Broken coil twists like wrists wringing out the wet rag of muscle suspending shoulders. I hold tension in my neck. Plush couch. Chocolate velour. I’m Webster’s definition of overtired. Firestones spin in my head, frictionless–that last cup of coffee an hour and ten interstate exits ago was probably overkill. Heart idles like a Buick in subzero weather. Flutter. When my pulse rises and races, there is a sustained momentum of weightlessness (a light-headed blood pressure push to rush)–my ticker is helium heavy long enough to feel tighter tethers–the anchor end of 14 hours and 748 miles staring at divided highways through a dirty windshield.
The shag carpet moves under this couch. Vertigo comes in waves. Ten after three. Another hour from now I’ll be wakeless. Unsleep. Unwake. R.E.M. in theory–tired in practice. Overtired. Pages of books and lyrics seeping into headphones. The Hold Steady. A friend’s poems. Old news. New faces. Same results. Miles have been accumulating like debt. I feel like I’m in a tunnel. Or at the bottom of a well.
When I was five I fell in a creek that ran behind the town firehall. A late August downpour turned the little stream into a fast moving buzzsaw. I was never a strong swimmer. I remember trying to skip across it–as if I could channel my inner Barry Allen. I remember feeling the water wrap its fist around my ankle and yank hard and deliberate. I woke up to screaming and hands on my sternum. Voices rushing to fill the void of unconsciousness. I don’t remember any struggle. I don’t remember any of the sensations you hear about drowning–the silent violence of water forcing itself into the lungs. The choking cold insistence of nature. No pain. Just the rush of being dragged somewhere deep and the force of palms pumping hard and desperate on my chest–like a second heart. Inverted.
Midday on 695 and I’m thinking about how this beltway moves like my fingers through a bowtie. Satin-touched paisley print–silver blue floats in an emerald green ocean around my neck. Overtired. Little teardrops float in this silky ether. A Holiday Inn Express cuts this distracted chain of thought off–as well as two full lanes of traffic. Seconds rush in to fill time’s void. The interstate materializes like a rapidly developing Polariod. I want to pull over. Adrenaline. Blood pressure thrums in my collar. The fact I was nearly sideswiped fully sinks in. Pins and needles. The Ramones roaring loud. I wonder what I was trying to drown out. Volume traded for distraction.
If you stop to do the math of miles and hours as you’re crossing multiple states, you’re in trouble. I started to listen to only a handful of albums in rotation in an attempt to remove time from the equation of exhaustion. It’s like balancing chemical formula. One or two albums can make you feel like you’re never going to reach your destination. Too many albums make you overly aware hours are passing. You have to trick your mind. Or it wanders. If you are a career overthinker, driving is the best worst thing you can possibly do. Insomnia in motion.
I used to think that driving late at night when I couldn’t sleep would actually help me get a handle on tired. So wrong. Big skies are empty notebooks aching to be filled with whatever hang up, hold out, or hard call sat on your chest in bed. I have about half a dozen names rumbling around my phone. Incomplete dispatches. You really feel the disconnection when it comes to text messages on the highway. Maybe because you know there are more than miles between you and your recipient. You turn the handful of words over and over, like Larry Levis in that poem about Lorca–what’s it called? The distraction of memory works well on the road when it comes to trivia, but when it comes to autopilot feelings–muscle memory of familiar highways–memory is a fist clutching your ankle, forcing the accelerator to the floorboard. Speed increases but there are some things you cannot outrun.
I-81’s crooked spine arches and arcs with the withering mountains it was built around. Icy tapestries glacier the walls penning in this stretch of two lanes. I know that from the 80/81 split is about 33 minutes to South Franklin St. From my alma matter to the PA/NY border is just shy of an hour twenty depending on traffic and time of day. Last spring I was on this stretch of highway alone. As I pulled into the New York Visitor’s center, I felt the accumulated miles of three plus years. It all came out of me at once–a rush of blood to the brain. Lightheaded. Nearly fell out of my car. Didn’t make it to the bathroom. Doubled over. Sick to my stomach then to the sidewalk. It was last Spring–almost a year ago to the month. Stay on 81 long enough it’ll fork–come towards and go away from the Chenango. Follow the river or follow the mountains. So unlike Frost. No one way. Different not difference. Drive around long enough and you’ll pass both ways. Regardless of how they wind or where they lead, it’s always a circle. Round trip. Here. There. Back. Again. Doubled over. Waking from nearly drowning.
My hands coil around the steering wheel. Twin fists wrap around Craig Finn’s lyrics. Constrict. Relax. Uncoil. Blood unwhite the knuckles. I feel rivers run through me, through all these passenger thoughts and real miles. Turn the radio up, slightly above a distractible noise, and get ready to read poetry in a half-full theatre.
Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals including The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Five Quarterly, and The Minnesota Review. He is a huge Hold Steady fan. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.