There He Went

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There He Went

Alec James


            There he went.  The Interstate lain bent over the curved surface of the Earth.  To the mountains laying some distance ahead, we all assumed, he must have been headed when his rustic red ’72 pickup truck suffered a severed fuel line.  Spotted chrome wrapped around large fish-eye headlights that always seemed to hold an intense attentive vigil on the road ahead.  They spread into thick white stripes stretching to the back bed door, a couple large holes poked through the thinning medal during times he misjudged how fast he was flying down dirt roads and slid into a tree or metal fencing.  I remember him giving me rides all the time in high school.  I remember him cursing at the lock, telling me that the doors, they have trouble opening sometimes.  You could see where three decades had taken bites out of the body; rust had spread out like the wings of an eagle from every crevice and crack.  However beneath rested the sleeping shreds of bright red warrior paint, and one could see the fierceness it once had back in its youthful days when his father would get sick of wherever he was and take the same truck from one coast to the other.  When he finally showed up a few months later, he “always had this look on his face, like he was expecting some kind of welcome-back party,” according to Johnny’s mother.

            I guess he wanted to be invisible again, leaving at such a late and dark hour of the night.  He wanted to do what his father did a hundred times before.  He wanted to be there one day, and be gone the next.  The Milky Way split the pitch black sky in half as gasoline quickly began to shower every little outdated piece with a flammable rain.  The desire for invisibility is a little ironic, concerning that minutes later the boy and the old truck were both a giant fireball rolling over the dark abysmal horizon.  It took fifteen minutes for someone to drive by and notice, another ten for the fire trucks to arrive, and five to pry the coal-colored carcass of Johnny Karwin out from the entrails of the steaming aluminum skeleton of the truck he swore would never die on him.  I assume that even in the deepest reaches of space, stars always burn out strong.

            He was just nearing the age where his life in the sun was beginning to form subtle spots on his skin, though still as smooth as it was the day he was born, says his mother.   His hair was the same shade as the mud after a hard rain, and it stuck back and out into askance tuffs, one stretching toward every city in the country.  When he was a boy, you could see his rebellion flowing down to his shoulder blades.  Every teacher he ever had and each of his accidental acquaintances in the town would beg him to “please cut that hair of yours.”  Both he and his father refused.  He probably hadn’t seen his own chin in half a decade either.  Ever since his facial hair started coming in years ago, he let it stick out everywhere just like the hair on his head.  You would see him around town with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, looking like Tom Sawyer probably did after he grew up and became a criminal.  Of course, I didn’t know his father well, but some of the older folks in the town say he was just like him and I believe it.  That kind of potency just has to be biological.  When people like that disappear one day, you never know why.

            I was at the Karwin house the next day with his mother and a few of the people appointed to the task of making the news official.  I was sitting at an old wooden table across from Johnny’s mother.  You could tell, from the spots in her face which had grown tired of gravity and sunlight, that she was not young.  The skin slid along her skull like the contour lines on a topical map, bearing an ashen yellow which seemed to stir thoughts of the antiquated pages from leather-bound books belonging to another time.  From these overt facts, one could say that perhaps she was nearing the age of sixty.  However the very face which claimed to be so aged seemed to gleam with a vitality one would expect from adolescence and not an instant past, almost as if she were constantly laughing in the face of time, or aging, or degeneration, or the forward pressing of any change at all.  This fervor gave a glow to old pages and dimension to maps, making the very act of estimating an age seem like a formidable task.  She was sitting in a dining chair, with a posture straight out of an artist’s sketchbook.  Legs crossed, back bent with a rolled spine bending her torso forward.  Her left arm was draped over her right knee, and while looking relaxed, still seemed to stretch out toward an unseen gravity beyond the house walls before falling at the wrist to form her hand and fingers.  Her right elbow was perched against her upper thigh and waist, moving the cigarette in her hand up to her mouth and back down again, as if controlled by slow internal clock gears.  Her pupils fell to the lower left, holding a sad contemplation.  Each time her hand rose for a drag, her eyelids would squeeze and press inward toward her brain in a squint.  She always looked like she was experimenting with jigsaws in her mind, trying two particularly suspicious pieces together here or there, making mental masterpieces from pencil strokes.

            The details started to come.  Slowly, and one at a time.

            “Cars don’t necessarily explode,” the technician said to the investigator, who was staring intently as if the words spoken were being physically excreted from the mouth and deserved special analysis.  It tortured me.  I’ve had dreams of his skin melting off of his skull.  I heard him scream as he drowned in the boiling oceans of hell.  I saw his skin blistering and popping into corpuscular craters, and his lungs filling up with smoke as he shook in bereavement of air, heaving into asphyxiation.  I could see his frantic eyes widening, as round as his truck’s headlights, as his arms violently jerked the driver side door over and over, cursing at the lock. 

           “In technical terms, an explosion would require gas being compressed in some form of container.  The cabin of a vehicle is much too large for the amount of gas, so really, cars just burn immensely.”

             I kept coming in and going out of the conversations.  Ringing throughout my ear canals were the words of the investigator: “Severed fuel lines?  Yeah, they can happen naturally, but only rarely.  We just want to explore all possibilities.”  And I kept seeing the flame-red veins desperately crawling toward Johnny’s constricting pupils.  I saw him screaming.  Fucking lock.  Goddamn fucking lock.

              “Nothing is really a rarity in a neglected truck made in the early seventies.”

               I could feel my eyes flickering back and forth, from his mother to the technician, to the investigator to the television, where muted home videos were being played.  His mother was watching them since she got the news early that morning.  The image would go in and out of focus, and there would be long instances where poor tracking overtook the screen with bands of static snow.  It reminded me of the winter a couple months prior, when Johnny and I were on a late drive.

              It was one of those incurable diners.  The kind where the bathroom floors were so profane with stale urine that your shoes stuck and seemed to sink, ripping away from the tile, each step following through with the sound of separating Velcro.  It was the kind where the urinals were never flushed, and the faucets were always left dripping.  When the snow became so dense and churlish that even Johnny surrendered with the confession that he had to pull over, the only light in sight was the florescent-bulb twinkling shining through the diner’s cataract windows. 

              “Take a seat wherever you like.”  His eyes were plagued purple with insomnia and his skin was pale and splotchy from enduring the winter thus far.  He was tall and skinny, with arms so disproportionally long that his silhouette could easily be confused for a young tree had he been reaching for the stars.  We glanced around the small dining room, populated only with microbes, and I followed Johnny to the corner booth.

            “Shit, it’s three in the morning,” mumbled Johnny, glancing at an analog clock sitting in the kitchen window.  In my periphery, I could see the tired waiter awkwardly moving his limbs over to the edge of our table and placing two glasses of water on each outward corner. 

            “What else were you two wanting to drink?”  He was probably in his mid-20’s, although his skin looked aged and yellowed, like when your chain-smoking mother takes down a picture from the wall for the first time in twenty years and you can see where the tar set into the wallpaper and paint.  The entire house was addicted to nicotine. 

            “Uh, first, where are we?”  Johnny always had a way of talking which sounded skeptical regardless of the situation.

            “Oh, this is a bad storm to be lost in.  Where are you from?”

            “Georgia.”  We are from Missouri.  Johnny showed up at my house and said “hey, I’m getting out of here.”  He did this occasionally.  Something would irritate him, what exactly it was, there was no telling, and he would drive all night and only turn back when he started to see the sunrise.  He would say that he just wanted to be somewhere else when the sun came up again, somewhere in which the horizon was hiding from him at sunset.  It was a new day, a constant reminder that time is invariably moving.  As time moved, so did he.  “Otherwise,” he would say, “how would you ever know?”  He wouldn’t ever tell me this, but I could tell that beyond the impulse, the hidden design was always to never turn back.  A new day, a new place.  A new place, a new life.  When you become lost, every direction becomes equal.  The moment the sun comes up, that is the moment to decide- to go back or to go forward.  He called these “dark departures.” 

               The waiter chuckled.  He looked dead.  His skin clung to his skeleton like an old dress hangs from a secondhand store hanger.  “Well, I’m not sure how you found your way into Kentucky.  Especially in a small town like this.”

            “We’re not going back to Georgia.  We’re running from Georgia.”  Wherever he went, Johnny always spoke straight through people.  If that makes sense.  “Are there any forests around here?”

            “Oh, I wouldn’t know.  I have barely ever been out of town in my life.”

            “Gas Station?”

            “Down the road, but it doesn’t open until around seven.”

            “Gotcha.  I’ll take coffee.”

             The waiter shifted over behind the kitchen and out of sight.

            “My God,” said Johnny, “I can barely accept the fact that I have to stay in this world my entire life, and this guy’s completely content with being a single bacterial cell in this microscope slide of a town.”  He went on to say that all being stagnant did was attract mosquitoes, and people who just stick around are the reason why nothing changes anymore.  “1984, George Orwell said that the reason oppressed people don’t fight back is because they don’t have anything outside to compare their current state to anyone else’s.  Uncle Sam learned his lesson in the sixties- once you make it to the top, the last thing you want is a counterculture to take root and potentially upset the structure you just climbed.”  He looked around as if whispering away from an imaginary eavesdropper.  “That kind of deception is too profitable to change.  Now Uncle Sam is yelling ‘don’t leave and see the world, we are all the world you need to see!’”  Inflicting that kind of attitude, he said, is meant to keep us static and to keep outward comparison limited so the fat pigs could continue feasting on the masses. 

              “1986, the U.S. bombing of Libya, remember?”  He looked at me with determined eyes.  I nodded.  “Guess what time the bombings started.”  I looked at him blankly for a few seconds.  I didn’t know.  “Exactly at seven in the evening, eastern time.  Guess what else starts exactly at seven.”  As quickly as his excitement detonated, it was collapsed.  His demeanor completely reversed and he cleared his throat.  It was a moment later that I realized that the waiter was returning with coffee and Johnny was only becoming protective of the information he was giving me.

               Extending a waxen arm toward both of us, the waiter placed a cup of coffee next to our water.  Fully extended, his limbs looked like paraffin taper candles.  He glanced down at the menus which were still exactly where he left them, and the skin on his face melted into a somewhat disappointed expression.  “Do you need more time?”  I wasn’t sure if it was due to the man’s malnourished thinness, his cumbersome way of moving, or what, but it was like you could clearly see the various functions of his body taking place.  You could see his stomach acid boiling, intestines curling and digesting the food he ate an hour ago, and the muscles in his neck contracting and relaxing as he turned his head and moved his mouth to speak.  His eyes rolled in his skull to point at Johnny and back to me.  Johnny told him that for now, we may just stick with coffee.  The waiter told us to let him know if we needed anything else and scurried away, in the same manner that a opossum does when caught in headlights. 

               “Here’s the thing,” Johnny continued with anarchy gleaming in his eye, “all of the major news programs were there, in Libya, a country which takes several hours to reach by plane.  Guess what time most news programs run their evening specials.  Seven.  And all of these news programs were in the right place, right on time.  London, New York, Los Angeles, Paris- all the allies, they were all there.  The bombing was timed for the news.  Had to be.  You know how big of a story that would be if we actually had a free press?”  Johnny had a way of “seeing through” the various constructs of society and presenting them in a way which had you believing his conspiratorial rambling.  “But there’s good ol’ Uncle Sam, telling you to sit and stay, teaching you to never look into these things.  ‘Don’t go out and see the world, we are all the world you need.’  Look, if people won’t change it, you can’t change it.  If you can’t change it, leave it.”

              The next day, he started packing his bags.


               From the sounds of hundreds of raindrops colliding with the aluminum roof of my car, I lost where I was for a second.  For that second, I was back on a midnight beach on the east coast with Johnny.  We were washing our hair in the waterfalls of the Rockies.  We were back in the hills of Washington.  That second of delusion was the best second I had in a long time.  I gasped upon awakening.  I had dreamt I was losing air under an avalanche of dirt.  It was the tenth anniversary of Johnny’s great escape, the only one he never told me about.  On this day, every year, I always take a “dark departure,” if only to remember how the act of leaving your own town feels, how it seems to just make your heart pump your blood around faster. 

                I saw that the moon’s spotlights were still beaming through the treeline, like the aura around a phantom, and I got out of the car- just a sprinkle now.  I grabbed a flashlight and looked down at the torn tire and bent rim that the water had blessed me with.  Out in the middle of nowhere, but I guess that was the best place to get stranded.

                I had no phone- I had locked it in a drawer earlier that week in some sort of self-proclaimed rebellion against society’s various comforts.  Being safe, always being seven buttons away from help.  That was their thing, not mine.  As the rebellion matured with the week, I got in my car and took the first dark road I could find out of town, fueled by Johnny’s energy.  That was probably seven or eight hours ago.  I didn’t know which direction I travelled, but I was out of the Midwest, I could tell.  The air was easier to choke down.  It didn’t seem to scratch at your esophagus, as if trying to claw its way back out.  Why I stayed there so long, I don’t know.  

                 Maybe I was in Arkansas.  That would make sense.  No, there were more hills than Arkansas had.  Maybe I went West.  Oh well.  Where I was, irrelevant.  I looked at my car- had the same one for a decade and a half now.  The car.  The car expanded the cities.  Before the car, you could walk anywhere.  Horses expanded the towns, cars made its radius a few days’ worth of hiking.  Cars made small towns empires. My keys were still in the palm of my hand.  I put them on the roof of my car.  I took out my wallet- 152 dollars in varying amounts of society’s increments.  Money.  Money is society’s tool for support.  Police enforce the rules of the system for paper the system told them was important.  You can use it to put gas in your car, so you can drive to the other side of the city and back.  It’s all a circle.  I raised my hand to put the cash, credit cards, debit cards, checkbook, identification, insurance, business information and a bottle of prescription anti-depressants next to the keys. 

               It was that time of year when the dieback of winter began to hide behind green regrowth, and some of the flowers were starting a parade of resurrection down the sides of the road.  “There’s just something about the first few days of Spring,” he used to say with a crooked smirk on half of his face, “after such a cold deadness, everything begins to live again, and you can feel that life starting.”  A decade without you Johnny, and I walk in your image.  This, I have perfected.

                 My head hurt.  I didn’t remember hitting it on anything, but I took a glance at myself in the car mirror to check for bruises.  I looked right into my eyes in a way I never had before.  There were two separate people staring at each other- who I was and who I learned to be.  Who I was and who they beat me into being.  Who I was, and a reflection of them.  They look in the mirror to pamper their faces, paint their skin into perfection.  I saw both someone I recognized and someone I did not.  I took off my rings and necklace, placed them on the roof of my car.  Who I was, and Johnny. 

                 My eyes got lost in the hills a half a day in the distance.  Tranquility.  It was nature’s darkness.  I turned around and noticed the haze of a city over a nearby line of trees.  Those were their lights.  They make their own daytime so they never have to learn how to live in the night.  They have learned safety.  They have learned comfort.  I put the flashlight next to the keys and wallet.

                All my life, I had been waiting for an escape.  An escape from society’s traps, a way to worm out of its tight boa-constrictor grasp.  I looked at the city haze and pictured hundreds of people walking downtown, occupying bars and clubs, drinking their way into stupidity.  I pictured children in school, learning to repress who they are, learning to always say the right things and to not cause trouble.  You either repeat the official doctrine, or sound like a madman.  “Your madmen today will be your prophets tomorrow,” Johnny would say.  I remembered every cop that had ever pulled me over, telling me I was going too fast, too slow.  Telling me I was too suspicious or too dirty.  I was too threatening, too enclosed.  I wasn’t perfectly conventional in some way or another.  I pictured Johnny from grade school, and replayed memories of exploring the creeks in the backlands of subdivided Kentucky bluegrass and concrete.  I thought of every friend I had, every enemy I had, every girl who had been tolerant enough to stick around long enough to break my heart.  I thought of my mother, the way she would say “I love you” every time she left the room.  I remember licking her spatulas, folding her towels for a quarter a basket.  I remember her teaching me how to clean, how to maintain all of the things that put us under the ground.  I thought of my father, the way those same words never escaped his dry lips.  I thought of his loud, powerful voice reprimanding me for dropping grapefruit on the carpet.  I remember the morals he tried to inject into my veins to replace my boiling blood.  I remember how he taught me to be self-reliant, productive, useful.  I thought of my siblings, perhaps the only real peers I will ever have.  I remember the games we would play, the realities we would create.

                 I turned, and looked at the hills.  I remember nothing.  Somewhere beyond those hills, I knew, were mountains sleeping in their beds of eternity.  I glanced at the things on the roof of my car.  Those were important, but not to me.  I grabbed my backpack, filled it with anything useful I found in that car.  I always made sure to carry supplies, just in case an opportunity presented itself to me.  I hooked my sleeping bag to it, and started walking toward the spine of the world.  I didn’t even bother shutting my car doors.  They hung open like the ribs of a meal left by a predator after it was finished.  I could feel Johnny now, a poltergeist puppeteer pulling my arms and driving my steps.

                 Freedom.  Each step was a step out of slavery, out of suppression, out of what I was taught to love but learned to hate.  There is freedom in having nothing.  There is freedom in having no one.  Now I am free in ways nobody else is.  And so the hills were my horizon, the mountains were my heaven to follow.  Who am I?  That is a tag.  Where am I?  Tag.  I don’t know any of that anymore.  I gave up those dog-collar facts.  I don’t want to be returned if I am found.  I am here, I am now.  The moment you become lost, every direction becomes equal.  Where you are and where you were going become the same.  The sun was peeking around the corner, and the gears of the cosmos began a new day on the face of Earth’s clock.  Behind the impulse was the hidden design to never turn back, and it was the moment to decide.  A new day, a new place.  A new place, a new life.  Johnny is right next to me, with a smile that for once isn’t just a smirk.  He is talking about destiny.  My friend, my dear friend. 

We are free.