Straying Home: A Memoir of Changing in Place

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The night before I had slept on a futon in a borrowed apartment in Quebec City; the night before that I slept on a floor under a skylight in Montreal; the night before that on a couch in a punk house in Baltimore. This night I wouldn’t be sleeping at all. I had at least two more hours of driving ahead of me under a moonlit Canadian sky. When I got to the tiny town near the border that was my destination I was supposed to park behind a particular hotel bar with my car pointed out front first so my American license plate wouldn’t show. Instructions after that were hazy.

The roads grew narrower and more rural under a high night sky as I turned off the highway and headed south toward the U.S. border. After miles of still and frozen farmland I missed a turn and found myself driving west on an icy dirt road cut through a forest of dense black trees, the road lit only by the moon and stars through the bare branches, my only company the glowing green digital clock on the dashboard and the speedometer that trembled lower and lower as I threaded my way over the ruts. For three days we had been getting strange and worrisome messages: the border crossing at the Mohawk reservation didn’t work, the attempt to get through at Burlington didn’t work, the only option left was to cross through the woods and be met on the other side of the border at a town I could barely find in my road atlas. That’s where I was headed. The message I had picked up at the pay phone in the freezing cold outside the Burger King in Drummondville had said I should only wait until 2:00; if they weren’t there by then I should assume that the plan hadn’t worked. In all of our discussions none of us had articulated the various ways the plan could go wrong, but they haunted my mind on that quiet night. It was already close to 2:00 as I made my way slowly along the endless dirt road. I was too tired and too frightened to do anything but keep moving the car forward in hopes that I would regain the road I had lost. Finally, gratefully, I felt my tires smooth out on asphalt and I took a turn back onto my road. I had it all to myself, fields and distant trees on either side, occasionally a wire fence and wooden fenceposts standing up suddenly in the headlights, a leaning barn at a curve in the road, a pair of animal eyes that shone for an instant and then were gone.

The town turned out to be just a few miles up the road, just a couple of bends north of the place I had rejoined the asphalt. The hotel bar–marked with a big sign, now extinguished, that said HOTEL BAR in curly letters–was in the center of the straggly little town. I cautiously pulled into the dirt parking lot and turned the car around. The front of the bar was dark but lights were still on in the back where the kitchen was, although I couldn’t see any movement. I rehearsed in my mind the thin cover story we had worked out–that I was driving north and had grown too sleepy to go on, that I had just stopped for a nap. In fact I felt anything but tired–too jacked up to sleep, too nervous to stay in the car. I finally got out, quietly swinging the door shut. I walked up and down the street, a block or so in either direction. House, gas station, combination post office and grocery store. Dirty mounds of snow, bare trees, and somewhere in the distance the sound of running water, crisp and musical in the dark. It was the kind of town you would only be in if you had a reason to be there; the believable reasons for me to be there after midnight had dwindled to somewhat below none. I looked for a pay phone to check the voice mail number again but there were no phones. I walked back to the car and climbed back in as noiselessly as I could, listening to the wind and the ceaseless tinkling of water in the trees behind me. I pushed the driver’s seat back and pulled my coat a little closer around me. The last lights in the building flickered off and a door at the back of the bar opened; a man and a woman came out, their feet crunching on the frozen ground. The woman looked in the direction of my car and hesitated–I slid lower so that I could just see over the top of the steering wheel, willing myself to be invisible–then she moved on. The two of them got into their own car and drove away, leaving me alone with the stars, the shadows of the trees, and the silence.

I woke up from a light doze to the sound of someone tapping on my car window. They were here–a scout had been sent out to find me where I was waiting scrunched down in my seat behind the steering wheel. The little town was asleep and the moon had set, but the light from the stars threw deep papery shadows across the dirty late spring snow. My companion slipped into the car and we drove quietly and cautiously down the road. No one. We turned and drove slowly back, the car wheels sounding terrifyingly loud on the loose pebbles of the road. And then there they were, running out of the shadows of the trees, lumpy ungainly silhouettes in boots and heavy coats and scarves and mittens scattering onto the dark deserted road with their hands upraised and waving. They tugged at the doors, piled in on top of each other interrupting each other in loud urgent whispers “Drive, drive!’ “Shut the door!” “Shhh! Cut the lights! Cut the lights!” The windshield misted and I wiped it down with my coat sleeve; the air in the car was suddenly tropically warm, thick with humidity and the smell of sweat. I felt a profound gratitude, a quickening of excitement, an electric sense that suddenly, finally, everything mattered.

“Oh my god,” someone said into the close and intimate night. “Oh my god. Oh my god. We fucking god damn made it!”

Written by lizseymour

February 6, 2008 at 7:01 pm

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