An hour out of the mid-western city, going south, we stop for lunch. It’s the usual kind of place; the weather is the same as at home, the people too. We order what we always order. We are just passing through and the only interesting thing that I overhear is the women at the next table admiring each other’s pie.
Later, down the road a bit, I see a sign and think a man’s head is a window but it is one image over another on a billboard. Things start shifting. And after a lot more driving, we wake up in a hotel somewhere else.
Somebody ate a hardboiled egg so I replaced it with another one, is what I imagine the woman working the breakfast buffet hotel tells her kids when she gets home from work.
We visit a famous music venue with a long history. An old man gives a tour. He remembers many people and events and tells stories, some of which may be factually incorrect. His teeth seem to slip in his mouth. He points to the photographs of people associated with the place. He says, “thas Johnny, an’ thas June.” There are church pews and high rafters and a stage and ghosts. People still sing here. There isn’t an echo but there is.
We keep going.
I eat a cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate milkshake in the only restaurant in a very small town. Every time I look at one of the other women in the restaurant, they are looking at us. Later it will be the same with the Mississippi River. Every time I look at it, it is looking at us.
We drive more and suddenly, late, late at night, there are palm trees everywhere. One mile they are not there and then they are, as if suddenly we are on a movie set but it’s real.
We go to sleep listening to the ocean outside our window. The next day we sit on the beach. It is late in the season, and when dolphins appear in the distance, the few people on the beach look at each other and smile. We swim. Jim shows me delicate, little translucent crabs which he cups in white sand and clean salt water so I can see. A school of thrilling, blue skate flaps past our ankles. Jim kisses me in the water. He says, “This is what we are supposed to do.”
The proprietor of the motel where we stay is a brown skinned man. In the diner across the way, there hangs the confederate flag.
We visit a famous seaside town. We admire the architecture and look inside a church, which is austere and pleasantly cool. We eat ice cream and watch some children playing. All children make us think of our children. I buy a red notebook in a beautifully curated bookshop. The cover of the notebook pictures a window and a globe like somehow that’s what writing is about, a window and a globe. Maybe.
We drive further. It is easy to hallucinate on the black road at night. Heavy vaporous things appear in the darkness from the sides, or on the road ahead. It is tricky driving around these road monsters and steering clear of the other cars. But the music on the radio is better at night; even old, dumb songs mean more. We listen to Alice Cooper or Little Steven explain it to us.
We visit Jim’s beautiful sister. Outside a bar near midnight with a group of people, most have been drinking and the jokes aren’t making much sense. There’s some loud band thumping somewhere. People keep hugging each other. Beads hang from the trees here long after the party is over, or the party is never over, or they are trees that flower beads over and over.
There is street art all around. There are paintings of circling fish on the sidewalk: swimming orange, white and black koi around my feet. I don’t want to step on them. Here they are and here on the pavement. I’m holding a string of chrome blue beads, but I drape them over a bicycle’s handles because I thought I needed them, but I don’t because they are everywhere; this is how it is here and I am delighted and made unsteady by the joyousness and confusion.
We visit a museum with a lot of military aircraft. They are suspended high above us or sit quietly for our inspection. There are older men in blue blazers and beautiful ties. They are eager to talk with us about this history, their history. They tell stories. Jim remembers his father.
Jim remembers how his father made a soft bed in the back of the car where he and his brothers and sister went to sleep in the dark and woke to the sunlight in another place.
There is a moment lounging in another hotel bed. I am wearing a shirt the color of a blood orange and we are kissing.
We drive a causeway built on swamp sludge and marvel at its construction. How do people do these things, fly planes, and build bridges? Jim says something about anchoring piers and shifting soil conditions.
We visit a friend at his university. He shows us a painting he made and we have a conversation about it. He shows us another and we say nothing. We look around the studio at other things. It is very quiet and smells pleasantly of oil paint and everything is suddenly strange and perfect. It is a beautiful day outside and inside the room in which we are standing.
The friend shows us a tiger lying in an enclosure where people can look at him before football games. A little girl calls, “get up tiger.” On certain days the tiger is paraded before a large crowd while young women dance around him.
The live oak’s branches lay on the ground like it’s just too much effort to hold them up. Spanish moss drapes itself. There’s a tree our friend tells us the name of that flowers all summer. He says we should really see it; he says this even though we are looking at it, like maybe it’s kind of impossible to really see it.
Our friend asks me if I know a certain poet’s poem. I do not. But the tiger reminds me of another one by Frank O’Hara. I recite the last stanza for him.
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up
The sound of the ocean as we fall asleep, black-eyed peas, seashells, starfish, driftwood, the yellow and black floorboards from a grammar school gymnasium for sale, oil paint, wind chimes made from old silverware, Carnival glass, a necklace of fat black seeds, honey, lemons, oranges so that the juice drips, pale blue porcelain plates with pictures of sailing ships from somewhere else, chocolate with peanuts, chocolate with coconut. We have seen the white cotton on black branches and there are songs in low, slow keys that we also know.
Every so often we see an animal: someone’s dog on a leash, a busy cat, a working mule, a cow standing. We see white cranes on the edges of the swampy water among tall reeds and grasses. We miss our dogs, both living and gone.
We eat somewhere on a Sunday night. All the TV screens show a local football game, which everyone is watching. There is armed security in the restaurant. There is menace here but I don’t understand it. And then we are somewhere else and I overhear a woman ask, “Is he still beating up on her?” The answer is, “Last time I saw her, her eye was full of blood.” When we drive over the Tallahatchie Bridge, it seems high enough to throw something off that you didn’t want or couldn’t keep.
We are driving and the sun is setting and I cannot understand that the sun I see is the same sun setting somewhere else. I want to ask Jim if this is really true, if there is really only one sun. I feel almost overwhelmed by this confusion but I know he can explain it to me, even though it’s kind of a dumb question. There’s something to be said here about what we know and how we know it. How we see what we see and if any of us really ever sees the way another person does. How I know a lot of things is because Jim explains in a way I can understand.
I write a lot about the music we listen to in the car. I try repeatedly to write well about it. I write out the lyrics but they never look as good on the page. I try to describe how great Axel Rose sounds to me; we are barreling through the dark, as he nears the end of Patience where he’s “walkin’ the streets at night, just trying to get it right.” I don’t care if it’s a little cheesy. It always works.
I think about what some rock critic once said about how a great rock voice is a vulnerable one. The same is probably true on the page. Still, I can’t recreate the musical ecstasy of isolation and togetherness that music allows, the way that I feel it.
Get up tiger, I say to myself, get up.
Look at the map. This is where we are. This is where we need to go. This is how far it is from here to there. This is how many miles. This is how many hours before we get there.
We drive into the sound on the radio, skirting the dark monsters, moving forward. The night is cartoon black, the air gingery and electric. The endless water moves in us, our blood is salt. We are having a moment; we are awake and complete and everything, everything is singing and we hear it.
Cecilia Pinto’s work has appeared in a variety of literary journals most recently Coffin Bell, Jet Fuel Review and Orca. Her novella, Imagine the Dog is the recipient of the Clay Reynolds Novella prize and will be published by Texas Review Press in the spring of 2021 when she hopes it is again possible to travel.