Saturday, September 17, 2005

On These Days Driving (an excerpt from Undercover Angel)

That Chona Maki gets into the car with me and Carl is probably the greatest vote of confidence either of us has had in years. All she knows about me is that all day I’ve been buying drinks for everyone in the bar, and all she knows about Carl is that he’s got a job he hates. Of course, by now, she’s nearly as drunk as we are, and when I assure her that Carl is the best drunk driver in the Mid-Atlantic, she believes me.

“Alcohol on Carl acts like ritalin on a kid with attention deficit disorder,” I explain to her. For some reason I feel as if I’ve just told her a lie, but it’s true: Carl actually is a better driver when he’s drunk than in those few hours in the day when he’s completely sober. “Where alcohol makes the rest of us sloppy, with Carl it’s like pressing the turbo button on your computer. He gets quicker. Sober, he’d never have been able to figure out that you came here from San Francisco, and that you’re half Japanese, half Filipino, or any of that other shit.”

Carl was right about everything. Chona even showed us her driver’s license, which showed her address in San Francisco, to prove she wasn’t playing with us when she said she actually did just get here from California.

“Well come on, let’s go,” Chona yells, sitting next to Carl in the front seat. We have no idea where to go. All we know is that it’s seven in the evening and that sometimes even drinkers like us need a little fresh air.

Carl presses a button on the dashboard, and the top of his ’72 Camaro lifts up, then slides down behind us. He presses another button and all the windows roll down.

“Well, all riiiight!” Chona exclaims. “Let’s get this motherfucker on the road!”

Carl steps on the gas and we’re off.

About half an hour later we’re trying to find this place called Dickerson Quarry, when we realize we don’t have anything to drink. We’re out of DC now, having driven up Connecticut Avenue, dodging through what was left of rush hour traffic, at about fifty-five miles per hour—well under the highway speed limit.

“As long as you’re going under the highway speed limit,” Carl assured us, “cops here don’t much care how fast you drive in town. In fact, they’ll respect you a little more if you go about thirty miles over the city speed limit. Cause if you’re going that fast in town, they figure that you know what you’re doing. And goddamnit, I know what I’m doing.”

I’d remembered Dickerson Quarry vaguely as a place I went once when I was a teenager. A quarry about the size of a football field, it had been filled with water since sometime in the 50s. Some friends of mine in high school knew about it and went there sometimes for the purpose of what we discreetly referred to as meditation. If Dickerson Quarry hadn’t been pumped out and paved over to make way for a strip mall in the quarter century since I’d last been there, it would be a good place for us to hang out and drink. So if we were going to go there we’d better get us something to drink.

Carl jerks the car off the main road and into a strip mall. Moving slowly, it feels as if we’re slithering along the ground like snakes as we check each storefront for the word “liquor” or for some big ugly poster advertising beer. And for all we know, and for all I remember, we could already be at Dickerson Quarry. Or where it used to be, anyway.

On spotting a bright red neon “liquor” sign, I hand a hundred dollar bill to Chona, who then lifts herself from her seat and jumps over the car door. A few minutes later she walks out of the store cradling a big shopping bag in her arms. Handing the bag to me, she jumps back in the car as I start unloading the bag’s contents: a fifth of Jack Daniels, a Fifth of Schmirnoff, three six-packs of Dos Equis, and bag full of lemons.

“Whoa, I love you, baby,” Carl says on seeing the three six-packs.

“Don’t be an asshole,” Chona scolds as she twists off the cap and hands a bottle of beer to Carl.

Carl takes a swig then slides the bottle between his leg and the car door as we start to move again. Pulling out a knife, Chona slices open a lemon, takes a gulp from her bottle of vodka, then bites down on one of the lemon halves. It’s sunset now, and with the wind blowing her silky dark hair behind her, she looks at Carl then at me and whispers, as if she were telling us a secret, “This is cool as shit.”

By now the idea of Dickerson Quarry is far in the past for us. And as we move ahead into the night we feel no need to replace it with another idea. At least not yet.

We pass through suburb after suburb, from Aspen Hill into Olney. Past a McDonald’s and towards a Burger King. A Chevy dealer squeezes us in on the right while a Toyota dealer swerves ahead of us on the left. Safeway signs metamorphose into Food Lion signs then into things not even Carl nor I have ever heard of.

“We’re now entering the fabulous suburb of... Brookville,” I announce to Chona. “It’s like this all the way to Baltimore. It’s the true eighth wonder of the world—this gigantic strip mall that stretches for thirty or so miles from Washington to Baltimore.”

Chona looks from side to side. We’re on some country highway now, the supermarkets, car dealers, and fast food restaurants having suddenly disappeared from sight. The only thing we see are the blurry images of trees that whip past us. Ahead there’s nothing but darkness until Carl finally turns on the headlights.

“Wow,” Chona says, “doesn’t this fucken city ever end?” She lets out a burp.

“Well, yes and no,” I say, mumbling to myself. I don’t bother to explain.

Suddenly we’re all silent, feeling the rise and fall of the road as we move over the landscape. We realize this isn’t some one night joyride: we’re in it for the long run. What’s more, there’s no need to say this out loud. But alcohol is like that sometimes. Once you get to the point when you’ve lost the ability to speak—after hours and hours of drinks and rambling, effortless conversation—you also tend to find that you’ve lost the need to speak as well.

In a moment Chona is slumped back in her seat. In another the sound of her snoring merges with that of the wind rushing over the car. As she coughs in her sleep, the open bottle of vodka slips out of her hand and its contents pour out between the passenger and driver seats. I breathe deeply, taking in the blend of fresh air and vodka, and lay down in the back. While I’m still able to open my eyes, I make sure to look at the stars overhead: they turn blurry and start to spin as they go into orbit around me.

From a novel in progress.

No comments: