Looking for trouble

"I got ears, ya know. I hear things."

“Look back for trouble, look ahead for worry, look up for faith,” says the church signboard.

I am on the return leg of a 2-and-a-half hour drive. I came down on the interstate. Any I thoughts I have while driving are fleeting. There is no way to record them, it’s like dreaming and failing to write down the idea you won’t remember on waking. I am taking the scenic route home.

Along the Heart of Dixie highway are farm stalls and yard sales. A couple sits outside of an abandoned gas station with clothing rails, furniture and baskets of produce. Is this the recession or is it always like this on a Saturday?

At the Bama Motel, a filthy, road-blown sign promises “Clean rooms.”

On the drive down, I had been mulling over this idea of looking back and how I have always lived in a perpetual sense of nostalgia. As a child, the end of summer, the journey home, the end of the school year, each was a period of loss until new life and more fleeting moments inevitably crowded in and took hold.

Last weekend, a radio documentary about girls and summer camp brought a sudden rush of tears to my eyes. None of their friends back home would understand what they had been through, they said. I was caught off guard by that surge of emotion it tripped in me.

Is it trouble or sadness you see looking back? I have always liked sad songs, Frank Mills, Streets of Laredo, but my younger daughter would cover her ears if I sang them at bedtime when she was little.

Another town, another sign: “Jesus was the ultimate Scarface.” Wow, I think, bold move. Interesting idea! Way to engage young people.

No, stupid. Read it properly: Sacrifice.

When you drive you exist in a suspended state, between origin and destination. If you were to follow the advice of the sign about trouble, worry and faith, you would need to live without either, just the certainty you were on the right road. Heretofore, driving was a skill I only used sporadically, a vacation skill, like speaking French badly. I am not yet fluent, but approaching conversational.

The highway unfurls, through an intoxicating greenness of farmland. It also makes abrupt turns. I follow it successfully around courthouses town after town, but it ditches me at a four-way stop and according to the next sign I am headed west on a road I keep hoping it will turn back into, but have a sinking feeling will deliver me to the interstate.

At Dollar General the ladies at the checkout tell me I went wrong at Oneonta. Just go back to the light and go left, they say. And I do. And I don’t freak out. Back on Heart of Dixie, up and down the ribbon of road as it winds through small towns, past Golden Rule barbecues, more yard sales. Songs play alphabetically off the iPod. I drive. I drive. I drive. Close to home, I pass through a town that advertises cage fighting.

Growing up we had a car. That was unusual. A luxury. We were not rich. It seemed then that nobody was. Some people had country houses. Some wore Absorba T-shirts from Chocolate Soup. Some people lived in buildings with doormen, some up a flight of stairs with linoleum hallways. Our car had its own apartment on Christopher Street in a tall, skinny garage with an elevator, where it had its own life without us during the week.

I did not get my license until I was 25. I was up against something like the Football Test from the movie Diner. “You need to be able to do this,” said my then fiance/now husband. My learner’s permit that I kept renewing did not count, apparently. I indulged him. I ran into my best friend from kindergarten at the DMV. She was just getting hers, too, so she could drive at the Hamptons. We filled out the forms. “They can have everything but my brain,” she said, ticking the organ donor box.

Watching kids dive at the end of swim season party I noticed how one of the girls was able to launch herself so that she was suspended in midair before the descent. Beautiful, fleeting, joyful, sad.

Bags unpacked, recovered from jet lag, local currency in wallet, you slip the hotel key into your pocket. The open road unwinds before you or the pool water sparkles below. Choose your metaphor.

When I set out to write this post, I thought it was going to be about photography. Maybe roller skates. Or driver’s ed, my instructor urging me onto the FDR with little rhymes, the gruesome movies the State of New York made us watch. But you just have to make the leap, start the journey as best you can and hope for a clean finish.

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