A thick sweat droplet rolls down my face, tracing the outline of my nose before falling to the seat cushion between my thighs. As I glance down reflexively to see where it lands I spot the fossilized remnant of a french fry from a half remembered meal. I know what fast food is but cannot visualize it. I don’t remember the last time I stopped anywhere.
The jackass in front of me can’t decide which lane he belongs in. A blast of boiling black fumes issues forth from his tailpipe, and a second later I smell traces of it brought in by the air conditioning. So much for conditioning the air. Doesn’t seem to cool it either, just circulates it around the cramped, sweltering interior of this little steel box.
The humidity consists of mostly other peoples’ sweat. I glisten with it. The windows could be rolled down if not for the black smoke belched in great puffs from the tailpipes of the other cars surrounding us. My wife struggles to move a food tray mounted to the cup holder so she can shift her legs a bit.
I’ve settled in. My body flush with the vinyl seat, conforming so closely to the contours of my back that were I shirtless the heat might’ve fused me to it. A mixture of dust, crumbs and cigarette ashes coats the dash. I remember wiping it away recently but it just keeps settling.
Up ahead I see what looks like an exit. But upon taking it, it’s just another overpass. What are we passing over? All around me are more overpasses. Elevated highways on thick concrete pylons, so numerous and densely packed as to obscure my view, even of the sky. Likewise when I try to peer over the edge, I see only a nest of tangled highway below me.
The only buildings I occasionally see are parking structures. More concrete. Hard edges, rectilinear form baking helplessly in the Summer sun. At least, I think it’s Summer. I don’t recall when I began driving and there’s nothing in the car to indicate what the day or month is. Even my watch seems to have stopped.
I sigh and honk in exasperation. I don’t have time for this. Need to get where I’m going, wherever that is. Seems like I should know that, but my attempts to pin it down are fruitless. Begins to materialize in my mind only to fall apart moments before I see what it is. Everyone in the other cars looks the same. Tense, cramped and impatient. Eyes locked forward, none returning my glances.
Another exit, another overpass with nothing under it but more overpassess. Same as what’s above it. Miserable as it is in this stinking wheeled oven I can’t imagine it’d be better out there on the side of the road. Meat boiling against the asphalt and concrete, lungs filled with black exhaust.
The elevated highways around me shift when I don’t look. It took me a while to notice. More and more as of late. Like serpents. Undulating so slowly that at first I mistook them for stationary. Branching out all around me into fractal infinity. A kaleidoscopic expanse of asphalt, concrete and cars, bumper to bumper with no way out that doesn’t simply lead to more of it.
A food truck pulls up alongside me. Now I remember where the fry came from. Convenient as hell, delivered right to you in traffic, no need to stop. Whatever stop means. I know the words “traffic light” but can’t picture it. I feel like I should’ve seen at least a couple by now.
My wife picks now to tell me she’s pregnant. Spit out my soda all over the dash. Immediately more of the dust and crumb mixture begins to adhere to it. I don’t know if I’m ready to be a Dad. I think I will be once I get where we’re going. I just want the drive to be over with. She says she started thinking about it when we met. Do I remember? Of course I do. We met in this car. She climbed through the open window from the next one over.
I hand her the other soda, then receive the bag of burgers from the man at the window. The bread is like foam. The meat like spiced rubber. It keeps me going, though. That’s the important thing. I’ll never get to where I’m headed otherwise. I hope we’re making good time, then puzzle over what that could’ve meant.
Underpass now. I like tunnels, they’re relaxing. Just a means to an end, though. Then another overpass. Underpass, overpass. Underpass overpass underpass overpass underpass. Can’t wait to get where I’m headed. Finally get out, stretch my legs, take a bathroom break. But where? How could I do all of that outside the car? Would it all be on the road or in another car?
Shifting slightly I felt the toilet seat beneath me and remembered there’s no need to stop for such a thing. All the seats work this way. Every driver, every passenger like the car they travel in. Taking fuel in one end, then releasing exhaust from the other. All to keep going, towards their various destinations in a constantly surging flow of steel on asphalt. I wonder if they know where they’re going. I hope so.
When next I look over, she’s bloated almost beyond recognition. Weakly, she tells me her water’s broke. How long were we in that tunnel? I pull up next to a medical vehicle. Someone at the window helps deliver the baby. Hadn’t even thought of a name yet. Harold I guess. If it doesn’t fit we can pick another when we get where we’re going. Then I can raise him.
I most look forward to being able to sit down and enjoy a full meal. None of this fast food shit. Means to an end. Just to tide me over until I get there. I don’t want to raise the boy on that. It is a boy, it turns out. Gonna make a better life for him than I had, once we get there. Once this ceaseless grind is over. It’s going to be fantastic.
Winter comes. Exhaust soaks into the snow, tarnishing it to a sickly grey. The air is dry and cold, the heater long since broken. The boy’s standing up now, in his mother’s lap. The occasional blast of heat through the cabin is from the exhaust of the car in front of us. Sucking in their leavings to redigest, before passing them on to the poor fellow behind us.
I don’t want little Harold breathing that. It won’t be like this when we get there. It’ll be blue skies, grassy fields and various other words I don’t recall learning and can’t pin to any concrete notion. I’ll figure it out when we arrive. Harold hates the tunnels, they scare him. I sing songs to calm him down. The ride will be over soon, I assure him. Helps to point out the light coming from the other end as we enter.
The relentless are we there yets begin almost as soon as he can speak. Then gradually peter out and stop as he reaches adolescence. Often he'll want to talk about this or that, I tell him it can wait until we get there. I feebly shift gears and overtake the truck ahead of us to avoid some of that exhaust it’s blasting us with. He looks ready.
I begin teaching him how to shift gears at first, just so he can do it for me. Frees up my hand. Then how to take the wheel. That way I can eat with both hands. It really creeps up on you. One day he’s in diapers, the next he’s driving the car with you in the backseat. Suits me fine, more time with the wife.
She’s not doing too hot. I don’t know what I can do but try to get there quicker. Everything will be fine when we get there. No more of this cheap food. No more of these fumes. Everything will be how it ought to. Her eyes light up when I tell her how it’s going to be.
Some time while I was doing that, Harold met Susan. Sweet, respectable looking girl in the next car over. It was hard to see him go, but those two are a matched set. It was like that for me too. Back to the front seat. Really didn’t feel the same without Harold. Now and again I spot his car ahead or behind us in traffic but he’s busy talking with Susan and doesn’t wave back.
No matter, plenty of time to catch up with him when I get there. Underpass, overpass. Another exit. The cars thin out. Heh, everyone in ‘em has grey hair like mine. Hey, here comes something different! At last I’m getting somewhere. Looks like a tunnel ahead. Can’t make anything out inside, no light that I can see.
Wonder how long it is. Hope when I come out the other end I’ll finally be there and this long, agonizing drive will have been worth it. It’ll be nice to get out, lay down on the grass, eat some real food. More than anything, I can’t wait to see Harold again.