I was sitting in the booth at the diner with my hands wrapped around a thick white coffee mug, one of those clumbsy things they used at diners in the old days, the kind of mug with the blue line around the rim, coarse and pasty ceramic, the coffee not a bit better. I looked around, scanned the diner, gazed out the window, looked, more for effect than for anything to see. All of outside was just more two-story red brick row-housing mile after mile across Baltimore; in front of every apartment number sat a little compact car under street lamps, some cars different colors from the one parked in front and the one behind. Miles and miles of the same private lives in little spaces in long rows compacted. Pay the rent, pay the bills.... Small worries. But what worried me was an image from the evening before, of the black guy working at the loading dock on the other side of me, he reaching up into the back of the semi trailer, lifting a box onto the conveyor belt, pushing it along, and then going for another, over and over; and the other guy picking up the box at the end of the conveyor belt, picking up the box and turning to put it on the pallet, then turning back for the next box, mechanical, repetitive, to me, pointless. I sat at the diner, like I did most nights, and I thought of the motion never ending till it's all over. I decided to go to university. That was a bit of a leap, you see, given that I was 16 at the time.
I found myself driving through the desert, not for the first time or the last, in the night. I had a pebble stuck in the tread and I could hear the rhythmic click, click, click, I could see the white lane lines rushing forward and falling under my hood, the pin-prick lights of a car approaching in the distance, and then turning away and going somewhere, maybe home, or somewhere, tail lights turning down a dirt road. The silhouettes of the distant mountains in the moonlight perked the plum and wine sky brighter and lush, gave a frame to the tableau of sequoia cacti, barrel cactus that looked in the darkness like big farm boys waving stupidly in the night. I enjoyed the freedom of the road's smooth and the stillness of the night across the desert's flat. I had only a dread of morning and the confrontation with the Sun and the sharp angles of rock reality. Night was comfort and motion and the float of nowhere yet.
I'd occasionally scan the dashboard gauges, looking at the bright little lights in the darkness all around me, bright little lights like poems that suggested of deeper meaning if only one would spend the time and the mental money to prize out the gems. I liked the speedometer needle especially. It was bright and stood alone. It always pointed forward in the darkness. The odometer was my friend on those quiet evenings crossing cold, the white turning band and the yellow moving at different rates out of sync. Sometimes I'd sing a song:
"All hands on deck, we've run afloat!" I heard the captain cry;
"explore the ship, replace the cook: let no one leave alive!"
Across the straits, around the horn: how far can sailors fly?
A twisted path, our tortured course, and no one left alive.
We sailed for parts unknown to man, where ships come home to die.
No lofty peak, nor fortress bold, could match our captains eye.
Upon the seventh seasick day we made our port of call,
A sand so white, and sea so blue, no mortal place at all.
We fired the gun, and burnt the mast, and rowed from ship to shore.
The captain cried, we sailors wept: our tears were tears of joy
Now many moons and many Junes have passed since we made land.
A salty dog, this seaman's log: your witness, my own hand. 2.
I'd sail west in the night, sometimes east.
There is a thing that happens, and I'll explain it now: That in the darkness when one is alive in the world of darkness, one sees the whole of all. I know it. I'd sometimes stop the car in the night and climb out and breathe the air and take in the chill. I could see to every horizon or the hills and the moon and the sky and the stars above shining. I could touch the sky and feel the crumble of dirt and sand beneath my boots. Everything was all at once. I could sit on the hood and warm my butt and gaze and dream and ponder the night and the horses ambling, the crickets, the shape of a bird above.
So, I'll explain it now: that in the night as the car moves on with the man inside, the outside is there too, cut off from the dark, the headlights ploughing a path forward, cleaving the world from the black road. The world there, to either side, and the distant dark spotted with with mustangs, pintos, chargers, impalas, a jaguar. It's a world of them out there, all moving silently, contained in the body, and preying on the weak, eating up the miles and the hours. And in the darkness the needle would shine brighter with each mile, pointing forward, glowing like a fire, rising like a god from the exile of death. I'd see it there burning on the hilltop, and watch as a rabbit on the road would look at his world shrunk to the convergence of the high-beams; and he, bolting, would run to the end of the lit path to escape back to the world that had disappeared from him.
Rabbit in the headlights, his world gone from him could see nothing but the light's illuminated vision, a road, a dark path. Run. Run, run, run. A rabbit can't outrun the lights of a car, can't see beyond the artificial light that blocks out his surroundings, that blinds him to the sides of his freedom. He sees only the straight and narrow in the beams ahead, not able to reach beyond it, not aware that he could stop and turn aside into the free dark world of his own. Trapped in his own fears, he runs on till he slips under the wheels, heart-burst, and is no more forever. Then the needle dims and the light of the false dawn slowly reveals the rocks and the dust and the roadside motels decorated with the stripped-out chassis of abandoned derelicts, a cracked tyre on a frayed rope hanging from a rafter of a broken barn.
Had a mother once. Didn't like her much. Tried to murder me.
Don't get home all that often. Have to keep moving. Can't risk getting stuck. Have to go onward.
I come from a free country. I'm a free man. Every day is an independent day for me and mine. But one day a year is more than that. That one day is Independence Day, the Fourth of July. It's about something I try to deal with when I'm on the road. It's about our nation. It's about the light on the land. It's about amber waves of grain. It's about marching to the Halls of Montezuma. It's about voting for some crook. It's about yelling at the television newscaster. It's about going for a haircut at Elmo's and listening to the barber talk about the Yankees. It's about hitting on a waitress at IHOP. Fanbelts and broken fence-wire and snow in the driveway and the kids crying from the flu and the girlfriend nagging and the phone ringing when you're in the shower. It's about 'you do the best you can.'
We don't celebrate Freedom Day. There's no such day on the calender. We celebrate Independence Day.
I have all the freedom I could ever hope for, and I don't much care. I have two lane blacktop and two wheels to move me till I hit some beach and need a ship to carry me back to my old home where I don't live there. Freedom I have a lot of. Independence I have a lot of too. I have something else, though, that most people don't: I have the Fourth of July in me.
All the petty shit of a grinding day and the knowledge that it ends in a distant ditch, I don't care at all. I have the joy of Independence Day. When we cheer, I am there. I touch the ground and it is home. My country.
I have the Stars and the Stripes.
I sit in foreign diners and sip coffee from paper cups and look around me at strangers making mechanical motions in distant places. I look away and see high towers row upon row across the landscape, at their feet little cars buzzing like bugs in gloom. I listen to foreigners who hate my country.
Something nice to end with? I don't have anything nice for this day. We will live as we live and die when we do. We can do pretty much as we please because a few men some long time ago on the fourth of July signed their names on some paper and agreed to stick with it, the Declaration of Independence. They started this whole thing, and to this day we have men and women still fighting to keep our independence alive and vital. I do the stupidest damned things, and still, men and women fight for my right to do so. I could do better. But if I do or do worse, those who save my nation from those who would harm it do so for the nation of us all, people good or ill. We're independent. We decide. We make our own moves.
1. Edward Hopper, "Nighthawks." 1942
2. Gary Brooker / Keith Reid, "A Salty Dog." Procul Harum. 1969
3. "Johns makes us see familiar objects in a different way by utilizing optical illusions. If you stare at the top flag long enough, then shift your focus to the gray flag below, it seems to take on the familiar colors of red, white, and blue." http://www.wakeforest.edu/art