A head-injury patient on a drug trial recovers lost memories as far back as his birth.
A cross-country travelogue featuring an old Audi and Nina Simone.
I’ve driven thousands of miles in the last month. I started in Bakersfield. I’d been working for a little over a year there and I don’t remember much, only that the money was good and I despised it.
There was something about that part of California that was all of the nothing I never dreamed the state could be. It was bleak, but domestic, a post-apocalyptic dream if things just fizzled out in a few hundred years. You know, desolation without calamity. Just a gradual decline, the last human on earth living out their mildly choking life in a 1400 square foot space with a convenient half bath on the main level and several pieces of laminated shelving.
Maybe it’s nothing like that. I didn’t get out much when I was there. I left as soon as the idea hit me. Enough saved. No strong ties. The wind struck me funny late one night, and the light too was perfect for leaving.
I’m driving an old car. An Audi 100 that’s lost all semblance of luxury. Everything is fine internally, but the exterior hasn’t been washed in months. There are dents in the grey. Nothing pronounced enough to be anymore offensive than the layers of dirt or the thick outline left by the wipers on the windshield. I drive on back roads because I don’t want to think about the car anymore than I have to. Don’t want to remember we both need a bath.
The tractor trailers are making time on it, leapfrogging each other, gurgling diesel. I never see them on these bumpy, saggy old roads. The 100 has an old cassette player and I have only a handful of tapes to play. Nina Simone is the only one that sounds good anymore. I had a Sinatra that didn’t hold up to the heat and drags a little. Mostly I just roll down the windows and listen to whatever is out there.
“Stay in the yard Tommy, mommy’s got to get the phone”
I slow down, pull onto the gravel shoulder to listen. the 100 is invisible. Behind me, I can see in the rear view, cars up on blocks, an overweight older man mows the lawn with his shirt off. He’s one yard over from little Tommy, who is closer to me. Almost peripheral, but still just in my mirror. The old man and the young boy don’t even notice me.
My baby never treats me, sweet and gentle, the way he should, the way he should. I got it bad, and that ain’t good, no that ain’t good.
I pull slow back onto the road, watch as Tommy looks up. There are clay colors running next to me. Most of it is soil you couldn’t grow anything in. There are broken pots and swing sets strewn across broken lawns, brown dead patches where there used to be old tires and couches.
I tune out. It’s too depressing. I step on the gas and get back on the interstate. Hours pass and everything looks the same to me. A monstrous grocery stores rises out of the North Carolina coming into view.
And when the weekend’s over. And Monday rolls around. I end up like I stalled out, just crying my heart out.
The 100 is purring along, but I’ve slowed down. Cars whizz by me. A group of must be high school kids pass me on the left in a new model Ford. They’re screaming and singing at each other. All the windows are down. The pimpled driver looks like he’s about to have a nervous breakdown. The girls in the back look over and blow me a kiss before laughing to each other. The pimpled driver turns to look at them, then at me. He rolls down his window to tell me he loves me, laughing. I blow him a kiss and cover my heart with my hand, looking at the girls, mock-swooning for them all. They all laugh and the pimpled driver floors it. Disappears ahead of me into the flow of traffic.
Just me an Nina and no reason to be so down on anyplace. Anyone. It’s getting hotter. The humidity is deep in the car with me. The old 100’s AC can’t keep up. I shut it down and roll down the rest of the windows. Let myself sweat. Let the grime on me run.
When I take deep breaths it seems like water’s there, oxygenated and blood strong. Like I’m being born in the most absurd way possible. Driving. Driving south out of some kind of mechanical womb but still the water in my lungs. A baby. Me, tasting something like saline, but sweet.
I’m just under seven pounds. I’m blind and dumb. All I can do is whine and mew. My skin is thin and blue. The world sounds like I’m underground. The 100’s engine is a steady heartbeat. The clouds look like umbilical cords or kite tails. String out as I cross over into South Carolina.
I smell what I think is moist earth. Sand too. The air keeps getting heavier. I must have listened to Nina a thousand times in the last month. I must be going crazy. When I stop for gas I hardly know how to talk to people anymore. Strangers.
Once I’m moving again there are just lines on the highway, the shoulder. I’m following lines. As though I’ve forgotten how to make sense of anything else. The pavement is too big and vague. I love the borders. The yellow and white marks that let my brain stay all crazed. So long as I follow these things the 100 will take care of itself. Keep it between the lines. Like grade school.
I’m be home in a few hours. Charleston. The old family house. My brother still lives there with his wife of a year. There’s history there that we’ll all remember to forget. I won’t run away again. There’s plenty of room for us all. Besides, I don’t need to interfere anymore. I have the road, the 100, and Nina.