If you ever find yourself driving from east to west across the state of Pennsylvania in the middle of winter in a 1989 Subaru with everything you own in the backseat, be sure to bring the following items: several extra-large packages of beef jerky, a pee jar, and an invisible companion to have conversations with. You’ll need these things because Pennsylvania, to put it mildly, is an extremely large state. It’s so large that you’ll wonder sometimes if you’re actually driving across it, or if you’re stuck on one of those old time car-driving movie sets where all the windows in the car play the same loop of scenery—pine trees, snow, pine trees, snow—over and over again. It’s so large that even your invisible companion, who is a figment of your imagination and therefore should cater to your every need, will doze off on you from time to time.
I’d left Phillip’s house in Yonkers in the pre-dawn dark. We’d said our goodbyes the night before. He shook my hand. “If you somehow manage to botch things with those three witches in Chicago,” he said, “and knowing you you probably will, you’re always welcome here in the basement.” A few weeks later, once I’d gotten myself set up in Chicago, I would receive a series of postcards all postmarked “Yonkers, NY,” each one signed in a shaky cursive by “Budweiser The Tarantula.” “I miss our nights together down in the basement. Yours truly, Budweiser,” one said. Another said, “I liked watching you sleep. Yours truly, Budweiser.” This was Phillip’s way of telling me that he missed me. A couple of years down the line Phillip and I would end up being roommates together—albeit very briefly—in a mouse-infested apartment on 26th Street in Manhattan. But we didn’t know that yet.
With its brand new $420 radiator—the original estimate from Hal’s garage had been low—the Subaru was fully operational again. I had Interstate 80 virtually to myself at that early hour. Once in awhile I’d encounter a stray car or truck. Either it would pass me or I would pass it, and a few minutes later I’d have the road to myself again. I ate beef jerky for breakfast, which my father would have approved of (he was a big beef-jerky fiend) and prayed that I wouldn’t ever have to actually use the pee jar.
Somewhere outside of Wilkes-Barre I encountered an 18-wheeler that was struggling to climb one of Pennsylvania’s many steep inclines. The truck downshifted and groaned. The logo on the sides and rear panels featured the words ANDY BOY LETTUCE and included a large illustration of a gap-toothed hillbilly child. Presumably, this was Andy Boy himself. I floored it and sped by the struggling 18-wheeler with the child’s gigantic face emblazoned on the side as quickly as I could. I felt vengeful. I was, I realized, passing more than a truck; I was passing a symbolic vestige of my own personal backwoods history. The “old me” wasn’t an abstraction; in that moment, the old me had physically manifested in the form of this truck with a boy’s inbred face on the side. I gave the truck a “so long” honk as I passed it. The truck gave a conceding bleat in return.
I crested the hill and began the surprisingly steep descent down the other side. The descent was so steep that it took my breath away. A massive, snow-filled valley opened up before me. In my rearview mirror, I spotted the headlights of the truck as it also crested the hill behind me. It, too, had started its descent. With gravity now on its side, the truck was gaining on me. Seconds later, it was on my back bumper, its air horn howling away. “Are you crazy?” I shouted into the rearview mirror. I floored the Subaru, exceeding the speed limit by 15, 20, now 25 miles per hour, trying to put some distance between my rear bumper and the 18-wheeler.
It was futile. I couldn’t escape. The truck was unstoppable. It jerked into the left hand lane. It was attempting to pass. Adrenaline flooded my veins. I gripped the steering wheel. In my periphery, I could see the massive wheels, which were now churning only a couple of feet away from my head. They kicked up rock salt which ticked against my car’s windshield and side panels. This machine thundered next to me, and I feared for my life. As it pulled along side of me, there it was again—that godforsaken idiotic logo with that boy with his freckled cheeks. He glared down at me with his close-set eyes.
The truck switched on its rear signal—blink, blink, blink—indicating that it was ready to complete its overtake maneuver. At this exact moment we encountered yet another Pennsylvania incline, this one more severe than the last. The truck immediately began losing ground. It downshifted and shuddered. I caught up to the Andy Boy logo again, flipped it off, then passed the truck outright, once again leaving it in my dust. I giddily watched the truck’s headlights fade in my rearview mirror. Across the distance between us, just before it vanished, it gave off one last mournful blast of its air horn. It was gone.
I kept the Subaru floored. Even after I crested the hill and began my descent, I still kept it floored. I was determined to leave the Andy Boy lettuce truck behind me once and for all. I kept speeding for the next 10 minutes or so, nervously checking the rearview mirror for headlights every couple of seconds. Which is why I didn’t notice the state trooper traveling in the eastbound side of the interstate until it was too late. I was speeding. I knew it. The trooper knew it. In my rearview mirror, the trooper’s brake lights blazed to life. He was no doubt looking for a place to turn around to give chase.
I immediately slowed to a reasonable rate of speed and waited, ready to give myself over to what was happening. There was nothing I could do about it at that point. I’d never gotten a speeding ticket before. I knew from seeing characters on TV shows get tickets that the cop would come up alongside my vehicle. He would ask me if I knew how fast I was going. I’d give him a low number, then he’d tell me the real number, and then I would feign shock. Then he’d start writing me a ticket while shaking his head in disgust. I’d have to telephone my parents to inform them that I’d gotten a speeding ticket in Pennsylvania, then I’d have to endure their disappointing silences. Worse still, I’d have to pay a fine which would be another blow to my vanishing bank account.
While I was preoccupied with my worrying, I’d somehow driven another 10 miles. The cop car hadn’t arrived. I felt a twinge of optimism. I drove another 10 miles and still, no cop car. I gave myself permission to relax. I tentatively wondered if I was enjoying some good fortune here.
A few exits later, once I’d decided that I had indeed received a bit of providence, I decided to treat myself. I stopped at a diner for pancakes. I sat down at a booth by the window, took out my journal and wrote the words, “I stopped at a diner for pancakes.” A few of the locals eyed me over their shoulders from the counter. I wrote, “A few of the locals are eyeing me from the counter. They’ve probably never seen a man writing his memoirs over breakfast before.”
My waitress was a small-waisted woman with a mane of hair that was as black as the coffee she poured for me. While I ate my pancakes, I watched her work, watched the way she moved around the restaurant with confidence and skill. I wondered if I’d ever do anything in my life with that kind of confidence and skill. I invented a life for the two of us. We’d live together in a cabin near the restaurant. We’d make a little baby. During the day, while she served blueberry pancakes to truckers, I’d stay in the cabin and tend to the wood-stove and the baby and play videogames. Sometimes I’d write articles that I’d send to my “bureau chief” in New York who would subsequently send me checks for thousands of dollars along with notes of wild praise.
By the time my pancakes were finished, I’d arrived at the melodramatic conclusion that I would be doing the waitress a grave disservice by making her fall in love with me. I’d always felt as if the universe had something big in the cards for me—a present of some kind that I fully intended to collect. I realized that’s what my trip, my journey, had been about—trying to figure out what that present was. The right thing, the selfless thing, was to leave the waitress here. She’d be better off that way. “Because this is where she belongs,” I wrote.
I overtipped and left a hastily scribbled line from Rilke’s poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” “And when, abrubtly,/the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,/with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around—,/she could not understand, and softly answered,/Who?” It described the moment when Orpheus, who is trying to get his love Eurydice back, must lead her out of hell, and can do so only if he can complete this task while resisting the temptation to turn around and make sure that she is indeed there behind him. Of course, he turns around—can you blame him?—and, of course, Eurydice is doomed to stay behind in hell. I added a few personal lines about how I loved her, but that I had to be somewhere, and that I needed to be on my way. I promised to come back for her. I signed the note with a mysterious “S.”
Only a world class asshole would leave this kind of note back of a diner check. But there you go.
I clutched my notebook to my chest and practically stumbled out of the diner like a man fleeing a crime scene, my face burning from having bared my soul. I’d been so hard at work on my love note that I hadn’t noticed the state trooper car that had parked in front of the diner. I nearly stumbled into trooper himself, who was exiting his car as I was exiting the diner. He puffed out his chest and glared a me from beneath the wide brim of his campaign hat. His eyes were like two slivers of glass at the bottom of a well.
I hurried to my car, certain that I could feel the trooper’s eyes boring into my back. I looked back—I couldn’t help myself. Sure enough, he was looking my way, obviously sizing me up, trying to figure out what my deal was. I started the car, put it into gear, and turned the wheel. In my anxious state, I gave the car too much gas, briefly lost control of it, and drove over a curb that had been obscured by a snow drift. The trooper started walking towards me while motioning for me to turn my window down. I pretended not to see him and drove off, not realizing until I was back out on the Interstate that my curb-jumping incident had done some damage to the car’s alignment. For the remainder of the trip, for the remainder of the time that I owned the Subaru, which wouldn’t be much longer, it would always involuntarily pull to the right. And each time it did, I’d remember that diner, those pancakes, that waitress and the vast, glorious, never-ending state of Pennsylvania.