Friday, February 8, 2008

The Longest Mile

The Summer of '96 was the first I spent in Illinois. I'd gone home for Summer vacation each year I was enrolled at Lake Forest College but always managed to catch the tail end of it in August. My blissful and quiet months in Idaho somehow erased the memory of how truly oppressive August could be on the edge of Lake Michigan. I'd grown up in The West where the air is like dirt, dry and weightless, and wasn't accustomed to the heavy, moist stuff that passed as oxygen in the Mid-West where the nights were spent sweating into your sheets, which remained nice and wet for you all day, where envelopes sealed themselves, bags of cereal and potato chips grew soggy and sticky and hair, which had never shown the slightest bit of curl suddenly fro'd up in long, tight ringlets. About the only thing I enjoyed were the last of the fireflies, which my corner of Idaho, a desert, sadly lacked. They were like magic to me and I spent many a Lake Forest night outside on the edge of the ravine watching them, using my lighter and a burning cigarette to mimic their patterns and dances, drawing them close enough to see even when they weren't flirting. At that time of the summer most of their magic had already burned off, but for a few days I was able to witness more fireflies in two minutes than I'd seen my entire life in Pocatello. I had no idea that June and July brought swarms of millions and that every tree and bush would be aglow with more of them than there were people in my home town.

That first Summer I worked at Barnes and Noble in Vernon Hills. I'd been hired as a full-time temporary bookseller in September of '95 before the store had even opened. My job was to help set up the shelves, learn the cash registers, hang out through the Christmas Rush and then hope to God they wanted to keep me or find something else. I'd been there for less than a month before I was made a full-time, permanent employee and then Head Cashier two weeks after that. I spent many hours counting cash drawers, balancing the safe and supervising the cashiers, sometimes coming in early mornings to handle the deposit or staying late to close up and prepare the store for the next day. It was meaningless and low-paying work but I enjoyed it because, unlike my friends who'd gone straight into their careers, I didn't bring it home with me. I can't recall a single night of waking up in a sweat because I feared the store didn't have enough copies of Howard Stern's Private Parts or The Celestine Prophecy. I merely trudged home, got stoned with my roommates and went to bed.

Toward the end of July I finally made the decision and moved in with Ken, who lived in Round Lake, a little north and east of Vernon Hills, and a bit further out in the country. It was a long drive and even on late nights when I was the only person on the road it could take up to 45 minutes. The route I took was a winding one that followed the Metra tracks through several small towns, following the bank of an unhealthy little stream and skirting the edge of an enormous landfill, which was the longest and straightest part of the drive. It smelled horrible year round but was even worse during the Summer when all that garbage, a literal mountain of it, baked and simmered in the humidity.

It was Thursday night, the night my weekend began, and David and I had just finished closing the store. Ken had let me take his truck, a big Chevy S10 that stood taller and had more power than the tiny Nissan Sentra, Cleo, who'd seen me safely across the country countless times. I liked the truck because it was very unCurt-like and had a great sound system.

After leaving the store I drove down Butterfield Road until it turned into 83 and followed that toward the landfill. Despite the odor and the heat I loved driving at night with the windows down. I'd pull the tie from around my neck, loosen my collar or remove my shirt completely and just drive. A joyful and free drive. Fast because it was late and the road was all mine. I was young and in love, it had just sprinkled and the air seemed cooler, the night rich. I was on my way home where the weekend loomed ahead of me, full and promising so I popped in Poi Dog Pondering's self-titled first album, the one with the poetic songs, sexy and fun, and cranked up "Pulling Touch," my favorite song, hung my head out the window like a dog and sang into the night.

You are a butterfly and my eyes are needles
The cold has your breast and my hand is on fire
Are you resting and reposing
Oh my veins are pulsing
And nothing can cure me, but your pulling touch
I'll stretch you out, and lay alongside you
Run my hands along, devour and divide you.
In the cool of the night, under a rain-pelted roof
Beneath cotton white linen, our love is spilt
Are you the cup that I hold by the cheekbones,
I pull you close and I drink you up.
I'll stretch you out, and lay alongside you
Run my hands along, devour and divide you

I was doing sixty on a narrow, two-lane road as I neared the landfill and the stream. My foot was tapping, I was playing the drums on the steering wheel and just before I hit the first frog I remember thinking, "This moment could not be any more perfect." It wasn't until about the two hundredth frog that I thought, "What the hell?" and slammed on the brakes, turning off the stereo with a quick flick of my hand.

I am not the kind of person who kills things, even ants, without feeling a pang of guilt. I rescue bugs and put them outside, the only exception being that if they touch me and they're an arachnid I'm perfectly justified in executing them. Once my senior year I thought I hit a dog and spent an hour puking on the side of the road even though there was no body. My first summer back from Lake Forest I drove across the desert and hit a bird, which bounced off my hood, struck my windshield, did a somersault over the car and landed, still alive but not so happy about it, behind me. I have a respect for life, even those creatures that no one pays much attention to. Like the thousands of frogs that were caught in mid-migration on my sad and smelly little patch of Illinois 83.

I started to open the door to get out but upon looking down at the pavement reconsidered. I hit the high beams and as far as the eye could see, under that suddenly clear and brilliant night sky, the crickets louder than I'd ever heard them, the fireflies dancing and glowing all around me, I saw a country road covered in thousands, maybe tens of thousands of frogs, brown and green bumps, wet and silver under the stars, some hopping or climbing over the backs of their neighbors, some just sitting, chilling out, enjoying the night, almost all singing and chirping, content. Innocents. God's Creatures. Life. And me, in the big red truck, bearing down on them like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or rather the 190 Horsepower Men of the Apocalypse.

I'd driven right into them without noticing. When I looked behind me I saw the field of frogs stretched far behind me and even as I watched thousands more mounted the side of the road and hopped onto the pavement, closing up whatever open, life-free patch of an escape route remained to me. There was no place to go without killing them. I sat there a long time, my heart racing, my favorite Poi Dog song long since forgotten, home and love calling to me, the weekend waiting to be claimed.

So I did what any person would do with love and sex dangling on a string in front of them, I sat back in my seat, took a deep breath, cranked up the stereo, put the truck in gear and went for it.

I was hoarse from all the screaming by the time I got home fifteen minutes later, still shaking, my fingers frozen and curled from gripping the steering wheel so tightly. As I climbed the front step, the porch light on and Ken waiting for me in the living room, I could feel the horrible bump of the road as the wheels of the truck ploughed over all those small bodies, a bump like driving over a cattle guard, only bigger and longer, as if the guard were a mile long. And squishy. And made popping noises as you passed over it. The only thing that made me feel better was Ken's smile, the way he hugged me after I told the story and, of course, the drink he fixed while I showered.

Tonight Duncan and I took the sidewalk. The snow has started to melt and the day was warm but windy–a cold wind from the north–so even as the snow softened and melted, the wind hardened and sharpened it, turning much of the park into a coarse field of brittle ice-razors. The geese had been out but even the places where their warm bodies had crushed the snow were still jagged and frozen. There was nothing pleasant to be had walking on the grass.

It was dark by the time I awoke from my nap. Duncan had been quite patient with me when I got home and a part of me felt guilty for not taking him out sooner so I let him lead me where he wanted. He was excited in that Duncan way of his, running back and forth across the sidewalk sniffing everything he could, seeing the park in a way I can only imagine. He pulled on his leash, dragging me after him, pulling me over patches of ice and eventually breaking into a run. I tromped behind, my boots thumping loudly, the air cold on my cheeks and scalp. It was like flying, racing, blind, down the sidewalk, smiling as I took big gulping breaths, trusting Duncan to keep me from falling. The few street lamps above us had wound down and blinked out and it was only when one finally buzzed back to life, illuminating the ground in a dark orange glow, I gasped and pulled hard on the leash to reign in my grinning dog.

We were standing in a long patch of sidewalk littered with fresh goose poop, both ahead of us and behind. The grass on my right was matted with the stuff, still dark green, still fresh and slimy. There was no place to go. Duncan started sniffing around and I had to pull the leash tight because sometimes if I'm not careful he'll slurp one up and chew on it. There was no time to think so I steeled my nerves, took a deep breath and spurred him on and ran screaming all the way down the sidewalk to the high school.

Frogs and geese and cement. The story of my life.


Lori said...

Oh, they do LOVE goosey-poo,don't they? The caviar of dogdom.
I'm still freaked out about the frogs, though! I'd have been pretty sure that the Rapture had happened, and as everyone knew, I was "left behind," and the plagues had begun! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Great posting. named your truck "CLEO?"

Curt Rogers said...

Ken never named his truck but my Sentra was Cleo and it fit her perfectly.

NodakJack said...

I thought CLEO was a cat. Was it PINOCCHIO'S feline?

Lori said...

My car is named "Penrod." It's a '99 red Cavalier that I inherited from my Dad. When she was about 15 or 16, my younger sister nicknamed Dad "Penrod," for no reason we could determine. So now his car is Penrod, and one of his hats resides in the rear window.

Ruth said...

OH MY GOD I don't remember this story, and it's HORRIBLE. Worse than the black-beans-at-the-theater debacle. UGH.

And if I think of a highway full of squished frogs next time I listen to that song, you're going to get it.