Leonard looked up and frowned. Rain wouldn’t be a good idea for exactly two reasons: it would make him wet and it would discourage the drivers. They would whoosh past him without so much as a feeble, depressing beep. You couldn’t complain. Oilskinned windows would make them blind, upholstered seats would make them heartless. Leonard studied the shady larynx of the highway. All quiet and empty, like days after a nuclear explosion.
But you couldn’t complain: three hours ago nobody told you to pack your bag and leave home. There was Carrie waiting on the phone. Twin Peaks on TV. Irish stew oozing from the kitchen. You could stay. You really could stay.
There was nothing dramatic about Leonard’s denim-clad figure standing alongside the road. Apart from grungy light hair, halfway between long and short, he looked casual. A sweet nephew coming to his aunt for a dull weekend of good food and television. There was just one shabby brown bag to keep him company. Whatever was inside had to be enough to set him going in a different city, in a different state. In a different country, as far as he was concerned. Either a gust of wind or a car hissing by: Leonard couldn’t stand still. By turns he placed the bag on the ground or picked it up again. Old bag, he first saw it on a mid-60’s black and white photo of his father. Three years ago, when he first heard something meaningful about Seattle, he knew it would have to be this bag.
The road wasn’t entirely empty, but the cars were largely anonymous. They wouldn’t stop. Also, they were now coming in surges: a whole bunch of them, a pacey colony of worker ants going about their business. Leonard didn’t exist, and neither did his slender arm tentatively stretched out and then swiftly jerked back. He’d been out there for an hour now, and the chill of early spring was already getting under his skin.
Besides, there was the rain. Still shapeless and obscure, it was only waiting for some ungodly signal. Leonard took out a bottle and made a small sip. He thought of Carrie, again and almost against his will. He thought of not coming back. So far these two thoughts didn’t work in harmony. They banged against each other and produced a heavy, whirling sound in his stomach. Or was that hunger already?..
For a few seconds Leonard didn’t make a move, because the shiny red thing had already gone past him and was noiselessly puffing a good 30 metres away. The driver could be having a nap or studying the map. Leonard made a few steps in that direction, but he didn’t really mean it. Then the car signaled, and Leonard went faster.
“Why not?” Leonard couldn’t see the full face of the man, but for the moment it didn’t really matter.
The car had a strong thick smell, but he couldn’t place it.
“What does it remind you of?” asked the man. Which was odd, because Leonard hadn’t asked.
“I’m trying to think. But that’s a cool car”. The conversation was easy, like the sleek road sliding underneath them and then vanishing away, maybe forever. It felt good: the ride, the pram-like warmth behind the window-glass. Leonard suddenly realised what the smell was. It was like being inside a new guitar. It had that polished, lush scent that gave off lacquer and wood. Somehow, it was fitting, and he felt even more relaxed. The car seat consumed his bony buttocks and he could see himself falling asleep.
“Do you play?” asked the man. The light was dim and the stubby profile gave away so little. At 16, Leonard still couldn’t read a man without seeing his eyes, so neither the red checkered shirt nor the gruff voice made much sense. It was warm inside the car, and for the time being that was enough.
“Why do you ask?”
“Well, you are going to Seattle, aren’t you?”
Leonard knew little about cars, but he could see it was all you needed. Modern, new, with a busy, intricate dashboard that looked almost unreal. Back at college, car ignorance made him popular with the latest generation of girls who were much more interested in long hair than in a driving licence.
“Yeah”, said Leonard. “I decided to leave. Pack it in”. Which was a very state-of-the-road thing to say.
“All right. I’m not your father. Seattle where?”
“I don’t know. Just Seattle”. Leonard wanted to add that his father died years ago, but then he suddenly grew self-conscious and thought about the man sitting in the driving seat, next to him. In his mid-thirties, with a ring, with two kids smiling at him from the bright picture on the dashboard. What did the man care about a random heart attack that happened seven years ago?.
His mother would have discovered the note by now. A cigarette burning into her fingers, she would have made a panicky phone call to Carrie. The sound of rain added to the images and the voices, and Leonard switched on the radio. Paul Newman was mumbling away his Cool Hand Luke version of “Plastic Jesus”. Leonard thought about Carrie. Once a 12-year old girl near an ice-cream stand, with a Playboy T-shirt and white patched-up jeans, how could he possibly go past her?.. Today, she would drop her homework and dirty dishes, come right away and begin the search. Bits and pieces of what he once said or she presumed he said.
And then, suddenly, it came: Nirvana. Mainstream radio never did that. “Molly’s Lips”, quickly followed by “In Bloom”. Could this be an obscure literary reference? It really could not. Leonard remembered the day Sam (or was it Donovan?) brought two thick books to the schoolyard. The long monologue made little sense. Despite a few strong implications, Joyce rambled too much and didn’t know how to end a sentence. Henry Miller, on the other hand, was all blushes and mad giggling. Henry Miller was good and came in handy a couple of weeks before Leonard saw Carrie.
The song ended, and it was a weather report forecasting showers on just about entire West Coast.
“Christ, twenty years ago today. I feel old. Do you think it was him or that bitch?”
Leonard said it was probably the bitch, though he had no idea what he was talking about. Some conversations were meant to be meaningless.
“Anything in particular you want to see in Seattle? I live there.”
Either it was what he said or the way he said it, but the words sounded unreal. They hung in the air like a bad joke ignored by everyone but not displaced with another sentence. Leonard wheeled about in the seat and checked the back pocket of his jeans. It was all right, he still had it.
“My phone is fucked”, said the man, turning to Leonard for the first time. The face rang some distant bell, but it was the kind of bell that didn’t even make you try to remember.
“And Carrie is there waiting”.
“Carrie?” Leonard asked.
“Yeah, over there”.
Leonard looked where the man’s eyes pointed and saw another picture. The picture tugged at his heart, it was so inexplicable that he needed a distraction.
“Mind if I smoke?”
The man nodded, though it was as if he nodded ‘no’.
“Lost my mom to that shit last year”.
Leonard decided against it, and the man made no attempt at a delicate protest. It was like a flash, and something had finally caught up on him. He suddenly realised he was leaving home for a city that was only a sound image. He heard it on records and in a tiny venue six months ago. Seattle was largely his vinyl city, his college radio city. He stuffed the cigarette back into the pack, and stared down the road. The road was not running under the car now, it was emerging from the far edge of the red bonnet.
“Sorry, you said something?” said Leonard.
“I’ll give you my phone number if you need anything. It’s a huge city, especially at night”.
“Thanks man. That would be cool”.
The rain lulled Leonard to sleep, and when he woke up it was early evening and they were already in Seattle.
“That was a good one. For a guy who left home you seem calm. Slept well?”
It took some time to remember the details, but slowly, reluctantly at first, Leonard was coming back to it. Road dreams were often tenacious and didn’t want to let go. Leonard stared into the window, childishly, intently, so as not to miss anything.
The man chuckled and studied Leonard in dumb recognition.
“Drop you off in downtown?”
His thoughts were unclear. They were consumed by this enormous city eyeing him with overwhelming indifference. They were tiny children trotting around unsteadily, like funny aliens in a cartoon. Leonard picked an old man and tried to snatch him away with his eyes, but the old man slipped away from his view without leaving a trace. People didn’t matter. The city was too big and vicious for people to matter.
The man stopped the car. The man was no longer a driver, though Leonard never asked who he was. What was his name? His job? Why did his car look the way it did?.. Instead, he took out a crumpled but carefully folded sheet of paper from his back pocket and read the number again. "Bass player required. Call Rob...". It was the Seattle Leonard had to hang on to. He got out of the car and the man pulled the brown bag out of the back seat. Leonard still didn't have the instrument, so he could offer ten, maybe fifteen dollars.
“You don’t have much, do you”, the man said. “And anyway I don’t need it”.
Leonard knew that.
“So you’ll be fine?”
“Yeah. Looks kind of grim here”.
“It does when it’s damp. It'll get better”.
The engine died down, but not the noise of Seattle. Alone, Leonard realised the man had forgotten to give him his phone number. Which was just as well, he wouldn't call anyway. Upfront, he saw a bunch of kids scattered around a newspaper stand. Leonard walked slowly, trying to let it all in. He stopped by a telephone booth sticking out of the centre of the pavement. He knew Carrie was waiting, but will he do it?
Twenty metres away, the kids were anxious. It was April 5, 1994.