I’ve been spending a lot of time in the car, sitting at red lights mostly — but with holiday traffic, also at green lights and yield signs, and trapped in parking lots. I sometimes imagine that I’m going to miss Christmas entirely, marooned at the mall and staring at the back bumper of a Toyota minivan.
On the bright side, it gives me plenty of opportunity to think.
At this very moment I find myself creeping along behind a blue Ford Focus. The name of the car jumps out at me because the driver seems completely distracted and in no hurry to get where he’s going. I’m late for a meeting, so I’m in a big hurry. But he’s doing about half the speed limit and there’s no way to pass him, so my own mind begins to wander. He’s driving in much the same way I imagine I would be driving if I were on my way to the electric chair. But then, I think, what would I be doing in my car if I were going to the electric chair? That’s an easy one. Before they execute you, they serve you that last meal. You can order anything you want and they have to give it to you. (I believe it’s in the Constitution.) I’d request take-out. And I’d want to pick it up myself. Alone. That would be my request, dinner alone in my own car. They’d have to let me go, wouldn’t they? Otherwise my attorney could argue that my constitutional rights had been violated and the judge would have to throw the case out. It isn’t as though I’d take off or anything, because when you attempt to escape from prison they extend your sentence. In the case of the electric chair, they extend your electrocution — less voltage, but more time, producing significantly greater agony and reducing the facility’s carbon footprint! (I call that a Lose-Win.) So I’d get back promptly, maybe even a few minutes early. I’m not going to have much of an appetite anyway. I can never eat right before an execution, especially my own. I’d just want to get some air and maybe give the governor’s office a quick call to see if he received my last forty-seven letters.
A few weeks ago I watched a show that said cows in a field all stand facing the same direction. This scientist had supposedly studied worldwide satellite images and noticed that cows always face either north or south. His theory was that they could somehow sense the Earth’s magnetic poles. Well there are plenty of cows around where I live and I see them every day. What I’ve noticed is that they all face any direction they want. There does appear to be a lead cow who, at some point announces, “All right, girls, time for lunch,” and then they walk over to the buffet together. But I doubt they know anything about magnetic fields, and for sure they’ve never watched that show. The scientist is clearly a lunatic with too much time on his hands. My theory is that cows can tune in to radio stations, probably through those little horns. They face in different directions because the signal is stronger depending on whether they’re listening to classical, hip hop, or the best of the 80s. At one time, cows all listened to country music, but they eventually got tired of it, as most people have.
As I sit through the same red light for the third time, I notice a plane flying by. I think about the last time I flew, remembering how mind-numbingly long the flight was across the Atlantic. Jets fly at about five hundred miles per hour. Meanwhile, the Earth rotates at a thousand miles per hour. In other words, the planet is spinning twice as fast as the plane is moving. Here’s my idea. You attach one end of a really long cable to the plane and the other end to a satellite orbiting the Earth. Then you hang the plane in mid-air, like a Christmas ornament. You don’t start the engines, but just let the Earth spin by under the plane. When the place you want to land is almost directly below, you disconnect the cable and the plane glides down to the runway. You’re using zero fuel and getting there in half the time. It boggles my mind that the world’s engineers haven’t figured this out, yet here I am, a guy in a car behind a driver on death row, and I can see it clear as day.
There’s a house coming toward me. Actually it’s half a house, being carried on a flat-bed truck. I inch over to the right to avoid being struck by the home’s kitchen, which overhangs the edge of the truck by several feet. I wonder what it would be like to get into an accident with a house, especially if it were the house’s fault. Would we file a claim through our auto insurance or homeowner’s?
People have asked me if I dream in black & white or color. I’m a little hesitant to tell them that I usually dream in ultraviolet. On cloudy nights, I dream in X-rays and even gamma rays, and for a few seconds right after I wake up I can see through furniture. I don’t tell anyone this because I’m afraid they’ll think me an odd duck, when all I’ve ever wanted in my life was to be thought of as a normal duck.
This is strange, but speaking of ducks: We’re inching across a causeway now, and there are several ducks floating in the harbor. I try to imagine what it’s like to spend so much time on the water, never knowing if you’re about to be devoured by something from just under the surface. There are sharks out there. Sharks have a terrible reputation, mostly as a result of their own unsettling behavior. But maybe they aren’t really mean, I think. Maybe they eat people and ducks just because they sometimes they get tired of seafood, and would like to try some meat or poultry. In a flash of insight I speculate about whether all sharks might be swimming in the same direction, but I decide not to follow up.
I was in the dollar store earlier. I don’t normally like going in there because I get tired of having the same thought over and over (“How can they possibly make something like that and sell it for a dollar?”) But I had to get some greeting cards, and while there I noticed a card that says, “Congratulations! You’re 100!” I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now that I’m sitting in the car with nothing else to do, I’ve decided that if I live to a hundred and somebody gives me a birthday card from the dollar store, I’m going to scribble something rude on the inside and hand it right back to them. At some point, it’s time for a little respect. In fact, if it turns out that reincarnation is real, I think I’ll put in my application to come back as a warlord. I don’t really know what a warlord is, but I hear about them in the news a lot and they sound like somebody you don’t mess with. I’m done being messed with. If I had my Gamma Ray Vision working, I’d vaporize this guy in the Ford Focus right now.
Wait a minute! We’re coming up to a red light and he’s moving into the right lane! I think I’ll ease up slowly next to his car and give him a look. I even consider telling him that I’m coming back as a warlord and that he’d better watch out, but then I remember that he’s on his way to the electric chair. Besides, it’s possible that my application might be rejected and I could come back as a cow and he could come back as the warlord, one with an insatiable taste for beef.
As I turn to look, I discover that he isn’t a death row inmate at all, or even a man. The driver of the Ford Focus is an elderly woman. She can barely see over the steering wheel, which she’s clutching with both hands. She looks hesitant, even a little frightened. She also seems tiny, her car dwarfed by the trucks and gas-guzzling monsters that are suddenly all over the road. I turn back and see that the light has changed. We both begin to move forward. The meeting is probably half over by now, but it no longer seems quite as urgent as it did before. I press gently on the brake and let her move ahead. Then I slip in behind the woman’s car and we proceed down the road together at a leisurely pace. I glance in the mirror and can tell that the driver in the vehicle behind me is upset. I don’t care. I’m too busy wondering why it is that sometimes I think too much, and other times I don’t think nearly enough.