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Pink Sky

POSTCARDS FROM THE PASSENGERS SEAT

 

AIDAN RYAN

 

 

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Buffalo, New York

Our relationship is mostly language. For seven years we’ve lobbed letters across the Atlantic. Marriage, aging siblings, ailing parents, the hot, embarrassed memory of spearing octopus in Sicily. The chickenscratch you curate on your coffee breaks, three, four times a year, is more intimate than if we shared a fragile plaster bedroom wall, and sometimes placed a cup between it and our ears. I never think about what you haven’t told me. What I know is bigger than a life. It exists, for me, in a folder labeled “Sam.”

        Here I am, sorry for not writing sooner, one of yours begins. Apologies replace our salutations.

     Sometimes, when traveling, when pressed for time, mutually ashamed at our expanding inattention, we release a postcard. 

        Give the keys to Grace, I write. Come to America at your earliest convenience.

        I peel the stamp, flick the image into the mouth of a mailbox, and forget.

 

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Contempra Inn – Outside New Orleans, Louisiana

After four canceled flights, a night in Queens, and an hour-plus in the Budget line at Louis Armstrong International, I pull into the Contempra Inn—which for three days alone you’ve called your home—and park our rented Camry next to a crime scene. Men and women wearing alphabets are investigating. When I see your torso approach in the side-view I think that you’re one of them. Another delay. Instead you take my bag and offer me a Camel.

        I can’t tell if you remember my moods or if you just prefer to share the ritual. Either way, I need it. I’ve spent most of the last twenty-four months in an attic, with a ring light, three screens, and legal pads. I have become overfamiliar with my own image in miniature. If I have a rhythm, it is not circadian. But then I received your letter. I’m coming, it said. I trust the offer stands.

        This is what we trust. That the lumps of crumbling sand we palm from memory, save from time’s tides, and grind to glass, the other will preserve. Once you mailed me a fishbowl lens that fell from your face. What you do with it is your business, you said.

        But we’re far from our letters now, our letter-selves. It’s just you in front of me—flesh, and every second new.

        “Relax,” you say, proudly wearing your Shropshire accent and a bayou tan. “Your Yankee’s showing.”


 

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Manny Gammage’s – Lockhart, Texas

The mad hatter has strong opinions on celebrity.

        “DeNiro came here in character. You talkin’ to me?

        He tells us about the hats he made for Joni Mitchell, The King of Sweden, the ’78 Globetrotters, Sylvester Stallone.

      “His favorite day of the year? Halloween. Going out with his kids in the Hollywood Hills, dressed as a mummy or a spaceman. He could be himself.”

        I’m no Bickle, no Rocky or Rambo, but standing in the half-length mirror, switching out the simple felt band on a new black Stetson for a loop of creamy kona beads, I can relate. You join me in the glass wearing a ten gallon, dune-colored. It suits you. The frame excludes your Birkenstocks and Leika, my fanny pack and nylon soccer shorts. I don’t know if it’s ourselves that we’re escaping. But we’re making a break.

         On the porch, our broad brims braced against the blistering, a rancher offers wisdom.

        “Stay in trouble,” he says, “and never give’m your real name.”


 

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Wine Road 290 – From Fredericksburg to Marfa, Texas

City yields to wine country yields to peach country yields to scrub oak, tumbleweeds, and distant twisters. The phrase “No end in sight” suggests itself with a literalness I’ve never known it to possess. I know I am empty precisely because I am every second refilled.

        Rolling road, moaning wind, disappearing paper at the end of a cigarette. And talk, endless talk. Even in the flesh we’re mostly language.

        “I’m sorry,” you say, not for the first time. “This must be terribly boring.”

        Yes, I am stunned by the great lengths of open road you can fill with language. But enjoying it. I wonder which of these segments might have met your high standards for a letter, and which would have perished, half-said, in pencil on the back of an envelope. You’re talking again, now about a woman you knew in Brighton, then about your brother’s work in a school for children who are every day boiling over with rage. You play me Paul McCartney’s Ram. I play you Stevie Ray Vaughan. Sky spills toward the tires. Toward us: a Zeno approach.

        “You know what they call that?” I nod at the shimmering. “A Texas flood.”


 

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Audio: Aidan Ryan reads Postcards from the Passengers Seat
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Across the Chihuahua – Toward Truth or Consequences

You land on your back in the gravel at the Marfa Thunderbird Motel, after six hours shooting pool and tequila. In the morning I ask if you’d seen the Mystery Lights. Either you can’t remember or you keep them to yourself.

        The drive west was timelessness. To point north is to kick out of the slipstream. Suddenly I feel it—time—in every detail.

        Tanks raise screens of dust around the highway as we pass Fort Brag. It’s midafternoon, but the calcareous grayscale outside the windows suggests impending twilight. The sun sets by perceptible degrees.

        We can make White Sands, I tell you, thumbing at a map that fails to load, But it’ll cost us half an hour, or forty-five minutes, maybe more. I hold the phone up against the windshield, signal-seeking.

        A sea of pure gypsum crystals in the heart of a missile range, White Sands feels like a lunar surface. I want to luge down a dune the way the penguins do. But instead we press on, through Truth or Consequences, a town that renamed itself after a radio game-show, as the sun luges down its own blue dune—northward, northward, toward Albuquerque.

Coconino Country – Sedona and Flagstaff, Arizona

Listening to the crack as the guides reach up to break brittle pieces from the bare pine branches, my own hand on the hot, scratchy back of an old black horse, I can’t imagine that I was ever anywhere else. Or anyone. I take a picture of our party automatically. I swipe past the cluttered calendar. The Outlook app I haven’t opened in a week. I can’t go back to work after this—life per my last email. Instead I imagine growing accustomed to saddle ache and early mornings, a permanently sunburned nose, smell of dung, familiar sight of a snowpile in the shade of the stables that just won’t melt, even into August.

        You mock me relentlessly when I voice this. But it’s easier to picture now than the smooth rocks and tourist shops that we left in Sedona less than an hour ago. Easier to picture than absinthe on Bourbon Street, the technoöptimist towers of Austin, or John Wesley Hardin’s caged grave at the border. Easier to picture because I can describe it to you. Language is inadequate to the past. We know that after seven days on the road, seven years quilting memories in letters. But our stories of the future have nothing but themselves to measure up against.

        Four desert hours ahead of us, I ply you with details: my perfect Sherpa jacket, my two dogs (Netflix and Criterion), the pankling of rain in the bed of America’s favorite electric pickup. Every FOR SALE sign we pass I tap the glass: “See that? Ryan’s Ranch.”

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The South Rim – Arizona

It’s still too big to comprehend. The many blues of the canyon at sunset annihilate all distance. Alone against the edge, you drop the Leika from your face. What could you hope to frame inside the viewfinder’s faint white corners?

        You look up at me, squinting, your back to the canyon.

        “I feel compelled to say something.” You shrug. “But I’ve got nothing.”

        “Give it a minute,” I say. “It’s your nature to fill a void.”

        After dinner at the El Tovar we stumble through the woods by moonlight, eyes wide for the fearless elk that graze among the tourists; we follow the dark cutout of a powerline overhead to reach our resting place, a room at the Yavapai Lodge.

      Already the trip bends back on itself:  We get a little drunk and read each other poems from a book of Everette Maddox you collected and loved in New Orleans, in the three days you were alone in the city, a prequel that didn’t include my character.

        How insidiously the past invades the present. At every mile-marker, gas station, lookout, impossibly named town, we trot out old stories, share records, explain ourselves.

      Maybe it’s the other way around. A mile below us the Colorado River seeks the anonymous sea, every second excavates a past fixed, explained, and named, all the way down to the Vishnu schist. 

         So we trade our ill-fitting accents across the poet’s Selected. You repeat the lines you love.

        But we’re almost asleep. And tomorrow we’re headed somewhere that promises no memory, no history, no antecedent.

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Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas boasts an imitation Camelot, an imitation Floridian resort, an imitation Eiffel Tower, an imitation New York City skyline. Parts of Las Vegas are an imitation Las Vegas. But, as the late Chris Cornell is eternally singing, it doesn’t remind me of anything.

        Tonight we’re cleaned up cowboys, with big hats and slim wallets.

        “What does it come with?” you ask the bodybuilding bartender at the steakhouse in the MGM Grand. 

        The words à la carte land with practiced mercy.

        I take out only the cash I can afford to lose, and do. You have better luck at Roulette. We smoke cigarettes giddily, then languorously, then automatically, eyes going pinched, saving our breath with gestures for hit and check and another round. We make an art of delay, the tactics of timing free drinks at the tables. I order for both of us, even though you’re playing, and I’m only watching over your shoulder, my Hoover Flags hidden, black brim tipped down.

       We have big plans to go to a nightclub where everything’s made of ice. They hand out fur coats, mittens, and ushankas at the door. But Google informs us of a $35 cover. We’re out of cigarettes, it’s a long walk to Mandalay Bay, and anyway I have Reynaud’s.

         Over the outdoor escalators and back to the MGM, I head to the bathroom and you—up $250—find a table for one last lucky bet. When I return, your face is a new moon. You’ve lost it all.

        The last words we hear before the bliss of blackout blinds come from a family in the liminal place where casino, mall, and food court meet.

        “You never said you were thirsty,” a woman corrects her husband. “You just bitched about having nothing to drink.”

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The Salton Sea, California

The road from Las Vegas to Los Angeles is straight, fast, and paved with other people’s narrative. Ours— more south than west, from Sin City to Slab City, California—is bent, contradictory, unknown. But also fast. Very, very fast.

          We pass a sign belatedly informing us that we missed the last gas station for a hundred miles. Horizon becomes an object of faith rather than direct observation. 

        Once a resort the Rat Pack and the Beach Boys played, today the Salton Sea is California’s worst ecological disaster—though it never gets the attention of the forest fires annually threatening Malibu. Imperial County has the state’s highest rate of asthma-related emergency room visits for children. As heat shrinks the sea, desert winds pick up the exposed playa—a combination of agricultural chemicals, decomposed fish, and bacteria in a fine, gray-white dust—and carry it through towns like Pope, Frink, Mundo, and Niland, day after day. 

          I tell you this as I steer the Camry south and east, the sea out your window. We’ve never fought—not when we studied together in Edinburgh, not in seven years of trading letters, and not in two weeks on American Interstates and blue highways like this. But we come close when I let slip, after sharing the wheel for two thousand five hundred miles and six states, that I never added you as an insured driver on the rental policy. You just stare through the windshield, your face orange and indigo, eyes swelling to the edges of your rimless glasses.

           Must clear the air. I tap two fingers to roll down both our windows and the sea’s reek of rotten eggs slams us back into our seats, fills the cabin, chokes out anything else we might have said.

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The Last Free Place – Slab City, California

The first thing I recognize, the first true déjà vu, is not the sight of Salvation Mountain—the fifty-foot adobe tumulus covered in a half-dozen colors of loud latex paint, declaring GOD IS LOVE and JESUS I’M A SINNER PLEASE COME UPON MY BODY AND INTO MY HEART—but the solemnity of Slab City just before sunset. The feeling comes when we approach a roadside shelter that says, simply, “Welcome.” Its walls are freshly painted and its door and windows are spiderwebbed. In the shadow, I can make out a single informational poster. PROTECT THEM BOTH, it says, above a picture of a girl and a dog; and below: FREE RABIES SHOTS SUNDAY 4/17.

        If I had any illusion of access to this place, it’s dispelled by the yips of a chihuahua that takes interest as we cross the threshold of the slab advertising the internet café. We ignore the little beast until its calling draws a friend—a massive, unclassifiable mutt with miscellaneous teeth, yards of gums, and desert-reddened eyes. Both dogs begin following me, barking, as I speed-walk around the rectangular perimeter, willing myself not to release the scent of fear. My mind holds nothing but the simplest calculations: Thirty-minutes’ limp to the car. Forty minutes’ drive to the nearest hospital. Four days until the free community rabies clinic.

        A man in a sunset-colored tank-top emerges from a tarp and bellows the dogs away. At once the panic is gone, and I feel silly. Still, when he offers us chocolates, we decline. It’s time to move on. 
 

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Los Angeles, California

A woman and a dog dyed bubblegum-pink struggle past us. Far below, horses return their riders to the deep shade of the Sunset Ranch. Soon the Brush Canyon Trail ends at the top of Mt. Lee’s famous block-lettered peak. We take in the Valley. Turn, and take in the Basin. Five million people with each sweep.

        Someone said the problem with LA, Steve explains, is that around any corner, anything could happen … but it doesn’t.

      We spend the next seventy-two hours turning corners. I’m pounding the wheel of our tireless Camry, pinching and unpinching my phone screen to find a route to Venice Beach that isn’t scarlet with delays.

          For months, I’ve wanted to bring you to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I can’t describe it, I say. But I try, stumbling through references to pataphysics and cabinets of curiosity. Now we stumble through its dark, cramped, perplexing displays—a single human hair carved to depict Napoleon, another Goofy, each balanced in the eye of a needle; oil portraits of doomed Soviet space dogs; a mouse on a piece of toast. The telephone receiver at your ear is just loud enough for me to hear a monotone explanation of a theory of “obliscence”—that memory is an elaborate illusion; that there is only experience and its immediate decay. As you set it down and walk into the next room, well before the recording ends, a warm lump ascends my esophagus. I’ll spend the next hour counting your steps, noting your eyes’ mercury slip from one placard to the next. Given time and ink I might have delighted you with an anecdote about this place. Now I can’t get out fast enough. The whole episode feels like a draft I would have balled up. 

 

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The End of Something

Stuck in traffic, we both think the trip should have ended at the end, at one final vista—a big smash against the Pacific.

        Instead, after three beautiful but aimless days in LA, it ends as it began: With a pre-dawn alarm, a canceled flight, crisis management. In a way it’s a blessing, spurring our leave-taking. I bring the rental to the airport, you take an uber to a morning surf lesson.

      The 405 southbound is as empty as a test track. I read billboards for personal injury attorneys in English, then Spanish. It’s strange to be inside this capsule without your voice, a constant these two weeks. 

        Soon, though, I can hear it.

        I hear your voice the way I read your irregular letters.

       As I roll down the windows, drop the keys in the cupholder, and locate the Budget shuttle to the terminal, I imagine our first contact, some weeks or months from now. Our letters returning, not on any schedule, but certain. I’ll mail back your copy of Everette Maddox’s Selected, tell you how I felt when you caught my eye across the room of massive sans serif capitals in LACMA, both of us gauging whether it was safe to admit we hated Barbara Kruger. And you’ll remind me of something indelicate I said, show me New Orleans or some stretch of the Trans-Pecos from a new angle, or share part of a parallel adventure that you took in your mind across the silent miles.

        Less than an hour apart, already we’re returning to language.

        Here I am, you’ll begin, sorry for not writing sooner.

Photos by Sam Edwards

Aidan Ryan is a cofounder of Foundlings Press

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