I love to be on the road. The always-present shabbiness of this country is most beautiful to me when it’s caught out of the corner of my eye, scrolling out of sight as I go. I love to look at the strange dire unremarkable little towns, the suburbs of suburbs, that are everywhere, and everywhere the same; but different and somehow holy to me because they’re not my dire, unremarkable little town. I don’t want to compare them to mine; I just like to be in them. I love to stumble upon their obscure fairs and traipse up and down the avenues between the tents, which have been bleached by years of the same sun into faded pastelerie. I love to stand in a sunbaked shopping center parking lot on a day so hot the scraps of clouds and the sky and the sun itself are all baked into a uniform whiteness and wonder, What is it like to live here? Who comes to these places, who knows them intimately? I want to consult these people like the last living experts on some hermetic text.
One time I was moving from one end of the country to the other. We stopped for the night in Ogallala, Nebraska. Ogallala is a weird little something between a pit stop and a tourist attraction, clinging to the interstate’s dictatorial cruciform; there’s a gas station, a car dealership, and a strip of shops done up like the facade of a frontier town; a big grinning pockmarked weatherworn mildewed cowboy sign leans on the shopping center’s marquee; his face is clean-shaven, his jaw is big and round, he looks like a strabismic Lupin the Third.
The first time I went through here I stayed at a Holiday Inn and called my dad from the parking lot. It was a mild summer evening; the day was hot, but the early evening had already forgotten it. My hotel was in an industrial/commercial area, and the blue sky peeked from behind fern-shaped clouds that lingered over one another in layers like scars. Across the road from the parking lot was a retail warehouse, long and low and ugly like these things always are; on the side facing me I saw sign for the company my dad used to work for, when we lived in Nebraska; that may have not been why I called him, but it was what I was talking to him about.
More than I remember many other, outwardly more important things, I remember the interplay between the light and color of the sky and the drab, unpitiable ugliness of the warehouse. Sometimes, beneath the surface of these very ordinary scenes, there’s a ludicrous beauty, one that you can almost only see in retrospect, when time begins to corrode it like it does everything else but finds something hard and immortal within it.
And this beauty, this immortality, it doesn’t mean anything; but it speaks to me, it would seem to provide some kind of an avenue between the unlanguaged yearning of my soul and the outside world, some sort of interface that would allow this energy to blow like a wind from inside me and out into the atmosphere; sometimes I feel like, if I find one of these scenes, and am there at the right time, with the right person, or rightly alone; if so, then…
Is it possible to do anything with that? Because I have dozens of memories like this. What the fuck, then, is the real currency of life? What do we accumulate? What is an epiphany except for a thing that we can embroider in our minds like an endless sampler; do epiphanies ever change us? Do we ever resolve, can we ever resolve, to do anything or remember anything, in any real way, or hold ourselves up to that golden level we see shining for a moment when the clouds part?
I took daily walks around Sunny Lake for a long time, up until this pandemic made that not something I want to do. I’d see a lot of regulars on these walks, some of whom would try to talk to me, sometimes. But one time I saw this lady I never saw before or since, sitting at one of the covered park benches. She was probably in her late fifties. Her hair shone in that double way that gray hair dyed blonde always does. She was wearing tight-fitting jeans with rhinestones on the back pockets and prefabricated tears at the knees. She had on a tightfitting white hoodie, was sitting facing the lake, and was talking in choked sobs into her cell phone.
That was the first time I saw her, on my first lap around the lake. I always take three. On the second time around it seemed like she had sobbed herself into that place where, after a hard wracking cry, you feel lightheaded and giddy, and was laugh-talking to the person on the other end.
“I know – I know,” she said brightly, chucklingly. “I know. I been through it this last year – and you have too, and I -“
The last time I saw her she was pacing back and forth in the muddy grass beside the bench. I could see now that she wore white tennis shoes. She was pacing back and forth and was still on the phone, presumably with the same person. She was nodding, and when she was facing me I couldn’t tell if she was smiling or grimacing. Her face was creased, coarse-pored, tan. As she nodded and talked she watched the ground in front of her. She didn’t pace very far in either direction before turning to face the opposite way, and into her phone she was going “Yes. Yes. Yes. I know. If you could just. Yes. If you could just, if you could just…”