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Thomas

Robert McDonald
Smaller text sizeDefault text sizeBigger text size Add to my bookshelf epub mobi Permalink MapMount Whitney, California
Mojave Desert country, crossed by the Santa Fe R.R., Cadiz, Calif. (LOC)
I

I met Thomas in the early ’90s on the old Northern Avenue bridge, far enough from the business district to be rid of the suits. The harbor was stained orange by the street lamps, and all I really saw was his silhouette, tall and lanky. I probably never would’ve stopped if it wasn’t for that silhouette. If I’d known then how it would all end I never would have stopped. Or maybe I would’ve stopped quicker. It scares me sometimes that I can’t even tell.

He turned slowly toward me and asked for a cigarette, in a voice gravelly and young. A voice which expected its request to be answered, not because of any arrogance because of the perfect naturalness of the situation at that moment.

“Sure, man. They’re menthols though.” I fumbled through my overcoat to find the pack.

“Why they fuck you smoking those?” he replied.

“I’m trying to quit. This way I don’t exactly crave them.”

He raised his eyebrows archly, accepted the wisdom of my statement, and lighted the cigarette with his zippo, flipping it open in the fancy way many young smokers do when they want to look older, like some GI in a trench. I chuckled and, what was better, his eyes laughed back as he took a puff.

I wish I could say I remembered the whole conversation, and could quote it here, however lame it might seem in print. But as with most events in life, one only remembers images: the beautiful black nothingness of the harbor, its plastic bottles glinting in the moonlight; the meandering talk about Iraq and Kuwait and the babies in the incubators; his steady drags on the cigarette, a little too deep to be normal.

But I do remember one point in this conversation, near dawn. We were talking in some general, teenage-angsty way about how sick we both were of the City, sick of the hum of money building roads and skyscrapers and power, sick of avoiding hobos on the way from the T to the liquor store on Huntington Ave., sick of our parents’ cookie-cutter little subdivisions on the commuter line, sick of the fact that we were probably going to end up in one too. And I mentioned how once I’d seen a picture of the US at night taken from space, with the little streetlamps ringing the coast, and how only this one strip down the Rockies stayed dark, was a black hole on the map, and ever since I’d wanted to go there.

I can close my eyes and see the look he gave me, something vulpine and soft, like a wolf trotting through snow. His voice lowered an octave. “I’ve been planning a road trip to do something similar. You should come.” And I said yes. Which even at the time made no fucking sense—who meets a man on a wharf and drives 2,000 miles with him? But I said yes, and made plans to meet him up in Inman Square for coffee the next day.

II

The coffeeshop was packed by the time I got there, people spilling out the door, that odd crush of humanity that appears on beautiful fall days in the city: a thin-boned Asian college student in the corner working with some textbooks; thirty-something mothers trying to stay awake mid-afternoon; a beautiful blonde in the corner with ripped jeans and a white T-shirt. And then, leaning again a corner, Tom, dressed in black jeans that managed to look dingy underneath the blackness, and a pseudo-retro Mr. Bubble T-shirt. Given the crowd, we grabbed some coffee and sat out on the square itself.

Once we’d settled, Tom got down to business quickly: “You still interested in the road trip?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. I have second thoughts maybe, but I’m still interested. More than interested. I like the thought of getting out of the City... out of the east coast sprawl a little bit.”

He shrugged back, took a sip of his coffee, and smiled. “It’s a little more than that for me, I guess. It’s not like I’m running from anything... I have some good friends in Boston... It’s just...” He paused the way people tend to when they are going to say something that’s a little too honest. “I like the concept of going where there’s no streetlamps, no stoplights, no people to fuck things up, you know? Just a little bit of purity.” He smiled his little arch smile again.

The conversation went on this way, a little too earnest and a little too ironic in that odd mix we all pulled off so well as teenagers. We talked of logistics and gas money, and settled on taking his car the following Thursday (when I got off work from my dishwashing stint at the seafood restaurant on Somerville Ave.), and just driving toward Glacier National Park. It all seemed perfectly settled, a feeling that faded into a sense of surrealness only after I’d said goodbye to Tom, and headed back home.

III

Thursday arrived, and already there were problems. Tom called in the morning and said his car had started sputtering black noxious clouds of burnt oil. I agreed to borrow my sister’s car and follow him out to some garage he knew in Dorchester, in case the repair took so long he needed to leave the car.

I swung by his house the next morning, after the hubbub of commuter traffic had died down and the City was in its usual midday hum. He was waiting by his car, a beat-up Pontiac that seemed to be mostly rust. I remember him waving, slowly finishing his cigarette, and getting in his car just as I got out of mine, and I raced to hop back in my car and follow him. I remember racing, zigzagging through Boston, its tumbled streets melting into rotaries and the T coming straight down the middle of the turning lane, all veiled in horrible black fog from Tom’s exhausted Pontiac, accompanied by car horns from other drivers who were mad we slowed their speedy journey to the next red light, and above all I remember the heat, the glorious heat rising in waves off the asphalt.

The mechanic at the garage took one look at the engine and proudly announced that all it really needed was a tune-up. We gave him the keys, and we headed across the street to some Chinese laundromat and sat on the benches outside, talking of nothing except the traffic and the war, Kuwait and Baghdad and Sadaam the Bucker. I don’t think the war particularly seemed real to us that day, in the heat, and maybe it never could if all you had to go on was TV images. But all I know is whenever I see that footage of a bomb falling down a chimney I think of that bench in Dorchester.

We got back to the garage, and panic ensued. The mechanic had had to fix some real parts, and after a heated argument between him and Tom it emerged that Tom didn’t really have the money to pay for it. We ended up driving my sister’s car back north, scheming of what to do next.

IV

Thomas’s parents’ house was shabbier on the inside than on the outside, a mix of 1950’s orange-and-avocado kitchenware and 1970’s sofas. No sooner had we gotten in the door than the familiar antagonism that exists between a teenage son and his mom resumed where it had left off.

“Where’ve you been, Thomas? I didn’t know whether to wait for you for dinner or not.” Her voice sounded harried and weak.

“I had to get my car looked at, mom. Car trouble. I gotta talk to Dad.”

“Well, you coulda told me... who’s your friend?”

“John.” He said nothing more for a bit, and the silence lingered. “We’re going to take a road trip tomorrow, for a couple weeks maybe.”

It’s amazing (I say in hindsight) how teenage boys can think this kind of thing is an entirely normal thing to say, as it’s basically a demand for a total lack of social ties with the family that provides his room and board. But it seemed to me at the time like a perfectly normal thing to say, and the perfectly normal argument that followed was utterly predictable. Thomas’s mother pleaded her case: about Tom’s safety, about her disappointment at Tom losing his part-time job, about what Tom’s father would say. Still, her voice never lost its weak tone, and she had the look of a mother who is scared to realize that her son, this thing that came from her, is significantly taller and stronger than she is.

At least Tom’s mom tried. Mine had long since given up controlling me, and had accepted my pronouncement the night before with a caustic “It’s your life, to spend as you want.”

We retreated to Tom’s room, smoked some pot to some Metallica that must have seemed incomprehensible to Tom’s mom, an old Newport folkie, and plotted our trip in an atlas purloined from his dad’s car. We decided to aim for the Sierra Nevada instead of Glacier, enchanted by the fact that there was no road crossing the mountains between Yosemite and Sequoia, and figuring the snow would come later in the season further south.

V

While we were still dreaming over the atlas, Thomas’s father came home—we heard his deep voice slowly inching through the walls from downstairs. Thomas for the first time had a look of fear on his face, just for an instant. We heard the frustrated sounds from his mother recanting the argument, understood every word though they were all too muffled to hear distinctly, just by the tone. A pair of heavy footsteps came up the stairs, slowly. A knock at the door. Pause. A deep voice saying “Thomas?”

He came into room without waiting for a reply, a bearded man with a bit of a beer belly. His eyes were like Tom’s, wolf-like but somehow calmer, a bit of age showing through.

“So what’s this I hear about you going on a road trip, Thomas?”

Some nervous shifting by Thomas. “Not a road trip exactly... an adventure. I’m just looking to get out of this place...”

Tom’s dad arched an eyebrow and smiled. “What if what you’re looking for isn’t out there? I don’t mean it’s right here, not the house, you know, but everywhere—anywhere.”

I could tell Thomas was listening more than usual to his dad, and trying not to show it. “Dad, I have to go. There’s nothing in this fucking city that’s for me.”

“Nothing, huh?” A smile, sarcastic.

“Nothing.”

“You don’t even have any camping gear.”

“I could borrow yours.”

A pause. A sigh. Another smile. Thomas’s dad nodded. He pulled out his wallet slowly. “Here’s some money for your car. For Christ’s sake, just don’t tell your mom I gave it to you, she’ll kill me. I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for. Just be safe, and make it back in one piece, okay?”

We had packed our bags by dawn, and hit the road an hour later, heading west on Route 2. I don’t think his parents ever learned my last name.

VI

I don’t recall much of the trip really. Just broken pieces of images, moments that somehow etched more deeply into one’s mind than one expected, or wanted. I remember barreling through Concord and Walden Pond, with Thomas smoking like a chimney and mocking the commuters heading the other way into the city, cursing them and the whole Hub we were leaving behind, them and Thoreau’s train whistle and everything. I remember the static as we flipped through the radio dial trying to find something other than war news or Whitney Houston signing “The Star Spangled Banner,” back when radios were still analog and had such things as static. I remember the gorgeous drop down into North Adams, the peaks dotting the distance, the Taconics guarding New York and everything that lay beyond. And I remember, more ominously, Thomas tearing up when we crossed the Massachusetts border: “I’m glad to be away from it all, all that city life and its ties, but I’ll miss it all, a bit,” he said.

We picked up a hitchhiker, a punk chick named Veronica, after we turned south on Route 22. She was short, pixie-ish, with the cautious spunkiness befitting her chosen punk persona. In reality, she was just a runaway trying to get down to Pittsburg, where her boyfriend was currently working, and we were happy for the company. It was neat to just talk to someone not engrossed in our little obsession of a trip. Somewhere near the signs for Moscow, NJ, Thomas’s continuing flirtations with her paid up, with the two of them necking and petting and damn near fucking in the back seat, as evening fell and I zoomed across Pennsylvania. We dropped her off, rather flushed, near the college slums of the area around Carnegie Mellon, to find her way. The whole experience left Tom rather buzzed and earthly, less ideological, and he cruised west on I-70 while I got some needed sleep.

VII

I awoke in a parked car on the side of some rural road, with the pre-dawn light coming in the windows. I had that slimy feeling on my teeth from not brushing them the night before, and the stubble on my face made me look ten years older in the side mirror. Tom was sprawled out in the back, snoring, and somehow I remember loving that snore, so natural and comfortable, about the only comfortable thing in the whole car.

I hopped over the driver’s seat, turned the key that was still sitting in the ignition, and merged onto the interstate, heading south: Morgantown, Charlestown, the lift up through the Appalachians, zooming toward the now thoroughly up sun, then down into the Piedmont—Galax, Elkin, Hickory—and back up a killer hill to Asheville in late afternoon.

We dropped into Knoxville, and the sun by now was almost gone in the SW. Tom was awake by then and took the wheel, past the Oak Ridge bomb-town (while studious anchors debated using a nuke above Baghdad, thermonuclear pulse, clean, bloodless), past Nashville, Jackson, Memphis, Forest City. We were silent, watching the glowing billboards drift by.

Tom broke the silence. “It’s all freaking identical.”

A pause. “What do you mean?”

“Billboard of this, billboard of that, hotel for $19.95, McDonald’s next exit.”

I shrugged. “It is kind of repetitive.”

A long pause. Little Rock. Russellville. Tom added, “I’d hoped to get away from some of that plastic-y, city stuff. Maybe we can do the west on Route 66.”

I shrugged again. “More of the same, I think. There are Waffle Houses everywhere,” I quipped, “it’s a sign of civilization, 40 acres and a Waffle House.”

Tom got mad, and we argued about it a good bit. Fort Smith, Sallisaw. Dawn started coming back in the south. He pushed the idea of Route 66 again, and I reluctantly agreed. “But look, it was always kitchy too,” I said. “That’s the point.” A long sigh from Tom.

I fell asleep somewhere on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, and slept far too deeply for the sticky seat I was in.

VIII

I woke up as we pulled into a parking lot, dusty blacktop, some Amarillo truck stop. After smoothing my hair down I followed Thomas in to the restaurant, whose only apparent name was simply “Restaurant.” We sat down in a plastic booth, and there was some Garth Brooks song on the radio, and a group of bored waitresses watching CNN, on mute.

We ordered two steaks, not because then or now I liked steaks, but because it seemed like the thing to do. And somehow the boredom, and the eerie pre-dawn, brought the other waitresses over, and the topic of conversation changed to Kuwait, as innocuous as discussing the weather. Pride and patriotism and some steaks. And then the topic of conversation turned to the reason for our trips, our desire to see a little bit of nothingness. The waitresses thought this was a horrible idea, some insult to the camaraderie that they felt blabbing about the potential war. Maybe some insult to their little city and their little truck stop.

Tom tried to defend the idea some, for their sake and ours, lest the whole drive seem rather pointless. Eventually we gave up trying, gobbled the steaks, and got ready to leave, with Tom simply saying “We have to go, ladies, to some place that’s a little greener and a little less dry.”

IX

It was about Santa Rosa before we realized that Route 66 doesn’t really exist anymore, at least not on any map. We stopped at another bad truck stop to get some directions from a bored teenager, and headed north on 86 through Dilia, left on Romeoville (which made both of us chuckle), gorgeous red Sante Fe at sunset, and through old Albuquerque.

I remember Tom looking up with a start and saying “You know what—here I am all the way across the country, and all I can think of is Bugs Bunny.” He laughed, but I could tell it really rattled him.

“Just don’t get lost,” I joked.

“No, I’m serious. How odd is it that wherever I go, I’ve already been there?”

I pretended not to get it. I was too tired at that point to care—the accumulated sleep deficit having caught up with me—and was certainly too tired to philosophize over a Warner Brothers cartoon.

I took over from Tom and got back on I-40, since at this point it all seemed the same to me, and headed west, through the red rocks of Gallup (like the polling company).

Hours passed, various coffee breaks. The nothingness of the Mojave Desert. Tom took over for the drive up the Central Valley, hot and smoggy even then. And then the turn up 198, through sleepy Three Rivers, the never-ending climb from the manzanita, orange-red like a sunset, up and always up, the trees getting larger like giants, poking out from the thick blanket of snow, and always Mount Whitney in the distance. And there was something beautiful yet barren about it all. And I remember feeling both happy and sad.

X

We drove past the sign for the Park way past sunset, past trees so giant that they looked like Styrofoam, looked Disney, big uber trees with a color so delicately red. We parked in some parking lot and slept in our seats, solid, until the sun poked its head up in the west.

I remember most of the day in flashes of color, strokes of memory, Van Gogh with his ear cut off. I remember the scramble up Moro’s Rock, the shine bright on my face, the snow and rock on Mount Whitney dazzling. I remember Tom joking about how it was too perfect, like a movie backdrop that would be taken away someday, torn down. And the sad thing was, I was thinking the same thing. I’ve seen other gorgeous primal places—redrock canyons at twilight, glowing; Vermont valleys on fire with fall—and always me and my friends have commented on this, like it’s something out of a car commercial, missing just the Vivaldi soundtrack. What does it mean, that our vision of heaven is in celluloid or tabloid or cathode?

We ducked under the railing, teetered on the edge, laughed at the scattered winter tourists gawking at us. Smoked a long cigarette, Tom blowing smoke rings to the valley below. He said he’d started smoking just to blow smoke rings like that, before smoking had become just a habit.

I remember the hike to the car, the lonely drive further up the ridge, the radio crackling with commentators analytically discussing the pros and cons of a hypothetical invasion of Iraq. I remember the name of the trail we eventually set off on, its well-worn trailhead. Although I guess I shouldn’t give details. I remember Thomas hiking, the sweat on his body despite the cold, his naked torso after he had stripped down to his shorts for the trek. I remember the green of the woods as we ventured off the trail, pushing through needles soft and hard, kicking pine cones the size of footballs, shuffling through the drifts of remaining snow, our souls aglow, beautiful naked nothingness, vulnerable yet sweet, a whisky sour with a maraschino cherry.

XI

It was a day of hard hiking, across some untracked terrain, heading for an unnamed knob off Mount Whitney, which had somehow drawn our eye on the map, and which we somehow decided was our goal we had to reach before we returned to Tom’s rusted old car. I remember hiking upwards, through forlorn groves of fir, until we reached this sudden point where there was nothing but rocks in front of us: treeline. Tom let out a big whoop, and declared that this was our campsite, and we hurriedly pitched his dad’s little boy scout tent, as the sun settled behind the trees, and cuddled down in our musty sleeping bags, too tired to really eat, and trying not to shiver from the snow.

Which meant, of course, that I woke up famished, with a hunger headache, and dove into some GORP from Tom’s bag. I followed the sounds of splashing to a nearby pond (almost a puddle, really) where Tom was stark naked and turning blue from the cold glacial water. He clambered out, a look of absolute animal happiness on his face (that scary wolf gaze again), toweled off, and dressed in the same dirty clothes he wore the day before (he, of course, having forgotten to bring a change of clothes).

We were on the trail, heading up, within 15 minutes, Tom walking quick ahead, bouncing uphill in a way that vaguely reminded me of some Dr. Suess character.

It’s odd, as I play this all over in my mind, that I don’t remember any specific conversation, and specific words Tom said. He was mostly quiet, but more than that I felt like we understood each other, and were just blissed out by the scene.

I do remember him saying “A man could vanish out here and no one would ever find him,” and he and I both knew this was a compliment to the wilderness.

As we got higher up, the bedrock turned into boulders turned into cliffs, our little deer track we were following getting more scraggily. For someone from the east coast, 500 foot cliffs are mind blowing—after skirting one immense one in particular, we laid down on our stomachs and put our heads over the edge, and just marveled at it.

We kept scrambling up, and suddenly there was no more up left, just the valley behind us and the saddle in front of us, lying in between us and Mount Whitney (many thousands of feet farther up). The afternoon sun angled low, casting long shadows, making the whole world too dramatically lit, like some Flemish painting.

I gazed out at the landscape for a while, and then realized with a start that Tom wasn’t even looking at that. He scratched the ground with his foot and scowled.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Fucking cigarette butts. Someone’s camped here before.” He scowled some more. “And there’s at least three beer cans up here.”

I shrugged. “Pick them up then. No biggie.”

He looked more pissed, and actually kinda sad. “That’s not the point. It’s not wilderness, it’s a garbage dump. There’s something already here, you know?”

I resisted the urge to shrug again. “There’s always something, Tom. People are everywhere.”

He looked away, admired the view for a long time, and without a word started on his way down. I followed quietly after him, feeling my feet press into the cracks of the hard mountain’s face.

XII

Tom and I walked silently down the hill for a while, taking each step carefully lest we tumble down the jagged slope. Step, shift your weight slowly down, pivot, step. I found the repetitiveness of it comforting, for it took my mind off of Tom’s obvious foul mood—he walked like he was angry at the rocks, kicking little clumps of dust up.

We descended down as the sun got lower in the sky, shining bright in our faces, beautiful reddish light. At some point we reached the big cliff we’d passed on the way up, and we both took places near the edge, standing near that void and watching the shadows of the trees move slowly toward us.

I remember being silent a long time. Tom finally said, apropos of nothing, “If there’s no frontier left, then what’s the point? I don’t mean out here... you’re right, I should’ve just picked up the trash up there and forgotten about it... I mean in my head... If I’m out here and all I’m thinking about is commercial jingles, then why bother being anywhere?”

What the hell was I supposed to say to that? “I dunno, Tom. There’s always someplace in my head to go.” I smiled a weak smile.

He smiled back, a wolfish grin. His happy face. “Not for me.”

I wish I could say he fell forward, that he slipped. But I’ve replayed the moment in my head, and I remember him stepping back on his left foot, pushing forward, bouncing off his right, leaping into the air before my voice could reach my throat. Graceful. A wolf until the end.

XIII

I could lie and say I reached to grab him. Or maybe I could say I reacted with calm sorrow. But mostly I just flipped the fuck out. I remember scrambling down the cliff face, cursing, cutting myself on the jagged granite, bleeding on my shirt by the time I got to him.

Certain rituals from Red Cross training classes came back: check the breathing (there was none), check the pulse (there was none). And everywhere so much blood, pouring in little puddles past the krumholtz, melting the odd patches of early, white snow to a bright red that never seemed to dilute, just kept flowing. And somewhere at the edge of my perception, violently being ignored, that mangled neck that cannot be, that no one can live through.

I remember vomiting twice when I really saw the neck.

The fucker was really dead. I spent a long while trying to get my head around it, but not really wanting to because there were too many tears there. The fucker had really jumped.

I was devastated, on a lot of levels. It was a hell of a lot of carnage, for one. Certainly not a pretty death, not the one I might have chose for myself. And Tom represented so much to me then, a crazy fucked-up angsty purity that even when I was young I could never quite believe in. But mostly it all just felt absurd. I shouldn’t even have been there, alone with some fucking psycho who’d gone and jumped and now I was ten miles from a trail.

And then at some point it made sense. Enough tears came and wiped my soul clean. I remember slinging Tom’s body over my shoulder, staggering under the weight, gagging with the touch of his lukewarm blood on my T-shirt, and stumbling into a thicket. I remember stripping him down to his jeans, and then walked down a sandy bank toward a glacial pothole, cold and deep. I remember weighing him down with some heavy stones in his jeans, and then tossing him—lovingly, but I was pissed—into the cold clear water, watching him sink to the bottom. And then I left him there. I cleaned myself up, put on some fresh clothes, and then I left him there. It was—is still—the most appropriate burial I’ve ever been to. Tom the wolf was left to his pure death, and me the brave coward stumbled back to my life.

XIV

I hiked out to Tom’s car that evening, cleared the snow off the windshield, and drove down, through Three Rivers, heading south through the endless Central Valley. I wish I could say I had some deep realization, some deep thoughts, but mostly I was consumed with the details of a criminal. I crossed the Mexico border the next day, traded the car for $200 to some drug dealer, and then walked back across to San Diego.

I caught the first Greyhound I could find, up to San Francisco. I remember lying down in the grass in Golden Gate Park, and watching the shadows from the fog, playing with that marvelous ruddy bridge. I was glad at that moment for that bridge, and for the bay it crossed. And on my walkman, still the radio men talked in their false baritones about Iraq, about the possibilities. There was so much excitement in those words. And for the first time in my life I really listened not just to the words but to the spaces between them, to what they really meant. And I cried.

Down on the bay, a boat with a white sail sailed in the brisk wind toward Oakland.

Table of related information
Copyright ©Robert McDonald, 2005
By the same author RSS
Date of publicationMay 2006
Collection RSSThe Fictile Word
Permalinkhttp://badosa.com/n268
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