I'd gotten down the road, heading back to DC, the valleys fertile and green, heavy rain as I approached the rest stop near Whitney Point. Pulling in, parking, calling into work. I'd been slow getting up, didn't get on the road 'til past ten, not due in until 6:30, a bit late.
Yeah, hi, L, it's T, how you doing, looks like I might be a bit late, probably around sixish. "Okay, I'll let them know." It's just about noon, the restaurant is busy, don't want to keep her on the phone. I go in to use the john, a composting toilet system. The AC causing me a chill. Mom's made me a little lunch with an ice pack in it, and a pull out a roast beef roll up. Then back onto the highway. A bit more, rain, not quite as heavy as the rain outside of Albany taking mom back to Oswego from my aunt's wedding in the Berkshires. From one NPR station to the next as they fade in and out. Analysis of Donald Jr.'s meeting with Russians in fortress Trump to plot, no one telling the full story, so that new revelations are coming out, each with a new effort on the part of the administration to claim it was nothing, nothing at all.
Onward, long curves, climbs, through Binghamton, then across the Pennsylvania line and the Welcome Center. Hot and muggy beneath the hills, green like the Basque Country, different from the ridges of New York State and the Finger Lake glacier events. The rest stop building new and clean, brochures on one side, vending and restrooms, the other side, freezing cold on damp skin, and again, my guts don't feel quite right. I take my time, and get back to the car, get in, and then my cell rings. "You can stay home tonight," cool. They are kind to me. They realize I'm a bit different, enabled to be a sort of kind fool, the idiot, the nice guy, a steady figure in the ever-changing world, and I must say I have a general feeling of soullessness to the town I work in driving back to it, a country boy, what can you do, not fitting in. My job is me.
So, I call my mom. I'm only two hours plus down the road. I really don't feel like driving all the way to DC, another five hours anyway, not including rush hour traffic. She doesn't pick up, so I wander back into the Welcome Center, use the john again, try her again, talk to the guy mopping the floor. "Yes, this is Pennsylvania bluestone." Quarried locally, the guy, bearded, pony tail, intelligent, answering my question. It's frigid inside, I feel clammy, and coming back in I'm wearing the old green LL Bean chamois shirt I travel with. Back to the car. A sense of relief, and then Mom calls, and I explain, and we agree we needed to go once more to The Press Box, a favorite spot in Oswego, simple, easy, friendly, great. Cool. It'll take about three hours or so, okay, take your time.
Then, as I am standing outside the car, facing a picnic table and a coal mine trolley railroad car on permanent display, a fellow walks up, and I finish the call, okay mom, just at that time. Should have stayed on the line. Moments are precious. He's a guy, talking fast, his interruption an act of urgency, sorry, sir, oh, I'm sorry, sir. He's in a tee shirt, muscled like a dog. The tops of his work boots ripped up on the top layer, jeans dusty with drywall or gravel dust. Hey, man, look, I'm sorry, I hate to bother you... I look at him, regretting I put my phone down, sorry, my sister just got T-boned by a semi, and I left my wallet, and I gotta get down the road... I look at him, nod slightly. sigh.
How much do you need, I ask slowly, fishing in the pocket of the chinos I've work through my whole trip up the old spiritual home, my mom's, my aunt's where my grandparents spent their last years. $20 from T.J. Maxx. An old American type, he is, and maybe I am too. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Is this Kerouac encountering Neil Cassidy again, in a new life, a new go-round, one more circumspect, if less incandescently literary? At least I'm in the driver seat, for now, with my rented Nissan Maxxima. He pauses, well, sir, whatever you can spare... Well, at least that's a bit more honest. I reach into my pocket, give him a fiver and an extra buck or two. Okay, man. Thank you sir, thank you. He reaches to shake my hand. I reach and take it. I look him in the eye. "Take care of yourself," I say slowly, looking at him, and he departs. Not immediately to scam more people, flush with his junkie victory playing the game, but it deflates me a bit, after the nice talk with the guy in the building, and being spared from work and the rest of a long drive. I'd stayed up late, fixing mom's new bookcase, I finally persuaded her into, vacuuming, recycling, having some wine. Perhaps in my mind, my reading from the wedding, Corinthians, about love. My guts still feel uncertain, my skin ready to perspire again, even in the cold of the air conditioning. Back in the car, already hot again, I close the door. I'm a bit rattled. Wallet, phone, keys, I look around, putting them all together finally, and a swig of soda water. Just glad to get out of there, glad to be turning back around, north again. And back into my little NPR bubble.
Now I can take it slowly, back up through the New York State farmland valleys. But first, I have to go down the road to turn the boat, a rented Nissan Maxima, handles beautifully, and going down Route 81, the next exit is for Great Bend. Burger King, tobacco, fireworks, a McDonalds, a KFC, and just a bit down the road, just over the river, in the little town of Hallstead, a place well advertised on billboards as you drive northward, then down the hill. Ultimate Massage. And then, rolling up in the muggy hot sun, there it is, it must be, a modest brick two story storefront, next to a pet food story, with curtained windows and front window, white painted door, and a sun-faded racey pink awning that simply says Ultimate, and the phone number below it... Being a correspondent, I stop, turn around, park, get out and take a few pictures, to share with my guy friends... A woman, plain, not quite matronly, is walking down the sidewalk with a new gallon trashcan or bucket of some sort, and I play it cool, observing that she enters the side door of Ultimate, or must have, seeing the door close shut from across the street. There's not much in this town. A sign points to a library, up the road by the muffler auto repair shop where I initially turned around. I have to get going. Chinese herbs might well be helping things in this anxious state I live in, but...
Satisfied with my iPhone photo documentation, I get back on the road, over the Susquehanna, then passing through the light to get ready for the ramp onto 81 North. A sign points the way to "Mess's Fireworks," and on the long curve coming around and upward to the highway, another fireworks shop, windowless cinderblock, plastic tarp crumpled on the roof, the sign says open.
There's another hard rain up ahead, enough to turn on the hazard blinkers, going at a pace I can feel comfortable about as 18 wheelers and SUVs ride by in the left lane. Binghamton again, and then a climb from the river flats, very pretty around here, farms cut into wooded hillsides, further, something that looks like a Buddhist monastery, Southern school perhaps, with its brightly painted gates, and there used to be a few vintage autos in a nearby field, a tidy old well-kept barn. Dropping down again in long roads that parallel the ridge until curving over rivers such as near Whitney Point. Somehwere around here, back when we used to drive up together from Washington for holidays, my brother telling me, at the rate I'm going, I'm going to end up in a trailer park. Probably right.
Onward, as the Zen of the road settles in again, somewhere below Cortland, someone proud of his land has put up a kind of cross-like scaffold, with the large figure of what is obviously a scrotum hanging distinctly and disembodied above the road in a field, back where signs stood pro-fracking, now the home made billboard accompanying announces that "Trump is going to need some big balls to solve all these problems." Great. And further along, not far away, in the man's woods, two flags on poles, one USA, the other, yellow, that of the Don't Tread on Me disjointed colonial snake.
Rivers, small towns, steeples, enough rain to pay attention, no need to go more than seventy, just taking it easy, through the bend marking the Iroquois country, and then Syracuse laid out in the distance, once past the green NY State sign that announces Dome Parking.
Then onto the last leg, Route 481. Highway, then into Fulton. Past the stretch of McDonalds, the rubble field of the old Nestle plant they started tearing down on one of my trips North to see mom, was it Christmas, her birthday in March, bricks, machines, now a great space opened up where structures stood... Past the empty pizza sub shop, the mini mart multi pump gas station and the Burger King, and on the right, the same little girl I saw five hours ago, in front of Studio tattoo parlor, taking a picture of herself as she prances, holding an cell phone out, shaking her hair, there on the sidewalk.
Driving on, passing along the wide still river with islands and high water over tree trunk banks, then a highway straightway, a Siberian stretch, then, finally, along the river again, the Catholic parish cemetery on the hill on the right, and then into Oswego and across the bridge over the canal lock and the river strong as it comes through the last mill dams.
It's four o'clock, and mom is pretty much ready to get ready to go out to the friendly spot we like overlooking the port. The bookcase looks good. Things are better organized. Vacuumed.
My mom, in reflection, went through a lot of stress. As a child, and following in life, in her experience, leaving her sometimes an anxious creature. The heavy rains on the New York State Thruway were not easy to go through, blinkers on, eyes on the front flashing lights of the pace of the car before me, and looking in the rear view mirror, to make sure no car or truck might be closing. The rain pours, I can't hardly see, and Mom, tense as can be, is staring through the windshield please please please pull over... Pulling over does not seem safer than keeping going, and after several bursts of downpour, wipers up al the way, guarded, nervous myself, we go through the merge with traffic from Albany here on Saturday after my aunt's wedding in The Berkshires. Mom wanted to get home to her cat, to her familiar place, and it is a bit of a drive to get there. Crossing the Hudson we saw how dark the sky ahead was, green and yellow and red on the local TV news weather radar.
Here in her home, a townhouse at a modest end of a modest town, near the high power lines, in Northern nature, bullfrogs, herons, all sort of water fowl, turtles, moles, beaver, even a family of sable or mink crossing the road nearby, there are lots of books and papers. I am happy in the afternoon when she reads from Yankee From Olympus, some old hardbound copy of it she found for a buck. Oliver Wendall Holmes. Neighbors with Melville, Hawthorn, the Jameses.
And then after the deprive I must drive back to DC. Work calls. It's Bastille Day. Usually I end up getting up early, making the long drive, going straight to work. But I decide to take off around 5 PM, gassing up. I've watched the Weather Channel radar loops, I'd like to watch the Tour in Pyrenees, I hate to leave, but I must now. And then, passing along, more summer downpours, calling mom from that rest stop with the composting restroom plumbing, I call mom again, and ask how the Tour stage looked. Down in the valley the streams are overflowing, brown water in new channels through the fields. In Great Bend, down the road, another massive downpour, I pull over, Burger King. The rain passes.
Out on the road again, darkness is falling, and even darker clouds, the rain is starting again, and flashes in the sky with rumbles, and now, worse than before, the road disappears, pitch black, pouring rain and such a feeling of lonesomeness, I cannot describe it's Odyssey-ian depths. And a long way to go, and NPR has switched over to music radio on a Friday night.
What was this effort, a sad one, to go so far away from anything resembling the home of my youth and the people of my life and temperament, the bold move to come to a city, but this one too far, too far south, as if I wished mainly only to hide my pain, my sense of isolation. And now time is running short, very short, and those people and that sense of familiar home disappears bit by bit...
Riding the bike, watching the last mountain stages of the Tour, a bit of relief. But mom needs help.