Road Warrior

by rthieme on December 31, 2004

By Richard Thieme

[My relationship with Buzz Reed, editor of Porcupine, was a good one and I hated to see the magazine end. But Porcupine had a good run, many more issues than intended originally, and as Updike wrote, ” That a marriage [or anything else, mostly] ends is less than ideal. But all things do end under heaven, and if temporality is held to be invalidating, then nothing real succeeds. The moral of these [and all] stories is that all blessings are mixed.”

I had been traveling a lot when I wrote this.]

The frontage road along the Interstate near the low white building that housed our administrative offices was lined with big stores. Best Buy and Circuit City, T. J. Maxx and Target, Sam’s Club and Costco were interspersed with Chipotles, Noodles, Paneras, Quedoba, Wendy’s, McDonalds, and a Starbucks, comprising a blocky view from our west-facing windows. Hundreds of years ago prairie grass had grown so tall the wagon wheels could barely turn. Now the boxes blocked a horizon that seemed to have ceased to exist.big-box-stores

There was nowhere else to look, but the perspective was clumsy, too close; there were no measured spaces. It reminded me of the torture in cowboy-and-Indian movies in the fifties, the one where they bind a captive with rawhide, wetting it so it’ll shrink. First it’s comfortable. Then it’s snug. Then it becomes suffocating.

So it felt tremendous when my boss told me to go to a regional meeting and get to know some of the new people. Get a feel for how they think. The meeting would be held in a city I had never visited where their headquarters had been before the acquisition.

I drove to the airport Tuesday morning in heavy traffic. Construction slowed but did not stop us. I had a paper cup of non-fat latte which I tilted up to capture the last swallow, blocking my vision for a minute, which is when, of course, the champagne Cutless in front of me halted, making me hit the brakes. I scared him to death I’m sure but we didn’t hit.

The remote lot was packed but I found a slot near the third shelter and raced to board a shuttle about to pull away, my suitcase and laptop whining behind like racing rickshaws. The driver waited and I told him as I climbed aboard the name of the airline. I usually left from Terminal C but this time he dropped me at B.

Inside the terminal, I found long lines snaking to the counter and checked the monitor. My flight was on time. I slid my credit card into the kiosk and touched the screen two, three, four times. Mostly I touched YES. Then the machinery printed out a flimsy ticket and I headed for security.

Time to kill as the line jiggled restlessly toward the TSA people. They looked up, then at a driver’s license and boarding pass, then back at our faces. A black woman named Tawanda, under twenty, it looked like, let me through. Just before I hefted my suitcase onto the belt I removed my laptop and put it into a rubber tub. I removed my shoes and put them into a different bin, put money and keys in a small container, took off my jacket and folded it over my shoes. At the told moment I walked calmly through the portal and collected everything and put it back and went to the gate.

I read the newspaper while I waited. It only took a few minutes to go through the whole thing. I forgot most stories as soon as I finished reading and threw the newspaper into the bin named Paper. Then I waited standing until my designated number was called. One of the last, I was fortunate to find an empty bin above my seat. I put my roller into the bin and once we were airborne watched a movie, Lost in Translation, on the laptop, using headphones. I got as far as the scene where Bill Murray sings.

I can’t either.

When we landed someone was waiting with my name on a placard held at chest level. As he drove me to the hotel I looked out the limousine window. The Interstate number on the signs was unfamiliar. According to the shields we were going East. Big boxes lined the highway, an OfficeMax, a CompUSA, a Barnes and Noble. Then a Borders a mile or so later. Then a Staples and a Home Depot. A Macaronis, Olive Garden, a sign for a Waffle House. I thought of pecan waffles and remembered covered smothered and something, suddenly hungry. Next were trees, billboards, posted signs. The politicians’ names were different but might as well have been the same.

bigbox-9At the known hotel I checked in and opened the drapes in my room and looked out at the landscape. Gravel roof defined the floor of my view. The sky was thick and wrinkled above a road like a river in front of a Best Buy, a Chipotle, a Bar and Grill I didn’t know that looked like Applebee’s or Chili’s. In the distance, beyond where the road curved at a Subway, a Chi Chis, a Long John Silver, I made out anchors for a mall but couldn’t tell which, Sears maybe or Mervyn’s. I didn’t remember which ones were in this part of the country. It looked like there was a Multiplex and I think there was a Cheesecake Factory too but it didn’t matter because we would eat at the hotel. There would be chicken of course with potato and mixed vegetables, a basket of white rolls, two kinds of dressing (French and Italian) and sitting in front of us while we ate a piece of cheesecake, carrot cake or something chocolate. During breaks there would be big cookies, bottled water and soda, maybe some granola bars. The cookies would be chocolate chip, chocolate chocolate chip or peanut butter. Macadamia nuts maybe once every fourteen or fifteen meetings.

The movies wouldn’t matter, they would be the same as the ones back home.

The meetings were spread over two days. I listened and participated as appropriate and frequently sat back, observing plastic chandeliers hanging like moss on a live oak tree. Plastic facets diffused the bright circular light. Smaller chandeliers hung at regular intervals from a ceiling that looked like a blueprint. The ceiling consisted of rectangles squares and circles defining a hidden infrastructure, sprinklers and alarms, heating and light. Ceilings at some of the other hotels had more curves. Some of their chandeliers were smaller, lights more muted. Some had no chandeliers at all. Circles of white light in a gray frame.

meeting-room-bigThe meeting room was too cool and they promised to fix it every day. I ate too many hard candies, kinds I would never buy, sitting at the tables. Little piles of cellophane wrappers grew through the day. I drank a lot of water and went to the bathroom a lot. The paper provided by the hotel was a four-page folded sheet, not the most useful, not a pad, and ballpoint pens. For two days we exchanged data in chilly windowless rooms. The walls were nondescript beige and burgundy and some had panels. Our main room had a name but I forget. It might have been a lake or maybe the name of a dead president.

I should have exercised in the treadmill-and-television room at night but had drinks instead with people in the lobby bar. That and waiting for email to download over a dial-up took all my time. When the meetings ended a different driver returned me to the airport. He said he had pitched for the Yankees in the early sixties and that Mantle was a really good guy.

The landscape along the Interstate was held in horizontal tension by a white railing. I hallucinated blue paper flowers and the ones that were like sunflowers, I looked them up once, years ago. They were long gone and the dormant weeds and grass were long, blown over, left uncut. The sky above the boxes was without definition, overcast and cold. Going back we went West and the Interstate number on the signs was more familiar. This time I knew where we were going.

Nearer the airport were a Courtyard Marriott and Holiday Inn Express, then a Hyatt, a real Marriott, two Radissons, and a Hilton, interspersed with cheaper brands, Motel 6 and Super 8 and Best Western. There were bars and the same restaurants and a new industrial park. The buildings in it were white and rectangular, regular as squares on a chessboard. The names I could make out had no obvious meaning, things like Metravante, CyberWise, and BioCon. Just before the airport exit a billboard said an oriental spa was open from noon until two in the morning. Turn left at the next exit, the sign said, then make a right. A little map showed how with a white arrow next to text that said it was in a strip mall next to a currency exchange behind a nails place.

I tipped the driver this time and went straight to a kiosk and said my yeses and went through security again but this time I was flagged. Sure enough, my ticket was marked with an S. They turned over everything while I watched. When he opened the laptop I started to reach instinctively and Hector said, please don’t touch anything, Sir. We’ll put everything back. His hand rising with the pause power of authority. They wanded me and patted me down and when the metal detector would not stop beeping we went into a small room where Hector searched for something in my slacks. He found a safety pin fixed to a dry cleaning ticket on the waistband. He removed it and I stopped beeping. I signed something on a written form, then reassembled everything and went to the gate to wait.

I was too tired to read and just waited listening to announcements of arriving and departing flights. People walked or sat or got up and down. This time I had the aisle seat and slept as best I could but people kept bumping my elbow going to the bathroom. Finally I sat up and thought about things vaguely until we descended, bouncing down in clouds in a turbulent chop, making it exciting. One bump got a muted whoop from passengers in back followed by nervous laughter. When we landed some of the passengers clapped, happy to be alive, I guess, and I stood and had to wait with my head bent for the slow progression of people ahead of row 28 to slowstep down the crowded aisle. I waited again in the cold wind for a shuttle back to my car. I should have carried a warmer jacket I thought as I did a little dance, beating my freezing wings. The shuttle came, finally, and shivering despite the heat blowing onto my legs and face, I drove to the office before going home.

I reported to my boss and he said the trip sounded worthwhile. Whatever he said was fine. I didn’t care. I knew it wasn’t important. Nothing was, anymore. I knew that. But still, it had been good to get away for a few days and be somewhere else. Driving home from the office, already dark, I noticed that I was humming along with hits of the sixties and seventies Hey Jude and the one by the Righteous Brothers. Foreigner love is and Mamas and the Papas, making me long momentarily for something inchoate, a fire on a hearth or knowing where I was going. My blue Ford Taurus was a time machine, taking me forward and back at the same time. During the brief transition from work to home, I realized that I looked forward to the coming weekend. I didn’t sigh as I often do when I realize that it’s only Thursday. Or Monday. Or any day, really. Any of the seven whatever the name.

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