In Memorium (And, about time)

In honor of the passing of Alain Robbes-Grillet, I am going to publish here the second chapter of a novel I was writing years ago when I was taken by a particular obsession with Robbes-Grillet’s writing. It is passionate, and dense, and impersonal, and I was younger than now, and, just skimming through it, it’s quite an homage to my friends at the time when I was living in Southern California. If you know Robbes-Grillet’s work, you’ll have a better shot at understanding the language. Perhaps it’s not necessary. But I couldn’t let this sit in my computer any longer, especially since the artist who’s writing warped my mind to such a degree, has made a little note of himself this week, leaving us for elsewhere.

The Next Exit: In the truck.

The lengths through which he would go to find it were beyond what most would be willing to accept. The freeway was long and wide. It extended in front of the pick-up truck for limitless miles, and left behind a wake of equally infinite road. Each side of the freeway had four lanes, one of those being designated as a carpool lane, indicated by the regular spacing of white diamond shapes, which had been painted on the asphalt. Often the outside lane, that being closest to the shoulder, would gradually narrow until it had merged with the lane next to it, leaving the size of the road at three lanes apiece. This narrowing would also be accompanied by reflective yellow signs posted on the side of the road, on which there was one single vertical black line next to one black line that had a kink in it, which was to be a symbolic representation of the merge.

Traffic for no reason.

There is no reasonable explanation for the ensuing traffic. No explanation exists, or if it does, it is not accessible, or hasn’t been accessed by any available means of communication. There is a radio, but it is not in operation, rather, a compact disc player is functioning to provide music for the internal space of an automobile. The CD spins, and the vehicles wait in traffic.

It is sunset.

The automobiles are backed up for miles. This car, a blue pick-up, is near an exit. The exit is just off the shoulder to the right. There is a sign: CENTRAL. Nathaniel, the driver, listens to music as reservations run through his head. Traffic congests the freeway, and makes it impossible for him to move on to the exit. This delay has allowed his mind to wander from the music, settling instead on a scroll of insecurities, obligations, memories and reactions. The exit is near, but it is not accessible because of the mass of traffic that lies ahead.

The singing of a woman sounds inside the vehicle, “All these accidents that happen follow the dot.” She sings. Nathaniel is sitting, wondering about the near future. The past is uncomfortably close in his memory, and there is an exit just fifty yards up the freeway, on the right, inaccessible.

“All these accidents that happen…”

There are four lanes on this side of the road. There are four lanes on the other side, which is separated from this one by a series of cement dividers. The dividers stand one after another, and continue in both directions without perceivable end. From a distance this might appear to be one continuous wall of cement, without seams, and without separation.
The lanes exist between infinitely alternating strips of white paint. The strips are six feet in length, but at high speeds they appear to be only two or three feet long.

Looking to his left, Nathaniel observes two of the cement dividers with the surface of his awareness. He perceives that the two are not touching, that, in fact, they are separated by several feet. But this is a superficial observation, as his mind is set thinking about other things. Kathy leans over, stretches her chin to his ear and whispers deviously, “Where have you been?”

The exit is off to the right, but with the heavy and immobile traffic, it is inaccessible. Nathaniel must wait this out in the confines of his vehicle, a blue pick-up truck. He is listening to music. “You don’t have to speak-I feel.” His mind swims through the words and sonorities, bouncing off memory, superficial observations of the environment, and predictions of the following hours.

His father picks him up, grabbing him from under the arms. It always hurt when his father picked him up like this. Left hand under left arm, right hand under right. Hoisting the small body from the passenger seat, the father sets the son on his lap.

The steering wheel is cold, black and smooth. It is not glossy, as it would have been when the truck was first purchased, but maintains a matted shine, dulled by years’ use. The father settles into the seat and positions the boy in front of him. He takes each of the boy’s hands and sets them on the wheel. With his own hands he covers those of the boy, and grips them, firmly.

The cold wheel soon begins to warm under their palms. The wheels of the truck begin to move and the traffic eases for a moment. A wave of motion reaches the truck and Nathaniel lets up on the brake with his right foot and begins to press the gas pedal almost instantly as he releases the clutch with his left foot. This, the mechanical habit of the driver, occurs with a repetition that alludes to the vitality of its function.

The truck rolls forward several inches.

There is a car in front of this truck. In the back of the car, on either side of the trunk, are two brake lights. They are red. When the car brakes, the lights glow brightly, and release a flash of red that is particularly intense. It is only sunset, and tail lights are not usually so penetrating, but these, in front of the pick-up, are unusually bright. The lights are round.
“All these accidents that happen follow the dot.”

Two red lights flash, and Nathaniel presses the brake pedal instantly. The truck has only moved several inches. He continues to wait, unable to access the next exit.

The road is narrow and empty. It winds through the hills of South-Eastern Oregon. It is winter. Silvery green pine trees stoically line each side. The truck’s engine idles, lightly shaking the frame.

The father picks his son up under each arm. The child winces. He sets the boy in his lap and says, “You don’t have to speak-I feel.”

“You ready? You’ll do this on your own one day.” His hands cover each of the boy’s hands. The steering wheel warms underneath them. The father can feel his son press back against him.

The boy squirms in his father’s lap. He extends his arms in front of him, and locks his elbows, pushing back against his father’s abdomen. The road extends ahead of them.

Ahead of him extend four endless ribbons of red tail-lights. They reach out to the East and taper at the horizon, compounding into what seems a single strand of sanguine luminescence. In a wave that appears both unnatural yet carefully timed, the brake lights let up. Car after car, he can see the traffic begin to move in delayed synchronicity with the dimming pairs of lights. When the wave reaches him, he acts accordingly, letting his right foot off the break, shifting it immediately to the gas, and counter-levering the clutch with the accelerator. The car moves inches before a new wave of red comes careening toward him with greater force and alarm than that which allowed him to move forward.

“Emotional… landscapes…”

“No reason you can’t start early.” His father’s voice, the origin of which seems mere centimeters from the boy’s ear, rattles through his body. A faint scent of morning coffee laces the breath of his father’s words, an odor that has become inexorably linked with the timbre of his voice. When he speaks, his ribcage rattles, causing the boy’s body to react sympathetically. The wave of sensations begins to creep up on the child’s consciousness-he is dually shaken by the idling engine of the car and the rumbling chest that flanks his back.

“Don’t worry about the gears, you just steer the wheel. Think you can do that?”

The boy nods his head. His mind is so conflicted about the stew of stimuli that he cannot form words to account for the comprehension of his father’s question.


Finally he pushes out an uh-huh through the gaping space between his dry and nervous lips.

“Good. Here we go.”

Another waft of vibration rattles up the boy’s frame and the cars once again roll forward, one after the other. Release break, push gas, let up on clutch. A flash of red. Push clutch, hit break.

The sun is setting behind him. Orange rays of light crash through the rear window of the truck, igniting thin crescents of golden light on the rounds of his cheeks. They irritate his peripheral vision with their persistent radiation. But he figures it’s better to be driving East at sunset, rather than due West, where the direct light will flood the entire landscape, making it virtually impossible to see anything but a glaring orange fog. This is often all it takes to disrupt the otherwise steady flow of freeway traffic.

The exit is off to the right and remains there without any automobiles edging onto its long stretch of asphalt. “Emotional landscapes, they puzzle me…” The sign reading CENTRAL stands immovable, disinterested in the hoard of waiting commuters as if it had come to resent its purpose, and stood lame, beaten by innumerable setting suns and the unrelenting mixture of heat and exhaust that suffocates its surroundings nearly year round.

Nathaniel had not expected the traffic, but of course, one never did. Heavy disruption on the freeway is one of those nasty probabilities, so precarious in nature that one never accounts for its actuality, regardless of how often it in fact does disrupt one’s life.

Unhappy with the event and annoyed at his helplessness to move the handful of yards it would take to get him to the exit, and further frustrated subconsciously by the fact that his covert purpose was being thwarted and threatened by this event of chance, Nathaniel grips the arc of the steering wheel, drops his head forward, then whips it back against the gray, removable headrest that perches on top of the seat cushion.

For a moment Nathaniel’s consciousness focuses on the voice whose lyrics have been pulsing throughout the internal space of the car. “Emotional landscapes, they puzzle me.” Eyes closed. Head back. Emotional landscapes sweep across the canvas of colors that shift through his mind while his eyelids rest together. Kathy is waiting for him at the party. But he has some other place to go before this, and it is this covert detour that has made the action of waiting more excruciating and unacceptable than it would be normally. Nathaniel, with his mind under the pressure of suspicion and paranoia, grapples with a knot of anxiety that has coiled itself up under his ribcage, just behind his upper abdominal muscles. “They puzzle me…”

The truck moves forward timidly. The grip of his father’s hands increases in intensity. The boy gasps and holds the air tight in his lungs. The landscape of trees begins to slowly move both at him and around him. The hum of the engine rises slightly in frequency as the road gradually rolls beneath the hood of the truck. His father’s legs, considerably larger than his own, bounce up and down with an unexpected harmonic repetition. The boy feels his entire body shaken by this. He clutches the wheel, now feeling a thin film of sweat condense between his hands and the vinyl surface.

“That’s it. Just take it easy.”

The trees on either side of the vehicle begin to accelerate toward them. The boy’s heart quickens. His small arms feel helpless against the heavy friction of the road’s surface, and he begins to wonder how he is going to satisfy his father.

Kathy leans over, stretches her chin to his ear and whispers, “Where have you been?”

Now drops of sweat have beaded up on the boy’s forehead. He had watched his father drive so many times before, he had taken for granted the service of transportation. There was always a mystery surrounding driving. The boy frequently wondered how the driver, whether it was his father, his mother, the school bus driver, or one of his friends’ parents, knew where to go. To him, one place seemed so remote from every other place, entirely disconnected and alien. He could not imagine how one could know where to turn, and when. The world seemed to him an abstract and vast space of independent and unfamiliar locations.

A cascade of blaring horns erupts behind the truck and Nathaniel is startled into the moment. His eyes open and he sees that there is a good ten yard space between himself and the car in front of him. Quick, lift-gas-clutch-but Nathaniel presses down the gas lever too much and his engine lets out a wheeze of unused energy. Suddenly compensating, he rips his foot off the clutch, an action that sends the truck heaving forward in spastic convulsions, thrusting him ahead, then back. Again and again until he is finally able to gain control over the situation and find an equilibrium once more. The truck rolls to a stop about one foot away from the next car.

The truck flies over the deserted road, winding through bands of green, what are patches of forest being passed at such a speed that they appear smeared panoramas of striated color. The boy cannot pull his focus away from the road that recedes beneath the truck. How fast they were traveling.

A sudden curve approaches the car and the boy’s stomach drops what seems through his lap. He does not have the strength within himself to turn the wheel in time. He knows it. His mind processes the situation and is able, in the moment of the instant, to foresee the accident, the death and wreckage that will be left by this folly. Then without his will the car holds on to the shoulder of the road, following the curve, slowing a bit while giving into the centrifugal force. “They puzzle me….” Then, coming out onto a straightaway, the truck relaxes into a steady speed, one that allows the boy to pause and process what has just happened.

He realizes he was not in control. His father had turned the wheel. His father, whose body cradles his back and buttocks, even now, had steered the wheel, their direction, their current course.

Again the brake lights ahead of Nathaniel let up and he rolls along with the wave of motion, this one bringing him within twenty yards of the exit.

“All these accidents that happen follow the dot…”

“Where have you been?”

Nathaniel’s eyes fall to the left and focus on the other side of the freeway. It remains still and empty, like a country road that is only traveled by those whose lives necessitate its very existence. No cars pass. In fact, no cars have passed that Nathaniel can recall. He might have missed them in all the wanderings of his mind, or there might be an accident up the way, one of such severity that would cause authorities to cut off all traffic from this stretch of freeway, or one that would cut off the traffic with its own violent and lethal span.

His father lifts his right hand and sets it on the boy’s head, playfully shaking it from side to side over the soft helmet of the boy’s hair. “Beautiful, Tiger! How’d that feel?” The confidence in his father’s voice allowed Nathaniel to believe that maybe he had actually pulled the wheel. Maybe it was his will and not his father’s that had saved them from peril

“Then the riddle gets solved…”

But he knows at last that it was not his arms that saved them. He felt a mixture of shame and angst. How could his father attempt to trick him? What had started out as a fun lesson had turned into a critical game that seemed to threaten the nature of their relationship. His father’s arm reaches around to cuddle the boy’s abdomen. “I love you, Tiger,” pulling the boy deeper into the curve of his abdomen.

The boy is conflicted. For a moment. For a moment he is conflicted, but soon he settles into the warmth of his father’s body and his father’s care, and decides to trust it. He cannot understand why it was important for his father to deceive him. He lets it go, like many things he would let go throughout his life.

Her voice sings in the car, “Then the riddle gets solved…”

The persistent waft of orange light continues to fill the car. Nathaniel’s nerves seem to have been eased by the distraction of his noticing the lack of traffic on the opposite stretch of freeway. The exit is closer. His father is far from where he is. Kathy is waiting for him at her mother’s home where the engagement party is taking place. “I’m lost,” he says to himself, quietly, as if it has just occurred to him.

Two cars fly past him on the other side of the freeway. Then one, alone.

Then a group of four, no, five cars cruise by.

Nathaniel follows the ribbon of red lights as far as he can see it. To his comfort he notices that the uniformity of light appears to be breaking at the farthest place he can perceive.

He looks over at the sign: CENTRAL. This is the exit

His father picks him up, grabbing him from under the arms.

Nathaniel’s arms stretch out in front of him, thrusting his back into the soft curve of the seat.

“And you push me up to…this state of…emergency…”

The traffic ahead lets up for the final time. Two bright red lights, glaring like he had never seen, dim and begin to move away from him, sinking into the road ahead.

“…how beautiful to be…”

Nathaniel releases the break, presses the accelerator and counter-levers the clutch.

“…state of..”

His father brushes his hair back and forth. The boy eases back into the cradle of his father’s body.


Kathy, I’m lost.

“…is where I want to be.”

The battalion of waiting cars rolls forward together in sporadic waves of movement. A steady stream of speeding automobiles flies in the opposite direction across the staggered wall of cement barriers. Orange light generated by the sunset casts a blanket of warmth over the landscape. CENTRAL.

Nathaniel edges his truck toward and onto the off-ramp. The song continues. The memory of his father is edged out by the release of congestion and is replaced by an itinerary that is now to be pursued with earnest. The knot of anxiety below his ribcage noticeably releases.

Kathy is waiting, but there is something Nathaniel must do before then.

Looking down at the dash behind the steering wheel, Nathaniel is startled by a single red light indicating that his truck is running low on gas. But he has enough to reach Kathy’s party and the other place. He will not need to fill up the tank until he sets back out on his way home. But there is enough to get him along for now. For now, there is enough.


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