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CAR DODGING

By Caleb Ross


How the bald man with the needle in his median cubital vein said he found God felt like what a rape would be if afterwards the woman zipped up her pants, fastened her belt and said, "thank you, I've been so busy lately."

If I were to tell these people in these chairs giving blood that it's really a Russian roulette with the needle, that any one could be hepatitis, HIV, syphilis, prostate cancer, and they shrug and say, "I have sick leave to use anyway."-that's what this man did to me.

I've seen traffic backed up for blocks sometimes, horns destroying any peace in the air. Fisticuffs. Verbal assaults. And this man, it's like he steps from his vehicle, leaving the car idle, and smiles to himself: "I can walk from here." A stalled car is useless to me, just like this bald man, high on his own story of revelation.
__________

My day job doesn't stop at penetration. Even beyond the stick it's my job to calm, to reassure the donors that they are doing the right thing by giving blood so that the drunk driver in room 418, with his blood thinned to spilling, will be able to give the unfamiliar country road another shot, so that when a man is rushed to the emergency room after a failed attempt to rob a grocery store he doesn't have to die. He can get well and try again. Get right what he did not see through the first time. It makes me feel good to give, they say, to bleed so that others can, too.

I'm a cynic, sure, but that's what getting robbed will do to a person.

This man smells like he believes bathing is vain and starts by whispering to me, asking if I have ever experienced something I can't explain. Staring at his head I answer "patterned baldness."

He doesn't react. Having acknowledged the shine reflecting from the top of his head I'm drawn now, helpless, absorbed into the white light glare like from the revelations I've heard so many people speak of; that one moment when everything makes sense and what was just prior something a person would call customer hotlines about becomes understood as a simple human mistake. Finding a bone in a corndog becomes FDA acceptable. Fur on the surface of cottage cheese is just an epiphany to a healthy lifestyle free from dairy product fat. The donors, they just sit and talk as though revelation is listed just above bowel problems on an item sheet of appropriate conversational topics while giving blood. Just below family: children, husband, pets. When this bald man reaches over for my hand, grasping it with the nervous sweat my job says I am supposed to keep from flowing, I sit back and pull out the comic page from that morning's newspaper. I've heard all the revelations before. Nothing impresses anymore.

I've heard a man tell me God spoke to him through his Cheerios. "Now you're just forcing metaphor," I told him.

A woman, a nurse, once told me that God revealed Himself to her via the "natural human drive towards euthanasia;" that when a human being sees another in pain synaptic reflexes take over to end the suffering. We mistake the drive as compassion, but in truth we are only victims of a response designed as compassion. Thirteen dying-slash-dead patients later-and a house built on funds left to her in wills muttered through last breaths-finally allowed this woman to understand what the world was about. Love made sense, she said. "But you don't," I told her.

I shake the newspaper flat and wonder if today is the day Odie finally fights back. Or will Garfield again exploit his disposition toward canine gullibility?

The bald man began as all their visions do, with a common denominator. A day like any other, something with universal relevance: he was driving back from coffee for two at a late night diner. The arrangement was something he now acknowledges as premeditated, saying his boss threw the meeting together considering the crowded area as an appropriate venue to break the news of the bald man's termination from wherever it was he worked. Law office, accounting firm, daycare, I don't remember, but when he got to the part about driving during the night under the depressive influence of his uncertain future, when he said something shot across the road, I paused in the middle of the third panel in a new cartoon called Sleeping Dogs, and brought the newspaper to just under my eyes.

This bald man's face hung deep as he told his story. He broadened the intricacies in effort toward empathy. He wiped small beads of sweat from the bald curve of his forehead. With his hands he punched the air in quick, open-handed jabs, piercing words like 'brakes' and 'human shaped.' Then he mentioned other dark images he saw still in the ditch, hoping, he said, that they weren't already hurt. He said whatever it was that ran out in front of his car that night did something more than what "losing twenty pounds could ever do." "Almost hitting something," he said, "was like an electrical blackout just before the bomb goes off, you know what I mean?"

Yes. I knew exactly what he meant. What I had there in the chair before me was a cut brake line when I didn't plan on stopping anyway. A mockery to a simple pleasure.
__________

See, the way it's supposed to go is that there's a point system. Back in juvy everything had a point system. Guards kept the morale as subdued as they could, but gentle competition had a way of sneaking into otherwise mundane activities. Working the cafeteria, I assigned myself a single point for every detainee's request for second helpings. Like I was an inside man, like I could fulfill such requests without being held accountable at the end of the day. I had long hair and depressed demeanor, and I guess that's all it takes sometimes to be approachable by misfits hunting for connections. After all, Icky and Justin, two co-detainee's, both had long hair, and that's all it took to get us talking. We were all three migrated to the blood center upon being let go from the county detention center following funding cutbacks. And all three shared a love for friendly competition. I think it was Icky's idea to dodge cars. His father was a NASCAR driver.

With the outside air humid enough to keep the mud on our faces from cracking, and the blades of grass that line shallow ditches pliable enough not to cut wrists or thighs, we get dressed for a game of car dodging. If the air holds enough moisture to keep windshield wipers steady it would seem insulting not to organize a game. Icky and Justin dress in deep red, something they learned from a book about ninjas, but I cover in all black. In the ditch we wait, whispering the faces we will make or jumps we will take, if we even choose to do so; a skip at the end or a stridden long jump style. With what we paste on our faces, mud and sometimes strips of old newspaper like papier-mâché skin grafting, whatever will catch any driver unaware, we wait for the one small speck of light in the distance to bounce off of the asphalt. That's what we see first.

The universal 'ready' position in car dodging.

As the cars near, the lights take shape in stages. First, just blurs of round white light, barely distinguishable as two separate units. Next, sharp and cross-shaped, separated by headlight mitosis.

It's the universal 'set' position in car dodging.

Then, round balls of glow just feet from our noses. The universal 'go.'

At 'go' one of us runs to the ditch at the other side of the road, fueled like the torque of a primed slingshot. We can feel the heat oozing through the grill. The sound of tires ripping water from the road booms through our bones the way a heart beat can be felt at these times; inches from the impact of this two ton bullet. From the ditch the players who aren't running cheer.

What I saw before this bald blood-doner and his new faith was three points to the player who gets closest to the car, two points for hang time if you decide on that jump at the end, and one point for every second the driver cautiously takes to reach the next intersection. I've scored twenty-four points in a single run once.

Now all I see is a life saver. My sharp silhouette flashing for a blink in front of a darkened windshield is nothing more than a savior. Mere rebirth. Midnight drivers aren't tired enough to wrap their car around trees anymore. They aren't drunk enough to bumper-tackle midnight joggers anymore.

Instant sobriety.

This bald man speaks of something that should be dead, something that should have made him dead. But for some divine reason it isn't dead. Marking the start of his rebirth was what I know as a simple game where points are no longer sufficient. What Icky, Justin, and I had was a self-help program at our expense.

"Oh, but don't feel left out," the bald man says, going for comfort. The donors do this often, feeling obligated to assure those of us not fortunate enough for a near-death experience that one day we will get our chance. He might ask my name and use it once. "You'll be a part of something so brilliant some day. Giving a pint or so when I can, for me, is just a way of giving to those who aren't where I am yet. Letting them live long enough to see what I have seen."

And I ask the man at the end of his testimony if he gets the humor in this week's Family Circus.

"What's your name, son?"
"James."
"It's supposed to be funny cute, James," he says, "not funny ha-ha."
"Of course," I tell him.

Of course. The humor is skewed, and this thief becomes clergy through car dodging. Of course. Heaven on accident through car dodging. Of course. Patterned baldness as underserved wisdom through car dodging. The man bites through a grin, all honor and humility as the sterilized needle siphons blood at a textbook rate, safe, unnoticed by the organs of his bloated body. I've laughed at you; me limping away with a sprained ankle, pointing at your cautious drive while I endured the shorn skin of a slip on the vibrating asphalt. You've got sugar cookies and a clean stick. Your impending headlights are simple reflections from weak puddles.

At the refreshments area a woman sits against the table stuffing sugar cookies with red icing into baggies. She breaks cereal bars into smaller squares and slides them into the deep corners of her purse. She times her grabs between the passing eyes of donors and employees alike.

"I'll be right back," I tell the man, patting my hand in faux comfort hard to his shoulder, giving a slight tug to the needle and its tender insertion point. I flick it a bit as I stand, wanting pain, but he stays undisturbed. "A magazine or anything?" I ask him. He doesn't move.

By the time I reach the refreshments table crumbs survive where once sat full cookies and crackers. A few slices of summer sausage and some hard candies are all that remain as proof of this woman's pilferage for sugar coated baked goods.

She notices me just as I walk up behind her. Her hair stands thin, shapes a perfect lollipop. I can see her scalp through its split end canopy and red tips the roots are trying to extinguish. She poses as a donor, but her subdued cunning belies any generosity.

"We're having a bake sale," she says calmly, pulling close to her purse, large enough to be a tote bag, "to benefit a missionary trip. That's why I need them."
"Those are for the donors," I say.
"We are going to speak about faith," she tries as though it were the great equalizer, as though faith heeds this sort of immunity. "You want to buy a brownie?" She asks me.
"The donors," I repeat.
"Fifty cents for two. I think they're real fudge, but I haven't tasted them yet."
"You're stealing," I say.

She waves a brownie in small circles under the brace of her elbow rested on her crossed legs. If the brownie were a cigarette, smoke rings would bellow from her mouth and her voice would have reason for its seduction. With the brownie she tries for a less subtle persuasiveness, chewing the corner of it, moaning just enough for implication.
"You can't just eat those without giving some blood," I insist.
"Let me give you something else then," she says in a voice switched to coy. She grabs the hem of her dress, threads hanging loose to the floor, and slowly raises the cloth. It rises past her white socks, past her calves dotted with specks of black hair where large veins collide like streams of blue water hitting the rocks and boulders of a waterfall. I see four different shades of peach under just the first foot of her dress. "How much further are these brownies worth to you, sir?" She asks, and the would-be smoke rings float to my face, smashing against my nose and eyes.

Something with her saying sir, tells me to fuck the brownies.

The way watching buildings burn makes a person schedule a return visit the next day to see what he can find let me look into the promise of this situation.

I am an environmental activist pocketing aluminum cans for gas money.

I am a poacher helping the world of its rabid polar bear problem with the agenda for a new winter coat backing my hunt.

I force connection and stretch implication until a slight grin creeps from my face. "I guess just a little further," I say. In juvy this sort of opportunity is what we'd call a 'game ender.'

Her face turns. All of the come hither, now shrew in an instant. She drops the hem, keeps the brownie half in her mouth and stands. Eyes squinting and one finger aimed at the center of my forehead she says with all the sincerity of dissociative identity disorder, "I'm speaking of faith."

I am an animal shocked by the absurdity of headlights.

The woman turns her head as she walks past me, brushing the grain of her hair across my chest. She leaves the building, commanding the space around her, and like gathered troops a few donors turn. Some stay, still it seems deep into their own stories of revelation. The volunteers who do what I do, keeping the donors calm, feign interest. I bring my gaze back and look to the empty table, a few spots decorated with colored sprinkles or dabs of fallen icing, and I realize what the woman has gotten away with.

The bald man at my station waves me back over. He holds my discarded comics page. "Hey," he says already boiling a deep laugh, ready to cough, "Look at this Peanuts. Charlie Brown is trying to kick the football again. What a damn idiot."

It was time to take car dodging back.
__________

Rallying the boys tonight is met with a couple slight complications. Justin, just last night, fell back into county detention by means his mother refuses to mention over the phone, outing him as a player. Icky, like his forgotten real name, has completely disappeared and nobody we know mutually feels it necessary to find him. That's Icky, excited about tomorrow one day and gone once tomorrow comes. But today, the day I need him most, he has vanished. I'm sure his disappearance coincides with Justin's, as the two routinely endured simultaneous punishments in juvy. It very well could have been a game whose rules I was never privy to.

It's just me, and suiting up as a single black form without the contrast of two in dark red comes with a flashing mutual understanding between me and the sparsely lit night: We are each there for what we need to get done. I, as black as the night would let me, and the night, giving reason for the headlights I hunt.

When walking the roads, waiting for a ditch to call, I measure distances by the focus of the yellow bulbs at the horizon. I judge turns by the reflection of the lights in sporadic house windows, darkened by the need for a night's sleep where the decisions of the day can carry over one more, and what was before can be on its way to forgotten. As the light bounces against mist-fueled puddles in the road I check the surroundings for a suitable spot from which to take back everything that had been taken away.

I've learned that believing in something causes a person to go distances in order to prove to themselves that what they have invested in isn't a complete waste of time. Like the revelations I've heard; the nurse forcing herself to discredit even the most promising medical advances two blinks after she's overloaded a glycerin drip becomes pride over practice. I understand this by watching windshield wipers wave to me as the cars they protect speed by.

Offered help means only that the giver wants proof of validation. The hum of rubber against damp asphalt teaches me this.

I listen for reason in the steam from rain on hoods and tail pipes.

Staring at license plates as they near I twist the letters into something I can read as supporting evidence.

Deep into the glow of headlights I search for an understanding to the way all of these lessons have come from a game with a point system. Does necessity breed epiphany?

With blackness stretching into vastness on either side of me I step back into a ditch, holding at its very bottom a stream of stale water. Breathing becomes conscious. I screen my breaths' quivers and tics into something smooth and quiet. I sink into context, a rock in a ditch, and I wait for something to happen. I wait to prove to the world that what I have is not a waste of time.

Fighting through the sting of iced feet I see one small speck of light in the distance.

The universal 'ready.'

I see the sharp crosses they become.

The universal 'set.'

Then I see the perfectly round balls of glow just feet from my nose.

The universal 'go.'

And without the cheers to my back I jump from the slick grass to the wet asphalt, my shoes sloshing wet noises under the crescendo of a throttled car engine. My lungs emptied of air. And I stop. I take a deep, principled fill of air and stand still, searching the windshield for a sign of give from the driver. Nothing. First, my knees buckle. As plastic cracks over my head a halo bulb of a blinding headlight covers my face like a fist. I smile through the pain and wait on the ground for a curious driver to come back, to see what he has done, to respond in the only way this situation should produce. No revelations, no reason to give back to lesser individuals, no theft of anything.

Just a dumb kid getting hit by a car.

But the car doesn't stop. It drives on until turning away down some distant street. Exhaust dissipates as my eyes blur. Blood cuddles close, a slowly growing puddle with whispers of remorse. The rain feeds the puddle, a pond to a lake to a sea, and finally to eddies and tributaries free from the burden of a healthy being flow away with the rain, becoming useless and gone. Wasted. My body drains and for the one moment I have I ask for a few pints from a stranger to let me believe a little longer.

Behind everything belief structures break down and form again to incorporate new factors.

Behind everything the road ends, a power outage three seconds to detonation.

Or maybe it doesn't, and I finally realize that if I need closure bad enough I will see it in anything.

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