WARNING: THE TESTING IN YOUR AREA WILL BE ONGOING FOR THE NEXT TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES. DURING THIS TIME ALL RADIO SIGNALS AND FM/AM CHANNELS WILL BE UNAVIABLE. THIS INCLUDES THE USE OF CELLULAR DEVICES AND ANY ELECTRONICS USING BANDWIDTH RADIO WAVES. WE APPRECIATE YOUR COOPERATION.
What the hell was that?
“How the hell should I know? Maybe some new Cold War testing in the last lacuna of the lower 48. No, that’s clichéd. We’d be seeing marmots big enough to saddle up on by now. Prairie dog tunnels wide enough to drive through like redwoods. Your worst nightmare from kitsch hell. No, it’s probably something much worse. Two things. Either some military zone where they’re testing the psychological effects of some social scenario and we’re pushed to our limits. Like in that Twilight Zone episode where they think this family of reds move in on the block and the whole neighborhood is so addled by McCarthyic paranoia they try to kill the family right then and there. And it turns out that the whole time a car full of G-men are hanging out eating bon-bons in some laundry van in front of Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s mailbox, surveilling the whole thing. Yeah, like they want to see something about us. Except they want to know that we know it’s a test. Except we know that THEY know that WE know it’s a test. Breaking the cycle see, back to our original state. Right, left, right. Odd numbers are your friend. Right, weirdo? So we pull up to some gas station and go in and we have to end up killing some crazy, albeit staged redneck with a big ol’ rifle he keeps on the wall because it saved his daddy’s life back at the Bulge and they want to see, the government I mean, want to see just how deranged our repressed, latently-psychopathic, blue-state minds are.”
Speaking of which, can you check if there’s a gas station nearby?
“It’s all falling into place. Next thing you know, you’ll have a hot rod of iron about four fingers wide up your gloryhole and Misses Jet-Fuel-Doesn’t-Melt-Steal-Beams is gonna have to come in guns blazing to save your sorry ass. Except – I won’t… Because that’s what they want me to do…”
Maybe all of those inner city radio waves are finally getting to you after twenty-one years.
“Because if I did, that would realize the experiment. No, I’ll do the last thing they expect. Which is nothing…”
Have fun with that.
The road continues with nothing but the catenary wires between poles alluding to any lank tension out here. A couple of low, red hills looking like mountains about thirty miles towards the southwest quadrant, the direction this car’s generally going.
“Is that what they expect? Maybe that’s a lose-lose situation.”
Maybe you shouldn’t not do anything then. Maybe that’s-
“No, you know what it is. I think. They want to see how close we are from becoming animals. Testing that line of prehistoric savagery. Think about it. Out here. In no man’s land. A couple of one red-light towns in a fifty-mile radius. I mean this is Unabomber territory. Home of the free, land of the grave. Seriously. Who gives a shit about this place. This is the empty attic of the contiguous U.S. Good for nothing but storing Christmas lights for the winter.
That was more of the mountains. This is pretty flat compared to-
“Nothing but the whine of wolves and the wind over empty missile silos to break up the landscape. And I’m savage alright. You can call me Sarah-Gouges-With-Many-Fingers. Its pure apocalypse out here. I want to beat your brains in right now.”
“Anyway, a setting like this is just what they’re looking for. We’re just a couple of wayward tourists, lost like babes in the woods, ready to break out of their Brooklyn civility and bash in some hillbilly faces.
What's the other thing?
"The other what?"
The other explanation?
"Oh, I guess something so boring and normal it doesn't even need to be elaborated.. Something just plain."
But it could be mutant prairie dogs.
“Mutant prairie dogs…”
To the left is even more of the same. Grazing land for cattle without the cattle. At the right a bellying hill rises up about fifty feet from the rumble strip and recedes towards the vanishing points beyond and behind. Following the hill like the selvedge around a shirt collar, power lines follow the direction of the road. It’s hard to imagine any landmarks to break up the plane of sage and milkweed creeping onto the highway. Beyond this hill, the idea of Canada's a handful of miles north from becoming a reality, only a hedge or a fence separating the territories delimited states.
“My theory is that the government is interested in finding that line of pure anarchy, where we say, nuh-uh, this ain’t worth it no more, and then go ape-shit crazy and initiate some revolution when the crisis comes. Moscow 1917 here we come. BUT, the man’s ready for it. And as long as they can crack down appropriately, when people aren’t as fat and happy as they have been and the Man puts in more regulations on our subconscious because it doesn’t have much to lose, then it gets harder.”
One senses a few holes in the logic here…
And how do they know? Experiments like this! Maybe it’s like some classified color spectrum like the Bush rainbow with Homeland Security. Green means all’s quiet on the western front. Red means these bitches are ready to start World War III at the FOE!”
“I suppose it is the same. Just switch out terrorist with civilian. What is that?”
A speck. That’s what. Usually you wouldn’t even notice it but since there’s nothing to see, might as well be the state capitol. Soon enough, it’s nothing but a service station with the word STANDARD emblazoned across a long aluminum sign. The sign is propped up against a peeling fence at the property’s limits that warms up memories of slivers like dry kindling. There isn’t any advertisement to associate the station with the company. Just STANDARD gathering dust in red letters against a white background.
“What are you doing, stopping? We can’t stop now? Think of our future children! And their children! And their deformed children!! Are you crazy?”
You’re gonna say that? To me? The man's probably more honest than any BP or Shell attendant anyways.
Or woman. The pump looks like a contemporary of the sign, superannuated but functioning. The numbers, little dialed wheels at a price high enough to’ve come from this century. Inside, a man’s sitting at the counter reading a copy of LIFE with a Norman Rockwellesque cover.
“When he asks where we’re from, just make sure it’s a land-locked state.”
You can tell him you’re a true blue American with red-blooded veins, but the Empire State license plate doesn’t help none. Sure you don’t want to come in?
“It’s your car sugar. I’ll be here whittling a spear.” Now she’s adjusting the mirrors out of cheesy paranoia, getting all the angles, slouched down with Lolita glasses, looking round the stout stucco building for the bathrooms.
“And I have to pee too.”
We can go to the next town.
“Uh, yeah. I’m not budging one inch.”
It took a minute, but the pump begins to churn fuel into the tank with the hearty whir of the wheels’ turn under smudged glass, no number-blur of nowadays.
The stillness is unusual. The memories returning to form. A somber wind sloughs the roadside flora like a cosmic vacuum cleaner taking its time. Across the highway, a uniform field of waist-high growth climbs over the hill. The plants have the thorny look of weeds, except they’re all the same and that on top of the hill, an irrigation wheel sits idly for what could’ve been an hour or a century.
It doesn’t matter that these memories lodged in place harbor dreams of baby blue and cryptic black. Now it’s the season of the drought. Year of the Parched Mouth. A serried panorama without even a dead tree amongst the cast. A horizon diffused with a touch of gray. The language is a substitute for the truth in numbers. In the end. Distraction. In.
Off to the side of STANDARD, a piece of particle board reads Moving on Sale, as high as the groin, buried in more plant matter. Weeds? A farmer would know. Or a botanist. An artist? A plane flies through the sun. Now its past. Andromeda behind the veil of day preparing for theoretical war. Blasting at maximum velocity with nothing to slow it down except itself. Speed, that’s the law. Fact. The faster you move the nearer you get to the future, that’s the tradeoff. No matter the direction. The fastest are the agents of the future. That’s where the credit goes. What a present.
The pump clicks with the familiarity of all pumps. No expected ding of unlived nostalgia. Fetishizing the parent’s past and not even our own, not history but ebbing days. Who charges over that hill nowadays? And who charged then? Was it for necessity? Truth? Joy? Who gets the last laugh?
“Hey Tonto, there’s no sunset over there, let’s saddle up!”
Making a point to hear the gravel under All-Stars. The angle shadows over the pumps covering the building but not the sun-drenched Toyota. Inside the man puts down his TIME magazine, revealing a face framed by corduroy overalls and gray hair sprouting from his scalp and draping round his head like a tomato stem’s greens.
“Well, howdy. Just the ol’ fillip?”
Yep just some gas. Do you take credit?
“Just cash I’m afraid.”
Ah. Let’s see.
“You two from New York?”
She is. I’m from the other side of the border.
“Ah, homecoming. What d’ya do over there?”
Numbers mostly, pretty boring stuff.
“Well you missed one hell of a winter. You should’ve seen those numbers! Had me feeling a little wistful. Reminded me of the blizzards we used to get back in the day. They just don’t make em like that anymore.”
“Hell, I remember back in…let’s see here…bout…’66 we had a hell of a storm. Ha, there’d be so much ice on the power lines they’d be hanging a few feet from the ground what with the poles bent over like men as old as me. Cables as thick as your calf with the ice.”
You don’t say.
“If you look at a picture they’d look pretty to you. Glazed lines of drooping ice. I can’t help but see those pictures and feel a chill in my spine. We lost power and I had to chop up the damn dinner table to keep the family warm. Hellish storm. Ha. That was where Denise came from though. Had my daughter in that storm. Probably shouldn’t tell ya as much, but you have to stay warm somehow. It was a long time ago anyway. Yep. Sure don’t make storms like them anymore. It weren’t no winter idyl. Forty dollars there guy.”
Huh. My Dad told us about some pretty frigid winters at nearly forty below but nothing that – apocalyptic.
“They’ve got funny ways of talking about apocalypse nowadays. You should know that better than us ol’ timers.”
Suppose so. By the way, do you know how far Plenum is from here?
“Plenum. Plenum? You sure you ain’t talking about Plenum Falls.”
It’s Plenum Falls? I thought it was the next town over. Maybe I’m mistaken.
“You must have driven right through it. Plenum Falls has been on the de-cline of late nowadays. It ain’t the waystation for settlers and cowpunchers like it used to be. Plus they might have changed the name wherever you heard that from.”
“If you’re heading west, the next town over’ll be Delane. Hell, I grew up there so I should know. Just over the borderline.”
“You sure you’re not lost?”
No I’m sure we’ll figure it out soon enough. I just haven’t been here in…haven’t been here for a hot minute. Is that your rifle?
“Family heirloom, actually. A decent reminder of things.”
Hand the bills. Methodical pace. The strangest thing.
“Yep, I’ve never been fortunate enough to shoot it. Don’t want to take the chance. In fact, I don’t even know if the damn thing works anymore. It came back from Korea an odd half century ago with a splintered stock. I put it together myself and you can’t tell the difference. Never got the nerve to take it out back for target practice. Rather leave on the wall where it belongs I’d say.”
What if you need it one day?
“Oh, don’t worry. I’m outfitted. Doesn’t seem too rational to start firing away, takes away the mystery. Well you’re all set!”
And my change?
“The charge was forty even sir.” God-natured smile, wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Sorry then. Enjoy your afternoon-
“Champ? Pleased. Say, if you’re headed west you’re probably headed towards Miles City. There’s a shortcut if you’d like to get there sooner. If you take this gravel-road for fifteen miles, you’ll meet up with the state highway that takes you to the interstate. Won’t have to worry about washouts in this drought either. Otherwise if you keep headed down this road you’ll lose a half-hour abouts.”
We’re actually sight-seeing as well. Taking our time for once. In fact, a quick question. Do you happen to know of any missile silos around here? From the Cold War. There’s that Minutemen spot down in South Dakota but we thought there might be some derelict sites in these parts the lady and yours truly could sneak a peek at. We’re more interested in the passed over parts of history. More authentic around here you know.
“Well I wouldn’t be playing around with any of those holes in the ground. You never know which ones are still active. There’s a few if you keep heading down this here highway but they might have cameras all around ‘em, detectors and such. Plus nobody’s ever around there so you’ll have to watch for rattlesnakes. It’s the season for em’.
Active and abandoned? Weren’t those just for the Cold War?
“Let’s just say it’s always pretty chilly around here.”
What kind of a place is this to call home? It doesn’t matter who lives here anymore. Someone else always has the code.
“In fact, a couple of Indians came over from Fort Peck and tried breaking in one of those silos about a month ago. In the middle of the day! Figured they’d get away with it ‘cause they were cross the state line. As if that mattered. Took those thieves away for tampering with U-night-ed States property right quick. Couple of SUV’s with tinted windows went right down this here dirt road and carted em off. ‘Cept they took em back east not west. Ended up in the paper so I think the Feds wanted the community to know not to mess around with their arsenal. We keep up the fight with the reds if you know what I mean. Ha! Served em right. But they keep the rest of us folks on a leash while they cart our oil across the state, ditchin’ and spillin’ – or worse! Blowing up like damn atom bombs. Best be careful. Wouldn’t want to see a kid like you get picked up for being curious. Even in God’s country they’ll get ya. But do what you want. Your choice.”
“What’d you mean son. You have a choice. Don’t abuse it. Soon as you give up that freedom someone else’ll take it.”
“I don’t think I have that choice to choose. Thinking otherwise just becomes more painful than its worth. I’m sorry, it’s a sensitive subject but your warning wrote the future for me.”
“It feels dishonest for me to listen to you talk about doing right, when I’m not being honest with you. You seem like the kind of man who appreciates honesty, so I’m going out on a limb here. I don’t think we have the kind of choices you’re talking about. And in fact, deep down, I think you know that. That’s what lets us get away with what goes on here. That’s how they get away with it. You told me to stay away, and what does that say? Well, it says that I’m doing wrong now. So if I go, who am I to you anymore? What does it matter if you give me this choice to rebel? Why not just tell me not to go and be…honest! There’s something in this “choice” of yours I find valuable. It seems to make people appear responsible. If everyone believes they're responsible for their life choices, their destinies, then who do we end up attacking when wrong happens?"
“What do you mean goes on around here. And it’s Mr. Niles to you. I don’t know what you mean but that ain’t how we talk to strangers around here.”
“I’m only trying to help. Give you some advice from the outside. To you it probably sounds like we’re all becoming the same, but maybe we're all too possessive of things that aren’t just ours. All of us I mean. Of our choices I mean.”
“We don’t need your outside perspectives and we don’t need this irresponsibility of yours. If a man doesn't own up to what he's done, what then? Talk about freedom, man'll do anything without seeing his role in it. He'll steal, rape, kill, he'll do anything. That's the world of that rifle up there, I ain't too peachy-keen to go back to that. The past got us out of that world, and now here you are dragging us back into it. Things are bad enough without people like you sticking their fingers in everyone’s honeypots, raising hell.. You don’t give a damn for the freedom of the rest of us and you worship pandemonium. You all want to rip out our eyes and put in new ones. Well I'd rather be blind if it comes to it. It’s about time you ran along now.”
“I don’t have much of an interest in taking out eyes, but you can’t say that I ever left you out of the loop.”
“Boy, I don’t care much for your loop. It ain’t up to me and it ain’t up to you. I''ll tell you this: this land ain’t worth much anymore. God damned honyockers ruined the soil. Can’t grow a weed in those fields out there much less alfalfa. There ain’t no water, there ain’t no life, and there ain’t no money. Hell, I don’t even know why they call it Plenum Falls. The only thing that falls anymore is the population. But the highway patrolmen’ll pick you up for doing 76 in a 70 or driving with a chipped mirror. So you tell me who wins around here. It ain't decent folk like me. I'm not going to bed without worries of the roof collapsing in the middle of winter. That doesn’t make it easy for anyone. You got to make money to eat. That means everything from these here Mars Bars to speeding tickets. Without that choice, business wouldn’t ever work. The choice of a man. I know I can leave but I don't. I love this land, and God damn I paid my way. When you sow your own field with backbreaking labor you’ll be a true native of your home but until you pay your dues you ain't got a right to speak to me like that.”
“If you’re certain about it.”
“Oh I'm sure. Ha! Sure as rain.”
The door tinkles for the millionth-time overhead.
It felt a bit hotter, even with the sun passing the apogee of its June height. The cicadas buzzed intently in a land of two seasons.
She laid back in the reclined seat, limp like the victim of a drive-by shooting. Her whole body was swamped with sunlight, rays bright enough to make her eyes visible through the polarizing shades. She woke up with droplets of sweat riddling her face like bullets. “Jesus, were you two playing horseshoes? Let's get out of here. Your cheap ass made this seat as damp as a used tampon because you wouldn’t leave the keys for the A/C.” She watched him fumble with the keys. “Are you alright? You look pretty out of it.”
“I’m not. It’s just this damn heat.”
Chance drove onto the dirt road in a rush, no smooth pavement to climb onto, a consistent crunching blurred into flung rock and dust. He wheeled to the left, away from the smooth gradeless highway, looking south. The horizon was clear, the sky cloudless, and no fences yet to break up the landscape. Just the fields out and away, as blank as the heavens, the FM radio signal still silent. Between night and day, the sky would turn red and the earth blue. Only for a sliver of time though. A brief window. That he still remembered about this place. He glanced at his rearview mirror towards the receding power lines, the backdrop of the hill’s steep slope. From that angle he recognized a graph, a pattern: amplitude, wavelength, frequency, sinusoidal jargon of all sorts. It’s a constant. Tracing the waves that never flow above the t-line. The radio signal popped back on to a country buzz, but he switched off the signal. She turned to him for some telling signature in his eyes: “So did you hear about some prime roadkill being sold whole sale this here way? Coyote carcass in bulk? Get it while it's hot!” But his unsmiling gaze remained fixed on the mirrors while the range continued to unspool beneath the tire’s tread, revolving under the speed limit, eyes seeming to dart towards the road only for the sake of staying in between the invisible lines, disturbed by the shadows of the power lines that followed the car's clear path.