Somewhere along the highway that cuts through oblivion, an identical Chevy Bellaire emerges from a distant billowing dust cloud. Its car horn wails: wwwwwhhhhaaaAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHhhhhoooooowwwwwwwwww
as it speeds by, careening back and forth with eastcoast-bound Jack at the wheel, and Albert up front, and Phil sitting full lotus in the back seat and everyone laughing and joking about every haiku they had made up thus far throughout this entire great journey: about the cactuses and the windmills, about the crows and the corn silos, about small Midwestern towns, skinny dogs and fruit stands, and about the myriad other things, both animate and inanimate, that have arisen and blown away behind them somewhere.
Or maybe all of that happened in some parallel universe of the vehicular realm. I don’t know. I was just five at the time and if I was looking out the car window with my eyes wide open it was just to see if there were cowboys and Indians yet. My backseat companion was my sister Cher who was only two, so she doesn’t remember any of it. All I know for sure about happenings going on in the rest of the world was that Kennedy was definitely dead. When that happened, I was on the swingsets behind the apartments and Mom came out crying that they had shot the President and then we saw LBJ get sworn in on our black-and-white in the basement. We sat right in front of the TV for that. This was different because usually I hid behind the laundry hamper with my plastic cap gun so that when stuff got out of hand on Gunsmoke I’d be able to dodge the bullets. When Kennedy died I didn’t squint my eyes at all, but when things got too scary on Gunsmoke, I would squint my eyes almost completely closed so that I could barely see through my eyelashes and that way the people on the TV could barely see me either. That was my way of being invisible. Usually Mom would look up from her ironing or whatever she was doing and say, $#8220;Why are you making that face again?” The day before the trip, Mom gave me a dime and I went to the truck on the corner with my next-door girlfriend Michelle to get a two-stick fudge-sickle and we split it and both our moms tried to explain that we wouldn’t be seeing each other for a long long time.
All of this was after a Saturday leading up to the road trip, when I had been in the front seat with Dad and we went to a gas station and then we went to do errands. As Dad would later say, it was the fault of the gas station attendant who must have not latched the hood after checking the oil. So that when we got back on the highway, a gust of wind snapped back the hood, cracking the front windshield and blocking our view of the road. Dad slammed on the breaks and the hood slammed back down. It was before seatbelts and so I flew forward and smacked my head on the metal dash. I must have fallen on the mat below the glove compartment after that. Dad went out to put down the hood and probably to cuss because back then it was a bad thing to cuss in front of kids. He came back in and said, “Are you okay?” “I’m okay,” I replied, crying a bit. We went home and got ice for the bump on my head. Then we went to a junkyard. There were lots of wrecked cars piled up and next to each other. After some walking, we found a blue Chevy Bellaire just like ours but with the door on the driver’s side all bashed in. There was some dried blood on the car seat. The junkyard man came and marked on the windshield. Then another one came and they took the windshield out of the wrecked car. They glued the windshield into our car and our car was as good as new.
Early before sunrise, Dad packed Cher and me into the Chevy like half-awake luggage. There was a small U-Haul hitched to the back that I secretly watched through barely-open eye, squinting secretly to watch as I pretended that I was invisible. We rolled out of Midland, Michigan, passing by the glowing lights and smokestacks of Dow Chemical Company and then past miles and miles of cornfields shrouded in darkness and we didn’t turn back. We were off for the Rancho Palos Verdes where my Dad and the rest of us had been transferred so that California and the rest of the world would become better places with more plastics and pesticides and napalm and so-forth. But that is another story. After about 4 hours of this journey, it was light out and Cher was carsick, crying and throwing up, and I quickly exhausted all of the games of counting license plates, cows, roadsigns and roadkill until I finally just leaned out the open window enough to watch the highway lines whip by until I felt like barfing also.
I’m not sure if we had any money back then, or if it was just one of my Dad‣s lessons in frugality, but in any case, to save money on hotels, Dad, being a chemical engineer and such, cut a sheet of plywood to fit in the back seat with two two-by-four legs on door-hinges to support it so that there was a flat surface running all the way from the crack in the back seat to the back of the front seat. Then he cut a sheet of 3-inch foam rubber to fit the whole thing and wrapped it in bed-sheets. It was a good idea in principle, he just didn’t account for the fact that the trip was a week long and the port-a-bed that he had fashioned had no place where we could put our feet down. So, Mom and Dad took turns driving and sleeping in front. In the back, Cher and I had to either lie down or sit cross-legged the whole way. And I couldn’t lie down without being on her half of the seat and she couldn’t lie down without being on my half of the seat. I kept whining that Cher was touching me with her foot until Dad, not even slowing the car, just reached back with his right hand and whacked me hard. After that there was just a lot of sitting involved. The car was hot ’ the closest thing to air conditioning was that little triangular window in the front door that would create a wind current when opened. After a couple of days Cher had a fever and would sit in Mom’s lap up front while Mom would wipe her face with a damp washcloth.
We ate sack lunches for the first couple of days, and Mom and Dad would take turns driving. They were kept in a Styrofoam cooler with ice in the front seat underneath Mom’s legs. The sack lunches consisted of butter and strawberry jam sandwiches which were somewhat soggy-red from the jam and kind of wadded up from being in the grocery bag for so long. There were also carrot sticks which tasted a bit like earth and a bit like wood. Also, there were Fig Newtons which were slightly bent and crumbly which were the only thing sweet we had, because Dad didn’t allow us to eat sugar because sugar rots your teeth out, but somehow Fig Newtons were okay in his book. And finally all of that food ran out, and I was jumping up and down happy when we pulled into a real McDonalds, arches and all. I ordered a hamburger there along with french-fries and a milkshake. Dad asked for an extra paper cup, guzzled off the top part of my shake then poured half of the remainder into the extra cup for my sister. Next he ripped my hamburger in half and gave half of the squashed bun and ketchup-and-mustard-bleeding-burger to Mom to help Cher eat. Mom and Dad got their own burgers but I didn’t say anything about my burger. I was just grateful, I think, that I got all of the pickle slice. I do remember thinking, though, that my vanilla shake would have tasted better if it didn’t have Dad’s saliva in it.
Once we reached a railroad crossing where the big wooden arms painted like candy canes came down between our car and the passing freight train. I counted the cars as high as I could count, and finally waved to the engineer who waved back from the yellow caboose. After that, there was some kind of malfunction that made the red lights stay on and the arms stay down. Soon there were many cars lined up behind ours. Cher sat in Mom’s lap as the car got hotter and hotter. I sat in the back seat and we waited for the crossing arms to move for multiple five-year-old-kalpas of time. I’ve learned subsequently that sometimes families in similar situations do strange things like sing Broadway Musicals, play word games, share riddles and such. Not us. When the car was moving, Mom might say something like, “sit still and be very quiet, your Dad is busy driving.” But, in this case, we weren’t moving at all. We just sat there with our mouths closed, breathing hot summer asphalt-air through our nostrils. Suddenly the gate started going ding-ding-ding. It raised up, clearing our way. We continued on in tired silence.
The great promise that Mom made to me was that after a few days we would be in the desert and would be able to see cactuses with arms on them, and tumbleweeds, and real cowboys and Indians. At one point I thought that if I was really lucky, the Indians would block the road with their horses, and after a brief shootout, they would snatch me from out of the car window, and carry me off on horseback to their camp where they would raise me on beef jerky and fishheads and other food left over from feeding their pet coyotes. Unfortunately, things didn’t go that well. There were some little cactuses and blue sky and lots of dust and it was mostly just really boring.
Inevitably our trusty Chevy Bellaire started to overheat from towing the U-Haul across the desert. So my Dad pulled off at a gas station. I got out of the car with him, standing by as he opened the hood of the car and found a red oily rag for removing the cap from the radiator. Somehow I too was equipped with a rag in my hand to help out. As he turned the cap, a blast of steam and blackened water sprayed out. I was hit with the scalding steam in my eyes and on my face. Things went blurry, and I remember Dad, being trained in industrial accidents and such, calmly and resolutely grabbed me, wiped my stinging face with his oily rag, grabbed a hose and held my head down to run cold water over my eyes. “Are you okay,” he said. “Yeah,” I whimpered. Once back inside the car, Mom found me a clean tee-shirt and wrapped a wet towel around my head. She gave me a few half-melted ice cubes from the cooler to hold on my face. We continued down the road. After several hours I took the towel off. Things were okay, kind of.
On the final day of our trip we got out of the car at a rest stop. It was a barren place in the middle of nowhere and I was standing by a barbed-wire fence waiting while Mom changed Cher’s diapers, when I realized there was a giant bird staring at me. I called Dad who looked at it and told me it was a peacock that must have gotten loose from a peacock farm. It looked kind of gray and scraggly, with no tail feathers left to speak of. Mom and Dad chased it down and put it in a pillow case. For the final afternoon and evening of our journey, I rode sitting cross-legged with a peacock in a pillowcase in my lap. It was really too big for the pillow case, so I kept the pillowcase over its head. Mom said to hold it that way so that it would think that it was night time. Every once and awhile it would move around and peck at my hand through the pillowcase. I was thinking that perhaps around the next turn, we would come to a sudden stop with Marshal Dillon aiming his rifle straight at me. “Get out of that car with your hands up,” he would shout, mounted on his horse squarely planted in the middle of the road. I would then be arrested, hog-tied, and lashed to a saddle, to be carried off to one of those wild-west jails for the crime of peacock-rustling. This would not be the last time in my childhood that I would worry about getting arrested for something Dad had just done.
It was dark, and late at night, when we got to our new house in Rancho Palos Verdes. The movers had already arrived, and there were boxes everywhere. We let the peacock out on the porch and slept on mattresses on the floor. On our first morning in California, we ate cereal for breakfast. A high-school-age boy from next door came to our house and said hello. He wanted to know if the noisy peacock on their rooftop that woke them up at sunrise might belong to us. After that Dad went off to work. Cher slept in her bed. My bed wasn’t set up yet but I had a room and this was California now and I just sat on my mattress in my room and the mattress still moved gently beneath me like there were wheels underneath rolling over a long highway.
Somewhere along the highway that cuts through oblivion, an identical Chevy Bellaire emerges from a distant billowing dust cloud.
“Phil. Hey,Phil. Wake up,” Albert says, leaning back from the front passenger seat.
“What?...What time is it? What is this? Ohh, looks like Ohio or something” says Phil, yawning.
“Look, up in front of us,” says Albert.
“What are the chances,” says Jack as he hits the gas. “Not even in a million kotis of kalpas.”
As the car accelerates, he suddenly lays on the horn:
The twin Chevy Bellaires rocket towards each other on the empty highway. For an instant panicked faces glance through tempered glass windows, and then suddenly they are no longer driving towards each other but are driving in opposite directions, and they are growing smaller and smaller to each other until each car is no longer perceptible to the other.
“Why’d you do that?” Albert says.
“Sorry, just got kind of carried away. Thought maybe it was us in that car and if I got our attention, we would look up and see that it was us and then we would see ourselves as we are.”
“It wasn’t us, though,” says Phil. “You see that kid hanging out the window. You scared him to death.”
“Nahh,” says Albert. “I saw his face. Hardly noticed. His mind was somewhere else.”
“We are all someplace else in our minds,” says Jack behind the wheel. “ If we were really awake we would see that our present abiding place is right here in this golden sublime realm of cornfield garlands: our vehicle, the adamintine Chevrolet Bellaire color of lapis lazuli, that has transported us all this way moving on the wings of four hundred garudas through all the six realms and ten directions, its chrome trim and majestic tail fins have cut through delusion like thunderbolt vajras, its wheels and hubcaps are the true wheels of dharma, continually spinning and yet instantaneously motionless, the very wind that blows off the very Mount Meru wafts in though its rolled-down windows, its engine hums the song of retinues of lute-strumming gandharvas vocalizing the songs of as many universes as there are grains of corn pollen blowing about in this Midwestern moment of crisp morning air. ”
“Please, I need a coffee,” says Phil. “Let’s stop somewhere. And I can drive a bit, after that.”
About Glen Snyder