We were lulled into a false sense of security
by Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire
and a sunset that would have buckled our knees if we weren't already sitting.
Laurel was calling us "Team Stan". I had never thought to see such a fine sunset in Ohio, but there it was, behind us, in front of us, as we sped eastward away from five days with people we'd known so well, but had never met. We were reeling, our minds trying to do anything to forget that what we were experiencing was a happy ending, or any ending at all, really. Rob was in the passenger seat, helping me evaluate whether or not The Swimming Hour was really as good as I wanted it to be. Laurel was on the hump, Brian to her right and Juan to her left. This is how I remember it: this may not be how it was. I could not hear their conversation from the driver's seat. I think we were trying to forget and remember simultaneously, something that seems likely and possible when a person is exhausted.
The sunset, this incredible sky-long splash of hues that seemed to spill onto the earth below it, was late, almost occuring at nine o'clock. The drive was going to be long, but I didn't mind. I was still charged from the weekend, from the inherent glee in placing faces with names. We stopped at a fireworks stand and lament that it is closed: a sign boasted "Buy any firework, get the second for 99 cents." The sunset was over by then.
There are bridges and tunnels around the south end of Pittsburgh that mask the city entirely, and when you emerge from the final structure, the city just lunges out at you. It's passing through the rabbit hole and finding a forgotten civilization, baseball team and everything. Everybody but Juan gasped simultaneously: Juan was examining the end of his eyelids in the middle of an hour long blink.
We stopped at some unfortunately named all night family restaurant, some dine 'n' dash that loved its apostrophes. While waiting for meals meant to merely sustain, we doled out Jessica's temporary tattoos. You get Scary Anime Eyes Creature. You are "fab-u-loso". You get a jolly skeleton. You get a penguin creature with a boo boo on its head. We left some of them as part of our unamused waitress's tip.
END REEL ONE
A half-an-hour later, we are on I-79, northbound, careening along with Superchunk on the stereo. Everyone in the back is reviewing pictures from the trip on Juan's laptop. My eyes are on the road and I only see it in flashes. First there is road, then there is a deer right in front of the car. It is close, running to the west, almost about to make it but not quite fast enough. I cannot swerve, I only have time to swear and brace myself. The front left of the car catches the animal and I lose a light. The road is darker. Amid half groggy, yet suddenly aware, questions of "What was that?" I pull over as calmly as possible. My driver's side door no longer opens, so Rob helps me out. Everyone is fine. Nobody is hurt. I walk around and examine the front of the car. The front is caved, matted with blood and fur. The radiator is leaking over the pavement. Stan, the Stannous Bebop, my car, looks paniced, sad, full of deja vu no doubt harkening back to my accident in February. I reel from deja vu for a second and then ask myself:
What if it's still alive?
Juan is already on the phone to Bart. I hand him my AAA card and tell him I need to walk back really quick. Rob joins me, Laurel runs to catch up. "Are you sure you want to come with us?" I ask her in some strange deluded form of chivalry. She nods, touches my elbow. I stride ahead, holding her flashlight in front of us to ward off approaching traffic.
It is across the road. We find wreckage, a VW emblem, pieces of fluid tanks. I wait and cross the street. Rob follows. There is a guard rail, and the deer -- young, a fawn, possibly a doe -- is crumpled at the end of it. Its eyes are open, but it is not breathing. Its leg is separated, impossibly thrown a few feet further, it seems. I don't remember blood, but I do not see it breathing. It is not breathing. It is dead it is dead it is dead and painless now.
I turn away, take the flashlight off of it, put it back into its dark dark place. "It's fine," I think I say to Rob. "Let's go back."
We cross the street after a truck passes. For a minute I am worried that Rob will step out too early. He's smarter than that. We catch back up to the vehicle, and everyone is trying to figure out exactly where we are. A van full of Canadians heading back to Ontario pulls over and offers some sympathy and assistance. Soon I am on the phone to AAA and trying to explain exactly where we are. A state trooper shows up, takes down very complete information about my vehicle. After about half-an-hour on the phone (I am this far north of this road, I am this far south of Erie, I am clueless and my car is injured and help me help me help me), I am able to talk to the trooper.
Contradictory statements: "If you had swerved a little to the right, you'd have missed it," was followed by "I hit a deer every year or so. I'm actually due for one." He was tired of doing this part of his job, I think, tired of seeing scared and shivering motorists disable their vehicles on the wildlife. He gives me part of an accident report, tells me not to mail it for fourteen days. Brian and I wait for the tow truck, the rest forge ahead with the officer towards a Motel 6 in Meadville.
The rain is a strange flavor. It reminds me of Portland, but the backwoods abandoned road does not. Rob and Laurel and Juan and Brian were whispering nervous jokes about the deer lurking just beyond the trees, ready to spring on us, all lustful for revenge. Brian smokes and we talk about each others lives in the intermittent glow of hazard lights. The truck pulls up. My jacket pocket is screaming at me and I don't hear it: it is Juan's phone, and he is calling to tell me they are at the hotel, that there is a key waiting for us at the desk. Brian and I continue talking about the idle hazy future on the tow truck.
END REEL TWO
Brian and I arrive at the hotel and everyone else is idly watching an old Laverne and Shirley rerun, getting ready for bed. Juan is in the middle of figuring out plans to get us out of there: Chris and Jane will be passing through there the next day on the way from Ohio to New York City. They will be able to help him get down to Pittsburgh and rent a car. This all sounds solid. We will get home, but all I want at the moment is sleep.
A sudden prioritization enters my brain, and I realize I need to call my insurance company. I'm on the phone for maybe five minutes and my claim request is terminated after they realize that something is wrong with my account and that I don't have coverage. This is news to me, but I'm too tired to worry about something I know I should be able to deal with later.
Sleep would come easy, but be fraught with repeat images, an internal film loop: a road, a deer, a deer closer, no deer, a darker road. Still frames: blood on the rear view window, fur where a headlamp used to be, the deer by the road, its glassy eyes without focus, its leg, its leg, its leg.
Looking on Juan's website now, I see pictures he took of us in our sleep. I don't think this is a violation. I think it is honesty, in a strange, low-light fashion.
Juan woke up apparently a half-an-hour after we all went to bed. I wonder what film loop he was seeing in his mind, why he, even after all the exhaustion of the weekend, all the moving from place to place (he really did get the short end of the bed stick on just about every night), could not get a decent night's rest.
His spot vacated, Laurel abandons her crowded hotel bed and falls back asleep next to me. Believe it or don't, one hotel room with five people seems like spacious accommodations, seems downright roomy. I wake up and afternoon light is leaking in. We are all sleepyeyed and still trying to completely grasp exactly where we are. Rob and I end up eating at the nearby Appleby's after I pick up a phone card to contact the towing company and my mother.
Jane and Chris show up with nutella and nilla wafers. There is a quick trip to the tow yard with Chris so I can get everybody's remaining belongings out of my car. The blood is dried and rusty on my car. The countryside is calm, beautiful. Back at the hotel, we pass around a few rounds of eat poop you cat. Jane wins in my heart with They hit each other like fucking MTV intended. There are others, but my memory is bad. We all cram into the shower for a photo opportunity, but later I accidentally erase it while playing with the camera. Chris and Jane leave, take Brian and Juan with them down to the rental car and hour-and-a-half away. Laurel and Rob and I leave the hotel room and the itchiness of cabin fever behind. We are intrepid and hike up a hill behind a Cracker Barrel and encounter spit bugs and poison ivy. Back in the hotel, exhausted from our adventuring, we try and play gin without gin, but end up playing Go Fish with important figures in Medical Science.
And, as we walked along the hill, I would catch flashes, see logs with orange fungus and, just for a second, see an animal crumpled by the side of the road.
END REEL THREE
Rob is tired, needs a nap; Laurel is hungry, needs tomatoes and bread and cheese. I walk with her to the Cracker Barrel, we want so badly for it to be a grocery store but are instead confronted with nicknackery. We get candy sticks (oh, they have horehound, beloved horehound) and giggle over postcards with deer on them. There is a walk down the street, down the state highway to a large building that has GIANT EAGLE on it. We take our chances on it being a supermarket and are rewarded fifteen minutes later with imported tomatoes and sesame bread and muenster.
We are not able to do horrible things to Rob in his sleep, as he is already awake and reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by the time we get back. We all eat tiny sandwiches with our basic ingredients and laugh and laugh and laugh. We are making the best of our situation and it's not difficult at all. Today's sunset is coming in through the window and I am sitting in the little patch it makes. Laurel says to me, "Do you feel like a god, in the sunshine, with your tomatoes and bread and cheese?" and I have to admit that she is right, I do.
Juan and Brian show up after the sunset with a slightly smaller than the promised mid-size vehicle. We wave goodbye to the hotel room and fill the trunk to full with our belongings. The rented Mustang feels slightly smaller than a clown car, but we're all used to being close. I watch the road ahead with foggy sleepy ocean eyes. Laurel, once again on the hump, tells us all what is behind the green glass door. Rob, to her left, and Brian, to her right, can't immediately figure it out. Juan, driving, and I, in the passenger seat, catch on quick enough and torture the other two. We are heading back to our respective homes at long long last.
As the voices drone and the music fades into a subtle groove, I look ahead and see my film loop. Sometimes, the deer is replaced by objects: sagebrush, tractor tires, houses, giant PEZ dispensers, Lou Reed. All of these do the same damage to the car. The effect is always the same: road, object, object closetooclose, object gone and road darker. I close my eyes and it is no worse.
IT IS NEVER THE END. EVERYTHING IS CHANGING.