“The First Line” is a wonderful publication which provides first lines and invites the writer to create a story stemming from that first line. They chose my story “The Sea of Tranquility” for publication in Volume 16, Issue 4. The required first line was “We went as far as the car would take us.”
The Sea of Tranquility
We went as far as the car would take us.
“Amazing,” I said, glancing down at the odometer as the old Honda sputtered and gasped to a full stop. “That’s the exact distance to the moon!”
“You mean the car is dead?” asked Lindsay. “The freakin’ car is dead?”
“Yup. We’ve gone to the moon, Lins. And here we are in the Sea of Tranquility!”
We were actually a few miles from New York City, stuck on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike, not far from the big refinery. I gestured towards the metal guard rail, the distant gray smokestacks, the oil tanks. Double tractor-trailer trucks roared by, hurling little dragon-breaths of hot air into our open windows.
Lindsay started to cry.
“Hey, Lins,” I said. “It’ll be okay.”
I put my hand on her neck and try to draw her next to me, but she wasn’t budging. She crossed her arms across her chest and bit her bottom lip.
Lindsay could have been a model. She was tall and thin, with curly black hair skimming her shoulders. I liked the fact that she didn’t seem to be particularly hung up about her looks. She was far more serious about academics. She had been Phi Beta Kappa back in college. Currently she was gritting her teeth through the second year of law school, proud to have made Law Review.
When I said ‘The Sea of Tranquility’, I had hoped she would laugh, but she hadn’t.
“Jesus, Gordon. Jesus Christ. You’ve got to be kidding,” she said.
“Just relax, Lindsay.” I said. ” I’ll take a look under the hood.”
I announced this calmly, as if I knew my way around automobile engines. As if I were a six-foot-tall linebacker driving a Dodge Ram with a gun rack, instead of a Brooklyn jazz musician with a Honda Civic and a faded Obama-Biden sticker. Looking under the hood couldn’t do any harm. It didn’t mean that I would have to rebuild the hoisted engine in my garage, or replace the crankshaft with my bare hands.
I have always cultivated being mellow. Even, that morning, when we found ourselves in that major traffic snarl on the Upper Level of the GW Bridge, I stayed chill, unperturbed, Zenning. Lindsay cursed and diddled with Map Quest on her cell phone.
Now with the dead Honda, I was completely relaxed. I was feeling kind of proud of myself for actually remembering the distance to the moon. I’d learned it back in Middle School and hadn’t thought about it for over fourteen years.
We were just south of the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop when we broke down. I could smell the cinnamon buns from the service area restaurant when I got out of the driver’s seat and opened the hood. The cinnamon fragrance was making me feel quite optimistic. Like Christmas. What could really go wrong when the air smells of apple pie, with a little soupçon of oil refinery fumes?
I propped up the hood with that metal bar thing and stared down. It was kind of like going to a trendy Brooklyn art show. Rusty bits here and there. Tubing. Wires. No way to interpret anything, but still you feel obligated to stare for a while. I looked carefully at the little knobby nipples on the battery. I poked around a bit for the heck of it. Some of those parts were damn hot. So I stopped.
“I knew I shouldn’t have let you drive us,” said Lindsay, when I got back in the car and futilely turned the key. “Not in this piece of junk. Not to my sister’s wedding. We’re going to miss the pre- rehearsal.”
Her voice quavered.
“We’ll get there, “ I said, confidently, turning the key once more.
The old Honda’s engine did not respond.
“We’ve gotta get there, Gordon,” said Lindsay.
I looked at the moribund control panel. I ran my finger along the dust which had collected on the dashboard lip.
“We’ll get there,” I repeated.
“Well,” said Lindsay, “And how do you propose getting there?”
I placed my hands on the useless steering wheel, like a little kid on an amusement park ride. I was starting to consider the options. The traffic continued to thunder by. I started to listen to the Honda’s blinking hazard lights. Dit-dot. Dit-dot.
“Jesus, Gordon, are we just going to sit here? We have to be in Philadelphia by three,” she snapped.
“It will happen,” I said. “We’re not out in the middle of the Sahara. We’re probably in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The only place denser might be Hong Kong.”
“Jesus,” said Lindsay. “Hong Kong, my ass. We can’t just do nothing.”
“Hmmm,” I said.
That was a hmmm that meant “I will eventually do something”, or “Let me think.”
Lindsay suddenly sat bolt upright in the passenger seat. She yanked her cell phone out of her huge knock-off Gucci leather handbag. You could fit a couple of six-packs in that bag. Or a family of raccoons.
“I’m calling my father,” she said.
She punched the speed-dial and started shaking one of her crossed legs, the way she does whenever she’s antsy.
I didn’t say anything.
Lindsay was definitely the kind of twenty-three year old who kept her parents on speed-dial.
I waited for Mr. Cunningham to pick up. He always answered the phone, “Cunningham here,” as if he were perpetually in the office. Even if he could tell from the screen of his smart phone that the caller was one of his own kids. That’s where Lindsay got her work-ethic from. And definitely her sense of humor.
In the meantime, I started wondering if Hong-Kong was, in fact, more densely populated than the area around the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop. Then I started thinking about Vince Lombardi, himself. The guy who said winning wasn’t everything, it was the only thing. Didn’t he belong in Wisconsin? Green Bay Packers? It was weird seeing his name on the New Jersey Turnpike. But maybe he was a native son. Yeah, that must have been it.
I looked over at Lindsay. Her ankle was shaking even harder. Her gold bracelet was jingling like a little bell. The phone kept ringing and then I could hear Mr. Cunningham’s voice mail kick in.
Lindsay hung up without leaving a message.
“I’m so embarrassed,” she said. “To be riding to the wedding in this…this clunker.”
I ignored the insult. The Civic had served me well for the past ten years. I had bought it used, back in high school, with money I had earned mowing lawns and shoveling snow. It had carried me back and forth to college, taken me and Lindsay for innumerable rides to Long Beach Island or Cape Cod, always gotten me to my gigs on time, never been stolen even when parked overnight in highly questionable areas.
“This here car has been to the moon. Give it a break!”
Lindsay stared at me with her mouth open and her eyes narrowed. She threw back her mane of black curly hair.
“Give it a break?” she screamed, “How can you say “give it a break’? It’s my sister’s wedding, for god’s sakes.”
She gripped her cell phone tightly like a weapon, and speed-dialed again. When her mother answered, Lindsay started to cry in earnest,.
“We’re broken down, on the New Jersey Turnpike,” she said.
I heard her say, Yes, Yes, then No, No, then Yes, then No again.
“Nothing,” she said finally. “He’s doing nothing.”
I wasn’t exactly doing nothing. I was getting my thoughts in gear. Lindsay never understood that my thoughts don’t just do the lock-step thing. Ipso facto or whatever.
Lindsay used to think that I was amazing. All my odd jobs and stuff. A man of experience. I’m older than she is by four years, although we graduated college at the same time. I’d had to matriculate and then drop out, over and over. My father had gone on disability. He’d had a colostomy and I went home to be with him, help him with that gross little bag full of shit that needed to be emptied. I was working my way through college, in any case. Not like Lindsay, who had gone to Barcelona for her Junior Year and always taken summers off.
Lindsay and I met because my photo had been in the student paper. I had been working part-time as a security guard at Wegman’s. One night a guy tried to drive a stolen car through the glass front doors because he said he needed ice cream. It turned out he was a mental patient. I treated his head injury, got him some pistachio and Rocky Road, and talked to him while my co-worker phoned the cops. Lindsay was impressed with my so-called heroism. But she made no bones about the fact that she considered my working as a security guard to be a waste of time. She never believed me when I said I learned a lot on the graveyard shift at a grocery store. Particularly about boredom. How to keep one’s mind occupied no matter what. And, the next year, after we’d started going out seriously, Lindsay was embarrassed when I did that telemarketing for a while. But sitting in that big room, earpiece attached like a Martian, you learn a lot about human nature. It was a goddamn psychology course in itself. And besides the flexible hours let me be with my Dad a little longer before he died.
When Lindsay hung up the phone, she had a definitive plan. Her mother had convinced her that it was too dangerous to walk a thousand feet back to the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop. We would call the Limousine Service that Mr. Cunningham often used. We would be driven to the closest train station where we could hop on an Amtrak train, direct to Philly.
“We’ll be at the pre-rehearsal just a little bit late, but they’ll wait for us.” Lindsay said triumphantly.
I tried paying attention as she explained the details, but my mind soon wandered to the historic names of the other Turnpike Service Areas. I was thinking about all the times when I was younger, when I had gone down to D.C, heading for some church basement or social club where I’d play my music, traveling in the old Honda, passing signs that indicated “Clara Barton Rest Area 10 miles” or “Joyce Kilmer Rest Area” or Walt Whitman. Or John Fenwick. Who the heck was John Fenwick, anyway?
“Goddammit, Gordon. Are you even listening?”
“Yes. No. Not really,” I admitted.
I didn’t dare tell Lindsay what I had been thinking about.
“You’re completely irresponsible,” she said.
“No, I’m not,” I said.
“You are too. You’re…you’re just willing to drift, Gordon. And I’m not.”
“What does that mean? Willing to drift?”
“Like, you’re willing to sit here and do freakin’ nothing…in an emergency.”
“But it’s not an emergency, Lins, it’s just a dead car. And I have two decent feet and I’m healthy, and I can walk back to the rest stop and find a bus, or even hitchhike, if I have to.”
“Hitchhike? For god’s sakes, Gordon. What are you, an eighteen year old? Hitchhike to my sister’s wedding. For god’s sake.”
“I mean…if push came to shove. I’d find a solution.”
“But you didn’t. You didn’t find a solution. You didn’t even look for a solution.”
“But push hadn’t come to shove.”
I always liked that expression. I imagined Push like the Push-Me Pull-You in the Dr. Doolittle books. And then I pictured Push walking down the road and coming upon Shove.
“Goddammit, Gordon. The only reason we’re getting out of this mess is because of me. And only me.”
I wanted to correct her. Nothing was because of her. Not her alone. She depended on her parents. Always had. Still did. Even now. Second year law school. She needed their money. Their credit card. Their solution for broken down cars. Their ears. Their consoling words.
“Do you really think that you are the only responsible person in this car?” I asked, quietly.
“Frankly, yes,” she shouted. “The only adult.”
She was now rummaging around in her big faux Gucci bag looking for a compact mirror and some tissues. Crying had made her mascara streaky. Her eyelashes looked as if they had clumps of ants crawling on them.
“I’ve been supporting myself a long time,” I said quietly.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard it all before,” she snarled. “But, you know what, Gordon, you still haven’t grown up.”
‘But you have?” I asked.
“Far more than you,” she said.
“Because people in law school are grown-ups and people who make music are children?” I asked.
The thought actually amused me. I imagined the New York Philharmonic being composed only of pre-schoolers, wearing little tuxedos and Pull-Ups, those sneakers that light up they run. The string section sucking on pacifiers as they bowed.
“It has nothing to do with your being a musician, for god’s sake. You’re just….” She hesitated.
“I’m just what?” I asked.
“A buffoon,” she said. “A loser. I don’t know…. A person who’s not going anywhere.”
She started to cry again, but there was something strained, not vulnerable, about her face this time.
I wanted to ask her where she got the word buffoon., but I didn’t.
Argument seemed unnecessary. At least that’s how I reasoned at that moment, sitting there, in the Sea of Tranquility.
Soon, sometime before it got dark, I knew that I would find a way back to Brooklyn. Probably by bus. I was looking forward to seeing the NY skyline tease its way over the horizon. I anticipated admiring, as I often did, the beautiful old stone library that sits on a rock in Weehawken, like a castle surrounded by a moat of highway, just before you go into the pit of the Lincoln Tunnel.
We sat for a while without speaking. When the limousine arrived, Lindsay avoided looking at me. She took her garment bag with the Maid of Honor dress in it off the back seat and handed it to me, along with a couple of fancy boutique shopping bags and a large duffle.
I couldn’t figure out why the Limo Driver didn’t help, but he didn’t. He just stood by the passenger door like one of those guards with the big hats at Buckingham Palace. So I lugged Lindsay’s things over to the big black Lincoln Continental in two trips. Then she flung the big Faux-Gucci over her shoulder and got in the back of the slinky car when the driver opened the door as if she were Princess Kate. She didn’t wave or look back at me. I could tell she was sobbing because her shoulders were shaking, but I also knew she still thought she was right.
Safely on the side of the earth with all the winners.
I stayed in the steel cradle of the Honda a while longer, like a lone astronaut on a lunar mission. I thought about the big sphere of our planet, blue and round like a billiard ball. I thought about my own orbit and Lindsay’s orbit and Vince Lombardi’s orbit and all the people orbiting in Hong Kong. Everything so big and so little all at once. All of us convinced of something. Being right, usually.
Later, when I got home, I dialed Lindsay’s number, but she didn’t answer. I had only wanted to say good luck. I didn’t leave a real message. I figured that we would eventually talk, or maybe not. Some things just peter out, like stars or asteroids. It was clear, in any case, that we had come to the end of the road. All the way to the moon.