A story about right and left
It only takes ten minutes of standstill traffic before a person starts to lose their mind. Bill Wright had been stuck on a stretch of two-lane interstate for approximately thirteen minutes when he began to feel the frustration gnawing at him from the inside. It started as a tingling numbness of exhausted muscle, the fibers tiring in his lower back from holding him in an upright sitting position, something that didn’t seem to bother him as long as the car was moving, and it spread down into his buttocks, making him shift from side to side in his seat like a toddler fighting the urge to piss their pants.
Why haven’t they expanded this to three lanes, like everywhere else on this damned road?
He could see the twinkling reflections of sunlight glinting off metal and glass, winding away from him in an ever thinning strand of shimmering ribbon and rock, over the hill and around the bend. There was no sign of what had caused this holdup, no way of knowing how long it would be. Windows rolled halfway down, he thought he could hear the infrequent hisses of passing vehicles as cars on the other side of the freeway were able to continue on without impediment, but he couldn’t see them. On either side of the highway there were only trees, their leaves all faded to bright oranges and reds and falling sporadically like psychedelic snowflakes. The edges past the emergency lanes were blocked off by guardrails. He could hear birds, and bark scraping against bark amid the underlying static of car engine on top of car engine. That odor of gasoline and diesel fuel burning was thick in the autumn air. He had turned on the radio to try and catch some scrap of traffic related news that might give him an insight to his predicament, but could only find a classic rock station, and was pretty sure there were no actual human beings working there. He could catch snippets of other stations or other songs played drifting to him from other open windows. The song “Hey You” had come on earlier and had since been repeating in his head like a cassette tape that had been spliced back together after a scissors accident involving marijuana and bad ideas. He had already read the bumper sticker on the crimson Toyota Carolla in front of him what seemed like a thousand times: Bin Laden is Dead, GM is Alive.
Fucking communist liberals, he thought. Ruining this country.
His hands tightened momentarily around the steering wheel as he thought about throttling the neck of the person in that car. Absently, he wished he had a gun. There was no way out of this. What if it never ended? What if these people decided to eat each other?
A siren gradually crept up from a low murmur to a piercing shriek as two police cars sped past in the right emergency lane, fading back into nothing as they drove away. Bill thought he could hear the air chopping echo of a helicopter overhead. He rolled his window down the rest of the way and leaned out to squint up at the sun. It was a cool day, and yet some sweat had popped up on his brow from the light warming the inside of the car. A few moments later, two fire trucks drove by, intermittently blaring their horns as if anyone could get out of their way. A car here and there rolled up four or six inches. Some more horns honked up and down the line as if random people were trying to play a monotone version of some song they vaguely remembered. Someone yelled, “Fuck you!” and someone else yelled it back. It went on like this for about an hour. The gridlock remained.
Bill noticed people were starting to get out of their vehicles and mill around, looking lost, looking at their cell phones and hoisting them into the air like technological divining rods, walking down to the tree line to empty their bladders. The liberal in front of him was some kind of a foreigner, tanned skin, dark hair, wearing a plain blue polo and some khaki pants, like a Walmart employee. He had stepped out of his car and stood, resting his arms between the roof and his opened door, staring off at the line of stalled sedans, trucks, and SUV’s, as if he was praying for them to start moving. The gods were not listening.
“Standing up sounds like a good idea,” he whispered to himself, “maybe one of these idiots has some clue what’s going on.”
Bill sighed and opened his door with a creak of metal and plastic. He stepped out onto the pavement, a light breeze tufting up his hair. His legs and ass thanked him immediately for the breathing room, tingling like mad as he stretched and twisted and massaged his fists into the back of his spine. The foreigner noticed the movement behind him and turned to acknowledge it, nodding his head and smiling half-heartedly. He had a beard full of gray whiskers, and a pair of wired spectacles on his face, making him older than Bill would have expected. Bill waved, and then felt obliged to walk toward the foreigner’s foreign vehicle, still rubbing his back awkwardly and walking on stilted legs. The man turned and waited, producing a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. Bill watched him as he smacked the pack repeatedly into his palm, and decided to avoid any awkward silence.
“Hey, there, this is a great way to spend a day, right? Not what I wanted to be doing, I can tell you that. I had a six pack of Bud waiting for me at home.”
“Oh, yes. But it could be worse. At least the sun is out.”
“True. Although it will be dark soon, and cold.”
“Ah, but warm for the first week of November. All these running cars might have something to do with that.”
The foreigner put a cigarette between his lips and lit it, held the pack toward Bill, eyebrows raised. Bill waved the offer away nonchalantly, having not smoked a cigarette in eight years. The man who didn’t have a name yet shrugged and placed them back in his pocket, exhaling a plume of smoke into the graying sky.
Don’t get me started on that global warming shit, hippie.
“So, what’s the deal with this traffic jam, heard anything?”
“Not a word. We seem to be in a dead zone for cell phone signal. My wife is probably worried. The radio hasn’t really said anything about the cause, although they have mentioned the traffic jam, and to take other routes. I have to say, this probably wouldn’t happen if they would have went ahead and made this three lanes.”
“That’s what I said! Damn, I hate sitting here and being cut off from the world like this. I don’t even have a cell phone. They cause brain cancer you know. I’m Bill by the way, what’s your name?”
“Mikel. Mikel Devar, I teach philosophy at a community college.”
Hmm, funny with an accent like that, I expected you to run a gas station.
They shook hands and stood for a moment, listening to the tree limbs swishing their boughs in the wind, flecks of gold light dancing amid the shadows and falling leaves. Some birds circled overhead and squawked their Touretteisms of song. Bill noted the way their feathers ruffled with translucence and currents of air, tilted and balanced on unseen waves of atmosphere as they glided to rest in the top of a tree and vanished amongst the scenery.
“How much longer can we sit here? Really? I don’t know about you, but I haven’t eaten since two o’clock.”
“Noon for me. We’ve already been here over an hour. I haven’t seen any tow trucks, unless they came in from the other side somehow. Who knows? If it’s a bad chemical spill, we could be here all night.”
“God, I hope not. I have to work in the morning.”
Bill looked out at the expanse of land on either side of him, the rows of stalled cars seemingly frozen in time, each one like a two-ton link in a chain that stretched between here and god-knows-where. He decided he didn’t want to wait and risk being here all night without knowing the reason why. His car may not be able to move more than six inches, but there was nothing stopping his feet except his own lack of will. He looked at Mikel Devar, the man who up until five minutes ago, he might have been happy to strangle for simply being a brainwashed liberal. He didn’t know the man, but he wasn’t threatened by him, and he didn’t want to make this decision on his own.
“You in the mood for a walk?”
Mikel regarded him with thoughtful eyes.
“Sure, why not? Where we going?”
“To see what caused this whole thing.”
“Okay, can’t be more than a mile or two,” he said, crushing the remainder of his cigarette into the ground with his heel, “What if they clear it out before we get there, and our cars are still blocking the lane?”
“Fuck it, people can drive around.”
“Sounds good to me. Let’s go.”
They walked for nearly two hours, and the edge of the sky had turned into a holocaust of colors as the sun busted its golden yolk against the horizon. About an hour into the walk they thought they could smell smoke on the air, and maybe see a faint wisp of it floating across the skyline. They were in the left emergency lane, and the cars to their right had not moved more than a few inches, most setting silent as coffins now, people watching them from their open windows with eyes like pets waiting to be adopted. Some stood around or sat atop their hoods, stumbling and staring like zombies. Bill thought of some old horror movies he had seen as a kid and was starting to think they should just turn back, they had run out of small talk and he definitely wasn’t going to talk politics or religion with the enemy, but just then they crested a hill, and could see the problem about a mile further ahead. Both of them stopped and gawked at the scene below, noticing a crowd of rubberneckers had also gathered, sparsely at first, but growing in numbers and congestion the closer to the scene they got.
“Is that what I think it is?” Mikel wanted to know, his voice incredulous.
“Certainly looks that way, let’s get closer and see.”
There had been a terrible wreck, involving what appeared to be at least two tractor trailers and several other vehicles. One of the semi-trucks had burned to a blackened shell, and was still smoldering, glistening with wetness from the firehouse water used to douse it. The two trailers involved were toppled onto their sides; one of them appeared to have the rear end of a car hanging out of its middle. The logos on the trailers looked vaguely familiar from Bill’s childhood, with big bright letters, and pictures of animals dancing in a circle. Police officers and firefighters and EMTs were everywhere, their movements seeming to stutter like slow-motion video in the blue and red strobe lights that flashed from the emergency vehicles. There were other white trucks positioned on the other side of the wreck, and people in white overalls walking around with long steel rods in their hands. As they got closer to the scene, things continued to get weird, with sounds of strange screams becoming more frequent. The crowd of people got thicker and Bill and Mikel tried to weave their way through it, wanting to get to the front of the line and see what all the commotion was about.
“Look out!” someone yelled, and the swath of people suddenly parted ways.
Bill saw something coming and yanked Mikel to the side just in time, as it ran past, paying the people no mind that stood in its way moments before.
“A zebra,” Bill finished for him, suddenly feeling untethered from reality.
The exotic animal whinnied and bounded over the guard rail and off into the woods, as a man in white overalls chased after it cursing. Bill realized that the logo from his childhood was one of the circuses that traveled through this part of the country every year, one his father had taken him to when he was still young enough to be amazed by fire or sword swallowers and the flying trapeze. As this knowledge dawned on him they brushed the grit and dust from their clothes and pushed through to the head of the congregation. It was like walking onto the set of a Fellini film, or at the very least, a dream that could have sprung from the mind of Salvador Dali. Two clowns, dressed in full attire and makeup, paraded themselves back and forth just beyond the ring of collided cars, one of them riding a unicycle, the other juggling three balls of different colors. Some men were tying straps to a cage with bent and crooked bars that contained a tiger, and trying to not get mauled in the process. Two chimpanzees waddled and jumped from hood to hood, outmaneuvering two more men who obviously wanted to catch them without having to use their animal control wands. Their screams almost sounded like laughter. It was a scene of barely controlled chaos, but it wasn’t adding up to Bill. None of this answered the question of why the wreckage had not already been cleared, except that maybe the animals were a handful to contain. He looked and found a police officer standing near the edge of the demolition, and he waved him over.
“That’s far enough, buddy, stay on that side of the wreckage, we still have a bit of a situation here.”
“Yeah, we can see that, but why haven’t you cleared the road? We’ve been here for hours.”
“Like I said, we have a situation, we are trying to resolve it. It shouldn’t take much longer now.”
“What is the situation? Can you tell me?”
“Yes, tell us what is going on. We deserve to know. It’s just a circus, not a UFO landing for Christ’s sake,” Mikel said, sounding frustrated and tired.
The officer glanced around and a look of exhaustion washed over him. Even in the fading light and the hypnotic rhythm of the emergency LEDs, they could see the hopelessness on his face, his lips a tight line, his eyes a vacant stare searching for answers they couldn’t see.
“It’s the elephants. Two of them. They’re dying in the road behind that trailer. Some emergency vets were called in to try and save them, but they didn’t get here in time. They’re just administering pain killers until they pass.”
As if on cue, a loud bleating noise erupted from somewhere beyond the wreckage, a horrific noise that could only be made by something on the brink of death. Bill and Mikel looked at each other, feeling the weight of the moment settling down around them and seeming to disperse through the crowd, like an osmosis of wavelengths that connected all their minds, bringing everyone down to the same level, as if the gravity of the world had just increased by a small percentage. The juggling clown dropped his balls and suddenly sat down in the middle of the road, where he wept uncontrollably. The unicycle clown jumped off his bike and squatted beside him, putting an arm around him in a surreal moment of compassion, two clowns with exaggerated red smiles and blue accents of smile-lines around their eyes, sobbing like a physical manifestation of cognitive dissonance. Bill could see other circus employees, some in plain clothes, and some in costume, standing around in equal states of grief and dismay. A man with a sword suddenly screamed and started slashing at one of the damaged vehicles, jumping onto its crumpled hood and beating the roof with the blade until the blade abruptly broke and pieces of metal went flying. All gold drained from the world with the remnants of the sunset, replaced with the softer white light of the skull-faced moon.
“Why didn’t they expand this damned interstate to three lanes?” a stranger asked. It was a question aimed at no one and everyone at once, something that may or may not have prevented the tragedy laid before them.
Three people in lab coats appeared from behind the toppled tractor trailer, two middle aged white women and an Asian man. The women were wiping tears from their faces. The man was walking with some kind of kit, fidgeting with the clasps.
“So, what are you going to do now?” Mikel asked the officer.
“I’m not sure. The ringmaster told us earlier that their male elephant weighed about 20,000 pounds, and the female weighed about 11,000. That is huge. There were supposed to be tow trucks on the way, but they have not shown up.”
“Jesus, for that weight you aren’t going to need trucks, you’re going to need a crane!”
Bill was astonished that they had just now thought of this. They were going to be here all night. There was no way around it. This was the most absurd situation he had ever found himself in. Here he was, with a crazy liberal for a companion, at the head of a traffic jam caused by a wrecked circus caravan and two dead elephants. There were crying clowns and angry tigers and loose chimpanzees and zebras and men swinging swords at cars. When he left for work this morning, this was not what he envisioned his day would be like. Maybe someone had spiked his morning coffee with LSD.
At that moment, a man screamed and threw what looked to be a top-hat out into the deepening shadows beyond the guard rail. He looked to be arguing with another officer, a state trooper who must have been the lead person in charge of clearing the wreckage.
“To hell with your trucks and your cranes! We will not just dispose of these bodies like road kill!” the rotund man bellowed, with a booming voice that captured the attention of the entire crowd. He could only be the Ringmaster the officer had spoken of earlier. His accent was thick with Slavic pronunciation. He was dressed in black parachute pants and a white dress shirt, his sleeves rolled up to his forearms. He was bald, mostly, and had a thick mustache with curled ends. A small trickle of blood ran down his left cheek from a scratch on his scalp. “Frank and Bertha were family! They deserve better than a grave, to be eaten by flies! They deserve to live forever, in us! Balish, Gustav, build a fire over there!”
“What is happening?” Mikel asked, a cigarette seeming to appear out of nowhere in his mouth.
“I’m not sure. Something strange.”
“Sir, I’m sorry, but a fire is out of the question, there’s too much...” the officer was trying to bring reason into an unreasonable scenario.
“Pish, posh, do you want to wait forever to use your road again? Or do you want to take part in the magic of giants and the old world? Do as I say, do it now! Andre, get the saws and cleavers from the knife thrower’s cart. Audience, you are about to have a once in a lifetime opportunity! A meal fit for the gods!”
Everyone looked at each other in a dazed sense of shock and awestruck silence, the feeling that reality was drifting more and more into the world of dreams. Maybe it was the hunger. Maybe it was the exhaustion. But no one protested. Even the police officer threw up his hands and walked away from the ringmaster as if he was powerless to stop him, shaking his head. Whatever it was, the entire mood of the evening shifted to one of ritual, where the onlookers felt ensnared by the acts of others so alien to them, they were paralyzed by their own curiosity, the hypnotic performance-like quality of it all. This was a different kind of trip to the circus. This was the circus of grieving. The circus of survival of the fittest. The circus of reincarnation.
“Are they going to do what I think they are going to do?”
“Yes, Mikel, and I think we are going to help them do it.”
Within moments there were three bonfires roaring, two on the left side of the road, and one on the right, each one made of piled limbs and sticks from the nearby trees, stacked nearly five feet, their flames climbing toward the heavens and shooting sparks into the blackening sky as if fires were where stars came from. The actors in the play moved with a sense of purpose, carrying things to and fro, as if they were building the tents for their show. Some moved back and forth from the area behind the trucks, producing armloads of fresh meat, their arms and chests covered in blood. They used sharpened sticks to hoist the hunks of meat near the flames, to sear it and smoke it, filling the air with an aroma that awakened the carnivore souls in everyone near enough to smell it.
When the ringmaster called for helpers, Mikel and Bill were two of the first to volunteer, not sure of what would be asked of them, but willing to help clear the road in any way they could. They were ushered to the area behind the trailers, and asked to help haul parts of the bodies out to the woods, parts that could not be readily eaten by humans. They, along with a host of other volunteers, formed a chain gang, passing chunks of organ and flesh and bone from person to person, gradually reducing the mountains of gray bodies to shells of bone and gristle. The volunteers worked in shifts, taking turns hauling out pieces of the bodies, and standing in the lines of consumption. At one point, both Bill and Mikel held the heart of an elephant in their hands, the girth of it requiring both of them to lift without dropping it, its slimy, sinewy mass straining their arms and threatening to slide free from their grasp. They held the heart of a giant, an ancient, and they felt the world moving beneath their feet, moving past them faster than they could hold onto anything. They looked at each other as they hoisted the heart up and into the hands of the next couple, and they felt small. Without speaking, they turned back to their task, fighting off tears that threatened to fall, both realizing they lived in a world that could kill them at any moment, and wouldn’t blink when they were gone. They too would be eaten someday.
Later, they stood out past the circle of wrecked cars, where the light of the fires’ glow barely reached them, and they watched as cooked meat was passed from person to person, out into the disappearing rows of stalled cars, where more and more people had begun to emerge, called by some unnameable force, that quiet whisper that happens between strangers, that knowledge that someone is watching from across the room. Everyone wanted a taste of this moment.
Bill chewed his food and looked at his new friend, found in the most unlikely of circumstances. He knew he would never be the same.
“How do you like it?”
“It’s not what I expected. It’s lean, but kind of gamey. Good though. I needed it.”
“Yeah, doesn’t really taste like anything I have ever had.”
“Mikel, I feel like I owe you an apology. When we first met, I already had my mind made up to hate you, because of the bumper sticker on your fucking car. I’m sorry for the things I thought, right to your face. I was wrong.”
Mikel looked surprised, his jaw working with the ghost of a smile on his face. He choked down the bite of elephant and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Heck, don’t worry about it. When you walked up, I thought to myself, oh, here’s another redneck who thinks I’m stealing his job.”
They both laughed, a welcome sound in the stillness.
By morning, the carcasses had been cleaned and the bones moved to the sides of the road. Tow trucks had come and removed the damaged trailers and the other vehicles too demolished to be trusted to start and move of their own mechanical volition. Daylight seemed to lift the fog of the dream, bonfires being reduced to charred fragments of sticks and some glowing embers, and people walked back to their cars with vague recollections of the night. There was a kind of catharsis in the good-byes and the embraces shared amongst the crowd as it dispersed. The circus members had tears in their eyes, but they no longer appeared to be tears of sadness. By the time Bill and Mikel were headed back to their cars, the first rows of traffic were already starting to move again.
Not much was said on the walk back. They both looked like they had been in a war, their upper torsos caked with dried blood, their faces smeared with it, clothes blackened with stains. They had walked to the end of the path and cleared it for the future, which was more than many could say. They watched with slight amusement as the traffic thinned out at an ever quickening pace, trying to return to normal before they were ready to decide what the definition of normal could be. When they reached their cars, a funny thing had happened, most of the traffic had cleared, but now their two vehicles were clogging a lane and causing another jam, as cars in that lane had to jockey for position to move around, waiting for people in the faster lane to let them out.
“Ha, I told you this might happen!”
“Who cares, most of these people probably had a good night’s sleep.”
“Well, Bill, it was interesting to say the least. Maybe I will see you again some day.”
“Yeah, interesting. I hope so.”
Someone honked their horn. They both ignored it.
“Hey, you ever listen to the band Pink Floyd?”
“Love that band, man. Funny you should say that, but I’ve had a song of theirs stuck in my head since yesterday.”
“Really? Me too.”
“Doesn’t surprise me.”
“I can’t seem to remember the last line of the song, it’s been nagging the shit out of me. Do you know it?”
“If it’s the song,“Hey, You,” then yeah.”
“What is it?”
“Together we stand, divided we fall. I think. It’s a state motto somewhere.”
“Of course it is.”
Mikel offered his hand. Bill shook it. With that they turned and walked to their respective vehicles, giving each other one final nod before opening the doors and getting behind the wheels.
In no time, they were up to speed, and gradually separated as they went their own pace, until Bill lost sight of the Corolla all together. He passed the section of road where the circus had crashed, noticing the black marks left behind like scars, the dark pools of oil or blood, the still smoldering piles of sticks, and it all felt like something from a movie he had seen years ago. Not even five miles further, the interstate expanded to three lanes, and then four. Bill smiled, taking a deep breath, feeling something stir inside him, though he couldn’t name it. Just then, he had to slam on his brakes to avoid rear-ending a Dodge Ram with larger than life tires, as it pulled into his lane without warning, seemingly cutting him off to get to the next exit.
“You mother-!!!” he started to yell, pumping his fist in the air. Then he noticed the bumper sticker. It was a confederate flag, with the words “Take Back America.”
He started laughing. It was a deep-chested laugh that began as a small rumble, but built to a near hysteria; a laugh that makes the face flush, the lips tingle, the eyes water. It was the kind of laugh that adds years to a life. He laughed all the way home.