17 March, 2015

The Road Trip

To leave is to die a little. —FRENCH SAYING


I hadn’t been in a car in eleven years. It’d been that long, in fact, since I moved beyond the five or so walkable acres of the prison grounds. And then, all of a sudden, this.

I’d been expecting the fact of it — the what, but not the when. The doctors here can only do so much, so an appointment with an outside specialist was made. Weeks went by. Every morning, the expectation of a knock at my cell door. The one morning I didn’t think it would happen was when it did.

I was just beginning to doze again, following the 5 AM count. Be ready and in the sally port by ten to 6, I was told. My cellmate was already rolled over and breathing the regular, unconcerned breaths of a man who wasn’t about to see the outside world for the first time in a decade. As quietly as I could, in the dark, I heated water for coffee. A double. I knew I’d need it.

Even before I drank the black invigorator there was tension — my heartbeat up, my jaw clenched, the sensation in my stomach of having swallowed a family of live spiders. For calm, I cued up a Fever Ray track suited to a midnight-black wakeup such as this.

Because of the monumental significance of this trip to who knows where, I had certain ideas about how to treat the experience: I vowed to remain open-eyed, in a state of supreme mindfulness, hyperaware. Walking in brisk predawn air of the vacant prison yard, it occurred to me that I was already off to a bad start by watching only the ground — a habit born of not wanting to step in the innumerable phleghm puddles that spatter the concrete. Screw clean soles, I decided. Stars — a few, anyway — twinkled. The moon was a bright Cheshire Cat smile. A fitting omen for the trip I was about to take into a strange land.

Two guards met me, old hands I’d seen around for a while. One was gray-haired and fiftyish; one was closer to my age and had only eyebrows and a mustache for hair. The pair have been bantering for years, I could tell. Back and forth they went, forgettably amusing in a way I desperately hoped wouldn’t kill the mood — all their So-and-so said such-and-suching and har, har, hars.

In an orange jumpsuit, with my ankles shackled and wrists cuffed (palms down, left over right) to a belly chain, we beelined for the front entrance. My mother and friends came through these doors whenever they visited. I made a point of noticing the airlock, the lobby, the short walk to the parking lot. Everything seemed small. I wondered for a moment if my visitors ever found these places somewhat claustral, too, or if I was merely projecting my feeling of confinement on the world outside my head. Halfway to the waiting white unmarked Crown Vic, I glanced behind me. The admin building looked as architecturally bland as any minor corporate headquarters, which I found fitting. Office life in corporate America is just another kind of purgatory.

The back seat was cramped, like in any cop car, and the divider that ensured I’d stay there abutted my kneecaps uncomfortably until I assumed the lotus position — feet together, knees apart.

How to describe the feeling of moving at speed over twists of unfamiliar access road, a helpless passenger, wishing more was visible than what the headlights had power enough to cut through? In my anxious state I remembered the opening credits from David Lynch’s Lost Highway: black asphalt and night and safety-yellow dashes drifting from one side of vision to the other, drunkenly. I wished the void would give way. It resisted. Just as well. Too much, too soon, might be disorienting. Yet that’s one thing I fully anticipated of this trip, a mind-fuck. Seeing a host of sights that I scarcely remembered how to process. Taking days, even weeks, to sort them all out.

A friend here at Crossroads, Zach, went out for surgery a couple of years ago. For him, watching people come and go, while sitting in front of a small-town gas station, was utterly surreal. They looked oblivious to their surroundings, he said, at least beyond what was right in front of them. Pressed for another way of describing what he saw in them, Zach answered that they barely seemed alive.

“So, where are we going, anyway?” I asked, once it was all right for the guards to reveal our destination. I expected nearby Saint Joseph or the hospital here in Cameron.

“Jeff City,” said the bald-headed guard.

Jefferson City is the state capital, a two-and-a-half-hour drive, minimum. Halfway across Missouri. For me to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist. “Are you serious?”

“It’s gonna be a long, quiet ride.”

At least there was that. I settled back in the seat, trying to rest my hands where the cuffs wouldn’t cut in.

We were on the highway immediately. Whatever scenery Cameron’s outskirts have to offer was hidden in the gloom. But sunrise came on quickly. Before I knew it there were trees, fields, and the profiles of drivers in passed cars, sucking coffees and sodas, fumbling for glasses to shield their eyes from the eastern sun we cruised into. At the last stoplight outside of town a pretty young woman in a sedan beside us couldn’t keep her eyes from drifting.

“She’s checking you out,” the bald guard said.

“Probably trying to figure out if we’re cops,” his partner added.

I decided to glare. What? my lips silently demanded. She turned to stare dead ahead, her mouth snug in a little knot of dismissal.

Cirrus clouds. The sky brilliant blue and pinkish. Timberland like Ansel Adams would photograph flashed densely past. Everywhere the ground was gray and browned by patchy grasses. Farm implements lunged from clearings in curious shapes I mistook more than once — such a city boy — for children’s playground equipment. The chuckles from up front got more sporadic, then silenced, replaced first by the blips of a texting conversation, then Baldy’s light snoring. One blue printed sign along the highway read, IN LOVING MEMORY OF... someone, and was gone before I could catch it. Miles later passed another. IN LOVING MEMORY OF COREY... something. Why, I wondered was I drawn to the signs, my eyes pulled away from the landscape, toward words? We flew over muddy waters, but what caught my attention were the green road signs announcing them: Coon Creek, Leper Creek, Locust Creek, Higgins Ditch — names that embodied the barren February tableau of Midwestern backwaters. And the billboards, some half obliterated by many seasons’ weather, also demanded my attention. A symptom of acclimating to pleasure that comes exclusively from the written, after many years without visual stimulation, or simply something in my nature, looking for meaning in language that can’t be found in nature’s chaotic spender? I don’t remember myself well enough to be sure.

High winds seemed to confuse the geese. The birds traversed the sky by thousands, in muddled waves like those that course down the sides of a freshly poured pint of stout. I missed beer. Through the filthy windshield, the divided highway stretched onward for undifferentiated miles. The sun was in my eyes. The feeling inside me, a stone at rest at the edge of a sheer cliff.

I imagined my visit would cause a scene, some elderly lady in the waiting room gasping at the sight of me and my armed escorts tromping straight through to the exam room, as if I were privileged to have the medical equivalent of a turnpike E-Z Pass. Later at home she’d phone her friend to complain about the deplorable state of society today, when pampered prisoners get better treatment than honest, hard-working citizens who actually have to wait to see their doctors. There should be a law, she’d growl to her tsking friend. Then they’d titter awhile over that week’s The Bachelor.

But no. After we pulled into a parking space at Jefferson City Medical Center and the younger of my escorts called to announce our arrival, we trudged across the pavement to a side entrance. A few waiting visitors dimly visible through a plate glass window turned to stare, and I saw what they saw, in a rare moment of sharing, courtesy of my reflection on this bright, now-cloudless morning: a thin, shaven-headed man in shocking orange and a cheap, light-brown coat, thoroughly restrained, with two large escorts from an indeterminate branch of law enforcement. One told a joke. All three laughed together. What’s that guy got to laugh about? someone inside wondered, or all of them did, or no one did. And that was the extent of the public attention my hospital visit got.

I was scuttled through a little-trafficked door, maybe an administrators’ entrance, adjacent to a smallish elevator. There was that familiar antiseptic smell, along with bland tan walls, matching floor tile, and a potted plant that I couldn’t shake the impression of being artificial. The older guard invited me to sit on a wooden bench, if I wanted, “Or look for a shoe.” He indicated a bin piled high with donated footwear for some charity or other. I took neither of his offers.

A busy-looking woman in a tight suit jacket zoomed past without a glance in our direction. I spent the next several minutes pondering whether she ignored us deliberately or was one of the people Zach observed during his trip out, too absorbed in her doings to be mindful of anything else. Had I once been this way? Ego said no, rational mind said, Could be. A sallow, plaid-clad smoker on a footbridge outside stared at nothing and puffed away. Where was his mind that morning?

The nurse who appeared was middle-aged, with a blonde pageboy cut. When I saw the wheelchair I thought, There must be some misunderstanding, and looked at my escorts for a hint.

“Well, it’s not for me!” the older guard said with a surprised smile.

The chain clattered on the footrests as I settled my boots into them. For a moment I was offended. The purpose of the chair was as part of a ruse, not any courtesy for the patient but a device permitting a blanket to be tucked around my legs and hands — a cloak of invisibility, to conceal me and the metallic stigmata I bore. The hospital staff knew what Zach knew and what I was just learning. Wheeled through a labyrinth of narrow, carpeted back hallways, I found myself in an exam room I thought looked more dental than medical. There my escorts and I waited, waited, and waited. They had their phones; I was stuck with Coldplay from the ceiling speaker.

One balding tree just outside the exam room window quavered intermittently. An exhaust unit threw up waves of warm air beside it, miragelike. This is the closest I’ve been to a tree in almost fourteen years. I studied its bolls and branches, memorizing the patterns in its rough gray bark. For my mental stockpile of images. For the lean days to come.

Eventually, the doctor saw me. I tried not to be disappointed when the exam concluded after five minutes. (Doctors’ visits always seem too short to me, the diagnoses little more than guesses.) Then I was wheeled back down the hidden corridors and led to the car.

Downtown Jefferson City revealed nothing I didn’t expect, save in its particulars. My mind drifted. What’s happening in the capitol building right now? Is Governor Nixon in town today? Where is my pardon application being held? and in minutes we were en route back to Crossroads Correctional Center, a rewinding of the reel that I’d watched earlier. Rocky cutaways flattened to fallow fields, browning fir trees were replaced along the highway by branching skeletons, bunched cubical urban brick gave way to open spaces scattered with tumbledown barns and sad, half-collapsed houses. And even though I’d seen it all before and was carsick and had a headache and heavy eyelids from lack of sleep, I propped myself up straighter than straight and mustered all my will to keep myself from blinking.

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