Second Place Winner - CWA First Chapter Contest - “THE AMPERSAND PAINTER: A Tale by Fits & Turns”

By Jeffrey Johnson

            Until that fateful episode, I never executed a U-turn. Not once. Not even where it was deemed legal, nor when Circe (the name by which I christened my GPS voice) directed me to do so.

            In fact, until confronted with the confluence of circumstances that I found myself in, I never conceived of the need to perform such a driving maneuver. A U-turn, I believed, signals at the very least a lack of forethought, but more likely some sinister contrivance, like reversing the course of the Chicago River. What else would account for a rash, and so often reckless, decision to redirect a vehicle 180 degrees, instead of traveling on safely to the next exit? Or, properly resetting one’s course by following basic rules of the road to initiate the necessary series of turns at the nearest intersection?

It would not surprise anyone who knew my mother to learn that she thought differently about U-turns. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

            In that crucial moment, I was at a crossroads. Not a literal one. On the contrary, my specific location permitted no other lawful, and therefore rational, choice than to forge straight ahead. I was little more than a hundred yards from the tollgate to the Causeway Bridge that would take me into New Orleans. But instead of driving up to the tollgate, paying the toll, and then traversing the 23.875 miles across Lake Pontchartrain via the bridge, I stopped, reset the gearshift to “park,” and activated my emergency flashers. The only responsible action would have been to proceed straight on.

But I just stopped. A complete halt. And none of the ever-growing number of fellow-drivers piling up behind me had any inkling why I had abruptly ceased moving (here in this pinched location), nor the patience, nor the faintest sliver of empathy for me and my individual breakdown that might mollify their own frustration with me. Each one of their collective constraints of time and distance led to the inextricable conclusion that fate or the devil or bad karma or one of their practical-joker friends (most likely petulant Dirk, or quiet, but vengeful, Janice) was, yet again, screwing with them. And why must such a thing occur today, a day which began with this one’s harried morning because of a failed alarm clock, and that one’s anxieties of being tardy at the most important meeting of the quarter, and this other one’s crisis at the elementary school, or any of the myriad urgent, unforgiving calamities that shake the ground beneath our feet?

            The day before, when I departed from my condo, I was determined to drive straight through, from Chicago to New Orleans. Even though just a month earlier (after mother died) I had flown to New Orleans for the funeral, now I was returning there at the request of my step-sister Mara. In sorting through and organizing the contents of the house, Mara came upon a half dozen boxes in the attic ear-marked for me. She was her usual overly-demanding self, relentless in her appeals for me to clear out these boxes “asap.” She called, I-don’t-even-know-how-many-times, the next two days until I finally relented and fixed a specific date so that I no longer had to listen to her complaints about how she alone was left to sift through mother’s papers, to pay the creditors, to give away or dispose of mother’s belongings, and to manage the sale of the house. And it only rankled her more when I articulated the simple fact that, after all, mother had appointed her, the eight-year-older sibling, executor of the will. In order to avoid any more of these marrow-draining conversations, I set out immediately after work on Thursday, fully intending to collect the boxes on Friday, enjoy a delicious meal in a fine New Orleans eatery, refresh myself with a prolonged night’s sleep, and arrive back home early Sunday morning, utterly exhausted.

            Straight through was the plan. The exact opposite direction of the sojourn taken by Pops (before he was Pops) in 1922 when he rode the train north. He came to Chicago to join King Oliver’s band, and that journey forever changed jazz. In that same memorable year, the annals of history note that Canadian Frederick Banting successfully conducted the first insulin treatment, the inaugural session of the Permanent Court of International Justice convened in The Hague, Gandhi was arrested and convicted for sedition, Stalin was appointed as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated, the Irish Civil War began, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy bowed to the fascists, Rebecca Felton of Georgia became the first woman to serve in the US Senate, and South African miners initiated the Rand Rebellion.

            But my own pedestrian excursion did not even portend the subsidiary notice of such events as the killing of the last California Grizzly bear, the premiere of the documentary film Nanook of the North, the invention of Vegemite by Australian Fred Walker, or the one and only meeting of Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Erik Satie, and Clive Bell, who dined at the Hotel Majestic in Paris.

            Mine was destined to be an unrecorded venture. The age-old transfer of bits and bobs from parent to child, all of which would most certainly evaporate, unremembered, into the cosmos. My luggage consisted of one rather modest-sized roller bag, which I tossed into the generous trunk of my deep blue Subaru Legacy, a pure impulse buy I liked so well, at the time, I paid for it outright. In carrying out this domestic task, my pressing concern was to drive on directly, stopping only during the 926.4 miles (and estimated 14-15 hours, depending upon delays and stops) to refuel the car, endure the sensory assault of gas station restrooms, resupply myself with cold brew coffee and granola bars, and manage the bodily needs of Louis.

            I was pleased that Louis had so easily nestled into his dog bed in the back seat, showing no interest in jumping up to the front with me. This was our first long trip together since I rescued him nearly six weeks ago. As it turned out, thank goodness, riding in the car had a calming effect on him. I was drawn to him at the shelter because he looked so handsome, his apron showing pure white, and a velvety black coat covering the remainder of his compact body. He had such a smart appearance, as if wearing a tuxedo. My dapper French bulldog always dressed and ready for a grand event. Throughout the initial hours of the drive, I checked on him repeatedly in my rearview mirror, and even while there was still sunlight, he nearly disappeared against the black leather interior.

Once night fell, the hours began to drag. Louis slept soundly, his raspy, nasal breathing slow and rhythmic, though punctuated with occasional flatulent retorts. A characteristic of French bulldogs I was unaware of until I brought him home. To pass the time while cruising through Mississippi in the pre-dawn darkness, I listened to a podcast titled “Saturn’s Children.” The podcast turned out to be a series of personal accounts by adults reflecting on their childhoods. These frayed individuals re-lived, in varying levels of disturbing detail, instances of parental neglect, domestic violence, the complications of divorced parents, drug and alcohol abuse, the traumas of hospitalized or incarcerated parents, and other life-altering flashpoints during their formative years. The stories, admittedly, captured my attention enough to keep me alert, but one story sparked the U-turn fiasco.

As the initial blush of refracted light announced “saffron-robed” dawn in the same manner that, according to Homer, it greeted Achilles, I listened to a woman named Ellen tell the story of why she never knew her father. Her voice was firm, but she narrated the details with a flat, measured tone, which seemed appropriate since she did not, as she informed her listeners, actually witness the events. Rather, she heard this story later in life, from her mother.

            One evening, her father, after persistent urging, decided to trim the unusually thick overgrowth of his pubic hair because his beloved spouse found it utterly “off-putting.” While engaged in shearing himself, the scissors sliced his scrotum. Needless to say, blood appeared immediately. He dabbed at the wound with tissues to slow the bleeding. He then located a bandage, which he applied with far less care, as it turned out, than the cut required. Nevertheless, he believed he had sufficiently attended to his laceration. Throughout the night, however, including not long before the time he typically awoke, his penis rose and hardened. In these multiple instances, blood flowed to his aroused member, widening the wound, and his vital blood drained from him, first saturating his underwear (the less-refined man’s substitute for pajama bottoms) and ultimately the bedding adjacent to his nether regions. The only solace, from the perspective of establishing a family lineage, though unbeknown to him not only at the time, but forever after, since he bled to death in his bed, is that he had impregnated his wife three nights previously in an evening of uninspired and, except for his self-inflicted death, otherwise unmemorable lovemaking.

            As Ellen concluded the story, I burst into laughter. I could not (forgive me) help myself. But then, in the next breath, I began crying. Sobbing, in fact. This poor woman. The child of an unusually hirsute man who could not manage a pair of scissors. Cackling again, followed by fits of weeping, I drove on. Louis popped his head between the front seats with a quizzical look, and then farted.

Only a few short miles later, amidst the morning rush hour, I could feel my heart rate increasing as I approached the entrance to the Causeway Bridge. I had always viewed the bridge as an engineering marvel, perfectly bisecting the Lake. A model of geometric precision. But in this instant, I found the bridge, which offered no alternative direction other than straight ahead, to be an absurdity. Without any curve or bend whatsoever. No options for turning left or right, only forward, forward, forward. And certainly no U-turn. And, thus, no avenue of escape. At that crucial juncture, forward and onward seemed not only impossible, but ridiculous. I remember thinking at the time, “this undoubtably is what a nervous breakdown feels like.” So, facing what I, in that moment, viewed as a fate offering nothing other than brutal determinism, I hit the brakes.

            The jam of traffic was forced to squeeze by on my left, single-file, each passing car like a rosary bead, tallying mantras of red-faced outrage. The drivers, and many of their accompanying passengers, took the opportunity to bark out monosyllabic profanities, or for those too emotionally vexed or intellectually incompetent to speak, waved their hands in spasms of violent threat, or mimed obscene acts of penetrative assault. Even a few sullen teenagers, their earbuds securely in place as they slumped in their respective back seats, mustered the energy to press a middle finger against a car window.

            I erupted with the wrath of the Furies. But I refused to succumb to their level of unimaginative verbal expressions and gestures. Instead of a single word or short phrase, and certainly in defiance of a response so banal as dumb gesticulation, I conjured whole sentences and fashioned complete paragraphs, peppered with witty similes, variegated imagery, and inspired literary allusions. I overwhelmed their brief spurts of outrage with wave after wave of Shakespearean vitriol, constructing gilt-adorned word-pictures of their mental vacuity, weaving verbal tapestries of their bodily deformities, their souls crusted over with fear and selfishness, the ludicrous habits of their meaningless lives, the questionable origins of their births, and the hopeless futures calling, siren-like, to their children. I waxed eloquent in insult, though admittedly, the more to compensate for the tangled storm of my own mental collapse.

            When I launched into a fresh volley of pointed and, dare I say, artistic jibes aimed at a slick businessman in an enormous SUV who, as he drove past, pulled up his silk necktie to pantomime a hanging, Louis called me to my senses. His high-pitched yelps intelligibly communicated his anxiety. Before I could turn to him and offer my hand in comfort, I flinched from the acrid scent of urine. I adjusted myself in my seat so as to face Louis, but he would not look at me. He sat awkwardly next to his now sullied bed, his head drooping from the weight of shame.

            “It’s ok Louis. It’s ok,” I said, gently rubbing his ears.

            He licked my hand, without raising his head.

“It’s not your fault. You’re right Louis. I’m sorry.”

            Then with two quick hops, he landed in the front passenger seat, looking straight at me.

“You’re right,” I affirmed. “You are absolutely right. Let’s get out of here.”

            I turned the key in the ignition, put the car in gear, released my emergency flashers, and activated my left-turn signal. After quickly checking my mirrors, and without thinking further than the bare mechanics, I spun the steering wheel counter-clockwise and mashed down on the accelerator. And with that, as the sound of squealing tires reverberated in my ears, I lost my U-turn virginity.

            I darted brazenly across the lanes of traffic, weaving between and around the crowd of automobiles and delivery trucks. I felt an unexpected rush of elation. Louis popped up, securing his front paws on the door ledge so as to have a wider view out of the window. I took a deep breath and we settled into the flow of traffic, Louis and I exchanging congratulatory looks as we cleared the first intersection.

            “When possible,” Circe interrupted, “make a U-turn.” Her voice, with its British accent, was polite and dignified, but uncompromisingly firm.

            My throat tightened and began to burn. The back of my mouth convulsed, and I regurgitated a modicum of sour bile. Between clinched teeth, I murmured, “the taste of forbidden fruit?” I reached for the bottle of water in the cup holder to rinse out the burning taste of my stomach fluids. Lowering the window, I sprayed the vile liquid onto the road.

            I did not know where I was headed, other than opposite the Causeway. I steered first into the left lane, and then into the right, back and forth, torn between the choices of circumnavigating the Lake either by circling to the west or by veering to the east. While sliding from one lane to the other, but without turning onto another road, I continued in my indecision, heading north. Back in the direction where I had started.

            “When possible, make a U-turn,” Circe repeated. And she continued voicing this message each and every time as I drove through yet another intersection. “When possible, . . . . When . . ., make a U-turn.”

            In another regurgitative spasm, my mouth filled with vomit. I swerved wildly into the nearest parking lot. Without signaling. An impetuous, reflexive act.

            Almost before I came to a full stop, I opened the car door and spewed the contents of my mouth onto the asphalt. Then grabbed the water bottle and rinsed and spat, rinsed and spat, rinsed and spat. My face was flushed, sweat beads welled up on my forehead. My breathing was quick and heavy. I was, indeed, broken down.

I required several long minutes, all the while gripping the steering wheel, before my respiration regained a regulated calm.

All of a sudden, Louis spun in rapid circles while loudly huffing what I could only interpret as an expression of approval.

Circe did not utter a word.

I turned off the ignition.

            The sign above me read, “Bogue Falaya Motel,” followed, beneath it, in smaller lettering, “Air-conditioned. Vacancy.” From inside the car, I surveyed the one-story, 12 room motel. The building was red brick, with white, peeling paint along the roofline and around the windows and doors. The screen door for each room was torn or pulled loose in one corner or another. And beside each of the room doors sat once-white, but now mold-tinted, plastic chairs.

            Inside the motel office, the owner’s disheveled and thinning mix of red and gray hair matched his beard stubble. The small room held the inharmonious aromas of fried bacon, marijuana, and cat litter. The owner wore a faded purple t-shirt spelling out, in white lettering, “Geaux Tigers,” and on the wall behind him an unevenly-yellowed poster read, “All you need is tea and warm socks.”  He was seated and did not turn his head, but kept his eyes fixed on his tv. The program seemed vaguely familiar, an old film starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. I watched Falk’s character, a CIA agent, drive himself and an overwrought Arkin evasively along a highway in some fictional Central American country.

            Sensing that no greeting was forthcoming, I said, “I need a room.”

            Without turning to look at me, the owner stated matter-of-factly, “it’ll be an extra $10 for the dog. Per night,” he added.

            “Fine,” I said.

            “And he better not be one of those loud, yappy dogs. I’ve got my other guests to consider.”

            Mine was the only car in the parking lot.

            “It’s not going to be a problem,” I replied.

            “60 dollars per night. Cash only.”

            I laid three twenties on the counter. Without rising from his seat or bothering to look my way, he simply stretched out an arm and pointed to the wall behind me. There hung a board of keys, each one attached to an irregular scrap of wood—a chair spindle, a short piece of two-by-four, a portion of table leg, and the like. On the pieces of wood, the room numbers were scrawled in black permanent marker.

            “You can have number 8,” he said.

            I collected my key, which dangled from what appeared to be a section of broomstick.

            As I opened the office door to leave, he stated, “and you better pick up after that dog,” adding with a tone of intended threat, “there’ll be further charges if I find any dogshit.”

            “Will do,” I assured him.

I returned to the car and parked it in front of number 8. Louis let out several muffled barks to communicate his sense of urgency. I dragged the befouled dog bed out of the backseat and dropped it on the ground. Then I attached Louis’ leash and led him to the far end of the motel building. After a few quick sniffs of the tufts of grass surrounding the water meter, Louis squatted and deposited a good-sized lump of excrement. He looked up and made eye-contact, pleased with himself. I retrieved a plastic bag from my pocket, slipped my hand into it, and grasped the warm, soft feces.