A Jello Horse
be absent from the wheeling world?
It is an education!…”
—Alan Dugan, “American Against Solitude”
“I’ve made mistakes that I’m sure I’ll make again,
Guess I liked them enough the first time around”
—Mark Arm, Mudhoney, “Good Enough”
You know what it seemed like to you? It seemed like (to you) that she made you a better person.
And then she left, and it seemed like (to you) the only thing that really made any sense at all is if you decided to go back to doing what you were doing before her. It seemed like (to you) that the best thing would be to just go ahead and let yourself go back to getting worse.
Sure. That’s exactly what it seemed like. (To you.)
That was not so very long ago. Now what?
This is what it’s like when you’re little:
When you’re little, you lie in bed and look out the window. Your room is on the second floor of your house. The ceiling is speckled with plaster bumps, and when you have a fever, the speckles gather into faces, because when the mind is disoriented, it orients itself with familiar things, and faces are the first things the mind works to recognize. Faces are the first thing it learns to gather together—in a bundle of eyes and a nose and a mouth. A face.
Because of the angle, when you’re in bed and you look out the window, you can’t see the ground. All you see is the tree line, and the ground is invisible, and probably doesn’t exist at all, just the tree trunks reaching all the way down forever. Out there, in the falling forward world, in the rotating something the animals gather.
They are huge.
They are animals of enormous, impossible sizes.
They move at night only.
There is a bear. The bear is Russian and it swam across the Pacific Ocean, and walked across the country to Kansas City, Kansas to live outside your window. You have named the bear Boris, because that is the first Russian name that you can think of.
There is a caribou. It is from Canada, and it walks by your window sometimes, and it makes thundering smacking noises with its mouth. You call the caribou Mick, but you can’t remember why.
There is a snake, but you do not know what kind, and you will not name it. You refuse to name it. You never see the snake, only evidence of the snake. You see the trees move, and you hear a sound, a long, echoed hiss that rises up from below the window. You never see the snake, and on the nights when you believe in God, and you hear the hiss, you thank the God that you believe in that night for not making you have to see the snake, whatever kind of snake it is. It is like when people say that thing about God never giving people more than they can handle. Because you know that you couldn’t handle seeing the snake. You can only handle hearing it. You can barely handle hearing it.
There is, finally, a lion. The lion is from Africa, and it also swam across the ocean, and decided to live in Kansas, below your bedroom window. You can hear the lion, and you can sometimes see the lion. Sometimes in the hour before you wake up, the lion will sit down beside the house, and lean against it. You feel the house move and you hear wood creak. And then the lion lets out a sigh, and his lungs deflate, and the house creaks back to where it was. The lion sleeps next to the house, and disappears, sinks into the real world, when you wake up.
Then there is a morning, an early, early morning where there is light but no sun, because the sun is just about to climb over the horizon. So there is just this eggshell colored light over the world. And the lion is walking around, stumbling kind of. Making little mhuh noises. Stepping this way and that. And then the lion—who you’ve named Richard because Richard is the name of a king—and then the lion gets too close to the house.
His great paw crashes through the ceiling. His great paw smashes through the floor. The hair is gold and smells like dirt. The paw sits for a moment as the lion gets his balance. His muzzle is at the window. A black lip is the hem of his mouth, and it is moist. You touch his leg and it is soft. The hairs are as thick as gym class climbing ropes. The leg stirs, the paw begins to pull up, and you grab hold of two of the hairs. You hug as close as you can to the leg of the lion, and the lion pulls you up and out of the house.
There is just enough room for you to squeeze through the ceiling without getting hurt as the lion jerks its paw out. Through the roof, to the open air above the house where the lion stands, its paw raised, and then you’re out in the sky, being pulled up, clinging to the lion’s paw, rising up over the house, hanging on to the rope-like hairs that swing you back and forth, over the house, over the yard, over the trees, and the clay bank behind the house that drops to the little creek where you and your friends play sometimes, the creek that you and your friends walk along, that leads to the ball field behind the elementary school. The lion stands and shakes its paw. And you hold on.
There’s your house and the bank and the creek and the trees and the world below, and the lion above with its shuddering mane.
LEM is in the passenger seat, rolling a joint over an engineer’s cap. He has sideburns cut into lightning bolts.
When he went to Prague last Christmas, a man touched his sideburns with the back of his hand and said the Czech word for artist. Umělec, he said. LEM smiled, and nodded, and said—in English—yes, artist, and they drank shots of a peppermint-flavored liquor. This is what LEM told you about his trip to Prague.
LEM rolls the joint over the hat to catch any of the bits of the bud that might fall out of the paper. LEM does this because LEM does not like to waste anything. LEM is not cheap—LEM is frugal.
You are driving, and it’s dark. The headlights of oncoming cars stretch like crosses, and you think maybe DEV is crying, and you hate driving at night because it’s sometimes like you can’t see from the lights, the blurry oncoming crosses, in your eyes. MEG is next to DEV, her hand is out and on DEV’s knee, rubbing back and forth.
LEM and DEV are very old friends, and MEG is DEV’s girlfriend. You have known them for a little less than a year, but anyway you told them that you would drive them to the funeral because they are good people and you like them. Some time ago—like when you’d moved to this new town, the one you now live in—you were alone and they saw you and said, You, you are okay, and we’d like you to be one of us. Come along. And you said Sure thing, and went along with them. And it was a good idea.
So anyway, one night you are on a date, and you and your date get home from a movie, and you are sitting on the couch with your date and with MEG (you live with DEV), and the three of you are drinking some of DEV’s bourbon with some of DEV’s Coke, watching maybe the news.
This was a good date: she has a very soft, gentle face, eyes slightly drooping behind her glasses, and a ring through her lip.
She is a singer, and when it all fades out—that is, when you stop seeing one another—she will write a song about you that you will never hear. You will pretend, though, that it is a nice song, even as you will always suspect that it is actually a song that says terrible things about you. That’s why you will never listen to it. You know that you deserve this song that says bad things about you, so you will avoid it to live with the possibility that it is a nice song.
This is how you get by.
You are maybe watching the news when DEV gets home—he has been at a party, and someone has tracked him down. That someone is a friend of DEV’s younger brother. DEV walks in and you tell him that you had a call this morning from a friend of DEV’s brother, and that friend said that even though he had called DEV to tell him his brother was missing, he had since found DEV’s brother’s car, and decided that he was just sleeping a drunk off in his apartment, and that DEV should not worry about it anymore. DEV asks when the call came, and you tell him, and you introduce him to your date, and DEV has a frozen look on his face. It occurs to you that DEV’s face has not changed since he came in. He has a look on his face that looks like a smile, in that everything seems to be pulled up, but it’s not a smile at all. His eyes are not smiling, only his mouth is up, and his teeth are showing.
He waves at your date, and says Can I see the two of you? And asks the two of you to come out in the hall. He means just you and MEG, not you and your date.
So you get up and tell your date that you’ll be right back. You and MEG go out in the hall, and DEV says, No, my brother is not all right. He’s dead. You were relaying a message, and of course didn’t have any way of knowing that the content of that message had been so horribly, completely wrong when compared to the real reality of life, and really shouldn’t have any reason to let the fact that you relayed that message—because it was all you knew, and how could you have known better—make you feel crushed under guilt, heavy, lousy, awful fucking guilt, but you do.
And there’s that and what is there to do about it?
You walk your date home, and on the way you stop for a drink at a bar, and you try to explain what has happened, and apologize as if in some way this was a misstep in your preparation for the date. And gosh if not for this you had a great time. And you say you’d like to go out again, and she seems okay with that. You even kiss her goodnight when you walk her to her door, and then you walk back to the apartment.
You walk back knowing that you are relieved of the pressure of having to go through the details of your date when you get home. You walk back home knowing that you are going back home to people with things other than your date on their minds.
Everyone is there. All of DEV’s friends are there. LEM is there, and he is sitting on the floor next to DEV. DEV is on the couch, drinking his bourbon. Someone has gone out to get more bottles of bourbon, because the liquor stores stop selling at 1am and it’s nearly 1am. DEV is sitting with MEG, and in the short amount of time since you left to walk your date home, DEV has had enough to drink that his head is bobbling, and he blinks in slow motion.
The apartment is filled with Kansas creepers, guys with greased-back, pompadoured haircuts and white, sleeveless A-shirts. Guys with hearts and girls and snakes and skulls tattooed on their arms. Guys in Mexican wedding shirts, with girlfriends who have bangs and blood red lips. Guys with dogs named Roscoe or Oscar. Guys who play stand up basses and harmonicas. Guys who scrap and drink Red White and Blue beer.
They surround DEV because DEV is that kind of guy, too. DEV is sitting, red-eyed and holding MEG’s hand in his lap. They are listening to the band Traffic, the song “Feelin’ Alright,” which has the line, not feeling too good myself in the chorus. And no one is feeling good. People are rolling cigarettes and smoking them, and you quit, but you have one, too.
It’s good to sit and have a cigarette, to inhale and exhale at regular intervals and to have something to do with your hands when all around are people wondering what to do with their hands, and wishing they could figure out just how to breathe in a regular fashion, because DEV is sucking the breath out of them whenever they look over and see him. DEV is the only one breathing and the people in the room just carry his oxygen around for him when he is not using it. You and everyone in the room are the red blood cells to DEV, the organ of grief.
And that’s how that night goes.
The song plays over and over, and you smoke a lot of cigarettes. DEV can’t pass out, no matter how much he drinks. He just keeps going. He stops processing the thing that has happened, and the room takes over his brain for him. The room thinks about it for him. He has moved beyond thought, and into the room, and you and the room are his hive mind, his hive mind in utter grief, his hands grabbing him another drink, his eyes filled with tears, his ears hearing the song, and the things that people say to him. You and the room function for DEV because he is beyond it—beyond all the functioning.
The next day, DEV will come back to himself, and a part of him will allow him to start making plans, like, Hey, my car is not that reliable so I was wondering if I could borrow yours, he’ll say to you.
And you say, Hell, why don’t you let me drive. I won’t get in the way. I just want to help out however I can.
That’s what you say because that’s the way you figure it.
And that’s what you do and that’s why LEM is rolling a joint, and DEV is in the back seat, and MEG is next to him rubbing his knee, and you are driving a car late at night on the way to Nebraska—of all places, Nebraska.
Jesus fuck, Nebraska.
You will never, ever be in a sadder state in these United States than the state of Nebraska. You don’t once stop to eat, but you stop for gas when you need it, and once you stop at a motel to consider staying, because on the radio, it says a bad storm is coming up.
It’s night. You stop, and MEG and DEV stand under the lights, near a soda machine and wrestle. You are taking pictures. You take a lot of pictures in the car by holding up the camera and pointing in the general direction of the people in the car and hitting the button, all with your right hand while your left hand steers and your eyes watch the road.
Now you take a photo of them wrestling.
This feels just like a regular road trip.
You’ve taken a lot of road trips, most by yourself, some with friends, and this just feels like a road trip like any other. Like you’re going out to see a roadside attraction. Like you’re not going to a funeral.
You walk away from DEV and MEG and LEM, and you decide to see if you can take pictures of the sky. You hope if you hold very still, and point straight up, and let the aperture of the camera stay open as long as it can while you are holding it very, very still, you might get a picture of lightning.
There is an electrical storm above you.
The sky is flickering and flashing and lightning bolts look like rips in the sky.
Like spider web fractures in glass on a windshield that has just had a brick tossed into it, only in reverse.
You stop at the motel sign, and lean on it to keep yourself steady. You take a couple of shots, and then DEV is next to you saying, You know, if that sign gets hit by lightning, it will kill you. This is not a good place to stand, he says.
You realize he is right, and you go back to the others at the car.
The last time you took a road trip by yourself, at least a year before this trip with DEV and MEG and LEM, they came back.
You were in a motel. You were in one of those motels on the outskirts of a mid-sized Midwestern city.
There is a ring of buildings and businesses around every mid-sized Midwestern city that you have been to and through, and that ring is exactly the same every time. The same motels. The same fast food places. The same chain stores. Madison, and Lawrence, and DeKalb, and Omaha, and Green Bay, and Columbia, and on and on and on. All the same. It’s like a moat.
When you get into these cities, you are tired, and you don’t have a lot of money, so you stay in the same motels, and you eat at the same fast food places, because you don’t have the money or the time to dig yourself farther into the city where life is more interesting, and more expensive, and the food is better.
The last time you took a road trip by yourself you got a no smoking room with cable TV, and you walked to a fast food place for a cheeseburger and a soda. It was the closest place to you, the one you could walk to, good because you couldn’t face driving any more.
When you got back to the room, you turned on the TV and took off your pants, and climbed under the thin motel blanket. You flipped through the channels searching for the public access station, because you had decided that if you were not ever going to be able to spend more than a few hours in these places, you would at least get a sense of them by finding out what the cities’ eccentrics were like.
You flipped around until you could find a station with a man standing in front of a single camera, or sitting on a stool, with a white or black backdrop, or a green screen- projected image of some sort (like, maybe his house or maybe his kids), or no backdrop at all. You flipped until you found someone talking in very serious or angry tones about the way he or she—though, it is usually a he—was treated at the last city council meeting when he or she—but, really, almost always he—tried to discuss the placement of a much needed stop sign, or a tree in a neighbors yard that needed to be dealt with, or a tree in their own yard that they didn’t think the city had any right to deal with, or something like that. You flipped until you found that person on TV holding up a tinfoil model of the thing that they’d seen in the sky just the week before. You flipped until you found the person who was talking about the secret history of the city’s police department. You flipped until you found the person talking about how they were being kept away from their kids after the divorce, and how they loved them and tried hard to keep up with the support payments, but were only human, could only do so much, had as many jobs as they could possibly have, and they just wanted to spend the weekend with their kids.
You flipped and looked for these people because you liked these people.
The terrible motels and terrible fast food places were the same everywhere—and the people on public access were the same, too, but not precisely. The fast food places were chilling with repetition. The people were warming because of their familiarity. You watched them, and felt a little better.
You had a flask with you, borrowed from a roommate. You had filled it with bourbon, and you were adding the bourbon to the coke you bought at the fast food place. You pulled the lid from the fast food cup, and poured some of it into the plastic cup from the motel room, and you let some of the ice fall in, too. You poured bourbon into the plastic cup, and drank it.
The flask had not been cleaned out in a while and something had gone stale and sour in it. The bourbon and cokes tasted like pine needles and moss—semi-flat coke and lousy cheap bourbon and strong, green soil—but you drank it all, and watched the public access TV until it was very, very late.
The show on the public access channel turned into a show about marijuana laws in the state of Wisconsin, and two guys smoked a joint on camera to test censorship. They went to headshops and talked to people who had cancer, and your mouth tasted terrible after you finished all the bourbon.
You brushed your teeth but couldn’t get the taste out entirely. You thought it might be nice to have a joint, to open the window, turn on the air conditioner, smoke the joint and blow the smoke out the window, but instead you waited to fall asleep.
It began to rain and then they came back.
You felt the ground shudder, and you crawled over to the window, still wrapped in the thin motel blanket. It was a brown, vegetal print of some sort. A plant that doesn’t exist in nature, but exists on motel bedrooms everywhere.
You kept the blanket wrapped around you, wore it over your head in a shroud-like fashion and crawled to the window. It was raining and the rain pattered against the window. You crawled over, staying as low to the carpet as you could. You peeled the curtain back from a bottom corner of the window and pulled the shroud up over your eyes. You were on the second floor, looking over the parking lot, the lights of the parking lot were bright, and there were drops of water skimming down the window.
Out past the parking lot, a herd, a herd of giant antelope were grazing on the buildings of the city. They were chewing roofs, and walking slowly north to south. They were devastating the city, eating all the tallest buildings, and then bowing low to grab at chimneys on the houses.
The antelope were devouring Madison. The antelope were back. August, and William. Rupert and King Nolan. The little ones and the big. The royal court of ungulates.They were devouring little Madison.
You were in Madison. You were in Madison, Wisconsin.
You were in Madison and they were back, and one walked right next to the window. You hoped he wouldn’t step on your car, because you had a long drive ahead of you. The antelope bowed its head down to your window, and it looked in, and it exhaled a long breath that turned the window opaque with fog.
Raindrops cut through the fog on the window, like rivers on maps, like highways on maps. You stared out the window, watching the fog on the window disappear, watching the antelope devour Madison, and then you went to sleep right there on the floor, next to the window, with the corner of the curtain peeled back.
What occurs to you at the house party in Nebraska is that you have never seen this many people who are this young this drunk. It is hard to watch.
DEV’s brother was only 20 years old, and all his friends are about the same age. There are lots of people walking around, and they are all around 20 years of age, and they are drunker than you have ever seen this many people this age be. You hope very much that DEV and LEM will talk to all the friends, and realize that they are out of things to say and want to go home.
This house in Nebraska is completely trashed. People have been in this house drinking and crying for days.
It has not stopped for days.
The police have arrived only once, and someone told them that the people at the house were all friends of a boy in his 20s who had taken his own life, and the police put an invisible barrier around the house. The barrier said: there are no noise laws here for a few days. There is no drinking age in this house. This house is a pirate ship in international waters. It is gone. It has disappeared.
It is like that, the barrier said, until maybe Friday.
After that, we will come back, and you will be ours again, kids. But for now, this house is yours.
This is the gift given to the people of the house by the police.
Upstairs, one of the housemates has a pinball machine. DEV finds the pinball machine, and goes to get you. He brings you upstairs to the pinball machine, and drops you off with the housemate. DEV is like your mother, leaving you at the arcade with a five dollar bill, so she can go buy shoes from a shoe store in the mall.
The housemate says that cable television costs a person $30 a month. Renting a pinball machine costs him $20. He gets to choose a new machine every month.
This month, it is Attack From Mars, which has a long open center up the playfield—no bumpers. Ramps, targets, and kickers are all on the sides. It is one of your favorite machines.
You don’t play pinball with just your fingers like a person who doesn’t play much pinball. You use your body. You have played a lot of pinball. When you play, you stand on your right foot, which you plant against the machine’s front right leg. You rarely set your left foot down, and you spin at your hips. The raised leg adds a little extra torque to your body when you give the machine your hip. You are very careful not to slam tilt the machine with a hard check to the front panel. You hit with force and finesse. You modulate the pressure. You balance between violence and consolation.
You dated a girl who liked to stand behind you when you played pinball. She held on to your hips and pressed herself against your back. You didn’t ever dance with her, but you played pinball and she held you and it was kind of like dancing. If you hip-checked the machine and she got bumped, you apologized and she told you you didn’t need to apologize. She told you to pretend she was not even there.
You play pinball with the housemate, and you remain stone sober because you are the one who is driving everybody home when they want to leave the house party.
You and the housemate talk about roadside attractions. You mention something you’ve read about, a place called Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska, where a man has taken old cars and built his own version of Stonehenge with them. Yeah, built the housemate says. You don’t understand the way he inflected the word built, so you ask him what he meant. In Toadstool Geologic Park, says the housemate, they have a naturally occurring Carhenge. That guy stole the idea, the housemate says, from a real thing. You ask him what in the hell he is talking about, naturally occurring. A tornado, the housemate says, one of those big, big ones hit a junkyard in Omaha, and carried a bunch of fucking cars across the state, threw them up into the jet stream and they booked across the state, and landed in Toadstool in the shape of Stonehenge.
I shit you not, the housemate says.
It is absolutely fucking true, the housemate says.
Then the housemate says, did you know that trailer parks are hit so often by tornadoes because of the shape? The way they are set up? I went to a math camp in high school, and this engineering teacher told me that tornadoes hit trailer parks because of the way they are set up. It attracts them. Scientists know how to prevent that from happening, the housemate says. That’s why tornadoes don’t ever hit airports, because scientists have told the people who design airports how to build them so they don’t attract tornadoes.
You half listen, but mostly you hit corner shots, and trap the silver balls on your flippers during multi-balls, hit the Martians when your told, and fire shots right up the center at the plastic UFO to blow the Martian’s out of the sky when they attack.
The pinball keeps you occupied until DEV and MEG and LEM find you and say that they need to go, because they have to get up early the next day. It is 3am. You have been sleeping on couches and trying to stay out of people’s hair. You are a chauffeur.
Whenever possible, you find this other friend of DEV’s, TAD, and you talk to him. (He is a she, but she lives mostly as a he. So you call she he.) TAD is there for support, but also on the outside like you.
TAD will be important later.
DEV is ready to go home, so you walk with DEV and MEG and LEM to the car. You get the doors for them, getting into the car last. You make sure everyone has on a seatbelt, but don’t say anything when you notice DEV doesn’t have his on. You are driving and LEM is in the passenger seat, and MEG is in the back with DEV, and it seems that the four of you have silently decided upon assigned seating in your car for this trip to Nebraska.
MEG is quiet, and DEV is talking to LEM. They have, just before they left the party, talked to the friend.
The one who found DEV’s brother.
They are talking about how grateful they are to him for talking to them. They are talking about how God damned angry they are at DEV’s brother. They are joking about how fucking angry they are at DEV’s brother. They are sort of laughing.
And then, as you drive DEV and everyone back to the house where you four are staying, a route that in a very short time you seem to have memorized, as you listen to some old blues tape on the car stereo, you hear everyone stop laughing, and stop being angry, and stop being grateful, and you try not to listen, but you can’t help but listen as your friend DEV rips right in half.
You have never heard anything like it.
DEV rips in half and both halves slump over the back seat. You pull the car over to the side of the road. You wait. LEM gets out and gets into the backseat with DEV and MEG. They curl up together. They surround DEV entirely. DEV is in pieces.
He says the saddest thing you have ever heard anybody say in your entire life. DEV says I’ll never be able to call him up and recommend a movie to him ever again.
How is it possible? How is it possible that this is the saddest thing you have ever heard anyone say? You don’t know, really. You just know that it is.
In high school you had a friend who decided the very first time he was ever going to take acid was the day of his Geometry final. So he dropped acid on his way to school, and you didn’t see him again until lunch. When you saw him, you asked him how he was doing. He said he was fine, except that he was a jello horse. You weren’t sure what he said, so you asked if he could say it again. He said he was just fine, excepting that he was a jello horse.
And then he went to his test.
You thought about what he had said, and then it made sense. He was hitched up to the world, and pulling it along, but the whole trip was shaky and unsteady. Not so safe.
This was not a hallucination. It was one of those moments when the world went naked.
You waited a long time and then tried acid, too, but for you, there was only this need to collapse completely in on yourself, this ice cube in your belly that sent out wave after wave of happy anxiety that settled in your teeth. He found something you didn’t in a tab of acid. He learned something he was able to share.
You just found another reason to become the pioneers around the fire in a circle of wagons.
You tell TAD first: that you have noticed a bump of thicker skin or something in your pubic hair. You are not sure why TAD is the one to tell, but TAD is the one you tell, and TAD says that you were right and he was the one to tell.
TAD makes an excuse—tells everyone that he needs to see a doctor and that you are being nice enough to keep him company—and the two of you go to a clinic to see a doctor.
There is a viewing later that day, and you promise to meet everyone there. On the drive to the clinic, TAD tells you stories to keep you from worrying about the bump. He tells you that his father was a con man and that his children were to always tell people who called that Daddy has been gone for a long time and we haven’t seen him. And if they could, they were supposed to sound like they were about to cry.
TAD tells you that his father had a rule, that everyone had to have as much stuff as could fit into seven boxes and no more. That way they could pack quickly.
TAD still only ever has enough stuff to fill seven boxes and no more, no matter where he lives, no matter what his circumstance. He stuck with that.
TAD waits with you in the lobby of the clinic, and you tell him about the date you went on, and tell him the name of your date and find out the date (you remember the date? From before all of this funeral business?) used to live with TAD’s girlfriend—and it is a small, small world, isn’t it?
TAD says that she seems like an okay person to date, this person you went out with.
You read waiting room celebrity magazines with TAD and wait for a nurse to call you in to see the doctor. You learn from those magazines that fame is really a mixed bag. And you notice that the bump in your crotch is sort of itchy. You are called into an office, and go through the usual doctor’s office stuff, where your blood pressure is checked, and your temperature is taken, and they check your height and weight.
You have gained some weight. You were once very thin, but now your body is filling out. There is a little belly that hangs in front of you, and you’ve noticed that you like having it more than you liked being thin. Weight reminds you that you are older, and things are progressing like they should. And death is making its slow walk in your direction.
The nurse leaves, and you sit and wonder about the bump. You have your suspicions. The doctor comes in and you tell him about the bump, and then you show him the bump. He tells you what you think he is going to tell you. It is a wart.
It’s common, he says.
It’s a cause of cancer in women, he does not tell you.
You ask him, though. Sometimes, he says. Sometimes it is a cause of cancer in women. (You have, secretly, read up on bumps in pubic hair.)
You are now a carcinogen. Like cigarettes.
We’ll just burn this off, he says, and he swabs the bump with something on the end of a long cotton swab.
Wash that off in an hour or so, he says.
That’s pretty much all we can do, he says, though, really, he did all the work. It’s nice of him to include you, isn’t it?
Just wear a condom.
The virus pretty much stays with you for the rest of your life, he says.
Thanks, you say, and then you faint.
When you wake up, he asks if that—if the fainting—happens a lot. Only sometimes, you tell him. Huh, says the doctor. You maybe should have that checked out, says the doctor. Could be dangerous if you are driving, maybe.
You thank him, and you go out to find TAD. You tell TAD that you are a carcinogen to women from this moment on, and TAD says he doesn’t like boys, so everything should be fine for him.
I suppose, he says, that if you are going to have one, that a wart is probably the best sexually transmitted disease to have.
Actually, maybe crabs, he says. Crabs might be better. You can comb those out.
And then you and TAD drive to the viewing of the body of your friend’s younger brother. The body is in the church, in an open casket, and people are gathered in the narthex waiting. There is music playing in the church, a mixed tape of blues and rock and roll songs that DEV’s brother loved. There are photos of DEV’s brother and his friends, smiling, or walking, or being.
There is a photo that MEG took of DEV and DEV’s brother and LEM walking up an alley. It is from behind, black and white, and blown up. It was taken only a few months ago when DEV’s brother was visiting. You were working that day, otherwise you might have accidentally been in this photo as well, ruining it compositionally and metaphorically.
You met DEV’s brother on that visit, and had understood from DEV that he was given to depression. You are given to depression, too. But you know that you push through, that everyone can push through, and that knowing about the pushing through aspect of depression makes it easier to be the sort of person given to depression.
You look at the photo and think you should have told DEV’s brother that, but.
But then you remember that you are driving people around this week, not saving people, and who the hell are you that you think you can save anyone anyway.
DEV walks over to you and asks if you want to go and see the body with him. You have wanted to, but have not felt right about wanting to. You worry that walking up to see the body would seem like the product of nothing but morbid curiosity. But DEV comes up to you and asks you to go and see it with him. DEV extends an invitation to you, like he wants to reintroduce you to his baby brother, since the two of you only met briefly a few months earlier.
DEV walks you up the aisle of the church, like a father giving away his daughter. You feel like he is giving you away to his baby brother, and think about a flower girl. When you think about the flower girl, it occurs to you as something funny, and you hate yourself for inadvertently diminishing the situation you are in by considering a funny possibility.
You banish all thought from your mind and try hard to be simply a body without a mind. You try to make a one-celled organism of yourself, to only receive stimuli and react to it, not consider the implications of the stimuli or use the consideration of the implications of stimuli as a jumping off point to higher cognitive functions that might somehow lead to laughter.
DEV leads you to the casket, and his brother is there, very pale, very still. You look at him, and listen to the music that is playing. They have added the theme to DEV’s brother’s favorite show to the funeral home mixed tape.
The theme from The Simpsons is playing.
If you let it sit there for more than an hour, said the doctor, it’ll really start to burn. It has been over an hour, you realize, and the spot in your lap where the wart was is right now at this moment, standing next to DEV, in front of DEV’s brother, in a church—that spot is just now starting to burn like a son of a bitch.
It no longer itches, or even smolders. It just hurts.
You take a moment, and you put your hand on DEV’s shoulder, and you walk back down the aisle. There are people who have taken seats in the pews, praying and crying. These are the people who you have seen coming in and out of DEV’s parents’ house.
These are the people who bring things.
There are three things you bring to people when they have lost someone unexpectedly. You bring them tissues, and you bring them toilet paper, and you bring them food. The families will need the first thing quite a lot. They will need the second thing not as much but still some. They will not need the third thing at all for themselves, but there will be lots of people coming over.
These people in the pews are the ones who go to the grocery stores and buy trays of ham and chicken and roast beef sandwiches, and toilet paper in bulk.
You can’t walk quickly down the aisle in front of these people. You must walk slowly. No matter how much it hurts.
You go to the bathroom, and you lock the door behind you, and you pull your pants down, and grab a paper towel, and cover it in water, and you scrub at yourself. And while you’re scrubbing at yourself in the church bathroom, scrubbing the chemical that is burning off the symptom of your sexually transmitted disease, the one that causes a fatal cancer, you decide that you are going to leave for the rest of the week, and go see the naturally occurring Carhenge you heard about.
You will leave later that day after you find a route in your road atlas. TAD has said she will stay and be the driver while you are gone. You will come back after the funeral, and pick everyone up, and take them home. But you are just going to take a little road trip for now.
You fall asleep in your car, at a rest stop outside of Toadstool Park. You move to the passenger side—more leg room—and lean the seat all the way back. It was a rough couple of hours, but a little white pill, a tiny little Xanax helps you relax and sort of eventually drift off.
The ground thumps as you slip away.
A desert tortoise, large as a minor league baseball stadium, clomps along the highway, over the dusty landscape, and into the rest stop parking lot. He scans the black horizon, lowering himself in a few parking spaces, between your car and another.
You open the door to get out, and walk to him. He catches motion in the corner of his eye, and looks down at you. He stretches his neck, and lowers his head to you. You smile, say hello, and touch his chin. He gurgles, and pulls away, but then comes back quickly, his mouth open.
He swallows you in a snatch.
His tongue is rough and prickly. His saliva surrounds you, slickens you, and you slide down his throat to his stomach.
In the open, murky cavern of his belly, you find a blue easy chair. The stomach is lit with chains of Christmas lights.
The tortoise is shifting, lifting itself and preparing to move again. You sit down in the chair, and lean it back, and use the handle on the side to pull out a footstool. This is the chair that used to be in your living room, the one your father sat on.
This tortoise has eaten your father’s old living room chair.
The belly glows because of the Christmas lights, and there is green shag carpeting on the floor. The tortoise is walking, but you are not jostled. He walks slowly. The tortoise rocks like a boat. It is soothing.
You are ready to fall asleep again, contentment lodged in your belly, pulsing out to your toes and fingertips.
When you were young, you sat in this chair when you got a virus in your leg and the doctor told your parents that they shouldn’t let you move for a while. Your mother put an afghan over you, and sat you in the chair, and turned on the TV. You watched an animated version of Gulliver’s Travels. On the wall of the belly of the tortoise, an animated version Gulliver’s Travels starts to play.
Wake up wake up there’s a giant on the beach.
All the little people are gathering around the sleeping Gulliver, and they are tying him down, shooting threaded arrows over him, binding him to the ground. You couldn’t walk because of the virus, but your mom put you in a red wagon and took you outside when your older brother was going outside and you wanted to go, too. He pulled you in the red wagon, down the sidewalk, over to his friend’s yards. You sat in the wagon while they played tag.
You were home base. You and your wagon, you were safe, and kids ran up and put their hands on the wagon and said Safe!
Wake up wake up, there’s a giant on the beach.
That’s what it’s like when you are little.
There is the sway of the tortoise, and a glow from the red and blue and green and yellow and white Christmas lights, and a flickering film strip. You don’t know how it is being projected. You don’t see a projector, or a beam of light leading away from the filmstrip to its source.
A little animated man says Shhhhhhhhhhhh.
You wake up wet, standing in front of the actual, naturally occurring Carhenge. All the cars are your family cars. There is the gray Buick Skylark, and there is the Ford Talon. Company cars, they belonged to your father. There is the station wagon, the one with the flower patterns on it, the one that shuddered and knocked and your family called it Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There is the Wagoneer, lying on top of the station wagon and the Buick Skylark.
There is a plaque near the cars, and it says Welcome to Carhenge, a naturally occurring phenomenon, a testament to the power of nature and coincidence. Someone has tacked an addendum to the plaque that says: a rebuttal to all who say a tornado couldn’t hit a junkyard and assemble an airplane—proof of evolution, proof of the unnecessaryness of a God Almighty. Welcome to Carhenge, where the mystery is solved and deepened at the same time. Welcome to Carhenge, abandon all hope, ye who see this fuckin’ thing. The addendum is written on a piece of paper. You grab the paper and turn it over, and see that it is the title to the Buick Skylark.
It is a day later and you are driving and trying to find a place to stop. You consider something called The Sea Power Museum, but when you pull in to the gravel driveway, it is empty, and there is a house with a shirtless man on a porch. There are three hound dogs on the porch, and as one they raise their heads to look at you. The cheeks on one of the dogs flap. You are listening to the radio, not feeling too good myself, but interpret this cheek-flapping as a quiet bark. It happens again, this cheek-flapping, but they are the cheeks of a second dog. And then it happens to the third.
The dogs do not get up, and their tails don’t wag. They just look at your car, and flap their cheeks at you.
The shirtless man is in a rocking chair, rocking toward you and away from you. His dogs flap their cheeks, and he rocks, and the whole thing is far too Deliverance, like your life has ended in reality, and gone off on a movie cliché tangent.
This is sometimes how you view life: you are, day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, second after second, given choices to make, and you make them, and off you go. And also, you don’t make choices, but those possible paths move off on their own ways, anyway.
In some of those possibilities, life becomes a movie, or it turns out it’s all a book that lives with its own rules, its own relationship to, say, Newtonian physics. It’s a cartoon and you might get hit on the head by a falling anvil.
You look at the shirtless man and think you have jumped from the normal life to the life that is made up of movie clichés, and so you put the car in reverse, and you back slowly away from the man and his flapping-cheeked dogs.
You get back on the road and wonder why Wyoming has a sea power museum. You drive until you hit Interstate 25, and decide you are no longer happy driving west, and will now drive south.
You drive south.
The landscape is gone and all you are seeing is yellow lines on the road and green signs floating past you.
Billboards float past you.
Branching off roads float past you.
Signs are just numbers and letters.
The tape has turned over and over, played forward and then reverse, and you take it out and throw it below the passenger seat, on the mat with the fast food bags and other tapes—you had other tapes, and they turned over and over in the stereo, too.
You see a billboard coming up, with antlers sticking off, and a large head. It’s a rabbit head. The antlers are a part of the rabbit.
Next right, it says.
Next right, the billboard says.
Jackalope Village, next right, the billboard says.
You take the very next right, and follow road signs to Jackalope Village. Another empty parking lot.
Jackalope Village has tall fences, and a building for an entrance. There is a glass cube at the front, and in the cube there are six one-dollar bills, a few dimes and quarters, and lots of pennies.
Jackalope Village is Free and Open to the Public. Donations are Happily Accepted.
You drop a five dollar bill into the cut-out on top of the glass cube.
The building has a gift shop on the right, but the door to it is closed and locked. The building is a hall, bathrooms on the left, and paintings all around. Jackalope paintings and lithographs, historical and contemporary, scientific images and folk art—the walls are covered. There is a glass door at the end of the hall and you walk through it to a fenced in prairie.
There is a woman dozing in a chair at the door. She is wearing a rabbit costume with antlers on it. The costume is dirty, in bad need of repair. It has a couple of split seems. One is all the way down her right leg. You can see the pale skin of her thigh.
She is curvy and a little older than you, you think. Her ankle is thick, and pale, and she has a purple bruise, and she is attractive beneath her rabbit costume.
(You cause cancer.)
She continues to doze as you stand in the doorway, looking out at the fenced in prairie. There are holes in the dirt. There are sprays of dry grass. To your left is a machine that takes quarters and gives you green food pellets. You put in a quarter, and turn the crank.
The chunk sound it makes, and the rattle from the dropping food pellets wakes up the girl. She startles and looks at you.
She says, Gosh. Welcome to Jackalope Village.
You smile and thank her for welcoming you.
She says Sorry I was just.
Yes, you were just, you say. That’s okay.
She smiles, and her eyes have little wrinkles at the corners. And her red hair has some gray strands in it. Her forehead has wrinkles, too.
(You cause cancer.)
They heard you, she says. You turn to the prairie, and see that from every hole a head has popped up. They are rabbit heads. Each rabbit has a small rack of antlers on it. Some have just a couple of points. A few have eight and ten point racks.
The big buck has a twelve, she says. But he’s not coming out much anymore.
The jackalopes approach you, noses going because they can smell the food pellets.
These are sick animals. They have hairless patches, scabby and red and brown. They, some of them, limp because they look to have sores on their feet, or fused joints. They have bitten-up ears and they smell sour.
They are hungry, and come up to you in a group. The jackalope woman tells you to feed them by dropping the pellets.
It’s best not to let them eat out of your hand, she says, because they get excited and can bite.
You drop pellets on the ground, and they swarm around.
You could wear my glove, though, she says, if you want to feed them by hand. The jackalope woman takes off one of her gloves. It has holes that have been patched with duct tape. It looks like it will be too small for you.
I’ll just drop food to them, you tell her. I have more quarters, though.
You reach into your pocket and pull out more quarters, and get more pellets from the machine. You have enough quarters to empty out half the machine. She lets you sit on her stool, and she sits down on the ground.
They don’t bite me anymore, she says. They’ve stopped trying.
The jackalopes crowd around you, because you have scattered piles of food pellets everywhere. You tell her you are driving around to get away from a funeral.
She says that she is married to the man who owns Jackalope Village.
You tell her you saw the real Carhenge.
She tells you she thinks she might be pregnant, and that means she won’t be able to work with the jackalopes anymore.
You tell her you think now you cause cancer.
She tells you that in high school, she was in the band and played the clarinet.
My dad played the clarinet, you say. I think we still have it somewhere.
I still have my clarinet, she says. It’s in the gift shop.
She gets up and goes to the gift shop and returns with the clarinet. She plays the national anthem, but really slow. Like half the speed it is usually played. It’s beautiful, sitting with the sick jackalopes, listening to the national anthem on clarinet.
During the end of the home of the brave, she points out to the prairie, gesturing with the instrument, and the sun is going down and the big buck sticks his head out of the hole. You can see him in silhouette, the biggest jackalope with the largest rack.
I get this every night, she says.
There was the red-headed girl who, when she kissed you for the first time on the stairs at school, did not know that this was the first time anyone had ever kissed you.
There was the girl from another city, a bigger city, far away, and she had a friend who said she was coming to visit, and asked you and everyone else in your circle of friends to write a note to her saying hello, and you wrote a long, melodramatic note asking where the love the two of you had shared so many, many summers ago had gone, and even though the note was fake, it somehow previewed the fact that the two of you would actually sort of like each other and date long distance.
There was the friend of the girl from the other city, who liked you even though you had dated her best friend, and whose father you hated with a deep passion because he had hurt her, the father who made you go out and buy a gun—a real gun!—that you never ever bought bullets for.
The girl with the bad father was the first girl you had sex with, and after it was over the two of you took a long walk outside even though it was a rainy fall afternoon, and you walked holding each other, absolutely buzzing because you both had done it and it was over, the very first time was over.
They made you better, but when they left, you got worse.
There were college girls with their own apartments, college girls in pale makeup and tendrils of hair that hung in their faces, college girls who stripped at night to pay for school, college girls who cheated on you sometimes, but never out of out-and-out malice. They only did so because they were college girls.
You were 25 and there was a girl of 19 who lived in the apartment below you and cornered you in your kitchen and said I was thinking you could come over tonight because I would like some company. And you said What kind of company? And she said Male company. She stayed unattached to you and you pretended to stay unattached to her, but then she went off to something she wanted to be attached to and you went off and got worse.
You slept on couches for four months, afraid to go to your own room because it was over hers, afraid to see her car, or someone who drove the same kind of car.
You scavenged ashtrays for the last three or four drags of your friend’s stubbed out cigarette butts, and told everyone you didn’t want a new cigarette. The last drag was all you wanted. It was fine. You didn’t really smoke anyway.
You were afraid of every white Subaru, because one of them had a white Subaru.
You were afraid of blue Eagle Medallions.
You were afraid of burgundy Saturns. Are.
Being afraid of cars is a sign of getting worse.
It is a day later and a day to the funeral, so you have turned east.
You are aware that one of the ways of having a roadside attraction is to gather together a large number of something.
As you drive east, and then start to crawl north, too, you see a sign that says The House of 2000 Telephones. This seems like as good a place as any to stop, so that is what you do.
The House of 2000 Telephones is on a residential street in a small town in the tip of northeastern Kansas. It was setup by a civic-minded citizen intent on making an attraction more important than The House of 1000 Telephones in southwestern Kansas.
It has two other distinctions: it is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week except for Christmas day, and every single phone in The House of 2000 Telephones works and is a separate line.
When you walk into The House of 2000 Telephones, some of them are ringing. At any one time, says your guide to The House of 2000 Telephones, at least a dozen of them are ringing. We never answer them as they are all wrong numbers. Not a single one of the phones in The House of 2000 Telephones is a listed number. We don’t even know what they are, so we never give them out. No one ever calls The House of 2000 Telephones on purpose.
That’s very interesting, you tell the guide.
While you are here, says the guide to The House of 2000 Telephones, feel free to look around at the many different styles we have collected over the years, and please, feel free to answer one or two of the calls. We only ask that you do not tell them that they have reached The House of 2000 Telephones. Pretend you are answering your personal phone. Tell them they have the wrong number. And after that, see if they would like to talk.
You walk around The House of 2000 Telephones, and look at each one. They all have cards, explaining what kind of telephone they are. Here is an art deco design, a black phone with a rotary and a large handset. Here is a vintage candlestick phone with an earpiece like a saltshaker and a wide blower. Here is a rotary payphone, and its coin slot is empty. It says: (Everybody checks. Don’t be ashamed.) Here is an old Mickey Mouse phone. Here is a pushbutton wall phone in pea soup green. Here is a yellow slimline.
Some have a second card, too. One says: In June of 1987, a man answered this phone and spoke to a woman for two hours. They were married soon after.
One says: In January of 1994, a man answered this phone and talked a teenager out of suicide.
One says: In August of 1982, a woman answered this phone and spoke to then President Ronald Reagan about Iran because he believed he had called his Secretary of State.
One says: In September of 1990, a woman answered this phone and spoke to a stranger for an hour, and discovered that the stranger was—quite likely—her biological father.
One says: In October of 1985, a man answered this phone and spoke to someone who insisted she was Amelia Earhart and that the year was actually 1935, and that she was calling her mother.
One says: In May of 1999, a man answered this phone and heard someone speaking in a language that he was almost 100% certain was not human, as it sounded to him like whale sounds.
One says: As far as we know, this phone is the only one we’ve never heard ring in our years of operation.
You walk through The House of 2000 Telephones, and look at a phone shaped like a football, a phone shaped like a Smurf, a phone shaped like a penis (in the Adults Only, Please room), a phone shaped like a mini-phone booth, a phone shaped like an apple, a phone shaped like a tornado carrying a house into the air. There is a green donut handbag phone, and a blue donut handbag phone, and a red donut handbag phone. There is a room of princess phones. There is a room of phones used in crimes in one way or another—a Rogues Gallery of phones with cords that choked wives and husbands and mothers and snitches, phones that have dents and chips on the handset where they were used to bludgeon wives and husbands and fathers and snitches. Phones used to call bomb threats. Phones used in the commission of voter fraud.
You walk around looking at phones and sometimes they ring. A phone that looks like the red phone from the Batman TV show rings. A wall phone rings. An eggshell colored plastic phone with a round face and buttons rings and you pick it up.
Hey, says the person on the other end of the line. It’s me. It’s your brother. I thought you might still be out of town, he says.
Yes, you say, or no. I’m home now. So, he says, I’ve been thinking.
I really think you should just move out here to Seattle. You don’t have a good job, he says. (He’s right. You work at an inbound call center.) You need medical benefits. There are more jobs like that here than where you are. You could be around us. (He is married.) Family. I think you’d like it. (He’s probably right. You visited Seattle when he got married and liked it very much. It was green, and big. And also small. You could walk from place to place, buy a bicycle. The museums were bigger, and the neighborhoods diverse. Seattle is a nice place. You could go there.) Think about it when your lease is up, he says.
I will, you say.
Is that a phone ringing, he asks.
Yeah, I think so, you say. Neighbors, you say, I should go.
Okay, he says, I’ll talk to you later.
You hang up and walk to the exit. The guide says, Did you talk to anyone interesting?
You say, sort of.
You pack up the car and it sinks from the weight of most of your stuff. DEV is out in front of the apartment the two of you share with MEG. He has gotten up early for you. LEM is not around this morning.
DEV says he will miss you, and you say the same thing back in the same words. MEG says she will miss you, and you nod agreeing with her. DEV says that they will come out to visit you at some point in the future, and you say that you would very much like it if they would. The girl that you were dating said goodbye to you a couple of days earlier.
You have a route due west. You have used a highlighter to mark out the roads you will take. You will drive through Kansas, and Colorado, and Utah, and Idaho, and Oregon, and Washington, and arrive in Seattle a few days later.
In Kansas, you will see the Madonna of the Trail.
In Colorado, you will find yourself going over the Rocky Mountains white knuckled, with cars on your bumper filled with experienced mountain drivers.
In Utah, you will find a motel at 2am. You will wake up, pack, and open the motel door to the parking lot, and see a mountain just beyond you.
You will cut a very small corner of Idaho. It will be a very ugly state.
In Oregon you will know you are getting closer.
About the Author
Matthew Simmons lives in Seattle.