07. Tollbooths & Rumble Strips

July 2020

Keeping a journal makes time go strange. There’s the sensation of writing against time, of writing for oneself in the future. Each night I record a few thoughts and, where sanity permits, some of the day’s headlines. This makes for remarkably dull reading in the current moment. But I’d like to have something to look back upon in five or ten years. I regret not having this during my optimistic years circa 2010.

I recently re-read Stephen King’s The Stand to understand how a sprawling apocalyptic story works, and I’d forgotten that it’s so compulsively readable, the way he inhabits his characters’ thoughts and steers them into the secret world of familial wounds and childhood taunts. Some of it doesn’t age well, and sometimes the writing gets clunky, but it’s forgivable because you get the sense King doesn’t give a shit, either. He’s too wrapped up in carrying you across his plague-stricken America to bother with lyrical gloss. But there are some great lines: “They were American people and there was a kind of dirty, compelling romance about them whenever they were in groups.” Or when a man walking down a quiet street wonders if “the normal world had skewed into a place where bodies were sacrificed behind closed doors and stupendous black machines roared on and on in locked basements.”

What strikes me the most about The Stand is the journal a pregnant character keeps as she travels the country. Each entry ends with a list of things she wants to remember to tell her child about life before a plague wiped out civilization. The catchphrases and television commercials. The amusement parks, laugh tracks, and frozen cheesecakes.

So, some things to remember: We’re buying fewer breath mints because we’re less social these days. Many streets in New York feel like an outdoor dining room, and it’s terrific. And every few days I double-check to make sure I didn’t imagine that Taiwan has only had seven deaths from coronavirus compared to America’s 150,000+. That’s something to remember, too: it didn’t have to be this way.

One of my short stories has been included in the Haunted Passages series at Heavy Feather Review. It’s called “The Diver,” and it began with a fragment from a dream, as many stories do. In this case, it was the half-remembered image of a woman grinning as she plunged into a shallow industrial canal. This scene gradually became the backstory for a character in the novel I’ve been writing and rewriting for the past five years, and I’ve rewired it into a short piece that I hope stands on its own. Here’s how it begins:

My mother believed life should be graceful and clean, much like the way she entered the water when she was young. She had been a diver and, for a time, the most famous woman in town. Especially once she began killing people.
Read more.

I’m getting restless and craving the road. America is eating itself alive these days, but I want to fall in love with this country again, with the physicality and widescreen weirdness of it all. I’ve been dreaming about tollbooth operators lately, maybe because they remind me of the years I spent working at a gas station, the idle time mingling with the repetition of strangers. Half-glimpsed faces with cigarettes nodding on their lips, their left hands forever clutching a quarter and a dime in change. They are the interstate’s guardians, the nation’s unmoved movers among the current of people going someplace else.

After looking into the eyes of thousands of travelers and handling their crumpled bills and sweaty coins, these cashiers probably understand humanity better than anyone. The reckless teenagers, hungover commuters, and road-ragers. The cheating spouses and insomniac prophets. The broken-hearted and the hopeful, their belongings jammed in the backseat with plastic-wrapped suits and blouses pressed against the windows like ghosts.

Perched in their nests of space heaters and thermoses, the tollbooth operators watch these vehicles red-shifting through the night, darting across state lines in search of fresh lives, hoping to give Plan C or D a shot. In my darkest hours when I tried to drive away grief and confusion, I thought I saw compassion in their eyes, a look that reminded me of my mother’s hand against my forehead when I had a fever. Maybe they knew I was just another soul searching for deliverance beneath the highway lights.

As for that novel I’m rewriting, a few nights ago I made a list of things that inspired me to write it:

A list of things that inspired the book I’m writing: North Dakota snow. Aural destabilization. Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes. William James and “the educational variety of religious experience.” Bohren and Der Club of Gore. Neoplatonism. Varvara Stepanova. Waffle House. The Salton Sea. Bombay Beach. Endless rain. Hubert Robert’s ruins. Static. The main character has my mom’s eyes. The lights of Do Lung Bridge in Apocalypse Now. The Electrifying Mojo. Chrome. No sunshine, only night. Ela Orleans. Rumble strips and tollbooths. Broken screens. Endless rain. Season two of The Leftovers. Plotinus. Origen. The rose in The Little Prince: “Let the tigers come with their claws.” Mahjong. The Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. Robert Irwin. The Ronettes. The orange juice kid. Spinoza and the idea that god is in the trees. Freightliner trucks. Desert religion. The Extraterrestrial Highway in Nevada. The nails and blades in a ritualistic power figure: Nkisi N’kondi. Dial tones. Kali Malone’s The Sacrificial Code. Twentynine Palms. The makeshift towns in the Imperial Dunes. Coast to Coast AM. Being afraid to pray. Reel to reel tapes. Ghosts. Hexagram 18 in the I Ching (Decay). Heat lightning. Footsteps on marble. Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0. Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. The profane old Buddha in New Orleans who told me that “opinions kill motherfuckers and experience saves lives.” Flickering lights. Mysterious wounds. Color breathing. Slab City. Motel vending machines. Interstate 10 is the dime and Interstate 55 is the double-nickel. Maersk Sealand. The Cold Crush Brothers. Sodium lights. Highway service plazas. Towns called Fairfield. Tristan Tzara’s Dada manifestos. Basic Channel. Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome in Meditation. Folding chairs. Church basements. Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. Replicas, simulations, and artificial skies. Will Durant. The Scholastics. Bertrand Russell. Model 500’s “Night Drive through Babylon” on Woodward Avenue at three o’clock in the morning. Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police. Francisco de Zurbarán’s The Crucifixion. Robocop and “I’ll buy that for a dollar.” Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Mao II. Jeunet and Caro’s The City of Lost Children. William Basinski: “The world is in a bad feedback loop right now.” Tarot readers, soothsayers, and faith dealers. Late-night callers. Glitchy power grids. Doubt.