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On Highway 42

This story came to me during a long bath taken while I was feeling weird and kinda blue, probably in 2003. I wrote it in a flurry and published it in my high school literary magazine, probably next to some fiction that was much better. I vow this is the only story I will ever write in the second person--I don't want to be that kind of writer.

That day, you were in a hurry. You had been at a party until three in the morning, and then spent the next three hours playing silly games in the hotel room you rented. Now you were dressed, so you and your friends straddled your bikes and thundered down the highway.

You had twenty minutes to be there, and there was little traffic, so you revved it all the way up to 80 on the open road and the rest of the guys followed suit. A combination of sleep deprivation and the glare from the sun (even with your visor down) was likely responsible for your misjudging that hard right turn, or so you said as you told the story later.

Honestly, you did not recall the moment when you lost control, nor how many somersaults you and your bike performed before you were thrown off and slid across the pavement until stopping in the gravel just before the ditch. All you recall was that one moment you were in control, the next your feet were high above your head, and at last you were on your side staring at a steaming mass of chrome and shining black metal.

Actually, it was wood. A shining black coffin with gold handles. Solid cherry with a burl lid, the top half of which was folded back for the purpose of viewing the corpse inside. You sat in a chair nearby, not seeing the cold lifeless body of a dead woman, but your mother, sleeping peacefully, waiting for you to wake her up, just as you had early in the morning on Christmas a year before. You would have awoken her too, if she had not been stolen by cancer.

“It must be very hard on him to be only ten,” the men behind you quietly whispered. You just cried. Like the night she died. You knew it would come, but were still caught unprepared. Your dad came in your room and echoed, “Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you okay?” now louder, now softer.

“I’m fine,” you attempted to squeak, but you were lost in memories. It was a sunny day out and your mother had you at the kitchen table teaching you math. “I am holding up five fingers on this hand, and two fingers on this hand. You can do it. How many fingers am I holding up?” Being only four, you would rather have been playing outside. For a moment, the feeling that you were outdoors passed over you. The clouds were spiraling around the sky and a larger cloud of white dust drifted slowly away and your mother was still there, repeating “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Seven,” you attempt to sigh exasperatedly, but the word was cut off by a loud “oof” as a line backer slammed into your chest. It had been the longest game of your life and this was the visitor’s final drive and your one shining moment. In the first five downs, you had been flattened trying to hold back the enemy line, leaving you out of breath, with a fractured rib and more bruises than you had gotten in eighth grade when you tried to slug Charlie Miller for insulting your mom. This play, however, was different. The ‘backer in front of you dodged to your right to clear a hole for the runner, but the fullback fumbled the hand-off. You spied the ball even as it left his hands. You leapt through the center to avoid the two halfbacks sent for protection, and as the line folded downfield, you scooped up the wildly bouncing ball and pumped every last ounce of energy into your legs. As you flew down the field, ignoring the pain in your knee (that knee finally gave out while skiing in the Rockies last year), it was more like the field passed around you. The gridiron rolled forward under your feet, the golden “Y”of the field goal looming large and larger. You heard no crowd shouting as you dived exhausted into the end zone. Your hearing returned on the final syllable of the announcer’s best Howard Cosell impression, “He could. . . go. . . all. . . the. . . way!” The score was now 34-30 and you had saved the final home game of the season. When the visitors wasted the final 30 seconds, the crowd rushed the field, and the fireworks were ignited, lighting up the sky, illuminating the surprised looks on your teammates’ faces as they pat you on the back and give you a sip of water.

The pyrotechnics were nowhere near as spectacular as the first time you really did go all the way. It was that cute little blonde (with brown roots) who you remembered from biology when you saw her at the party. You were the only one who wasn’t stoned out of his mind, and she had no idea what she was doing but the first time is somehow special no matter what the circumstances. When she kissed you, it was as though she poured her spirit into you. Her breath gave you life, even if only for a few moments.

The faces of fifteen other women replaced hers. Each one was as nameless and forgettable as the one before. The only ones who would ever mean anything were the first and the last. You had come out of high school ready to conquer the world and you had conquered and conquered. College spun past like the strippers in a night club, looking deep into your thoughts while never actually seeing you, twirling on to the next one and the one after that, caring about nothing except how much money they could get out of you. You lived the good life too often. Too much sex, too much X, and too much truancy. You never thought that there could be too much of such things, but they never really satisfied you anyway.

You were standing in the bathroom at the last party you would ever attend, not realizing that you were actually lying prone on the tiles. Your eyes fluttered for a moment, and you became sober for an instant. Deathly sober. You realized the silliness of your situation as though through the eyes of God. You struggled to your feet and staggered out and through the front door. The night sky blinked blue for a moment and you gasped at the dust in your throat, then the night returned to normal as the queasy feeling in your stomach rushed to your head. You keeled forward again, falling deep into the spiraling stars.

You fell past galaxies and time, with the light-headed feeling of turning a quick flip on the surface of a cold pool just after diving in. Infinities upon infinities of nothing and everything surged forth in front of you. The stars faded to black, the galaxies dispersed, trillions of years went by in a relative second. Far away, a rush of energy and light surged forth and the remnants of chaos and entropy were washed away in a tide of information restored. The blinding white light rushed over you, snapping primeval chaos into order and gravity, and so you felt like you were speeding through it instead of the other way around. As you plunged into the light, it was like plucking a fruit from the tree and biting into an electron. The information entered you, penetrated you, stretched you beyond your limited corporeality. You found it had become a voice for you.

“I understand it! It all makes sense!” the voice of a veritable god reverberated across the universe.

Then it collapsed. The light faded to a dim orange glow. “D’you hear that? He’s coming to again,” a familiar voice replied, seeming to come from every direction at first and then focusing upon a single point. You snapped your eyes open.

“You alright, man?” The voice was that of your friend, Jake.

“How long have I been out?” you managed.

“About a minute since you collapsed.”

You paused. “I tried to get up?”

“You kinda rolled over after Hank gave you CPR. I think the shock kicked in. Does anything hurt?”

“My left knee is sore, and my ribs hurt right. . . uggggh. . . here,” you groan touching the spot. “I feel a little light-headed, but I’ll be alright in a second. Do you have some water?”

“Just stay right there. Go get your cooler, Jase, bring some ice.”

“My pants!” you cried, now noticing the blood-soaked gouge where you new dress pants were torn clear down to the cuff. “Sonia’s gonna be pissed!”

“We’re not letting you go through with it, man. We called the ambulance. Sonia’s already changing to come over here. She’s explaining it to the guests.”

“Well, I probably deserve that.”

“You need it. You probably have a concussion. Here’s a piece of ice. Suck on it, it’s the best we have on hand,” and he pulled off his shirt and wrapped the rest of the ice in it and placed it on your ribs where you had touched. You winced, noticing Hank was also shirtless. You noticed then the tightness around your thigh where it was tied.

A few minutes later, the paramedics arrived and loaded you into the ambulance, just as the Maid of Honor’s maroon caprice pulled off the road. Sonia leapt out, wearing a loose plaid shirt, tight blue jeans, and a diamond necklace.

You didn’t remember anything until you woke up in a hospital room. It was dark outside the window except for the floodlights in the parking lot. The room smelled sterile like chlorine except for the rotten smell of dried blood. The dim light left nearly everything in the room a light shade of grey. She was sitting there beside the bed, watching something mindless on the TV that was balanced on a gray retractable arm in the far corner. “Hi, babe,” you nearly shouted, not even realizing the force in your own voice.

“Oh you’re awake! How are you feeling?” She sat in a vinyl pastel green recliner facing the TV that did not quite match the decor. She rotated it around to face you as she tilted it upright. She reached over and touched the mute button on the remote built into the square metal bed.

“As good as can be expected. Where did the guys go?”

“They had to go clean up the church.”

“What did you think when they told you what happened?”

“As pissed as can be expected,” she smiled. “It’s a strange feeling, to be fuming mad and worried about you at the same time. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for the worry to overcome the bitterness. I’ve got a question for you, though.”

“What?”you said as you bent your left leg, testing its motion against the bandage tied tight around it.

“Jake said you were mumbling something about it all making sense. What was running through your mind?”

“Well, somehow the universe and everything in it did make sense.”


“Well, it’s all gone now,” you push the distended hospital sheet down to your waist.

“Do you remember anything whatsoever?”

“I remember fragments of the dream that came beforehand. I remember your face.”

“What about it?”

“It’s the meaning of life. . . .” you slid clumsily across the bed to her, putting pressure on your right arm which was apparently connected to an IV, and looked her right in the eye. She stood, half-grinned for a moment, leaned down and gave you a long kiss from which you could honestly tell the extent of her worry. She quietly turned toward the door.

“I forgive you this time but you better not screw up our next wedding,” she called sweetly back at you as she left. You lay back onto the pillow and reached for the remote, not saying anything, but chuckling softly to yourself.