We sit together in the companionable silence of midnight, and savior this slice of life before lockdown. For three months already, the novel Coronavirus has had us trapped in our four walls, with only each other for company, and we’re starting to go insane. I inhale the open night. The mountain grasses whisper warm perfume along the deserted tightrope from Damascus to Madras: The Warm Springs Veterans’ Memorial Highway.
Around a corner, a car is shunted slantwise between the hard shoulder and a sheer, dry roadside ditch. Its front wheel well is shredded–is there even a wheel in it?–and the bonnet is tented over a tattered front bumper. The roof and windscreen are opaque with dull orange dust. We crane our necks to see what’s going on; nothing is moving inside or outside.
We double back to take another look; still no sign of movement. We exchange a glance, and Tav pulls in behind it as I reach for a flashlight, steeling myself to open the door—when a bright white, circular light appears from the shadows and bobs toward us. I squint at it and see the white pickup it emerged from, invisible in the dark until now. The light shines in our window and flashes twice. A wave of humidity sweeps through the opened window.
“Does anyone need help?” Tav’s voice is higher than usual.
“No, all good. Waiting for a tow truck. Thanks for the stop.” He’s a little breathless. Near his waist, we glimpse a silvery crest and a standard-issue utility belt. Gun, spray, the whole shebang.
“No problem”, I reply. “Good luck.”
As we turn back the way we came, the blue and red bar on the pickup’s roof bursts into light.
An hour later and Tav’s desperate for a toilet. They spot the neon glow of a small shop as we round a corner. We swing into the layby’s sharp turn, and for half a second the lights disappear into a sudden abyss beyond the dirt.
The car bucks wildly off the thick tarmac of the road. The seat beneath me disappears without warning as it tilts sideways; my lungs suck in air and hold it in my frozen chest; time slows as I stare dead ahead at the dizzying swirl of distant city lights, bracing myself to plunge out of our pool of light, off the naked edge of the cliff–
The car rocks gently as the other set of wheels thuds into the mercifully flat ground of the layby. I take deep, slow breaths. In…and out.
“It’s OK,” Tav murmurs to my wide-eyed terror. “We’re OK,” they repeat to themself.
My heart slows, and I exhale tension from my shoulders.
“I’m OK,” I echo.
When I finally wake up it’s two in the afternoon and there’s a distant rumble on the air. Within twenty minutes an iron-grey curtain of solid water drops from the sky. The stairs reverberate with a metallic shuddering like machine gun fire.
“I left my vape in the car!” I say. Tav hands me theirs wordlessly. We turn up the TV.
Half three rolls around, and a sudden silence wraps around the liquid dripping of the staircase. Huge new pools seven inches deep submerge the tarmac from the curb to the back wheels of our car. A chalky neon yellow film swirls and shifts on the surface like oil in the wind. It’s everywhere–even the cars and the walls are streaked with it. I sniff a little, and sneeze.
“Pollen,” I explain. Tav executes some impressive gymnastics getting in the car without touching, stepping on or breathing in any of it.
We wait for an opening in the traffic to leave the car park. A man strides toward us, his arms held wide from his body. Shabbily dressed and greying, he stares Tav in the eye and mouths something. His lips are drawn back, yellowing teeth bared under flared nostrils; the bloodshot whites of his eyes are fully visible under wiry, deep-creased eyebrows. I tense as Tav cracks the window open.
“Say that word again!” There’s a pause. His bulging eyes bore through the glass.
“What word?” Tav frowns in honest bewilderment.
“Oh.” The creases of his forehead unfurl as his shoulders deflate, and the crimson in his skin subsides. “It wasn’t you?” Tav shakes their head. Yeah, someone over there just shouted “FUCK!”. I was gonna shut ’em up.
“Yeah, I heard that, too,” they reply conversationally. “Well… good luck with that.”
“Yeah? If I find ’em, you’ve got my back, yeah?”
“Sure.” There’s a break in the traffic. We wave politely as we turn into the road. “Have a good day!” He waves back.
“You too!” He spots a car behind us. His shoulders reinflate as he charges toward it.
“Say that word again!”
The next day is all fresh breezes and chalky yellow smears of tree pollen left by the evaporating puddles. The country here is mostly farmland, neat rolling squares dotted with the aged grey skeletons of barns and cattle sheds.
At a cluster of houses we’re greeted with a Trump 2020 placard, conspicuous in the clean green fields around the highway. We accelerate through it. When, twenty minutes later, we’re greeted by a Make America Great Again sign, we’re already zooming along at 80. At a small stone-brick church, Hillary for PRISON is an almost-welcome respite.
“At least it’s clever,” Tav snorts. We cackle our way down the highway.
We’ve reached a bigger town- Prineville. Another Trump placard stands proudly on the side of the road, covered in black spray paint.
RACIST, it reads. We slow to the speed limit.
A windowless cement-brick building stands tall among the rows of houses and stores. One wall bears a huge camouflage mural.
PREPPER UP: “Hunting, Fishing, Survival”, declare large square letters. We glance at each other nervously.
“Shall we?” Tav asks. My stomach tightens. Their eyes dart to the building, then to me. “Come on,” they say. “Let’s do it. Just to see.”
I’m curious, but I’m also acutely aware of my glittery Doc Martens, short dress, brown skin and extremely hairy legs. Gun-toting racists invade my imagination. Tav catches me looking at myself and puts a hand on my knee.
“We’ll get out of there the second you want to. We don’t even have to go in the door.” Finally, I nod. Impulse control was never my strong suit.
Inside, wood-paneled walls carry row after row of sleek long-nosed guns. In the middle, standard black wire shelving holds tactical vests next to camping equipment next to ammunition. Yellow patches carry the libertarian snake, the Stars and Stripes, and military sigils, but not much worse. I scour the displays, on alert for warning signs.
“Excuse me”, a guy behind the counter calls lightly, “I’ve gotta ask you to remove your masks, please.”. He gestures at the guns at the wall, and we oblige. He’s thickly built with a large beard and baseball cap, but not much taller than I am. On his shirt, stencilled lettering declares he’s a BIG BEARDED FUCK.
“Feel free to have a look around,” he says, “but is there anything I can help you with today?” His hands are spread wide, palms facing the ceiling. His voice is surprisingly high. Tav motions at a locked glass cabinet.
“Actually, yeah! You’ve got the Baofeng programmable radio accessories. I’ve wanted these for ages!” The Big Bearded Fuck recognises another radio fanatic. They chat away about this antenna, that car charger, as I wander off around the rest of the store. The back is a maze of little rooms connected by wide, empty doorways.
There are guns everywhere. I’m terrified at how normal they seem; just another thing they sell here. We’ve argued back and forth on whether we should get one, both of us changing sides a dozen times–I’m brown, they’re transfeminine, the world is scary–but it was mostly hypothetical. End-of-the-world, collapse-of-civilization, fascist-dystopia type stuff.
A little stand displays multicoloured Tasers. My fingers hover over one for a second, before picking it up. It’s feather-light and purple, small enough for the palm of my hand. I know what it is–how dangerous it is–but it feels like it could belong to me. Something I could use if I had to. I suddenly understand why guns come in pink.
Around me, customers chat with the staff. A shop worker jokes about goats in attack vests and I burst out a giggle; he smiles at me curiously. Tav ogles the expensive utility knives.
“Out of curiosity… How long’s the wait for a gun?” they ask at the checkout.
“It’s longer than usual, I’m afraid,” he grimaces. “Four hours”. We murmur shocked at each other and him–we’d expected weeks. “I know, it’s normally about 15 minutes,” he adds sympathetically. “Last week it hit five days. Longest I’ve ever seen it.”
Several hours later, the sky sends up the first orange flares of sunset. On this side of the road, our car trails the occasional lone farmers’ vehicle. The other side of the road, however… in ten minutes, at least six cars have passed us.
“A lot of people are heading toward Portland. D’you think something’s happened?” I wonder. Tav switches on the radio– nothing. Only static. Four more identical blocky white cars pass; Tav frowns.
“Those were undercover cars. Keep an eye out.” I do, and with each one my heart descends further into the cold pit of my stomach.
On the road from Idaho to Portland, snuck into two-and-three- car campers’ convoys or traveling alone, miles apart, slink no fewer than thirty thick-bodied law enforcement vehicles. Unmarked white four-by-fours, their red and blue lights barely disguised behind gleaming silver grilles, travel in twos and threes–or alone, towing clean white campers’ trailers quietly packed with out-of-state National Guard. The yellowing sedans of Idaho sheriffs shadow tall civilian RVs, and chunky Marshalls’ pickups announce their presence with red and blue paint.
“The protests,” Tav says at long last. “They’re heading toward Black Lives Matter protestors.” A long silence passes, and with it several more cars.
“I wish we could do something”, I murmur.
“It wouldn’t take much,” Tav glances at me sideways as the number ticks up. “Just a couple of radios and some spikes.”
We return to silence and the radio’s empty crackling. What would we even achieve?
Our motel is in Ontario, Oregon. We cross the border into Payette for a vape shop. The clerk is thrilled at the appearance at out-of-towners. He asks a lot of questions: Why did we move? Is the US better than the UK? Did we fly?
“It’s so cool that you’re British”, he repeats. “I wish I could travel, but… minimum wage. One day!” He stares for a full minute at my Amazonian legs, but doesn’t stop flirting. “Here, have a discount for being from England. You’ve really made my day.”
The next morning, we’re packing to leave. Two police officers rap on the room two doors down. A rangy white guy with long grey hair and a moustache sits outside, swaying slightly on his bench. A cloud of smoke floating around his face.
“He… gets like this sometimes,” he says to the officers.
A few minutes later a raggedy young guy, also white, is sitting next to him in handcuffs.
“Not doing so well, are we?” the officer says. “Having a hard time? What we wanna do is get you to a hospital, get you checked out”.
He’s led away to the police car. The two officers pace in and out for a while. Their voices are quiet and even; I can’t hear them. After they’re gone, the old guy murmurs an explanation to a passerby.
“He’s a junkie,” he mimes injecting himself in the arm. “He was using again”. The sun is fierce, high in a Mediterranean sky. We pull over to drink it all in. The vast horizon of baked-earth mountains are bare as desert, but a lush verdant ribbon of life clusters around a steadily widening river, clear as silver, that weaves parallel to the road. The serenity of the river and the fresh green scent of warm foliage is inviting. I venture out barefoot to take some pictures. I briefly consider wading into the river, but the gravel is scorching. I hop comically back to the car.
The CB radio crackles into life as a trucker catches our signal and drawls a greeting.
“Say again? Didn’t catch that”, Tav transmits.
“Again”, he chuckles.
A local sheriff passes on the other side of the road and the radio kicks up again. The trucker’s found a friend and together they’re toying with the sheriff; one in front and the other behind, driving at exactly the speed limit. The slow down a little, then speed up a little, then repeat, laughing to each other over the air. A while later, three more identical white four by fours trail behind them, followed by another sheriff.
“Heads up, there’s more behind you.” Tav warns them. They reply, but they’re out of range. All we hear is static. The sheriff spots our long CB antenna and doubles back to follow us for a while.
“What’s the limit here again?” we ask the radio.
“65”, someone replies.
Tav flicks on the cruise control. When we turn onto another road, the cop doesn’t follow us. We’re blissfully alone agan.
At the next motel, we try Guy’s Grocery Games. It’s fun TV, light and easy. It’s our little vacation ritual–a tradition, now–dinner and then something with Guy Fieri. We cuddle and comment idly on the show to each other. Occasionally the local news station pipes up;I try to ignore it as it pushes its long, blunt nail into our bubble of happiness. These days, those two words–“the news”–drop a cold blade into my stomach.
The shows repeat and we flick over to another channel. In the next one, a pair of twins upgrade houses and sell them for more than fifty thousand dollars’ profit. I wonder what “young first-time buyer” can afford a four hundred grand newly refurbished condo. I live out a savage internal daydream about the twins becoming homeless in the burdgeoning economic recession. At least they’ve got a VW Bus. Already ahead of the rest of us.
We stop for lunch in Sandy, Oregon.
“We really should have a proper lunch”, I say, but honestly I just want to savour our last bite of freedom for as long as possible.
In Portland, I scan the streets for change. The curbs are so empty; the roads so full. The grass waves at us as we pass, already three feet high with fluffy seed heads. The house feels different, too, but I can’t quite put my finger on how.
Tav turns the TV to a local news station. I brace myself. Oregon’s blood banks are in desperate need of donors. NBC News reports– word for word– General Mattis’ harsh, pointed and thoroughly accurate criticisms of Trump.
“…Never did I dream troops would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief…” the anchor reads.
An NFL player criticised the actions of his fellow players who knelt, en masse, to the national anthem. After blacklash from the public, other players and his own team-mates, a publicist wrote his apology. The clip’s a screencap of a CNN report, which itself took the video from YouTube. Every grainy movement on their disembodied faces is huge on the screen. It’s so jarringly intimate.
I expected to be overwhelmed by it all, but I’m not. Maybe what I cobbled together in my head, half-remembered snippets glued together with imagination, was worse—or maybe our journey, and its reminder of the world outside, has bolstered my resilience. I swell with respect for the football players who knelt for the anthem. Admiration for those who risk their jobs and health to speak out. Compassion for the hospitals who prepare with apprehension for what lies ahead. Above all, I’m filled with the detached certainty of it all, as I remember how close to home it will come. It seeps in like mustard gas.
Arsha Adarsh is a chronically ill, Desi poet and writer from the UK who’s fallen in love with The Oregon sky. They find healing in the weird and the unexpected. Their work’s been published by Ang(st), Ayaskala, The Daily Drunk, Ghost Heart, Analogies & Allegories, and others. They’re a BOTN 2020 nominee. Find out more at https://aadarsh.ink, or follow them on Twitter @arsha_writes or Mastodon @firstname.lastname@example.org. They’d love to hear from you!
Read more of Arsha’s work in Mixed Mag:
Interesting Times: “Life in Toxicity” by Arsha Adarsh (Issue 6)