The Highway and Nothing

I’ve decided to steer this blog in a more literary direction. At least until I decide to steer it another direction or stop steering at all. But I’ve decided to write some short stories, and I have a file full of dozens of ideas, but I’ve been too lazy to write any of them. So yesterday I decided to write and it came out…well, rather crazy. Or did it? Here it is:

I left work one evening, right at 11:15 as normal, and the strangest thing happened. As I was driving down the highway, the rest of the world disappeared, and only the highway was left there alone.

No, no, that’s not the way to start it. For starters, you should know that this was many years ago and it happened many thousands of times, so that, if you add them all up I must be the equivalent of like a million years old . . . but that’s no good either. If I tell it that way you’ll think I’m crazy, and crazy I most emphatically am not.

The background, the background. Always start a story with the background so they don’t think you’re insane. Yes, so anyway, I wasn’t always a resident here. Oh, yes, I mean at the St. Germaine-Trinity’s Skilled Nursing Unit, in the city of Ralph, North Dakota. It’s a real place, you can look it up. I’ve been a resident here for . . . oh, I don’t know, time runs all together when you’re my age (which I’m not exactly sure of, but it’s advanced). And the drugs have addled my brains. I must be completely honest at the beginning so you’ll know I can be trusted. All those drugs! I don’t remember the names of any of them except they’re long and they sound like Latin conjugations and if you refuse to take them orally they stick a needle in your butt, sometimes even right through your clothes, and so you get them one way or another.

Hmm . . . I forgot where I was so I’m starting another sheet. I need to find the earlier ones so I can number this one. I don’t remember what number it should be. That’s a really clever idea, though, and I should tell you about it. I’m not sure what the staff would think about me writing out my story. I know they think I’m crazy but I’m not sure if they maybe secretly know that my story is true and so they don’t want it to get out. So I’m writing it out in snippets, all on separate scraps of paper, so they won’t know what I’m doing. I hide the scraps in different corners of my room so even if they find one and throw it away I still have most of my story stashed away somewhere else. “Oh, Leonard is hoarding his scraps of paper again,” they say to each other and roll their eyes and throw my papers away, and I just wait and don’t say anything. I’m too smart for that. Then they leave and I sneak over and pull them out of the trash can and hide them somewhere else. I only lose them if they bag up the trash and take it out right away, and then I only lose a few parts at a time. And I can gather up the rest and count out the numbers so I know which numbers are missing and what parts I have to rewrite. But I don’t remember which number this part is supposed to be so I’ll have to leave for now and go count out the other parts.

But to the beginning. This is number 14, but it tells the first part of the story because I was clever and told the background first so you don’t think I’m crazy. I left work one evening, right at 11:15, and I was driving down the highway as usual, thinking about how beautiful the stars are in the sky, and then, slowly, the stars all disappeared! “Nothing too special,” you’re thinking. “Stars disappear all the time.” But I tell you, it was eery! Such a strange feeling, such a deep and black pit of nothing where they used to be. And I shuddered and drove faster and pretended it was all normal.

Oh, but it gets so much deeper, my friend. I’m driven to get this story out so you can know! But perhaps it’s better not to know. I think that’s why they kept me for so long and gave me so many drugs. They don’t want to know that there’s so much of nothing where they paint their stars. But underneath it all there’s nothing, simply nothing, and that’s the part they dread.

Because I tell you true, I swear upon whatever means the most to you, that it wasn’t just the stars that disappeared. Oh no, that would have been ok. That I could have lived with. But I looked out through the window in my door, and there where the night sky should have been there was only nothing. I know you might not believe me, since it was dark out, and you think I couldn’t have seen anything anyway; but I tell you, if you had felt this nothing like I felt it, you would have known the secret too. And besides, I ask you, why couldn’t I see the occasional lights from a farm or the glowing eyes of an animal or the gray-green luster of weeds along the edge of the road? You can’t answer that and you’ve known all along that you can’t answer it but you’ve refused to think about it because it makes you uncomfortable. And so I must ask you, who’s the crazy one now? I tell you there’s nothing. I’ve looked beyond the surface and nothing is underneath. And you’ve always known the fact and it terrifies you so you refuse to consider it and laugh at me and say I’m insane. But I know and you know I know.

I don’t remember which number to put on this one, but I’ll piece it together later. But oh, what a feeling! I was terrified of course, utterly terrified. And don’t snicker, you would have been too. I kept driving on that highway with nothing all around it, well past the point at which I ought to have reached my hometown of Stan, but it wasn’t there of course, because nothing was there. I felt an eternity pass and still I kept driving. I was too petrified with fright to stop and there was literally nowhere else for me to go but that highway, stretching out to infinity through an eternity of nothing, nothing at all.

I ran out of gas that night, or maybe it was the next night, because there was nothing besides the highway – no sun to rise and set, nothing to count out time except the beating of my own shuddering heart. Well, I got out and walked. What would you have done? It was either sit in that car forever or get out and walk and I chose to walk and I think anyone else would have done the same.

Oh, how long I walked! So far, so far, and still there was nothing. At times I would turn and edge my way toward the side of the highway and look out and hope to see something, but the terror of nothing overwhelmed me and kept me away and I kept walking. I walked for ages like that, for ages and ages.

I don’t know how long I walked, but I grew old on that highway – I truly did, and my hair grew long and white and my beard was so long I nearly tripped over it. And still I would scoot over closer to the edge and still I would turn back away to the center of the highway, overcome with panic. But finally, I stirred up all my manly courage, and I reasoned with my own heart that it was better to face the nothing than to walk forever through it without acknowledging it. And I don’t know how it was different this time, but I felt my body moving with an energy and decisiveness that I hadn’t experienced in ages, and I ran with all my vigor toward the side of the highway, and I cast myself out away from its edge as far as I could!

This is a note to myself: remember to make sure you put this part in the right order, because it’s important! And I had to abandon my idea of numbering the scraps because the nurses kept throwing them out. Now, I’m going to transcribe them all to a secret notebook, but first I have to write this part on a different piece of paper while I’m thinking of it.

This is the most amazing thing: when I ran at the edge of the highway like that, and flung myself out into nothing, it was as though I were waking up from a dream. Once again, it was 11:15 and I was just leaving work. And I didn’t remember all that long trip I had taken on the highway. I only knew I was so tired. But now I remember that I didn’t remember.

It would have been so much easier if I had remembered then! But I never did remember. Or rather, I always remembered but it was always too late. Because this is what happened: after I jumped off the edge and found myself just about to leave work again, only tired, so much more tired than I should have been, I didn’t remember that I had left once already, and driven so far, and walked even farther on the highway surrounded by nothing. So I just got into my car and started driving home.

But do you know what happened? I already know that you know. Before I got home, I noticed the stars starting to disappear, and it felt funny and sort of familiar somehow, and I tried not to think anything of it but I couldn’t help myself. And I drove all that night, through the middle of nothing, until I ran out of gas all over again and started walking. And when I had walked so long I felt my mind starting to go quite mad, and I couldn’t take it anymore, and I didn’t know what to do, I suddenly ran at the side of the highway and flung myself off the edge.

Only this time there was a difference, and do you know what it was? Of course you do, because you’re not stupid and I’m sure you’re not insane, even though you only look at the picture that’s painted on the nothing and you won’t look at the nothing underneath. But that’s not insane, that’s more like cowardice, and there’s nothing more normal and sane than cowardice.

But I’ll tell you what the difference was, anyhow. This time, just when I was flinging myself off the edge, I realized that I had done it all before! The memory of it all came back into my mind in its entirety and the difference made me want to pause and think about it some more because it seemed important somehow. Significant. But it was barely too late, because I couldn’t quite hold myself back and keep from plunging over the edge so I fell into nothing a second time. And of course you already know that I was immediately back at work again, just about to leave at 11:15, and I was so tired I couldn’t even think straight. But I had lost all my memory again.

I won’t even try to tell you how many times this happened. The number wouldn’t mean anything to you. It’s like when they try to tell you how big the stars are, and how many light years away they all are, and you can’t really get it into your head because it’s too big. That’s how many times I did the same thing over and over again. And every time, just as I flung myself over the edge, I remembered it all, remembered every time it had happened, until there wasn’t any space left in my heart to remember so many times because there were too many of them. And yet I remembered them all anyway.

I’ll tell you something else, too: whenever I flung myself into nothing, I started to have these thoughts, or flashes of insight, or whatever you want to call them. I don’t know the right term. But I learned more than I could teach in my lifetime, even though I’ve forgotten most of it again. But I know if I did the same thing – I mean, if I found the same highway and flung myself off of it – I would remember it all again, every word, every detail, every step I ever took in all those bazillion times I walked the highway. But then I wouldn’t be able to tell it to you anyway, now would I, because I would be falling too fast.

I know you don’t believe me. I don’t see you right now. I’m just writing it on paper so I won’t be able to see you when you read it. But I know the look that will come into your eyes when you get to this part, because I see it in the eyes of all the people I’ve told my story to. And let me tell you another secret. You want to think that you believe that you don’t believe me, but you don’t really think that at all. You really know that everything I’m saying is true, and that you’ve always known it was true. But you just don’t want to think about it because you still want to think that the picture that’s painted on top is everything, but really it’s nothing. Less than nothing. It’s just the film that covers up the nothing that really is everything. It only gives your eyes something to look at so you don’t go insane. But you already know that, now don’t you?

So what are these thoughts I began to have? Like I said, I’ve forgotten most of them, forgotten more wisdom than you could find in all the ancient hidden libraries in all the world. But I could tell you a few of them, so you know what they’re like. And I will, too, because then you’ll know that I’m telling the truth and that you’re actually the crazy one. Or not crazy, but just too weak to understand.

One time, just when I was flinging myself into nothing, I heard the voice saying, “I am nothing.” Or not the voice so much, but just the truth directly speaking into my heart. I don’t know how to say it, but you know what I’m talking about. The same thing happens to you, if you only just admit it. And then, the next time, it said, “I am everything”. And of course, it was true both times, absolutely true, because the nothing in fact is everything; and so I, because I am nothing, am really everything too, just as you are, if you could only admit it.

And then it said, “everything changes,” and then again it said, “nothing changes”. In this way it would repeat itself, saying the same thing, the same truth, only changing the way it stated it a little bit so you could see how true it really is. And then again, “the pattern is always the same,” and, “the pattern is always different”. And “sadness is as happy as happiness,” and “if they only tried to be sad it would make them happy and then they would be miserable and find their happiness again,” and many, many other things like it. So you can see how true and obvious these things are when you hear them. But you would never hear them or think about them until you jumped into nothing and stopped looking at the painted picture. But you don’t understand that because you’ve never done it. Although you know that it’s true, if you just have enough courage to admit it.

I’ll tell you the last thought I had, on the last time I ran at the edge of the highway and leapt into nothing. Just as I jumped from the edge, as at every other time, I remembered I had done it all before, remembered every thought I had at that boundary between nothing and the highway, and this time, the voice said (or not the voice, but you know what I mean), “all of these thoughts are the same”. And of course that’s true. It’s quite obvious when you hear it. But the strange thing is, I had never thought of it before.

But I forgot again, or rather I failed to remember, and it was 11:15 and I was about to leave work and I was tired, so tired, and my mind was burning like a coal, only not in a good way, and my eyes felt like I had scrubbed them out with bleach, and every part of my body had an aching in it that felt as deep as the void, and I was scared because I didn’t remember ever being that tired at work before.

I got into the car and I don’t know how I did it because my feet felt like the planet Jupiter was weighing each one down, but I never gave up and I did it and got in the car and started to drive. And the stars went out one by one and I became terrified and my hand gripped the wheel until I’m sure I left indents in the steel, and still I kept driving until I ran out of gas. Then I got out and started walking. And I walked and walked until, if there had been something instead of nothing, I’m sure I would have left the whole solar system behind. Still, I walked. And then, mad with desperation I started to run, and I continued to run even longer than I had walked. Finally, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I resolved to fling myself off the edge into nothing as I had done so many times before. Only I didn’t know I had done it so many times before because I still didn’t remember. So I made my face firm and my heart was strong but terrified and I sprinted toward the edge and was about to throw myself over when what do you think I heard?

You already know what I heard. You’re thinking it right now, even though you probably won’t admit that you are. But I’ll tell you anyway. The voice said (or whatever it was the spoke into my heart), “All these thoughts are the same,” and I remembered the last time I had heard that thought. Then it all came tumbling back into my head, all the countless times I had flung myself off, all the innumerable thoughts I had been given at the border, and it was just soon enough that I could fling my body down onto the surface of the highway and stop myself from plummeting over the edge.

I’m sure you already know what I did next but I have to put it into the story anyway. I turned around and walked all the way back, walked for what would have been many human lives, and the solitude and the loneliness almost drove me mad. By the time I got back, I had forgotten most of what I had learned because I had been walking so long. I forgot all of it but a few thoughts that I wrote down on scraps of paper, and even these were mostly lost or stolen or thrown away by nurses. But I did make it back and I walked right into St. Germaine-Trinity’s Skilled Nursing Unit in Ralph, North Dakota, where I worked at the time and where I now reside. And when I got there it was 11:15 and my co-workers were all leaving and so I left with them. But this time there was a difference. This time I remembered it all. This time, I knew.

Of course there was another difference which I already told you, but I’ll tell you again because you might have forgotten. I had driven my car until it ran out of gas and then I walked all the way back. And so this time, when I got to the parking lot, my car wasn’t there and I had to get a ride home with a co-worker. His name was either Martin or Harvey, I don’t remember anymore, but I still remember exactly what he looked like. He was a short little man, almost bald, and he would dart back and forth like a chipmunk and whistle like a bird. But he had a good and kind heart and understood a lot in his own way.

Oh, how frightened I was on the way home, as he sat there next to me and drove and talked and made little whistling noises! I stared at the stars and never said a word. And no matter how hard I stared, they just stayed there like they really existed, and I never saw the nothing that was everything just behind them. And then, so soon that I almost couldn’t believe it, I felt him slowing down and I turned to look and we were just coming into my hometown of Stan. It was there, it was really there after so many eons. I felt a tear rolling down my cheek and was embarrassed, and looked away, and gruffly said, “thanks for the ride.” “Yeah, sure, you betcha,” he said. Then I climbed out of his pickup and looked up at the stars and they were still there. Then I looked at my house and it was still there too. Then I walked inside and my wife was sitting in her chair and she was still really there, and I said, “are the kids asleep?” And she looked at me kind of funny, then said, “Yes. Why wouldn’t they be?” And I couldn’t help myself. I fell to my knees and started weeping until she looked all scared and came over and knelt down beside me and said it would be ok.

But it wasn’t ok, that was the funny part. Because I’m sure you could figure out what happened after that. The panic attacks. The moments of confusion. The inability to get out of bed for days at a time until I lost my job and my house and eventually, my family. Those years are a blur. I’m getting too old to remember. But I was in and out of hospitals, and nurses were sticking needles into me, and at first my wife and kids visited me all the time and then they slowly stopped. And now, to be honest, I don’t even remember if they still visit.

But actually, the funny part is, it really was ok. All of it was ok. The sadness was just as happy as the happiness. And it passed quickly, oh so quickly, for one who has walked to the edge of the world and back.

You see me sitting here in my wheelchair and think, “What a shriveled up little old man! Why won’t he just die and be done with it?” And I will die. Soon I will. And that’s ok because I’ve already learned that death is everything and life is only an illusion. Or maybe that’s not the right way to put it. Life is nothing, but that’s everything there is because nothing is so big that it’s everything and everything is so small that it’s nothing and there’s no purpose to life without death and there’s no purpose to death without life. And you know, of course, that it’s impossible to be scared of death when you’ve jumped into nothing even one time and I’ve done it more times than you could ever know. I know it’s not evil that you look at the paint on the nothing and don’t want to look at the nothing beneath it. I know it’s not out of any ill will that you hear my story and say I’m insane. I know that you already know it but that you’re too cowardly to admit it or look at it. And that’s ok too, because one day you’ll find the strength, and the voice will whisper into your heart, and then you’ll know and cast yourself into the void and in that split-second it will all make sense.

May, 2016


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