Audience of One

wyoming intermezzo

She'd left him long ago.
Even as they sat together
separated to either side
of the sweat-slick, red vinyl couch
of the big, '76 Chevy Bonneville
station wagon, 3' between them
was hardly enough by far
for her. He kept his eyes
ahead, on the road
out the cracked windshield
and on the two kids shimmering
in the rearview mirror—
glad of a chance to turn to her
and shout them quiet,
whenever, after coaxing and bribing,
she'd throw up her hands
as if from the shatter
of falling glass...
those hands that he knew,
soon, she would close to them
for good.
                    What concerned them both,
most, were the kids:
little toe-headed Bethie and Mark
had been keyed-up for days
over this, one last, summer trip;
not exactly a vacation—after all,
the emptiness was still here
working between them
but an unspeaking agreement
to travel all together like this,
every year, lulled onward
out into rural America
to the classic 50's and 60's
sounds lingering over AM bandwidths,
only half-listening in
on the usual patter and bicker
of radio jocks and callers-in
lost above the chuck and whine
of whitewalls wearing
on the sleek interstate tarmac;
casually cradled
in the plummeting steel carcass,
shaking—without emotion;
a minimalist sky racing ahead
oxidized blue and patched with gray
concrete clouds.
                    Like a dream
you want to hold onto
just a minute longer before waking,
America, from San Diego
to the high Wyoming plateaus,
passed and passed by
in a blur, repeatedly struck
from window to window.
They would remember
the man who, hitchhiking,
had his hand extended
as if inviting closer inspection
or in beckoning as if requesting
some sort of participation or,
perhaps, merely ushered them along:
this way folks.
                    The billboards,
advertising the usual brands
of satisfaction, hadn't changed much
over the years since they,
themselves, had traveled here
slower, less negotiable roads
as children: they had been promised
only so much further...
to the Dairy Queen's ice cream,
to Big Jim's Western Souvenir
and Market, the motel and swimming pool
and on to the great, untrammeled National Parks
("Can we go faster. Daddy?"); yes, but
it had all been so much more
black and white then, hadn't it?
Color was carnivals and chasing blue
and yellow moths across green grass
not 200,000 hues of glitter
and gore pixilated onto
500 fiber optic cable channels
that's what was different now:
how could any dream stand
so much color so long
and not dissolve, hold so many
forgotten miles and not fragment,
denying so much of hope
and for freedom's sake, love.
She'd soon be free
of him—and them—
the life that held her back;
she had come to resent it
and they would lose her
                    in that distance
out beyond the bug-kissed glass,
over the brown humped hills
and irrigated, greening fields of I-5,
past the interminable gutted wastes,
the iridescent incisions
of the Great Basin desert lands,
where I-15 is stitched in like sutures,
through the old, needle-pine forests,
around glistening, glacial-thaw lakes,
outpouring the winding tributaries
of the I-80 Sierras and Rockies:
not the way it used to be
all there was for hundreds of miles
after each pullover named Last Chance.
Now so much of it was gashed
and gauzed, painted and pimped,
subdivided and sold, the plague spreading
from the dying cities, its mycelium
cloning off in out-ringing clusters
of condo-sprawl, up-cropping into malls,
all with the same franchises
and demographics and weekly tragedies,
the neoteric cairns marking the passage
of America, the bizarre
monuments like those you find
whittled from silt in the arid,
southwest canyon lands.
                    Here trod
the rugged sociopath, the genocidal
pioneer, refugees from history
and penalty, prospectors
of dreams and destiny,
picking for one more good vein,
who first tracked these routes
to the same ends: following
the scattered trail of crumbs
left by the world-creeping
imperialist incubus,
bartering glory
in plunder, in avarice
and violence; invincible,
its (evermore palatable)
war machine pandering
Manifest Destiny, the ethics
of opportunity:
at last, in flight
even from time itself,
traveling fast enough,
the onrushing foreground
distracts one sufficiently
not to see that its right
at your heels.
In between
the tidy tracts was dirt
and sparse, dead grass,
great ecologies of scrub and weed
and then... more dirt...
the better part of America barren
for lack of rain and heart
on a geologic scale—stingy,
like a vast bonsai potting
whose gardener died, years ago,
leaving it strangling:
the art of stunting
become the habit of forgetting.
How many others had come this way,
already, maybe even driving
in this same make of car—
arriving, but missing, trying
to remember.
                    Ever since Ford,
hadn't everyone grown up
in one of these, on similar
August trips, on the way
to the doctors or lessons,
visiting funny, fussy relatives
or taking in a drive-in movie
from the awkward prospects
of backseats. This was
the last time for this one—
for any of them—
as though memory, too,
would soon wreck and abandon
out here, rusting somewhere
in the all unhallowed vastness.
Many searched it,
branching off, merging on
every side, pursuing loneliness
into evermore desolate ways,
the caged rat pressing the button
harder and more often
for less and less
in return.
                    She felt
it had long since become
too much an act, a parody of
the original and, if it was
only for the children's sake,
this would be the final performance
...and even in this old heap
they would not
break down:
                    like the dim trains
that trussed the continent
in timber and steel remained
like camera-flash blindness...
while posing in front of a geyser
or the leering Bob's Big Boy,
the rented, aluminum-sided cabin,
one inside the car—out-of-focus—
one parent was always left out
of the picture. Looking back
the children would believe
that was the way it had always been
and those early memories,
some sort of trick, a deceit
like two trips to the same place
at different times
with different people,
like history: reweaving its losses
into freedoms, rephrasing
its cowardice as security,
its paralysis as resolve,
its atrocities as virtuosity,
all politically pureed
and slickly parlayed
by chop shop popes
and canting ad execs
into billion-dollar convictions,
spoon-fed by the astigmatic
to the young and the dying.
Even with the new thaumaturgies—
and virtual reality
(let the machine into your mind,
they say)—the straw man
standing out in the amber fields
is become impotent
and, what's worse,
the crows have learned from him
where to feed.
                    After lunch from the cooler
in the car and dinner at a chain diner,
the air came thinner and chiller,
the outlook more impenetrable, bare.
The hard, vertical walls of boulders
and heavy stands of pine in the high
Sierra passes precluded vision.
As night closed around
they took turns driving
in shifts,
the trance of
the white-line's
repetitive dance
pacing time—
regular as heartbeats—
coming almost audibly
(or is that a bulge
in one of the tires?),
the radio blather more
sibilant, sounding
more and more remote
with each mile behind,
memory would shift,
up each new grade,
with every warning
of unbroken yellow,
time flowed in fits
seeming too soon
and then too long before they would get
where they were going
uneasy with wherever they were now—
if only they could stop to rest a bit,
to reconsider (but wouldn't that be
even more terrifying).
the roof of the car
you couldn't really see
the stratus-shuttered stars
or the flickering halogen lamp of moon
hanging from its bent black beam
and one began to miss
all that light from the cities:
the street-woven community
wrapped loosely around
like a warm afghan shawl
against the high, rare air...
where they were headed now.
flushed with the heat turned up,
tapping the window open a crack,
breathing began to come easier
for her and she began to relax,
the darkness drawing her forward
into its seductive den. She could feel
it was right...
he wouldn't, though
he couldn't avoid it
(like road-kill, stunned
and lurid in the high-beams),
not while he was driving,
not even in the peace
of the other's sleep.
seeped from the eastern ridges into their eyes
like salt at the edges of the flats
of Utah, the high western vistas
of the sudden Wasatch opening
to their right, miraculous,
like an early, winter thaw
rescuing settlers past hope
from the immaculate claustrophobia
of unreachable passes frozen
in the dark peaks behind them.
The night had faded wordlessly,
every necessary exchange
anticipated, as if each unfinished
sentence had been kissed away
before it could even form
on the lips of the departed
loved one.
                    Mark and Beth Ann,
soothed by the familiar hush and hum
of wind and road, stared out at
the perpetual whirling edge
of the ancient alluvial detritus
as from the delicate rocking stylus
toward the far spindle
of a giant, spinning disc,
moving without motion
in an insoluble present.
Before hunger agitated them
they stopped for breakfast: pancakes,
and scrambled eggs, violet and sweet
with blueberry syrup gotten into them.
These things hadn't changed much
out here, somehow, like survivalists
barricaded from time
and stockpiled against doubt.
the same enigma when stopped
at a drive-up for lunch:
why hadn't the white bag
and the hamburgers, the cokes and fries
changed along with the spiraling numbers
beneath the names on the green signs
and most everything else, unless...
unless the true case was somehow
just the reverse; the fast foods
and family menus, the cola slogans,
the single, endless road
were the carrier,
like a common house mite
whose drool broadcasts
an encephalitis-like virus
narcoleptically preventing
any notice being taken of it
or like an amnesiac forgetting,
foremost, the incipient trauma
having obliterated his way back
or like the first alarm
before pressing SLEEP-MODE,
subliminally signaling
the imminent end to the cozy fantasy,
and then—unattended, in real-time,
ravenous, accelerating, riding
in with guns & grain, computers
& commercials—liberty
distends everywhere the whole round
of the one 360° horizon
and anywhere anyone could wish
for becomes the same; milling,
incomprehensible crowds
like little bait fish,
no one leading, following
only their hunger, lonely
and fearful should they wake
or ever arrive.
                    They'd be there soon.
Only a week and she'd be flying,
over all the ungarnered providence,
back alone to a new life;
he'd drive the kids back, himself,
to a new life... without her.
It had lingered so at the end;
now that it was over, perhaps
there would be a feeling of release
with the freedom, like sex
after too long away,
like affluence, like climbing
out of a cramped seat
after a hard night's passage
to stretch and walk and smell
clean, fresh air, sweetly scented
of pine and meadow sage,
rousing and reassuring
like a soft good morning
and a gentle nudge
awake, relieved of the duty
to roads and signs and gauges.

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Kevin Cornwall © All rights reserved.

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