We manage to get to Southington, Connecticut by 9 p.m., and, since this is Connecticut, there will be no cocktail or glass of wine tonight. By law, we can’t even buy beer as it is after 8 p.m. This is not hospitality even by my Utah standards, especially for the “Microcosm of America” which Southington was apparently billed by the War Department during World War II. Photographers, we are told, roamed this small town on the Quinnipiac River, and published their photos of busy residents at work, and in their homes and churches in a pamphlet which was then dropped by the thousands from military aircraft over Nazi-occupied Europe. This to highlight just how bucolic and value-driven Americans were in a land that also inspired the illustrator Norman Rockwell.
We find an EconoLodge on the edge of the American Microcosm, in a neighborhood known as Milldale famous for its American Clock and Watch Museum, which we won’t be seeing. Being without alcohol, we can nevertheless log in and tune out on the internet which the motor lodge happily provides. So while the man-boy collapses in front of the TV upstairs, his boots tumbled to the floor at the foot of his bed, I navigate Google Maps. I-80 stretches across the screen in blessed digital format, the yellow brick road home that in my imagination has come to represent a lifeline out of the wilderness of the East. Oh to see a vista! To shoot across the prairie in our little Toyota. To be home.
We have 2,250 miles to our driveway in Salt Lake City…by car. Thirty days and one hour if we are to walk on a carefully planned path that will take us through a section of Canada and require that we board a ferry. (“Use caution – This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths.”) If we prefer to bicycle it home, it will take us a mere 9 days and 2 hours if we follow the 1,341 points of direction filtered by Google and provided by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy with the following disclaimer:
These directions are for planning purposes only. You may find that construction projects, traffic, weather, or other events may cause conditions to differ from the map results, and you should plan your route accordingly. You must obey all signs or notices regarding your route.
Hell yeah, we’ll obey all signs or notices.
We decide to stick with the Toyota, despite the recent dangers, real or imagined, of sticking accelerator pedal recalls.
Still there is some weird comfort in knowing that one can Google every configuration of how we will cross the country with the exception of going by camel. Weird because the internet is paradoxically home and an alien space craft the longer we traffic in it. A Niagra Falls of the utterly inane and, at the same time, the utterly absorbing, so that when we leave life on the screen we are reminded—most of us are reminded—that it is virtual. Unreal.
It is also the Great Facilitator to resisting work. Somehow I feel as though sending an email is the same as getting work done when most of the time after clicking “send” what I’ve really done is just contributed to the debris of inner space. Compounded by the ability to pull up whole threads of emails, one can show definitively (in a cyber kind of way) that WORK HAS BEEN DONE. Not so. Work has been delayed, flayed, held up under fluorescent lights as a monument to the similitude of work, of thought, of even, perhaps, real connection. Email is where we go to avoid work or at least delay it. It elevates TO, FROM, RE, SENT to a scream of productivity and self-importance. Some offices, I’ve heard, have a quiet competition going on to see how long one can avoid talking to another, live person.
I have a theory: here, at the end of the year 2010, the majority of us are so damn happy to think of ourselves as on what we use to call the “superhighway,” and no longer trying to figure out why we can’t get a dial tone on our AOL, that we are now doing what we always do. We are digging in, making the collective groove that, as in unbridled “growth,” as in trickle down economics, as in the discovery of the wheel, for god’s sake, will eventually turn out to be a problem so acute that we are sitting around with our thumb up our ass and some long-haired pinko commie fag will have to batter us over the head for two decades to get us to wake up and smell the coffee. As in global warming.
My burrito rings. It is Cheryl, upstairs.
“Where are you?”
I want to tell her somewhere over the news now pulsing on Comcast, our server of choice, about missile strikes inside Pakistan and how short weekly bouts of eccentric exercise may offer big health improvements, according to a story in the LA Times. http://articles.latimes.com/keyword/news
“Still on the computer. Google maps. I’ll print it out and be right up.”
The man boy and I have to wash our underwear in the sink for tomorrow. She is probably playing good cop with him. I am to show up, rapping on the door with my Billy club and demand that he roll his lank off the bed and away from the television showing a re-run of Rocky Balboa, which we’ve seen thrice and now own, but which is nevertheless the balm of the hour. Demand that he strip off his boxers and wash them in the sink with shampoo. And, with my boots and gear clanging at my imaginary policeman blues, I will need to be ready to counter his remonstration with: no you cannot just turn them inside out. Actually, that’s what I would just as soon do myself.
The room’s temperature, in typical Econolodge fashion, is impossible to get just right. By morning we’ll be either sweltering under our starched sheets and polyester bedspread, or freezing our asses off. Or, more predictably, the man-boy, who is closest to the unit (and in direct line of the massive TV) will be sweltering and we will be freezing. No matter. We are here for only our short 8 hours and then, as Cheryl has planned out, we will be on our way for the next 490-mile stretch.
I will drift off into a fitful sleep in the Philadelphia of Rocky the boxer-turned-restaurant-owner. Then being the light sleeper in the crowd, the insomniac even, I will wake, either sweltering or freezing, to turn the TV off. Cheryl will be struggling to breath and the man-boy will be lying there, one arm pulled up over his head, his boxers drying on the towel rod. He will have the half-levitating look in his young face of one who dreams about John Lennon in 2010.
The eight hours of rest turn into 10. We were more tired than we thought. Outside, Connecticut is cold. Snow banks in the parking lot now ice across from the plastic orange and Day-Glo mauve of a Dunkin’ Donuts that this morning in the frigid air shattered by the air brakes of nearby tractor trailers looks incontrovertibly unappetizing. The Corolla looks forlorn next to the snow, its New York plates giving it instant contrarian definition in this otherwise sad sack excuse for a Microcosm of America. Can one make a fair assessment of any place from the parking lot of a donut shop and an Econolodge? Probably not, but assess we do. What else can we do in late 2010 America except peer out from a temporary static point on the superhighway and take a snapshot with our camera phone?
I load the car with our luggage then shiver back inside to join Cheryl and the man-boy for the free breakfast that comes with last night’s accommodations. To approach the breakfast nook of an American Motor Lodge is to approach an obstacle course. Into this vortex one becomes a high school sophomore all over again. Where do I go? How do I act? Mini bagels…toast with or without schmear? The other two are already seated at a teetering table, everything in Styrofoam, plastic spoons barely concave enough to snare two Cheerios at a time. Two men, one young one old, one thin, one fat, are at the next table, leaning against the wall, each with a white disposable cup designed to provide a token of coffee or tea before the MotorLodge bids ye farewell. Cheryl, wearing the same black patterned dress with black leggings and boots as the day before, has a way of ingratiating herself to strangers, prematurely if you ask me. She is already smiling and solicitous to them, eyes bright and inviting. They are working stiffs, cuffed at the dungaree ankle, booted, flannelled both. Grizzled as on-the-road men become, especially when only in the company of other men. I twist my cornflakes out of the plexiglass dispenser, back and forth. It takes one and half turns before the sheeny white disposable bowl is filled with no room for milk, sized to be held between fingers like a thimble: “Eat thy morsel then Fare thee, well!”
The two men are on the road, the younger, David, driving the rig with a double-wide pre-fab home, and the older, Clayton, driving the lead vehicle with “Wide Load” emblazoned on it. This is their moment of repose, together, the backs of their chairs leaning against the cheesy, breakfast nook wall-paper. It would appear that because of a recent stroke Clayton is no longer allowed to drive the rig. He must wait a year before being allowed to drive and now, at age seventy, is following the much younger David who says less, is less sure of himself and seems ready to hit the road. But Clayton, taking his cues from the inquiring Cheryl, recalls driving his rig in Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001.
“Been there thousands of time, but never…never seen it like that. Chaos. The traffic either stopped still or racing like the devil. Cop finally come up to me says, just get the hell out. Get the hell out of New York or you’ll be here for a long time.” He clamps down his teeth, looks thoughtfully at the floor. Cheryl is a good listener. She’s told him how she and I heard the second plane hit the towers in our Brooklyn apartment, before we moved back out west. How we watched it on the television after a phone call from an out-of-town relative alerting us to what was going on. For Clayton, as for all of us, I suppose, the story of 9/11 has migrated into an archive. To retrieve the memory means to hazard re-living something that makes the throat catch, the heart race, the future to recede as fast as the past normally does.
David nods in time to the story. His left boot tips to the side, resting on the floor. There is a hole in the sole. The two of them look as ungainly as I feel, thrown together in a room of wobbly, pressed wood breakfast tables with fellow guests readying for the ride in the three-day old wake of Christmases past, the lobby tree, tumescent below a holiday cheer banner as flaccid as the tree is artificially erect, humming with lights.
The man-boy has left his I-pod in the car the night before and is without wires. Hunkered down over his tiny, inadequate bowl of Fruit Loops look-a-likes, he is listening to the conversation. His long, light brown hair is still wet from the shower and shooting out from under his soiled blue baseball cap. He was eight when America was attacked in 2001. And being the thoughtful grandfather living in New York City at the time, I squirrled away the New Yorker (whose somber cover is completely black except for the merest hint of the twin towers) along with the front page of the Times. For posterity, I thought at the time. But it’s hard for me to think of him as caring for anything material like that in the age of Google.
We bid the men goodbye. Cheryl all smiles. Warm. If they could, the two of them might take her to lunch just so that they could keep talking to her. I think of myself as a good conversationalist, friendly with strangers, always doing the asking. But Cheryl’s authentic while I’m a performer. Genuine while I just work the room. It occurs to me that she is grounded by their regionalism—upstate New York for both of them but close enough to Yankeeland which she misses, although she is quick to say that she does not. Most of the time.
Earlier, while I was showering, Cheryl had gone out and picked up a couple of T-shirts for me and the man-boy. While she was wise enough to carry extra under things, and even another dress and tights, the man-boy and are what we wore out of Aunt Diane and Uncle Pete’s house the morning before. Now he and I are twins, pocketed T’s that have that starched, creased look to them right off a hanger or a box. We both wear a size large and I can’t help but notice as the man-boy slips his on how much he’s filled out in the shoulders. And though I have forty pounds on him now, I realize that very soon he’ll not only be taller than I am, but larger. This is not what I want to hear. The boy has been living with us full-time for four years and, in typical male fashion, our bodies have been the nexus of our competition with each other. It wasn’t that long ago, perhaps eighteen months or so, that the rough-housing had to stop. We were standing in the tiny bedroom where Cheryl and I don’t make love anymore due to our sudden full-time parental duties in a tiny house, and the boy was slugging me in the arm. Hard slugs, really, at age 15+, proving for the hundredth time where he ends and I begin. I had taken to hitting him back, all in good fun. Right?
It’s the way we show affection for each other, I had told Cheryl who whenever she heard us grappling, would scold us and the dog would start barking.
“It’s just our competitive nature coming out.”
She looked at me worried, unbelieving. “Your father used to overpower you to the point that you hated him,” she reminded me. “You’re doing the same thing with him. He doesn’t like it.”
That was early on when the man-boy was first hitting puberty. So early on I set a policy for this boy who was often trying to get a reaction out of me through his fists: don’t ever start it. But there was another policy I decided on that, even still, I’m not so sure about when it comes to the boy turned man-boy who lives with me. It doesn’t do him any good to handicap yourself, to hold back, or the man-boy will never know what he is capable (or not capable) of. He’ll never know what it means to have and honor a worthy opponent in life.
That worked for a while. He would give me his best shot, to the arm or to the chest, and I would give it back, both of us ever-calibrating in that tussling way males have when muscle was being flexed and where the kidneys lay. But, as in that tussling way males have, calibrations make way for besting the other, at times at any cost, and emotions flood the plains. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps it was just that sometimes we could not decide when the other was game for the game, and heartily resented it when a fist came out of nowhere in the hall, the car, or, on this particular fateful day, in the bedroom.
“You hit me harder than I hit you!” he exclaimed, eyes flashing in a head whose hair still sported a buzz.
“I hit you as hard as you hit me,” I said. “And I wasn’t expecting it. You always start these things but then you get pissed when I fight back.”
He slugged me again. Hard in the shoulder. I hit him back, my frustration growing. “Cut it out!” He said, rubbing his arm.
“You cut it out.”