January 28, 2003

You grew up and the sights you saw most during that time were probably the faces of your mother and father, the ceiling of your room as you wondered why all the adults were still up having fun, the television screen on Saturday mornings. Terrence Metcalf grew up and his world was all tail-lights and off-ramps, and his father’s face illuminated every couple of seconds by yellow street lamps as the Union zoomed by all around them, from sea to shining sea.

Terrence liked the Atlantic Ocean better. Definitely. There was something about it, especially up in New England, that said it was just allowing North America to be there on a whim. The Pacific was sky-blue and showy, like how a billionaire might build his own private sea if he had the time. The Pacific was for people having a better time than you. He had seen the Pacific six times and the Atlantic five, and they were heading back to the east coast when his father pulled the old Accord into Wharton, Ohio. But first things first.

He was all curly sandy blonde hair and had to be the only kid in America with a right-arm driver’s tan, from those long stretches of blank prairie when he’d stick his hand up to the window to block out the sun. Then, when they’d get to Oklahoma and the sky would cloud over, when the radio would start playing an endless loop of the Charlie Daniels Band, he’d put his arm down, stick both arms behind his head and watch the rain fall on the windshield. He’d pick two raindrops and watch them race them from the front windshield to the end of the passenger window, knowing that as long as the rain fell, the race would never end.

They lived out of the trunk and every Goodwill store between San Bernadino and Cape Cod for three years, and, by Terrence’s count, three shoe sizes.

They were out on this inter-ocean expedition under the pretenses of Mr. Metcalf looking for work. But all Terrence knew was that Mom had left, Dad used to be a gas-station attendant and before that, a truck driver, and for some reason nobody was paying for the line of work he was looking for.

They pulled into a little Virginia village one afternoon, and while Terrence’s father ducked into a bar for a drink, Terrence headed down the block under the pretense of buying some jerky at a corner store. He ended up in the town library, not so much out of a voracious need for literature but the desire for free entertainment: he had done three whole Mad Libs books on this particular leg of the trip and somehow stories that started “So I walked outside my house of CHEESE and lifted up a car with my EYEBALL” had just ceased to amuse him.

He was warming to the idea of a narrative for which he didn’t have to provide all the adjectives and verbs when the space designated “ADDRESS” on the library-card application stopped him dead. Worse yet, the librarian told him that if he didn’t know his address she would be more than happy to call his mother. A number he didn’t know to find an address that didn’t exist. He settled for a dusty clearance copy of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea that lay on a shelf between the Help Desk and the faint twilight of the Virginia town.

It was too dark to read every night, so Terrence would count mile markers ‘till he fell asleep, because if he was lucky, once or twice a week, he’d wake up in a motel bed. He’d dream he was deep beneath the Atlantic, wrapped in cold blue, darting in and out of the legs of a giant squid, thrusting his way up towards the surface and hearing the roar of waves. But when he would always awake to find that it was the engine, not the waves, that were roaring, and the ocean’s surface was now a seemingly endless prairie sky.

One night he went to sleep and woke up in bed in a farmhouse in Wharton, Ohio, owned by grandparents he’d never met, who were downstairs making breakfast. The Accord wasn’t in the driveway, just a beat-up old truck that would one day take him in to town to buy school clothes. He would try to grow accustomed to a stiff desk instead of a bucket seat. It would be hard (the desks didn’t have a cupholder and never reclined.) And some afternoons at school, during geography, his classmates would pull out their textbooks and trace their finger along a cartoony map of the United States, in accordance with some assignment. Terrence would just stare out the window, secure in the knowledge that not only did he know his states and capitals, but he could tell you how to get between any two of those capitals in the Continental US, how to navigate the New Jersey Turnpike, and could draw from memory the winding stretches of the Pacific Coast Highway. He had seen these flat, awkwardly colored shapes spread out before him, one continuous mass from the wise old ocean to the showy arrogant one.

Small town life would eventually settle him, with its promises of a permanent address and all the books the Wharton Public Library had to offer. His father never returned, and neither did his lust for highway life. Eventually, he’d find himself wanting out of the one-horse town, but not wanting to make the journey to get there, for fear of wandering until he regained his driver’s tan. He hoped someday to find a place of his own, where he could fall asleep and dream of asphalt receding under headlights to the tune of six cylinders, and wake up to realize it was only the ocean.

Posted by DC at January 28, 2003 11:29 PM
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