13 July 2009

Sometime to Return, To Myself

I ran the way, I walked a fine line
Wasted time only to find
You were callin’ I think finally
To remind me I am fine…

Picture this: It is close to Thanksgiving, 1988, and the worn-looking Chevy Nova is barreling down the highway on Route 460 in southern Virginia. Cruising down into the Piedmont region with the Blue Ridge Mountains small and getting smaller in the rear view. In the front passenger seat sits a cassette/radio combo boom box, the height of second tier portable music technology in the pre-digital age. A cassette box lies next to the boom box, skittering about on the cracked red vinyl of the seat as the driver takes the curves just fast enough to be interesting without posing a true public safety hazard.

The boom box is there because the car is a 1977 model, with a radio that only pretended to play music that anyone wanted to hear. Pushbuttons and that Day-Glo orange needle offering up frequencies that seemed to bear little resemblance to what was actually on the airwaves. The driver doesn’t really care, though. This is his first car, and nothing could be finer than flying down the blacktop, belting out punk rock songs at the top of his lungs.

The terrain is flattening out now, hitting that stretch of small towns between Lynchburg and Petersburg, the “Elam-Farmville-Crewe” axis as the driver of the car had dubbed it. He knew a girl whose last name was Elam, he knew someone who went to school in Farmville (home of Longwood College) and Crewe? Well, Crewe was the home of the 7-11 pit stop, a perfect coincidence of thirst, numb ass and full bladder coming together in a siren call to stop and take a break. Crewe was also the place to call home from the pay phone and let the ‘rents know about when their boy would be home for the break. Crewe was that place where he called home in a voice shaking with relief and homesickness to let them know he would be home late that one time he and his buddy slid off the road on a patch of black ice. They sat in a ditch for a while waiting for a tow truck, watching other drivers careen off the road for entertainment.

Doing the what-we-can
Working without a plan
I'm beginning to understand
It's getting out of hand…

Thanksgiving, in what would be his senior year of college. Five years of architecture school on the way to winding down, and the driver was ready for it to be over. Make his family proud on the way to becoming a respectable citizen. Maybe get a job after graduation, follow the path just like everyone else and find that path to stability, career and 2.5 kids.

At least that is what it looked like from the outside. Burnout was starting to creep in, under pressure from just trying to keep up and do his best. Trying not to waste his parents’ money and his precious energy, all the while telling himself this is what life was supposed to be. The driver was perhaps not even fully aware of the hidden cracks in the foundations of his life, but they certainly fueled the gnawing in his gut, increased the volume at which he bellowed out the songs pouring from the radio, set to volume 9 so he could scream and hear the music over the noise of the wind rushing through the open windows. Even then he knew, without having the ability to articulate it, that something was not quite right. That maybe, just maybe, he was not so certain of himself, that he had not made his choices based on what his heart wanted.

Passing the sign pointing the way to Red House, the driver reached over and hit the rewind button, to hear that song again. He grinned at the opening power chords and drew a deep breath. Not too much farther to Crewe.

I have seen these do-si-do's
I've walked up on this road before
Picked it apart for hours and hours and hours and hours
Of turning tossing and looking and listening
To you and all the fucked up things you do…

The driver was used to this by now, the hours on the road trying to set a new land speed record to get home, without getting caught by the state troopers that popped up every now and then. He fancied himself a rebel now and then, but he knew he really didn’t want the hassle of a ticket.

The time on the road was a time for conversation, a weird and loopy dialogue with himself. Dialogue, that is, when he was not trying to sing along with the radio. Strange conversations about the Universe and his place in it, never once thinking himself weird.

Years later, the driver felt shamed into not talking to himself, because…well, that isn’t normal…is it?

In the grip of youthful self-absorption, the driver knew nothing of the minefields of the future, those dangerous explosives suddenly uncovered by the velvet covered brutalities of that which is called Life. No, such things were not even on the radar. And why should they be? Loud music, a fast car and time: all the time in the world. The driver smiled. The sign said Crewe was just a few miles ahead. He reached over again, and hit the rewind button.

But you're doing the best you can
With every grain of sand
That's trickling through your hands
Sayin’ catch me if you can…

Picture this: A midsummer early evening, July 2009, and the worn-looking Honda Civic is not speeding, exactly, but close to it. The car is on the highway south of Baltimore, midway between an old home and a new one. Under a sky the color of dusty silver and pale oranges, the driver is fighting back tears and fatigue and trying to master a gut that can’t decide if it wants to play nice or just torture its owner. The driver is tired, really tired. The trip is not so long in the physical sense, a short jaunt of about three miles. Piece o’ cake, yes?

Then why did it seem so long?

Doing the best I can living without a plan
I'm taking what I can get I haven't seen nothing yet
If one day you wake up and find what you make up
Come and get me come and take me there
Into your illusion I make my intrusion
Anytime, anyplace, anywhere…

The radio was playing, softly. The CD slot was empty, and the driver suddenly realized that the song coming out of the dash was not the song playing in his head. It figures, he thought, absentmindedly reaching out to hit the rewind button. A rush of hot tears as he realized he had no rewind button. The song played on, no chance of doing it over. He wept.

The driver wiped his eyes and told himself to stop being such an asshead. He knew why. The weekend was winding down, another weekend where he was privileged to be a father not just in name but in the real. Dropping his lovely daughter off carried with it a tinge of relief (the child was quite a handful, and he was no longer a spring chicken), but it made him realize just how disconnected the parts of his life seemed to be. The distance between what he was and what he wanted to be stretching out that three mile drive into what seemed like three hundred.

The hourglass is draining fast
It knows no future holds no past
And all this too will come to pass
Never forever whatever

The Honda pulls slowly into the parking space, a world-weary ship tying up to an unfamiliar wharf. Inside, the driver turns the engine off, but hesitates with his hand on the keys. Resting his head on the steering wheel, the hardness of it against his forehead giving him an anchor against the waves besetting him all around. He rubs his forehead against the plastic, grinding it and gritting his teeth as he comes to grips with the true cost of not listening to your heart. He slips the keys from the ignition, opens the door and steps out into the heat of a life starting over.

If someday comes early comes whipping, comes whirling
To take you for all you have learned
The tables are turning your bridges are burning
My destination sometime to return...

Italicized passages are lyrics from Sometime to Return by Soul Asylum, off the album “Hang Time”. A fine tune, indeed, to crank up loud.


  1. Makes me nostalgic for the days when turning the car stereo up loud enough could wipe the slate clean.
    Hang in there, Irish.

  2. Oh, I am so on the same page as 'only a movie'!

    Some how I want to say 'it will all make sense one day', but nine years later...I just have put it behind me...

  3. I love the old school boom boxes, they were giant! And were loud and the sound quality BLEW lol

  4. "The true cost of not listening to your heart."

    The cost is high. Ruinous, even.

  5. Can I have a glass of red wine now please...?

  6. Echoes of Marlow on the Thames, recalling a different boat (or in your case, car) ride.
    Brilliant writing.

    On the subject of boom boxes, every great work shed requires one on a summer Sunday afternoon.
    I realized this yesterday listening to my boyfriend's Bose.

  7. My grandpa had a '77 Nova. When he died in... 2002? is was still mint. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  8. My son is peeing on my sidewalk.
    I really did have something to say until that familiar splash tinkled on the cement.
    Hang in there. Transition is always the hardest.

  9. yuz paid yuz dues. do what makes you happy.oldman irish

  10. How poignant. Excellent writing, I'm always in awe when I read one of your passages. Now ... I'm off to ponder it quietly.


  11. I love this. Hate that you have/had to go through it, but I love how you captured it.


"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

Tell me what is in your heart...