I am stuffed, thoroughly and irrevocably stuffed like a turkey on Thanksgiving morning. My plate is not quite empty, however, and I pick up the spoon and scoop the last chunks of the applesauce. Because no matter what the applesauce cannot remain untouched.
I look at myself who has slumped all the way back, their head rolling up towards the sky. ” I need a break,” they burp. Before I can tell them that there is no break on this job, a screeching buzz reverberates inside my backpack. I slid my hand into the front pocket and pull out a silver disk adorned with buttons that could be mistaken as jewels: emeralds, rubies, sapphires, amethysts. I tap on the emerald and a face I haven’t seen in a long time appears.
” Hey!” Jet Black nearly shouts, her age haven completely deteriorated her hearing. ” I was just wondering if you had time to play catch up. Can you come to Salisbury?”
Salisbury. I haven’t traveled there in years and yet I used to travel around there all the time with people who I used to consider home. But they faded and so too has that warmth. Instead cold regret bubbles up in an ugly slim and I am quick to turn off the stove, letting it simmer and disappear, never thinking of it again. I look at myself still slumped in the chair. Should I tell them? Should I tell them that some of the most precious travels can disintegrate into a dirty rag that you refuse to keep but keep it anyway, storing it inside a cabinet that you never open? Should I tell them not all travels are good travels that you should preserve?
But don’t you need the bad ones in order to learn to make good ones? Or don’t you need the bad ones so you know that everything isn’t always going to go the way you expect it to and it’s okay not to always have a perfect, magical moment? I can hear their retort echo through my head, although I wonder how such a retort could be possible when I know they are still at the age where everything must be perfect.
“How do you feel about a road trip?” I grin devilishly.
“Are you driving?”
“Heavens, no! You think my legs remember how to drive after all these years?” I snort.
” Don’t think of asking me to drive then. One, I don’t know how. Two, I’ve already done a lot of traveling.”
” Sometimes I think you’ve finally learned something. Other times I think marbles are falling out of your ears. There is no such thing as too much traveling! If you’ve grown weary of it, you aren’t paying enough attention! Now lets go!”
I pay for the meal, nodding my goodbye to the waitress in the lurid pink and white zebra stripes, and lead myself down the street. We round the corner, dodging a golden retriever leaving its mark on a protruding fire hydrant with a clean side step. Up ahead, with a broken oil barrel pressed into the dent, was a garage door, its dusted paneling painted black and blue in the word ” Concave”.
” Concave? What does that mean?” they say quizzically.
” It means I was trying to be cool but really I was being a hipster. Which is the same thing as being an idiot.”
I reach down for the rusty handle and pull up, my back and muscles groaning from years of lying dormant. Inside a banged up Volkswagen beetle sat waiting, collecting dust and grime while shooting a reproachful look the said: Oh look who has finally come back. Do you want be to work for you?
” Oh, don’t be like that, Darth Vader,” I shoot back, ” It’s not my fault I had to neglect you.”
” Darth Vader?”
” Yes, he earned it after a truck gave it a hideous face lift while driving the very route you are about to drive.”
“Me? But I don’t know how to drive!” they stare at me wild eyed, astonished.
” Well, you’re going to learn today! Now, do I still have them?” I slide my hand onto the driver’s side wheel, feeling for the chalky key. It is latched on a hitch in the shell. I scoop it off and toss it quickly to myself. Unprepared, they are slapped in the face.
” All you have to do is put one foot on the left pedal, one on the right. Not at the same time!” I screech as Darth Vader stumbles forward.
It doesn’t take long for them to adjust and before we know it we are gliding along, passing by the church with the 69 mile marker. Oh, how long it has been since I’ve been to The Dirty Bury, so called because it isn’t exactly the most appealing place ever. Yet it is where I met the Infamous 214, a crew that would stick with me longer than the Rainchild tribe, a crew consisting of some of the most colorful people responsible for experiences I never thought I’d have as well as for some of the road trips I’d never thought I’d take.
” And let me tell you… ah shucks, you aren’t writing any of this down! Can’t you write and drive at the same time?” I scramble for a postcard in which they lay chaotically on the backseat after my unzippered backpack fell over.
” Do you want to live in a ditch? Or better yet, in that tree with the squirrels?”
” Okay, okay, I’ll do it for you.”
As I was saying, road trips are some of the best ways to travel. I’ve discovered roads I didn’t know were there and took them, twisting and winding through empty fields hiding beautiful secrets: groves of dandelions and lavender bushes, quaint quiet towns with broken houses and Victorian gems, and dark luscious forests where the deer and the foxes play. I’ve discovered places that I ordinarily would not have gone without a hand guiding me: a pride parade where I basked in the streets shirtless, a zoo where two of the Rainchild Tribe tries to antagonize the geese, a cornfield where pumpkins were launched while the stump game was officially inaugurated, a medieval fair with delicious turkey legs, and a house where I spent endless nights sitting on a couch, watching the Rainchild Tribe get high while sharing ridiculous stories and beautiful poems. These adventures I cherished at one point but something happened where they all got lost and floated down the stream, lodging themselves in rocks and branches too heavy to move.
” I even ended up at a place called Red Light District,” I say casually as the car goes thump. I ignore it; I once had a raccoon stuck around the front wheel. They will be fine.
” What’s that?”
” An adventure you never need to have ever again. If you ever go to Iceland, make sure to avoid a certain museum.”
We continue along the flat road, which steadily narrowed and darken as a tall row of trees rose, shrouding the sun. On and on it goes, the route too easy to stray from. Eventually the trees clear and a bridge forms, arcing over the Pocomoke or Wicomico or one of the other ones named for the Native American tribes that built their homes around these parts. Tribe. The word turns sour on my tongue. We were supposed to be a tribe. What happened?
Piece by piece they go Up and up and up Stretching high into the heavens Shining brightly upon his head. Piece by piece they crumble To the ground in a resounding Roar reminding him he has To build again Once more Over and over the pieces go Up and up and up And just as quickly come Down, down, down And he sits in the milky mud As the brilliant sky fades And the black clouds circle Around and around and around Reminding him it will never Be done. Years and years and years Slip by faster than the Windstorm that tore his first House down, leaving him to Wander and wander and wander In search of the pieces that Would bring it back. Piece by piece he collects From the far corners of the world The door scraped from the shores Where they first met The glass window molded From the mountain where they First kissed and shared stories Nobody else knew And finally the roof Sculpted from the first cave They called their own. Up and up and up Down and down and down Why won't the pieces stay And build the home he knew From before Beneath the bright heavens That once shined onto their heads Over and over and over She passes by him with a Sad smile As she watches the pieces go Up and up and up Stretching high into the heavens Shining brightly behind the dark Veil of swirling clouds Only to come crashing Down, down, down With a resounding roar Reminding him once that was built Cannot be built the same Anymore. Slowly and slowly and slowly She walks over and grabs His hand And pulls him away from the Pieces of his first home That cannot be put together again. Piece by piece he takes Them with him so when He built a new home with her He would still have the pieces That reminded him of her Forever.
I tell myself to take a right at the light and keep cruising down past the low bridge that overlooked another river. I have never intended to end up in Salisbury, but sometimes the roads traveled can lead to unexpected places. Jet Black still lived in the same place I spent Halloween dressed as a Magic Eight ball, wishing I made it in time for the pumpkin carving, before piling everyone into Darth Vader for a late night run to Taco Bell. So I tell them to pull up beside the curb.
” BESIDE the curb, not over it!” I shout. ” By God, who is your driving teacher?”
” Um, you are?”
Is it bad I want to smack myself? ” Well, I’m fired I suppose.”
” You never told me: How did you end up here? It’s not exactly a sanitized place.”
I think for a moment. Again, how much do I want to say? Should I tell them to ignore all the letters and head to Savannah instead? No, this road is just as important as all the others.
“I need you to stay in the car,” I hand them the postcard.
” Why? Can’t I meet this person?”
“No.” Because then they won’t make the choice for themself. I snatch the key from their hand and leave them, locking the door behind me so they won’t escape. What they decide to write next is up to their vivid imagination. But the truth will be spun, whether or not it’s mine or theirs is a question that cannot be answered. You might as well directly ask a chicken why it crosses the street.
Jet Black is squatting on the grass in the backyard, transfixed in some yoga pose or whatever it is hippies like to do. I open the chain link fence and the sound of metal clanging snaps startles her. She falls onto her back, shouting my name in a voice more happy than angry.
” I’m so glad you’re here! Please, come sit! I still have a fire pit and maybe we can toast marshmallows or-“
“Smoke a bowl? And then I watch you as you fall asleep? Speaking of which what time is it? There’s still light but that doesn’t mean it isn’t your bedtime.”
She punches me lightly on the shoulder. Her strength is feeble, ready to give up the last years it has left. I take a good look at her: her smile is stretched over paper thin skin wrinkled with a weariness gifted by all the years spent walking the earth. Despite that, despite the burdens that made her old well before her time, she is still radiant, her flowery pants shimmering in the playful wind, which is just as playful as her spirit.
” So tell me,” I say sitting on the long grass in front of the fire pit. Chairs were not much the Rainchild Tribes style, not unless they were too high then chairs were a must because they prevented them from falling face first into the ashy grass. ” What is going on?”
” She passed away yesterday,” Jet Black says slowly, rubbing her no longer jet black hair with the back of her hand. ” It was unexpected and I was a mess so I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”
I shrug. ” It’s been a while since I’ve heard from her. I don’t know if I would have come.”
” That’s fair. But don’t you remember all those wild times we had? All the places we’ve been. And now its just the two of us, the last remains of a broken family.”
I did remember. I remember all the rides along the backcountry roads, some of us smoking in the backseat, others playing a cruel game where on every sharp turn the person in the middle was slammed by the people next to them, their whole body bruised and aching for hours afterward. It was hard to remember the places we went because it didn’t matter. All that matter were the songs blasting in the background as we sang and laughed and slept and did the things that seem so significant but become more magical as the love binds us closer together with a rope that could never break.
But it did break. Slowly, it frayed and we became undone by one decision after another that forced us to disappear and float away, leaving behind our ghosts. Except perhaps for one decision, which wasn’t really a decision but an act of cruel fate.
“Do you think we’d all still be together if it didn’t happen?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says. ” But aren’t you glad we had the time together at all?”
True. I did get to experience a group of people I’ve never experienced before. I did branch out and discover a church that I actually liked, although some may argue its actually a cult. It wouldn’t surprise me if I accidentally joined a cult. But aren’t all organized religion a type of cult? Anyway, I did explore the heart of Washington, a place I would not have gone if not for them, and I learned so much more about the LBTQA+ community in which without them I would have remained blinded, much to my regret. I did not have to travel far to uncover corners of the world that hid from my gaze. I just needed the right people to lift them up for me to find.
It doesn’t always matter where I go, although sometimes a place is the reason for bringing people together. Salisbury isn’t my favorite place I’ve been to aesthetically; it is flat and boring, with no grass fields and a layer of grim too rooted to ever be cleansed but that is okay because that is what gives it its character. But it is my favorite because it gave me people who have helped me in some way or another, even if it was only briefly.
We sit there, talking and reminiscing, until the evening creeps in, pushing the brightness aside, and the warm air drops to a chill. Jet Black asks me to stay for dinner, but I decline.
” Do you want me to show you where she is buried? I feel like we should have done that.”
I shake my head. ” No, she would have liked it better this way.”
” You’re right. But please, stop by again soon? Before it’s too late?”
” Of course,” I wave goodbye and walk back through the chain link fence. Darth Vader is still where I left it, although I can see two feet propped neatly on top of the dashboard.
” Okay, okay, we can go,” I pick up the postcard, which had fallen to their side, and tuck it in with the others, double wrapping a rubber band around them to keep them from flying loose.
” Finally! And guess what? I’m starving! I should call social services on you! This is child abuse!” they declare indignantly.
” Technically it’s self abuse, but yeah I know I left you in here for a long time. I’m sorry.”
” Can we just move on?”
I start to nod, but then a light bulb turns on, illuminating the dark corners inside my head. ” Wait just a minute.”