I’ve been holding in my piss for the better part of an hour, but the Alcoholic doesn’t like to stop unless forced, so I curse him out, and we pull off Exit 15. The mini mall is closed; the gas station chained. He throws an empty bottle of Snapple at me and says, “Crouch.” I sit on it and fill it back up.
They say it’s a state of emergency, because the State of New York is bleached white. The blizzard has been three days long. The trees turned to ice statues and the city closed around us like a saltshaker. First semester finals are over and we drive seven hours to a canceled party in Brooklyn. By the time we make it, the roads have closed from Canada to New York City. We decide to call it a long weekend and crash at my mother’s in the West Village.
The first night the Alcoholic and I station ourselves in the living room to look at old photo albums. My mother sees to it the Alcoholic not handle the pictures directly and that his wrestling sneakers are parked in the frozen foyer three rooms from the new Persian rug. She surveys the Alcoholic from the doorway as he flips the stiff cardboard pages. She fake-smiles whenever he turns her way.
The Alcoholic and I get drunk off stolen bags of wine from WorldWide News where he works the Lotto stand on weekends. My mom drinks a bottle of vintage red imported from France and gets loaded the way rich people do: in style. He tells her he wants to start a revolution and she tells him that seems appropriate. Before passing out he asks me how he did with her and I say,
He beams and says,
“Yeah she ate me up.”
I feel bad for him and fall asleep.
I am on my third college in two years. My transcript has me as a sophomore but I am three years in. The Alcoholic is a senior fixed on writing a thesis. The search for a topic is becoming more the project than the actual project itself. He can’t keep an idea down; one after another heaves out of him like food poisoning. The ideas themselves are bile: Nazi Propaganda Films; Lost Nazi Propaganda Footage, and finally, Found Nazi Propaganda Outtakes. When he discovers five other History students are going the Nazi Propaganda route, he sniffs cliché and resurrects The Populist Revolution (a concept he lifts from a conversation overheard in the library stacks).
He gets work at the news kiosk, WorldWide, starts talking about the working class and begins carrying around a couple of hot titles: Kill Your Parents Before They Kill You: An Illustrated Manifesto for Surviving the 90s and Before; The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America, and There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos. He ends up with just one favorite sticking out of his back pocket: Sam Smith’s Great American Political Repair Manual: How to Rebuild Our Country So the Politics Aren’t Broken and Politicians Aren’t Fixed. He wants to start a revolution for ordinary people — to lead the blue-collar masses in a progressive movement toward empowerment. Perhaps when the revolution starts, I’ll sign up, but for now I just want to graduate in one year and make a movie.
The weekend is a bust and we spend it in bed until even that’s a bore. My mother hasn’t counted on our long stay and she plants her silent protests strategically. To the left of the refrigerator she has placed a tip jar. When we return upstairs from a downstairs jaunt, our bed has been stripped of sheets, our suitcases placed open on the floor. She handles our dirty clothes as carefully as a dirty bomb, tossing them into a hefty bag, fixing post-its asking, “garbage?” I find it amusing that after each encounter with the Alcoholic, she goes to the bathroom to wash her hands, and he goes to the kitchen to pull off another round on her scotch.
The air goes sour and staying at my mom’s is starting to stink. With a day left there is nothing to do except drive back, but the streets are closed and people are warned about dying. My mom turns the dial when weather warnings are issued; she changes the station on radio broadcasts interrupted by storm alerts. She gives hourly reports on the road’s condition by peering out the window. “It doesn’t look so bad anymore…. You’re fine to drive back…. The earlier you leave the better…. I don’t want you driving in the dark, God forbid you hit an animal.”
The radio says you can’t drive anywhere, but the Alcoholic wants out and all my mom’s scotch is dried up. He wants to get back to the kiosk where he belongs. He is, after all, working-class-America. He says the big city is contaminating him. Manhattan is nothing but a letdown. He thinks maybe after all is said and done he should live on a prairie, be a farmer, raise cattle, milk a cow. This town is arctic, but he is on fire. I don’t know how to drive so that lands me a passenger, even in decisions. He says, let’s hit it – and we do.
The car is parked in an outdoor lot off the highway. The attendants moved it to the top level overlooking the Hudson, but they won’t drive it down. The hill up is iced like a rink and we slip backwards every few steps. We are out of breath by the time we reach the top. The Alcoholic is anemic and sweating. He has to sit down for a minute. I find the trowel in the backseat, but he won’t let me stay in the car until he’s done scraping the ice from the windshield. I do my bit and take one swipe at a window with my glove. The snow falls to the ground like a haircut.
It takes seven minutes before the car will start.
We slide downhill despite pressing the pedals. At the bottom he starts laughing from the thrill of it. My nervous habits kick in (biting my nails, twirling my hair, picking at scabs). I think we should get out and go home. We can hold out a day or two ñ school will be shut down anyway. Upstate will be ten times worse than the city; besides we can stay in bed and have sex for a couple more days. We count bills, but don’t have enough for a hotel. When I refuse to sleep in the car, he looks at me smooth and presses on forward.
The West Side Highway is dead as a corpse. The piers stick out like white caskets over the mouth of the Hudson. The dog-walkers, prostitutes, joggers, and bikers are all on-call till summer. Across the river, New Jersey sits still as a waistband. A boat is forgotten on the Hudson like a ducky in a baby’s bath. We think we’ll run green lights the whole way, but the time it takes from one light to the next is a crawl, and we stop and salute each red glowing circle as cautious as visitors from out of town. The car wants to go sideways but the Alcoholic says he knows tricks for straightening things out. When the front of the car veers to the right, he pulls it to the left. When the front of the car veers left, he pulls it to the right. We slide like that for a good while up the West Side Highway. A man wrapped tight for shipping walks 12th Avenue at a quick clip. His pace is faster than ours is and I point him out to the Alcoholic who says,
“The walk of shame.”
“Oh please. I could pick that walk out of a lineup.”
He lets out an over-dramatic sigh, but doesn’t meet my glance.
The Highway’s stretch is infinity and we are calculating our way. We are either the sole survivors after apocalypse, or the stupidest people on Earth, I argue. The radio is dead; the tapes are all frozen so he sings me Nirvana songs and we creep along like geriatrics. He fiddles with the heater, keeping one hand on the wheel and the other on the little knob. I tell him to keep his eyes on the road. He argues there is nothing to keep his eyes on, we are the only ones for miles. I put his hand back on the steering wheel, and take over the heat. It’s futile, the only air we get is cold, and when the last of the heat ducks out, we are drowned in frost. We fight over the sleeping bag and skid clear across the fast lane. We could have stopped short right there and no one would ever know. We haven’t passed another car on this trip, isn’t that a bit strange?
“It’s a state of emergency,” he says.
“That means you’re not allowed to drive, dumbass.”
When you don’t drive, as I don’t, you tend not to know things, even the most mundane and pedantic of things, such as this thing, this no-driving-rule-filed-under-S for State of Emergency.
“Could we get into trouble?”
“Only if we’re pulled over.”
“And what would happen?”
“Jail,” he says, smiling like he can’t wait.
He is thrilled with himself, as if this mission is daring in some heroic way. As if he is saving lives instead of risking them. I unwrap another pack of Camel Lights and light two. I put one in his mouth and we smoke like thugs. His hands are at ten after nine on the wheel. His fingernails are outlined in dirt. The cuticles are torn up; there is dried blood around his pinky. He lifts his left hand, uses his thumb to crack the knuckle on his index finger. It pops and he rests it back on the wheel. The snow starts to come down as sleet, but he doesn’t put the wipers on. He presses his face up close to the glass, drives like an old man reading the paper at his nose.
The sun is in another country. The hail beats down on both sides of the car. The slick sound of highway slaps under our wheels. The air smells of wet clay. The Alcoholic gets silent, the way a teakettle does right before the hiss. After five months of being together daily I am getting familiar with his patterns. I know he is a car crier and a night talker. He glances out the side window, puckers his lips. His eyes start to tear, a couple fall spotting his black jeans. I scoot closer, catch one on my fingertip as it rolls toward his mouth.
“Can I have this?”
“What are you thinking about?” I ask quietly.
He shakes his head like he doesn’t want to talk about it, but I know he does. He likes when it feels like pulling teeth.
“What is it, monster? You can tell me.”
He wipes his eyes quick and rough with the sleeve of pea coat.
“Hey, careful with those eyes. They’re half mine,” I say.
“I’m so lucky to have you,” he tells me. I smile and put my arm around him.
“You take such good care of me,” he says.
I let that hang there for a second.
“Do you think I’m gonna be a bum? Like for real? Like homeless and unemployed?” he asks.
“No. Why do you say that?” I ask.
“That’s what everyone says.”
“Who’s everyone?” I ask.
“My mom, my dad… Moe.”
Moe is the ex-girlfriend and my stomach turns every time she is mentioned. She is anorexic, alcoholic and trouble is rusted to her chrome interior. She is beautiful and although I don’t know her, his friends do. She is a year or two older, a Religion major who writes poetry in black textured sketchbooks she binds with dirty rubber bands. Her hair is dark blonde, wavy, long. Her face is beautiful, small with perfect, small features, a scattering of light red freckles across and around the bridge of her small Anglo nose. She wears white flowy poet shirts, big floppy hats. And although I know these details and silently harp on them from time to time, it is the unfortunate information that makes doing so worthwhile. She has a thick neck, is a social misfit and doesn’t have one female friend. But it is her name that makes me smile. It is Moe for short. Short for Maureen. Calling her Maureen out loud makes the Alcoholic cringe. I use it sparingly for effect, but I use it.
Maureen dumped the Alcoholic. Left him outside of Breugger’s Bagels after Sunday brunch. Poor guy even paid. Outside on the street when he took her hand, she pulled away, said, “Don’t.” Said she was uncomfortable holding hands with her ex-boyfriend and then, she walked away. Left him. Never returned his phone calls, didn’t answer his letters, nothing. Maureen was done. She went on a bender, set her house on fire, and now lives somewhere on the West Coast under the care and supervision of egg-shaped nurses in an exclusive rehab resort.
“They all think I’m gonna be a failure. My teachers, my old bosses, everyone. Everyone thinks I’m a waste. Even my mom thinks I’m gonna be a bum. Everyone in my life but you believes that.”
“They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“Would you love me if I were homeless?” he asks.
“You’re not gonna be homeless.”
“What if my legs had to be amputated. Would you love me if I had no legs?” he asks.
“How did you lose your legs?”
“Dangerous profession, that.”
“What about my arms, what if I had no arms. Would you love me then?”
“You’re homeless with lift tickets — not a bad gig.”
“Okay, not skiing, um… mining.”
“Mining? Where the fuck are you living?”
“Tennessee? You want to live in Tennessee?”
“Well, wherever. I’m in a mining accident and I lose my arms and my legs…”
“I thought the legs went in a farming accident.”
“No, I step on a land mine and they all blow off. Would you love me then?”
I go quiet picturing my boyfriend, the torso.
“What if I were just a head?” he asks.
The image is precious and I buckle with laughter, my body forgetting the cold, heating itself naturally. He laughs too, laughs and swerves and I pull myself together enough to say, “Keep your eyes on the road.”
My hands aren’t warming up, and his are starting to shake. He is ravenous and all the fast food is shut down, so we pull off exit 171 to search for food off the highway. We scout the town twice before we spot her. She is five, maybe six. She is standing outside her house knocking, yelling, but no one is letting her in. Her gold hair has icicles and she is wearing nothing under her cotton nighty. We are so gone we think we’re dreaming her, but I run out of the car and snatch her up. She could be made from twigs and branches. I could carry her for miles. I think she’ll scream when I pick her up, but she wraps her arms and legs tight around me; she holds on to me like a backpack.
In the car I swaddle her in my sleeping bag coat, tell her we’ll get her somewhere warm. I gently untangle the small chunks of ice from her hair. I brush the crusted snow from her nightgown. The bottom is lined with embroidered flowers. Her toenails are painted pink. She is stiff with winter; she would trust anyone. Her name is Megan; she has a lisp. She had gone outside for snowballs and snow angels, but her parents, still sleeping, hadn’t heard the knocking. I figure she’s been out nearly a half an hour. Her toes start to hurt warming up, and she moans and weeps in my arms until she finds her thumb. She is quiet as we drive around trying to figure out what to do with her. The Alcoholic is too hungry to think. Megan closes her eyes and starts to drift. The Alcoholic freaks, tells me to wake her, that if she falls asleep she’ll die. I don’t understand the logic, but I jolt her and she opens her eyes and cries.
I don’t know how we missed Darlene’s Muffins the first time around because it is practically right there ñ the first store in the town of Deposit. The Alcoholic knocks and knocks and I stay in the car rubbing Megan’s baby feet, jarring her awake whenever her eyes close. Darlene answers the door, annoyed. Her stomach falls in rolls over her elastic sweat pants and her gray short hair is so thinned on top you can see the crown of her scalp. The Alcoholic talks and points toward us with the urgency of a silent movie star. Darlene bends down to see Megan and nods her head. A second wind rushes us when the Alcoholic opens the car door on my side. He looks at us and I hand Megan to him, but instead of taking her he backs away and says,
“It’s cool. Bring her in.”
I lift her, one arm underneath her neck, the other underneath her knees. She lies across me like a tragic heroine saved from a fire. The Alcoholic is afraid of her and that pisses me off. Inside, Darlene turns on all the lights, and the store is mom and pop from counter to ceiling. Megan knows her phone number by heart, and after calling her parents, Darlene makes us instant oatmeal and heats some muffins. She props Megan in front of a TV in the back room, and the three of us sit at a table looking at each other for answers.
“It’s a state of emergency out there,” Darlene accuses us.
“Yeah, we know,” the Alcoholic says.
“You shouldn’t be driving. Cops already arrested someone up there in Utica.”
The toaster dings and I look at the Alcoholic with I-told-you-so-eyes. Darlene cuts the muffin tops and lets a wedge of butter melt into each section before putting them back in the toaster oven. She stands over us fiddling with her cross necklace like counting rosaries.
We nod. We are starving, and the smell of the burning butter is making saliva.
“You up at Ithaca?”
The toaster sounds again and she sets out the muffins before us. We grab them up and vacuum them in. One is not enough and she heats up another round of butter-baked corn muffins. Megan putters in, warm and hungry. Her parents don’t live so far, what is taking them so long? I start to fantasize about keeping her. She can live with me, my roommate. She’ll sleep in my bed, on the left side. I’ll clear a couple drawers in the bureau for her things. I’ll send her to day care or some sort of community-based program while I attend classes, but we’ll always eat breakfast and dinner together. I might call her Maggie instead of Megan, maybe even Maisie; we can change it legally if she wants. Her friends will sleep over. I’ll make her a key of her own so she’ll never be locked out and near-freeze to death again.
Her little cheeks are flushed and her ears turn burnt umber as they thaw. She smiles up at me, her sweet little legs swing back and forth against her chair. I want her. The rapping on the door startles us and Darlene lets out a shriek deep and quick as a puncture wound – Megan’s parents.
The father’s face is covered in hair and his hunting cap is dried with blood. His canvas coveralls are pulled high under a Carhartt jacket and his pants are tucked in to Timberlands. The mother is a little mess of a woman. Rail thin, with wild drunken eyes; her bathrobe hangs out of her down coat. The red scarf hangs around her neck, bored, useless. I wait for her to rush to Megan. To pick her up, hug her; give the obligatory gushing thanks to the two young heroes. But she just stands there shivering, one hand clings to her husband’s coat pocket, the other wipes the shiny varnish from her nose. Megan continues eating her muffin, barely able to pry her mouth off the porous velvet middle. The silence is unsettling. They aren’t much for small talk, I guess.
“Don’t eat all the woman’s food,” the mom says.
“It’s okay,” Darlene responds.
“I hope she wasn’t too big a pain in the ass,” the mom says.
“She was fine,” I say. “A real trooper.”
Darlene pours more sugar in her Sanka; the Alcoholic fills his cup back up.
The father is staring at something over his shoulder, a thermostat. He turns his whole attention to it, fiddles with it. The mother’s red scarf is sliding down her coat toward the floor. No one says a word as it falls to a heap on the ground.
“Below zero out there,” he says.
“Well, hurry up now. You took up enough of these nice people’s time,” her mother snaps.
Megan puts the muffin down and slides off the stool. Her lips are the color of faded denim. Her bare feet, ashen. She walks to her mother, takes her hand but looks at me. Her eyes are adult, already set in their ways, and I know out of that family of three, she is the loneliest. I can see them now, walking down the streets of Deposit, the mother half a block ahead of her child, never turning to see if she fell, was abducted. It is a family that doesn’t look back; that doesn’t double check. The father opens the front door and walks out.
The motor of his truck starts and within seconds the most sound to come out of that man is that of relentless honking. Megan picks up the red scarf, holds it out to her mother. The mother takes it, bunches it up, shoves it in her coat pocket. The girl opens the door for her mother and they leave one after the other. The mother in her down coat, the daughter in her nightgown.
The Alcoholic and Darlene continue eating. Somehow I have found myself standing. Closer to the door than I was before. Nearer to Megan than I perhaps realized.
“Seem like nice folks.” Darlene says, as she gets up to clear the table.
“Yeah,” the Alcoholic agrees.
It takes us fifteen minutes before we can start the car. Our hands numb up again and the car feels stiff and inflexible like arthritic legs. We pull away from Darlene’s and get back on the Highway. We take the fast lane this time; the road is still ours.
It is getting darker. We don’t talk the entire sundown. I can’t even meet his glance, but I feel him looking at me from time to time, and it’s pissing me off.
“Are you mad at me?” he asks finally, his voice whiney, defeated.
“Why’d you say her parents were nice?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you think they were nice?”
“They were okay.”
“No they weren’t. They weren’t even worried about her.”
“You don’t know their story.”
“I don’t need to,” I say.
“People do crazy things in a state of emergency,” he says.
The road ahead is curved steel gray and every town we pass looks the same to me. Why did the Alcoholic say her parents were nice? They weren’t nice. They were hateful, selfish. If we hadn’t found her, would they have known she was missing? Their own kid was exposed, unwrapped, but they kept their jackets on, put scarves in their pockets. Megan was frozen, frozen to her bones.
The sky is dairy cream and we skid on the surface of her reflection. I turn around, watch the road get smaller. It shrivels until it finally disappears behind me, but maybe it’s me that’s shrinking. There are no houses anymore, just barns, just highway. The farther we get from Manhattan, the lonelier I feel.
Excerpted from the novel The Long Haul by Amanda Stern; published by Soft Skull Press, 2003