Thursday, January 08, 2009

Something like night

To drive without sight is to accept the unpredictability of existence. And, perhaps, to understand something of faith and the unknowable, which is whatever exists just beyond the blank canvas of darkness. At high speeds, the immediate world shrinks to a thin sliver of now, a two-dimensional presence with the honed edge of a razor, and every bit as dangerous. Back when I regularly made night trips between Las Vegas, New Mexico, and Albuquerque, the two-hour introspective indulgence quickly devolved into self-loathing, so to reorder my own little universe I would cut the lights and run silent with only the faintest glimmer of starlight to guide me past the sleepy villages nestled beneath their bulwarked mesas. After topping Glorieta Pass, where the lights of Santa Fe eclipsed the extragalactic panoply, an increased presence of state troopers mandated driving practices both safer and obligatory. For a while music played a crucial role in this unhealthy activity until late one night the car’s intractable 8-track player repeatedly embraced the heavy stock of a sawed-off shotgun, leaving it in tatters and me to my own singing, which was deplorable, and my morbid ruminations, which were worse. 

I am the same man today though barely. Where before when I set out I’d toss a .45 auto on the passenger seat and pop the first of several cold beers, barely concerned whether I’d live to see the next dawn, now I’ve evolved into the very model of respectability, if, that is, being respectable includes annual nocturnal jaunts in search of owls to serenade, or harass, depending on your perspective. I’ve traded the pistol for a Sony cassette recorder and the beer for a thermos of coffee, and still find the night a refuge of sorts, from what I can scarcely recall. It’s easier to hide when nobody can see you.

This night road is like turning a page and finding only an unexpected lacuna where nouns, adjectives and verbs once lived. Street lights are ineffective haloes punching holes in the fog, the town shrouded and eerie and silent, and summarily vanished as I jounce across the railroad tracks and start climbing the hill leading out of the valley. The effect is at first startling but the unbidden past sweeps in to fill the blanks. It’s never as far away as we think, loitering on the periphery like a friend whose name we’ve forgotten, eager to step in and reintroduce himself. Hi, remember me, and suddenly I’m driving blind with the windows rolled down the summer stars pinwheeling above the faintly luminous crest of Santa Fe Baldy, the beer cold on my teeth, and I am armed, half-drunk and invincible. 

Maturity—a vile word—lets us dissect our personal histories as though they were dead frogs pinned to a board. What I thought was invincibility was in fact nothing short of imbecility in a life short on brain and long on an undeserved charm, as if someone or something were interceding for me. That it all comes back so sharply denigrates the human notion that time can be measured like ounces or grams, or even months and years.

I’ve lost the confidence I once had though it was actually more an unqualified bluff. My speed drops until I’m all but crawling, inching up the incline with only a few feet of pavement for guidance. There are deer and other creatures roaming the night though at this speed avoiding them should be easy. What worries me is other drivers, perhaps even young men hellbent on living dangerously, though to my credit fog was never an equation. Also the question arises of how I’m supposed to find the reputed barn owl at the farmhouse south of town when I can’t see five feet. There’s always my hearing but barn owls aren’t known for their vocalization, nor do I have a tape of their calls. Once the road levels out I watch for a place to turn around, and in defeat swing the truck about and begin my descent. Curses, foiled again.

The relief of entering town is short lived. I take the highway north and creep across the bridge, the rusty girders wet, reflective and all but invisible. Where does the river start and where does it end? Our geographies are never so clearly defined. I mentally trace the tributaries and confluences of the Big Blue on its journey to the Kaw but end up at the Pecos River outside of San Jose. There’s a fleeting touch of vertigo as the bridge vibrates beneath the tires and then I’m across and swallowed in the gloom and rising. Edging around the curve blindly I blindly advance, taking note of the bisecting roads until I locate the second on my left and turn onto wet gravel. With an effort I relax and lessen my deathgrip on the wheel. 

Slowly, slowly, I find the cemetery and pull through the gates. Opening the door blinds me further and I stumble onto the spongy grass and wait, but my eyes do not adjust. Cannot adjust. I blink and close them and reopen them and find no difference whatsoever, find no silhouetted cedars or pale sky or anything other than an unrelieved darkness, the irreducible world reduced to sounds alone, the engine ticking as it cools, the distant query of a great horned owl, a barred owl’s querulous response, and me, heart thudding, ears ringing, gritty-eyed, tired, left index finger on the pause button and the right on the spotlight’s trigger, as if one million candlepower could reveal anything in that devouring cloud, as if it could reach through the decades and show me how I got from there to here, how I came to stand in the fog with ears straining and a certain home just down the hill and across a river that is not the Pecos but another, as if it had that kind of power, as if it would.

No comments: