Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Short Story "Driving"

This story first appeared in "Prairie Journal" Issue #47, Edited by Anne Burke.


     Every road must begin and end somewhere. Those are the rules. We live in a world that is governed by the laws of physics. What goes up must come down. What is new eventually becomes old. If you begin at Point A, you will eventually stumble into Point B. Logical, right? This morning, while out driving, I discovered something that defies these theories. I like to check out new places. Nothing piques my curiosity more than passing a new road whose bend twists out of sight. If I have the time, and I often do, I’ll back up, or pull a U-turn in the highway in order to go back and check it out; see where it twists and dips, and what new discoveries I may stumble upon.
     I feel lucky that I got home at all. I want to go back and check it out, but not alone. I need someone else to verify what I think is happening here.
     While I was an undergraduate in university, I stumbled across illustrations called ‘impossible figures’, drawings that look proportionally probable, but upon further examination have sections that never connect or interface where lines are supposed to meet: one in particular looked like a three-pronged tuning fork, the middle ‘prong’ appearing attached to the rest of the diagram until you looked closer, to realize that what you thought you saw, didn’t exist at all. These figures are reminiscent of the Ames Room, an illusion of space and distance that plays havoc with visual perception, making two objects of the same size appear larger or smaller than one another due to the shape and length of the room itself. Optical illusions. The mind can be easily tricked, and the human mind will often form connections based upon familiar patterns.
     The road I came across this morning can be labelled as an impossible figure. It should connect with what appears on the other side of a set of woods that parallel a dip in the landscape, but it doesn’t. The trees form a canopy over this questionable section of road so that, from the air, the road is obscured. Given the trees are Scotch pine that hold their needles, even during the winter months, this quarter mile strip of two-lane blacktop cannot be observed from overhead at any time of the year. It amazes me that something of this magnitude and obscurity can exist, right here, on the edge of an unobtrusive rural town.
     The road branches off from Rural Route # 12 in what is known as S, D. and G counties. That’s short for Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry here in the eastern part of Ontario. The bulk of the geography consists of rolling farmland interspersed with thick clots of private and public woods. The St. Lawrence River cuts a swatch through the land to the south, dividing Canada from its American neighbour, and to the north, the Ottawa and Richelieu Rivers create veins of tributaries that branch out in multiple directions, forming streams, creeks, and swamp grounds.
     This road begins in asphalt, but then forks in two directions about a mile in from the highway. The fork to the left continues paved, past a string of farmhouses and barns, leading toward a town called Grenville.  The fork to the right skewers off into fields and woods – that’s my road (as I’ve come to think of it). The paved section is simply called ‘County Road 1”. The unpaved portion has no name. It’s as if the municipality decided that it wasn’t as deserving of anything; not a title, not a coating.
     And yet it is picturesque for the first half mile. Then the grassy fields of wheat and witch grass on either side give way to scrub brush and eventually trees. The trees are thin at first. They consist of alder and bulimic-looking pines and maples, but soon they thicken into these two clots of dark woods. Here, the road dips as the ground descends, and this morning, possibly due to river fog that hadn’t burned off from a lack of sun, the road disappeared into murk. It was only by slowing the car and taking the decline slowly, that I noticed the gravity of the plunge in the road. The fog thickened. I kept my foot on the brake, afraid of having wildlife like deer or fox bolt in front of the car. The air smelled of rich soil, distant river weeds, and a faint tinting of wood smoke.
     I stopped the car and, keeping my high beams on and the engine running, pulled over to the side of the nameless road. I cut the engine, got out, and shut the door. Surely, the road would begin to ascend any second now, for, as I’d come around the bend, prior to entering the cloud of fog, I’d seen it’s continuation through the sun-filled part of the countryside about two hundred or so meters ahead.
     Ten minutes later, my hands clenched and less than three feet of visibility ahead of me, I realized that the road failed to rise. It kept dipping down, endlessly, into the fog.
     “This isn’t right,” I mumbled. A knot in my gut told me to retrace my steps to the car and get in. I couldn’t explain the feeling, other than an indeterminable dread crept into my stomach and lodged itself there, like a determined boarder refusing to budge. I hurried, convinced that I’d discover my car gone, and myself on a road of nothingness. I broke into a run, feeling sweat trickle down each temple despite the cool in the fog. Mist fingers coiled and twisted, tracing vaporous feathers over my skin. I felt prodded at and teased by the landscape, as if it had suddenly become aware of something new in its midst and had decided to press in, closer to me, for a look.
     I let out a sigh of gratitude when the dark green paint of my faithful Toyota formed a shape in the mist. I threw myself into the driver’s seat and locked the door, restarting the engine. Move forward to see where it might lead, or should I retreat? The road had to go somewhere; I’d seen its continuity before moving into the fog. It should link onto a feeder road that would spit me back out onto # 12.
     I stepped on the gas, tentative, and crept forward, feeling my mouth grow dry and my lower lip curl under my upper teeth in concentration. So quiet in here, and no sign of anything live, not even birds. Branches and clumps of grass loomed up on either side of the road as the ground level continued to descend.  How deep would I plunge? Within two minutes, me crawling along at less than fifteen kilometres an hour, it finally levelled itself out.
     “Ah, so I’ll soon begin to feel it rise,” I told myself. I felt slightly better. I’d reached the bottom where the fog was the thickest, blocking out any visibility. I travelled through ghostly smoke. One minute passed, then two…then three. I kept the car at a steady fifteen kph. It occurred to me that, should the road twist, I wouldn’t see it until I drove off gravel and onto the soft shoulder.
     “Damn,” I muttered. I put my high beams on; this provided perhaps two feet of visibility beyond the car’s hood, showing faint outlines of trees and shrubs growing near each side of the road. It kept on going. More mist, but no end to it. Five minutes later, I began to panic again. This didn’t make sense. I’d seen the road’s continuation a mere quarter of a kilometre beyond the pocket of mist issuing out of the decline. I would have come out of it by now.  I tried the radio, but no signal reached me: I listened to white noise.
     Ten minutes into the mist, terror seized me.
     Then the quality of the air shifted. It smelled wet, almost feral, as if I’d crept into a swamp. I stopped in the center of the road, oblivious to the possibility of another approaching vehicle. Keeping the high beams on, I got out, leaving the driver’s door hanging open on its hinges, like a insect with a broken wing. I stepped with caution ahead of the car, listening to the soles of my shoes scrape over gravel. Soon, the broken stones on the road transpired from dusty to damp. Another five feet and they became wet.
     “What the hell…” I exclaimed. A thin film of water rolled in towards my feet. Water, with velvety stones just below the surface, the kind of stones native to a natural river bed, yet, I knew that the St. Lawrence ran a good mile to the south. I had not passed any ditches, any tributaries, any sign of open water along the way. I wondered about a farmer’s pond or natural ground spring, but even that didn’t make sense crossing over a road like this. We’d had a drought lately; rainwater flooding ditches hadn’t been a recent problem. A school of tiny minnows scooted past the toes of my shoes, startled as I jumped, gasping.
     I turned and raced for the car, clawing my way into the driver’s seat and slamming the door shut. I twisted the car around in a messy U and sped back in the direction from which I had come until I felt the road begin to rise under the tires again. I almost cried with relief. The fog thinned and the car tore out of its pall, its hood glistening with water droplets.  I reached the outer edge of the fog and braked, then got out of the car. From where I stood, I saw the other end of the clear road poke out of the haze – a quarter of a kilometre or less from where I stood. Yet, I’d easily driven four, five kilometres through the mist to reach open water crossing the low section of the road. The remainder of the road, on the unreachable side, twisted around the trees and disappeared back toward the # 12.     I decided that I’d return to the highway and find the other end of this road; I’d go back to town and look for a local map of the all the thoroughfares through this part of the county.
     I drove too quickly, feeling watched and followed by something I couldn’t define, and soon turned east onto Rural Route # 12. One kilometre of highway passed by, then two, then three and no sign of an opening to mark where the other end of this road might intersect with # 12.
     “It doesn’t just stop in a pocket of mist,” I said. “I can see the other side…where the heck does it link?”
     Twenty minutes later, I edged into Morrisburg. I pulled into the local Canadian Tire store and purchased a detailed road map of the counties. I scoured the district of Grenville and its sister towns Greenwich and Bailey’s Corners. I found Rural Road # 1 with my finger pressed to the paper. I followed the road north. The map didn’t show a fork, anywhere. The road continued until it crossed with County Road # 2. I re-traced my finger back down, seeking the other half of the non-existent road on the opposite side of the fog patch. I noted that the legend depicted woods around the area where this mystery section of road should have been, but no sign of the feeder road, or any indication of an ample body of water.
     “It was there,” I said out loud. “I walked on it; I drove on it…I know what I saw.
     At that point, I decided to contact one of my close friends, Moira Banbury. Moira is a mathematics professor at a local college, and she and I often went out for a tea and a chat. Moira lives two blocks from me in the town of Inglewood.
     Seven p.m. that same day. Moira, intrigued by my tale of improbability, and game for a double-double and an old-fashioned donut anyway, arrived at the T-junction of Rural Route #12 and County Road #1 again. I turned onto the paved section of the mystery road again, feeling more confident with Moira in the car.
     “Could it have been illusionary due to the fog?” I queried. “I mean, ten minutes later I still hadn’t arrived at the other side of the incline. And what about the water?”
     “Perhaps you became sidetracked and this unpaved section of road may have branched out again, leading you away from the incline and onto a swamp road. It’s easy to do in thick fog.”
     I contemplated the possibility. I felt certain that I hadn’t taken that steep a turn anywhere. I’d kept the car going straight down, ahead.
     We reached the unpaved section of the mystery road and I turned onto it, speeding toward the distant patch of woods that appeared almost scarlet in a wash of fading sun.
The road bore through the woods; no decline in its surface, anywhere. No fog. No water. No other branch feeding off from it. It was a clear, flat route whose level surface reflected the dapple of wind-tossed foliage overhead.
     “Impossible,” I whispered. My foot pressed down on the brake. Sunlight danced like fire-fairies across the surface, mocking me.
     “I’m telling you,” I turned to Moira. “It has a decline that descends deeply enough that I had to floor the gas to get back up again…”
     Moira sipped at her coffee, the section of flesh between her eyebrows creasing a little.  She looked woeful, as if she dearly wanted to believe me, but sensed that I’d either taken a wrong turn, or that I needed to consider a vacation. My hours at the office could occasionally be long, yes, but I’m not delusional. I know what I saw.
     “Perhaps it was another road?” she tried. “You know how so many of them around here can all look the same.”
     “It wasn’t another road!” I implored, my voice too loud. I gripped the steering wheel with both hands. The vinyl felt warm and moist under my fingers.
     She gripped the paper cup, looking empathic. “Terry,” she said. “You can see that this road bores right through the trees. Let’s drive along it and see where it goes.”
     “It doesn’t make sense,” I fumed. I stepped on the gas and we plunged into the woods. I felt trepidation as we dipped beneath the trees where the decline and its eerie body of water had stopped me less than three hours earlier. We passed beyond the trees and onto the section that I’d only been able to view from the other side of the mist this morning.  It twisted past the woods and snaked through cornfields and grassy patches for another kilometre before meeting up with Rural Road 12. I knew I had not seen this entrance on the way back to town this morning.
     “It’s not on the map,” I countered, triumphant, yanking the map from the glove compartment and opening it to the page for Moira to see. “Take a look for yourself. We are driving on a road that has not been noted by anyone.”
     She looked, first at me, then the map. When she glanced up a minute later, her expression showed pity. “It’s right here, Terry. See for yourself.”
     I pursed my mouth and stopped the car, staring ahead of me, feeling my heart race. Is this how insanity begins, acute and painful on a sunny day while everyone else around you goes about their business, oblivious to the mental attrition occurring inside one’s head?  I examined the map. There it was; the unpaved section of road clearly inked in as a feeder, connecting to # 12.
     “It wasn’t here this morning when I drove past; it wasn’t on the map.”
     “Terry,” Moira tried, and I knew she chose her words with care. “You’ve been putting a lot of hours in at the office lately. You may have looked at another section of this map book, but thought you were examining this page.”
     “I know what I saw.”
     She sighed and looked away from me. I saw the fingers of both of her hands find each other and link.  “Perhaps we’d best go home. I don’t know what to tell you, but steep declines and inclines simply do not appear, and then disappear. You’re a sensible man; you don’t need to be a geologist to understand geography.  I think you may have taken another road this morning that looks a lot like this one. I’ve seen similar places before; that’s why those of us who live out here in the country understand how newcomers can get so easily lost and drive in circles for hours. It’s even happened to me.”
     I simmered. “Do you see that house over there?” We both stared at a two story, red-brick farm house with a sign at the foot of its long drive that read “Cooper Farms Inc.”
     “Yes,” she said.
     “Consider it a landmark. You’re telling me you’re seeing it, correct?”
     “Directly across from this entrance to this unnamed road?”
     “Yes,” more softly.
     “Good,” I told her. “Good. Thanks for confirming it.”
     I drove Moira home and let her off at her front door. She gave me a weak salute as I pulled away. I knew from the expression on her face that it would be a while before she’d accompany me on another drive.
     “Bullshit,” I told myself. I headed back out onto Rural Road # 12, in the direction of the Cooper farmhouse whose entry lane sat directly across from the secondary entrance to the unnamed road. I arrived back there eleven minutes later and watched the Cooper farm grow larger in view. I alternated my eyes between its lane and the grassy fields across from it, seeking the entrance to the road.
     It wasn’t there. Strung barbed wire on wooden posts spanned the length of an unbroken field across from the farm. I felt my heart sink and land somewhere near the pit of my stomach, where it rolled over and lay like a cold brick.
     “Son of a…” I cussed. I sped on until I found the original opening to
...County Road # 1 and, tires squealing, tore onto it. A pedestrian walking along the soft shoulder of Rural Road # 12 stared after my wake. Three minutes later I found the entrance to the unpaved section of road and bore ahead, dusk having darkened the sky to the color of old rainwater tinged in strips of pink and gold. Ahead lay the copse of heavy pine, and in the center of the road and below the trees, a dark hole that looked like the shadow of a crater where that section dipped and disappeared from sight. No fog now; just blackness where the geography sunk into the ground, and where it picked up again, tinted yellow, on the other side of the shadowy trees. It lured me, begging me to crawl forward, closer to the patch of dark and take a good, close look. Perhaps edge the nose of the car into the hole, moving down, deep, deeper to where the air cooled, tinted with night.
     I knew that, should I allow the car to venture into the lip of that shadow, that I would never find the other side of the road. I realized that, should I trek out of the car and into the murk, that soon I’d come to the lip of running water again, ebony except for its schools of silver fish dashing past the toes of my shoes. I understood that, if I glanced at the map now, I’d see no ink depicting this section of roadway, anywhere, on any page of this map book.
     In my mind, I imagine the road connecting somewhere, like an impossible figure, but should I try to drive along it too far, I’ll come to the edge of nothingness where my imagination will falter, and where reality drops off. So shall the car, into water, or over the precipice of something undefined.
     I turned the car around and, without glancing back into my rear view mirror, went home. I’ve never returned to that unnamed road again. Sometimes, when I pass by on #12, I’ll glance along its paved portion, knowing that it’s unpaved fork lays in the distance, waiting for me. No opening exists at the other end across from the Cooper farm. It did for Moira. It doesn’t for me; I don’t think I even want to ask why. She hasn’t accompanied me for a coffee again, and in truth, I can’t blame her. The last time I saw her, as I strolled past her house and she watered her garden, our eyes met for a second and then she pretended to become preoccupied with a patch of weeds growing near her porch. I know when I’ve been snubbed. It angered me enough to consider forcing her into the car, taking her back to that section of road and hurling into the black hole…perhaps push her face into its cold, whispering waters…
     I’ve considered chartering a private plane to venture over the section of woods that act as protective hands around the decline, but my mind turns to odd theories of magnetic fields, time warps, disappearing aircraft. Maybe I won’t find what I’m looking for, or worse, maybe I’ll discover more than I can imagine.
     Care to go for a drive, so that I can know for certain?


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