by Kevin Spaide
We were driving home from the airport in the dark, and the car had no headlights. This was how things always seemed to happen. Caught out in the night, far from home, no lights. I had misgivings, of course, but no fear. I was sure that everything would be all right. Nothing totally disastrous would happen to us until later in life. And it thrilled me to look out at the tiny red taillights of the car we were following like a ghost, the little gassy lights guiding us home through all that black night whorling out around us to the stars.
It wasn't raining (we had that much going for us) but there was no moon—not that a moon makes much difference when you are driving almost two hundred miles across the entire country, coast to coast, with no headlights. But it might have added a touch of delicacy or, at the very least, another focal point outside the car.
We drove west through the flat midlands—west, west, west. Every particle of daylight had been sucked from the sky, whirled out over the ocean at the end of the road. There were no murky smudges on the horizon, no scraggily silhouettes of trees. Here and there we passed a big house with all the lights turned on. Once we saw a person at the side of the road waving a flashlight into some bushes. In the fields you could see a movement of forms, the bodies of large animals shifting around in the mist. That was eerie. You couldn't see them but only their movement.
I was for stopping. I didn't know if we could make it home, but I knew that if we stopped in one of these passing villages we would only get drunk and sleep in the car, or maybe stay up all night in somebody's kitchen, Maki sawing away at his violin, shaking his motley, then we would drive home in the morning. This sounded wonderful—driving home in the too-bright morning, wincing from a hangover. It was what we would have done if the lights were working. But they weren't working, and out some sort of bone-stubborn fear we were obliged to drive all the way home in the dark.
Inez hardly moved or spoke. Her eyes were locked into the twin red lights ahead of us on the road. Her face had receded into an almost trance-like country of purity. The weak glow of the dashboard made her skin look blue. A joint sizzled between two fingers on the steering wheel. When she exhaled smoke at the windshield she looked angry. I made no suggestions.
Instead I rolled down the window. I didn't smoke and the smoke bothered me, scraping my throat and searing my eyes, even the sweet fruity hash smoke. I leaned into the blackness outside the car, and it was like dunking my head in a dark sea. The air was thick and cold, and the clouds rushed against the stars. They seemed to radiate light, as if they'd absorbed it during the day. When I sat back in my seat my face was cold and wet.
Maki was in the back, plucking his mandolin. That was the problem, really. I didn't know why he was there. It was like having the son of the Devil sitting right behind you.
When I saw him at the airport he was barefoot in the arrivals hall, haranguing passers-by for loose change. He was the last person I would have expected to find waiting for me. I wondered if he even knew my name. Always he made me feel self-conscious, awkward, odd-man-out. He was loud. His mind was a whirligig of Irish madness. If you let him into your house you might not get rid of him for a week. Once, he locked himself in our kitchen, and Inez had to break a window to get in. You could see him through the frosted glass, dancing like a gypsy. He was harmless and maybe even kind, but he was coy and selfish and crazy in a hundred ways that somehow added up into a greedy prosperous sanity that flashed behind his eyes—if you knew how to look at them, if you knew how to do the math.
As far as I could tell he hadn't noticed we were driving without lights. He hadn't said anything, anyway. He plucked his mandolin and murmured in the back seat.
We'd made it as far as Longford or Edgeworthstown or some other place halfway to Sligo. Halfway home. No, it was definitely Longford. There was that ugly church, looming out of the road like a hell-place, the one with all the statuary on the facade. I'd seen it so many times from the bus, and always it made me feel desperate and lonely, like I was stranded in a world in which no one would ever know me—which was possibly the case. That church was a crime, a monstrosity of human obtuseness. I watched it sail past the window. Someday it would sink.
We hovered under the piss-yellow street lights in a little cloud of smoke and the stench of Maki's bare feet. People lurked and laughed in the doorways of bars. Savage-looking teenagers wolfed down trays of chips slathered in brown curry. Their wide red faces depressed me. Their lips were loose and made them look lost. It all came back to me then and there, my fear about my life. What was I doing in this place? Why was I living amongst these strangers?
Maki wanted to stop. He wanted to buy a bottle of whiskey. Just a small one, he pleaded. Then he spoke to Inez in Spanish (his father was Spanish) but Inez answered in English.
Pequeñito, he said, pequeñito. I knew that word.
"If we stop then we stop," said Inez. It was not an ultimatum but an admission of fact.
"No, we stop and start again!" said Maki, reverting to English but with a Spanish accent now.
"You know anybody here?" I asked.
"I know all these fools, man." He spoke in a different voice from the one he used with Inez.
"If we stop then we stop." She meant we would never make it back to the car. Something would happen and we might not escape this weird city for days.
"I don't mind," I said.
"I stay here," she said, smiling rather severely.
It was funny how she was in charge, but she was. All three of us knew it.
I was happy and relieved to be out of the car. Maki grabbed his mandolin and slung his violin case over his shoulder on its leather strap. Inez sat in the driver's seat, burning a nugget of hash on the end of a torn-off cigarette filter, hiding the tiny flame between her hands, low in her lap where no one could see.
"Won't be long," said Maki. "Promise."
"Don't promise," said Inez. "You can't afford."
Maki walked ahead of me in the yellow light, humming to himself, traveling fast along the sidewalks. Now and then he hopped up to look into a high window. I felt bad leaving Inez in the car, but I knew she wouldn't take off without us.
"Maybe we should just keep going," I said, shifting the burden.
"You're probably dead fucking right. We're smack-dab in the middle of fucking fuck. But, hey, here's the place."
We went inside. It was ten o'clock and the room was crowded. Everything was made out of wood, even the shovel-shaped faces of some of the customers who looked as if they hadn't been out of that room in years. Most of them had their hair slicked back in hard shining grooves, and the light was slathered over their faces like rancid butter. As usual I felt like an interloper, but I didn't dare let it bother me. Anyway, in my thirst I forgot about my fear. I also forgot about Inez and the taillights and the new moon. There was no moon in this bar either. I didn't care now if I ever got home.
Maki jumped straight into the fray—the mess and ugliness of a group of hairy men guffawing in a corner. Already he had his violin on his lap, preparing things like a junkie getting his gear ready, assembling his fix. When a woman leaned over and spoke into his ear he jerked his head mechanically like a shabby tropical bird.
I leaned against the bar and watched him and the other musicians at the corner table.
Then Inez was there.
"You are here," she said.
"I guess so," I said.
I wasn't surprised to see her so soon. Most of the time she was just as bad as the rest of us.
We drank beer at the bar. The music was loud and raucous, and Maki rose out of his chair and traveled around the room, stomping his bare feet on the boards, shaking his greasy locks. His shirt hung from his shoulders, unbuttoned to the navel, and rings of sweat bloomed from his armpits. Twice I saw his eyes roll back in his head, the eyelids fluttering over the whites so that he looked like some sort of crazed voodoo zombie. When he stopped for a moment you could count the beads of sweat dripping off the tip of his fiddle bow. I wondered how it didn't slip out of his hand, how his fingers didn't slide on the neck. But music was the same for Maki as having hands. It was there, a part of him, something he was born with. He was one of those people who could play every type of instrument. Give him five minutes with something he'd never seen, never even heard of, an instrument from an alien spacecraft, and he'd figure out how to get the music out of it.
When we finally got out of there it was late, but hardly as late as I would have guessed. I was drunk, and Maki was wired on adrenaline and whatever else made him the way he was, but Inez got us both into the car somehow—she was forceful—and we were back out on the road, sneaking along behind another set of lights.
Once again the night was black and still, and we were traveling at the very bottom of it. The two spectral lights bobbed ahead of us, drawing us onward, taking us home. Inez steered with one hand and held my hand with the other. It seemed to comfort her that I was sitting there, looking at the same thing she was looking at.
When we'd got into the car Maki had cracked open a bottle of whiskey and took a vicious, eye-popping, chin-wiping slug worthy of a gunfighter, then he fell asleep. Now he snored and whimpered in the back seat. He'd never been much of a drinker, if only because his hands were hardly ever free of his music.
For some reason I turned to look at him. From somewhere, maybe from the clouds, a faint light entered the car, and I saw two rows of sharp-looking teeth like the teeth of a baby alligator. His head had fallen back against the seat and his mouth was wide open. And it was as if he'd grown a beard while we were in the bar. All that stomping and sweating had forced the bristles out of his chin. Now he had a beard. He looked like a dead man.
At a certain point the road narrowed and got curvier as the land bunched up into hills and small mountains. We were lucky that almost nobody was going the other way (it was very late now) since the glare of oncoming headlights thoroughly blinded us. The instant a pair of lights hit us, little clouds of filth appeared all over the windshield. When it was dark you couldn't see these things, but as the lights got brighter the clouds of filth and dust expanded and spread across the glass, absorbing the light and blotting out our vision until the entire windshield was a solid white pane of light. This was nerve-wracking. Inez slowed down to almost nothing. The air went solid in my lungs. My stomach clenched and my palms broke into a sweat just as they did whenever I strayed too near the edge of a cliff.
We'd made it almost as far as Castlebaldwin when our guide turned away suddenly and was gone, abandoning us to the night. There were no other cars, and it was almost impossible to see where we were going. We crept along at twenty miles per hour using the parking lights which illuminated only a tiny segment of the dull white line at the edge of the road. It was not enough, but it was something. We tethered ourselves to that line.
Inez clung to the steering wheel, so nervous now she couldn't smoke. Maki sputtered and grumbled in the back seat, safe in a state of blind idiotic trust. Or maybe he really didn't care what happened. I harbored the irrational and secret belief that nothing awful could happen to us as long as we were with Maki, because, as deranged and coarse and fucked as he was, there was something keeping him out of danger. There had to be, otherwise he'd have been killed years ago. He was charmed.
Of course, I was wrong about that.
It was three in the morning and we were twenty miles from home. I kept watching for the lights of Castlebaldwin. If we could make it that far, I told myself, then we would make it home. Castlebaldwin was the southernmost outpost of my interior geography. It marked the boundary of my world, signaled the immanence of arrival. Until we reached it we were in the outer lands, the vague places, the imaginary worlds of other people. I could feel the mountains rising over us in the dark, the cool heavy calm of Loch Arrow to the right. The weight of the mountains, the Bricklieves, exerted a kind of magnetism, a gravity, which the darkness only intensified. There were tombs up there, five thousand years old, like small stone huts. Little rock houses like stitches in time. You could crawl inside and stand up in the Neolithic. You could sleep among the bone-shards and the chips of human skull.
The white line eased to the left. Inez maneuvered the car accordingly. We were like a bead sliding on a string. She gripped my hand again on the straightaway. Maybe this helped her steer better. What we were doing was insane.
Then a pair of taillights winked into play about a quarter-mile up the road as a car pulled in from a laneway. I thanked God for drunken yokels who drove home at 3am. You could barely see him up there. Right away Inez hit the gas. We couldn't let those lights escape.
We were going about forty, hugging the line, bearing down on our salvation—soon we would be home&mash;when the silhouette of an enormous, unmoving animal shone in front of us like a symbol from a dream or a vision. It was as big as a bull elephant standing in the middle of the road. Maybe a mastodon or a giant boar. Something hairy, and with tusks. Whatever it was it wasn't supposed to be there. That was all I knew. Then Inez twisted the wheel and we were in the air.
I saw her face beside me, radiant with fear. She hollered in Spanish or maybe in no language at all as we went rollicking into the dark field toward God knew what terrible reminder. Maki howled in the back seat. The car jostled and bounced as if it had come alive and wanted to shake us out the windows. At the last moment, on a hard jog, the headlights flicked on, and a wreck of rusted machinery rose out of a sudden arc of green field and halted us.
As far as car crashes go, it was a gentle one. But then Maki tumbled into the front seat like a frantic cat, clawing me across the eyes. Long after everything else had settled his body remained in motion, thrashing in its overcoat. It was as if the impact of the crash had nudged him half a dozen seconds out of sync. Then his head clunked against the dashboard and he lay still.
I opened the door and the light came on. We were all pressed together in the front seat, cursing and complaining forthrightly and enthusiastically. I looked at my face in the rear-view mirror and saw that I was bleeding: parallel scratches from Maki raking me across the eyes. Luckily, that was our sole injury. We hadn't been going fast enough to vaporize ourselves or burst into flames.
But here we were, stranded on a dark plane, beyond the fringes of the known world.
"Now what?" I said.
Inez squatted in the grass and peed in fear. A breeze shook the trees at the edge of the field, and in that quiet place it was like the trees had shaken themselves, a warning to interlopers. The faintest hint of denim light was seeping into the eastern sky. The night was short at that time of year.
Our car had hit another car, the rusted-out frame of a station wagon mired in the mud. Apparently what we had done had been done before. Everything had been done before, even this. Feeling stupid and alive I kicked our car a few times while Inez tried starting it, but there was something wrong with it now, something fatal, though the radio and the interior lights all worked.
Unbelievably, Maki was picking out a wild scattershot tune on his mandolin, as if the accident had charged him up again. Or maybe he was only checking his instrument for damage, touching his fingers to each fret, just as I had probed my bleeding face. That's probably what he was doing.
Inez wandered up next to me, shivering, muttering in English. We took the floormats out of the car and lay them on the wet grass, then we sat and waited for daylight. Maki wanted to make a fire but there was nothing to burn except the garbage inside the car. The trees were too far away, he said. We took swigs out of his "small" bottle of whiskey to keep warm and make the morning come faster. I said the word pequeñito a few times but couldn't get it right. Inez corrected me each time. A car swept by on the road, but we ignored it. It was still very dark, and in a belated stab at prudence we thought it best not to go near the road until we could see. I wondered about that animal roaming around up there. Inez said it was a bull—the tusks had been horns—but the thing had looked so large and two-dimensional. All we'd seen of it was its shape, its silhouette, as if someone had placed a large paper cut-out in the road and lit it from behind. Was that possible? Was any of this possible? Had we seen a huge animal in the road and then crashed our car? Of course, it had happened just like that, and now Maki was crouched on the hood, playing his mandolin, and we were all drinking whiskey in the dark.
But if Inez said the thing was a bull, then it was a bull. She was half-Spanish, after all. That made sense.
It wasn't raining—remarkable for dawn in western Ireland at that, or any, time of year. I took the keys out of the ignition and opened the trunk, which felt like an odd formality after the terror and adrenaline of flying off the road. In a movie, the trunk would have popped open five seconds after the crash. There was my backpack, a wild and nonsensical reminder of who I was and where I came from. It was full of my things - my clothes, my books, my diary, my money, a passport with my picture on it.
When there was light enough to see (and, more importantly, be seen) we made our way to the roadside and commenced the long slog home. I had my pack on. Inez carried the contents of the glove compartment in a little box like she'd just been fired from her job. We knew it was unlikely that we would ever go back for the car since we never had any money and the car had been a sudden gift from someone leaving the country. It hadn't cost us a penny. It was probably still registered in the other guy's name.
Maki stood at the side of the road, shaggy, wearing too many coats, mumbling in the gray light. His mandolin hung over his shoulder like a weapon for which there was no word.
In two minutes we were in Castlebaldwin. From there, an old farmer-type delivered us straight into Sligo. He asked no questions, not even about my cut face. He mentioned the weather, and that was all. The dashboard was speckled with little round medallions of the Virgin Mary. They were glued right on, dozens of them, and honestly I'd never been so happy to see her. It felt like she'd arranged our meeting with this old man, this quiet farmer who was taking us home. He was fulfilling his end of a bargain.
But, no, I didn't believe that. I couldn't. There was no arrangement, no bargain. It was dawn. We were ragged. We were drunk and dirty and lost.
Years later, when we were living in another country and we heard about Maki dying in a terrible way in Dublin—he stabbed himself in the chest in his mother's kitchen—I mentioned to Inez how strange I'd found it, seeing him in the airport that night, first thing off the plane. It had scared me. He'd looked so crazy. Why in the world had she brought him along?
But she hadn't brought him along, she said. He'd got off the plane with me.
That's how she remembered it. She swore that the two of us got off the plane together, and I swore that nothing like that had ever been possible. Where would I have gone with Maki? How could she believe something like that? And now that he had gone ahead and killed himself, there was no way of getting the truth out of him.
Why was he there? Had he known we were coming?
Was he waiting for us?
If we hadn't stopped so he could play his fiddle, would we have smashed our car into a pillar somewhere up that road and died in a cloud of flame?
Who can say? Not me.
But why had he put a knife into his chest? Why had he done that?
And how can someone so strange and goofy and talented just—disappear?
These were the questions that came, circling round and round, swooping through each other, like bats over an empty watchtower, a full yellow moon rising in the distance. They were questions with no answers. And maybe they weren't even questions but fears.
We were afraid.
The sky was clear and quiet. In some other part of it the moon was turning around the earth. And we were traveling, moving forward, crossing the country blind.
Kevin Spaide lives in Madrid. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Identity Theory, Per Contra, Summerset Review, Frigg, Dogmatika, and other places.
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