Exit 98: a rhythmanalysis
by Kevin S. Fox
In order to grasp and analyze rhythms, it is necessary to get outside them, but not completely: be it through illness or technique. A certain exteriority enables the analytic intellect to function.
The truck wouldn’t start up again. It sounded like it just needed a little more to turn it over, to encourage the engine out of its hopeless, guttural spiraling around, around and around. But instead of turning over, it stalled, and then clicked. Not a good sounding click, either. I tried for a few minutes, wiggling the key in the right place, pumping the gas pedal at what I thought was the right time, calling on a saint or two. I am partial to the Franciscans but none of them is patron to mechanics or cars or drivers. I could have summoned St. Jude, patron of lost causes, but I wasn’t ready to call my situation, my cause, lost yet. The truck ran smoothly for the five hours since I had left Gainesville leaving me guessing what happened during the eight minutes I took to fill the tank, wash my face, and buy peanuts and a Coke. I had been slowed down once already that day. I was losing my patience, losing myself in the delay, fragmenting and floating between two places.
If some consolation existed, even if only a small one, it would have been this: I had been there twice before. Never in this predicament but twice in this location, off this same exit of the highway in South Carolina, hundreds of miles away from anywhere I had ever called home. Exit 98 formed part of a mental map—a space familiar to me, a topography drawn through memory—with its own contours and textures, with meaning and experience draped over thick layers of asphalt and concrete and matching yellow lines. I needed gas but I could have driven another fifty miles without any problem. I stopped there.
I had spent the night there twice, both times sleeping at The Whitten Inn, a budget motel built in the 1960s, cheaper than the newly built chain hotels, charming, with a continental breakfast free of charge. The first time I was headed north back to Chapel Hill with Kathryn just after signing a lease with her on both a house and a relationship in Gainesville. The second time, a month later, I was southbound with my brother Bob on the move from North Carolina (where I had been in graduate school) to Florida when we chatted about the benefits of getting out on the road and seeing a little of America over pizza and a twelve-pack from the Piggly Wiggly just down the road. This was my third stop, with all my belongings in the moving truck, leaving Florida, moving back to North Carolina, alone, stuck at pump #4, making Exit 98 literally my home.
[T]o grasp a rhythm it is necessary to have been grasped by it; one must let oneself go, give oneself over, abandon oneself to its duration.
Stuck in pause, I ate the peanuts and washed them down with the Coke. On road trips I usually push forward and wait to eat my pit stop snacks until the cruise control re-engages, the car sailing smoothly along the highway, back into the main flow of traffic. Stalled at the gas pump, I stepped out of the truck, looking around in amazement at the pace of the clockwork movement—cars racing on and off I-95, holiday goers leaving Smith’s Super Store with shopping carts full of fireworks and oversized drinks, the doors flying open to Wendy’s and Arby’s, the honking of horns, the jake-braking of 18-wheelers—all following the beat of a drum, in pursuit of a determined goal, one programmed into both their GPS and mental maps hours and miles before.
Nobody was entirely there; no one was situated in the present. License plates from states up and down the eastern seaboard—Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Québec—marked the different geographies, origins and destinations of the traffic. Nobody was from that place, knew the place’s name; nobody was really from that moment, that time embedded in this place. A to B journeys catch people in their state of departure and whisk them off into a state of arrival, focused on the liminal moments of exit and entry, missing the betwixt and between. Conversations on road trips do that, too. We devote our time commenting on where we are coming from or where we are heading, missing the time-space conjuncture right where we are. The radio reproduces this, colonizing the moment through the scalar, keeping us floating in regional, national or international aether with all the other listeners in the reach of the signal towers, the voices on NPR, the BBC, AM talk shows from the left and the right, North and South. The A to B pulls us into collective ‘highway’ space, a traffic with its own temporality, its own logic, its windows closed and climate controlled. The other drivers continued their way along this trajectory, floating on this arc of space and time. In contrast, I was thrown off it, paused, my movement controlled, with the windows rolled down.
The rhythmanalyst calls on all his senses. He draws on his breathing, the circulation of his blood, the beatings of his heart and the delivery of his speech as landmarks.
It was hot—ninety-five degrees that day—and I was sweating. The oil sheen on the asphalt shimmered, the heat rising. My truck faced east towards Huddle House and the sun at late afternoon angled off the driver’s side mirror into my face. Dust danced in that golden light and I could barely make out the red letters of Shoney’s, busy at the supper hour. I had the door half-way open with my legs hanging out to catch the slight breeze. Anything helped. The truck’s cab still reeked of the cigars the last renter smoked on his way to Florida. I wondered if he just retired from the Bronx to Clearwater and didn’t care anymore about the no-smoking rule, both in New York and in this rental.
I telephoned Budget Rental’s toll-free emergency line at 5:45 PM to report the problem and was put on hold. I walked into Smith’s and looked at the selection of fireworks, looked at the people working the cash registers, stopping to watch more of this maddening pace. A friend of mine who worked as a cashier a couple of ski seasons at the 7-Eleven near Lake Tahoe told me convenience stores profit on volume, the volume of people coming in and the volume of small, $4 purchases. The cashiers must see thousands of people on a holiday weekend. Faces they’ve never seen and will never see again. When they see someone they recognize, someone local, they light up, slow down, and speak in their own voice—not the cashier voice, rushed for you, them, and the rest waiting in line.
On the wall in Smith’s hung a map of South Carolina. Making a cursory study, I concentrated where it was clearly marked, You Are Here. When I finally got the chance to speak to the Budget agent I rattled off as quickly as I could, “I am stranded at pump #4 at Smith’s on Old Highway 6 in Santee, SC just off exit 98 on I-95. I just filled the truck with exactly $100.00 of economy unleaded and the truck won’t start and I am stuck.” The Budget agent said she would call back in an hour after contacting a local garage to come out to diagnose the problem. I had my fingers crossed that it would be just an hour, that it was just the battery and not the alternator, that I wouldn’t be stuck there overnight, or have to switch trucks, that I wouldn’t sleep at The Whitten again. I really like staying there. I just didn’t have the money.
An hour later, no word from Budget, back at the truck, I tried to start it up again. Nothing. A man filling his tank (South Carolina plates) asked me if I needed help. The social scientist in me confirmed his origin and destination were both local, but I am not sure how to report my methodology or if it would count as a valid way of knowing. His pace wasn’t rushed; it was different than that of the people coming from or headed off to far places. He was in the local aether, I concluded, probably headed to the Piggly Wiggly for bread or milk. Filling up at pump #3, he noticed the truck wasn’t turning over, and asked to help. He ran into Smith’s and came back out with Mr. Smith who diagnosed the battery with a gauge he hooked up to the terminals, informing me that not enough juice was getting to the starter. The connection was bad, he thought, but the battery itself might still be OK. I thanked them and apologized to Mr. Smith for the truck being in the way of travelers looking to use pump #4 to fill their tanks, to get to their destinations. I offered to push it to the side, to the Huddle House parking lot. Smith didn’t mind, though. I imagine cars and trucks break down all the time in his parking lot, especially given the volume that goes through. I told him I was waiting on Budget to call back. “Any minute now,” I said.
Everywhere where there is interaction between a place, a time and an expenditure of energy, there is rhythm.
The last thing I wanted was to have to unload and switch trucks and pack the whole thing over again in plain view in the parking lot in the middle of the night. My oldest brother Tim, who worked as a mover in college, taught me the art of packing a truck. I move around a lot, so it was a good skill to learn. I pack the trucks by myself now, piece by piece, fitting them together. Fill the big armoire with heavy winter clothes. Put it in first, facing the back, so the doors stay shut en route. Stand the mattress on its side along the side wall of the truck. Stack chairs delicately on top of each other. Wrap framed pictures of family weddings and familiar landscapes in my old comforter and put them in the dresser. Box all the books and stack them. Bag the rest of the clothing and toss it in the gaps. This was the first time I was doing the moving solo and the first time in seven years I was going to live alone. But I didn’t want to switch trucks. I didn’t want to puzzle together all my belongings again.
I had left the swamp of Gainesville around noon, waving goodbye to a crying Kathryn standing on the front lawn, driving back along the same roads Bob and I took to move me eleven months before. I picked up I-10 and after ten miles the two lanes of eastbound traffic merged, funneling the cars into the left lane, inching the next thirty miles, each driver taking turns to pay attention to the cars in line ahead. In slowed traffic drivers could take turns like that. We could let our minds wander off, think about where we were coming from, where we were going, but still follow in line for miles and miles. It turned out there was no reason to merge—no road work, no accident, no detour. Or the reason had ended, been resolved, while the people in the back of the line didn’t know yet and so we stayed merged. We all stayed in line and slowed down the momentum of people heading to the beach, back home, and beyond.
I had grown tired of waiting, tired of waiting for this day, tired of waiting for so many things that I made a list one afternoon of all the waiting back in the late spring in Gainesville:
- for tornado warnings to expire
- for the hot days to cool down
- for the results of the NYC Marathon lottery
- to open the windows and let evening breezes in
- for the lease to finally run out
- to finally say goodbye to my ex-girlfriend Kathryn
- for my summer classes to end
- to meet someone who will teach me
- for something to come together for me, anything
- for quiet
- to beat a two-week cold
- for the tropical gazpacho to chill
- to get enough money together to hike the Appalachian Trail
I had been in training for the Appalachian Trail. I started in late December with a four-mile walk and built up my endurance and speed to where I was, in April, doing twenty-mile afternoons along the old rail bed trail through the swamp between Gainesville and Hawthorne. One day I walked 26.2 miles just to say I could do a marathon. A two-week cold (which was probably a bronchial infection) slowed me down. So did the finances. I couldn’t pull together the funds to do the hike. I would have been starting the hike this very same weekend in Maine. Instead, I was stuck at Exit 98.
When I was a young child—say, five, six, or seven—I imagined I would live to be about seventy-five. That might have been the official statistic then, in the late 1970s, for white, middle class men in America. I used to browse through atlases of the world, the kind that lists such important statistics and figures. I know it is higher now but I still use that as my metric. I am half-way. Thirty-seven is my half-way mark. For those requiring exact math I was actually 37.5507 that evening I spent at Exit 98. Mathematically, I was half-way, almost to the hour. I’m not where other people are in their late thirties so half-way might be tricky to defend. Is this half-way on my mental map or theirs? Friends of mine, from high school and college, who I don’t really talk to anymore, have high paying jobs (i.e. they make a salary, some probably in the nation’s top 1%), are husbands and wives, have children and homes. I don’t remember if I took a vow of poverty or maybe I’m like Tomáš in Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, ‘condemned’ to washing windows while having the skills of a surgeon. Well, I am not a surgeon by training nor do I wash windows as such. I am broke, however, and only get the jobs where one transfers things from A to B, something I now call ‘moving paper clips’ after watching a bank teller in Halifax, Nova Scotia a few years ago spend a painful ten minutes moving them from one side of the bank to another. What I was doing in a bank for ten minutes, I don’t recall. I didn’t have a job then, either. Sometimes all I see are people moving paper clips. Sometimes all I do is move paper clips from one end of the room to another.
Momentum builds and rebuilds the aether at different scales. At the scale of home and body it was spiraling around inside. At thirty-seven, I felt like I had some basic understanding of the (sometimes) painful process of momentum-building. “It is rhythmic and you best be prepared for when it comes, because you don’t want to miss it,” my friend Matt says, likening it to surfing the ocean’s waves. For me, my impatience was completely justified. I had just spent months building a relationship that was all taken away by her rendezvous with some guy she knew from her travels in East Africa who lived in New York.
8:05 PM: I tried again but the truck wouldn’t turn over.
On Craigslist for the Raleigh-Durham area I had been looking for cottages or cabins, my two keywords, in Pittsboro or Hillsborough, my two key places (both very quiet), for a month or so when one Tuesday evening in mid-June I saw advertised a “quiet, secluded cottage on 3+ acres just north of Pittsboro in Chatham County, a short 15-mile commute to Chapel Hill, one bedroom, probably too small for two people, with W/D and woodstove.” I happened to see the ad fifteen minutes after posting. I called right away and scared the owner a little with such a prompt reply. The ad didn’t post any photos but they forwarded this one through email. I replied right away saying that it looked perfect and the owners went with me over the ten other interested renters who called after I did—all because I called first.
[NOTE: I lived on a main road in Gainesville, twenty-five feet from constant traffic. I taught part-time at two schools, both within earshot of I-70. I heard the droning hum ALL day.]
9:00 PM: I was nervous, I hadn’t heard back yet from Budget. I had to start asking myself if I was going to sleep in the truck or if would I spend the night at The Whitten again. I could see the motel and one of its billboards from pump#4. Kathryn and I loved The Whitten’s billboards, seeing the two or three they had on the highway miles in advance. One reads: “Sleep with Whitten, and purr like a kitten. Exit 98 on I-95.” The owners, a married couple we assumed, are photographed together—in the caption one was the GM (he) and the other the CEO (she). We were a new couple and hadn’t yet worked out our GM/CEO arrangement so we thought it was funny. At the motel we fought about how I liked to drive all the time. She stormed out and, without any plan, picked up Thai for the two of us from around the corner.
When Kathryn returned she reported that inside the Thai restaurant a younger man and woman, a couple presumably, had been engaged in a pretty heated discussion. All Kathryn could understand was that the woman forgot to mention some important detail to him, that at the destination of their road trip people knew the truth about something that he was only finding out then over [insert name of Thai dish] at Exit 98, forcing him into repeated deep breathing. All I remember is his quote, “you should have told me this before the trip.” Kathryn said he repeated it five or six times shaking his head back and forth. And the young woman responded, “I’m telling you now, you deserve to know,” five or six times. Back in the room at The Whitten, our own differences squared away for the moment, I joked with Kathryn as we ate our Pad Thai that we had found a vortex where couples question choices and judgment, where the past is put on the table, discussed, and where people recalibrate into the here and now, maybe even entering into the local aether. Couples stop there at Exit 98, stay at The Whitten, figure stuff out, and then move on the next day—almost always in the same car but not necessarily towards the same destination.
Kathryn didn’t tell me anything that night. Nor did I ask. I wish I had known that I should ask about some things. We had just signed a lease to live together for a year. However, the lease on our relationship lasted only seven or eight months. Too poor to pay rent on two places we had to live together for three or four months as a broken up couple.
[NOTE: I paid double rent in July, in Florida and in North Carolina, because I couldn’t take it anymore. I really couldn’t stand one more month of it.]
Rhythmanalysis is the complete antithesis of psychoanalysis in that it is a theory of childhood rediscovered, of childhood which remains a possibility for us always, always opening a limitless future to our dreams.
9:15 PM: I spoke again to the Budget agent, the one hour had become three. She gave the local mechanic my number and said he would be calling soon. His name was Hansel. I asked the agent to repeat. She confided with me, “I’ve never heard of anyone with that name outside of the fairy tale, either.”
9:36 PM: Hansel called my phone to notify me he was on his way, coming down from his garage a few exits north. According to the map in Smith’s he would have to pass through the Santee National Wildlife Refuge to get there. For me, that was good enough to be a forest. After all, doesn’t the mythical still find a way to surface through all this concrete?
10:04 PM: Hansel (printed clearly on his shirt) arrived, a six-foot man in his forties, accompanied by his wife who slept in the passenger seat of his tow truck. I didn’t ask for her name. The temptation was great but I could only imagine how many wise guys ask him for her name. Or, worse yet, ask about the gingerbread cottage.
I don’t know anything about cars and engines, or batteries for that matter. So I put sports on the table and we talked about college baseball for a few minutes, discussing the recent matchup between his Gamecocks and my Connecticut Huskies. College football, too. While we chatted Hansel repeated Mr. Smith’s diagnostic, checking the power getting from the battery to the alternator and the starter. All was OK.
I stepped back, got out of the way, and watched him perform his craft, saw how he immersed in his process—at once both artistic and scientific—working through schemas of the truck in his head, seeing how all the parts functioned alone and independent, while simultaneously forming part of the whole, working collectively. He hooked the battery up to his wrecker and asked me to try to start it but it wouldn’t turn over. The same, hopeless spiraling.
Hansel showed no worry, barely even a flinch. I hoped to get on the road again that night and arrive at the quiet of the cabin to practice solitude. It seemed like he knew that and jumped in my truck, sat in the cab, and looked at the manifold while checking everything as if he was starting the whole operation from square one. He put in the key and placed his right hand on the steering column gear shift and then, all of a sudden, he stopped, gazed forward and tilted his head back like he knew something. I felt that hope had built some momentum, seeing in his eyes this knowing, the fruit of his meticulous process. Knowing I knew nothing about the mechanics of trucks, he still brought me up to speed and asked if the gear shift had been hanging between P and R, Park and Reverse. I said yes, not entirely sure of it. He pushed it up, raised even with the P, and holding it there with his left hand, turned the key with his right, and the truck started and purred and my mind headed to North Carolina.
Due to a built-in safety mechanism on these trucks it is impossible to start unless the gear is clearly in Park. So many driving styles on the one truck loosened the gear and so it hung there between P and R. Hansel said, “Nothing you could have done. You’ll know next time.” So many people caught in the highway space, moving fast, in a rush to get that truck and their stuff somewhere where they needed it to be. In the end I didn’t stay at The Whitten again. In the end, though, getting gas took five or six hours. Maybe that’s how long it takes to get recalibrated, put back into gear—just enough time and space to grasp the rhythm and collect the fragments floating between origin and destination.
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Copyright © 2015 Kevin S. Fox