biff loves dodgeball
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by Tom McAllister
Turn that radio up, crank the bass. Oh, hell, crank the treble too; how else do you expect to fully experience Steve Perry's vocals on Separate Ways or the legendary cowbell of Don't Fear the Reaper? If you're going to be imprisoned in this car for the next thousand miles, you'd better be able to enjoy yourself: sing along with that radio, loudly and proudly, like a drunken sorority girl on karaoke night. This is no magic carpet ride, but fantasy will set you free as you weave through traffic, doing your part to maintain the unbelievably delicate balance between disastrous crashes and the freedom of speeding toward home.

If you're going to be imprisoned in this car for the next thousand miles, you'd better be able to enjoy yourself: sing along with that radio, loudly and proudly, like a drunken sorority girl on karaoke night. You're on a road trip, your two-door Honda Civic piled high with your belongings, the backseat stuffed to capacity with one suitcase, and the tiny trunk crowded with books, dirty laundry, and at least three roadside emergency kits. You don't know why you have so many emergency kits, but you do know you're prepared for nearly any situation, from alien invasion to nuclear holocaust to a simple flat tire. A flare gun in case you're in danger, or if you see a potato sack race in desperate need of a starting gun; a whole case of oil, in case your car springs a horrible leak; jumper cables, in case your battery dies again; rope, for something, possibly, but not likely, legal; kitty litter, in case your tires lack traction, or if you pick up a feline hitchhiker; and many more.

You're a nervous guy, very tense before travel, meticulous to a fault when it comes to preparing for a trip. By the time you left today, you'd been packed for nearly two weeks, and hadn't changed your clothes once. You smell. Badly. Luckily, in rummaging through your trunk, you found four car fresheners—all shaped like sweet-smelling dolphins—and three of them surround you in the car. The other rests inside your pocket, spreading its floral scent everywhere you walk.

Of course, you anticipate little walking today. You need to make it from the Midwest back to the East Coast in one shot, mainly because hotels are too expensive. Stops are made only when necessary, and never for very long. Pull over at a rest stop, use the bathroom in the Bob's Big Boy, stretch your legs, and get back in the car. Check the time: Two o'clock. Five hours down, eleven to go. But you still feel vibrant, young, and healthy. You've already consumed a six-pack of Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper and something with so many ingredients must be packed with energy. Eleven hours seems bearable, until you remember your tired legs, your sore back, your sputtering car, and your tired mind.

Now you're thinking about pulling over at the next rest stop, shamefully hiding your compact car among the behemoths that overrun the lot, a dachshund among dinosaurs. There you'll be able to buy caffeine pills, extra strength, potent stuff that really will keep you awake and alert long after the Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper would have failed you. But remember what you've learned. Remember Requiem for a Dream and that wild-eyed old woman who gets hooked on speed pills. More importantly, remember Saved by the Bell, Jessie's struggle with an addiction to caffeine pills, and how her plight touched all of our hearts, especially yours.

No, this has to be done the natural way. Fight your body, fight the elements, follow your dreams of home, and struggle eastward. You're driving in the complete opposite direction of the sunset; you're an anti-hero, like Hopper and Fonda in Easy Rider. Never mind that instead of a motorcycle, you're piloting a Japanese compact car; it's the thought that counts, and right now you feel like you can take on the world. Roll that window down, let out a howl, let the world know you're really, truly alive. Keep fighting. Only nine hours left.

Ten hours into it, you look like a boxer who's taken too many shots to the head. If only your corner man would throw in the towel and save you. But there's no salvation on the horizon, hardly anything on the horizon, in fact. One thing you've learned so far: people in Indiana must be really bored all the time. And Western Illinois, too. And most of Ohio. You're traversing a land where the word “truck” is a verb, and you've been assured by dozens of bumper stickers that these people intend to keep on doin' it. Maybe everyone is always bored. Who knows? You sure aren't going to take the time to find an Ohioan and talk to him about the finer points of bordering Kentucky. The only way you're slowing down is if you see someone selling rocket packs on the roadside. Look out the window, just in case. No luck. Keep moving, stick with it. You've watched old tapes of The Simpsons for longer than six hours; what's the difference between that and driving, besides the entertainment factor?

The sun's setting, and soon your world will be ensconced in darkness, so poorly lit are these roads you travel. Still, the traffic flows more densely than you'd anticipated; perhaps you're being followed, or perhaps you're the one doing the following. It's hard to tell now exactly what you're doing or where you're going or why. All you have is a dim image of home burned into your mind. Home! Where you can eat soft pretzels and cheesesteaks and Tastykakes and everything else in sight. Home! Where you can see your girlfriend, your family, your friends. Home! Where your can sleep in your own bed. Home! Where your seat isn't ultimately attached to a grinding car engine.

Every few moments, you're shaken from your dreams, knocked from a near comatose state by another ripple in the sea of traffic. Sitting in the middle lane, sputtering along at a steady fifty-five miles per hour, you're like a small rock rooted in midstream, traffic diverting around you and flowing violently onward. Each truck that passes roars like the inside of a tornado, jouncing your car and threatening to destroy it. Other drivers give you the finger for moving so slowly that you might as well be sitting still. Overhead, a plane disappears into the cloudy night, and you wonder what ever possessed you to subject yourself to this long, lonely trip.

Now, an hour later, is a hell of a time to find out just how wide Pennsylvania is. Three hundred-fifty more miles to Philly? Who knew there were even other cities in the state? Your CD player has long ago stopped functioning, too tired to make it through the trip. But not to worry; you've learned on this trip that no American city can escape inane DJ chatter. So turn up your radio for WSCK the official Christian Rap Station of Erie, PA, where everybody is into Jesus, Hardcore!

Stay focused now. You need to be sharp as you work your way through the Allegheny Mountains. One lapse in concentration could send you tumbling down a double black diamond ski slope, and then you'd be in serious trouble. But once you get through these mountains, you'll be in the home stretch. Only one hundred miles from home, your headlights have stopped headlighting. Your head hurts, your stomach is rumbling, your back spasms have not yet subsided, your mouth is so dry it feels like you've been chewing on a sock, and your eyes burn from lack of sleep. What a wonderful day. Maybe if you're lucky, you'll be hit by a meteor.

You could sleep on the roadside until morning, but you're wary of hobos, or of someone mistaking you for a hobo, thanks to the rankness of your odor, and the empty can of beans on the passenger seat. Search through your roadside emergency kits, but find no replacement bulbs. Look more closely, though; you'll find your solution. It may not be great, but it'll have to do. Using the roll of duct tape, mount that flashlight—use lots of tape, don't be cheap— on the center of the hood. Switch the flashlight on and begin again. The world now reveals itself to you five feet at a time, a dark shroud gradually being peeled back with each revolution of your tires. Thank your flashlight for finding its way into your trunk. And then hope you don't run out of D batteries.

The roads have stopped winding, the trucks have stopped roaring, and the sky has stopped darkening. This couldn't get much more lonely, and it has somehow become even duller than your starting point in Iowa. Lean forward on the steering wheel as if it's a crutch, peer over the dashboard into the flashlit night. Imagine home. Imagine seeing your loved ones standing there in front of the house, under a big Welcome Home banner. Behind them, a bathroom. Beside them, a keg of beer. And before them, a plateful of fried chicken and biscuits. Indulge. Smile. Relax and try to understand that the benefits far outweigh the sacrifices. You'll be home before sunrise, and maybe there won't be a party, or anything close, but whatever it is will be enough to satisfy you. Until then, if this trip has taught you anything, it's that you and your Civic have no choice but to maintain your pride and keep on truckin'.

Tom McAllister recently completed his first year in the fiction MFA program at the University of Iowa. After a grueling drive, he's spending the summer in Philadelphia eating cheesesteaks, drinking malt liquor and playing wiffleball. You can read more of his writings at The World According to TMC.

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