This One Time, 42

This one time I was repacking my meager bag under a bridge over some west-bound Interstate highway or other. Maybe. The problem was that I hadn’t seen a sign in a long while and had slept away a few hours before being dropped here. I was still half deaf from sleeping in the back of an open-bed pickup truck. Every car that drove past sounded like it was sneaking up on me.

Everything you want always settles to the bottom of the bag. That’s why it shocked me a little to find the energy bars on the top of the pile. I pulled out the little sack and set it aside while I rolled up three t-shirts and a pair of jeans to make it all pack tighter. Then I took out a bar and put the sack back in the bag.

I really wish I knew which way I was going. The sun had been up for maybe an hour, but it was off to one side, perpendicular to the highway. “East” and “West” on highways refers to a general direction averaged over a couple hundred miles. The Interstate system, much like the Romans, will claw a path right through a mountain, so there aren’t many chances for confusing switchbacks, but still. There were enough good ol’ boys around here to influence whose property got cut up when the roads came through that it’s still a bit of a mess. That and the road has to be built on ground that will support a flotilla of tanks zooming by. Eisenhower was big on the idea of getting infantry and cav from coast to coast, border to border, in a big damn hurry, and that’s what these highways are all about.

I just wanted to go south at some point. To cross the border. And then another border. And another. All of them, eventually. I’d started out in Alaska. Crossed Canada to Nova Scotia. South on the East Coast down to Florida. Now west, until I got to a place where I could turn south.

Marching had been all I was good for, they said. I was good at it. I could keep it up all day. And when I got back from being paid to march, my girlfriend was gone, my parents were gone, my job was gone. So I decided I was going to march around the world.

Maybe not march the whole way. But you know what I mean. I was headed by whatever means were necessary down to Tierra del Fuego, then visit a piece of Antarctica if I could, otherwise catch a ride to Cape Town and head, oh, northish.

I didn’t really want to revisit the corners of the world where I had already done a lot of marching, but I figured I could just go around.

Against my better judgment I kept the State Department in the loop about where I was and what I was doing so they could help me with the occasional border issue. I made a point of turning down any favors anyone there asked me to do, delivering messages or packages, but they seemed to be in favor, at least in theory, of the whole project. As long as I stayed out of trouble.

And here I was, in a pretty heavily traveled portion of the USA, not even miserable from the weather or anything, but still with no fundamental knowledge of where I was or where I was going, and by damn if that wasn’t the perfect metaphor for the twenty-five years of my life to date. Comfy. Happy. Lost. Confused. Hopeful that there was a lot more trip ahead of me than behind me. On an endless, pointless journey to nowhere specific.

Then the earthquake hit. I watched two cars bottom out and bounce a foot into the air, perfectly synchronized, while the bridge above me made a noise that nothing that weighs hundred of tons and is hovering over your head should ever make. I ran and dove out from under it, and it embarrassed me by not falling down or dropping anything more than a little dust.

Meanwhile back on the road, one of the cars tipped sideways and slid down the road on the passenger-side door. The other car pulled off the road up ahead, past the bridge. I trotted out into the roadway to see what I could do about the tipped car.

And it was empty. I ran around front to look through the windshield and I saw nobody. I couldn’t see anyone through the back window either. I looked into the floorboards as well as I could through the moon roof. Nothing. Nobody.

I looked back along the road to see if traffic was about to start stacking up. About a hundred yards back there was some kind of break or crack, and cars were, for the most part, stopping behind it. One had nosed over and its front bumper was on the ground. Must be a bit of a drop.

Eventually the guy up ahead came jogging back to see if he could help with the sideways car. We rocked it until it fell back on its wheels and then we both climbed in and looked around. We found a purse with a wallet and a spilled cup of coffee. We shoved it off the road and called the highway patrol from his cell. And when they got me, they were all about running me in for stealing the car, but the other guy swore up and down he saw me under the bridge, going through my bag, and the empty car had been behind him for miles.

I never did figure out what had happened — whether the missing woman had been thrown out of her car somehow and had dragged herself off, or whether she just got herself mysteriously vanished somehow or what any of it could have had to do with the earthquake.

Maybe my grandmother had been right about how the world was going to end, with all the Christians being yanked off the earth in times of earthquakes and volcanoes and whatever other end-of-the-world special effects would be required. Maybe this was just a test run, God checking his equipment before running the full scenario. One person snatched up, one moderate earthquake. Maybe somewhere around here someone’s pantry and refrigerator went mysteriously empty (by way of famine) and a nearby yard got triple the usual number of locusts. And elsewhere one puny fireball rained down from the heavens.

Though I hear that sort of thing happens all the time.


February 11, 2011 · by xalieri · Posted in This One Time  


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