Austin to Chicago, pt. 3: More Sweat But This Time With Silent Cursing

Maybe it’s because I grew up in southern Indiana but I feel that it is much more beautiful. The hilly outskirts of the Appalachians painted endless humps of trees green and forced trails and roads to curve and carve beside and through them. Grand reservoirs slept in the crooks of its elbows and the towns peppered throughout housed thoughtful and odd people. In Illinois, however, I saw nothing. Flat horizons pimpled with power lines and abandoned homes. The roadkill seemed inflated in both numbers and physicality – lazy deer not willing to travel to better places.

Ye Olde Hustle and Bustle

The road hummed along and I had given up on music hours before. The wind yelled while Emma, still trapped in the front seat, tried to sleep in what was now much cooler air. The setting sun was the first beauty I had seen in hours and I knew that it was just a matter of time before I would be taking that final turn on Lake Shore Drive where it splits into north and south. After peeking up McCormick’s Place’s skirt the road spit you onto the multi-lane clusterfuck. It was this part that I looked forward to on road trips to Chicago from Indiana; this is where Chicago began audibly breathing and outside of the city became a mystery. For now, though, it was a view that sparked the mind to life, or more life as I had already been thinking about my plans when I first arrived back home.

Upon arrival I was well aware that the unloading of my tangible life would have to happen because there was no way that I would leave a full trailer, with goods like my bed and stereo stand tied to the top as mentioned before, parked on the street in Uptown. (I have explained this neighborhood before but in case you missed it: a block by block dichotomy of rich folk and through-and-through criminals divided by nothing more than a breath and a crosswalk.) From there my plan was to convince Johnny to go to Simon’s despite his apprehension that I knew he would have. I couldn’t rest on these laurels, though, as I would be arriving a day early and some people had jobs to go to the next day,

Where Dreams are Realized and Then Quickly Forgotten, in the Best Way.

myself, obviously, not included.

I imagined a hug fest of sorts upon my arrival at Simon’s, with or without Johnny (wanting the former but understanding of the latter), and cash deposited into the always great juke box. The next day I would wake hungover and grab lunch with Amber downtown to hear what I’ve missed and share what I may have forgotten in my email correspondence. I imagined the smell of the city, variant depending on the locale but all singular to Chicago. The roar of the beat up trains and the yelling of neighbors who can’t seem to just call each other. The calm grumbling of the lake upon Emma and I’s first jaunt to the front. The warm pho of little Vietnam and the consequential runny nose of too much hot sauce. I couldn’t wait to walk beneath the signs that said, “Please Curb Your Dog” and the subsequent disturbing image of American History X.

Still hours away and the lull of the road sleeping my bones I decided upon one last stop for some more soda and a stretch for myself and Emma. The blue sign read what I wanted to and I followed its directions. With the car thanking me for letting it close its eyes for a minute I went inside. Every gas station smells the same and I blame the flooring and lack of, for the most part, regional offerings. Hershey’s, Frito Lay, and Coco Cola may have all started small but, man, there is no reason why other companies cannot take on this monopoly. Hmmmmm…I should write this down. Better chips and soda would do great at these places…how to deliver, though…shit. I shrugged, grabbed a coke and meandered for a bit listening to the conversation between the cashier and the patron.

“Billy got that new truck he was talking about and man is it a purty thing.”

“You need your usual?”

“Yeah, thanks. It’s got a V-6. In that tiny thing. A little place to plug in his music player. The cup holders have this rubber lining that keeps things from tippin’, but they ain’t big enough if you ask me.”

“Those music players are doin’ somethin’ else to the record companies. They gonna stop makin’ CDs, I think. Sumthin’ like that.”

“It’s all crap anyways. Whatdoioweya?”

“$_.__.”

“Here ya go. Say, you hear about Leslie? She left the Methodist church. Said she didn’t like it. I think it’s her new man. He’s not a believer.”

I felt guilty eavesdropping and thought that they would soon figure out that I was doing such and went to the register. “‘Scuse me,” said the man and stepped aside.”

“Oh, that’s okay. How are you?”

“Keepin’ on.” He turned to the cashier, “See you soon, Denise.”

“Bye, Harold.” To me, “This gon’ be all for ya?”

“Yeah, I think so. Didn’t mean to break up your conversation.”

“Naw, it’s okay, honey. He’ll talk forever.”

“Haha. Yeah.” I couldn’t think of someone to honestly relate that to so instead I kept quiet and paid the money. “Have a good night.”

“You too, hun. Drive safe.”

“Thank you.”

The sunset left only a black sky and the poor lighting showed Emma sitting in the driver’s seat. That is her sign that has to go to the Earth to give back. I opened the door and praised her for not taking  off and leashed her up.

As she evacuated I looked at the the nearly invisible horizon. A few lights scattered the lives far apart and I wondered what would’ve happened to me if I had stayed in my hometown of Bedford, Indiana. Would I be married and if so, happy? Could that happiness, or lack thereof, be compared to the happiness I feel right now? What would I do for money? How would I get my kicks? Is this constructive thinking about this? Oh, Emma’s done. Onward.

With the hours left until arrival I can only compare it to Christmas Eve as a child. So many thoughts in so many seconds…is that why time drags? (The brain indeed works quicker than the world we just have no way to explain it.) The comfort of being around my own people, Chicagoans, made me antsy to no end; our nomenclature is from no where else, not even heaven. The architecture. The food. The simultaneous distaste for the weather and for those that complain about it. High taxes, low threshold for inhospitable behavior.

The sign read: Chicago 72. That means 72 miles before the actual city but the spread will greet you much before, not unlike the first taste of a proper bagel is cream cheese and not dense, seasoned bread.

The traffic seemed to accelerate, as is the habit of Chicago drivers, myself unfortunately not included due to the trailer and my unwillingness to put any more stress upon my transmission than I already had, what with my belongings in tow. With the taillights becoming more and more prevalent I could not wish my shortcomings any less but with nothing to do about it I smiled at what will soon happen. The big shoulders will once again ensconce my spirit and I will be free to be me.

The next twenty or so miles passed quickly as my mind raced faster than my car and for both I was thankful. The lights of suburbs surrounded me and the highway widened to as many lanes as I had fingers. Home stretch had an entirely new meaning now.

If only it was as long as the arrows to home.

Familiar signs appeared advertising highway numbers that I knew led into the heart of the city. I wanted to follow all of them but knew my intended route and I was not about to digress now. The air was chillier than expected, but that is not to say unwelcomed. Smells changed. Emma even woke from her multi-day slumber to welcome the atmosphere I sure my vibe was giving. Though it was only September, this was our Christmas.

Freeways melded and speeds increased. Ramp into this, outta that, now go on top of this…whatever you need, I will do, Chicago, just let me inside of you. The signs now read numbered streets in the hundreds and that meant I was on the south side. That meant I was home. In the blidness of euphoria I missed any sort of sign that might have read, “Welcome to Chicago. Richard M. Daley Mayor”. Ah, well. I don’t need that sign. Just that city.

Immediately the car began pulling to the right. No music now, only wind, I heard nothing except for the growl of the moving atmosphere. Pull, pull. All of a sudden it occurred to me that I know this driving feeling: I had a flat tire.

Before moving to Texas I had never had one. There was one night, though, that I had hit the mother of all potholes but thought nothing of it. I stopped at the grocery store and then began driving home. The rubber-slapping noise was alarming and the pulling was violent, like when walking down a hallway someone pulls you into a bathroom for a reason you don’t know for the few seconds until they try to plant their lips on yours. Only this was at 50+ miles per hour and the worst time possible.

I pulled off the interstate and nearly started to cry. My spare, which, turns out was flat before I bought the car, remained in the trunk useless as ever. The white headlights and swoosh of the cars made my exit dangerous but needed. I walked around and looked down on my tire and luck, both flat. Out of necessity I again checked the spare. Useless.

I stared. I rolled down the window for Emma so she could hear my sighs. Then I stared at her. I stared at the ground and then at the outlay of the south side of Chicago.

There was a power plant humming along like nothing is wrong with the goddamn world just down the hill. There are people going to things not as important as where I am whooshing by as if this, or anything else, never happened. There is this car, sitting here, useless because of one goddamn part, laughing at me only because of one goal. There is the dog, happy as ever, looking at me with tongue hanging out, loving that every single minute of this is happening. It was the last thing that gave me strength.

I am here. Everything I own is here. There has to be a solution. To myself, “I have that instant tire fix junk in my trunk. Done.” I filled the tire with the foam and was pleased with the results: a tire, shapely as a donut. I put my ear up to it and heard a dreaded hiss. Now with flashlight I saw the foam covering the ground, not from the surface area, mind you, but from the inside wall of the tire. The tire that I had just purchased new less than a year prior. This didn’t work.

I am here. Everything I own is here. There has to be a solution. To myself, “I can try the instant tire fix stuff to the spare.” I pull out my desk and the rest of hubbub packed in and retrieve the tire and look at it. The entire wall is busted. I set it down and look, again, at the power plant, still humming. The first question that came to mind was not, “Why me,” but, “I can’t think of the question, ‘Why me,’ as it will just make everything worse.” I call my insurance company to see if they have a solution.

“Hello. I am broken down with a flat tire. Can I get roadside assistance?”

“Yes, of course, Mr. Rodgers. Let me just look up your policy.”

Excellent. Why I hadn’t thought of this first, I don’t know. “Mr. Rodgers?”

“Yes! I am here!”

“Do you have roadside assistance on your policy?”

“I have no idea. I remember reading it somewhere on a bill.”

“Ah, yes. We advertise it on the bill in case anything like your situation would ever happen. You do not have it, though.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Click.

I stared forward and sighed. I wasn’t close enough to see the skyline but could feel it. My only recourse was to call Johnny, seeing that he was the only one I could think of that had a car. He was the only one I could think of that I wanted to see at this point. Best friends are far more than who you tell your stories to. Best friends are the ones that you long for in times of need, not that they could help you, per se, but because they are the only ones with words that could keep you alive.

He didn’t answer. I left a message. And sat. I looked at the steering wheel and wondered what my hands had done that may have caused this to happen. “Nothing,” said the steering wheel and I watched the headlights that with each passing shoved my car and all my belongings further towards the power plant that hummed along as if nothing at all bad was happening to any person alive at that moment.

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