Monday, February 27, 2012


Vintage neon Dairy Queen sign, Ottawa, Canada.Image via Wikipedia 
by James Jarvis

There are long stretches of IH10 that will make you afraid. If you have any sense, you will be afraid. Faith in your machine just won't cut it. There are hoses and belts and cheap little plastic parts under your hood that can break and the last human being you saw on this ribbon of asphalt stretched tight across the vacant desert was two hours ago . . . and he was going the other way, oblivious of you.

There are towns 30 and 60 and 100 miles apart. You speed past their outskirts without actually having seen any one person in them. Towns. What passes for towns: a gas station or two--abandoned, stripped cars and vans parked out back-- a convenience store, a ranch-style motel, maybe a cafe but more likely a junk food franchise, ten or twenty sun-bleached A-frames. No bus stops. No movie theaters. No fire department.

You speed past these little clumps of buildings out in the desert. You speed past because it looks like the residents have nothing to do all day, all night. Nothing to do but eat anything that comes limping off the IH10.

Your machine hums along. Oil pressure good. Half a tank of gas. Engine temperature edging down with the setting sun behind you. You're tired. You've been driving all day, half hypnotized by the blinking white line and the waves of heat radiating off the asphalt. The car radio you left on hours ago when you tried in vain to tune in a station, any station, none found, begins to crackle to life. A faint voice welcomes you to "brft-JH, cattle guard country of west brrfft".

Must be getting close to a city. Towns don't have relay stations. There's the sign. Twenty five more miles.

You pull off the interstate just as the sun disappears behind the distant mountains. Sure enough, this is cattle guard country. One stretches across the off ramp at the bottom of the little hill, where you turn under the interstate to enter the strange city. Crossing over the iron bars feels like entering a military installation, or a new country.

The first thing you see of this strange city is a fenced junkyard with dozens, maybe hundreds, of 90's cars, mostly American; Fords and Mercurys and Pontiacs, all pushed up rear-fenders-to-the-fence in neat rows like some giant kid is waiting to play "vroom, vroom" with them. Where are all the drivers?

Half a neon sign lights up the darkening sky. It's a truck wash/cafe/gas station. You pull onto the gravel driveway. The crunch/crackle/creaking of the gravel under your slow-turning tires gives you the feel of off-roading, like you're driving to some remote campsite rather than a truck wash/cafe/gas station.

The truck wash next to the cafe is empty and looks unused. It is just three giant pieces of corrugated aluminum, two walls and a flat roof, that looks like giant playing cards balanced on each other. The cafe has a large picture window that runs the length of the front of the building. You can see all the counter stools as you crunch/crackle up to one of the crash poles jutting up like crooked teeth in front of the cafe. No one is inside.

You park. All is silent except a gentle, persistent howl of wind and the metallic clicking and popping from under the hood of your car. Metal expanding (or contracting or whatever it does when you park your car after running it hard across the desert for ten hours) always sounded like panting to you.

Your car is panting. The wind is saying "Wooooooooo, what have youuuuuuuu done now? Wooooooooo, youuuuuuu've stopped. Are youuuuuuuu sure youuuuuuuu want to stop here?"

The sun is down, yet that ring of perspiration around your shirt collar and forming a wet "v" down to your belly button is still growing. It's hot. The sun is down but the heat is still radiating off the dirt and the gravel.

All you want is cool air but you can tell by the slowly spinning 1930's 9-inch Woolworth fan placed at one end of the cafe counter top that it's not cool in there, even if someone back in the sixties or seventies DID paint the words "Air Conditioned" with icicles running down the bottom of the letters on the glass by the door. You know it's not air conditioned. You can see the big, rusted-out air conditioner stripped down to fifty different parts and strewn along the side of the cafe.

It's too hot to eat anyway, you say to yourself and crank your ignition. Your car protests, but starts. You crackle/crunch out of the parking lot and wheel back on to the squishy, heat-softened asphalt, looking for a place of coolness, a motel maybe, where each room has that long narrow heater/air conditioner thing set into the wall below the single window.

Wait! What is that next to the Dairy Queen? That building? Can it be? Is that what you think it is?

You think it is. Your mind could be playing tricks on you. You like to give your mind some slack once in a while: let loose the tight leash of social norms and societal conformity, let your mind roam a little.

But sometimes when you do this, your mind drags you; leash, rope and body, into places it'd be better to stay out of altogether. Sometimes.

Or maybe it's the play of shadows. You've seen shadow people, why not shadow buildings? There are very few street lights here. The nearest one is over a block away. Maybe the light from the Dairy Queen is casting strange shadows on the brick building next door and you are not seeing what you think you are seeing. How many years has it been since you actually saw one of these things? Ten, fifteen, twenty years? Twenty five years? Has it been twenty five years? You think it has. Twenty five years.

All things pass, and we who have lived long enough to have seen many things pass, things like soda fountains and town squares and public civility and shame, sometime we forget these things are gone until we catch glimpses of them in old movies or history books or in little towns overlooked by the shareholder Greed and Destruction Machine.

You pull your car over to the side of the road and park in a little dirt turnaround across the street from the Dairy Queen. There are no "No Parking Between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m." signs. No "Two Hour Parking" signs. No "Private Parking" signs. No signs whatsoever and that sends a little chill down your spine.

You are used to being regulated, restricted, instructed, informed, warned, notified. You are used to being given instructions on when you can do what on each and every parcel of ground you enter, especially with your car.

There is a certain amount of security and safeness you derived from the signs. How can there be no signs here? How is a person supposed to know what to do, what can be done and what cannot? It's spooky. If there are no signs, there are no laws.

Lawlessness. This is a place of lawlessness. There are no signs to tell people, if there are people here, that you are doing what the sign says. Maybe that means that they can come by and do anything to your car they want. There are no signs to stop them.

You shut off your engine and step out of the car anyway. You lock the door and begin to walk across the street towards the Dairy Queen. The Dairy Queen's lights go out.

The lights go out. You freeze right there in the middle of the dark street. You're standing on a long white dash, wondering what just happened. You think you see shadows moving within the shadows of the Dairy Queen. Why would anything move around in the dark when just a minute ago it could've moved around in the light?

It doesn't make any sense. It's moving around in the dark, you're moving around in the dark. Well, you WERE moving, until the dark got darker.

Suddenly you're reminded of a conversation you had with a friend who came to Jesus late in his life and was trying to make up for lost time by pestering the bejesus out of you about it.

"I get it, I get it," he told you, "The more you empty your mind of flesh things, get rid of the shit and the crap and the worries and the bad memories and stuff, the more vacuum is created to attract the holy spirit. It can't get in if your head is full of worldly stuff. You gotta get rid of that stuff and create a big vacuum!"

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," you answered back, "Are you telling me that you have to be out of your mind to be religious? Is that what you're saying?"

You look across the street you're standing in at the dark Dairy Queen. Now you know why that conversation recalled itself. It was your subconscious, cross referencing memories in preparation to store what you are going to do next. You'd have to be out of your mind to cross over to that Dairy Queen now, but you're going to do it.

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