Cue the music. We’re going for a ride.
It’s hot as Labor Day weekend should be, summer’s last holiday, last chance to boil. We have our windows down and the music is passing between cars and mixing in the space between, pidgin notes and lyrics. The few radio stations not on a constant bulletin loop, CDs and MP3 players sucking up juice from the cigarette lighters, lighting jawlines with little green light, and old tape decks on their last legs. We represent all formats, all genres, all decibels. You could confuse us for a tailgating party. You could confuse us with a parking lot. Half a mile an hour on the interstate that dips down into our city, half a mile an hour memorizing the license plates in front of us on the overpass high above our neighborhoods. Amongst us are the showoffs, the ones who piled luggage on top of 14-inch speakers and expensive amps, bass heavy and proud. Amongst us are the classicists: we need Bach to calm our nerves. Nothing moves as fast as the beats or the trills. Even slow jazz outpaces us. We pull forward in the space between the notes.
No matter when we left that day—the day they told us there would be no help, that all who chose to remain would be on their own for days, no government chances taken for citizens who felt themselves brave enough to take all comers—it wasn’t early enough. We pulled out of our neighborhoods, turned up the avenues. We joined all the others at the on-ramps. The road refused to digest us, the interstate choked on our dry traffic. Some of us headed west, tempted by the branching highways that crossed Oklahoma and Texas. The rest of us felt we were outsmarting someone, racing towards Mississippi and all points north: surely we were in the minority. It didn’t matter. There were two million of us in a cross-country race. There is no road wide enough for that kind of contest.
A clear sky night, heat from idling engines challenging nature with its own sub-atmosphere. We are all sweating; our animals are panting in their crates or in our laps. When it became obvious, two hours on the road and still trapped inside of the city limits, that we were going nowhere fast, the practical among us turned off the AC. We were tired of watching it sap the tank. Too many of us now are on the shoulder, three miles from home and already out of fuel. We are family convoys siphoning gas out of one van to split with another, stomachs rejecting the unexpected taste of gasoline. We have to watch the poor bastards empty their water jugs and coffee cans and start walking back to fetch gas. We keep our eyes forward when we inch by someone hamstrung by a smoking radiator. We make five point turns on the shoulder to bring our cars face forward with someone else who needs a jump. We curse as we decide which belongings to lay at the side of the road to allow a relative from an abandoned car to fit in ours.
There’s no privacy on the road. Seven people in a sedan, kids in our laps locking limbs and pushing back and forth. We change diapers on the dashboard. We face the guardrail and pee; there’s nowhere else to go. We are watching ourselves, all wards, all neighborhoods, all streets represented, thrown into a jumble. We can see how the other half lives, now. We can see each others’ possessions, what we’ve chosen to preserve. We are all lit by headlights and streetlamps, on display, flirting or fighting, or giving in to the most basic human temptation to turn our heads at someone else moving past. We can see the spectrum of faces. Annoyance, anguish, fright, and exhaustion. Determination, jealousy, and laughter. We can see the fuming anger of a couple who has remembered that they left something behind and argued about going back, retrieving it, getting in the back of the line. There are no placeholders. We notice the few among us with the right skill sets, the camp counselor types who have their cabins bouncing and jiving, trading rounds of karaoke. We are a loud and crazy population, raised on open containers. We have uncorked the wine or even tapped pony kegs, mixed up punch and poured it into plastic cups. Even the drivers sip, confident that they can maintain at half a mile an hour. The only thing that can still us for a moment or two is the rush of the cyclists, clicking by between the cars or along the gritty shoulder, bearing bundles on their backs. They look straight forward, painted with sweat, somehow separate from us. Who knows what their plan is, how far they expect to get. We are not jealous of their temporary speed.
Hours and hours later we have made it to the separation point. Cars begin to pull away from each other by more than a few feet and shift into higher gears for the first time all day. We feel reinforced by speed and breathing room, by being removed from a constant audience. We pull into all night truck stops, pull open the doors and dive into the false fluorescent dawn inside. We open the refrigerated lockers filled with drinks and stick in our heads. We need sugar, coffee, salty snacks. We need the bathroom line to move faster. Some of us have never been this far out of town before, and we need maps. We need help to understand this unlit country. In the parking lot dogs are running loose ahead of their owners, exerting pent up energy. We are thankful for the break, but we know we can’t stop long. Who knows if we’re ahead or behind. The real push could be coming up behind us, the high point of the bell curve. They could arrive at any moment and wash the gridlock miles ahead of us like a swift high tide. We gather the kids and kick the tires and throw our trash on the ground and rejoin the road.
We hit the crossover for contraflow. The interstate seems mightier now that both sides are only open to one direction, as if it were a river that has flooded its banks. The kids have their noses to the window, watching the mirror image of their journey across the wide median. We grip the steering wheel a little tighter, those of us on the wrong side. We feel like we are on an amusement park track, pulled forward no matter which way we steer. We brace for someone unaware, some southbound escapee to come and split us all with headlights and horns. We pass state troopers leaning against their patrol cars with the blue lights on: guards over the frenzy, Mississippi laissez-faire. We can’t see where we are, can’t get used to the road signs with their backs to us, disowning us. It doesn’t really matter. Places don’t matter now, only mileage.
We drive all night. Dawn sneaks up on us. Even if we’ve passed turns at the wheel, there’s just not enough energy. All the stress of the previous week has come to collect its outstanding debt. We were so distracted with worry—what to do, where to go, what to pack—that we didn’t prepare reserves for the drive. We pass through rest areas filled to capacity, cars pulled up onto the grass and into employee spaces. We test the limits of the welcome centers of other states, see how far their hospitality goes. We take exits no one but the locals would recognize, pull into church parking lots, turn semi-circles behind shopping centers. Crack the windows, brace them with hot pillows. Everyone be still now. We need a nap, just a brief, full stop. We hope no one will knock on our windows, that no one will ask questions. But our kids can’t help it. They are cranky, itchy underneath their sweaty clothes, sapped by on-again-off-again sleep. And what can we tell them, anyway? We don’t know where the storm will land or what kind of destruction is on the agenda. Are we far enough inland? Will it be like the last time? How long will we be gone? Just shut up. Everyone shut up.
We can see the same self-portrait off of every exit between home and Houston, Atlanta, and Jacksonville. We leave behind the same wreck at every convenience store between home and Meridian, Little Rock, and Memphis. We are the reluctant locusts. The bathroom floors are covered in half an inch of liquid, tiled with a hundred dirty footprints. The employees have just stacked rolls of paper towels in the corner, sandbagged the walls with soap dispenser packets. We have emptied two million gallons of piss across the southeast. Trash cans overflow everywhere, filled with our wrappers, our bottles, our tampons, our broken glass. In the burger joints they are running the fryers non-stop, they are running out of fries. We bring the wait with us, we bring the lines. Clean locals stand between us, suffering through the stress-fashioned stench that we’ve gotten used to over the past twelve hours. New Orleans Funk. Some of us run cons—a few of us have to. We talk fast in local accents, confuse the used-to-idling clerks, distracting them from the gas pumps as our partners sneak away. We are emptying the soda fountains of all their ice, we are leaving mini-mart shelves bare. We say, Hey, man, I gave you a twenty, not a ten.
We bring with us old fears and cause new prejudices. Even the blossoming sympathy can’t dissuade the demographics. Outside, in the open, stretched across a thousand miles we reveal our racial ratios, the blacks far outnumbering the whites. We nominally manage in the city, we know how to dart our eyes. But far removed, it can look, to small-town minds, like an exodus, a march, an uprising. The sheriffs park cautious squad cars as they see fit. We might as well all be Section Eight. And beyond that, on a more fundamental level of good old American common sense, we catch a few proud looks of What did you expect? Why even go back to live below the sea?
Just another couple hours now, depending. We turn the keys, and the songs rejoin where they left off when we stopped the car. We readjust the luggage, the pets, the children, our thighs. But not the mirrors. We don’t need to see behind us, now. It’ll all be on TV when we arrive.