Driving and walking away

Winter mornings when it was still dark, the crunch of my footsteps, from the house to the driveshed. Flick of the light switch and a barncat scrambled into the junk beyond the tractor; leather harnesses, broken rocking chairs, the detritus of old farm life. I put my bag of high school binders into the passenger side of the truck. My job was to lift the two-by-four and open the bay doors; prop one door open with the two-by-four, hold the other door open with my hands, and my dad would drive the truck out; and then I’d close it all up. The driveshed had a soft earth floor, and smelled faintly of oil. Old kitchen cabinets, tin cans full of nails, walls lined with tools with wooden handles. Flick off the light and step outside, where the truck is humming, puff of exhaust in the cold air, red brake lights glowing; and a few stars remaining up in the predawn sky.

I almost killed myself in Lesotho, driving. I almost killed someone else too. I drove into the opposite lane, across a double solid yellow line, to pass a truck, approaching a blind turn. I was going fast, the truck (a pick-up) was very slow. It took one second to get beside it, I needed one more second to get beyond; but in that second, a car came round the bend and it was right in my windshield. It might have been the last thing I ever saw. It was a red car. In one second there would have been an impact, a sudden massive slam; and then nothing. Two men dead, because one was angry, I couldn’t have told you why. I was driving a school van, I was driving alone (I was never reckless with passengers) in broad daylight, on a good road, smooth, clean black asphalt. They said the Chinese had built it. There was a solid yellow line down the middle, but I cruised over it because the truck ahead was going too slow. It was a beaten piece of junk common to Lesotho; pick-ups like this one cluttered the modern highway, burning oil, puttering along at 40 k’s and getting in the way when I was going 100 and didn’t feel like stopping. Why slow down, when I can pass him in a second. Fuck it I’m not slowing down could have been my last thought and sentiment, ever.

There was no time to think or look. Every one of us — me, the truck driver, the red car driver — made our own, instantaneous decision; we decided in isolation; and if all three of our instant, isolated decisions hadn’t fit together so perfectly, then all three of us might be dead. I swerved left, the car swerved right, and the truck, well I have no idea what the truck did, I never saw it. Whatever the truck did, it went somewhere that I didn’t, because I didn’t hit it although I was beside it the instant before I swerved sharply in its direction. And I saw the red car go veering off the road. I saw it in my mirror, I saw it veer off into the dirt and go into a spin. It spun around once, and spun around again, spraying dirt into the air. The dirt sprayed way high above the car. The spin slowed, the car dragged to a halt, coming to a rest facing away from me, pointing in its original direction. And I had stopped my van on the shoulder of my side of the road. So it ended as if we had both pulled over and parked, nice and orderly. What the truck driver had done, I’ll never know; he didn’t stop; I guess he kept puttering along at 40 k’s; maybe he was even oblivious to the whole near-death drama. I turned off my engine. It was a quiet road on a barren stretch of dry, flat land. Mountains in the distance. I had experienced the whole thing without sound, but now that I was stopped, I heard the faint tick of the cooling metal, and the slight breeze at my open window.

A half-minute of stillness — I sat and waited. I wanted to lower my head, but I couldn’t move my gaze from the image in my mirror of the red car behind me. Then a man got out of the car. He was a modestly dressed man, and it was a modest car, typical of middle class Lesotho which would be lower class Canada. I thought of these men as the Basotho box men. Their cars were like boxes, their briefcases too; their clothes were business cheap. The man stood still for a moment, then walked slowly up the road, up to my window. He had a full, round face that looked weary, not hostile. And he spoke to me. His voice was slow and the tone was a question, but I couldn’t understand, I didn’t know the language, I hadn’t tried to learn it. I could only say in English, “I’m sorry,” and that just barely. He stared at me, I couldn’t tell if he understood. Surely he could read the look on my face? Then he said something else, again the tone of a question, with a sigh. His face was heavy but his eyes were awake. There was something he wished I could tell him, though he looked too tired to want it. All I could do was meet his gaze, in helpless silence. He stared back. Then, with no gesture or change in expression, he turned gently and walked away. I watched him in my side mirror as he walked, with slow purpose, like he was feeling every step back to his car. He got in; I watched in my mirror the car start; it eased its way carefully from the shoulder up onto the pavement; I watched it in my mirror gradually accelerate, shrink, and vanish in the distance. Then I sat a long time.

I can see this, still. I can see my hands resting on the steering wheel, and feel the warm sun through my windshield, as I’m sitting there, still. All of our energy comes from the sun. Light-harvesting systems, the flow of electrons. Without it, we wouldn’t exist. The sun isn’t alive, but we are. But that’s not a very useful thing to think about, most of the time.

One day, not so long ago (and a long time since that Lesotho highway) I was thinking, deep in thought, and I was driving, and then I realized that I was driving the wrong way. I was thinking about the degrading meeting that I was — well, that I thought I was driving to, only to realize that I wasn’t. My thoughts were about anthropology, and my failing efforts at a university career. I was remembering how it had once inspired a new interest in the world and some joy of discovery, joy that I had needed very badly, after coming home. I had come home from Lesotho, started university, and by luck I had a professor named Roger Keesing, who — for me at least — was a model of curiosity, respect and good humour. A guy from California, who had a conscience, but not a burdened one; not the sort of conscience that smothers the joy of being alive. An expert on kinship who wasn’t afraid to wonder in ignorance, about things like how toddlers can learn to see ancestral spirits, or how the medium of water would affect the language of dolphins, if dolphins had a language, and what that would mean for dolphin minds. He told a story in lecture once about asking the Kwaio for the names of animals that lived on their island, and the Kwaio said, “Our animals have names, but we don’t know them.” I don’t think any of the students got the point of that story. The look on Keesing’s face suggested that he didn’t get it, either; he just thought there was one. Many students thought he was weird, for that reason. But he wasn’t trying to be weird. He would say things sometimes, not despite not knowing, but precisely because he didn’t know. And I liked him for that reason.

I was driving to this meeting, and thinking about the curiosity that I first associated with anthropology. That strength through vulnerability that I thought it fostered, had made me choose it as a path; now I was wondering, where did it go. It had turned out to be a mirage, but once it got me in, I guess, I forgot why I was there. Keesing died the summer that I started grad school, and I entered a world of anxiety, arcane theory, and intense moral judgements of everything you can think and ask. Everyone needs to become an expert, and everyone’s desperately afraid to be wrong. I joined the competition, the anxiety game, and I was good at it, for fifteen years. When you’re good at something, and when it used to be good for you, you don’t always notice that you’re gone. But gradually it had dawned on me, and finally it clicked, that I wasn’t Roger Keesing; his lessons were over; that all my study of humanity since then, had not given me joy. So many words about the human being; my constant striving, ever proving; praise receiving, bereft of meaning. I could be one of those hungry ghosts, the ones who haven’t realized that they have died.

I was in the wrong lane on the Allen and I realized it too late; I was already on the ramp, entering the eastbound 401. Shit. And it was the express lane. I would have to cross a lot of lanes now, to get to the next exit, turn around and do my job. In that traffic, it was a challenge. I kept looking in my mirror for a space to move into, kept looking, finding a space, in the next lane, and the next. I was almost at the exit, and I’d made it there just in time; but then, something in me said no. I’d succeeded in getting there, just in time; but then I hesitated, and the exit was gone. And sure, I could have taken the next exit. Could have. But didn’t.

I kept going, beyond Bayview, past the Ikea. I don’t mind having the same furniture as everyone else.

Past the highrise condominiums. So many people, I’ll never know. I’m sure they are mostly like me. It’s not that complicated. I don’t mind if we’re all the same.

Traffic thickens at the Parkway. I just go easy, with the flow, minimum fuss at the car’s controls. Beyond the Don Valley, the highway runs level with the rooftops of stores around Scarborough Town Centre, and that’s one of my favourite parts, driving alongside the flat rooftops with the CN Tower far in the distance. I know this highway. The old railway bridge that crosses at a diagonal. The convergence of express and collectors. There’s no way I could make that meeting now. The sound barriers at Whitby, the narrowing in Oshawa. The factory by the lake that produces white dust, I don’t know what that factory is but I like it, I’ve seen it all lit up at night. After that, the highway thins and the view widens; the sky expands, and we’re into farmland. Two hours of mostly farms.

It’s odd to drive a car down the dirt road to the elementary school. It feels like it’s not allowed; I always came here by schoolbus. It’s a surprisingly small building, surrounded by fields. We certainly went to school in a remote location, with a yard that’s bigger than most city parks, bordered by a dirt road, a hayfield, woodland, and cattle pasture. The playground equipment is different, that’s no surprise after almost thirty years. I walked across the field to a copse of cedar trees that hadn’t been there thirty years ago. Cedar grows quickly, the trees were pretty tall. Inside the trees was the perfect place to take a piss; good to find a sheltered place, even though there was no one around. Then I saw the sign in the circle of trees, in a playful Chalkboard font: “Outdoor Classroom”. Oh. That’s right. This is a school yard, I forgot. That makes me a very bad person. Professor drives three hundred kilometres to piss in the outdoor classroom. I guess the theme for today is: not thinking. I forgot this isn’t a regular field. But who ever heard of a cedar tree classroom? Well, the kids will be all right, they won’t know and they’ll survive.

Walking back to my car, in the lengthening shadows of the swingsets and slides, I looked from the playground down the dirt road, and I remembered something I hadn’t thought of for a very, very long time. I remembered looking from this playground, when I was six years old, when I watched Jonathan go down the road.

Jonathan had started crying in the playground. I don’t know what upset him, I never knew; I was playing with other kids, not him. One moment I was playing, and next I heard Jonathan crying and he walked past me and he yelled, “I’m going home.” He’d had enough, he was going home. Six years old. After he said that, the sound of his crying stopped; and I watched him march with his fists clenched, out of the playground area, all the way to the edge of the grass; and then without breaking his stride, he marched right off the grass and onto the dirt road, the school road that runs in a straight line to the distant two-lane highway. I was transfixed. Awestruck, really. From grass, to road: it had never occurred to me to cross that line. And, that other decision: school was over for Jonathan, because he said so. What a revolutionary idea, that you could just decide! And then walk. We were always delivered to school, and picked up later, by the school bus, marshalled on and off; we always needed machines, and grownups; we always needed permission. But Jonathan had given himself permission; he decided he was done; and he was going home. He didn’t need anything. He knew how to walk.

He was six, and tiny. A year or two later, he got chubby; but at this time, in this memory, he was still a little pin of a boy; marching down the road no longer crying, jeans a little short, showing his ankles; walking in blue North Star sneakers with the red stripes.

I knew where he lived. To get to Jonathan’s house, you’d have to walk all the way down this road; turn right on the paved highway; walk in the gravel beside that highway, across the flat marsh land; then climb the hill with the graveyard and the big white Catholic church. After the church, near the top of the hill, you’d have to cross the highway to where another dirt road begins. Follow that oily dirt road (it was always extra oily) as it goes down the east side of the hill that you just climbed; you’ll have to follow it up another hill, walk past the Canada Goose conservation area; walk past Ryan’s house, past a big hole in the ground surrounded by crab apple trees; past Megan’s house with the willow trees; past the large chicken farm with the rows of long low barns set far back from the road. And then I think you’re maybe half way. Maybe a bit more than half. But you still have to go way way way down that dirt road whose remaining details and ups and downs I don’t know quite so well, until finally you get to a flat wide-open plain that introduces the meagre village of Moscow, where Jonathan lived in a little stucco house, with his hunting dad and craft-making mom.

I watched Jonathan growing more distant, walking where I thought no kid had walked before. Then a teacher went past me briskly and pursued him down the road. Even walking in low heels and a long skirt, she could easily outpace a six year old; these grownups towered over us, back then. Jonathan must have heard her getting nearer, and she must have been calling him, but he didn’t look back or change his pace. She caught him about a third of the way to the highway. By then I couldn’t see very well above the field grass, but I heard Jonathan wail when she took him by the arm. She took him gently, though, I’m sure. She wasn’t angry.

I look at maps of the brain, and the diagrams of the cells, the pathways, the receptors, the transmitters. All of that is in me. And is me. And I think somewhere in my version of all that, is the image of a barn cat. There’s the smell of oil, and the light switch of the driveshed. An elm tree, and an African man. Somehow, over years and years, some neurons have maintained a Basotho box man at my window; he’s asking a question that I don’t know. The sound of his voice, the light in his eye. The sight of him in my mirror, walking away, down the road. The sight of Jonathan, little Jonathan, walking down the road. Somewhere, in all of those networks of neurons, is the image of my hands, resting on the steering wheel, and there’s a feeling — there’s myriads of voltage-gated ion channels, adding up to a feeling — of the knowledge, that I know it happened; that I was once far away, in a van, sitting in silence on a lonely stretch of road. Listening to my breathing; shadows lengthening; and I’m hardly thinking, it’s more like hearing; that’s my body telling me: that we are still alive.

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