Into the Notch
Burn swigs the bottle and coughs and reaches into the center console, pulling out an unopened pack of cigarettes, tapping the top against the dashboard as the two lanes stretch in front us. He tears the cellophane away, throwing it out the window and tugs out a cigarette and lights it.
Oh shit, he says, I’ve had an epiphany. Only wait. What's the opposite of an epiphany? When you realize that you're just a piece of shit? What do you call that? he asks looking at me with smoke racing up his face, What does that make him? Assured by nothing worth fighting for? Indifferent to participation? A sidewalk patriot. Someone who banks on social ignorance for their own misguided notions of knowledge.
What are you talking about? No one cares about a piece of shit.
Exactly, he says pointing at me. I don’t care, at all. I don’t care about racial justice or the destruction of natural wetlands. Genocide, famine, he says inhaling, these things don't concern me. AIDS victims, sweatshop employees, I don’t care about these people.
I light the bowl as he blows the ashes of his cigarette out the window.
I’m just a fucking piece of shit and don't care, he says. I don't care how a cow is slaughtered or about illegal dumping or cancer patients. The poor, the sick, the huddled masses.
It’s cherried, I say, handing him the bowl and he takes a drag.
I don’t care about goodwill or peace on earth, he says exhaling. I have a headache.
The feeling is mutual.
Where is the fucking pot?
In my pocket.
You should roll a joint.
I don’t care about poetry or philosophy.
Where are the papers?
In the glovebox. I don't care about battered wives or families evicted on Christmas Eve, he says. I’m a piece of shit and I know it.
Roll up your window, I say breaking up the bud in my lap as he starts turning the handle, the window rising.
I don’t care about the rate of abortions and could give two fucks about who is playing the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Is that joint rolled?
I only have two hands.
I don't care about the sportsmanship of the Special Olympics or hostages or orphans, he says grinding his hands on the steering wheel, the coating rolling off. He wipes his hand on his shirt as I light the joint. Burn victims don't cause me to lose any sleep, he says. Emaciated African children with putrid drinking water and more flies on their backs than clothing only spurs a desire to change the channel.
I hand him the joint.
I don’t care about old people who have to decide between their prescriptions or food, he says inhaling and coughing. What is the opposite of an epiphany? he says catching his breath. I don’t care about the overworked and underpaid or about puppy mills or dolphins unlucky enough to get caught in tuna nets or about the homeless.
No one cares about them.
Should I care? he asks looking at me. Should I? When everything, every sign, every picture I see says I shouldn't? That all too important transition to adulthood I’ve been taught to fear. I shouldn't get old or lose my hair or get fat. Part of being an American is the knowledge that one day I too may be swept under the rug and that's the gamble of freedom. We’re guaranteed the right to fail, he says turning down the volume on the radio. What is the reciprocal of an epiphany?
I don’t know.
I’m worried, he says looking ahead, not for the life of abject apathy I’ll have to give up one day. That, I don't care about. But, if I don’t care about people who need my help, he says looking at me, how am I going to provide for someone who depends on me?
I try to hand him the joint, but he waves it off and I stuff it into the ashtray. The characteristics of towns were well behind us, sporadic houses dotting the roadside as we traveled farther into the woods and mountains rising above the horizon as the faint remnants of civilization disappear into the rearview, the whole of the north country extending before us.
You’re just having a panic attack, I say as he keeps grinding his hands on the steering wheel. It’s probably just from the Adderall and lack of sleep.
Roll another joint. I have a headache.
I’ll just pack a bowl, I say reaching into my pocket.
Whatever. I just wish I could dream of the lions on the beach, he says lighting a cigarette. You hungry?
Good for you. I need something in my stomach.
We were deep into Crawford Notch and hadn’t seen a building for miles, the notch a granite lined trench with a two lane highway running parallel to the natural ditch walls, the leaves of the half full trees burning with autumn, dark burgundy and hunter orange, displaying the beauty of sticking it out too long.
I’m going to stop at the first diner I find, he says coughing. He throws the cigarette butt out the window, the cherry exploding against the asphalt. The road hugs the ground as we round the gradual curves into the blotched yellow and brown canvas, feeling as though it was trying to throw us off, trying to buck us like a rodeo steer, faltering its grip and trying to catapult us off course. The mountains move in the manner that Van Gogh seemed to imply and the sky looks off axis as we crown a rise and drive down the reverse side.
I open the bottle and take a swig, the whiskey smoldering down as he motions for shorts.
The trees are really beautiful, he says as I hand him the bottle. The car peaks over another ridge, the sun streaming through the windshield, streaks of the light spectrum bleeding through the pipe I was lighting. Burn hits the brakes suddenly, the car lurching forward, the brakes squealing and the smell of rubber surrounds us and I am thrust forward, catching myself with my hand against the dashboard.
What the fuck asshole?
It’s a moose, he says pointing. I look and it’s on the side of the road with people around it taking pictures and I light a cigarette, putting the pipe in my lap, the smoke and smell climbing as Burn accelerates past the group of men holding rifles.
They hunted it down just to hang it up, he says. To prove something of this immensity actually existed. They probably shot it from the bed of a moving pick-up. They’ll go home to their trailer, kicking aside scattered kitchen appliances in their front yard and tell their children how they brought down this pinnacle of nature.
High praise for lowlifes, I say turning in my seat and looking back. I’m going to roll a fresh joint.
Burn nods, I’m just looking for eggs and home fries.
I roll the joint, unsure about who may be further into the notch and the road rounds a curve on the mountainside and the lane widens and a valley opens up outside of my window, a drop off flanking the road, a double strength guardrail running alongside. Burn slows and pulls into the parking lot of a scenic vista.
I need to piss, he says as he gets out and walks into the nearby woods.
I light the joint and step out, the tops of the trees laid out like carpet for miles, climbing over the mountain ranges and distant peaks are covered in snow, the forest thick and undisturbed and freckled with brown and yellow and green, the tips of bare trees peering up behind the guardrail. I walk over and look down, the mountain grading sharply a few hundred feet to the valley floor, a river running through the middle and carving itself a route, the white water washing away the river stones to become another mountain someday.
It’s impressive, he says behind me.
Depth perception, he says taking the joint. Those mountains are miles away. They only look like speed bumps. I go could for a few of those, he says inhaling.
I nod, the sun high overhead as giant solitary clouds drift along in the lonely sea of the sky, their shadows casting huge black blankets across the mountain’s faces. He exhales and screams into the valley, his echo far reaching and tumbling down and up as birds launch from their perches, peppering the sky of the opposite mountain.
You should always be wary if a flock of birds arises suddenly.
It means there’s an ambush.
Burn bends down and picks up a few stones and starts throwing them, they grow small and crash into the underbrush and he hands me the joint.
If we are created in the image of God, he says, what does that mean of God? Is he just as weak and pathetic as the rest of us? I hope God is an atheist, he says looking at me.
I inhale, the joint canoeing down the side and I touch my tongue with my pinky, tapping the end of the rift growing down the paper.
There’s this story from Ireland, he says, about the cliffs of Moher. A woman was so upset her lover had left and wasn’t coming back that she walked to the edge of the cliffs and jumped off. But, she didn’t die. The wind blew her back up, he says as I hand him the joint.
He inhales and coughs as a wind blows down the valley, the trees in the distance waving like sea grass, the bark groaning as leaves fly off, bundling and collecting with the dust into groups and he exhales, the smoke ripping from his lips.
You think the wind would blow me back up?
I’d take that action.
He laughs and looks out, his eyes slowly moving from place to place.
Morals and ethics just get in the way of success, he says.They’re really just hindrances to achievement.
He inhales again and gives me the joint and walks to the car, opening the driver’s side and bends in, reaching into the backseat and grabs the broken side-mirror. He walks back to the guardrail, kicking small pebbles.
We only get one chance to die, he says giving me the joint, and I understand. I don’t condone it, but I understand. Every decision we’ve made has led us to this exact place.
He throws the mirror into the valley, the glass smashing and the plastic bouncing from one tree to another as I inhale and give him the joint, which he has to pinch between his thumb and index finger, the roach disappearing as he inhales from the air rushing in, pulling the paper towards his lips.
The world is too factual, he says. The wonderment of discovery is gone. Can you remember the first time you had ever seen an elephant? Or heard of one?
I’ve always known what an elephant is. I don’t think I ever had to learn what one was.
Exactly. People are so ready to prove mysteries as myth. The shine is gone.
The shine? I ask lighting a cigarette.
Yeah. The shine, he says looking out, past the mountains and trees and sky. A wind pushes cold air past us. The world just tolerates too much of an uncanny resemblance to defeat, he says. The world was just created to be destroyed. We’re all created to be destroyed and that’s the beauty to life. Without chaos and disorder and madness, the word peacewould have nothing to reflect. It would just be another word with no meaning, he says climbing onto the guardrail, his arms held out for balance. I’ve come to find that most people don’t have the necessary building blocks for transcendence.
He spits into the dirt and screams into the valley.
I know there is life down there and even though I can’t see it, I know it’s there, he says with his back is to me, his arms wide. He lowers his head, looking down into the ravine. I think the wind would catch me, he says.
We need to get going.
Yeah, he says stepping down. It’s your turn to drive.