This is a short story that I’m going to get published. I have yet to figure out how far to go… it could turn into a novel.
The tentative title is “Darkened Roads”. That’ll change though.
I’m driving on Route 80 towards the sunset, and I see the green sign that says, ?Allamuchy Exit? right above the highway. I 'm almost to Pennsylvania, and that means I am closer to getting away from this state that I haven?t left in so many years. I used to hate Pennsylvania because of the memories that haunted me; there are always ghosts standing guard at the Delaware, and their eyes light up when they see me coming. Things have changed though, and now I have to go through the hills to get away.
I?ve always been a man who likes getting lost, and that seems impossible to me in a state where everyone lives on top of each other, shit town after shit town, piled up like old beer bottles at a recycling center. Not a night has gone by that I didn?t see some asshole I?d gone to high school with, one who thought I was a delinquent back then, but all of a sudden has a clear interest in my life now. Half the time I tell them I just got out of Passaic County, while at the same time turning my head so they can see the long scar that decorates my cheek. Not one person says a word after I tell them that, and most times they try as quickly as they can to break the conversation and get the hell away from me. What can I say, it gives me a chuckle.
Sometimes I would just go into the Paterson strip clubs and watch the whores dance, buying beers from taps that haven?t been blown out in decades. At least I knew none of the Nancies I went to school with would be around here?God forbid they be seen at the dank holes around the Passaic River, lest their fellow yuppies think less of them.
The more that civilization fades into my rearview mirror, the better I feel. As I’m crossing the Delaware, I take a quick look at the picture on my cell phone of me and the girl. For a second I feel bad, but?what the hell. I tossed it out the window, and when it hit the water it sunk under the weight of a million drunken midnight conversations, and I was glad to see it die. I wanted it all to die, every little but of the life I?d had before. Whipping Post comes on the radio, and the vibrating bass line fumbles around in between the static that is overtaking the station.
I’ve been driving all day, and my eyes are beginning to shut involuntarily even though it’s only four o’clock. I should pull over. A low brown building lies on the side of the road, and there is a light up sign that says, “Food, Coffee, Cigarettes” written in red script. This must be the main eating place in this bumblefuck town. There’s a line of bikes outside, along with maybe three or four other cars, two of which are minivans.
I park, and light a cigarette. I grab the rear-view mirror and take a look at my eyes, wipe them with my fingers, and look back. The smoke is drifting towards my face, and suddenly I look much older than my 26 years. I run my hand over my unshaven chin, and realize that I like shit. Turns out my ex was right, and I am apparently aging like Nick Nolte, not George Clooney.
Whatever. There?s no women worth impressing in Pennsylvania anyway.
I smoke my cigarette in the diner, silently thanking god that the Democrats haven’t captured the Pennsylvania state government and banned the shit yet. As I gaze out the window and into the woods that line the road, I see the branches shaking with movement, try to focus on it. Probably some fucking animal, some squirrel or other thing that has a life far more boring than any life should. Maybe that squirrel has a family. Ha. What fucking animal cares about their family? That’s not the way nature works, goddamnit, it’s kill or be killed. We humans are the only ones so weak as to give two shits about what our family thinks, or what our stupid fucking ex-girlfriend thinks about our drinking or "destructive nat-
She scares the shit out of me. She looks irritated, like she has been standing there for a while and has something better to do besides wait on me. I know she doesn’t.
?Coffee," I say.
?No food?? she asks. I look at her. She is ugly, with matted brown hair and fucked up teeth. I don’t know how these rednecks get so damn ugly… although I bet it’s probably the same process that makes most rich families beautiful- they breed the ugly out. It’s kind of Aryan, if you think about it.
?No. No food. If I want food, though, you?ll be the first person I tell.?
I say it with a straight face and dripping in sarcasm. I know she?s going to spit in my coffee now, but fuck her. I look out the window again, and see the bikers smoking cigarettes by the line of Harleys. I don’t know how they got out there without me seeing them, but they look like hell, most of them just wearing the colors and no shirt, which gives them that rugged look of guys who haven?t showered in a couple weeks and don?t give two shits. Most of them are smoking cigarettes, and half of them are drinking beer in open view of the road. A guy walks outside, holding the door open for his wife and little son. The wife makes the mistake of being gorgeous and blonde, and this attracts the wrong kind of attention.
The bikers swagger over towards her, and I can see their mouths moving. The husband is getting nervous, and he should be. As the bikers talk, they begin to circle the couple, and now these poor folks are caught in something that is going to get very out of hand very quickly. One of them grabs the husband firmly with a hand on his shoulder, and begins snaking between him and his wife. The man’s eyes remind me of my dog’s when she knew she was about to get a bath.
There?s too many of them, and he?s getting pulled away and the rest quickly close in on her. The little kid is starting to cry, and the wife is getting extremely upset, and all I can think about is how I wish I had a fucking shotgun and how I?d blow every one of their heads apart for screwing with this woman like that. I?ve always had a soft spot for women even though I hate them, and right now I feel like I?m watching one of those old horror movies where too many girls die in too many gruesome ways and that sick feeling wells up inside of me.
The kid is wailing now, and the guy is either too smart or too cowardly to really put up much of a fight. I?m considering getting up and going outside to try and break this shit up, but I?m not in the mood to get the shit kicked out of me.
I put the cigarette out, and there is a war going on inside me, because I cannot watch whatever is about to happen happen, but I am powerless against twenty of them. My eyes tear involuntarily as they always do, but as I’m about to stand up, I see a man intently walking from the end of the parking lot. He’s a big man who walks with his head down, and he’s got on a black cowboy hat that makes him look like a riverboat gambler. He?s got his hands in the pockets of his jacket, this man is somehow dangerous.
He nears one the bikers, and I see a badge flash from his left hand while he pulls a gun out with his right. He?s pointing at the guy, not overtly aggressive but firmly. He motions to the gun with his head, and points between the outlaw?s eyes. There is a moment of tension as they stare at each other, and I back away from the window.
Suddenly the biker laughs, and waves his hand in the air. He puts his arm around this… cop, and starts yelling to the other bikers. They release the guy, and the woman and child are left alone long enough to get the hell out of there and into their car. The minivan speeds off with screeching tires, and the cop turns and begins walking towards the road where he came from. His head is low again, and he?s not nearly as proud of himself as I would be if I just faced down a bunch of bikers. For a second I wonder if he?s thinking about what would have happened if he hadn’t been there, and why such terrible things happen in this world that good men like him have to stop… but then I think that he’s just thanking god nothing happened, because they’d have killed him too, as soon as look at him.
I look down. My coffee is cold.
I walk out and look at the strips on the pavement from where the bikers burned out when they left the diner empty handed and mighty pissed. I hope a trailer jackknifes in front of them and they all die in a gas fire, burning slowly in flaming puddles.
I?m somewhere in western Pennsylvania, and the landscape is blanketed in a thick black veil as night descends. I stop off and get a hotel room off of 80, and ask the woman for a smoking room. I never know if these still exist anywhere, but Pennsylvania is better than Jersey about that. I shower and shave, try to look somewhere near human. I wipe my face off in the bathroom with a towel as my smoke curls up from my fingertips. The tiles are breaking on the floor, and the walls that were once white are now colored a grimy tan. When I’m in places like this, I imagine what has happened here before, what terrible things went on in the last thirty years in this very room that I’ll never know about. My imagination wanders, and scenes run through my head like a movie… a man with a stripper, doing lines of cocaine off of the table until they’re both so fucked up that he beats the hell out her and leaves her lying a bloody mess on the floor between the two beds… a panicked man with a blonde beard wearing a red flannel trying to hide a gun in the drawer of the night table, next to the King James Bible…smoking cigarette after cigarette and shaking nervously… a formally beautiful woman with stringy hair tying a ripped piece of a shirt around her arm, furiously working to get that needle in the arm to make the ripping feeling in her stomach go away…
This happens to me all the time. I see ghosts, memories, things that may or may not have happened, things that I know occurred things, things that I wish occurred. It used to happen in my living room; nights when I would watch my ex-girlfriend walk out the door for the last time as I slept soundly, ignoring, as I always do, everyone else’s trials and tribulations in favor of taking care of myself. I would see dead friends standing next to me when I would have lonely cigarettes outside parties, and they would be leaning on railings, grinning, looking out into the woods. Sometimes I see happy things, good memories where my grandfather and I would sit out on the deck of his massive house and watch the bats fly over at dusk searching for food. I would worry that they were going to attack me, like they do in the movies, and he would laugh at my goofy fears, signs of a dumb kid who had a lot to learn.
Other times, I see the black truck flipped over, blood all over, the piece of glass lodged in my cheek, my eyes rolling around. I didn’t know what to do when I came to, so I lit a cigarette, sitting there upside down in the crushed cab of the pickup.
It always ends the same way, with caskets going into the ground, and roses on the lid as I kiss my hand and lay it on the gray metal, again, and wonder when He’s coming to collect from me. That is normally the end of my wanting to remember anything, and the ghosts fade out.
I look at myself in the mirror, and even though I look better than I did ten minutes ago I still look like hell. I don?t know why. Maybe I?m sick. I think about doing some pushups to get my blood flowing, but I?m too damn tired. I need a beer.
I don?t want to attract attention to myself, and so I don?t put any gel in my hair, sticking with an old Red Sox hat with a broken brim that I?ve had for about ten years. As I?m walking out of the lobby, I ask the broad at the counter where the nearest bar is.
?Four miles west.?
West again. Of course. ?OK. Is it shithole??
She says nothing, just gives me a dirty look. My Jersey accent is coming through, and the farther in I get, the less everyone seems to like it.
I head down some road that winds through the hills and climbs up for miles only to drop and wind again. I keep thinking I passed the fucking place, until I happen upon a house in the middle of the woods that has a big porch and a huge gravel parking lot off to the side, and the only thing that tips it off to me that it?s a bar is a neon “Budweiser” sign in the window. I pull in, get out of the car, and I hear loud blugrass rolling out. It slowly winds down, and again the lot is silent except for a howling in the distance that sounds like babies crying.
The porch creaks under my boots, and I open the screen door and then the heavy wooden door, and I?m seriously hoping that this is a bar and not some rednecks? house that I?m walking into. My fears are allayed when I see that the place actually is, and a gray haired, ponytailed guy asks me for five dollars.
I walk to the far end and sit in the corner. The haggard bartender comes over, and I order three shots of whiskey and a beer.
?That?s five dollars,? she says with a toothy grin. Another ugly one. At least the beer is cheap though.
?Here," I say, handing her a ten. "The extra is for you.? She smiles at me and I cringe on the inside.
The stage is at the far end of the room running from wall the wall. There are tables set up in front of it, and we at the bar remain in the back. There?s a couple young guys who have ragged beards and sound like rednecks sitting next to me, and I can barely understand what the fuck they?re saying between the noise and their accents. It?s a constant reminder that I?m nearing Appalachia with every mile southwest I go, that accent. That, and the Denny?s that New Jersey got rid of a long fucking time ago.
The band is good, led by a tall man in a tan cowboy hat with a brown goatee. He is smoking through some Stevie Ray Vaughn song, and he plays it as well as the dead guitarist ever could. I am amazed. Some broad is dancing and screaming to the song, and she?s the only one on her feet in the place. I can?t tell if she?s black or white, and even whether it?s a ?she? or not is up for grabs.
This is an old time bar, and this broad is definitely out of place. There are a lot of old hillbillies here, and it?s certainly not the kind of place I want to start a fight at. There?s a couple of guys with wearing blue flannels at the end of the bar, and they?re giving me looks that make it seem like they don?t like that I?m here. There are a lot of older people here, friends of the band or of the bar, and I am not safe here.
“You all got that same damn look, you know that? Them bewildered eyes… you?re all the same.” The voice came from behind me.
?What?? I turn aroun.
There’s a woman standing there who I didn’t notice when I walked in. She seems like she might have once been beautiful, but that has long since left her.
?You heard me. All you boys from the East thinking that running out of your homes is gonna help something."
?The fuck do you know about me? Fuckin Christ, you hillbillies are fucking crazy.?
?Crazy? Maybe. But we know about people. We seen men like you. You?ll never be here again, but you?ve been here before ten, twenty times. It?s been a couple years since I?ve seen you. Once you?re gone, another one will come with another story. You can?t hide out here forever."
“Really? Thanks for the advice.” I turn away, getting more pissed.
“Ghosts don?t get lost on these highways or in these hills. Sometimes, there just ain?t anywhere you can go. Sometimes they stalk you, and flood you. Other times they?ll just knock on the window of your hotel room and make you think that it?s a tree branch. They?re patient, you know? They got all the time in the world.”
I don?t like the way this is going. This broad is creeping me out. This whole fucking state is creeping me out. I knew that when I started driving out here, I should?ve listened to myself. I buy three more shots, and get lost in my head again as the music blares.
You should know that since I was little, I?ve hated the country. I know I said that before, but the reasons have changed as I got older. Now, I think that it?s too open, there?s too much space, too much room to get lost. Men can disappear out here, and that woman said something that I?d thought forever- the ghosts here don?t forget. There isn?t progress out here, there isn?t civilization, there aren?t bulldozers and buildings and things collapsing and being rebuilt and changing. There?s just woods; the same woods that were here, that have been here, the same woods that will always be here. They can talk to each other, they can tell the stories that we have forgotten. The ghosts wander through them, searching…
The houses have seen the Civil War, some have seen the Revolution, some were hospitals for both. There have been ten or fifteen generations of men that have never left the same ten square miles, and there is a mysticism down here that we don’t have back in New Jersey. These folks take their lore seriously, so seriously that sometimes it makes me wonder if the things are true.
I want to leave, but I?m less comfortable out there then I am in here. The band has filed offstage, and only the guy with the tan cowboy hat is left. He plays the guitar like it?s no one?s business, and right now all he has is an acoustic with him, and he?s sitting on a stool. His eyes are closed, and his goatee covers his mouth as he looks at the ceiling. Suddenly his head is back towards the ground, and he begins stomping his foot. The bar is still. He?s going into his own special version of Johnny Cash?s ?God is Gonna Cut you Down.? The black broad is still shaking her hips in accordance with the music, and is slowly backing over by me. She?s getting a little too close, and I stand up off my barstool. She?s singing.
She turns around towards the bar, grabs someone?s beer, and drinks whatever is left. When she puts it down I see there?s a cigarette in the bottom of the bottle.
She looks up and is mumbling, then looks straight into my eyes, her wild short afro soaked with sweat, singing, and the whole bar is stomping along with the beat that the guitarist.
?As sure as God made black and white, what?s done in the dark will be brought to the light.?
The hairs on my spine rise again, and I start backing away from this thing. She?s seething and staring, and is no longer human. There was something wrong with that whiskey, and I’m spinning way more than I should; I need to leave. All I can hear is the chorus, over and over, ?You can run on for a long time?sooner or later God is gonna cut you down.? The guitar player is leering at me, and smiling, repeating it, over and over. I begin backing up and end up in the corner, and I see the sign for the bathroom. I dash in and lock the door.
I?m looking around frantically and the bathroom begins to spin. I look up and see a window that?s longer than it is tall, and I throw the bottle through it. I climb onto the sink and start feeding myself through it I hear knocking at the door and yelling on the other side. In a second I?m out, and into the brush.
I run around the back, and lurch towards the door to my truck. There?s people beginning to come outside, and I speed off, my rear tires kicking gravel at anyone behind me. I?m onto the road, and hauling ass back to that hotel.
I churn into the parking lot and slam my truck into park. I run up the flight of stairs to the room and grab my shit, and run back to the car. I slip down the stairs and fall, slamming my tailbone on the pavement. Fucking drinking.
I throw everything into the car, slam the door, and take off into the night, seeing that devil woman in the bed of my truck out of the corner of my eye every time I take my eyes off the road. Another ghost joins me for the ride.