Maybe it has something to do with the sounds of cars passing in the middle of the night, or with the uprooted feeling of being in between places, or maybe it has something to do with the slow drip of adrenaline that comes from being outside of one’s comfort zone, or maybe with the deserted plains and a long stretch of road going nowhere in both directions, but whenever it gets too dark for another ride and I end up spending the night in the tall grass, I have restless cinematic dreams of being chased across wide-open terrains like a gazelle in a nature documentary, complete with cut-aways to aerial views of myself and the overdub of dramatic narration.
From prehistoric cave drawings to the wheel of dharma to the screech of televangelists, from Osiris beds on the Nile Delta to stars and tides in almanac tables to the green screen of a weatherman smiling for the camera, from the World Turtle to the Copernican Revolution to Special Relativity and E = mc2—people die and civilizations decline, but the explanations of different ages pile up like a vault of gold coins in the House of Reasons. When you’re up against a wall at the end of some forgotten road, all of those reasons swarm around your feet like cockroaches scrambling in the flickering yellow light.
The sky is blue, dim. A man on a train platform, a suitcase beside his right foot. Sunrise creeps from behind a distant municipal building. Commuters like magnetic shavings gather into clumps and through sliding doors disperse inside the hidden dipole of a passenger car. The city-bound solenoid pulls away, drawn along electro-metropolitan rails. The man remains. On platform, on bench, suitcase at feet. More commuters speckle the concrete. More trains appear and disappear. The suitcase zips open from which a sandwich, a soda can, materialize. The man eats the sandwich. Drinks the soda. The sun marks its zenith. The yellow orb pulled toward the dipole hour. The hour when, rather than boarding, the commuters will spill out in a forced spray and all—himself included—will meld for a singular moment as a shoulder-brushing, feet-stomping river down narrow white-water steps to the parking lot below, to whitely painted fish skeletons: each morning revived by multi-colored scales, each evening eaten clean as the cars fall back out into an ocean-wide current where, suitcase in hand, counting each block, he channels like a spawning salmon up the sidewalk to his place of origin, to the group residence, simply referred to—by those who live there—as home. Until then the empty soda can and sandwich wrapper are sealed in a plastic bag, the suitcase zipped up. He replaces the suitcase at his feet and, like the ambassador of time, watches with concern each train that comes and goes. Watches each person moving toward some important destination.
The cabin bumps and rumbles over a vacant construction zone. Dusk descends over the Great Plains, and the ephemera of personal and plastic proportions bobble on the vibrating dash. The engine snorts and growls against the howl of wind over hood and shield, the whistle through gaskets cracked by heat, the whip of air-blast against head and cheek through open windows of coming night. Been a year and then some. The driver’s voice gestures to the bumpy ride, to the graded packed dirt divided by orange cones and churned into spires of cloud by the charge of eighteen wheels clawing at the dirt. Past winter saw a slab of road balanced just like that, his hand raises in a vertical salute, like a crane took it and, all five of his calloused fingers beak to a point, float down to the dash, open like a flower, dropped it just so. The flower contracts to a meaty bear-paw, A snow plow, and hammers down on the wheel, rammed the road, then points ahead to where the construction zone ends and packed dirt returns to pavement, to where the snow plow kept going and left the road sticking up out of the ground, like you were supposed to drive right on up it into the sky. His hand swoops down and abruptly turns up like a rocket taking off. Haaaa, shouted out, he slaps the rear of his dog and the front end slams up the smooth hum of highway again. The dog, astride a green duffel bag, licks away at it with an absent-minded persistence, dragging its tongue against the soiled canvas and alternately coughing up puffs of dust. Along with musty pelt of aging canine, the air is a mixture of dried coffee, vaporous dirt and machine grease—not only smelled but palated as an aftertaste. The cabin is a habitat. With a twist of the blinker the headlights appear. The earth a second ago was infused with the muted blue of an alien planet, but artificial light renders boundaries in black and yellow.
If vision were a substance: liquid and transparent as water, searing as fire, and above the plains the sky: cloudless, pink to dark purple, pin-pointed with star residue, the source of vision falling in droplets. Twisted limbs and sparse branches. Patches of black grasses. Vision droplets creating the photographic zoom—up-close, textured dermis—of burnt stalks, ridged bark, moon soil, angles of vision-drop pixelation. Within the grasses, furry unrecognizable animals crawling about as though half-drunk, staring back with almost human eyes. Eyes that bear the expression of myself looking back at me and thinking how strange I’d become. Like how an animal can sense changes in weather. Or how you’ll see—before the earthquake even hits—how you’ll see an entire herd of livestock stampeding. How you can just sense when something is off with a person. In their voice. The way they hold themselves. I look down at my legs and notice how: wheels, trolley wheels, inserted in my ankle joints. When did wheeling take the place of walking? When did hovering, being able to glide across this tumbling terrain, occur by the urge to lean forward? I roll through a twilight corridor where a mountain range stays forever at the same height. Where in the distance the old bull of a truck lays on its side, gasping. A man pets its rusted hide, murmuring in soothing tones. A dog reposes against an up-turned wheel. I glide and wander, almost out of sight, to where the land ends in a phosphorescent horizon and a voice not heard since childhood narrates from above: Dusk descends over the wide-open plains. The night sky, a dark lake upon whose surface the history of mankind floats by like a fallen leaf, casts a spell over the creatures of the land. Quiet on the surface and eerie with calm, a hidden life of activity churns deep in the soil. From his solemn stance across the plains the man looks up, Doubt you’ll get another ride at this hour. You can always sleep in the ditch there. So long. He resumes his whisper over the truck in prayerful tones and strokes. I wave back in acknowledgment. Previous departures and future destinations fade into oblivion—one consumed after the other—but the accumulation of where I’ve been and the possibilities of where I’m going seem to trace smaller and smaller loops, like a fractal whose path is determined by a strange attractor. Out on the plains, continues the voice from above, subtle mysteries drowned out by light of day re-emerge in the shadows at dusk. The fertile terrain, so vibrant and rich with color, now resembles a dry coral reef: uninhabited but full of portals. Every shadow is a hole, an entrance naturally formed by the absence of light. Why can’t I stop moving? Is overshadowed by the question: What will make my motion come to an end? and I find myself constantly looking over my shoulder with the presentiment that something I can’t see is stealthily following me, that something I can’t see is slowly closing the distance and will soon be upon me. What can be seen distracts us from the pulse on the periphery. On the surface a bush withered by rot is a waste of rain and soil, but the cavities hollowed out by disease function as nerve centers for broods of insects and forces unknown. Like the camouflage of a trapdoor, the lifeless branches shiver with premonitions of what might be waiting to crawl up in the dead of night. The sides of the truck heave up and down with an occasional slow shudder, and the grille of the truck struggles for small gulps of air. Though lying motionless in the grass, the truck—for which I feel a strange concern—glides backward on the rolling plains as do the man, the dog, the vegetation nailed to the soil where human-eyed creatures watch and wonder. Only stars above remain still. All around me I observe everything moving backward not moving at all. The motion of the still in reference to the restless. Where my evolved wheels once rolled, the ground falls away to a wall of stars.
Eggs pop in a skillet. She sits on the floor drawing with a crayon. A militant crowd huddles around the kitchen table, smoking cigarettes and sipping rust-colored booze from the ice-cube klink of foggy glasses. Suspicious glances are sent in my direction. The kitchen has the soiled atmosphere of an off-grid hideout. I flip an egg in the air, trying to be nonchalant. The egg splatters off-mark, a puddle of runny yolk creeps across the counter like a river on a prairie, navigating among the bumps and divots of the counter as though among grassy knolls. Suddenly, the river of yolk carves out a map and the sink is a deep white canyon, the sponge a red speedboat, the green dish rack a thick jungle where a chip of broken glass sparkles like a blood diamond; and I think I’ve accidentally stumbled on the psychic channel of the circle around the table. They’re all studying me with penetrating eyes. It’s time to go, the little girl tugs on my sleeve. Their eyes follow us out of the kitchen. She crayons a labyrinth of rooms on a piece of paper. I watch us flee through the rooms, the mercenaries close on our heels. I barricade a door, turn to run, and out of nowhere slam into a wall. The door is gone. The walls are bright orange. I spin around and find myself alone in the middle of a room with no entrance or exit, no windows or door frames or knobs of any kind. Up above is the rectangular outline of a trapdoor. In the corner leans a shovel, fresh dirt caked to its blade. With the long wooden handle I bang on the trapdoor and particles of dirt escape from the ceiling. Hello? I shout at the ceiling. Can anyone hear me? Again and again I bang on the trapdoor and a fine brown mist of dirt particles showers down. Here I am, I start howling, Here I am. Here I am. I grip the handle and with a violent thrust upward I hold my breath, not knowing what to expect if the latch should fly open.
Against the night a rib cage creaks. The night sky, a wall of dark sparkling glass, has stopped the flight of a bird cage made of ribs. The bird, who once sang the pulsing song of life, sang it so beautifully, frantically flapped its wings when the ground fell away, so desperate to rescue the cage in which it was housed. The cage crashed against a wall of silence. Against the stillness of nothing. The bird severed and splayed by the bars. The feathers drifting down and disappearing. The feathers spinning away into darkness.
When the train platform is bare under hum of streetlight, the conflict of artificial beams creates multiple shadows. A single piece of luggage casts the many ways one thing can arrive into or depart from the world. Come daylight a unified shadow recalls one trajectory, one direction only. Ants gather round the abandoned suitcase, leaking; people remain wary of the presence that lingers there. Last night brought rain. Today brings rust. Tonight brings a man asleep on the bench, drunk. Tomorrow morning, as cars fill in the whitely painted skeletons, he will slink down the steps against the rising river of commuters, carrying home to his daughter the found suitcase—his young daughter for whom he packs a lunchbox, sends out in the yard. The young daughter who, kneeling on the ground, stuffs the suitcase with dirt, packs the dirt around plucked stems of dandelions, runs off for the bus. The man passes out in the house, the daughter yawns at her desk, but in the suitcase the dandelions quiver. In the suitcase the petals shiver and the soil trembles. In the dirt something is thumping. The fresh earth heaving as though on a door come sounds of knocking: Here. Down here…
A figure sprouts from the soaked ground, from the tall wet grass. Rain pouring down. Seeks refuge in the dry, cockroach-infested entrance of a closed-for-summer school building. Security lights yellow and flickering under the awning. Throws down a duffel bag. Stares at the rain. Nothing to see beyond the black curtain of streaming liquid. With bored, curious hands he tests a row of metal doors, yanking: What would it be like to roam the dark halls of a school building in the middle of nowhere? Would there be a trophy case? Photos of students? Rows of lockers: open or sealed shut? When tugged each door merely rattles: locked, dead-bolted. A tiny roach—no bigger than a grain of rice—crawls out from under the rattle. A rumble gurgles up from the dark figure’s stomach. The tiny roach, like a black piece of rice crawling against an unseen weight, inching across the concrete slab and coming to a stop: suddenly peeps, pops up, lands on its back. Peep, an audible peep, like a sneeze. Pop, several inches in the air, like a heated kernel of corn. Flop, flat on its back, like an empty husk. The dark figure bends over the motionless speck and wonders. Around the duffel bag larger roaches mount, disappearing in folds and creases, searching along seams, trying to find entrance. Beyond the dry entrance the rain has slowed down, no longer a dense curtain of streaming liquid but a thinner scatter of droplets half-organized and without earnest. The dark figure crouches lower in the yellow ghost-rays of the security lights. Holds out a tentative finger toward the motionless bug prostrate on its back. A static charge surges as the distance shrinks between finger and bug as if, despite the dead bug being no different than a pebble in the dirt, something unknown still lurks there and the empty husk might leap up at any moment. The finger pauses, sort of flinches, the eyes squint and barrel down, trying to see what exactly the finger seems to sense. Under the yellow flickering a flood-gate opens—of sitting for hours on a commuter bench, silently watching countless trains coming and going; of crops sprouting across vast fields to be cut down by machines, processed by gears and belts, packaged in cellophane torn open by hands; of bugs swarming over a dark mass of flesh, decomposing and being devoured in the most innocent, helpless act of violence upon which all survival depends—and up this close, crouching only inches from the belly-up speck, the tiny roach comes back into focus: a dead bug on concrete under the strobe of yellow of a school building, whose frequency, an inconstant rate of flicker, exposes the insect underbelly as if through the extreme close-up of a movie camera, From prehistoric cave drawings to the wheel of dharma to the screech of televangelists, from Osiris beds on the Nile Delta to stars and tides in almanac tables to… the photographic zoom of a tiny accordion abdomen and the domed shell of thorax, segmented plates and anatomical ridges, appendages and antennae, barbed legs, the crystalline visibility of wrinkled folds and creases to resemble not the body of a thing living or dead, but a precision of clockwork parts, not a motionless insect on a slab of cold concrete, but a schematic of pulleys and counter-weights, a celestial sculpture of orbs each with a cluster of hollow brass spheres nudged from time immemorial into a planetary motion of life orbiting death orbiting life in ever-expanding spirals while in stillness, at the center of all of these orbits, sits an abandoned suitcase on a bustling train platform, at the dead center of this brass orrery sings a bird in a crushed bird cage, at the silent center thumps a heart thump-thump more quickly now thump-thump more loudly now thump-thump in the chest of someone who hears the approach of wet tires and feels thump-thump thump-thump thump-thump beams of sudden headlights pin him against locked doors.