Iíve been driving for three days. I took my best friendís car and I can still smell him in it.
I met Tallahassee one night when I was walking around in the neighborhood one of my cousins lived in, one of those places where the houses are small and smell like cats and wood smoke. There were cats everywhere, running all over the streets, living up under the houses, crying and going wild. It had just stopped raining and everything was still damp. The sky that evening was yellow and purple running into each other, orange and dark blue around the edges. There were other guys there, but itís Tallahassee I keep seeing, the way he caught the rail and leaned up when he saw me coming down the street. ďHey, get your ass over here and have a drink! I ainít seen you in ages!Ē When I got closer and he figured out he didnít know me at all, he laughed and gave me a beer anyway. He sat back and I said my name to Andrew and Rich and sat down in a patent leather chair one of them pulled up. It was the kind youíd sit on at a hamburger joint. I sat there until Tallahasseeís momma came out and ran us off, her hair done up in rollers.
Iíve been dodging the cops and tonightís the night they think theyíre finally going to get me. That damned pig done flipped his switch and is coming down behind me, flashing red and blue and white, just like the goddamned flag. Heís probably got his little badge pinned gold to his shirt, and another one hiding like a wildcard in his wallet.
Those lights are eating up the darkness, making it into something artificial. I put my foot down on the pedal and take my hands off the wheel. The wheels head towards that white line and the feeling is Jesus Christ, yes! before I clap my hands back down on it. Driving is like visiting ghosts. The road you ride over says something about everything thatís ever been on it, but thereís no real history. The road canít move and it canít talk to you, just like some ghost thatís been trapped and knockin around an old house. The best it can do is hold up a big black mirror and let you see what you can find there. You can drive over it and make up stories, but you canít pretend to really know what happened.
Memory works different out here. I can see everything thatís held up in that big black; I see it over and over again, refineries pumping out smoke and steam behind it. The past just wonít get dead and the gun in my passenger seat almost wants to say Iím sorry, but it donít.
There was one night before I left that I ended up flat on the pavement with a train roaring by. Tallahassee liked to park his car on the railroad tracks and play chicken with the trains. The car was his ó heíd bought it off some old guy that had it up in his yard on blocks when he was 16ó and he did whatever crazy thing he wanted with it. The worst thing that happened to it from him doing that was once the back fender got sheared off. The train had just barely nicked it.
Iíd been running around with them for a couple of weeks when he pulled that with me in the car. It was in a place I used to walk over everyday when I was in school. It was fall, but it wasnít cold. The air just felt good, like something was going to change but you werenít sure what. We heard a train rumbling just as soon as Tallahassee killed the engine. In a minute or two I saw it bigger and blacker than the sky, coming right at us. I bet it was kicking up thousands of leaves. I jumped out of the car when that thing started getting close and instead of running I jumped up on the roof and started yelling at that train. This whistle started shrieking and I couldnít even hear myself. The train light was blaring right in my eyes.
I felt close to the stars standing on top of that car. The air smelled like dry leaves and exhaust and that oily, dusty, dark smell trains have. The air was electric with fear, too, coming out of my own body and the guys in the car. That seems like a long time ago now, jumping up on that car and wishing I was a ghost, the smell dead leaves and summer in my nose, and those guys in the car, scared shitless, not knowing what to do. Itís those few seconds I was in the air after they hit the gas that I keep seeing while Iím driving, just as clear as an orange leaf twisting in the streetlight. There was no time to be afraid before I landed on my ass and skinned everything off the heels of my hands. I was laughing when the train passed and they were still there on the other side, waiting for me.
I hated those fucking small town boys for trying to get away from their lives by pretending they didnít care about them. I wanted to show them how it looks if youíre not pretending, if you really didnít fucking care. I stomped up and down on the roof. After it was all over I thought Tallahassee would kill me for leaving marks in the paint. I told him just to be glad I didnít get killed. He made like he was going to punch me in the mouth, but he didnít.
And I must have scared them. Andrew told me later that Tallahassee wasnít going to start the car. Andrew said his hands were lying in his lap and that he had to reach over from the passenger side and turn the key. I even had to lean over his knees and push on the gas with my hands, heíd said. As far as I know, Tallahassee never parked on the tracks again.
These last couple days on the road the factories have been keeping me company. They glow orange, gold and white, and that gets all mixed in with the purple and black going on in the sky. They look like their own kind of ghost, long pipes and compressors and smoke stacks pumping out vapor and by products. They donít look the same during the day. Theyíre just gray, and you canít imagine people in them, standing in lines, doing the same thing over and over again every hour. They look like they run themselves.
The yellow lights of the factories donít look like god. Theyíre more like a puzzle youíve got to look at again and again before figuring out what the fuck it means. They sit there like theyíve always been there, cars pulling up to them everyday, people punching in and out. But somehow itís the things that donít get used anymore, the big cranes and iron train bridges over wetlands, the abandoned warehouses with broken windows that show the setting sun, that are the things that make me want to stop, that feel like something I could put my whole life into. It must drive some people crazy, trying to figure out what kind of mess of engineers thought all this up, and then let it die, but it makes sense to me.
I could get off at the next exit to lose this fucker, just blaze through the tollbooth and down a thin dark highway, and find some lost place in the trees to cut my lights and hide. I could get rid of him that way. That toll collector wouldnít show too much surprise when I roared through there. Iíve seen so many of their faces getting on and off the Turnpike, pale in the middle of the night under the fluorescents. They look soft and full of anger at the same time, like looking into the darkness and oncoming lights all night has done something to their brain. I always think about fucking with them to see what would happen but then I stop myself. They must be like pressure cookers, all that time to think and nowhere to put it. Their faces look like those saps getting off of work in my hometown. Sometimes me and Tallahassee and everyone else would be parked drinking beer in a gravel lot across from the Ford plant when they got off. I wondered if those poor bastards looked like that all day long, or just at the end of it.
It felt good to leave that little town, to get away from the cheap clapboard houses and shitty used cars, the kids running around their parentsí little squares of yards, the little bit of rush hour that happened around 5 oíclock when all the factories let out. I drove around to some other small towns in Jersey and they were all the same, except the beach towns smelled like ocean spray instead of factory stench or exhaust. I went around to where I didnít know any of the kids running around on the bare yards, or what their daddies did for a living. I went where I thought there was no history, but it kept creeping back. Not in people, but maybe in words or a smell, a song Iíd hear on the radio.
When I left after that robbery and said goodbye and fuck you all at the same time, all I wanted to do was go to the beach. Thatís what we were going to do that night, before weíd stopped in to get something to eat. I just couldnít stand it anymore, how Iíd started to hate everything about those fuckers. Maybe this guy behind me hates everything about the men in his life, those fuckers down at the station or wherever it is they put em, those guys they bring in reeking of booze or with dried blood on their knuckles. I wonder if this guy is so far gone he hates the ones that ainít even around any more, like the poor fucker I passed last night wrapped in a sheet laying out on the highway, stopping up traffic and bleeding from jumping off the overpass. And those goddamn cops, just standing around and waiting for the coroner to arrive. Those fucks are beyond tears.
The ocean at night is darker than the highway. I wanted to drive all the way across it. If I could get a half mile out in all that darkness, maybe that would be enough. I donít want to go forever, but I want to find out what it is at the very bottom of me.
The things I always saw on the beaches were the old teeth of fences in the sand and teenagers. At night they moved underneath the piers and boardwalks. They picked fights or drank beer or fucked in the sand. Close to the water you canít hear them, just get a flash of their mouths and arms and legs and the crash crash crash of the water where their goddamns shouldíve been. That kind of desire seems like a red-hot coin, like something that would just burn up in your pocket, like something that would keep the sun coming up everyday. I feel it sometimes when I watch them, and I canít decide if it lasts forever or just for a few minutes at a time.
When I sleep on the beach and the early morning sun comes up it makes me feel naked, like I can fool myself with all that darkness at night, and then it comes up to burn everything I think I know away. When Iím driving thereís a few minutes when the red ball of the sun starts to rise, and it brights out everything else: the factories, the big oil cans, even the tips of the grass on the wetlands, and this is when the world makes the most sense. Itís bright white and I canít see anything. I could run off the road; I could just let it burn my eyes out. And then it starts to move up the sky again, and I remember that things are the same as the day before.
When I watched those teenagers, I thought more of the guys back in my hometown. The ones that ainít ever leaving. The ones that carve some stupid, meaningless space out of a few thousand people and think they can live in it without dying. There was that night we got jumped at the quarry. That happened right before I left them standing in that roadside diner. I didnít feel bad about robbing the place, but when I saw Tallahassee run out into the parking lot I almost wished I hadnít taken his car. He had a look on his face, like he wanted to come with me. The car might even belong to both of us now.
We were driving by the quarry and saw the Mustang that belonged to a guy who had fucked with Tallahassee. We stopped and heard people splashing and talking down below. They were swimming. Tallahassee killed the lights and engines and motioned for us to be silent. He got out of the car and took a baseball bat out of the trunk. I pulled my knife out of my hip pocket and started working on their tires. It wouldnít take no time, but I did it slow, giving the rubber a lot of small cuts, like I was spelling something out. When I stepped away I saw Tallahassee with that baseball bat. As soon as I got out of the way he cracked it up against the side window. Little silver shards of glass sparkled on the black seat cover.
The way he moved spread to us and started burning like wild fire. Andrew grabbed the tire iron out of our trunk and I grabbed a hunk of tree branch and we all started fucking up that car. He jumped up on the hood of the car and got the windshield out in three big swings and then he started jumping up and down, kicking out the shards of glass left hanging. We all started lighting up, kicking at that car and screaming right along with him. And it felt good to forget, to get up beyond a place that feels like death, to speak in a forgotten language. I felt just like I did when I got on top of the car in front of the train, like nothing could touch me but even if it did it wouldnít matter. I was still feeling like that, black and untouchable as the space between stars, when I felt something hard and sharp pressed up against the soft cotton of my shirt. The guys who had been swimming had heard us and had come up the bank. One of their knives was right between two of my ribs. I stopped what I was doing, and I wanted to live so bad right then and I didnít care all at the same time. I had splinters working their way into my palms and I was covered with sweat and I felt just as hard as the stars. That feels like now, those lights closer and closer behind me, lighting up the dash, the music turned up loud, that same place most people are never able to get to. If this pig behind me catches up to me, heís gonna know what that feels like, too. Iím going to turn it on him and show him. Iím gonna make him see what he really cares about in this world.
Thereís too much wanting in the world. Too much wanting and never getting. The night I left seems like it goes on forever, and that same itchy thing that made me leave wonít get out of me. Itís like that feeling when I open my eyes and turn back the wheel and every time I get too close it disappears. And it makes me wonder if theyíre like two sides of the same shiny coin, the white hot desire just before leaving and the hot air after that just keeps you moving. Thereís a big red Hess sign on the highway burning bright in the dark. The wind is high and smoke from one of the nearby factories covers it, making it glow just like the devil. The big oilcans across the highway are lit by huge white lights. The tiny stairs that wind up the side of them have no shadows until that strobe light behind me hits them. Out in the wide expanse I can see the lines of telephone wires and the big wooden crosses theyíre strung up on. The orange moon up above it looks like itís been streaked with oil. IĎve got the radio up loud, but all Iím getting is gospel stations. Preachers yelling out to the refineriesí glow about salvation, about the long lost, about some river of blood. I leave the dial and just listen, but damned if I can understand what most people are trying so hard to be saved from. The radio relay towers blink red up and down in the distance. They ainít touched by the thing thatís behind me. I donít feel scared, but I do know what fear is. Most people will try anything to get rid of the awful stink of it. Thatís the smell that rolled off most people in every town Iíve ever been in. It made me sick, like smelling meat frying on a hot day. Some people walked like death had em on a collar and didnít even know it. They wouldnít know what color the sky was if you asked them. Fear is a big sword that cuts down everything in its path.
Time ainít no straight line anymore. I got my foot down to the floor. Everythingís just as crisscrossed as all the radio signals flying through the air. Those red white and blue lights are after me, the preacher turned up, hollering about Jesus Christ Almighty, the sky big and silent, air crowding in closer and closer, the sound of sirens speeding over and around the radio waves. I feel real mean, and loneliness doesnít seem like a dream, it seems real, something that comes in rotten on the summer air, or freezes the heart in winter. Or maybe this thing ainít mean, and I wonder who this man is chasing me, with his stuffed wallet and badge. I want to tell him what itís like to make a hole right in the center of yourself just to see if you can find anything worth filling it back up with. What heís got donít scare me, because the thing Iíve got knows all about him.
I close my eyes and take my hands off the steering wheel and I stop wanting to be saved. The darkness ainít smooth; itís all broken up by the lights behind me. I think about that Hess sign disappearing behind me, shining like the devil, and the look in that boyís eyes when I came at him even though he had a knife in my ribs. I turn the gospel as high as it will go to drown out the sirens but I can still hear them.