So I’m on my way back from my head doc around lunchtime, heading south on the 101 freeway over the Cahuenga Pass after having just paid $80 to learn that my pedestrian anxieties and run-of-the-mill insomnia stem from not feeling in control of things (revelatory!). I didn’t sleep a wink last night, haven’t eaten or had much to drink yet today, and am feeling the aches from the surfing I did this morning before work. I’m delirious. Deliriously dreaming of the biggest burrito in the history of Poquito Mas, or maybe a double-double with fries from In-N-Out Burger, or Fatburger in all its fatty-greasy splendor for a change. Endless possibilities await just a few hundred yards up the road, where the Barham exit will deliver me onto a stretch of fast-food heaven. After eating, I could even buy a car, any number of brands of car, if I were rich. Or I could get my film edited, if I had a film to be edited, or apply for a job at Vivid Entertainment, if I thought being a pornographer was the way to regain control of my life. It’s really an embarrassment of riches on that stretch of Barham around the Cahuenga Pass. Hell, maybe I’d even move there.
The future is wide open, and it’s going to start as soon as I make that exit.
Then, the future stops dead in its tracks. Not just for me, but for all four lanes of traffic, including the two highly cell-phoned black dudes in the Bentley sports coupe in front of me, the Pat Riley wannabe with the slicked hair and thousand-dollar suit driving the Mercedes SL500 next to them, and the truck driver next to me. We wait for something to happen, something to move. Nothing does. It’s really hot.
After a while, the slick-haired guy opens his car door and stands up on his floorboards to take a look. He turns to the guys in the Bentley and shakes his head. The Bentleys shake their heads back in mutual acknowledgment that this kind of shit is for other people.
I have my air conditioning on and notice I’m nearly out of gas. There’s a service station within throwing distance, right there at the Barham exit. That damn exit is a portal to the world of the sentient. Down here, lined up like livestock on the 101, we are practically inert, unable to control our destinies. Crowds of real people start congregating up along the chain-metal fence separating the two worlds, gaping excitedly at us as if we’re participants in some medieval sporting event.
We wait for something to change. I turn off my car to save gas, and start sweating profusely. I think I might pass out. One of the dudes gets out of his Bentley and starts working the cell phone. The Mercedes dude does the same. Four helicopters start buzzing overhead. I wonder if they’ll be airlifted out. I need some water.
I get out of my car and start walking. If I can just get to Barham. I feel like Michael Douglas in Falling Down. I count more than a dozen emergency-personnel vehicles up ahead. Somehow a news crew has sprung up out of nowhere — just add disaster and voilà! There’s bad shit going on up there, that’s for sure, and nobody’s getting near the Barham exit.
I walk over to the side of the road, scale a little incline and start to hop the fence. When my intentions become clear, the people on the other side eye me suspiciously, but let me pass. I’m one of the Others, like from Lost. Even though I’ve made it to the land of free will, I’m not really free, since my car is still stuck in the miles of cars now lined up on the 101. I forgo a trip to Fatburger in favor of a quick dash to a nearby liquor store for water.
I hop back over the fence with my water and rejoin the ranks of the stuck. I look back at the wreckage. Firemen and EMTs scurry about. Someone’s being put on a stretcher. It’s awful. A newsbreak says the accident has traffic backed up past the 405 freeway.
I get in my car and sip the water. It’s still really hot, and I’m parked directly beneath the sun. I notice the slick-haired guy walking back from the vicinity of the wreckage. He looks at the Bentley guys, and they instinctively seek solace in each other, communicating back and forth in the language of the normally exempt. Other motorists are out of their cars, bonding. Teens seem to find each other and huddle in clusters. A sense of being part of something has taken hold. I’m alone and roasting.
I get out of my car again and walk back toward the fence, where there’s shade. As I approach, I notice a disheveled woman sitting on a bench in a grassy clearing on the other side of the fence. She’s scribbling something furiously on a piece of brown paper.
“Whatcha doing?” I ask.
“Putting a cover on my AA book,” she tells me. Her hair is matted, and her two front teeth may be implants suffering from extreme neglect. Her clothes are dirty, but her figure’s kind of held up.
“Remember how you used to do that in elementary school?” she asks.
She tells me she likes to put covers on all her books and produces the one she’s going to do next, a dime-store romance novel by the looks of it.
“I got these from the Burbank Library,” she says, and starts digging through her purse until she finds her wallet. “See, here’s my library card. I just got that the other day. And here’s my Ralphs card, and here’s my . . .” She shows me every card in her wallet.
“What are you doing all the way over here if your library is in Burbank?” I ask.
“I had my anger-management class,” she says. “I’m also taking physics. My professor is really good. I’m good at physics.”
I ask how AA is going.
“Really good, bro’. I used to do a lot of dope. But I’ve been off it for three years. Except for three relapses.”
I wonder if this is one of them. “That’s great,” I say, smiling through the fence.
“I’ve seen you before,” she says, while carefully folding what appears to be a blond wig and placing it in some kind of mesh bag. “I noticed you over there. You looked calm and I knew you’d come over here.”
She pulls a brush from her bag and starts brushing her real hair, which is short and dark. She’s sort of attractive, in a tough-luck, dual-diagnosed kind of way. Once, though, she must have been somebody’s baby.
“Hey,” she says, “if you ever want to get out of here, I know when the spaceships are coming.”
Up ahead, the emergency vehicles start moving out.
“Thanks,” I said. “I gotta get back to my car. You take care.”
“You too, bro’.”
Traffic begins to move. The future is wide open.