Sunday, November 14, 2010

Indian summer

I’ve been struggling with the hours of my life wasted on the road, trying to come to grips with the way they disappear like faraway cars over the horizon. Listening to the Jersey traffic, the radio news, killing time, wanting to speed. The announcer says there’s been an accident on the approach to the GW Bridge, under the apartments, some poor soul got out of his car, was hit and killed. Now I-95 is backed up past Lodi, lanes of big ugly trucks belching fumes into the vile air. My body is tensed from sole to scalp. No deodorant can cut the smell of anxious rage. Out here in Bergen County, rage is normalcy, rage is sanity. Rage eats away at the cells in my stomach, my intestines, my lungs. I scream obscenities at those who can't hear me, watching the guy behind me tearing at the collar of his shirt, swearing too.

Leaves swirl around just above the slick pavement. A neighbor gets killed on the Route 23 ramp to I-287 when her Durango hits a tractor trailer and flips over. Another neighbor's house is smashed into when a car careens around a downhill curve on Route 638 and goes spinning out of control. The damage is so great that the house -- a modest log cabin -- is declared unsafe for human habitation by the town building department and the family is forced to go look for a place to live for the next few months. The historical society erects a marker at Mastodon Lake the same day an 87-year old man is found sleeping in the cemetery on Glenwood Road, a stone for his pillow, surrounded by squirrels, chipmunks, and crows picking at the frayed ends of his wool cap. He is tired of lying awake in his monster bedroom.

He is dreaming for all of us, this sad old man. The curtain goes up on a high school musical, the chorus girls and boys kicking high and singing loud. They are brimming with life. He is shown to his seat by a tall thin blonde wearing a black dress and pearls. Her hair is held up by a sparkling gold tiara. She touches him on the shoulder as he lifts his head to take her in -- she smells like rice pudding, milky and sweet. He bows. The music plays. The auditorium is hardly full yet she says, "Your seat is taken, I'm sorry." He scans the cavernous room, then turns back to her to complain but she is no longer there. Instead, he faces his father, who looks to be asleep. The eyes are closed in the middle of the emaciate, pale-green face. No, they are sewn shut -- he can see the stitching, the purple bruising around the brow and temples. The music has stopped, followed by the hum of an electrical motor. He is scared of his father's form, the caved-in chest and skinny hairless legs. The dark shriveled penis. The motorized contraption that is helping him breathe. His chest feels hot. "Is this really a dream?" he wonders as the animals scamper around his body.

How long can we keep it up -- the traffic or the rage? Another few years? Perhaps this is why we came into the world, to get stuck in traffic, just as other generations were meant to be struck down by plague or marched off to die in a war. It takes no special skill nor superior intelligence to be a driver, a patient, a soldier. It makes no difference if you're sitting in a Bentley or a Chrysler: you're a nothing, just part of a machine, filling up with acid, hastening to your demise, an idiot, a zero, an occupant, hurtling along the interstate or stalled at the mouth of the tunnel. Inured to ugliness, heedless of your health, reduced to a sad symbol of our broken system. Let them reengineer Route 3 in Rutherford, let them widen Route 17 in Wood-ridge, let them shore up the approach to the Holland Tunnel from the Turnpike. It won't make a difference. Your driven life will still be shite.

In the hush of the museum, the sage lays his head on the ceramic pillow. He will dream of mountains in mist, two horses, a crane. He will see the tiger and dragon devour each other and moonlight glint off rushing water. He will welcome conversation with his ancestors and carry a basket of fish on an overnight journey to the next village. We can see his dreams carved in jade, ivory, marble, wood. There was a time when the earth was endless and humans and animals lived in harmony. It lasted centuries but now all of it is past. Now we have our roads and our madness, the unhappy vehicles of our desire. We have an old man asleep in a cemetery on a bright November day. We have our Indian Summer, the last warmth before winter.

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