"After Desire" by Gerald Quinn
Heads bowed low before a stainless steel grotto, a dozen silent men await the resumption of time as measured against more than cigarettes and the half-life of coffee. They are lords of solitude in colors and regalia signifying their rank in the hierarchy of belligerence—buckles cast of silver and patched remnants of glorious defeats. Names conferred by notoriety or ambition give warning from each lonely outpost. Redline, Renegade, Overtaker, while their given names—Venerable, Beloved, Exalted—go unsaid.
A reluctant guardian administers to the silent men—silent except for one. She adheres by habit to the sacraments of her office, indifferent to what solace her rites may bestow. They toss her coins and bills for luck and speak her name, eminent above all others, but she is not swayed. She dispenses her voice sparingly now, in quickening summations meant to hurry her shift to a close.
Written above this scene—above the tabernacle and the pie cabinet, above trays of utensils, fountains of colored fruit drink, plates steaming under heat lamps, foil-faced cut-outs of gobblers and pilgrims dancing in the hot rush of oily exhaust, above a push broom, a galvanized bucket, a gallon jug of Pine-Sol—inscribed on a frieze above all of it—a hand-lettered meditation counseled the forgetful tribe to the names of their destination. Wilmington 11, Philadelphia 37, Lincoln Tunnel 143, and so on, as far as Montreal 486, Denver 1,691 and Seattle 2,751.
The one who spoke leaned by the phones in an alcove and turned his back to the silent assembly. “I know, I know— Strike three, I know— New Castle, an hour or so— No, I’ll talk to him when I get there— Probably back south. I’ll send the address when, or just—tell you what, we’ll talk about it when I get there.”
The other men were far along on their inward journeys. In this week of Thanksgiving their thoughts trace back to a moment each has memorialized—their jumping-off toward this indiscriminant now. Lured from boyhood, they followed paths and promises that led them from circumstances, from inevitability, and toward unformed hopes for wholeness and completion, steady work and good pay, at a price yet unknown.
They may return to their homes and circumstances for a few days or weeks. To noncommittal wives, and the outsized hopes of their children. Finally, when all have enacted their bitterness, there will be a day or two of peace. With their kids beside them they may drive to a lake in the mountains. They will sit sullenly with little to say, smoking and imparting their credo in answers to childish questions. “Because it’s how we get money. You like having a nice house don’t you? Instead of some little apartment where you can’t even have a dog? Alright, then. And you’ll go to college, and someday I’ll have my own rig and hire a driver and come home every night.” They would take their wives to Atlantic City to drink Mai Tais in a concrete Tiki Bar, but it is too late for that. So who knows what?
There may be logic here after all. In the landscape emerging as the miles pass many still find integrity in logs, manifests and bills of lading. It is a premise of their faith that disorder will run its course, and all the insular events will find their state of maximum insularity in all-space-filling and time-filling continuity. Towers might be built and expeditions launched to find where things return upon themselves, or where the rare and marvelous are commonplace. You are an agent of the earth, raised from dust to abolish the veins of elemental purity. But if so, and if doctrines must finally turn back to confront their premise, what of yourself? What is more defiant of entropy than a man?
At an hour such as this only the voice of faith remains. “Because I believed, and followed a path. That a light and a voice would guide me, and that I might be understood.” Cresting a rise eastbound on an interstate at dawn, the sky emerging unblemished, I leave memory behind. Sweet exhaustion can do that. The sky and the earth become new and a life can start over, if only for an hour.
After desire, after the values have all been tallied and are found to total zero, after the nouns and verbs and prepositions serve only to say what is not, I come to loneliness that defies metaphor. I come back, again, to myself.
He parked the truck in the big lot at Preston and spent the night in the sleeper. In the morning he cleaned out his locker, gave notice to his landlord, and got a ride down to 50 and over to Wicomico. At the bus station he bought a ticket to West Palm.
Now as a dreamer traveling overland, awake or asleep, he doesn’t question, but only dreams: In his little pulling boat, lapstrake cedar on oak, he sculled into the dark marsh to set his line. His father said to him, “We are the eyes of the earth, here to witness.” His mother searches and searches in the flowing grass and finds only an Indian boy asleep in the mud with crabs and dinosaurs, and remembers neither his name nor the toddler, top-heavy in an ill-fitting coat, mittens flapping at his sleeves and the cold wind burning his ears. He speaks to her in her sleep, “Dream of me in my pretty boat. Then forget. It carries me through shallows and deep troughs, safely down over fault lines, and into the marsh with other castaways and Cherokee.” Where are your missing ones? The Indians have carried them off into the woods.
Twelve bus passengers, all but one sleeping, yes, he is that one, and transfixed, awake or asleep, nearly hypnotized by the emptiness they crossed, only he saw the sign, yellow and red, now violet and veridian in his retina. A sign, an instant past—INDIAN READER. In the low sun it burned golden and swept the bus like a revelation. Only he. Minutes later he disembarked into a gasp of loose gravel footing where wires and lights and signs were arranged or maybe simply strewn thoughtlessly. There were phone booths and gas pumps and a glistening outpost sheathed in red enameled steel and large panes of sweating glass.
“Thirty-minute stop,” announced the driver.
The rider was in the phone booth searching the directory while others shuffled, stretched and sweated beside the panting bus, and the driver recited—time, place, menu.
He found the number, one of seven under Psychics. Mother Mary, INDIAN READER. It rang twice then his coins jingled back and it went silent. The restaurant was frigid. A sharp ache took him by the back of the neck when he entered. Tuna salad on rye with lettuce—no tomato. To go. And a large iced tea, unsweetened. He dialed again from phones next to the restrooms. Same two rings followed by silence. The bus was growing restless, the driver already picking his teeth and pushing his pie plate away. The heat outside almost threw the passenger backwards into the line waiting to pay at the cashier. He pushed into the soggy air and once more he tried the phone booth, same result. He heard the driver’s voice but the words were lost. He ran to the open door of the bus and stood with a foot planted on the bottom step.
“I’m getting off here, let me get my stuff.”
“Sonofabitch. I don’t have time to screw around. I’ve got a schedule. Now get on the goddamn bus.”
“Let me get my bags, this is as far as I’m going.”
“Why the hell couldn’t you of told me that a half-hour ago?”
As the bus went grinding onto the highway the former rider stood two suitcases and a knapsack beside the phone booth and resumed dialing. The number rang two times, three times, six times. Then came a silent answer, waiting.
“I’m calling because I saw your sign.”
“Hmm.” There was a long silence. “Where you at?”
“Someplace called Arcadia Landing.”
Gerald Quinn writes from the Eastern Shore of Virginia.