I arrived in Newmarket, New Hampshire at precisely 10:46 p.m. I had left Portland, Maine one hour, twelve minutes, and six cigarettes ago. I parked my car, slung my grandfather’s WWII military issue satchel over my left shoulder, and trudged into a three story apartment complex with the lack of energy accompanying nine hours of work in a retail chain. I was here to visit Joe.
Upon entering Joe’s apartment, I was immediately informed we were being picked up at five a.m. to drive to Branford, Connecticut. Our mission was to relocate our friend Holly’s life to Newmarket, Joe’s apartment to be exact. Our driver would be Kellen, an affable loaf of a New Englander’s dream, six foot six with long brown beard and hair. The three of us would arrive in Branford somewhere around 9:30 a.m. Upon which we would become four. I nodded an understanding affirmation of the situation. I would have to wake up at five.
It was approximately three cigarettes and four hours later, when Joe and I laid our heads to rest at 2 a.m. We had wrapped ourselves into a tizzy working on a story idea. It was Zane’s Zoo, a depiction of life’s battles through the medium of talking animals. Joe had paced. I had typed. When we called it quits, I stripped to my underwear and fell asleep on his couch.
I dreamt of a lush field stretching upward becoming sky. A banner waved over the horizon in a two dimensional fashion. A lion’s face, complete with mane, popped into view with a shit-eating grin and told me “my time to arise had come. The journey was long and hard, and we needed to avoid the Memorial Day Traffic.” I woke up to Kellen standing over me. I had forgotten it was May 28, 2005, another year, another holiday. I struggled to open my eyes. A cup of coffee and cigarette later, I was ready to depart. It was quarter to six and we were running late.
Driving down the highways in the dawn hours is an experience I have rarely enjoyed. I rubbed my eyes and decided music could medicate my situation. I pressed the volume wheel causing the speakers to gargle. The station was static mixed with garbled blasts of a spokesman’s voice. I lit a cigarette.
“What’s he saying?” I asked Kellen.
“I dunno, probably a traffic report.”
“My favorite,” Joe quipped from the back. “I love when they throw in the station tag line, it’s like a chorus.”
I laughed. Kellen joined in.
“I’ll hunt for something else,” I said.
I leaned over to punch the search button.
“95 is relatively clear of traffic on this beautiful Memorial Da-,” I pressed the seek button and the traffic report was silenced. It took three revolutions through the stations to find a song. It was The Who’s Teenage Wasteland.
I laughed. “It’s funny to think my dad used to listen to this. The angsty music of his time, ya know.”
“Rebel rock,” Kellen injected.
“It would be odd to think of Jim’s dad as a rebel,” Joe stated.
“Maybe he would be a Christian one,” I said. “The type with a studded cross on the back of his black, leather jacket.”
Joe laughed and Kellen did too.
“I could never imagine my dad as a rebel,” Joe said. “All he says is puns. Could you imagine a metal head cracking vaudeville jokes?”
“It’s a good song though,” Kellen said.
“Just kinda funny. I couldn’t imagine getting upset and putting on The Who,” said Joe.
“I could see it,” Kellen replied. The radio fuzzed out for exactly six seconds. “Goddamnit. I hate this antenna. It’s so damned finicky.”
“It’s cool. The wasteland’s back. We’re good,” I replied.
I opened up the shotgun window and tossed my cigarette out. If it hit a dried leaf, a forest fire would ensue. It would be battled by state paid rangers, firemen, and reporters. They would win. No battle lasts indefinitely. The endless toil would kill the ratings. And there are so many other forests to burn.
We cruised the 95’s from 4 to 3, in a rusted blue, Volvo, station wagon, a beast of a mobile, affectionately entitled “The Battle Wagon.” It shot windshield fluid across the hood rather than the windshield and received twenty-five miles a gallon going eighty the whole trip. Three hours and forty-nine minutes later, with eight deceased cigarettes and a new pack in my faded jeans, we arrived at Foxon Drive to pick Holly up.
She lived with her father and her reason for leaving was sound. Her father, since becoming single, paraded around proclaiming, “I hate fags.” This line was irksome to Holly, her being a lesbian and all. A summer of father-daughter time sounded less than enticing. We arrived and she groaned. She had stayed up late drinking and needed a few minutes to compose.
Holly stumbled with the grace of a sloth to the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth. I heard the choked sound of stale vodka fighting its way up her esophagus then the splash of toilet water and vomit. It was reminiscent of a dog dying. She exited the bathroom and dumped clothes into an old, black, duffel bag. Under her breath I swore I heard her mumble, “fucker.”
Kellen and I walked outside to give Holly a few minutes. We sat next to a dumpster beside the Battle Wagon. I stripped to my undershirt, enjoying the sunshine falling across my white shirt missing the sleeves with a handwritten “SpeeR” in black sharpie on the chest. The word carried the history of the German armaments and munitions minister during the Second World War. He was renowned for his organizational abilities, keeping the track beneath the Nazi war machine, the only defendant at Nuremberg who pled guilty. The shirt was my older brother’s. I needed to schedule a laundry day but hadn’t gotten around to it.
Kellen and I dumpster dived while we waited. A garish toy chest caught my attention. With Kellen’s help, we pulled it out of the trash and crammed it into the Battle Wagon’s trunk. Then I went back in for more goodies.
Holly walked outside with the black bag over her left shoulder. Joe followed behind. I climbed out of the green dumpster. Kellen scratched his beard.
We climbed into the wagon and drove away with a child’s toy chest splattered with ducks in fashionable capris pants, a duffel bag full of ill packed clothes, and a hungover lesbian wearing wrap-around, ray ban sunglasses.
We stopped at an I.G.A. to stock up on provisions. This was a road trip and peanut butter sandwiches on Wonderbread were in order.
In the store, I laughed at the local brewer of carbonated beverage treats, A Foxon Park bottle filled to the brim with unusually, bright liquid. Holly informed me their birch beer was quite delicious, so I put away my cynicism and with $1.63, supported their fledgling business. Joe bought a two-pound bag of gumdrops. Kellen purchased the bread and peanut butter. Holly decided Snapple and donuts would be the best breakfast for her head. We left the parking lot, a cigarette burning in my hand. It was number three since Branford.
I turned on the radio. A blast of static exhaled through the crinkling speakers.
“Can we go without any music?” Holly asked. “My head isn’t up for it.”
“Hung over a bit, are we?” Kellen questioned.
“Yeah, a bit.” Holly laughed. “I feel like shit.”
I nodded. I knew the feeling. I’ve never enjoyed the morning after excessively drinking.
Joe held a blood-red gumdrop up and placed it into his open mouth. He chewed with the exaggeration of a deer in hunting season.
“Fingernails astound me,” Joe stated.
“You’re in school for biochemistry and fingernails astound you?” I said before I gave a quick laugh. “I figured cellular stuff would seem crazier.”
“How come?” Kellen asked taking the bait.
“Their purpose,” Joe replied. “What is it?”
“To be bitten,” I replied with a chuckle.
“Scratching an itch that’s bothering you,” Kellen guessed.
“Putting inside a vagina,” Holly joked. We all took a second to chuckle.
“To kill and maim,” Joe answered.
“A little morbid,” I said.
“Evolutionarily speaking, fingernails were made to kill prey, I think.”
“Never thought about it that way,” Holly remarked.
“Makes sense,” said Kellen.
“So, why’s that funny?” I asked.
“Cause now-a-days we only use them to open child proof aspirin bottles, or scratch an annoying itch,” Joe said. “It feels like we lost one of our best defenses.”
“What about their vaginal purposes?” asked Holly.
“Well I imagine fingers are the more important factor in that equation,” I stated. “Fingernails are more secondary in the sense they add structure, but no real substance.”
“You just don’t know how to use a fingernail when you’re with a classy lady,” Kellen said.
“Is it any different from how I use them with a two dollar whore?” Joe asked.
“Of course,” Holly replied. “A two dollar whore deserves a two dollar finger bang. A high class lady, on the other hand, needs some fingernail tickling, scratching, and gentle pinching.”
“So you fuck girls differently depending on their social standing?” I asked.
“Why not?” Joe said. “It’s a good way to remind them of their place in this world.”
“The real question,” Kellen stated, “is whether you would even use your fingernails on a middle class woman.”
“A soccer mom?” Joe asked.
“A m.i.l.f.,” Holly added.
“Mother I’d like to fuck!” Kellen shouted.
“These are the same fingernails used to kill and maim?” I questioned.
“Keeps people in their place,” Joe restated.
“Reminds me of the Pareto optimal system,” I said.
“Ooh, Mr. Economics came out of the silence,” Holly said. Then she closed her eyes and remained silent for the duration of the conversation. I think her drinking binge was hard to forget, and right now she needed a nap to settle her stomach. She rested her head on the pillow laid out in the back seat. I am not positive, but I think she fell asleep.
“What’s a Pareto optimal system?” Joe asked.
“It’s where no change in society could be made if any one individual were to be worse off,” I recited.
“Sounds nice,” said Kellen.
“It was developed by an Italian fascist in the thirties,” I responded. “It’s fucked if you think about it.”
“Why?” Kellen asked while unscrewing the lid of a peanut butter jar.
“If three people held all the wealth and one couldn’t even afford food, you couldn’t give him food. It would be taking away from the wealthy ones. They get less, and that’s bad. It’s fucked to call that optimal.”
Kellen nodded agreement and offered me a slice of bread, smothered in peanut butter that was chunky. I brightened considerably and realized, “I’ve never smoked a bowl in Connecticut before.”
“Well, Christ on a bike, Jim!” Kellen exclaimed. “We need to remedy that immediately.”
“Why not a panacea?” I laughed.
Joe declined due to the need of a real job, and the fact biotech plants piss test with relative accuracy. Holly mumbled her negation through the pillow’s stuffing, figuring the alcohol and tetrahydrocannabinol would be ill at ease. I guess she hadn’t fallen asleep. Kellen and I puffed a few each. Then I ate the peanut butter sandwich he had given me. I have always preferred chunky.
Our conversation took a bizarre turn as we started telling quick jokes.
“What’s the difference between mayonnaise and sperm?” -Beat- “Mayonnaise doesn’t hit the back of your throat at twenty miles an hour,” Kellen quipped.
I, in turn, thought of one I could contribute. Joe was quicker, telling the tale of an amorous rooster taking on chickens, vulchers, and geese. We laughed, and he apologized for tripping over his words.
“What do you call a black guy flying a plane?” I supplied to the mix. Joe and Kellen wrinkled their foreheads in thought. “A pilot, you racists!”
The weed had kicked in and I was struck by the fact it was 10:30 a.m. I had been in the car four hours, forty-five minutes, fourteen cigarettes, and McDonald’s was still serving its breakfast menu.
“Does anyone else want flapjacks?” I asked.
“I could go for some flutterbobs,” Joe quipped.
“Hmmm, interesting thought. How many flapjacks we talking?” asked Kellen.
“I dunno,” I said turning my head to catch the fleeting greenery. “I expect we would get a plateful.”
“Isa play tef ul e nuff?” mumbled Holly. Her lips dragged against the pillow’s linen as she spoke.
“What?” Joe asked. Holly slightly tilted her head.
“Is a plateful enough?” Holly muttered. “God, Joe.” She looked out the window. I wonder if she saw her dad’s face painted on the leaves of the trees. When the wind blew, would the branches creak “fag”?
“A plateful seems like a vague description,” Kellen said. He pulled out a cigarette, ripped off the filter, and lit up.
“It’s vague,” Joe said. “At the same time it’s so specific. If I say a plateful of food you can vividly imagine it. We’ve all had a plateful of flapjacks before. We all know exactly what it looks like, how it tastes, when we’ll get sick of eating them. We have all the details needed to envision our flapjacks, but we have no idea how many that is.”
“Some one thought about that for way to long,” I joked. Joe laughed.
“Hmm, last one,” Kellen said shaking an empty Camel pack.
“You can have some of mine,” I assured him.
“We should drive west,” Joe said suddenly.
“What?” Kellen replied.
“Seriously, we should do a for real road trip. The four of us, it would be great. Just turn west and we’ll drive for a couple of days.”
“A road trip?” I questioned.
“It’ll be better than the Key West one,” he said to me. I remembered it well. Joe and I had visited my sister. We had driven from Durham, New Hampshire to Key West, Florida nonstop with our friends Pat and Ally. By the third day of a week long trip, we were split in twain. The couple and the friends at each others throats, unable to change the other side’s view of what a road trip should be. I hadn’t talked to Ally since we got back.
“What do we do when we get sick of each other?” Kellen asked.
“We won’t,” Joe replied. “It’s impossible. We’d be the perfect actors to recapture the days of Kerouac, Thompson, and Brautigan. We’ll drive till we find route sixty-six, and refuse to stop when it ends.”
I was scheduled to stock empty shelves at 8:45 a.m. the next day. Retail made a three-day vacation seem out of place with a cloud of rent, electrical and heating bills overhead.
“I have work,” I said.
“Call out, tell ‘em you died or something,” Joe argued.
“M tose ick ooh row trif.” Holly added.
“Pick your damn head up when you speak,” Joe said a bit too quickly.
“I’m too sick to road trip,” Holly reiterated.
“I dunno if the battle wagon could handle it. She’s already at 194,” Kellen said referring to the mileage by the thousands.
“But we could do it,” Joe said with emphasis on the “but.” He looked at each of us in turn. I dropped a spent cigarette through my cracked window. Kellen ashed on the ground between his feet. Holly let her head drift back to the pillow. Joe looked down at his bag of gumdrops. He picked a blue one out and nibbled on it. Kellen took the last drag of his cigarette and motioned for me to roll down my window. The Battle Wagon’s driver side window was broken. The passenger had to dodge the spent smoke as it was thrown.
“I don’t want any fucking flapjacks,” Joe said under his breath. I heard him. He gave a bull’s angry grunt and threw the gumdrop into his mouth.
I rolled down my window and leaned back. Kellen took careful aim and threw his spent cigarette past my face. It fluttered out the window and I saw a stutter of sparks in the side view mirror. None of us spoke. Joe looked out the window.
“How far are we from Newmarket?” he questioned.
“I dunno, about three more hours,” Kellen replied.
Holly closed her eyes, and I pretended to nag like a father.
“No daughter of mine will be in a car without a belt across her seat.”
She made an awkward grimace.
“Stop,” Holly said.
“Stop the car!”
“Why?” Kellen asked.
“I’m gonna puke!”
Holly’s breakfast was not mixing with last night’s vodka. We pulled off 395 and I lit a cigarette. We stopped the car at the first driveway we saw. It was owned by a cluster of small houses, surrounding a red, white, and blue sign that read, “American Mobile Home Park.”
I laughed at our predicament as Holly shoved open the door.
“Fuck mobile homes!” she mumbled right before vomiting. Her aim was pointed toward some grass bordering a bush on the community director’s front lawn. She cleansed her body of the Passion Fruit Snapple and chocolate donuts, while Kellen grabbed bottled water and napkins to wash her face and hands. He stepped out of the car, and closed his door. He walked to her side and offered her the napkins, but she declined. Holly crossed the street where she washed herself in a small river, gurgling with suburban purity.
I stayed in the passenger seat watching them through the driver’s side rolled up window. My half smoked cigarette left haze lingering in the air. It was precisely 11:17 when Kellen and Holly turned towards the car. There were no remnants of stomach content on her person as the sun reflected off slight ripples treading water downstream. She smiled and shared a thought. Kellen laughed and the sun bounced off the teeth of a disoriented lesbian and a woodman’s seed. I blinked from smoke and the moment was lost. I realized I would never understand that single second of time ever again. I turned on the stereo and resigned myself to the only station it picked up.
Joe tapped me on the shoulder and offered me a gumdrop. He wasn’t making much ground in his masticating mission of two pounds. I declined, never being a fan of sweets.
The radio was blaring the noise of a Caucasian actor trying to sound Hispanic when Holly and Kellen returned to their seats. He was the cabana boy of the Corona Light bungalow, kindly offering Joe and I tips on how to woo women in the battle of love. Holly laughed and said it had never worked for her. I told a Puerto Rican joke involving a skunk and a seagull. At the punch line Kellen gave a hesitant chuckle then checked to see if the radio had any other stations. The miles tumbled under our wheels and I smoked four more cigarettes in silence as the four of us drove 495 North to Newmarket.
We sang to the one frequency the wagon picked up in this area of Massachusetts. Holly informed us she needed to pull over again. And again Kellen complied with strict adherence to the “No vomit in my car” rule. We pulled off the highway into the center of Chelmsford, Massachusetts Memorial Day Festival. A gaggle of mothers and toddlers wandered in midday sun, clutching plastic cups filled with unnaturally blue juice and American flags. Joe inquired if anyone wanted a gumdrop. There was plenty to pass around. We circled the white tents and patriotic marble cakes, searching for a bathroom stall in which Holly could vomit. We found a mom and pop’s gas station and country store. It was across the road from the green fields of the fair. The bathroom was broken, so, Holly stepped behind the building to do her duty.
A child and a mother played underneath a gas pump, looking hopefully at our car, three road trippers quietly sitting, while a fourth dry heaved out of sight. We wouldn’t claw her from this life. She was too far gone with her Capri khakis and short, wavy hair. Her eyes met mine and I lifted my right hand to my mouth. I turned my head and bit the fingernail of my middle finger.
We left the small parking lot and turned around in an abandoned police station. We took one last look at this historic Chelmsford gathering, before running a red light in front of two cops conversing. They missed our crime, distracted by their conversation. We couldn’t find the 495 North on-ramp, so we settled for South and left Chelmsford forever.
Joe and I decided we needed to piss and a rest area lay half a mile ahead. We pulled in and I finished my butt.
I was the last to enter the bathroom and was informed it smelled like a rustic latrine. The tiled floors stretched up the walls stained with unknown substances. It smelled awful. I resolved not to breath, withdrew my genitalia, and began to pee. My eyes stared straight ahead at the names, numbers, and locations for a free blowjob.
I walked out of the bathroom into the sunlight. An elderly man stared at my shirt, then glanced up for our eyes to meet. There was something in his mourning stare that quieted my initial spite, and left me silent for the next twenty minutes of the car ride.
We turned the car back North, and I disagreed with Kellen’s choice of corporately sponsored songs, as was my right for riding the shotgun seat. I offered him a cigarette to make peace. He ripped off the filter, we lit up, and we were cool again. Holly closed her eyes and tried to fall asleep. Kellen, Joe, and I critiqued old and new examples of exaggerated model T’s.
The miles passed by as the road fell behind. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind brushing against our car -pushing against us, slowing us down. I opened my eyes. We were at a gas station. I guessed we were in New Hampshire. I must have fallen asleep. An elderly woman stood beside the driver side window. She yelled at Kellen, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
Kellen laughed. “The Battle Wagon scared her fucking golden retriever. She’s pissed.”
“Where are we?” Holly asked.
“Plaistow,” Joe replied. “Next to Haverhill.”
I looked around. I knew the area. I had spent my teens two towns over. How had I not realized where we were?
The woman pointed frantically toward her car where a big puppy wagged its tail and barked. I wondered what it was saying.
“Let’s go,” I said. “That woman is giving me a head ache.”
“Sure thing,” Kellen said to me. “Fuck off!” he yelled at the woman before he piloted the Battle Wagon out of the gas station. We were thirty minutes away from Newmarket.
I looked at Kellen. “You’d think she would have something more important to do, than yell at us for making a dog bark. I always assumed it was regular occurrence with them.”
Kellen chuckled. “Can I have another smoke? I forgot to grab a pack at the store.”
We drove down the 128 strip of southern New Hampshire. Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, and consignment shops passed on both sides. A club stood up ahead. It was called the White Buffalo and had a rainbow flag out front. Holly stared intently at it as it waved in a slight breeze.
“Pull over!” Holly yelled.
Kellen yanked the wheel hard to the right and we screeched into the White Buffalo parking lot. Holly jumped from the car and ran behind the building.
“I’m going to get some air,” I said and stepped out of the car. Holly’s retching bounced off of the brick wall of the White Buffalo. I waited for her to return to our mobile home. I leaned against the hood of the car. I lit a cigarette.
The sound of puking disappeared. Holly stepped out from behind the building. She was slumped as she walked towards me. I waved her back to the Battle Wagon. We were almost at Joe’s.
“Feel better?” I asked.
“It’s mostly just dry heaving,” she replied. “I think I’m done though. There’s nothing left to throw up.”
Holly looked at the rainbow flag and my gaze followed.
“Fag,” she mumbled to herself, but I heard.
Windshield fluid splashed against my face, putting out my cigarette. I jumped back with a “fuck!” Holly laughed. I wiped the spray of water off of my cheek. We both climbed back into the Battle Wagon. I punched Kellen in the arm. He laughed.
Nestled inside, Joe surrendered the sympathy of a salesman offering Holly a bite of gumdrop to ease her pain. “You’re stomach must be devoid of any sustenance. How about a gumdrop remedy?” Holly accepted and Joe had precisely 1.87 pounds of liquefied sugar left in his cellophane bag.
The radio station cut in with singular clarity, a Memorial Day homage playing a tired veteran’s voice. He explained the strategic positions that claimed the lives of once and never again peaceful civilians. An interviewer interrupted to celebrate the victory achieved on the corpses of millions, the glory haunting a generation’s dreams.
The old warrior wove stories of blood stained hills mixed with mortar blasts. Pure guts and steel balls kept you alive. How it never ended even when the guns had stopped. The screams had not. They echoed for a while in the sound of babies laughing, and families growing with the passing of the years. Everyday was a challenge to be faced. Everyday was new, and throughout it you remembered the sight of a man missing the left side of his face, his dog tags illegible in red mud, his right hand missing the ring and middle finger.
Some days you were lost, no matter where you’d go.
Some days your stomach remembered the smell.
Some days you vomited.
Some days you wished you had died for no reason other than the guilt of having survived.
There was something in the moment when I stubbed out the last cigarette of the drive. When the drug had retreated and conversation had all but died. We never needed to go west to confront our dreams. The world had changed, but it was new to me. For, I have never felt the ground revolving underneath my feet as it pirouettes past stars, meteors, and cars. The earth loping along at a precise twenty-three point ninety-three hours per rotation speed in its infinite stride, enduring traditions and monuments where men failed, leaving banners and expectations hanging above my field. We celebrated all that could be sacrificed by congesting highways in the last week of May to remind ourselves, we’re lucky we are where we are today.
Only, the roads were empty this Memorial Day and all I could think was the fact I had smoked 33 cigarettes and needed to buy a new pack.