Week 11: Forever, in a nutshell

20 Feb

The groundhog bobbed its grinning head frantically as the car rushed down the 110th.  It wasn’t of course grinning, but just frozen in time, gnawing at a chunk of wood. To Paul however,  the rows of white plastic teeth still looked like an evil grin. “It will bring you good fortune,” the car salesman said, as he handed him the keys to the black Charger.

The head bobbing was driving him crazy. He took the chewing gum out of his mouth and fitted it under the toy’s head, one eye on the road, barely enough for him to avoid running  the red light at Duke Ellington circle.

He leaned back on his seat with a sigh of relief and took a quick glance at a his bloodshot eyes and haggard face, without observing the hunched figure making its way to the front of his car. He jerked violently when the beggar knocked on the window. A row of surprisingly good teeth smiled at him from beneath a not so well-looking beard. With a soft thud, the beggar pressed a bunch of neatly packed maps against his window.

Paul signaled him off with a gesture, but that didn’t seem to have any effect. “Go away,”  he muttered, hoping the beggar was just as good at lip-reading, as he was at smiling and startling people.  He wasn’t. Annoyed, Paul stepped shortly on the gas  as the beggar continued to cling onto his car. The traffic light turned green and Paul gave a bolder, careless push on the pedal. A bright red streak, followed by a vicious jolt and a body rolling over his hood, were the only things that he managed to register.  He got out of the car dazzled, not knowing if to curse, cry or just run. His brain automatically chose a curse as the best course of action. He  continued towards the passenger side, shoved the beggar away and stopped by the pizza delivery boy who was clutching his stomach. For a moment he froze in panic, waiting for something to happen. The boy then twitched, opened his eyes and started babbling. “Call 911. No… call my mom. Please… She’s on fast dial.” “Can you feel your legs?” Paul asked in distress. “Call an ambulance, please…” the boy screamed.  “Hey, hey!” said Paul trying to snap the boy out of his panic attack. He pinched one of the boy’s ankles. A short yelp in response, assured him that at least for the moment, the boy’s spine was intact.  Somewhat relieved, Paul rolled him over gently and started looking for injuries. As he was doing so he heard the beggar saying “You were right. What good did that do to you?…” He turned around angrily but the beggar was gone and two traffic police officers were making their way through the crowd that was gathering around them.

[…] The hospital was busy. As busy as if someone decided that all misfortunes scheduled for that day, had to happen all at once.  Paul chewed nervously at an unlit cigarette, as he tried to process the events of the last hour. He found that particularly difficult. A few feet away, an angry man punched a coffee machine while his wife was struggling with their kid who was yelling at the top of his lungs.  Two paramedics rushed past him with an empty stretcher.  An old lady in a wheelchair was barely breathing through her mask, her empty gaze fixed on Paul. He suddenly felt overwhelmed by a feverish  deja vu. He closed his eyes and covered his ears, wishing away the rattle, the ringing and the voices clashing. He looked up to follow a gentle tap on his shoulder. “Sir. The boy decided not to press charges. It was his fault after all.” He stared at the policeman blankly, uttered a “thank you” that barely left his lips and slowly started to head towards the exit, still munching his cigarette.

The bitter cold outside burned his lungs and snapped him back to what was, for lack of a better word, reality. As he was descending the stairs, he noticed a group of people tightly packed around the entrance of the diner across the street. The scene looked like something awful had happened and although he, unlike most humans, wasn’t attracted to ugly tragedies, curiosity got the better of him. He approached a man who looked composed enough. “What happened?” Paul asked. “Robbery gone wrong. Someone died,” the man replied without as much as looking at Paul. “Poor, poor girl,” an old woman continued, barely suppressing her tears. Paul looked across the street for a while, trying to make some sense out of the commotion. He remembered how his parents had taught him some prayers once but he couldn’t recall any. He circled his car, taking his eyes from the scene and watching the shifting reflections in the cold black metal. Ignoring the wasted fender, he opened the car and dropped heavily into his seat.

The groundhog was grinning. Paul was sure of that, no matter what the car salesman had told him. The grin was particularly creepier now, as he was speeding on the 110th, causing the toy’s head to wobble deliriously.

The constant motion was always there, in the corner of his eye.  He found the solution to his problem as he stopped skidding on the dirty snow, a few feet short of the red light at Duke Ellington circle. He spat the chewing gum into the palm of his hand and stuck the grinning head into place.

With the distraction gone, he allowed himself a quick look in the rearview mirror. His eyes were a map of red veins. His face gaunt and unshaven.

The rap on the passenger window startled him. He turned to meet a face which screamed contrast, two rows of pristine white teeth, bordered by a totally neglected collection of  grey, yellow and black hairs all coated with ice, snow and a few bread crumbs. The rap came again now, the beggar’s hand bearing sings of frostbite, the smile still there, just as insistent.

Paul slid the window open just a few inches, to avoid the cold wind outside. “I don’t have coin”, he said, his words more like a muffled excuse than a statement. The treebark-skinned hand clutched on the rim of his window. “I have maps, sir” came the quick response, as if the man was reading from a script. “Don’t need any. Go away,” Paul replied  squeezing the gas pedal and waving the man off. As the traffic light turned green, he bolted, ignoring the  bright red flash coming at him from the left. The piercing screech made by the scooter as it tore off the Charger’s front bumper, was like a cue for Paul’s perception. From his perspective, everything seemed to slow down, the screech transitioning to a wail and then to a muted rumble, as it was descending into the lower frequencies. The actors of a moving picture became the objects in a still life. The delivery boy poised to break his fall, his back bent forward, a knee on the ground, the other in mid-air, framed by pizza slices caught in their frozen flips and flaps. The beggar, ready to slip on a patch of ice, looked like a startled insect trapped in ember. The warm, vertigo-inducing deja vu sensation came as everything sped up again to a sudden stop in the thick cold slush.

Paul jumped out of the car, approached the boy and helped him up. “I’m, OK, I’m OK” the boy said brushing his clothes. Paul turned him around and examined him making sure he wasn’t injured. “What the fuck were you doing?”, the boy snapped out of the blue.  Taken aback, Paul blinked, his brain sorting out different options. It seemed like an eternity had passed until he finally replied: “Look, you’re scared, just cool down, you ran a red light, that’s alright.” The boy didn’t seem to hear him. “Who’s gonna pay for all this?” he said gesturing widely at the pizzas littering the ground. He saw the beggar sifting through the boxes looking for a clean slice. “Hey you! Fuck off! Those aren’t yours!” and then addressing Paul again: “So, you payin’?” Paul frowned. “No, I’m not paying for anything. You ran a red light. You bumped into me.” “Oh yeah? Somebody call the police!” he yelled, looking around at the crowd that was beginning to gather around them. Paul didn’t have time for this. He was right, he knew that, but delays were going to cost him more. Much more. “Alright, alright, how much?” “I told you to piss off” the boy broke off, landing a hard kick on the beggar’s back. He turned to face Paul with a smug smile on his face. “Eight pizzas, that’s twenty a piece, one hundred and sixty. And the scooter. Five hundred.” “I’ll pay for the pizzas, not the scooter,” Paul replied. “No deal, we’ll sort this with the police then.” Paul felt his head swollen, his temples pumping, the deja vu still there, just as strong, gnawing at his psyche.  “Two hundred. That’s all you get,” he finally said with a sigh. “Two hundred for the pizzas, fifty for the scooter,” the boy insisted. “Fine. Two fifty, but you let him have the pizzas,” said Paul pointing at the beggar. He then fumbled through his jacket producing a small lump of crumpled notes. “Here.  Now go.” The boy took the money, picked up his scooter and made off with the smirk still on his face. With a slight limp, the beggar drew near Paul,  pizza box in his hands, munching at a steaming slice. “You were right. What good did that do to you?…” he said.  Paul felt as hit on the back of his head. He turned to reply with his entrails twitching at the familiarity he felt.  For a moment, he thought he knew what he had to say, and then the deja vu was over and his memory refused him. “Didn’t I tell you to go away?  he replied tearing off the bumper completely. Ignoring the man who was still following him around, he went to the back of his car and threw the bumper in the trunk. “I have maps, sir,” the beggar offered again. “What’s with the maps, what’s with the damn maps?” Paul snapped angrily. “I don’t need them, alright?”

[…] He continued driving slowly on Madison Ave. His head felt like the Grand Central Terminal, thoughts like trains, arriving and departing to the North, South and West. One of these trains was the thought of his immigrant parents. They loved trains, cars, traveling and the West.  For some reason Paul had inherited the same drive and he never understood why this, why the lure to the West and places he didn’t remember. He knew he had to go there. Someday. But he was not going to repeat his parent’s mistake.  He remembered how, one day, they had made off, “on a final short trip,” towards the West, on the I-90. His mother had told him once, how this was also the first trip they took as soon as they had set foot in the States. How he was born just a week later, while they were still on the road. His father used to call it the “Golden Road”.

The shrill of a nearby police car snapped him out of his reverie. He looked around and saw a crowd gathered around a diner across Mount Sinai Hospital. Things looked like something had went terribly wrong and he wasn’t usually affected by the human urge of looking at an ugly accident, but something made him pull his car over near a group of bystanders. He approached a man who looked like one that could provide accurate information. “What happened?” Paul asked. “Armed robbery.  One dead,” the man replied without taking his eyes from the crime scene. “You go for lunch and BAM! You’re dead. Bastards…” a red-faced construction worker offered to clarify. “Poor, poor girl…” an elderly, well-dressed, woman said between sobs.  Paul looked across the street as two paramedics were coming out of the crowd carrying a stretcher with a covered body on it. There it was again, that overwhelming deja vu. Paul shook his head and whispered a short prayer in his native language. He went around the car, feeling the curves under the cold metal.

The groundhog’s grinning head, oscillated like a frenzied metronome as Paul dashed down the 110th. He could almost hear the constant tick-tock, not a rhythm, but a repetition. Everything around him, the road, the buildings the thick, cold wind outside, was playing like a broken record. Even the engine sounded like it was in some kind of ill fated sync with that constant wobble. Paul felt dizzy, his head wrapped in cotton. He slowed down, trying to cope with the sheer amount of information and sensations, coming to a stop well before the red light at Duke Ellington circle. He got out of the car in the bitter cold outside, looking around as if he was trying to find his bearings. As the hunched beggar made his way towards him events seemed to fall into place forming a hazy sequence. “I have maps sir! Good maps,” the beggar said pulling at Paul’s jacket. “Yes, I know, I think I know…” Paul replied, trying to fight the disorientation.  He saw the red scooter and ran for it, the beggar following him, flapping his large coat like a strange bird. “Let him be…let him be.” he thought he heard the beggar, but he ignored him and charged in front of the scooter. The delivery boy hit the brakes just in time to avoid running Paul over. “What the hell?!” The boy yelled as he was taking his helmet off. “I want to buy one of those,” said Paul pointing at the box holding the pizzas. “What? Here? Look, I’m in a hurry OK?” the boy replied starting his scooter.  “Fifty bucks! I’ll give you fifty bucks!” Paul said, grabbing the boy with one hand and producing a fifty dollar bill with the other.  He waved nervously at the drivers honking behind him. “Alright,” the boy said and handed him a hot box. “There you go, weirdo.” He took the money and made off, spraying slush on both Paul and the beggar. “I’ll have all your maps. You get the pizza and some cash” Paul addressed the beggar as he was marching back towards his car. “No, I don’t need coin. It’s too late anyway,” the man replied. “What do you mean?” “You’ll see, you’ll see. You were close this time.” As Paul was trying to make sense of what was happening, the old man took the pizza and handed him the maps. “Here, have ’em anyway.”

Now the honks were frantic and some guys had gotten out of their cars. Paul rushed towards his Charger, got in and threw the maps on the passenger seat. He watched the beggar for a few seconds as he was disappearing behind the first line of trees in Central Park. He drove off hastily with a clear sense of direction in his head. He continued past Duke Ellington and made a quick right turn on Madison Avenue. He accelerated towards Mount Sinai Hospital, his body charged with electrifying expectation. This had happened before. He was sure now. He couldn’t yet make heads or tails of it but he was going to. As he approached the hospital, he started getting glimpses of the same familiar scene. A deep sting passed through his chest and his throat felt parched. He stopped in front of the group that gathered across the diner. He  got out of the car and approached a man and a weeping woman. He didn’t need to ask any questions now though. He watched as two paramedics came out of the crowd of idlers, carrying a stretcher with a covered body on it. He felt his legs buckle under him, his eyes cover with a cobweb. He went back to his car slowly, touching the black metal from time to time, trying to find his balance.

There he was, back on the 110th. He kept speeding, ignoring the grin, head and wobbles. The light was there…”Any second now.” There it was. Red. Again. The beggar was in the same place, watching the Charger coming at him, not moving an inch. Paul hit the brakes, sliding to a stop right in front of the old man. “Get in,” he said, opening the passenger side door. The beggar laughed heartily and got in gathering his wide coat around his body as the wind stormed thousands of snowflakes inside. He closed the door and laid his hand on the radiator. He stood like that for a few seconds, a wide smile on his face. Paul didn’t know how to play this. He knew he had to, but the rules were still unclear. “Alright,” the old man said. “Off we go.” Paul squeezed the gas as the light turned greed. The red scooter was there, running the red light. “Don’t. Don’t cut him off,” the beggar said observing Paul’s hesitation. “I have the right of way,” Paul replied, half-voiced, somehow decided to let the old man lead the game. “What’s so great in always being right?” the man said. “That… That’s how… There are rules you know?” Paul replied watching the scooter as it passed them. The cars behind started honking. “OK, now we can go. Slowly. No rush alright?” the beggar said as if he hadn’t heard Paul’s last reply. “Can I have a smoke?”, he continued, helping himself to one of Paul’s cigarettes as they were going past Duke Ellington circle. “Yeah, sure, go ahead.” The man puffed a few times,  filling the car with grey smoke. Paul looked at him briefly and couldn’t help but think that, as he sat there with his big beard and his eyes closed, encased in smoke, the old man looked pretty much like an old wizard or a witch doctor.  “You know, how they say that vanity kills?” he broke off startling Paul. “What? They do?…” “No, no… I do the talking now” the old man replied waving his hands and spreading the smoke around him. “It  doesn’t make any sense being right just for the sake of it. Does it? You, my dear boy are just as stupid for blindly following the rules as those who break them. Principles are there to be used, not waved around like some flag. But then again, you’re just scared.” Paul never imagined that a revelation could come together with a feeling of being so dense. All he could do was smile, like an idiot that had somehow stumbled into a shining light.  He turned right on Madison Avenue and continued towards Mount Sinai Hospital as the old man continued to talk but he had already figured it all out. And the old man knew. “This is where I get off and you, carry on,” the man said, as they were nearing the hospital. Paul looked across the street, at the diner. Everything looked normal. People went in and out, about their business, no commotion, no crowd of onlookers. Paul turned towards the man and said: “What do I owe you?” “Owe me? No, no, you don’t owe me a thing. I will take this, though,” he replied snatching the grinning groundhog figurine. “Oh, do take it. It has been driving me nuts anyway.” The old man smiled and got out of the car. He paused for a moment and then fumbled for something in his coat. He took the map pack and threw it on the passenger seat. “Here, you’ll need these. Best of luck to you two!” He said and he strode off. Paul sat for a few seconds, enjoying a feeling that he didn’t remember having for a very, very long while.  Then he started unpacking the maps feverishly. As he did so, he whispered the name of the states–Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington…the I-90.

He smiled and looked up. A few yards away, on a bench on the sidewalk, there was a girl taking small, delicate bites out of a pizza slice. On the bench, by her side there was a large cardboard sign which read “Going West”. She was surrounded by what Paul thought were probably all her belongings–some bags and backpack tied with rope.

[…]Rolling hills sped up in the distance, descending into blurry fields bathed in a golden haze. The setting sun reflected off the brightly colored Charger as they were dashing up the I-90. She was asleep, her head resting on Paul’s shoulder, her dark hair catching playful highlights. He looked outside as they were passing a field of white wind turbines. They were all still, as if frozen in time, but Paul knew better. He smiled and looked at her again, as a draft rippled through her hair, revealing a blond strand.


One Response to “Week 11: Forever, in a nutshell”

  1. unwantedthoughtssupply Sunday, February 26, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    What a ride! =) exhilarating stuff

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