Nothing Can be Beautiful

I was on a bridge, suspended high above the Pacific, looking down at the crashing surf and feeling nauseous. The sky was a mix of speckled clouds, the lolling, cottony whiffs of perfection an amateur painter would place on a canvas and the darker, roiling charcoal-colored monsters coming from off the sea.

I was walking along the highway, having just lunched at an Arby’s where I spent an hour reading the crime report in the local paper (Police respond to woman who claimed to be receiving threatening mail. Police determine it was advertisements for local Hardware Store), then studying the constellation of acne on the fast food worker’s cheek. People came in and held loud conversations about the construction on the highway or how the local high school team is having a bad year compared to most. (“They just can’t seem to run it up the middle even if they had a bull moose blocking for them.”) Even though these conversations sounded like complaints, they seemed to make the people having them happy, yet having the opposite effect on me.

I don’t think it was the roast beef that had my stomach churning, although that probably didn’t help. It was the road I’ve come down and the road ahead of me and all the roads everywhere that was making this uncomfortable bubble swell inside of me. The searing sting of the world producing an awful whine like a violin on fire.

Walking out of the Arby’s, I ran into another hitchhiker walking in. He had on a dirty denim jacket with grease stains on the sleeves and a raggedy U.S.A. flag bandana on his head. His hands were much darker than the rest of his skin, as if they weren’t even his but something he found rummaging through the garbage. “If you’re thinking of heading South, I’d go East. Nobody’s in a fucking sharing mood out there today,” he offered.

“Nothing but mountains east…” I told him. ” Plus, I’m going down to L.A..”

He shrugged his thin shoulders. “You’ll get there somehow, right?” He looked around with disgust. “These assholes don’t care about anybody else. Just a bunch of trash!” He spat on the ground, right there outside the doors of the Arby’s, leaving a large gob of frothy saliva across the concrete. I wouldn’t pick him up either, I thought to myself. Standing around with him I felt guilty by association. Guilty of what? I’m not sure, just being a lowlife I guess.

“Thanks, man. Gotta go,” I told him. “Good luck out there.”

He seemed to sense my thoughts because he narrowed his eyes and glared at me. I could see something hard and jagged about to come out of his mouth but then he spotted my duffel bag. “Did you go over there and fight?”

“More like walked around waiting for shit to happen.”

“Fucking Muslims, huh?”

“It’s just a shitty situation,” I said.

“They fucking asked for it. Nothing shitty about killing a bunch of terrorists.” He pulled his bandana off his head and waved it like fans at a sporting event wave towels. “Whoo hoo! Kill ’em all I say and let God sort ’em out.”

“Not too sure that’s a job God wants you to assign to him.”

His mouth curled into a bitter scowl. “Fuck you too then!”

I wasn’t in a fighting mood, and he was obviously unhinged from drugs or a lifetime of anger, his pupils were small and darting around and his facial ticks flared unfettered, so I put my hands up with my palms toward him and said real peaceful and calm, “It’s all good, man.”

He spat again and laughed victoriously, then slammed through the doors of the Arby’s. From outside I could hear him yelling at the people inside, but I couldn’t make out the words and had no interest in his ballyhoo.

The town gave me a creepy feeling. It wasn’t just the skittish hitchhiker, but something in the air, the way the wooden buildings seemed to sprout out of the Earth like toadstools, not put there by a man with a blueprint and a plan. Within minutes I was out on the highway, my thumb Fonzy towards the clouds.

After thirty minutes, when nobody would pick me up, I decided to walk to the next town where I’d stay for the night. I wasn’t going to stay in this place, that was for sure, and the next town was only 13 miles away and I had nothing but time to kill.

I stopped there on the bridge because something inside of me prevented me from crossing over to the other side. Not a feeling of danger as much as a feeling that if I reached the other side I could never return, and nothing would ever be the same. My hesitation only grew as I stood there.

But isn’t that exactly why I began this journey? To make sure things would never be like they were? To gain back my sanity?

24 hours more in that house would have pushed me over the edge. I was going insane. Clearly. And I’m not using that term figuratively. I mean, what would you call it when the fucking walls start closing in like the trash compactor in Star Wars and the grandfather clock by the front door began to tell more than just time?

“Your time is ticking… My face is made of numbers but yours is made of death. If you don’t live your life, you will die somebody else’s death.” The clock foreshadowed.

“Who’s life?” I asked an empty room.

“How should I know,” the clock answered. “I’m just a coocoo clock. You’re the one with a beard of bees.”

The day I left the house, Marsha stopped me by the door, with my army-issued canvas bag slung over my shoulder. She told me that shooting a rifle didn’t make me a man and that I would end up begging for change on the streets of San Francisco. “I’m not even headed to San Francisco, I don’t know where I’m going! I just got to get out of this house!” She only shook her head and said that I was a dreamer and dreamers always flock to San Francisco.

“I’m not a dreamer. I signed up for the Army, how could I be a dreamer?”

She shook her head and teared up the ways she does, just to make me feel bad. The clock moaned and told me I was forever destined to upset my loved ones because I was selfish. “My time is forever, yours is ticking…”

It was for this reason alone I was headed south, instead of north like I planned. I hated that she was right and callously grouped me with punks and hippies. I was in Iraq, Jesus Christ! I just want to see some of this country that I risked my life for before I am old and jaded by mortgage payments with some boss telling me how to talk on telephone and stuck in a life grounded down by repetition.

I needed space that only an entire continent could supply.

Marsha thinks that since mom died she has to take on the responsibility of putting me down. They were both excellent at making predictions about my failure. Like when I joined the Army in the first place, mom swore I was going to come home to her in a body bag, and when I came home in one piece, she hollered at me about the tattoo my unit and I all got on our biceps. She didn’t even comment that the frail little boy she last saw boarding a bus one misty morning returned a man with muscles that popped out of his uniform.

Not to mention — she was the one who got herself killed. She decided to split three bottles of wine with a guy she met off some dating website and drive off the road into a creek. The worst part is that she isn’t around to point out the irony.

Even when I’m right she still has the talent for making me feel like I’m wrong.

But that’s in the past… I’ve got to keep moving. I’ve got to think of the future. Keep thumbing it down the road.

See why I left now? Why I packed my duffel and told Marsha I had to get out of the house before I went insane. That’s when she broke out into tears, but what was I supposed to do? Stay and waste my life listening to her complain about mom leaving us in debt and how nobody can find out where dad ran off to? And don’t even think about Jim helping. Tear him away from his meth dealer? Good luck. Did I want to slowly watch my older sister turn into a miserable, lonely bitch? Did I want to watch her turn into my mom?

Two days on the road and I only made it 60 miles. Even if I could, I wasn’t going to do this the easy way. Buses. Trains. Planes… No. I was going to walk and hitchhike the whole way to L.A…. I guess more like walk, the way things have been turning out. All we did at Training Camp was march so I’m pretty damn good at.

I am not going to settle for the quick transportation of a plane, and the transference of currency that demeans both buyer and seller that goes along with it. Not keen on the claustrophobic, isolated oppression of a bus with the miserable passengers stealing each others oxygen and the middle-of-nowhere gas station breaks with the driver smoking a quick cigarette and old men commenting on the weather. I wanted to see something new, and fresh, smell the Earth. I wanted to live, if only for a couple of weeks.

But standing on the bridge, I wanted anything but that right then. The sea lions barking down below, the soft roar of cars behind me, a rabid thought was chewing away at my brain cells, swallowing them and spitting them back out so my brain was full of dead brain cells and the other cells fleeing from the carnage. What was the point in being alive?

I mean, if it’s all pain and struggle and war and if the best you can hope for is “settling down” —  finding one person you can tolerate and hope to hell they don’t leave, either by changing their minds about how tolerable you may be, or else by upping and dying on you and leaving you alone with an invisible, but yet gaping, wound — well, what’s the point of going through that? If that’s the best case scenario?

That’s what I was thinking and why I couldn’t cross that bridge. Because I didn’t see the point in life anymore. I didn’t want to go home and I didn’t want to move forward. All I wanted was that bridge. I didn’t believe in life anymore.

I used to believe in God and other ridiculous things, but Iraq took care of that. I remember the exact moment. One day we were on patrol through this bombed-out, dusty village with the rank of goat shit and raw, burning oil blowing in the hot wind. I turned a corner and spotted a soccer ball rolling down the street toward us and immediately motioned for my team to dive for cover. We all hit the ground and covered our heads as the dirt and straw went into our noses and mouths. Waiting for the explosion to come seemed like eternity. Like what “God” promises you after a lifetime of meekness and humbleness, exploitation and disease. When the explosion never came, we looked up and saw two boys, no older than nine-years-old, kicking the ball back and forth and smiling, unaware of the panic they unintentionally just caused. One of the guys in the dust shouted, “We should shoot them anyway… it’s harder to hit the small ones.” The rest of the team laughed like wild hyenas. It was the sound of that laughter that made me reject the idea that any God I could believe in would do this. It’s not that we were animals, it’s just the war that did this to us.

I used to believe that my destiny was to marry a beautiful woman who would love me unconditionally and we’d have happy, sweet babies together, but then I saw what happened to mom when dad left and how she went from one man’s bed to another, cursing them out on the telephone in between, and then finally to the bottom of the creek. She died from drinking and driving, but she had died inside long before that.

I used to believe there was meaning in life. But standing on that bridge, I was confidant that everything that is, is just because of one giant coincidence after another. The Earth forming just close enough to the sun but not too close, an epic meteor crashing into it to knock off a chunk just fast enough to slip into space, but not fast enough to escape our orbit, that would form the moon. And without the moon we wouldn’t have tides that keeps the oceans moving and weather happening. There would be nothing for lovers to promise each other. All of this, coincidence. The cooling of the oceans. The dinosaurs that became birds and the fish that became monkeys and the monkeys that became us, or however the fuck it went.

And before us, whole civilizations flourished and then disappeared. Ask the Incas. Ask the folks who erected those stone statues on Easter Island. Ask around. Nothing is permanent. There’s no plan. No guiding hand. You were the lucky sperm that out-swam a million others. It could have been any of them. When you play Bingo, there’s no benevolent force selecting the magic ball that forms the combination of letter and number that makes you the lucky winner. It’s called dumb luck for a reason.

There was a yacht about a mile out to sea that looked like a small white napkin somebody threw out the window. I couldn’t quite tell, but was pretty sure there was a couple out on the deck with binoculars pointed toward me. What circumstance put them in boat shoes and me in Army boots? I wondered if they were watching me and what they thought of the lone figure on the bridge. I wondered if they had any idea what I was contemplating and if I had the guts to go through with it.

It’s not that I wanted to die, it’s just that I didn’t want to live. I didn’t want to take my life, but I wanted something to happen to me. Good or bad. I wanted a sign, I guess.

Then it came: an 18-wheeler whooshing my direction, speeding on the one-lane highway. A modern, metal nightmare. I spied the driver’s intense stare and both his hands fixed on the giant wheel, his knuckles like giant bolts. I scooted as far from the road as I could but it didn’t leave much room. The driver looked like a devil on a mission. The road shook as the truck came near and the loud thundering of the engines and the shaking of the road caused a bit of vertigo. My head swooned as the ocean and the sky played patty cake. I felt dizzy and tried to steady myself, my hands felt for the railing.

The truck driver leaned out the window with a bottle of Gatorade in his hand and yelled, “Get off the road, faggot!” I didn’t have time to register the insult or volley one back at him before being hit in the knee by the bottle thrown from the cab. The liquid splashed all over my shoes and legs and the plastic bottle ended up spinning to a stop a few feet away. The whipping blast of air from the speeding truck blew the cap off of my head and I watched it float back and forth down to the beach. The substance I was now coated in was warm and sticky and it didn’t take long to figure out that it wasn’t Gatorade, but something a lot more “homemade” you can say.

“Thanks for nothing, asshole!” I yelled back although the truck was already around a bend and out of sight.

As I got a towel out of my bag to wipe the piss from my body, I began laughing and couldn’t stop. The sound of my own laughter circulating through my ears made me realize that I was thankful. He’d proven my point about what my gut was telling me: there is no meaning, all we have is Nothing. And nothing is as liberating as Nothing.

Once you’re comfortable with the notion — and accepting that the world is random and things that happen to you are just that, just things that happen, not some product of destiny or karma, there’s no underlying machination to the joys and disappointments that we feel — then you can swallow all the highs and lows without the nasty acid reflex that I’ve been feeling. Life is shitty because you just happened to be born in poop, not because of a vindictive God or past Karmic retribution.

I didn’t die over there and Ted did because the IED was closer to Ted than to me, not because Ted deserved it or God has “plans for me.” Mom died over here because she turned the wheel just  a little too fast in the rain, not because the Universe is cruel. The universe doesn’t care about us one way or the other. I got piss thrown on me because I just happened to be an easy target for a maniac truck driver that is probably is swimming in his own shitty circumstances.

G-48… Bingo, motherfucker!

It’s all Nothing. And Nothing can beautiful.

And with that happy knowledge I threw the duffel bag over my shoulder and struck off south again, crossing that bridge, thumb out, ready for all the dumb luck that life has to offer.

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