On the Road
by Sean Murphy
Call me Ishmael.
Call me Jackson.
An automatic response—a defense mechanism of sorts—to the question that everyone always asked, obliging him to confirm that yes, his name really was John Johnson.
His father, the most conservative of bureaucrats, or vice versa, and archetypal patriot was never at a loss to justify his decision and explain to his only son how unique his name actually was. “How American can you get?” he would always ask, with a red, white and blue grin. “Now how many people do you actually know with that name? If you think about it, you really are one in a million.”
Actually, his father never said that—and likely never thought it. His name was John, and his father’s name had been John, and being a traditional, sentimentally austere, or austerely sentimental sort of man, it seemed entirely appropriate to pass along the name with the genes. Unoriginal on the surface, a cop-out; and yet, upon reflection, one of the few instances where a name actually signifies something. Of course, people named John do not always call themselves John, and his father—or Jack, as most people knew him—was no exception. And that is how Jack’s son became Jackson. It did not merit explanation or justification, so when people asked, he simply told them the truth: his name was Jackson.
And yet. What is there, after all, in a name? Not much, especially in America, a country where people consult best-selling books to help them determine which ones are historically acceptable, currently embraced or otherwise in vogue. A result is that the more familiar, common and safe your name, the more assured you can be that your parents complied with the mundane mores of their time, and treated the naming of their child almost exactly the way they would purchase clothes or choose a car: comfort and conformity above all. The other trend, of course, was to choose the most outrageous, or mystic-sounding name: extremism that is another, equally unfortunate sign of acquiescence.
Names tell us so much about ourselves, except who we are.
Naming names is always important when recounting events that actually occurred and even more important when the events may not have occurred.
So: if you want to know who someone is, ask them where they’ve been, and where they’re going.
Saturday, 11:40 a.m.
He was running away.
Sometimes running away requires courage, because staying is the only thing a coward can consider.
He was running away. He was going home.
You’re only allowed to go back home when you have no home.
And when you listen to lyrics from a song and hear your own life, one of two things is occurring: you’re in love, or you haven’t found what you’re looking for.
When you haven’t found what you’re looking for, it’s best to travel light. Jackson had more than his share of baggage, but he could carry all of it with him—in his car and in his head.
Question: what do you take with you?
He took everything.
There were no desert island albums, or books; he needed all of them, he needed everything. He already lived on an island, anyway, and he found a way to make everything fit.
The peripatetic existence of a perpetual student has its advantages, particularly in regards to traveling light. College, then graduate school, then Ph.D. work, invariably oblige moving about from tiny room to tiny room, and this destitute condition necessitates as little baggage as possible. Of course, this is also a benefit for one not particularly concerned with material possessions, and anyone who’d even contemplate pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature presumably would have less than little interest, or at least harbor few illusions, about the eventual acquisition of such things. All of which is to say, the circumstances of compulsory attrition enabled Jackson to fit everything he owned—his life—into one small car.
There is, of course, a difference between the things one wants with them in a car for a road trip, and the things you require when you’re in transition from one destination to another; although, if you’re odd, poor or lucky enough, they’re all the same thing.
It’s easier to run away when you have a car. It’s even easier when you have a reason.
Everyone around him, insulated in their imported armor, had a reason. They were all coming or going, it was just a matter of time.
That’s America. Everyone, it seems, is striving to get somewhere else, to be something else, to arrive someplace they’ve never been. Something better, they’re certain, is there for the taking. And everybody’s anxious to secure their share of what they know must be waiting for them, evanescent, just out of reach.
Behind: color (gray)—a car, noise (loud)—a horn, finger (middle)—aggression.
Welcome home to the real world. Nothing like a near-death experience to bring you back to earth and the ugly here and now of I-95.
The phallus-shaped vehicle that just upgraded its status from unruly tailgater to perilous leader of the pack was already moving down the road (ninety miles per hour? one hundred?), no time for accountability or the old-fashioned exchange of insults, no time to see a face or read a license plate, no time to stick around.
Had the highways—the world—changed this much in only two years? Maybe. One thing was certain: the already near-extinct evidence of defensive driving had degenerated to the point of self-parody. Anger and impatience prevailed on the black and blue highway. Music, as always, should tame the savage beasts, but little relief was to be found on the radio. More talk than music (talk radio? isn’t that an oxymoron?): all these babbling blowhards whipping their half-witted audience into a reactionary omelet, alone in a crowd on the ever-insular freeways. Who said there were no second-acts in American life? Has-been politicians, washed-up athletes, even once-respectable reporters were cashing in on the act, relishing their reincarnation as paid professional voices.
This ain’t life. With the suspension of soul and shame, these screaming-heads, along with their cranky congregation, went a long way toward illustrating all that’s not right, all around us. No need to psychoanalyze, no point in plumbing the depths of this despondency; the answer is easily ascertained: this ain’t living.
And then, as if on cue, the car next to him made the noise cars owned by angry individuals make, so Jackson looked over at the miserable man, his mouth stuck to an Unlucky Strike. Somehow, no smoke escaped and this was because the windows were all rolled up. Self-abuse? Stubborn defiance? Unfathomable stupidity? Nobility? Never. It was old school, plain and simple. This man, clearly constipated and full of consternation, simply refused. He was not going to share his lane, he was not going to share a smile, he was not going to share even his smoke with the unctuous odors of I-95. Old school? He was ancient school.
Welcome to Rhode Island, the man did not say.
Welcome, the sign overhead sang, announcing that his destination was one state closer. As the South slowly became more inevitable, Jackson finally noticed he was being followed.
He hadn’t seen it in a long time, but as soon as it appeared in his rear view mirror, there was no mistaking who it was: his father, tracking him in his egg-yolk yellow ’76 VW Thing. Few sights can take you back faster than the car you rode in as a child, particularly when it’s a model that ceased production half a lifetime ago.
That he was being followed presented problems, such as preparation. Exactly what do you say, what do you do? He had no idea. And then there was the inescapable fact that his father was no longer alive.
I can’t deal with you right now Pops…
And fortunately, fate intervened, embodied by the fool who helpfully had chosen the exact change lane without realizing he had no coins. Smiling, he saw his father screaming at the jackass who couldn’t summon up the strength to simply drive through the toll. Stalled, he sat there; panicked, a paralyzed zombie: playing his part in orchestrating a minor traffic jam at the worst possible moment.
Seeing his chance, Jackson pulled ahead, not even thinking about the toll. He heard the mechanized alarm, an electronic indictment, but he was already gone. Only the innocent ones look over their shoulders, and he was never looking back. There was no looking back, because he was not innocent, having pretty well lost that privilege before knowing he ever had it.
So: success. Out of sight, but not out of mind. Never out of mind. Not for him. He knew he was going to have to grapple with his father, and the questions. He knew he needed to be prepared, so he tried not to think about it.
What had happened?
July 20, 1969. I watched you come into the world and then I walked into the lobby and saw those men walking on the moon. How could I not believe in God? How could I not feel our lives were richly blessed?
Actually, his old man never said those words, as far as he knew. But there was one thing Jackson had learned, and that was that it’s acceptable, even imperative, to take a little liberty with one’s memories of deceased loved ones. A certain amount of authorial license is entitled, and it’s, at times, more important to remember things that might not have been said. It’s easier to create fiction out of what someone did say as opposed to imagining what might or should have been said. And so he recognized that part of moving on and accepting the good with the bad was being able to make sense out of memories and put those moments in the balance of feelings, which supersede actions in some cases.
We do our best to raise you right, and make sure you’re never hungry, hurt or alone. Then we pay for you to go off to college so you can take classes with pot-smoking professors who tell you to renounce your faith, your family and your freedom.
His father did say these words, often. And Jackson occasionally looked forward to the day he might have the paternal privilege of saying them to his son.
What had happened?
The fact of the matter was that his father was dead. Of somewhat less significance was the possibility, no the probability—no, the certainty that he’d taken his own life. Alone, while his only child was several hundred miles away, and unavailable for consultation or intervention. It left one cold, culpable, incomplete, with anger and an inability to understand what had been done and why. And with questions. Questions that required following his mind to places he didn’t especially care to accompany it.
The kind of questions that often can’t be answered:
Perhaps your father suffered from depression? Perhaps.
Maybe he never completely crawled out of the cavern of his despair after his wife died? Maybe.
Probably he wrestled with demons above and beyond those that most people contend with; so carefully concealed that even his own son could not perceive them? Probably.
Or maybe he simply was not willing to endure whatever afflicted him and took solace in a self-induced sleep? That too.
And this: how about the possibility that there was no compelling or cogent explanation? For his father’s actions, for any of it. That in a random, disjointed universe, it was only one of the inexplicable occurrences that erode the soiled sands. The sands along the shore that reside in an individual’s mind: memories. This, more than anything else, caused him to grieve.
And so, what do you say? What do you tell people? What do you tell yourself?
His father was no longer alive.
He had decided to stop living, or, life decided it no longer had anything to offer him. Et cetera.
Invariably, these feelings led to thoughts of his mother, also gone—of which more later.
Also, these thoughts led to feelings of his own—of which more later.
For now, there were more immediate matters to concern himself with, such as his own life and how to live it.
Fortunately, when he finally looked up he saw the sign, his partner in crime, welcoming him one state farther along the line. Then he noticed that the feeling, like the Thing, was no longer there.
On the road.
The road was going to require every bit of his cracking concentration, so he could forgive himself if he ignored death and tried to stay alive. So, he thought: Connecticut, concrete, creation, orange cones, congestion. Exactly when, he wondered, had Connecticut become a ceaseless construction zone?
Connecticut was busy, and it had every right to be. After all, this was America and the Constitution State was just as entitled as any of its sisters to reinvent itself. Still, this was not the familiar stretch of empty interstate. So many buildings. When was it enough? It’s never enough. And who asked him anyway? Who the hell was he to admonish evolution, to protest progress? Particularly when, a generation or two down the line, some twenty-something cynic would commemorate his time, an era he neither saw nor celebrated. He would do what everyone does, lamenting a lost, unsullied city, the city his grandfather called home. And above all, this: he would be right.
On the road: music helps.
It helped Jackson get this far, and it would take him the rest of the way. It always did.
The road and rock and roll, there’s nothing that can touch that. And when you finally find yourself in Jersey—in between the rows and rows of wooden houses: yellow, green, blue, red and brown, solemnly staring each other down across the searing streets of the Garden State Parkway—music is a must. Loud music. The type of music not meant to be heard in a living room, through a carefully calibrated system and expensive speakers fashioned out of imitation oak. The type of music made for a car. Driving fast. Too fast. Freedom and bliss, so fast that nothing can touch you. No one, not even…
When you get pulled over, it’s time to face the music.
License registration, no I ain’t got none,
But I got a clear conscience ‘bout the things that I done…
When you find yourself singing Bruce Springsteen lyrics, in New Jersey, to a state trooper in the hopes of avoiding a ticket, you might as well close your eyes. See what happens.
Maybe you could talk to the cop and explain it was not disrespect for the rules of the road, but love of—and getting lost in—art that caused you to forget. To forget where you were and who you were. To find yourself in the unfamiliar role of fugitive.
And maybe he’d understand.
Maybe he’d engage you in a discussion about music, and how it helps us, how it’s always there, and occasionally compels us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do.
And maybe, after everything was said and done, you would stop. Ask him if he was real, if this could ever actually happen.
And maybe he’d wink familiarly, as if to say: Anything is possible.
And maybe you’d believe him, even as you heard his footsteps fading away.
And by the time you opened your eyes, maybe you’d still be rolling down the road, the only reality being the speed and the sky, and the siren song of metal and machinery.
Finally, his car needed fuel, he needed fuel, so he had no choice but to stop at the rest area. Everyone, it seemed, had stopped at the same rest area: equal parts public toilet, food court and concessions stand. It was at once appalling and extraordinary; it was, in short, America.
No scarcity of lost souls, standing or sitting, shuffling around in search of sustenance. No lack of choices, either: lukewarm burgers suffocating in Styrofoam shells, long-suffering chicken wings getting skin cancer under heat lamps. Oleaginous ham and cheeses that would give even Elvis pause, parched slices of pizza that would make Pavarotti puke. Was there anything here that didn’t get destroyed in a deep fryer? It was a mess, it was America. It was nothing he wanted, it was everything he needed. When traveling alone, on I-95, one needs to fuel up. He was traveling alone, on I-95, and he was running on heavy fuel, so he needed this unreality: a raunchy, democratic sort of sustenance.
For who? Who were they, the people all around him? They were everyone: departing or arriving, leaving for vacation, returning to work, delighted, delirious, above all, anonymous. In New Jersey, or in any small town, or everywhere in this country, there are people who find themselves lost: people with nowhere left to go. A cliché? Sure. But clichés are made, not born. Reality, of course, is a cliché, and we’ve discovered that clichés—even as they are the enemy of art and authenticity—can be our friends. And so: going to church makes us sense spirituality, so we go; playing carols at Christmas facilitates a feeling of festivity, so we play; falling in love makes us feel loved, so we fall. We need all the help we can find, so we find friends and ask few questions.
Jackson looked around and in front of him, seeing the stereotypes—the ones in his mind that everything but experience had created. Or was the Cliché unfurling itself, the one that perpetuates from a particular place: experience, repetition, pattern, tradition? He saw them, he saw how he wanted to see them, he saw how they saw him, he saw how they saw him seeing them, and so on.
And who was he?
What was he all about? What had he done? Where had he been? Where was he going? Who did he think he was? Everyman? No man? Or worse, the type of person who actually asks these kinds of questions.
Walking away, stomach full and mind clear, Jackson saw her. He couldn’t help noticing the forsaken sister walking in circles, seeking a corner of the room that wasn’t there. How old was she? Eighteen? Eighty? Somewhere right in between? Satisfied with a meek drink in the water fountain, she was the type of person who unthinkingly drank from public water fountains. Does anyone drink from public water fountains anymore? Do they still exist? Does anyone even notice them?
It was hard not to notice her, impossible not to notice that pain.
Pain: Dostoyevsky, disconcerted as he was with crime and punishment, saw all the suffering of the world in a prostitute’s eyes, and sobbed when he witnessed a peasant, hard-pressed with impotent anger, beating his horse to death. Jackson opened his eyes and half expected to see this woman whipping herself while Nietzsche—knowing full well that God was dead—held his head and wept. Who was she, and what was she doing here?
A hooker, a homeless person? A mother, a case of mistaken identity? A human symbol of hope, or Hope herself—a deity deferred, paying the price for us all, all of us sinners and those sins we can scarcely describe?
She’s just like me, a voice inside attempted to say, a voice he very well may have listened to—a voice he’d come dangerously close to growing into, under the shadow of the ivory tower—had he opted to make certain decisions along the way.
He walked over, ready to help: offer money, lend a hand, do whatever needed to be done, even and especially the things he had neither the ways nor means to make happen. He walked over and smiled, and she spoke, making him an offer he had no choice but to refuse.
It was enough to make one wonder if (and even wish that) the stories in the bible, and those fairy tales and myths men have made all have a foundation in fact. That the sluggish suffering some of us occasionally see is in accordance with a plan, a motion picture we have no part in producing. That it was not even personal, all this erstwhile, enigmatic madness; it was strictly business. It was enough to cause the hardest of humans to hope for a beneficent Big Guy (or Lady, but it’s probably asking too much to assume God has the decency to be a woman) upstairs, shuffling that proverbial deck. Or cutting and pasting the appropriate pieces of the puzzle, always keeping a wise eye on the endearing idiots underneath, and generally doing and saying the things that the creator of an entire universe says and does.
But how the hell are we supposed to have hope when Hope herself had been reduced to this, turning tricks at a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike?
You know you’re getting out there—out of the North anyway—when you find yourself paying for the privilege of crossing the Delaware. Just like George Washington, only instead of throwing your silver dollar over the water, you toss it into the basket, or hand it to the unsmiling tollbooth attendant. Just like the dude in front of you—God Am—did. How did he know it was God Am? The bike’s tags said so, and he wasn’t about to argue.
Picture this: a Harley chopper (obviously), no muffler (naturally), as clean and well-groomed as its owner was not, sporting the obligatory, sleeveless skull shirt, black jeans, chaps, wind-whipped leather boots, the shadowed cheeks that could light a match, the sandpaper skin on either hand, kicked back in the saddle, Camel—of course it was a Camel—dangling dutifully from lip, and the helmet, if it could actually be called a helmet, looking more like a black salad bowl (dude could just as easily eat cereal out of it, or, more appropriately, nails). And the kicker—stuck to the back of his seat two signs: POW/MIA speaking loud and proud, and beneath that, perhaps more to the point, a message brilliant in its brevity, terrible in its antipathy; just right in its genius: NOT FONDA JANE! COMMIE BITCH.
Realizing he’d just witnessed an unrecognized wonder of the world, Jackson smiled and shook his head approvingly. That’s America, he thought. And then, immediately and unexpectedly, his life flashed before his eyes.
That ladder’s coming out…
These are the things that happen before metal meets metal and the nightly news crews show up, armed with cameras and commiseration. A depreciated pickup truck with an overused and undervalued ladder, not properly procured, shaking in its rusted limbo, unequipped to hold on for dear life. Or maybe it had simply had enough and wanted out of this world, gearing itself up for the last, big leap. In any event, the ladder was coming out, and someone was getting hurt.
The last thing you want to do on a long road trip is go and get yourself killed. But like all the truly consequential things in life, it’s generally out of your control. Whether we’re taking a quick trip to the grocery store, or on the way to work, or making an impulsive return to our hometown, we’re not unlike the mates who followed Ahab aboard the Pequod and into the open sea, uncertain if the gods will bless or betray our best endeavors. And those irascible forces are always in the mix, doing the things they do. If, say, an angel’s harp string breaks in heaven, a powerful person entreats a malevolent entity, or someone steps on a butterfly in a Ray Bradbury short story, then the karmic gate swings wide open, ushering an unsuspecting civilian into the past tense. It takes a collective effort, a diligent faith, and an honest regard for the collective welfare to pursue our elusive white whales without allowing selfish obsessions to endanger others.
That ladder’s coming out…
Certainly, it would be morbid, if counterproductive, to fear you’re putting your life in fate’s hands each time you hit the highway—always a poker game, even if you don’t want to play. Or each time you ate in a restaurant, or boarded a plane, or crossed the street or swam in the ocean. Et cetera. As aware, if insulated human beings, most of us recognize that there’s not much you can do: whether on account of the cosmic cards dealt upstairs, or the statistical calculus of a careless universe. There’s a necessary denial enabling all of us to do what we do on a daily basis. Unfortunately, self-preservation is an increasingly collective kind of affair. You do your best to stay sober and remain sane, and then you have to pay attention to the inanity of some idiot who can’t be bothered.
That ladder’s coming out…
If your number is up, and you have to go, then that’s the way it goes. Those are the rules, established long before irony burst onto the scene. And yet. It’s difficult to justify a carelessly loaded ladder crashing into your windshield and taking you out. Intolerable, no acceptable explanation.
Unless there is a God. Then all kinds of things are capable of occurring, with all kinds of good reasons. Then, it’s a matter of divine order and a ladder can just as easily become an instrument of God’s fickle ire. Then, when a hunk of metal comes clawing through your window, you’re simply another dog having your day. Then, a sublime symmetry holds sway, and there’s little we can do to get out of the way.
There it goes! Like a satellite, it sailed toward its target, right at Jackson’s window. But then the wind, or wrath, or whatever, took it in mid-flight and discarded it safely to the side of the road, where it crashed on the concrete. A shower of sparks conveyed a simple message: Behold this brimstone brothers and sisters, and act accordingly.
Thanks for that, Big Guy…
Wait. When you catch yourself talking to a God you’re not sure you believe in, you should cut yourself some slack. We’ve all been there. We’ve all, on occasion, looked up to the clouds and wondered if there was a kingdom beyond the skies, the place some of us were told our dearly departed looked down from. We’ve all, on occasion, taken comfort from a one-way conversation we forgot to be self-conscious about—unable or unwilling to entirely abandon the idea that someone else is listening.
Eventually, the skyline turns from gray to green, with trees instead of telephone poles and hills instead of hotels on either side. On the tops of these hills, in between forest and freeway, animals stand around, detached and mostly disinterested. Not quite believing what they’re gazing down upon, they wryly observe the random madness rushing past. Instinctively, it seemed, most of them keep a safe distance, not wanting to partake in or become a part of the carnage of the twentieth century as it cruised by.
And then you slowly enter the South. Everything gets a little heavier: the scenery, the air, and the nonexistent breeze in the late afternoon of an unseasonably warm May. It’s not unlike the languid buzz bourbon delivers: you taste it and sense what’s coming, and the deeper you go, the more intimate and intense it all becomes, and before you know it, you’re exactly where you set out to be, whether or not you ever intended to get there.
The first thing you notice is the green. The trees, an impervious halo, hover around everything. Suddenly, somehow, everything is green, greener than anything you’ve ever seen, so green it’s arresting and almost unreal to actually behold. You cannot believe how green it is. It compels you to consider that for all the billions of trees we’ve butchered, it’s extraordinary in its own marginal way how they’ve managed to remain so plentiful. It’s almost impossible to imagine how things used to look, in the days before before Cortez and Custer did their manifestly destined duties documented in textbooks made from the paper made from the trees they helped tear down.
And then a minor sort of miracle occurs as Maryland, with little warning, becomes Virginia. Trees, with roots and branches extending into either state, stand at attention, hoping never to choose sides if brothers take up arms against one another for a second time.
Northern Virginia is an anomaly, neither here nor there; it’s the gateway to the real south. The Washington Metropolitan Area is, in many ways, a bulwark against identity, a sort of spurious, neutral ground between North and South, Mason-Dixon Line be damned. Everyone to the north of northern Virginia correctly considers it the South; everyone south of Northern Virginia feels, not unfeasibly, that it’s the North.
You’re nowhere near Faulkner country yet, but you’re also, already, half a world away from Cheever’s concrete commotion, from Whitman’s lazy leaves of grass, from Updike’s arrogant New England imbroglio. When you open your eyes, you’re somewhere else, staring expressively at the world around you, at the verdant trees looming overhead, at the expanse of lucid skies that stretch up and away. You see different colors, fully flowering in their fleet glory. The air has changed from salt to soot and again to honeysuckle, the taste of almond—the bounty of spring—is on your tongue. You hear strange birds calling, and somehow you understand this other language, words welcoming you into another world, words that welcome you home.
Sean Murphy has been publishing fiction, poetry, reviews (of music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. He has appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and been quoted in USA Today, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Forbes and AdAge. In addition, he is an associate editor at The Weeklings, where he contributes a monthly column. He writes regularly for PopMatters, and his work has also appeared in Salon, The Village Voice, The New York Post, The Good Men Project, All About Jazz, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, Elephant Journal, FIVE:2:ONE, 805 Lit + Art and Northern Virginia Magazine. He is currently the writer-in-residence at Noepe Center for Literary Arts at Martha’s Vineyard. Murphy’s best-selling memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone was released in 2013. His novel Not To Mention A Nice Life was published in June 2015, and his first collection of non-fiction, Murphy’s Law, Vol. One, in spring 2016.
To learn more about Sean Murphy’s writing and to check his events schedule, please visit seanmurphy.net/.