The only station drifting in and out is an oldies station, “the songs of your life.” Is this the first time you’ve known every single song that a station plays? It just might be. One after another, you beat time on the steering wheel and sing along. For once you know almost all the words. You open the windows –it’s late, you’re tired, you don’t want to get drowsy– and the trees rise up on either side of the road. Your children aren’t in the car to tell you to stop singing, so you sing.
Peace Train comes drifting in and you’re 16 and an exchange student, living with a Portuguese family, not long uprooted from their Angolan home near a coffee plantation, in Lisboa for the summer. Your Portuguese sister, Angela Paula Vieira Lopes, loves Cat Stevens and plays his records every day. Strange to hear English here in this non-English world, the first time you’ve ever been without language.
The blue wallpapered high-ceilinged room in the small apartment that you shared with her. The single hard-mattressed bed you shared. The overhead light with the push-button switch. What is that thing next to the toilet? That thing is a bidet. But what is a bidet for? You never quite have the courage to ask, and all summer long, you wonder.
Your host sister’s beginner English, your few words of Portuguese.
Nao falo Portuguese, mas comprehendo um cadeinho.
That sentence is probably wrong –grammar, spelling– but it’s the sentence you recited all summer long, all summer as you rode the buses with your Portuguese sister and little brother, Paulo, who would point to his cheek and say beiju, beiju, and laugh when you kissed him.
Your Portuguese host mother in the tiny kitchen, making you homemade potato chips every day, making you caldo verde for Sunday supper, taking you shopping and wanting to buy you ice cream but not knowing how to ask if you wanted one. Pergunta ela, pergunta ela; her hand motioning toward you when in the presence of your host sister: Ask her, ask her.
Cat Stevens, Peace Train, Portugal. You, always the early riser, getting up before your host family every morning, going to the front door of the apartment and opening it to find the blue cloth bag of warm fresh rolls, just delivered from the bakery. The tiny kitchen table. The butter. You, rolls, butter, the silence of the early morning in a Lisbon apartment kitchen.
The gray pocked road of the north country unspools like a ribbon, winding in and out of trees, watchful animal eyes in the ditch.
Steve Winwood, Arc of a Diver. You in the late afternoon tying your long hair back, stretching before a run. The day of classes behind you, the cafeteria with your friends and the long evening stretching before you. You ran down the long hill and up the short hill, turned around and ran down the short hill and back up the long hill. A busy road. Not the prettiest run, but an expedient one that began right outside the door of the old house where you lived on the third floor.
Arc of a Diver brings Charlie R. back to you, walking by and grinning that bright smile of his. You’re quite the runner, aren’t you, Alison? Every day, I see you out here stretching. No, you are not quite the runner. But you smile back at sweet Charlie and head out. Up on the third floor, in her room next to yours, Ellen is playing Steve Winwood, the song drifting out the screen window into the bright air of that day.
Sixty miles to go on this long trip. The Happy Family Fast Food restaurant flashes by on your right, still open this late, and you do an about-face in the red car and pull in. Strawberry malt with extra malt, please. Small, thanks. And a fish fillet. Yes, lettuce and tartar sauce. Thank you.
Back on the road, heading north, twin eyes of oncoming cars once in a while crawling toward you out of the dark. Switch off the high beams. Remind yourself that if a deer leaps into the road ahead of you, you should not swerve. You should keep going straight. Know that if a deer does leap into the road ahead of you, you won’t keep going straight. You will swerve. Remind yourself anyway, knowing that it’s futile.
Pull the fish fillet sandwich out of the bag. What! This is a real fish fillet, real as in not rectangularized somewhere far away, frozen, and then deep fried in an approximation of something fish-like. This is a fish fillet in the shape of a real fish. You take a bite. My God, this is a real fish. Someone at the Happy Family Fast Food restaurant might have caught this fish herself. You’re in lake country, after all. There are lakes and lakes stretching themselves across the surface of the land behind the trees, behind the woods, northern lakes full of fish.
Back on the road and the oldies station confuses itself now, allows the jarring voice of someone telling you to get on your knees right now and pray to the Lord to come blaring in. You turn the volume down just as Neil Young comes crooning on. Comes a Time.
Now you’re back in time, many years ago. It’s a bright blue-sky day and you’re standing outside a building, a tall brick building among others. Where are you? Where is this place? It’s your sister’s college, that’s where it is. What are you doing there? You don’t know. You can’t remember. But that is where you are, and your boyfriend Greg came along, and you can’t find him. Where did he go?
People next to you are pointing and looking up, shading their eyes against the sun. You follow their gaze and there he is, redhaired boy, scampering up the side of the tall brick building. His fingers find a grip among the bricks and so do his feet, again and again, and up and over and up and over he goes. He’s three stories above the ground now, and a crowd has gathered to watch him.
He’s a human fly! says someone, and the others agree and laugh, but quietly. Tense. No one among them has ever seen such a thing before. You have. You have been with this man many times, walking along, when suddenly he stops, taking the measure of the building next to you, the one you wouldn’t have noticed. And then poof, up he goes.
You have a photo of him from back then in crampons halfway up the side of what looks to be a sheer ice wall, ice pick in hand, looking down and laughing. Is there any memory you have of him in which he’s not laughing? His face was made for merriment. The force of his laughter used to bend him double, and everyone around him would laugh too.
The people in the crowd now gathered around you shake their heads in amazement. The human fly has made it to the top of the brick building. No ropes. Nothing but hands and feet and the tensile strength of a body made to climb. Buildering, he calls it. He looks down and waves and laughs. Your parents are next to you now, shaking their heads and laughing too.
Years later you will see his happy, smiling face on the cover of Rock and Ice magazine. It will not surprise you.
Not far to go now, on this late night. You are tired. Very tired. So late at night, and will the doors of the inn be locked when you get there? Probably. This is not New York, after all. You’re in the middle of the woods.
Come, hear, Uncle John’s band, by the riverside. And again you’re back in time, on your knees, scrubbing someone’s kitchen floor. But where? Where is this now? Colorado. You have a job as a hotel maid for the summer but this is not the hotel. Now you remember. You took on some extra work, cleaning the apartment of some guys once a week. Again the sky is bright and the air is crisp and you’re up high, high in the mountains.
You’re playing their stereo as you clean up their mess, singing along with the Dead. One of the guys, the one who pays you, comes home just as you’re finishing up.
“You like the Dead?” he says.
“I love the Dead!” you say.
He shakes his head. “No you don’t. Not really.”
“Yes really,” you say. “Really really. I just went to see them last week.”
Again he shakes his head. “Have you sold everything you own and followed them around the country in a van, Alison? Do you wear flowers in your hair and tie-dye and dance for hours before every concert? Do you have set lists for every concert they’ve ever given for the past ten years?”
You look at him. The answer is no, to all those questions, and you both know it. You are a girl with a summer job in Colorado. You will soon leave, and he will be looking for someone else to clean his apartment once a week.
“A true Deadhead,” he says, “knows exactly what her purpose in life is.”
What is your purpose in your life? All you know, right then, is what it isn’t.
Here you are many years later, driving through the dark, the remains of an extra-malty strawberry malt next to you, watchful eyes in the ditches on both sides of the road. All these songs are making you cry, but you can’t cry because then you’d lose control of the car. Every memory brought shimmering up by these songs is bright and clear and full of laughter, full of love. Your throat hurts with the weight of unshed tears.