As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
New York Live Arts presents
III. A Bad Business During the Night
Nick Smith had scheduled his third date with Laura Satterfield (the first hadn’t happened, but he hoped it counted) for the evening after his last exam; but when exams were finally over he realized that flawed scheduling once again threatened to compromise performance. He’d had to make a brutal effort, but had probably passed his finals in Cosmology and Physics—not a real Physics class, one with no math—and had done well (he hoped) in Psychology, Economics, and The Male Sublime; but he hadn’t slept. He’d drunk uncountable cups of coffee, into which he’d begun to pour sugar until the mixture perceptibly thickened. He felt like he’d endured a day a week long—but the euphoria of release from schoolwork combined with the caffeine syrup and long lack of sleep to produce an alert exhaustion, an incomplete perceptiveness. Hyperconscious, his mind moved in slippery, flopping leaps, having tended, during the writing of exams, to merge Freud’s map of the mind with Burke’s aesthetic mechanics of Fear and Desire, and both with the structure of the galaxy … in fact, it had been difficult to remember which exam he was taking. He’d been planning to take Laura out to the CHINESE TOWER; he called to suggest they order in at her place. They did. Helping himself from her plate, he sampled a variety of foods, venturing far from his usual truncated pyramid of white rice, beyond even the sweet’n’sour pork he sometimes impulsively ordered. He paused once, fork lifted to his mouth, and smiled at Laura warmly. She smiled back; her shoulders shook. At one point, he felt himself slipping into the inescapable, welcoming softness of sleep, but jerked himself awake, sending rice scattering to the floor and a gooey lump of candy red chicken bouncing into the center of the table. Was the universe unconscious? Was Economics Fear? or only Desire? They sat on the couch. Laura, smooth-skinned and elegantly dressed, put a movie on, dimmed the lights, and sat next to him. He waited for her signal—a smile, a look—but the movie played on. He sank into a profound sleep, head slumped against Laura’s shoulder.
She rearranged herself with difficulty.
Near the climax he woke up as if cued by the music, blinked, and leaned forward slowly into the plot, which had dropped away in favor of a chase scene involving everyone. His hand was resting comfortably on Laura’s knee, feeling the minute roughness of her hosiery. How long had it been there? Tentatively, slowly, he—’Not tonight, Nick,’ she said, wrestling away and repositioning herself on the couch. He sat staring at an imaginary spot just above the television: face red, eyes not focusing. He could think of nothing to say, so he excused himself.
It had stopped snowing. In Laura Satterfield’s locked bathroom, he stripped, splashed cold water on his face, did a number of pushups on the cold floor—lost count—and wondered what excuse he could use to avoid going home for Christmas. His sister had discovered a method of controlling everything by asking ugly questions. His mother—He stood. His torso in Laura’s mirror gleamed a pale peach-white. Everything in the bathroom was soft and puffy and pink—dark pink, the color of supermarket meat. ‘Mind if I use your shower?’ he shouted through the door.
A long pause. ‘I guess not,’ Laura said.
‘Sounds tired,’ he said to himself. ‘You sure it’s okay?’ he shouted. She didn’t answer, so he made it quick. Clean tub. Pink. His mind was humming again. Her dense, soft towels smelled nice. Incredibly nice. It was great being done with the semester: now he would never have to think—it seemed a shame, so clean, to dress in his old clothes again, but he did—about any of those subjects ever again.
He shook Laura’s hand goodnight, even though (as he realized a second too late) she offered her cheek, or even the far horizon of her lips, for him to kiss. Acutely aware of surfaces—whether too bright, too sticky, or too there—he drove home over light snow and salted, melted snow, in a car carved of ice: alert, yet ready to merge with sleep at every pause; when lights turned green, he would jerk awake, sometimes making it through an empty intersection, only, on, the second, signal, cycle.
His spot was empty. He got his mail, staggered inside, opened it: bill, something else. He was hungry. When had he last eaten? Just now. This seemed profound. He opened a can of chili, heated its contents, put it in a bowl, and ate it with a few crackers, the last stale, broken squares. It was all over: Burke, Freud, food, physics, night.
When the dishes were washed and stacked, all energy left him. Too tired even to watch TV. He needed sleep: he would have to call his mom in the morning. Cosmology and Physics had been difficult. No chili left: sudden craving for bacon. Ms. Ackson’s final had been tough. No bacon left.
Psychology had been easy—and if he didn’t do well in Economics it was the teacher’s fault. (Did he want it badly enough to start the car and drive off into the night?) But so much stuff swarming around in your head, until you felt like applying the uncertainty principle to history, or … . He closed his eyes, almost tasted crispy bacon, crushed between two pieces of white toast sticky with honey: indescribably good, salty and sweet … . He let out a heavy breath. It was over. He could rest.
In striped pajamas like an old-fashioned jailbird, he brushed his teeth and plodded to bed. Head deep in the pillow, he wondered if the door was locked: he could visualize it drifting wide open to the freezing dark, stars and snow and old leaves blowing in. But the plaid wool blanket on his chest rose and fell, and he was driving somewhere: going fast, but not too fast, in a stiff, unresponsive version of his own car. Happy to be alone, autonomous, at the wheel, though it was very dark: road and sky and landscape ahead unanimously black. The blackness made a pressure all around him, forcing everything inward. There were no signs, no way to tell where he was heading in the structured dark, but the road knew. Its endless surface was so wide and well-graded that it had to be a federal highway. He grinned and sped up. He loved the Interstate: always had. No matter where you moved, those big roads were the same (though right now, rushing into the dark, he could be anywhere in that vast system: somewhere dark and mysterious and unrelieved). Pale metal guardrail posts stretched endlessly, following the road, repeating themselves helplessly like time itself spreading over space.
He passed what looked like an Interstate shield, but there was no name, no identifying number, as if something big—some bomb or violent, unexpected storm—had stripped the system of its information.
Pines became some low uneven fields. He was going faster. Something glowed, far ahead: he heard a tinkling sound, and human conversation; passed a wild field of trees, probably once an orchard, hung with candlelit chandeliers; flames quavered in passing wind—were instantly gone, replaced by a bleak blackness, like before. Then a mile of aluminum siding, unexplained, waiting in sections along the side of the road.
No other cars, no trucks; tonight he had the road to himself. Exits, labeled only by numbers, occasionally slipped past.
He looked down: he was naked except for a pair of moccasins.
He heard the wind. The road glittered up like anthracite. A larger, more frightening sign loomed into view, straddling every lane on his side of the road:
He gave a low whistle. Since now. His instinct was to stay on the main road, but the road was about to split irrevocably. Right? Left? With a grim smile, he remembered what Yogi Berra had said: ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it.’ He tried to slow down—but only managed to accelerate. Another sign flashed over. He missed its message, eyes locked onto the approaching interchange.
Ahead he could see the wide road divide into two equal but opposite highways: the stark division loomed and was upon him.
He veered left, and found himself on a road that he couldn’t distinguish in any respect from the one he’d just been on. A sign said
He glided down a long, superbly graded downslope, crossed a brief, bone-white bridge, and flew along a long, straight stretch. Dark pines, a shaved, hilly median, but the road kept steady, familiar and strange.
The exit numbers changed; changed again. He decided to ignore all side roads and continue on, absolutely straight for as long as he could (following, of course, any curves). Another exit flashed past: he was enjoying himself.
This endless system, in all of its monumental linkage, had, long ago, before he was born but after the Second World War, replaced the railroads as the arteriovascular system of the republic; if broadcasts were its brainwaves, telephone cables and fiber optics its nerves, and each important city a major organ, nestled safely in its bed of suburban fat … If the muscle was the Federal Reserve, the brain New York, the genitalia Washington, DC—he had climbed all the way up that famous monument himself, and looked out, over the Ellipse—
Something straddled the road. Another fearsome sign enlarged ahead:
With mortal effort, he twisted the wheel STRAIGHT and held it steady. Awful vibrations shook his very spine, but then suddenly he was on smooth road again, driving forward as if nothing had happened. The road was the same.
He flicked on the tape player, an expensive model not ordinarily installed in his car. ‘We Are the Champions’ welled up; he tried to sing along, but the words were different. During gaps in the music, he heard animal cries, awful in the night. Signs warned him of the laws of Physics. Sure, but where was he? He wished he had some comprehensive map that would tell him where to go in the night, and what the best route was—but he had the feeling that that kind of map, if it existed, was not available from triple-A (NIGHT MAP OF THE CONTINENTAL US … CATALOG OF UNEXPLORED AREAS … NOWHERE BAEDEKER … BLACK GUIDE TO THE INTERSTATE … PANIC ATLAS … ). The Night Interstate stretched on before him. For a time the road crossed water, a broad marsh, on low concrete piers. Bitter stenches rushed through the air in waves and were suddenly gone. He passed a
A good investigator was completely selfless; a good spy was all ears and eyes and instinct. The tires whished on. The Id-road was darker. No attenuation.
He could see far ahead, over a broad, dark plain, from which he was protected only by the road. Lightning illuminated dim distances, followed by a muffled crackle and boom. Thunder whispered. He grew cold. The vast flatness curved slightly at the horizon, and sparkled here and there, as if reflecting stars in an undulant motion. He settled in for a long stretch of driving. Something wasn’t right: the noise of his tires was different, slick and crisp. He let go of the wheel and looked around: he was driving across open sea. The highway seemed solid enough, but all around was water, dark and calm, with no bottom to it, filled with strange creatures from the deepest past. Spray blew across the road.
You needed to learn a set of rigid conventions in order to follow the System, or else a State Trooper would stop you. (He glanced in the rearview: steep; a far, shimmering flatness.)—But once you learned it, you could go anywhere a road could take you.
Then road again: a long stretch of nothing at all but road, blackness and black road, on and on and on, but he was frozen, unable to move or think or cry out; then nothing happened. Nothing. It was—not.
The car seemed to move in all directions at once, while keeping perfectly still: accelerating rapidly, motionless. The road entered a long tunnel that at first was even blacker than the darkness of the road—until it turned inside out and he was moving again, forward at the same speed as everything, toward a cold and infinitely vertical black blade. The edge of time? His hands were still, cold but not cold, covered with frost crystals. He saw, glittering and dense, a compression of unused life, surrendered potentiality, choices not made, an infinity of unused futures collapsing into the sieve of the past; then ‘everything went black.’
This stillness had a taste of minerals. His brain, solid and immobile, absorbing the darkness with a geological patience, might have been a buried chunk of malachite; his spine a juxtaposed vein of iron. A thought, perfectly objective, might form over a million years and slowly fade. No time, all time, passed, remained. Then—then!—emerging and entering a matrix, he changed and warmed and found himself coasting toward dim light—moving more and more rapidly, the light growing brighter as he neared. Stunned, he felt every nerve, every cell, tingle inside him like a limb that has fallen asleep, shaken hard. There was also a smoky ruby haze to one side, but he ignored it to concentrate on the brightness, which made him smile. He felt. He had chosen the right road.
He was moving closer to the light, which suddenly became not one light but a group of three fuzzy lights, then seven, then 31, then 383, then 997—and soon multiplied beyond his comprehension, going off like sparks from fireworks everywhere around him. He was going much too fast, but he had never seen anything that made him so happy. He went on for a long time, aware of nothing but the magnificence polarized between sharp clarity and flooding obscurity, everything going on and on, in bare magnitude; and he was part of it.
On and on, through a rugged negligence of deepness, depth, of pure dimensionality, he traveled for a long time without seeing a sign. It was a broad, black, freshly paved highway—familiar in every respect, except that it curved gracefully, impossibly, through deep space densely scattered with stars.
There were a trillion times more stars than he’d ever seen. He had driven a long, long time before he understood that every ‘star’ was really a galaxy.
As he drove on, galaxies seemed to become less dense. Sign after sign, EXIT after EXIT, gave unreadable names in strange, symbolic combinations. Random? Diagram probability?
Occasionally characters he recognized began to form words he knew, though he felt no urge to leave the road, until he passed a sign
The light show went on and on and on …
He could feel it changing with him, in him, all around him: and knew he was nothing if not part of it. He followed the signs, passing many exits, most identified by unrecognizable configurations, but when he came to
The new road was beautiful and very black. Glass fragments in the asphalt’s composition sparkled up like small, powdered stars. The engine made no sound. He spent a long time (or something like time) coasting down the curving Interstar, passing 70 million destinations he’d never heard of before he found the sign he was looking for:
Before long, a distant star began to enlarge: his own star, the sun. He was heading, quickly, into its little system. He glimpsed a fizzling ring of iridust off familiar, eccentric Saturn, and broke into a big grin.
It was brighter than usual.
The road seemed to loop grandly around, for he passed a long series of exits for MARS, and then, with two still to go—he breezed past them—
It was snowing! Everything outside was white and smooth! He got out of bed, stretched, slipped into moccasins, smoothed back his crewcut, and padded into the kitchen for an orange juice. He felt healthy and refreshed and simply happy, but remembered nothing at all about his dream.
Click here for a Shockwave Flash animation of this chapter.
Thomas Bolt’s first book, Out of the Woods, was published by Yale University Press in 1989. Bolt’s work has appeared in Southwest Review, The Paris Review, Agni, and the Italian quarterly Nuovi Argomenti. His awards include the Rome Prize for Literature and the Yale Younger Poets Prize. More of his writing can be found online at www.tbolt.com.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.