Freeway

John A. Tarantino

Dean Jacks could kill. He really could. Okay, maybe he couldn't kill just anybody, but Dean knew, he was absolutely certain, that he could kill that God-damn idiot in the 1998 red Cadillac Catera, i.e. "the Caddy that zigs," who just cut him off; that son-of-a-bitch who, while zigging, forced Dean into the slow lane, the lane that never moves. Dean had just about made it into the center lane, where traffic might at least inch along, where cars sometimes move if only glacier-like. Conjuring a distant, one upon a time memory, Dean envisioned a wonderful day when he had actually made it into the center lane, and once there he even saw the speedometer reach 10 miles per hour for a sustained period of time. But that time and place seemed now to be only an illusion-- or perhaps it never really happened at all. The only thing that Dean knew as real was existence in the slow lane, where he was now, the lane that the God-damn idiot in the 1998 Cadillac Catera forced him into, the lane where nothing happened, nothing moved.

Why call it the slow lane when nothing moved? The only thing slow was a creeping, but steady, madness, an insanity that day after day worked on, beat upon, tormented and eventually drove people, like Dean, over the edge. Dean had felt the madness coming on more and more, stronger and stronger, accelerating with the power and fury of a 1960's muscle car as he sat motionless in traffic while trying desperately to move, to advance, pleading, chanting, praying, screaming to proceed, hopelessly trying to progress, to make it to his ultimate goal: work.

Dean was heading for the edge; and at first he feared going over, but now he wasn't really frightened at all. Going over the edge wasn't so bad because if and when he went over the edge, at least he would be moving somewhere, maybe even making good time, and in the end wasn't that what everything was all about, what was most important in life, to make good time?

These and other bizarre, losing control, out-of-control thoughts entered Dean's head each day as soon as he left the friendly haven of the side streets and began to inch his way onto the vicious highway. Dean's delirium settled in like a squatter; he had demons camped out in his brain, inward bound. And there they remained, until they were finally exorcised by St. Christopher or some other saint of safe travel who would mysteriously cause traffic suddenly to move at some unpredictable, ever-changing, unknown point somewhere along the highway. Each day these same strange scenes were played out both inside and outside Dean's mind; and each day some kind of miracle eventually happened, traffic moved -- although Dean found it harder and harder to convince himself each day that the miracle would happen. Dean questioned his place in the universe as he pondered the answers to these vexing questions: Would traffic break? Would cars begin to move? Would the commuting automatons eventually get to work? Yes, traffic would break. Yes, cars would begin to move. And, yes, all would finally make it to work. At least those who didn't go over the edge on that particular day.

Mind you, there were always some commuters who did lose it every day, who did go over the edge. They were the unfortunate and unmourned casualties of the highway, victims of the non-moving, but still deadly traffic. Dean knew that someday (and perhaps even today) he would be one of those casualties of the traffic wars, that he would go over the edge. He would finally lose all control and either implode right there in his 1994 Ford Taurus sedan, or he would explode, shooting through the roof of his car and taking out a whole slew of people with him. But if it were to happen today, if this were to be his final hour, Dean wanted one last request honored: he wanted to take with him that God-damn idiot, son-of-a-bitch in the 1998 red Cadillac Catera, the one who just "zigged," who cut him off and forced him into the slow lane.

Dean had tried lots of ways to deal with the stress of the morning and evening commute. In fact, he'd tried just about everything and anything imaginable to ease the unbearable stress he felt day in and day out, every morning and evening rush hour. He tried carpooling; but he nearly punched out the lights of the incessantly talking Bob Carpenter, one of his neighbors and a carpooling buddy wannabe, who spoke in staccato, sharp little words and phrases that struck at Dean's nerves like a woodpecker ferociously attacking an already dead, hollowed out tree. Next Dean tried meditation, but he almost got himself killed when he fell asleep at the wheel. Luckily, at the time (and as usual), traffic wasn't really moving, so it should've been a "no harm, no foul" snooze. But some big tattoo-decorated captain in the army of moronic morning drivers, with rolled-up sleeves, a beer gut and a pug-ugly face didn't see it that way. The impatient bully banged on Dean's window, rocking and shocking him from somnolence, and threatening to beat Dean's brains in if he didn't get his butt as well as his car in gear.

The morning radio personalities followed. Rock jocks, country western crooners, easy listening robots, golden oldie reminiscers -- a jumbled and troubled band of troubadours trapped hopelessly in the AM and FM bands of Dean's radio -- drove him nuts with their perky, cheery, happy-go-lucky, live and let live attitudes. Only the shock jocks were different: tough as nails, mean-spirited, nasty sorts who tried his very best to be their very worst to everyone. Dean planned to assassinate each of them. He wanted to kill them all, every one of the morning radio personalities, just like he wanted to kill that God-damn idiot, son-of-a-bitch bastard in the 1998 red Cadillac Catera who just "zigged" and cut him off.

Was there no answer for Dean? Was there no nirvana, no salvation for this truly road weary pilgrim? Dean was losing all hope. He was beaten. He was dying right there in his non-moving car, his 1994 Ford Taurus sedan, an embarrassment to forward motion. Dean felt like he was in a vehicular coffin, stuck in a highway of catacombs. This was a freeway? What a cruel joke! Nothing and no one moved freely, easily, effortlessly. Nothing moved at all. The freeway was nothing more than a constipated system where everyone and everything that entered got plugged up inside. All hope was lost on the freeway. The constitutional right to travel was forfeited. As the psalmist might have said, if they had freeways back then: Enter not the Freeway ye of sound mind and strong body, for ye shall soon go crazy and want to kill someone, and in particular, ye shall want to kill that God-damn idiot, son-of-a-bitch bastard in the 1998 red Cadillac Catera who just "zigged" and cut Dean off.

Dean's wife, Nora, had seen her husband's stress developing and evolving; she had experienced how the incredible, unbearable, all-consuming stress was eating away at his already thin skin, like the ravages of leprosy. Nora wanted to help her husband. She offered to help him; she would do anything she could to help relieve his stress. Nora was Dean's wife, for better or worse. Sure, lately, there had been lots and lots of worse, but maybe, just maybe, things might start to get a little better if Dean were less stressed, if only he had something positive to listen to and think about during his daily commute, his daily stress incubator, his daily travels and travails in his 1994 Ford Taurus, his personal doomsday machine.

Nora decided (well, more like suggested, and Dean was too physically exhausted and psychologically traumatized to protest all that much) that he should begin listening to the inspirational tapes of the Reverend Billy Joe Campbell, a popular evangelist. Unlike other evangelists, who spoke before large crowds in halls, stadiums and coliseums, or on television before vast world-wide audiences, the Reverend Billy Joe Campbell preached the Good News only on tapes. Never live. Never in front of real, God-fearing people. In fact, the Reverend Billy Joe Campbell was never seen by anyone. His face never appeared on his tapes. There were no pictures of him anywhere or on anything. Only something appropriately calm and spiritual, something that resonated sweetness and innocence, like a dove, or a fish, or a rainbow graced the cover of his inspirational tapes. You never quite knew what kind of uplifting thing you'd find on one of these heavenly covers, but you sure as hell wouldn't see a picture of the Reverend Billy Joe Campbell. He didn't want his physical appearance (was he incredibly handsome, plain-faced or downright ugly?) to detract from the Word, the Word of God, the Saving Word. And so the Reverend Billy Joe Campbell spoke and sang and preached and saved souls. But only on tape, where he could be heard, and not seen. This formula for success worked for the Reverend Billy Joe Campbell. And remarkably it also seemed to work wonders for his faithful followers, his disciples of digital sound.

What the hell? I'll give the preacher a shot, thought Dean. What have I got to lose? Maybe the Spirit of the Lord will descend upon me. Maybe I will feel His grace. Maybe I will even be given the gift of speaking in tongues. Yes, that would be good, to speak in tongues, that would be very good. Then I could yell and swear and scream and curse at the God-damn idiot, son-of-a-bitch bastard in the 1998 red Cadillac Catera in lots of different languages, both known and unknown to man. I could vent my frustrations and hurl angry epithets at him in all different kinds of which-ways. I might even "zig" a few his way. I could do all that and more before I kill him, thought Dean, relaxing somewhat, loosening up, untensing as he thought -- no dreamed- - of annihilating that God-damn bastard in the 1998 red Cadillac Catera who "zigged" him into the slow lane.

Dean sighed and then popped the tape into his cassette player. It was, after all, a 1994 Ford Taurus. His car was not fancy enough to have a CD player like that God-damn idiot, son-of-a-bitch bastard in the 1998 red Cadillac Catera probably had in his car, the car that was now traveling in the center lane. Dean envisioned tomorrow's newspaper headline: Man Undergoes Religious Conversion in 1994 Ford Taurus Sedan, Takes His Life -- And Then the Life of a God-Damn Idiot, Son-of-a-Bitch Bastard in a 1998 Red Cadillac Catera.

Nice headline, thought Dean. Informative, without being overly sensational. Just right.

The Reverend Billy Joe Campbell began speaking to Dean against a background of soft, serene, soothing music:

"Hello, friend. Hello, lost soul. Hello, God's little orphan. I know you're lost. I know you're lonely. I know you need a shepherd. Well, fear not, friend, for I am that shepherd. I have been sent by the Lord to watch over you, my lost sheep. Fear not.

"Be afraid no longer. You are protected. You are cared for. You are watched over. You are loved by me, your good shepherd, your friend, your best and --maybe your only real- friend, the Reverend Billy Joe Campbell.

"Now, you're special, friend. You're important. Remember that. You're the best person there is on this whole wide world -- at least you are in my eyes -- and my eyes are piercing, all-seeing, truth-seeing. And the truth is that you have just taken the most important step in this whole divine process. You've taken the first step. You've moved forward. You've taken the first step towards salvation. It may seem but a small, insignificant step, but it's really a giant step. You're on the road now, friend, because you've begun listening to me. You're listening to the truth. You're aimed in the direction of salvation.

"You are now a part of my family and I'm a part of yours. Because we're all part of God's family. Isn't that wonderful? Isn't that grand? Don't you feel special? Don't you feel strong and powerful? Don't you feel free? Totally free for the first time?

"You should feel free because you are free. You are free. Finally, completely, totaling, absolutely free. A free traveler on the road to salvation. Unburdened by pain, or worry, or fear, or stress. Free. No anxiety. No hurt. No pain. No worries. Free. Free. Free! You're free at last. And I, the Reverend Billy Joe Campbell, with the Lord's help and through His Grace have set you free. My words are God's Words, and His Words are the elixir of Eternal Life. Drink of this elixir and you will not complain of pain or despair or sadness ever again. I know it for a fact, friend. And now you know it, too. You've changed. The old you, the tired, beat up, beaten down, beat-to-hell you is dead and buried. The new you is alive and living free! Hallelujah!"

Dean smiled-- a calm and serene smile. He was moved by the Reverend Billy Joe Campbell's words. He was soothed by the preacher's sweet voice. For the first time in a long time, Dean felt good, at ease with himself and the world. He felt free. Dean listened for more revelations, but there was silence. Complete silence. An awful, deadening, dreadful silence. Dean couldn't bear the silence. He wanted to hear more from the Reverend Billy Joe Campbell. He had to hear more about how he was free. He needed to hear the preacher's words again, right now. He wanted to talk to his friend, his new best friend, his only true friend, the Reverend Billy Joe Campbell. What happened? Why was there this terrible silence? What was going on? Then, a revelation came to Dean: it was over. Tape number 1, lesson number 1 was done. Finished. It was over far too soon! Why had the Reverend Billy Joe Campbell forsaken Dean?

The traffic still wasn't moving. Dean was still stuck in the slow lane. This wasn't right. Not right at all. He was supposed to be free. His new best friend, the Reverend Billy Joe Campbell, just told him so. Yes, that was it. Dean had listened to the words of the preacher, and they were the Words of God. Dean had listened and he believed. He was free, unchained from the irons and shackles of pain and worry. He really was free. Dean now knew it; he believed because the Reverend Billy Joe Campbell told him so. Dean could do anything he wanted to do now. He had completed Tape No. 1. He was there, headed in the right direction, aimed straight ahead on the road to salvation. He was on the road to the Promised Land. And he was almost there; he really was. He could feel it. Dean knew that he would make it to the Promised Land, and what's more, he knew that he would reach the Promised Land soon, certainly in far less time than the 40 years it took God's Chosen People to get there. Help was on the way. Dean suddenly remembered that Tape No. 2 was in the glove box. Nora had taken care of everything. She was a damn good wife!

Yes, Dean was almost there. Everything was going to be all right. Tape No. 2 was about to begin. He loved Nora. Life was good. Traffic wasn't all that bad today. No sir. In fact, up ahead, just beyond that God-damn idiot, son-of-a-bitch bastard in the 1998 red Cadillac Catera, things were actually starting to move.