Last night, we were driving the old roads of St. Bernard in Joe’s first truck, the one that washed up on the neutral ground, upholstery muddied, water pooling in the footwells despite the heat. We were in the old truck, just driving, but Joe kept taking his eyes off the road to dig in the clutter behind his seat, the narrow space of a pickup truck where miscellany accumulates, the stuff there’s no reason to keep and no reason to get rid of, so it just sits back there, waiting.
Eleven years ago it was sunny skies heavy over waterlogged ruins, this soon-to-be-scrap truck, a fixture of our lives, now literally immobile. We pulled odds and ends from behind the seats then, old clothes, a rusting set of tools in a warped case, a DVR/cable box that Joe was supposed to bring back to the cable company but hadn’t gotten around to.
Last night he was digging again. We were probably younger than we were eleven years ago, but it was the old truck and the old friendship, before everything fell apart, and he wasn’t watching the road, so when the taillights flashed red, it was my job to jerk the wheel and yank us to the shoulder so we didn’t kill ourselves. When it gets hard to look ahead, there is no harm in taking your time. They said go west, young man, but they should have said go slow.
I wanted to know what he was looking for, too. On St. Bernard Highway, where the speed limit is 45 but the cars do 60, where big trucks pull on and off the two lane road, swerving into the yellow-gray expanses that crowd the refineries hugging the river, where there’s no sidewalk, it’s important to stay vigilant. Last night it was dark, and traffic was heavy, and Joe was digging behind his seat, and I had to know why. Despite the garland of red brake lights stretching ahead, my attention wandered, and I spent a few minutes in rapt attention, unable to stave off curiosity. And then a hundred lights flaring up like hives flashed across my vision, and my head snapped back to the road and its traffic, now crawling as we hurtled towards it.
We saved ourselves each time, but just barely. After a while, the cars would flow again and we’d move on.
After we’d crushed the brakes, vehicles ahead and behind all shiny and still under halogen street lights, the feeling crept up each time that the cars were stuck that way, crooked in their lanes as if some invisible hand had dropped them haphazard in a line. That they were rotting husks, caked in mud, engines rust-fused, immobile physically and yet somehow also fixtures of memory, oil stains on the pavement of our souls, merged on weed-choked highways beneath the yellow chemical fires of oil refinery burnoff. Merged in the truck that we perched inside. Joe’s first truck.
In the traffic jams, Joe and I would sometimes get out to look ahead and behind at the endless caravan of quiet cars, just like we did eleven years ago, waiting in eternal lines for a few gallons of gasoline.
In the other cars sat other people. Most looked like us: worried they’d never start moving again, afraid their attention might stray from the road, impatient and ignorant of what was coming.
A few of the figures were different, however. They stumbled from between the cars, scraping worn shoes over gravel-littered pavement, reaching curling hands at the rest of us, groping forward as we shuffled back, uncomfortable at the spectacle. Their hair glowed technicolor in the refinery fires.
Their faces weren’t there. They were just outlines, black contours twisted in agony, skin and muscle and bone all invisible. You could see the sweating cars and baking pavement right through them.
We scrambled back to our own cars then, and the traffic stuttered once again to life. St. Bernard Highway must be a thousand miles for how long we drove it. And there we’d be, moving again, when Joe would start his digging, and I would get distracted, and we’d almost crash, screeching to a halt at the last possible moment. And we would wait, companionable in silence, until curiosity pulled us once again from our seats. The see-through men with their panic and their groping, their silent torment, would stumble out again. Around and around it went.
Once, late, after we’d lost track of how many times we’d stopped and started, Joe and I were out on the street, the cooling hood of his first truck pinging between us. We were waiting for the cars to decide what they were, if this was a traffic jam or a graveyard, when one of the see-through men careened out of the shadows towards us, and Joe and I were separated.
I sputtered away and was, all at once, lost among unfamiliar cars.
I turned and there the see-through man was, reaching for me, face and hands an outline of comic book ink, technicolor hair and ragged clothes gaudy and dripping. I backed myself against a rusting hatchback low on dry rot tires, and, as his fingers scratched at my collarbones, I swung wide the hatch and flung myself inside.
The car was a stinking hulk, upholstery speckled with mud and mildew, slime smearing my hands and legs as I scrambled deeper inside. I didn’t know whose car it had been, but one thing was clear: it was not in the slow flow of traffic, knotting and unknotting itself like a garden hose. It was a wreck. A flooded-out wreck.
And behind me, the see-through man was still coming.
I crab-walked through the car, hurling myself into the squelching driver’s seat, but the man was relentless, crawling after me, hands outstretched, face twisting. Cornered, I fumbled at the slick door handle, but he was already on me, hands pawing my chest and gripping my shoulders, shaking me, like he wanted to wake me up.
And suddenly I realized: the man was sick.
He was choking.
He hooked a thumb toward his back, and I spun him around and hammered a fist against his spine, and he coughed, the first sound I’d heard him make, and doubled over across the gear shift, retching onto the ruined passenger seat.
I waited, pants soaked from rancid water dripping down the car’s sagging headlining, until at last the see-through man hunched his shoulders and tilted awkwardly around, dropping into the passenger seat.
I gaped. The man was no longer see-through. Above a ragged shirt stretched a mottled neck and head, color already blooming on a face, strained but relaxed, fixed in a moment of relief.
Wordlessly, we climbed out to stand on the cracked asphalt of St. Bernard Highway. All around were the ruins of a thousand cars and trucks, motorbikes and boats. I searched for the truck, Joe’s first truck, but it was gone. The man nodded his thanks and slipped into the darkness.
But I was lost.