Carlife
by Benjamin Henry

From the writer: When i write, i like to put one word down after another, slowly building sentences out of letters, syllables, until i have got the idea down on paper, or its electronic equivalent. Sometimes i include punctuation too. It helps to break down the thoughts into easily digestible pieces, like finger sandwiches.

From the editors: The dynamic of a family is difficult to capture, but Henry, through a narrative of journeys and realizations, is able to do so within the confines of a car. Through this vacation of his youth, the reader is able to see the development of Henry's identity, and the destination he is trying to reach.

Electrons

Moving all the time, their orbit becomes second nature. Zooming in and out, cyclically saturating space over and over again until it is personal. In dreams I join them and we frequent various nuclei, searching for something just a little different. Right before I wake, I realize all electrons are the same. They all have the same problems, same needs, and it constantly surprises me that I am exactly like them, moving, jumping from one magnetic thing to another, living life like a waterbug, buzzing indifferently from one ripple to the next. Electrons never stop orbiting, because if they could, they would've a long time ago. Consciously I keep telling myself that I can stop my routine orbits around school work friends television music, I can stop anytime I want to, that if I want to, I can strip my life of these outside forces and focus on new ideas. Subconsciously I know I can't stop, and that my investment in the outside is my lifeblood. My reactions to those around me create my experience, and to reject them to would be to crash the system. And so I keep going.

Map

In the spring of 1995, we got the great idea of touring the rest of the country. We laid out the map on the dining room table after dinner one night, and my father put his P.T. Barnum on, pulling out stories of different, more exotic dimensions of our own country, stories of places we had never heard of, all of it exciting, all of it new. This was a country that I had been told was the greatest in the world, the freest, the most expansive and elusive. And yet on the map in front of me it was tame, lying underneath thousands of lines signifying interstate highways, state and county borders. Mountains tried to jut out, rivers swam upstream, unsettled by this blanket of mesh netting, a cartographer's desperate measure to hold back the raw power of nature.

An entire season was spent pouring over that map, individual nights rummaging state by state, picking each one up by its boundaries and tipping it over, dumping its contents on the table and sifting places of interest from the thousands of duplicated American towns, cities, and plains. From among the jumble, Mt. Rushmore became the fixation. Each idea on the list became its own entity, fostering new thoughts and schemes, but Mt. Rushmore was the driving force behind the trip. It was to be our summer shrine, each president a different form of the Buddha. Sometimes I caught myself praying in its direction before I went to sleep.

Building Blocks

Every year for Christmas my family would drive down to Washington, D.C. from Boston to spend the holidays with both sets of grandparents. At Grandma Katie's, there was an old box of wooden building blocks that used to be my Dad's when he was a kid. I would dump all the blocks out onto the rug and build different things. I never really examined each block carefully, but if I had, I would've noticed that they were definitely handmade, because there was no uniform cut. Like cable television stations content on serving niche markets, each became a vehicle for distinct channels of thought.

Those in the shape of butter sticks became pillars, or doorframes, making me think of how tall I would become, wanting to scrape my follicles against the sky, leaving me in a cloud of foreshadow and void. There were rectangles and squares, half-moons, wedges, and miniature dowels. The combination of these shapes created not only houses, or forts, or streets, or boats, but idea patterns, larger, more supernova-esque bubbles, easily captivating me and satellite-ing me everything I could dream up about safety, war, transportation, and being shipwrecked. But more than that. By creating something big out many different smaller things, I showed myself how thoughts could combine themselves into bigger thoughts, how the form of context worked, and how I could transport to different places through the miracles of memory.

Holiday Road

August approached and suddenly we were packed in the car, flying at a leisurely altitude, thoughts of our adventures bouncing along in time with the tires passing over the concrete slabs of the Mass Pike. Dad hadn't yet hijacked the airwaves with demands of Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford, Mom was in the front seat for about the only time during the next three weeks, and even my two sisters, Carrie and Samantha, hadn't started their mock whining yet. The car was silent, each of us filled with the kind of anticipation only an anxious teenager gets before he asks out his dream girl, before he realizes that everyone is just like him and nervous about the next big thing.

CC

When I was a little kid, I couldn't pronounce Samantha's name. I ended up calling her CC. I don't know why it came out 'CC' but it did, and I think she liked it. When I was born, she was already eight and a half years old, a child from Dad's previous marriage, one that, from the way they talk about it now, wasn't ever really going to work. Her mother is really nice, and everyone gets along, but it just wasn't going to work, which is good for me, because if Dad was still married to Suzanne, then he'd be living in New York City, eating bean sprouts and carob brownies, hating his life. And I would be someone else.

From the way she tells it, Samantha had a pretty tough childhood, but she's always been really smart and creative, and she's always been my sister, so I have a hard time believing everything she says. I grew up envying her and all her cool friends, her clothes, the stuff she did, and the records she listened to. It was if she knew everything about the world, except maybe how to drive a car, and I was just lucky enough that she was willing to share.

She brought along a VHS videocamera, at the time one of the coolest things I'd even seen. I still think VHS is a much cooler-looking format than any other I've worked with. During dinner she would often bring up the fact that she was going to bring this camera, and that we'd be able to record our adventures. Pushing peas in circles and drinking glass after glass of milk allowed my mind to wander during dinner. Ideas raced across the countryside inside my brain, dodging trucks, pedestrians, traffic lights, desperately trying to catch up to us as we sped faster and faster, ever closer to Mt. Rushmore. Ideas about making films, and how it would be really cool to make it seem like it was a third party recording us on our drive, like those National Lampoon movies.

Upstate

Massachusetts and New York crept outside of the car, as if something larger was trying to let us in on the secret that the Thruway could quite possibly be the most boring stretch of highway in the continental United States. This was before I decided to go Syracuse to study, and I remember thinking that all of a sudden after passing Amsterdam, it was as if the apocalyptic nightmare really had occurred, that sometime in the 1960s Slim Pickens accidentally dropped in on Central New York and took up residence.

In the car, everyone awoke and turned inward, sharing their disbelief that a place like this could exist, and that people would actually live here. The repetition of economic depression and the pattern of canal to river, river to canal, canal to river, Mohawk-Erie-Erie-Mohawk gave everyone ample time to reflect on their own routines, and how a trip like this would turn those routines on their collective heads, thanks to close quarters, uncertain beginnings and endings, and open-ended adventure.

Carrie

She didn't want to go from the start. Well, that's not all true. I think she was excited by the initial idea, and didn't actually know what she was getting herself into when she agreed to three weeks on the road in the Previa. The rest of my family has always had a thing for antiquing, and Samantha, Dad, and me share a common pack-rattish behavior trait. If only Carrie had known that the next five-hundred and four hours of her life were going to be catered not only to the bizarre outcroppings of American life that enamored us from the great travel diaries and guides that littered our bookshelves and dream doppler apparatai, but also Mom and Pop drugstores, hot weather, dusty backroads, and monotonous interstates, I'm sure she would have begged Mom and Dad to let her stay at her friend Caitlin's house, allowing for yard sale cruising in peace. But the truth of the matter was, this was to be a bonding experience, one that would teach her the art of just-say-no-ing anything that rings of a long car ride. I can't imagine then why she chose to go to college in Wisconsin.

Dsmmbrd

One of my family's favorite movies is Two For the Road with Albert Finney and Julie Christie. It isn't exactly a realistic interpretation of life traveling on the road, but I think it may have become the be all end all of what we knew was going to happen. We knew that we would fight, we knew that we would get on each other's nerves, and we knew that the people we met up with along the way weren't going to be perfect, happy people. But more importantly, we knew that we were going to bond, and that we'd end up overflowing with shared experiences that would make us weep with laughter, like when the Econolodge clerk in Broken Bow, Nebraska went up and down the staircase with a caulking gun filled with pesticide, spraying thousands of grasshoppers dead in mid-jump, or when we paid an old fart fifty cents apiece to go back behind his place and see the second largest waterfall in Nebraska.

Memories of that first day across New York State are few and far between today, except for the stockmarket ticker thought of "What does it all mean? When is it going to end?" passing and re-passing through my mind over and over again. It became the quintessential dismembered renderbender, as I like to call it. Signs for towns, cities, rest areas and places of interest disappeared as quickly as they materialized, leaving each car in a constant state of flux, trying to figure out what these placards could possibly represent, and what these places were like. Signs became the towns they announced, they became the rest areas, and Sunoco and Burger King became more realized than the incorporated townships they were located in.

Towns and villages we passed were never rendered, and because the signs would only come every few minutes, we as passengers became pioneers, taming the wild countryside, following the asphalt river to freedom.

Mom

My Mom is the ultimate good sport. That much can be said about her. She rarely gets mad, and when she does, the feeling doesn't stay around for very long. I hear stories from friends of mine about how they never get along with their parents, and I remember how during my freshman year here at the university, my roommate only communicated with his parents by yelling at them. Not much love there, it seemed to me. Our family doesn't really fight. Not to say that we haven't had our share of great fisticuffs, we have, the instances are just scattered.

The most tension filled argument and therefore funniest in retrospect was when we were waiting in line at the tollbooth on the George Washington Bridge bypassing downtown New York. Dad and Samantha got into this argument over whether or not Brooklyn Heights was ever a slum. Dad said no, CC said yes. She said a professor of hers at the time gave a lecture about how Brooklyn Heights had indeed been a ghetto at one point. Up until this exchange, I had never really seen my Dad argue with anyone. He was very passive-aggressive, with Samantha taking up the offensive, making random threats about getting out and finding her way back to the city if he didn't admit he was wrong. The argument silenced the rest of us. We could feel the tension rub up against our arms, filling our mouths and noses each time we breathed. Someone finally rolled down a window and the tension was released, with a round of laughs and jokes, but neither of them ever gave in. To this day, whenever one of us starts an inevitable argument, all someone has to do is say "yeah, and Brooklyn Heights used to be a slum" and laughter replaces tension.

When Carrie and I were little kids, (and sometimes even today), Dad would casually slip in one of his Sade or Gilberto Gil tapes into the car cassette deck and to counter-effect it, Mom would reach into the backseat and we'd hand her one of Carrie's stuffed animals, invariably the Elmo with plastic eyes, and she would make it dance to the music. Dad would play along, and soon everyone would be dancing to music every one of us didn't appreciate (except Dad), but knew all the words to anyway. Sometimes Elmo would wave to passing truck drivers, but most of the time would just move to the music, and everyone would end up rolling in the aisles, if there were any aisles to roll in.

North of Nowhere

Canada. The home of the brave. Well, maybe not, but the home of the cold, the home of the longest street in the world, and the home of Paul and Judy, Mom's friends in Toronto. I never knew where Toronto was exactly, and to this day still don't really know. I think it would be interesting to study the history of the city, and why settlers chose its location. I had been there once or twice before. I remember we went there once for a few days when we went to see Niagara Falls, and then another time when we also went to Ottawa, a very pretty city with apparently no television sets, or at least not in our hotel room.

This time Toronto was equally hospitable. Paul and Judy's house was really cool. Their house was on lakefront property, and we got to go out in Paul's little pontoon wave jumper to see the city from the water. We were getting ever closer to the actual place of interest. From casual readers of bastardized burma shave signs the previous day, we had evolved into museum spectators, witnessing lives of real Canadians from a safe distance in our little puddle cruiser, complete with a native guide. How cultured of us.

The basement was a masterpiece, if Lionel Trains had any architectural merit. Paul had gutted the rooms and built them back up with model train tracks and miniature towns jettying off the walls, creating an eerie atmosphere where plastic was flesh and man was god, and when man slept, plastic slept. We stayed there for three days.

Neverglades

Before we left home, we made a conscious decision to skip Ohio. I don't know if Dad had a personal hatred of the state or what, but it just so happened' that Paul and Judy lived in Toronto, and it just so happened that Dad wanted us to see the beautiful and untamed nature of Michigan's upper peninsula. So that's where we headed after leaving Toronto. The only way for us to get there was to cross a part of Lake Superior by ferry to a place called Manatoulin Island. In retrospect, it really was a pretty place, but also in retrospect that ferry ride was one hellish experience. At something like six in the morning, perhaps earlier, we got in line, sitting in our car, freezing to death, waiting for the ferrymasters to allow us on board. I remember thinking that it was really cool that we would get to drive onto it, but oh boy was I in for a treat. We drove on into the ship's underbelly, like a backwards birth process, diving into a darkness reminiscent of a set for the Alien movies. We locked up the car and ascended the many staircases to the decks, where, much to our landlubbing surprise, all of the furniture was heavily bolted to the floor. And then, before we had a chance to venture outside to see the early morning sunrise, the clouds gathered and the trip started.

Our ferry became a displaced manatee, uncertain of its surroundings, unstable and emotional, Kong-ish in its reactions with the water. It was almost as if it possessed the capability of understanding it would never again be in the Florida sun, relaxing and drifting with its fellow sea cows, flowing with the water, instead of against it. Rain battered the ferry from three sides, and as the lake water turned into hostile waves, the temporary inhabitants of the misinformed mothership began facing their internal storms.

Carrie was the first to surrender, running for the bathroom just as her own recently archived breakfestival inmates mutinied, citing a rancid stomach tempest among their reasons, or as they put it "If you won't give us our freedom from this, this unsanitary melting pot, then we're gonna set ourselves free! All praise Allah!" And so they did, unfortunately for the rest of us, moments before Carrie made it to the bathroom, and then, as if on cue, a woman with a mop came out of the woodwork, like one of those robots from the future in old Tex Avery cartoons.

And then, just as soon as the ride began, it ended, and we were welcomed to Manatoulin Island, famous for not very much at all.

Dad

My Dad's a cool guy. In fact, the trip was his idea of bonding with the kids and the folks. Samantha and I jumped on board, Mom came along and Carrie sort of didn't have any other choice. I don't know if this is how its supposed to be, but Dad's always ahead of all his children in what was good music, what was new, what was now, what was hip, and we always envied him because of it. I remember sitting on Mom and Dad's bed in Somerville, watching the end of the Muppet Show and Samantha came in and changed the channel to MTV and then Dad came in from work and while going through the ritualistic taking off of the watch and emptying of the pockets, always producing a small box of jelly beans from a layover at Hodgekin's Spa down the street, him stopping and focusing on the band in the video on the screen, floating through Dublin harbor on a garbage barge, and at the end of the video, him taking a stab at oracle and predicting that the band, U2, would be huge, possibly even bigger than Peter Gabriel, if such a thing could exist. I remember sitting with him and Samantha and watching almost all of Live Aid, and I remember shopping with him in countless of records stores, including a memorably long visit to a rather boring Brazilian shop in D.C. where he struck up a conversation with the owner, only to be interrupted by a man on the street who ran into the shop singing "Mona Lisa." Who's it by, who's it by? What's the name of the song, does anybody know? That would be Don McLean, and that would be my Dad, coming to the rescue with the powerful pop culture reference book lodged in the back of his memory.

The one thing that wasn't cool about him was his snoring. Downright irritating to be honest with you. In my younger years, I found the only way to sleep in the same room with him was not to sleep. My own conclusion was that if I could just forgo my own rest, I would be so tired that I would sleep through the entire following day. This tactic proved very effective on long car trips, like this one. Because of Dad's snoring, I didn't see any of Wisconsin and saw very little of Minnesota.

Since then I've devised a way to actually fall asleep. The key is that when possible, I try to find a rhythm in his breathing patterns, and build percussion around it, or use it as a way of counting to a billion until I doze off. But in my youth I was a very tired boy.

Cardigan State

Canada gave way to an unfamiliar Michigan, a dense blanket of pine sprinkled with the neon of orange hunting gear, pickup trucks tethered to the sides of the highway, poachers' wombs waiting for the getaway with Blitzin' on the hood.

We stopped in Paradise for the night, a sleepy backcountry hamlet, where the glow of a lone motel marquee "JESUS LOVES YOU" warmed us enough to warrant a stopover. We found it fitting that the Son of God would hole up in Paradise for awhile. We were put in the hunter's room, with four double beds and a twin, each of us allowed our own bed for the first time in many days. Cynical in my ways, I was convinced this was too good to be true, and all through the night a montage of Psycho danced through my head, until I got up to inspect the room while the others slept. The bathroom was suspect, there was a window in the shower that looked out on the woods behind the motel, and there was a vent by the toilet, perfectly susceptible to any cross-dressing, bird-loving psychopath yielding an ax or a knife or a chainsaw, but then again, the motel was blessed by Jesus, and combined with the bust of Elvis by the motel clerk's desk in the office, well, maybe there weren't any psychos about. And so I went to bed.

& the Revolution

The Mall of America is a scary place. All of Minnesota is pretty scary, come to think of it. We pulled up outside of the mammoth metal gingerbread house, uncertain of what we would find inside, besides an overwhelming amount of capitalism in the shape of deals, steals, and food court meals, pitched and priced by wicked witches. Before we got there, we devised a scheme, sort of to beat the system, sort of to enjoy the excessiveness of America, and decided we would only look around until one of us wanted to leave. And to be honest, once we got inside, I can't remember if anyone did want to go. All we had was more time to spend in the car, and, well, the mall did provide fresh air, thousands of screaming kids, and a catchy soundtrack, so what else was really needed? We only saw a fourth of the mall, but we stayed for three hours.

It was a revolutionary experience, actually. I really don't remember most of the innards of the mall, but I do remember my first impression upon entering. It was if someone had transported Mt. Rushmore and erected it inside an airplane hangar. The atrium we entered into was awe-inspiring, and I think we spent so much time in that damn place because we were searching for that feeling without realizing that it could only exist outside, in the profound beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota, swarmed by the black leather of ten thousand motorcycles, desperate to get away from their day jobs working at sterile American institutions devoid of any real beauty, like the mall.

Homogenize

A few days later we were in Elk Point, South Dakota, sleeping under open air conditioning vents in the basement of Uncle John Kalstead and Aunt Midge. We were four days away from Rushmore, but the gods continued to throw obstacles in our way. The first trial was surrendering routine space for carlife, then it was surviving the eternal boredom of the New York Thruway, the third trial being the Manatoulin Island Ferry, then came a test of recognizing our true path in the mirage of Rushmore inside a metal oasis in Minnesota, and now came the harshest trial of them all: sleeping underneath an air conditioning vent piping steaming cold air, making you think, as you try to fall asleep, of the L train in Manhattan in the summer, or the meat freezer scene in Short Circuit 2, and as you drift off with Nanook of the North, you can't feel your muscles glazing over with a thin layer of ice. Or at least I didn't.

The next morning I swear I felt like I was having a heart attack. Somehow, thanks to the miracles of purposefully directed air current, I had, while sleeping, pulled a muscle (I would find out days later in the Rapid City Regional emergency room somewhere across the state) stretching from the left side of my neck down over my heart and up onto my left arm. It was not fun. I couldn't turn my neck, couldn't lift my left arm, couldn't do bloody well anything for two or three days. I was in pain, and no one in my family seemed to care all that much, that is, until I picked the complaining up a few notches before we got to our hotel in Keystone near Rushmore, and Dad finally heard enough and took me to, as I said before, the Rapid City Regional emergency room.

As everyone awoke that same morning, I could hear Dad complaining to Mom (or anyone who would listen) about waking up with a sore throat from sleeping underneath a different vent, one that, according to him, blew air only on his face all night long, which, if you ask me, was a much better deal than the one I was getting on the couch.

You know, despite ending up with a raw deal, so to speak, when it came to sleeping quarters, I think we all had a good time out there in Elk Point. It was the first time I had been there since 1982, only memorable now because an old aunt likes to remind me about the time when she told me to stop sucking my thumb, which I guess was during that visit. I've been to Elk Point twice since then, both for family reunions. That's where I keep seeing that old aunt.

Corncob

If there's one thing that eastern South Dakota is known for is corn. Not to say that it's good year round, but that there's just so much of it. Corn crowds the highway like every day were a parade, it rears it ugly cob on every dinner plate in front of guests statewide, it's the burden and joy of every farmer. Husk an ear with a friend, peel away years of growth and experience to get to the root of existence, and what do you find? You find kernels all bound to the same cob, simultaneously each its own entity, collectively producing a larger experience. If there was one thing I learned in South Dakota, it was that Mt. Rushmore was just another kernel, the same way Paradise, Michigan, Iowa, Chicago, Toronto, Utica, were kernels. The cob was our car, and our car was our true experience. Everything else was somehow different behind the window, conjured up as quickly as forgotten. Kind of like television.

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