Mark called and asked if I wanted to go to a punk festival in Indiana. I perused the line-up, found only one band I wanted to see, and said yes anyway. While waiting for him to pick me up, I sat on the porch and watched an injured sparrow hop across the lawn. It flapped its broken wings and drifted back to the ground, flightless.
People’s first reaction toward an injured or wayward animal is usually to help it: a stray dog wanders into traffic and a driver stops to pick it up and take it out of harm’s way; kittens are found in an alleyway and someone temporarily opens their home to them; an anonymous phone call is made and a negligent owner has their pets taken away. Humans seemingly have more empathy for other species than they do for their own.
But what to do about an injured bird?
I made some halfhearted attempts to catch it, though I had no idea what the next step would be if I succeeded. Stumbling across the lawn, I lunged with cupped hands. But even without wings it was quicker than me. It dipped and dodged, running figure eights on its spindly legs. Exhausted, I gave up and sat back down on the porch.
It was frustrating trying to save something that was hardwired to fear me. I reasoned that maybe the earthbound little thing would be okay. Maybe it would continue to pluck worms from the soil and evade predators. But even if that were the case, the fact remained that escaping winter’s looming wasteland on broken wings was an impossibility, a death sentence. The bird would be doomed in a few months and I didn’t want to dwell on it. There’s no point in mourning something that can’t be saved.
Driving down I-65, bound for Bloomington, Indiana, Mark and I made small talk to fill the void left by his stereo, which had been stolen, along with a handful of mix tapes, during an impromptu sojourn to the South.
“It was bad enough that they stole my tape deck,” he said. “I mean, who steals a tape deck anymore anyway? But did they have to take the tapes, too?”
I could empathize. My car had been broken into the previous year, the thief stealing not just my jerry-rigged CD player and a few CDs, but also a couple of folders of schoolwork. Plenty of bizarre things can be pawned, but I doubt half-finished homework from a remedial math class is on that list.
Despite the lack of music, it felt good to be on the road, to distill the world into a blur that dropped away in the rearview mirror. Some people believe that traveling is about self-discovery, but I don’t think that’s always true. While revelation or reaffirmation is inherent in any voyage, the search for new experiences is sometimes about temporarily blotting out the things in our lives that we regret but live with, the daily humiliations and boring routines and ghosts we cannot shake. Being in transit is an exercise in willed forgetting. The miles between starting point and destination are marked by a desire to escape and a longing for the myriad possibilities that have failed to present themselves.
After the cities and suburbs fall away, the landscape between Chicago and Bloomington becomes a patchwork of plains and farmland. There’s something eerie about the countryside during autumn, when the harvest has come in and the fields lie fallow. But during spring and summer there’s an alluring vitality, an aesthetic ease in the verdure fields that makes mountains and oceans seem ostentatious by comparison. Neat rows of corn bow their heavy, tasseled heads, penned-in livestock pace and bridle, and birds emerge from the brush, soaring skyward in gleaming, frenetic columns. It’s orderly yet untamed, the kind of land conducive to long drives and a blank slate mentality.
After we arrived in Bloomington, Mark wanted to find the quarries from Breaking Away. An elderly woman at a garage sale said the quarries were polluted, full of cancer and death, and we shouldn’t swim in them. But Mark insisted and we were pointed in the right direction. We parked the car and cut through fields and front yards, eventually finding a trail that would lead us to our destination. Before entering the woods, however, a gray-haired man emerged from his garage and threatened to call the cops on us. When that didn’t work, he threatened to get his gun. Mark went on ahead, and I, ever timid in the face of conflict and not a fan of toxic waste anyway, headed back into town on foot.
Blistering heat and humidity turned what I thought would be a leisurely stroll into a Bataan Death March of the mind. I had greatly underestimated how many miles outside of town I was, and since Mark and I didn’t own cell phones, I had no way of getting picked up. To make matters worse, I got lost and spent a couple hours tight-roping roadsides. The smell of manure was so thick that each inhalation seemed chewable, and the sun was eating away at my shaved head. Cars careened past and I moved farther up the shoulder, walking on an incline, one leg longer than the other, my hands intermittently placed atop my head to fend off the sun. By the time I got back into town I was sore and sunburned, so I went to an air conditioned pizza parlor to cool off. On the wall hung a framed photo of Indianapolis punk legends the Zero Boys. I thought, Man, I can’t wait to tell Matt about this, and then remembered that he wasn’t around anymore. It happened a lot.
By the time Mark and I bumped into each other, he had decided to sleep on a rooftop and I had scoped out a spot in the parking garage. I awoke in the middle of the night beneath a staircase with my head stuck to the concrete. I figured I’d lain down in a puddle of spilled soda, so I pried my head from the ground and climbed to the parking deck, sleeping until sunrise in Mark’s car, only to awaken with my head again stuck, this time to the upholstery. I wriggled loose and looked in the rearview mirror: my scalp was bright red and pockmarked with oozing sores and kernels of dry pus. Mark didn’t have such a good night either: the clouds decided to open up on him, and when we rendezvoused in the morning he was drenched and scowling.
On our last night in town we went to a show. A guy named Buck Buck played. It was just him and his bass up there. He covered “Joe McCarthy’s Ghost” and we all clapped the drumbeat with our hands and yelled the words. Then he introduced his next song, saying it was about a dead friend. He talked about some philosopher who conceived of time as cyclical, all things happening at all times, over and over. All of it, our actions and thoughts, memories and stories, it all collapses in on itself and expands into the kaleidoscopic mess we call infinity.
The introduction ended and the song began. Buck Buck pounded away at his bass, his cheeks puffy and red, singing, “I can’t wait to meet you for the first time, again.” And that simple line, that invocation of the dead, made the pain of mourning someone you cannot save that much more acute. It stuck with me and I repeated it in my head, over and over, even as my eyelids grew heavy a few miles outside of town, my hands at ten and two, ghosting through a red light and awaking on the salvation side of the intersection to Mark’s frantic voice.