the Louis Armstrong float. He didn’t want to give them up but I needed them for my Cinderella slippers. Find the girl these fit and marry her I thought. I hung them on the rear-view mirror and imagined the girl who’d slip into the cheap, black nylon and adjust the Zulu face until it was just over her crotch. In my fantasy she’d then say “I do.”
It was an unusually warm winter day in Virginia so I slowed the Chrysler down and hit the power-top switch. The retiree’s admonition shot around inside my brain-pan. To drown it out, I fished around in the cassette box, grabbed a tape and slapped it into the stereo. I paused, awaiting the song’s delicious start: a minor-key piano figure, accompanied by a gut-raw guitar hook. A mournful voice began these words:
I searched the holy books
I tried to unravel the mystery of Jesus Christ the Savior
I read the poets and the analysts
searched through the books on human behavior
I traveled this world around
for an answer that refused to be found
I don’t know why and I don’t know how
but she’s nobody’s baby now.
I dropped the power windows and let the crisp March air come in. The sun pounded down, bathing everything in an ungodly brightness for miles. To my left was a bay of some sort. To my right the Atlantic shimmered impossibly blue. A melancholy seclusion descended on me. I wished for someone to share the blueness with. I closed my eyes for a moment on the line:
And these are my many letters
torn to pieces by long-fingered hands
I was a cruel-hearted man.
My eyes snapped open to the sound of skidding tires. An immense, four-wheel circus veered into my lane, nearly sheering off my left front fender. I slammed on the brakes, thinking of the retiree's words as the Chrysler slid down the highway. Many panic-stricken, frantic-steering, brake-pumping moments later I came to rest mere feet from an aluminum light-pole. The rapidly disappearing station wagon – a Ford Country Squire – its tail-gate awash in tourist trap bumper stickers...
SEE THE REAL LIVE MERMAIDS AT WEEKII WACHEE
THIS CAR CLIMBED PIKE’S PEAK
SOUTH OF THE BORDER
...sped off as I caught a glimpse of a blonde-haired boy sticking his tongue out at me.
I got the car up and out of the shoulder and continued on for the Assateague exit. The music still played but meant nothing now and just made me mad. Slowly I drove the quarter-mile to the entrance road, then made a right into the parking area, past the closed toll gate and into an empty berth. There were a few RVs, a Volkswagen with out-of-state plates–and the Country Squire. On its sides ran that imitation wood paneling that bespeaks “class”. The roof-rack overflowed with camping gear. Pop sat behind the wheel trying to fold a huge map. Mom poured coffee from a Thermos into a small cup, passed it to Pop and then handed bargain-brand colas out to the three kids in the back seat.
Sauntering over, I thought I’d reproach my fellow traveler, give him some tips on highway courtesy and impress upon him the foolishness of his ways: “Say, Chief – you realize you nearly killed me back there? What’d I ever do to you? Aren’t your turn signals working?” Pop scrunched up the map and flung open his door. The rest of the Country Squires followed his lead. He bellowed, “What the hell are you trying to do? Don’t you see I have kids in the car? What are you trying to do, scare them?”
“Mister, I don’t want to scare your kid. But you scared the hell out of me back there when you ran me into the shoulder. I know in some foreign nations they give a license to anyone with a name and an address. But didn’t you have to take a test or something?” I said.
“Look, my friend...” he began, irritated, “...I’ve been driving much longer than you’ve been alive–so don’t be smart with me.”
I shook my head, saying, “Just apologize, that’s all. Just say you’re sorry for nearly killing me and that you’ll be more careful. That’s all I want.”
“Yeah, well... kiss my ass,” he answered. Then he staggered toward me, fists swinging. I put up my guard just as something stung me hard on the forehead. Placing a hand to my head I reeled backwards and fell against the Volkswagen. I rubbed the spot between my eyes. No blood, but a nice-sized welt was forming. I squinted and rubbed my brow in small circles, trying to dissipate the pain.
What the hell had happened? From the back of the station wagon stepped the child who’d waved at me. Maybe eight or nine, dark hair, dark eyes, he leveled a loaded sling-shot directly at me. “Should I shoot him again, Dad?” he squeaked. Dad began laughing. “You leave my daddy alone or I’ll shoot you again, mister!” the kid yelled. Still laughing, Mr. Country Squire congratulated his boy, patting his head. The whole clan turned as one and walked toward the petting zoo, laughing the whole way.
Jesus, humiliated by a pint-sized mercenary! And since when did I become a "Mister"? Where do these people come from?! What gives them the right to be such assholes?
Heading for the beach, I trudged out onto the hard sand and flopped down by a small dune. I shook my head in disbelief and leaned back on my folded arms, staring up into the sky. Seagulls wheeled and screeched high above. I thought of Tippi Hedren in The Birds and wondered if these birds were also malevolent and had eyes for my eyes.
What was this? One of them was dropping from the flock and coming at me fast. I shielded my eyes and rolled quickly to one side. The bird landed with a thump, hard by my back. I uncoiled from my fetal position to see the bird trying to right itself, its wings jerking erratically. Blood issued forth from a small hole in its chest. The other seagulls landed on the beach and cautiously made their way toward their stricken comrade. I felt a sharp pain in my lower back, like a jab from a pencil, and turned to see Country Squire Jr. loading up his Wrist Rocket. He brought his arm up straight and level with his eye and sighted, pulling back on the business end. Before I knew it I was up and running at him, screaming, “You bastard! You rotten little motherfucker! Drop that damn thing! Drop it!” Startled, he threw the contraption down, backing off toward the parking lot. Huffing and puffing, I tore after him and across the lot into the petting zoo.
The zoo was a chicken wire and two-by-four affair, barely fit for rats. I searched in and among the rickety enclosures for the little bastard. Wolves paced nervously in one cage, looking sullen and forlorn. In another cage, bored mountain lions lazed, and in the next a mangy-looking antelope sniffed at its partner. I came upon a fenced-in pasture and caught sight of my prey joining his family in disobeying a large sign that said “CAUTION – DO NOT FEED THE PONIES!” Mrs. Country Squire handed out stalks of lettuce and carrots to the little ones who were busy pushing them through the fence to the ponies on the other side. I made my way toward Dad who was snapping Polaroids of the sling-shot kid. I was thinking of what to say when the kid let loose with a blood-curdling scream. One pony had mistaken a couple of the kid’s fingers for a treat and had bitten them clean off. Dad dropped the camera and rushed over to the kid, whose face had gone deep red, and Mom gathered up the other Country Squires, shouting all the while for help. They bundled the kid up and off to the parking lot, no one being around to read the other sign to them: “NO PARK PERSONNEL ON DUTY DURING THE OFF-SEASON.”
I strolled over to where the camera lay unattended. Miracle of miracles, there was the moment of glory, captured in quick-developing color. The kid’s mouth formed a perfect “O”.
Reconsidering my views on Karma, I walked slowly back to the Chrysler, clipped the Polaroid to my visor and headed north.