Reprinted from Phantasmagoria (winter 2005).
It is a dark and stormy night. Impossible to tell with certainty where they are; somewhere between New York and Paris. They are driving from New York to Paris. Frank is driving. Eve sits yoga style in the passenger seat of their small white pickup. Full lotus, and the pickup is a longbed, with a shell. The shocks are reinforced to carry heavy loads, but the cab has no seatbelts. The mattress on the long heavy bed, under the leaky white shell, is wet. Eve sits on a floating lotus in the passenger seat, knitting a scarf from a skein of black lopi wool. Icelandic wool, unchanged in one thousand years of isolation. Dual coated, the outer tog has a 50 to 53 spin count, and the undercoat thel a 65 to 70 count. The lopi ewes can be lively, bright, curious, active, shy, flighty, calm, friendly and have excellent personalities. They are not generally fence jumpers or crazy acting. The rams can be sweet, docile, aggressive or protective of their flock. The scarf is meant for Frank. To wrap around Frank’s neck. To keep him warm. It will itch his neck, he knows, but he’ll get used to it. The night has become dark and stormy.
Tennessee is long, and Paris somewhere between Nashville and Memphis. Its five founding fathers couldn’t agree on a name. In 1827, four picked their wives’ names. Meredith, Judy and two Hazels. The fifth had a personal hero, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette’s name was drawn from a hat, but the fathers didn’t know how to spell it. They would look silly if they misspelled it. They decided Lafayette must have been from Paris.
The rain worsens as Frank and Eve come down from the mountains of East Tennessee, heading west. They stop in a diner with harsh lights and square tables. East Tennessee diners serve squirrels. The customers are also named Squirrel. And Slim-Jim and Chicken. Often they are missing front teeth. These gaps are said to produce a beautiful whistling sound. Squirrel and Slim and Chicken stare at Frank and Eve as they (Frank and Eve) come in, as they ask for squirrel meat. Slim smiles and tells Frank and Eve that squirrels are not FDA-approved. They will have to eat someplace else. In the rain, there is noplace else. They eat collared greens, cornbread and beans, with raw onions and sweet iced tea, while Squirrel and Slim and Chicken watch. Squirrel stares at Frank for a long time with faded blue eyes, then offers to take Frank hunting, for sport, with guns, in the rain. Eve says “no” before Frank can think about it. She knows Tennessee. She says they should stop for the night, look for squirrels in a darker diner, in the morning, further into the hills. If there still are such places. Frank wants the experience, to be able to say he’s eaten squirrel meat. He’s heard that one can crack the skulls like nuts, that the brains taste like paté. But more, they want to get home to Paris that night. They drive on, into the rain.
They are artists living in Paris. They escaped New York to a trailer on a lake, somewhere beyond Paris, Tennessee. They traded the Met, their friends, and an illegal lease in a Brooklyn warehouse ― a meatlocker with no windows ― for a lake, a canoe, and cardinals in the morning. They are not sure how many cardinals they received in exchange, although they recognize some when they visit. Bright red males, brown females. Sometimes they visit New York, but then they hurry back to Paris, protectively, like now. Protective of something subtle. Frank is protective, aggressive, he wasn’t always an artist. Eve is a little flighty, too bright for New York.
She says: “It’s just like that night.”
“Your dream?” Frank doesn’t look at Eve. He can barely see the two red lights of the truck ahead, through old windshield wipers that fold at every wipe. Their little longbed truck is old, and the wipers are slowing down. Frank can’t see the road, only the two red lights.
“The rain was just like this. Crazy rain.”
“We’ll be okay.”
“But maybe the dream was a warning. Think we should pull over?”
Frank squeezes Eve’s elbow, then puts his hand back on the wheel. “I’ll drive carefully.”
Eve looks at the speedometer. Frank is going 65. If he slows he’ll lose sight of the two red lights, and the road will disappear. Eve hopes the red lights can see the road better than they. She wishes Frank would pull over for the night. “In my dream we were almost at home when it happened.”
“Well, driving from New York, we are almost at home. Four hours more.”
Eve continues the scarf. She looks up periodically. When she looks she seems dazed. The rain mesmerizes her. Frank drives, inhaling through his teeth whenever they pass a truck. It makes a slight whistling sound, through Frank is not missing any teeth. It is safer to pass the trucks than to be passed by them, he claims. Sometimes the trucks swerve at unpredictable moments, gusts of wind or small dozes of sleep. Sometimes Frank flashes his high beams before passing. Only trucks are on the roads, except in Nashville. In Nashville the sky glows with a haze from all the oncoming lights. The lights reflect from the sky full of water, smearing every encounter. The haze consumes Frank’s eyes, and the wipers slow further. Eve turns the radio on. It flickers on and off, as though it is tired.
They continue in this pose. Eve has her legs crossed, is dazed by the knitting or the rain. It’s possible that she is not so much dazed as introspective. We cannot know this. We are not in her head. She puts us in her lap and her hand on Frank’s right thigh. She turns the unreliable radio off and picks up her knitting again. The wool of Icelandic sheep. Rams of all breeds should be considered potentially dangerous. She thinks about little bundles of warmth in the cold winter harshness, as they pass invisible homes, their occupants bundled together. The cab of the truck is warm, though the shell leaks. The leaks have soaked their bed. Perhaps if there were no leaks they would pull over for the night. They could afford a hotel room, but having quit their jobs in New York it would be an extravagance. They could afford a newer truck, but they don’t want one anyway. Eve thinks that perhaps they should buy a new alternator. The signal lights are turning slow, lazy. It is difficult to say whether Frank and Eve would sleep in the back, were the back dry and warm. Perhaps Frank would still insist on driving through the night, holding the steering wheel with each hand 35 degrees from the top of the wheel. Holding the wheel at the correct angle to get his girl home safe, soon. At any rate, it is a possibility that they would pull off, to warm each other and take a nap. If the shell did not leak. Were their bed not wet.
From the I-40 they turn off onto I-649, then onto the Camden-Big Sandy road, then left where the Mennonites used to live, through streets named after families still living there. At the old Cleary place with its giant oak tree, Frank slows down for a sharp right turn.
“What’s that?” Eve asks.
“There’s a person there, on the right.”
A tall, puffy man stands by the side of the road, in the crook of the turn. Frank slows more.
“Don’t stop!” Eve says in a crazy voice Frank has not heard before.
“In this rain―” Frank flashes high beams. They see a bloated white face lined in black wet hair; its bulging flesh squeezes out past tiny ears, eyes, nose. Its chest is a stretched puffy cylinder with two filled breasts pressing out to either side and its tubular legs are spread until they point in opposite directions, like legs of a drowned frog lying on its back. But the thing stands, and seems far too tall.
“In this rain only a bad thing’d be out.”
“A bad thing?” Frank repeats, confused by his vision.
“That person is a bad thing. Please don’t stop, please.”
Frank takes his foot off the brake and puts it back onto the gas. They go around the bend, safely, quickly, he steps harder on the gas half-way through the turn. The truck flies around the curve as though on rails. Then it wobbles, as Frank looks in his rear view mirror and sees the bulging face.
“What is it?” Eve is frightened.
“It’s gone, but it was there, in the mirror.” Frank steps deeper on the gas as the car follows the road left, a soft ninety-degree turn. The wheels dig into the wet asphalt.
“Should we slow down?”
“That thing was chasing us.”
“Can it catch us?”
“I’d say no.” Frank has the road memorized. He is the best driver he knows: six times in his life he has outrun police cars and speeding tickets. But Frank looks scared to us. He looks scared to Eve, like the time in Bali when they were body-surfing and she asked him whether they were in a riptide and he pointed along the shore and said, “Swim that way.” Frank has the same eyes wide open look, three hundred meters out from shore, and the car flies over a narrow, old-timey bridge, bouncing on the line between asphalt and stone. On the left, at the end of the bridge, the high beams show the homunculus again. Impossibly tall and far too close as the truck bounces from stone back to asphalt. With sickeningly white feet and hands and face.
Frank wonders how the thing got ahead of them. He steps on the gas again. When they lose it behind a hill, it reappears. Sometimes it reappears on the left. Frank keeps his eyes on the road; he can’t see where it comes from, how it always seems to get there, closer. The truck is no longer on rails. It bounces left and right and skids around corners. Frank controls the skidding, uses the fishtails to turn more efficiently. It drives like a pogo now, bounces on its reinforced shocks while Frank struggles to work the up-and-down motion into his calculations. He drove sports cars all his life, a Mercedes Roadster until he became an artist and moved to Paris, cars that didn’t bounce, cars not built to carry heavy loads. The up-and-down motion makes him nauseous. It exhausts his mind.
Eve says: “It smells the same. Like my dream. It’s in the truck now.”
They drive fast, but the homunculus keeps up. Frank cannot think fast enough to choose roads. Instinct, or perhaps the truck itself, directs them towards home. The road is a dead end. A yellow signs says “Dead End” just after the juncture past the bridge. But it is a dead end which goes on for miles and miles. In the long run, all roads are dead ends. Or perhaps endless. Eve thinks about this as Frank drives. Frank is happy, in an odd way. He is in his element. Every cell hums with the engine of the truck. The little truck has stopped screaming. It is giving everything it has. Frank is traveling a hundred miles an hour on roads designed for forty, in a truck which never pulled more than 85. All time has stopped for him, become endless; he has become disconnected from everything, except the moment, the turn, the rain, the asphalt. Eve’s hand rests hard on his flexing right knee.
The rain obscures even his protectiveness, but Frank knows that over this sharp hill the road zigzags right and then immediately left. He knows the turns are so quick that not much decrease in speed is required. Frank and Eve and their little truck fly up the hill, their stomachs preparing to jump from the ill design of the road. It always does here. The truck flies up, faster than ever, as Frank notices the haze. The bulging white face is in the rear-view mirror and blinding high beams shine into Frank and Eve’s eyes, as their stomachs fly up in the air from the ill design of the road.
Frank does something strange to the wheel, for the truck is airborne. Eve hits her head on the roof. Her hand comes undone from his knee. She screams his name and reaches with her left arm to hold him, to touch him, perhaps to keep him from smashing into the windshield like a pumpkin against concrete. Eve reaches towards Frank with her left arm, but Frank is not there. She reaches frantically. She sees only black, feels an emptiness where Frank should be, while the white truck flies through the air.