Driving makes me drowsy, so I am anxious as I contemplate my solo drive from my writer’s retreat in Montpelier, Vermont to my home north of Chicago. On most long drives, I wisely stop for refreshing naps. Once a wavering median line prompted me to pull over in Milwaukee just one hour north of my starting point. I fell asleep for a solid two and a half hours, wakened only by a ripening bladder and thickening saliva. On this cross-country trip, I cannot afford any such therapeutic dallying if I want to avoid the withering Fourth of July traffic through Chicago.
In preparation I have selected audiobooks that tread that fine line between entertainment and distraction. A prior choice of Jeremy Irons reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita cost me dearly. Iron’s reptilian voice coupled with Nabokov’s seductive prose had me so enraptured that I lost track of my accelerator foot in rural Michigan. It wasn’t until I heard the siren that I realized I was speeding. As I rolled down my window, I wanted to tell the cop about the mitigating details, about Nabokov’s use of words like “sibilant” to describe Lolita’s childlike lisp, or “crenulated” to describe the pattern that an elastic band might make on soft flesh. But the argument wasn’t going to work on this young cop with a peach-fuzzed and acne-stippled face. Forty-five minutes later, now in rural Wisconsin, I got a second ticket, but I considered the tickets as money well spent for the privilege of quality time with Jeremy Irons and Nabokov.
Since then I have sought safer entertainment with biographies or history. I am a World War I and II history buff, but the slow measured tones of the narrators can put me in a dangerous trance. Besides sometimes I am just not in the mood for Hitler. For this trip, I decide that a murder mystery will hit the right balance – a zippy plot that will keep me awake, but not encroach on the required concentration needed for safe driving. My friend recommended the author Louise Penny, and I pack in a couple of her books.
Within one hour of Montpelier I am in traffic hell. In my eagerness to avoid the Chicago traffic, I have plunked myself in the middle of arriving traffic on this holiday weekend. Lumbering campers, sharp turns and winding roads suck up too much attention to focus on a book. I must entertain myself in the odd moments of calm. I think about the Bingo game my mother made decades ago to entertain us kids during long vacation drives. She replaced the dreary entries of store-bought Bingo, such as “bird on a wire, or “cow” with spicier entries, such as “road kill, “religious lawn decoration,” or “dangling bra on a clothes line.” As I inch along, I spot additional entries for her Bingo cards, such as “driver really picking his nose,” “kids fighting in the back seat,” or “man with a hairy back mowing his lawn.” I make a mental note of the man as a potential character in a story.
Finally, after six hours, I reach New York and the blessed interstate, a shimmering ribbon unspooling all the way to Chicago. With no more jockeying for position or white-knuckled passing, I can just hit cruise control and motor on. This driving will only require a fraction of my attention. Time for the murder mystery.
I have chosen poorly. The plot line is familiar, involving a murder at a dysfunctional family reunion; every member has a plausible motive. I shift my focus to the author’s prose style, but it is simple and unadorned. I think of my hero Nabokov whose command of imagery is remarkable given that English is his third language after Russian and French.
Louise Penny’s occasional attempts at literary flourish fall short. She writes of scudding clouds and dappled shadows. What else scuds besides a cloud? I can only think of the Scud missiles featured in the Iraq Gulf War and the embedded reporter referred to as the “Scud Stud.” Besides shadows, only horses are dappled. Well okay, maybe vitiligo can dapple skin, and I think that there is such a thing as a dappled dachshund, but that’s about it.
And then there is the word “scamper,” which Penny uses to describe how ants move. I think about all the words at Penny’s disposal – scamper, scurry, scoot, skulk, scuttle, slither and skitter – each conveying intent as well as movement. Skulk and scuttle imply clandestine or evil intent – cock roaches scuttle – skitter suggests disorganized movement, while scurry is more purpose-driven. Penny’s scampering ants just don’t work for me. Scampering implies a joy and playfulness that is just not within the emotional repertoire of ants. Squirrels scamper, ants scurry. I ponder the infinite shades of movement in language and thrill to the idea that both Nabokov and I like to dissect words.
I spend a nervous night in Geneva, New York during a massive manhunt for two prisoners who have tunneled beneath the wall of the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility. They are still on the loose when I leave in the morning, directly on my route through upstate New York. I am safe whizzing along in my cocooned world of the front seat, but I feel vulnerable as I pull into the Niagara Falls oasis for gas. They have already hijacked one car. Do I park amidst many others, seeking safety in numbers, or perhaps park in the open where it would be more difficult for a crazed criminal to sneak up with piano wire, garrote me and commandeer my maroon Honda CR-V? I park the car in plain view but quickly scuttle in and out, relieved to be on my way again.
This would be a much better murder mystery than Penny’s, I think. Maybe the man with the hairy back could be one of the escaped prisoners, his back a defining feature that he cannot disguise. This would be my first foray into fiction and I relish the freedom to make up whatever I want. Why not pile on other quirks to my character? What the hell, I could give my prisoner a sibilant lisp, and/or a pock-marked face, crenulated from old acne scars.
New York turns into Ohio and finally I see signs for Cleveland, where my grandmother lived. I see her exit for Kirtland and am tempted to take a quick loop to rekindle fond memories, but I stick to my time schedule and keep heading west. As I squint into the afternoon sun, I remember my grandmother’s firm opinion on the superiority of the east side residents compared to those living west of Cleveland. “The people on the west side have to commute into the sun in the morning and then again when they go home at night,” she said. I think it does something funny to their brains. They’re just not as smart as us east-siders. We never have to look into the sun when we commute.”
Here’s another possible story line, I think, perhaps a parody of Romeo and Juliet’s forbidden love that rips apart affluent families living in competing suburbs. My car has turned into an enforced writer’s retreat.
I finally reach the Ohio Indiana border. One more state to go. I gaze ahead at the featureless landscape. Sometimes I am just not in the mood for amber waves of grain. Indiana is a skinny state and I feel I should be almost home, but I am wrong, so wrong. I am reminded of the scene in the movie Lawrence of Arabia where Peter O’Toole must cross the searing Nefud desert to reach his goal of Aqaba. The local Bedouins say it has never been done. Camels with wrinkled, dehydrated humps stagger onward and O’Toole’s only sign of life is a determined glimmer in his piercing blue eyes. He will get there or die trying. Well, Indiana is my Nefub desert and Chicago my Aqaba. And surprisingly, Indiana seems to agree. The license plates contain the state motto, “Indiana, the Crossroads of America.” Even the residents think that Indiana is meant to be endured and not enjoyed.
I trundle on, tempted to pull over to revive my softening brain, which Nabokov might describe as “all ooze and squid-cloud.” Vigorous shoulder hunches and sustained butt clenches that raise me off my seat provide temporary stimulation. Finger clenches on the steering wheel are less successful, but I do notice that they make my hands look like wizened claws of a 100-year-old chicken.
The setting sun hits the rear-view mirror at the perfect angle to highlight the delicate crepe-like wrinkles on my face. I notice my left nostril is larger than my right and there is more grey hair on my right temple than my left. My glasses are crooked on my nose and I wonder if my ears are alop. As I run my tongue along my teeth, I detect a slight misalignment. I remember a funky Peruvian sweater I bought years ago. The tag read, “The minor irregularities in this garment are part of its hand-made charm.” I hope this describes me.
I am as weary as O’Toole’s droopy camel, drifting dangerously. An inventory of my asymmetries no longer keeps me awake. I return to mental games, this time focusing on idioms. How many millennials know that the phrase “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” describing mindless obedience, comes from the mass suicide engineered by Jim Jones in the remote jungle of Guyana? Years from now will the phrase “Land it in the Hudson” still be in play to describe a heroic rescue? I try to come up with an idiom that transcends time. “Stew in Your Own Juices” is as apt today as it was when a caveman first conquered fire and put a carcass in a pot. Who was that clever linguist? Perhaps Shakespeare, the towering genius of word play, or maybe even Chaucer.
Ah, finally, I see it, my Lake Michigan peeking through the skyline of Chicago. I have beaten the weekend traffic. I swing around the base of the lake and shoot out the north side of the city, a horse to the barn streaking towards the northern suburbs. I briefly wonder if this timeless idiom was invented some 6,000 years ago when horses were first domesticated. But no, I no longer need contrived entertainment. My mind pivots like a heat-seeking missile to focus on home, where I will find good potato chips, reruns of Law and Order, and a blank piece of paper just calling out for a man with a hairy back.
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