My mood was bent on saturnine subjects as I bore down the highway. How to occur, I wondered. How to really occur, as in with a bang? There was no denying that I had lately begun to feel the fleet hound of time nipping at my heels, or that I feared deforming under the accelerated pressures of the chase. There’s no denying it. For some time I had been aware of something like the slow disintegration of my own personality. As if the ideals, habits and outlooks I’d once cultivated and cherished had been mere adornments to be stripped away by the onrush of time, leaving behind…what exactly? A physical body and a set of behavioral algorithms configured to meet obligations and transact with prudence, the whole standard-issue package embedded in a biographical trajectory of assimilation into the very nullity of failure to cultivate the spirit I’d once reviled as the culpable and ultimate squandering of the gift of life itself.
Of course, I considered, I’d had a million eager accessories in the commission of the crimes against the self of which I stood accused. Maybe I’d never stood a chance. After all, history shows only to eloquently that each generation produces a mere handful of human beings who through word and deed can be distinguished from either face of the dreary coin by which the mass of men are denominated: tails for the brutalized serf and his modern heir the addled debt slave, heads for the pompous overseer and the vainglorious controller, heads for their kinsmen the magistrate, the executive, the official, the duke, the lord, the pimp and every other stripe of bipedal parasite and predator.
Nature has a way of letting generations languish in torpor before she again favors her crowning creation with a great spirit like a Henry Miller or a Walt Whitman, nor is the periodic reemergence of this immaculate genius made any more likely by the haphazard scientific multiplication of souls. Just who was I to hallucinate myself into the ranks of the chosen? A statistically-minded tribunal would have pronounced me insane and been right to do so.
The highway I followed was carved into the broad sweep of a hillside. Along this stretch the roadway was screened from above by sweeping boughs of maple that shimmered red and gold against the sky. Leaves in the road ahead stirred in lazy eddies, but were churned into little epitomes of chaos under the vulcanized stampede of the car’s passage. Like the souls of old which, once shed by the tree of life, were commended forever to the pale incoherence of Hades.
In the way of a more precise diagnosis, you might say I was scared of having to content myself with mere survival, with life spent treading water even as the paltry hope of laying in meager stores against calamitous days ran through my hands. And to what end? In brutalized compliance with biological and social imperatives, spurred on by the rodent’s fear of destitution? Or worse, in willful capitulation to the architecture of a society that wastes souls by subsuming them in the dead mind of the herd?
Where did the turning point lie, I wondered, between life as it had seemed and what it had become, this sentence to be served rather than the old dream pursued? Was it when I had begun to service the debt incurred for a scrap of paper printed in the bombast of a dead language? Or the moment I had shouldered my fiscal burden in the symbolic order of rulers and ruled? Until then my self-imposed mission had been to flout the duties of the ruled and travel the world in a no-man’s-land where for years I had evaded the state’s dread gravitational field through an artful series of dodges and hallucinations. How little I understood the world than, and how much better I liked it!
Since then a long train of years had passed in ceaseless toil to satisfy the automatic vengeance exacted on my time and energy for my crimes of vanity, nonchalance, solipsism. Or had it not rather been bravery to defraud the state and its undead owners of its cut of my vitality? Certainly I thought so at the time, whenever I deliberated my refusal to mingle my labors with the dark matter of its criminal treasury. Now, these years later, there was little I could be sure of but the slavish need to generate my daily increment of petty cash to keep Leviathan at bay and myself in being in the bargain.
I was a kind of clerk. A proletarian intellectual you might call me, a reworker and a reformulator of texts whose honorarium was measured by the word. I’d no particular love for the work, but being better at it than the average hack, over the years I’d become established. I sometimes cast about back in time for affinities between my trade and the clerical work done by figures like a Melville or a Kafka, or between the decor of the hamster wheel I spin and the faded, futile atmosphere of the ragged students and scribes encountered in Dostoyevsky. The affinities were real enough, yet in the exercise of my trade I was even lonelier and more isolated than the real and imagined clerks mentioned above. I happened to toil at the dawn of the digital age, so while I discharged the customary duties of the clerk, they came without the usual complement of colleagues, an office, a boss or even a desk.
Now the highway shrugged off the hill’s flank and bore down a sudden river gorge. The river glared under the sun in sheets of hammered silver, and the vague burble of its rapids and riffles reaching me over the engine drone. I wondered if I, like the river, must continue without alteration or surcease along my present course to the sea, the land being shaped to receive me in one way only. Or if I, swollen with longing for new lands, might not jump my banks and flow downcountry in new broads and new cataracts, at length to shape a delta hitherto unseen in the mingling of my effluent with the eternal sea? For years the stony trap of the gorge had been the self-entrenching stage for my life’s unfolding. But gorges are as finite as the rocks through which they are worn. Must I not soon flow out onto an alluvial plain where, unbanked, I could shape my currents in a hundred seaward-flowing braids?
It would not be an act of rebellion. I was too well seasoned, too acquainted with the terrible machinery of automatic vengeance for that. No, it would have to be a hack. Life was too shifting and contingent to dream of rising to the rigors of the absolute. In the absolute lay hubris and perdition. What it called for was a tap on the steering wheel, a clever dodge, an act of guile. No more able to change our own natures than we are the world’s, the whole scope of action granted us as mortals and as subjects can be found in one place and one place only: where the rubber meets the road, at the interface between the vehicle and the landscape it is howling down.
Buoyed by the thought of building a more clever interface, I bore down on the accelerator and enjoyed the ride. Soon the gorge fell away and I emerged onto a broad plain. In this changed light I wondered if I may not have been complaining unduly. Mine was a lot no harder than the average serf’s, after all, and if awareness of the grim architecture of man-ranching were a burden it was also a blessing. Bringing with it responsibility. To be flowing at liberty down the plain was not just freedom from the constraints of the gorge, but the product of my own toil mingled with necessity and inviolable mechanics. It was necessary and inescapable that I should articulate myself on the plain. I would branch out and comprehend all…and if in braiding my way through this weave of the world I were to inscribe the tiniest trace or furrow of my passage beyond the algorithmic clockwork of mere survival – there, for a moment, I would be, I would be, a man in the full leaf of occurrence. Well unfolded on that plain, I could entertain the hope that for a slender moment my works might stand out, not like a monument chained to the earth by its shadow, but like a curtain of fire that casts no shadow and remakes all that it encounters.
Such was my ambition when the running lights came on behind me. A brief vestigial instinct to seek glory in outrunning the prowler crackled across the firmament of my mind. But my instincts having been worn down to a nubbin through prolonged contact with the forces of
civilization domestication, instead I came down hard on the brake and pulled by on the shoulder. The trooper stayed in his prowler gathering preliminary intelligence on my person as the traffic dribbled by in occasional twos and threes. In the interest of full disclosure, I was carrying a small nugget of marijuana for personal use – the better to cultivate my paranoia if nothing else – but possession had been legalized in my sector of the Soyuz, so apprehension on that head should not have been warranted. The patrolman emerged in full regalia: pressed uniform, campaign hat, mirrored shades, badge, a belt bristling with the instruments of duress and a medley of decorations conferred by orders unknown to me. He proceeded down the white shoulder line in the stiff waddle imposed on his frame by a bulletproof vest.
A breath of chill streamed in as I rolled down the window to admit the patrolman’s voice. “Sir, you know you were doing 25 over the limit?”
“I know I was speeding, officer. I’m sorry about that. I was lost in thought and I let the needle get away from me.”
“Well that’s the last thing you’ll be getting away with today. I will be issuing a ticket.”
“I accept the consequences.”
“License and registration please.” I leaned over in conditioned compliance. “Both hands where I can see them.”
I turned to look at him. “I can assure you there is no need for that protocol, officer. I’m unarmed and anything but dangerous.” His brows crested the rims of his shades, I knew not whether in doubt or alarm.
“That may be so, but I need you to keep both hands where I can see them for my safety and yours. Now if you would reach over slowly and extract the registration with both hands.”
In the act of withdrawing the document sleeve from my glovebox I toppled over onto the center console for lack of support. I could hear the officer draw his weapon as I keeled over. “No sudden moves now. Keep your face averted and slowly turn to show me what’s in your hands.”
I was spared having to go through the same routine with my license – the patrolman preferred to fish it out of my pocket once he’d splayed me up against the car.
“Officer, I object to this treatment and can see no cause for it. I’m not intoxicated and I have no outstanding warrants.”
“Save it for the judge. And those things are for me to determine.” By now I was in cuffs, back arched against the driver’s side door. I could feel the thrum of my idling engine run up and down my spine.
After a radio conference with his superiors from the refuge of his prowler the officer returned with a speeding ticket and a new demand. “I’m going to have to search your car.”
“I don’t consent.”
“We’re running a Columbus Day public safety operation where every car within the radius is subject to random search. Are you carrying any contraband?”
“No. Or, yes. I mean it used to be contraband, but now it’s legal, so no.”
A wolf’s smile erupted across his narrow mouth. “Looks like I’ve got my probable cause. Now if you don’t mind.”
“But I do mind.”
“Heck, mind all you want.” In seconds he produced a bag containing a single dried bud of the embattled plant. He fished it out, held it to the sky, scraped at it with his pinkie then tasted the nail with a look of abysmal satisfaction. “Well that does it. I’m entering this as evidence.”
“But evidence of what? It’s not even illegal.”
“You would do well to mind your tone. No one is served by hysterics. As to what this is evidence of, this is part of the big picture of your violation. It tells me you’re unfit to operate this vehicle. I’m going to let you off with this ticket –” it was for 500 dollars – “but I will not let you drive off in your present state.”
“It wouldn’t be fair to the motoring public.”
“Look, officer, I’m not under the influence of anything but an interesting train of thought. I’d be glad to submit to a field sobriety test so that we can get this over with.”
“Not going to happen. Pot fiends pass field sobriety tests all the time. I’m not authorizing you to drive on.”
“Then take me in for a blood or urine test. I’ll ace it.”
“I’m afraid that’s not a possibility what with the cutbacks we’ve seen this year. This is a matter for officer discretion.”
“If you had any discretion –” I paused, keen to avoid an assault on my person on top of everything. The patrolman was set on defrauding me of the further use of my car. My course of occurrence across the plain had been dammed up after all. All that remained was to arrange to sidestep the levee and pick up an alternate streambed. When I asked the patrolman to ferry me to a town or gas station he replied that his line of work did not include the provision of offender transport.
“So what are my options?”
“You either stay put or you walk, I guess. But I’m obliged to say either one opens you up to a vagrancy beef.”
“How about I call myself a taxi then?”
“Got your phone on you?”
“I can get it.”
“Not if it’s in the car you can’t. Everything in that car is evidence and must be processed and committed to the evidence locker by my supervisor as such.”
“Officer, this is ridiculous. I need my phone to call a cab, I need my wallet to pay for it, and I need my coat while I stand here waiting.”
“You should’ve thought of that before committing a speeding violation while in possession of a hallucinogen. I recall you saying you were prepared to accept the consequences.”
“But these consequences are illegitimate. You can’t just make up the rules as you go along.”
“Inter arma silent legis.”
“It’s a war out here. New rules. And the courts are falling in step. You’ll never line them up on your side against the state patrol.” Here he grimaced. He had a small ichtheous mouth stretched across large jaws, and I had the impression that using them in conjunction to talk or ingest would be painful. Every time he spoke, it seemed to be with a certain weariness.
“Officer, I demand –”
“Can you just zip it until the tow rig gets here? Then we’ll both just be on our merries with no further aggravation.”
“That sounds like a threat given the way I’ve been treated so far.”
The patrolman snorted. I wonder now at what point I would have begun to resist, if at all, had his designs on me begun to take a turn for the deadly. I knew that the laws of the land were ranged against his conduct, but was also keenly aware that we had long since crossed the watershed into the land of lawlessness and impunity. I knew that natural law demanded resistance, but that anything beyond indignation would turn the encounter to my deadly detriment. Surely my moment of articulation on the plain was not destined to be cut down in so commonplace, so paltry a fashion? Besides, I was already cuffed. As I stood huddled and waiting it dawned on me that from the beginning his fear had been rooted in the reasonable prospect of my justifiable retaliation, and it was on that slender margin that I managed to preserve a filament of self-respect.
At length the tow truck appeared. Its driver was encouraged to mock me as he went about his work but had the decency not to. The officer uncuffed me and retreated into the bulletproof confines of his prowler once my means of transport, succor and comfort had been hauled off. Before pulling into the roadway and roaring off, he noted wearily on the bullhorn that it would be in my interest to stay out of trouble. I began to walk briskly, hands pocketed against the cold. I seemed to remember the next town being 10 or so miles down the road.
Long before that a kind stranger picked me up and drove me to within a few miles of my appointed destination. We spoke frankly of our concerns. I told him not only about the traffic stop but about the long train of thought that had preceded it. In this chance motorist I found a witness. It wasn’t long before he agrees that, having exited the gorge, my chances of occurrence and lasting articulation were rather good. And he kept remarking on the beauty of everything around us. The plain we were crossing lay stark and harvested against the late autumn day, ciphered here and there by stands of trees whose crowns blazed forth in shades of crimson, auburn and gold. Truly, it was all very beautiful and I felt free, absurdly free. I never asked the stranger’s name, nor he mine.