From the Fallout Shelter

Penn State Harrisburg's Literary Arts Magazine

A Race to Paper, a Race against Morpheus

By Alexander Clark

It was Sunday, so I was on tramadol.

It hasn’t snowed in years; it’s snowing now. It’s the first day, first hour, of storm; the first time it’s stuck enough to stick in memory. The drive alone along the should-be empty roads is a race I don’t yet know I’m in.

December 2013, after I’d turned 28 but before the junior-senior-sophomore somewhere situated semester had ended. Ended in name, it had already ended in intent.

I’d drunk too much the night before, a thing I’d thought many mornings of an easy semester that would leave me unprepared for those to follow. A semester of seemingly unearned recognition and lauded, last-minute completions. The time between being a writer as an optimistic lie and an amateur truth. The time when, technically, I didn’t fit the requirement for the term to self-apply.

I am driving to a friend’s house to pick up the remnants of a bottle of vodka and a stack of literary magazines, and the act itself feels very writerly, like Hemingway or Thompson might approve.

Stomach all but empty, my hangover the cantankerous but non-violent sort of fuzzy warmth, the kind that continues to stupefy rather than nauseate or enrage. I ride on back roads not thinking much of the thick, dumpy snowflakes that droop more than drop onto the ground. I’m soft; everything’s soft. World’s soft.

Nothing is covered; the snow isn’t even a fall but an occasional flush.

The ground is fluid.

Turning bends and dipping suburban dead worm streets, I forget my way through and toward Andy’s place. I don’t actually know the route if I think too hard about it; if I question my guesses in any way I dead-end in some no-where place. So, I don’t think.

I feel as if I’ve forgotten something. Something other than the deliberately dismissed directions. I also feel how good the seat fits, how comfortably my jeans lie, how much I enjoy music that I’ve bought or stolen. How I’m not really listening to it, how the radio’s off and quiet sections of Nirvana and Bush interweave into a lullaby unintended.

On what seem like empty roads, I’m personally offended when others seek to share. Never mind that I exist; why do you?

A tailgater: the worst kind of unwelcome roadway company, like a fat man on a bus making conversation at you over your newspaper or through your headphones, elbows digging into your armrest, bulk making your skin shrink and sweat.

He keeps turning with me, as if we have something in common. As if he expects me to go faster when all I’ll do is slow down and make him crawl.

He won’t be shaken. Each turn toward my destination seems more precise, more specific, so that each mimicked turn feels more deliberate copy. The sorting of directions from general to specific should be shaking out the chaff, leaving me to myself to get to the house alone.

The final turn, the “I know where I am” section of the trip, and the car’s still with me. Turning up the hill toward Andy’s, wheels spinning faster back than the car is moving forward.

No one else I know lives on this road. It is inconceivable that so empty a place as a double-sided suburban street should have other travelers; that we should do anything other than pass by the same spot at different times. But for some reason there is one, and for some reason I’ll be nice today.

Annoying as he is, I won’t flip him off.

I don’t know why the change, especially given the hangover.

The final final hill, the one that is Andy’s driveway, and somehow the car is still with me, and this all seems incomprehensibly impossible until the car resolves from a single item into a thing driven by a passenger, and that passenger resolves into Andy’s father.

And being glad I didn’t flip him off when he was just a car and not a man driving a vehicle, when it was a thing, not a thing driven by a conscious other.

I semi-circle out of Andy’s father’s driveway to park on the street to let Mr. Smith take the spot that belongs to him on his driveway.

He opens the garage door for us and heads into his house without much greeting; I don’t so much stumble as make the same motions of normal less effectively. A toy robot on an ice skating rink, motions unchanged for setting, no less precise in affect for the failure of effect. I don’t stumble, but I do skitter.

The driveway seems long when I feel slow.

Inside it’s over-warm, because it’s a new house in a new type of domesticity. I live in the cold city; the past lives in the cold country. In my mind, suburbia is an accident, an aborted town or an amputated village. In my mind, the past is made of real towns and real villages and peopled with communities who like the cold, who don’t under-dress and over-complain, for whom summer heat is a reason to swim and winter cold a reason to dress.

In the suburban now, off of deliberately scoliotic blacktop, people live in furnaces and wear shorts in the winter and say, “It’s too cold,” while refusing to change to let the dog out to piss in the yard.

I think I feel out of place. I also wonder why I think and feel so much today. Something is definitely forgotten. One wonders what. One wonders why one wonders.

 

Andy greets me in the kitchen. His father’s already disappeared to one of the computer or TV rooms. He doesn’t dislike me, as I thought for the first few years Andy and I’d been friends; he’s just not terribly polite in a social sense.

He’s put up with his son and his son’s friend routinely raiding and thereby ravaging his liquor cabinets. We know to leave the good stuff, but we go by percent, so the more we drink without replenishing the less we need to let remain. One good bottle of ten the same as ten bad bottles of a hundred whole.

I try to bring my own liquor. I can’t afford to restock so often as Mr. Smith.

We look at the bottle with its nearly all-absent contents. One of us makes the joke that causes serious consideration: “Should we finish it?” But it’s a Sunday. I’ll have a few more classes before Sundays cease to be anything more than Fridays or Wednesdays.

So, we don’t drink anymore, and I feel like this is the right decision even as the now more weighted satchel digs in my side and pulls me toward the off-balanced slip down Andy’s drive.

The phone says that the weather will get worse as the afternoon progresses. That mattered when I read it. No time to be trapped at Andy’s for three days again like three years ago when we got nearly three feet of snow. Happy New Year, empty liquor cabinet. Happy New Year, tolerant parents. Happy New Year, overstayed welcome.

 

At the edge of the dip that drops onto the main drag, one need make a decision. The back roads are growing hoary. The more popular roads will be just as snowy, but they’ll be plowed.

Back to crowds, oh well.

At the foot of one of a dozen hills, I pull into the gas station to replace the fuse that I hadn’t bothered to deal with when the weather was better, and now the snow is falling angrily and curling up under the overhang to hit me in the side and dig through the bared fabric of my age-thinned art sweatshirt—the one I wear when I paint and sculpt that shows no paint or welds—over the t-shirt mentioning something of which I was once a part. The snow feels so cold I think the shirts are pulled up above my hip and that my side is bare, but when I reach for skin it’s only cold cloth and snow accumulating vertically.

I stare at my hand as the gas pump clicks.

Fuse fixed, trip meter reset: onto the road.

I go a mile or quarter mile and wonder at how much all of this seems to matter and why I feel so good and—

Shit.

I’m stoned.

The drugs have been kicking in too early; this entire trip and all its self-indulgent appreciation is born on chemical wings. Of chemical wings. On or of chemical wings. The abrupt realization like a broken thing, a crack in glass, not at all too inescapable and permanently so.

I’ve taken three mood-mellowing drugs: guaifenesin, diphenhydramine, and tramadol. Not planned. A non-combatant cocktail, a conscientious objector colada, a pacifist poultice, a… thing that causes verbosity, hyperbole, list making, and an unnatural affinity for alliteration above and atop my already excessive appetite.

And the snow takes away another bit of sight from what dilated pupils left me.

I’m going less than my normal speed, less than that, less than the speed limit. I’m crawling, or more slithering, and still I’m not the slowest. I’ve mine; what’re their excuses?

The one in front of me is going so slowly, too slowly; each check of the speedometer is compulsive, never changing, but still the slowness makes me feel unnatural, like I can no longer trust senses that don’t normally shift when morphetic. I don’t normally drive, though, so who knows?

He really is going this slowly; my mind has not converted speed to slow motion.

Further proof, the one who passes us all, in-between lanes I know he can’t see, faster than the speed limit, faster than that, at my normal speed, too fast for this weather.

The line is long.

I don’t mind.

For all the dozens of cars on Linglestown Road, the infinite-by-improbability crowd that held me up for hours or minutes, Front Street is empty. The wide, slushy Susquehanna gathers snow, stiffening unwatched.

The miles home alone along the quiet, stupefying water, between the empty park and the barren sidewalks. No motion; me still in a car, the snow fall just an image while intangible outside glass.

Then I’m home.

No harm, no tickets, no losses. Nothing much.

I’m parked.

I’m inside.

I’m too happy to sit still, too shabby-minded to read.

For all the talk of chemical adventures done to further writing careers, all I feel is happy to be home. Not regret. Not poignancy.

Comfort. Comfort and relief, both from the drive and from myself. I’ll clean my house; I’ll organize my reading materials for the following days. I’ll put away the mostly empty bottle. The snow will continue falling and the quiet will build and I will sleep and the next day most of this will be gone, this sense, this ephemeral understanding that’s really just a magic trick done with dopamine and alchemy.

I listen as the snow mutes itself.

I stifle a yawn.

Alexander Clark is a cross-genre writer of fiction and creative non-fiction who is studying English, philosophy and art. When he isn’t writing he practices Pai Lum Kung Fu, herds cats, works on organic urban farms, and blacksmiths. He was the managing print editor for the 2014-2015 issue.

 

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