It was a sunny morning, fresh, cool. I still had the sign with Louisville and South on either side and I kept flipping it over to keep people amused. I wasn’t at the on-ramp for more than an hour before a pick-up truck pulled over on the shoulder, shining white in the early yellow sun. The driver was Mac, a sturdy and amicable graying man in his fifties. It was Saturday. Mac kept answering his phone for work. He was giving orders about fixing a leaky roof, telling Mark and Joe Stalig what job sites they needed to take their crews to. Then something about an ice-cream paddle from ma’s. He needed it to make ice-cream for the party and, yes, the moonwalk would be there by noon.
‘It gets stressful,’ he said to me, putting away the cellphone. The heat was on and it was warm and stuffy.
‘You work and work hoping things get easier as you get older, but,’ he sighed, ‘nope. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m one of the fortunate ones, I do what I love for a living – building people homes. Looking back though I don’t know how we used to do it, without cellphones. I’m on this damn thing day long telling people what to do, but even back in the eighties and nineties we had the same number of jobs. It’s like people had less questions, knew better what to do. Things seemed less complex.’ His phone rang.
‘I need to get to 65 – ’ I said as he took out his phone.
‘Wheel get ya there.’ He took the call and then hung up, continued where he left off. ‘There’s more paperwork, too. A damn lot more. It seems like every time I need to move a piece of equipment or use a certain kind of nail I got a folder of files to fill out. It don’t help no one, let me tell ya. ‘Cept maybe Father Time getting gray.’ He picked up the phone again. It was about his grandson’s fourth birthday party. He put the phone away and continued.
‘I might be one of the fortunate, but I’m not sure I can keep doing this much longer. Nothing about age – I’ll work till I die, son. But the business, it’s changed so damn much and so much harder to conduct. The stress keeps going up while the profits keep going down. I’ll be working at a hardware store soon enough. Maybe even a gardening center. There’s one in town – that’d be nice. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were just a bust economy, but they keep compounding it. It’s been coming from both sides for a long time. It were just the economy people would still find work for themselves. My uncle drove a cab during the Depression. Used to be a man could paint his car yellow, slap a taxi sign on it and be in business for himself, be able to feed his wife and kids. But that’s long been regulated out of practice. Now, if you don’t got hundreds of thousands of dollars you ain’t allowed to register a taxi, which means, unless you’re employed by a taxi company, you ain’t driving a cab. And you can bet damn straight it ain’t the taxi driver that that law’s making rich. And it ain’t just taxis either, but construction, farms, manufacturing, grocery stores – everything in this country regulated with laws the businesses themselves wrote, because they don’t want the little guy coming -in -on -their -profits. And if you ain’t got a sterling resume and impeccable background, those companies are never going to hire you. Employers don’t read people anymore they read resumes and Facebook profiles. So make sure you stay off the grass, son; you so much as step the wrong the way and you are fucked for life! This is my exit here. I’ll let you off at the bottom.’ The road was stop and go with traffic. Louisville was just a mile south. Mac made a right and pulled an illegal U-turn when there wasn’t any traffic coming and stopped just before the on-ramp.
‘One more thing. Let me tell you something, son. If a man can’t do what makes him happy, what feels right to him, in here [he jabbed his chest with a finger], that man might be alive, but he’s loong since stopped living.’
* * *
The on-ramp here was without a shoulder and with so much traffic coming in fast it would be hard for anyone to stop. But of course, someone did. After 45 minutes a Lexus hit the brakes on the ramp in front of me.
‘Where are you going?’ called a voice from the car. He seemed about nineteen.
‘I need to get to 65.’
He thought a moment. ‘I don’t know where that is.’
‘It’s the Southwest corner.’
He thought again. Traffic was coming up behind him. ‘Screw it – hop in!’ I heaved my knapsack into the backseat and climbed in the front. I hadn’t closed the door when the driver hit the gas and shot up the on-ramp, neglecting to yield as the car dashed into traffic. He jerked the Lexus to the left, splitting an impossible gap between two cars and he did this twice more till we were in the left lane, the HOV making good speed.
‘I’m Jack-fred.’ We shook hands. ‘And no, it’s not heph,’ he paused, ‘inated.’ He had a bottle of gold Bacardi between his legs and he took a swig.
‘You’re drinking?’ I said, simply.
‘Oh. Sorry.’ Jackfred took another swig and passed me the bottle. I put my seatbelt on, took a large drink, wiped my chin with my sleeve and passed the bottle back.
‘Don’t worry, I’m good at this. I do it all the time. Did you have DARE in school?’
(D.A.R.E. was a program in elementary schools that sent police officers to tell students why they shouldn’t do drugs. The officers would describe the effects hallucinogenics and other sorts of intoxicants. This had the interesting effect of sparking the curiosity of children who realized then that life didn’t have to be so boring and mundane.)
‘They brought in drunk goggles one time to show us what it’d be like, being drunk, and they had us stumble around the room for a while. Well my friend asked if he’d be able to walk normal if he practiced enough with them on. The cop, she said yes. Well, same works for driving. Did you go to college?’ I lied and said no.
‘Me neither. I wasn’t ever any good at school. I’m not dumb, by any means. I read too much. Just I’m unmotivated. But,’ he said as he took another swig. ‘I might not be the sharpest kid but I’ll bet I’m the youngest alcoholic. At least I have something going for me. I mean, look at me. I’m not going to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or any of those other suit and tie jobs. And what the hell does it matter, anyway? I got a marijuana charge on my record. I’m lucky to have my $15 an hour job. And if I’m real lucky I’ll be making thirty by the time I’m fifty. Retirement? Hopefully Heaven has those. No, what I am is a face in the crowd, a loser low-life who’s only chance at a clip in the paper is an early death. ‘Ya sift through life and your years flit away in the wind like dust, no one remembering who the fuck you were. Like you never existed. And in 13.66 billion years? You never existed, my friend.’ He took another swig and passed me the bottle. I decided to hold on to it for a few minutes.
‘It’s the only thing lets me feel alive anymore. Not knowing for once where I’m going or what’s coming. That’s the real problem. I know it, and I know you know it – the sound of the water falling keeps growing, louder, and louder, and louder. All I do anymore is drink. I try and get laid, but that never works. I know this isn’t how it works, but I’m when I’m drinking I feel like I’m in control again, as if I really do get to choose where I’ll go. I know when I’m sober it’s not true, but when you drink enough it knocks out your reason and you don’t feel like you’re going along with it because you can’t understand it. When I drink, I call it the temporary lobotomy. They would sever the frontal lobe, you see? the seat of reason, and then they’d be docile and just go along.’ He motioned with his hand for me to pass the rum. I took another swig and handed it to him. He took a long drink and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lighting two and passing me one.
‘You know why we don’t have jobs? They don’t want us to. Dependence makes a wonderful shackle. And what the fuck exactly are you and I supposed to do about it? Vote? Sickens me. Congress yells and ‘argues’ and then nothing happens. They argue about cutting $100 billion. We pay $200 billion on our interest! They argue about nothing! Meanwhile the middle class keeps shrinking and the median household income shrivels away. But you know who’s doing good? Stock prices keep soaring quite nicely. Maybe we should all be investment bankers. Yes, I think that’s it. I’m going to quit my job at the strip mine and move to New York City. I should be able to afford a flat there.’ He reached beside him and pulled out a can of beer. He popped the tab, squeezed his eyes shut and chugged the can empty. While driving eighty miles an hour in the HOV lane.
‘They’ve got us by the balls, man. You think they were ignorant what they were doing to the housing market? Heck no. They knew full well. They had a gynecologist, a fucking vagina doctor telling them they were destroying the market. Bullshit he was the only one who understood it. And then they did the same thing to student finances! The same, exact, thing! They’re not ignoramuses. Just giant, gaping anuses. And would it matter if they destroyed higher ed? Fuck no! You think anybody would do anything about it anyway? Are Phil and Tim and Betty really going to get up off their fat asses and demand change? Fuck no! But if they can stroll into a voting booth and think they’re voting for change, that’ll satisfy them. ‘Cus the easiest people to control are the ones who think they’re free, Allen, remember that. Allen it was, right? I mean, when the fuck are people going to wake up? They’re being screwed like sheep in a barn full of perverts! We’re on the lazy river, Allen, the lazy fucking river when we should be building water slides! And guess what? The people don’t care! They get to be lazy and sit on their asses and cozily float along! Ignorance really is bliss. And the perverts have done a WONderful job keeping them blissfully ignorant. They took out the ladders, Allen! The ladders, in the lazy river – they’re gone! They took them out and we’re stuck here on the lazy fucking river and can’t you hear the water falling louder and louder? I sure can! But is anything going to change? Fuck no! Not as long as Pete and Joe get to sit undisturbed eating Doritos in front of their HDTV! Clearer than life, they say! Sit on your ass and don’t do a thing! Even if they knew the truth do you think they’d do anything about it! Knowing the truth, it demands action! Demands revolution, Allen! And do you really think anyone is ever going to want the inherent chaos and strife when instead they can so easily lose themselves in their indolent excesses!’ Jackfred paused to chug another beer. He tossed the can out the window and it hit the car behind us.
‘Successfully preoccupied! That’s what they’ve done! Because they know people aren’t going to do shit when they’re cozy and safe! Why the fuck would anyone want upheaval? Why would someone want to start a revolution when they’re content, and happy, and safe. And that’s just the fucking point! Why stress yourself and wake yourself to the truth? Why use reason? They know people won’t ever do a fucking thing if they have their cheap Luxury, simple, mindless Entertainment and their indolent fucking Comforts!’
As Jackfred forcefully enunciated these three nouns they came down the highway at us, floating quickly above the road and they went splat, spluck, splick, right on the windshield as if they were insects. Accept these words were much larger than insects. And much more alluring. The large, bright, juicy letters stuck to the windshield and covered the whole of it.
‘Fuck!’ yelled Jackfred. ‘Quick, take the wheel!’ I grabbed the wheel and tried keeping it straight, not knowing what was in front of us but hearing the disturbing sound of water rushing, as if falling. Jackfred opened the bottle of the rum and climbed out his window so that he sat where the window was rolled down and, with the bottle of rum, began pouring it across the windshield.
‘Quick Allen! The book in the back!’ In the back seat was a very large copy of a book titled, ‘The Benefits of Critical Thinking’. With one hand on the wheel I used my other hand to pass Jackfred the book and used the hardcover to scrape the words from the windshield. The words slid down the hood and disappeared beneath the car. Jackfred climbed back in and took the wheel.
‘You heard the waterfall, didn’t you?’ he said. He finished off the rum. ‘So how’s hitchhiking?’
‘As a means to an end? I’d say it’s less unhealthy than alcoholism.’
‘I should try it, sometime.’
‘Yes. I think you should.’
‘I’ll drop you off up here.’