“We are not in control.” He explained casually, calmly, with a southern drawl. He leaned back leisurely, hands behind his head. He even reclined his seat a notch. He pressed his foot against the pedal, and the engine of the old car, a dusty red Mustang, roared. Henry lurched forward in his seat with the large chunk of American metal. The back seats of the Mustang were worn with heat and time, the seatbelt across his chest dangerously frayed.
“We are spinning on a hunk of rock at near one thousand forty-two miles per hour, hurtling through space at sixty-six thousand miles an hour around a flaming ball of gas which is, itself, careening around the center of a galaxy at one hundred seventy-five, two-hundred twenty-six miles per hour, and you think we have control? Ha!” he barked a laugh and pressed harder on the gas.
“Yes, well,” well Hendry tried to interject. He was pressed against the seat, sunk into it with gravity and fear, “I really just needed a ride to the store. The missus, she needs a few things and I don’t think we’re going in the right direction.”
“Right direction?” the driver barked. “Right direction? Right direction is all fucking subjective!” The driver’s name tag hung from the rear view mirror but it fluttered too much for Henry to get a name. The Uber sticker was adhered to the back passenger side window, barely. “North, south, east, west, it’s all fucking subjective. Manmade bullshit titles to make us feel like we have some control over our lives.
“Every day you wake up and you make decisions, and those decisions make you feel like you’re in control. What cereal do you eat?”
“E-excuse me?” Henry stuttered. The city was far behind them. He knew he was in trouble when the car took a sharp right turn at Main and headed out for the desert. The land was flat and vast, with an occasional cacti or coyote. They sped across it at a speed Henry could not tell; the driver’s odometer was broken, the needle lay on zero.
“Cereal, mother fucker! What kind of cereal do you eat?”
“Grapenuts!” Henry spat. His fingers dug into the seat on either side of him. He felt tiny sharp points of aged leather stick into his skin, he felt stiff softness of the foam cushioning inside it. Beneath that, his fingertips, his buttocks, his belly and his heart, he felt the vibration of steel. It hurt, it strained his neck, his heart beat at an uncomfortable intensity.
“Grapenuts! I knew it! You look like a Grapenuts kind’a guy! You want control, all the way down to your shits! Nice, regular bowel movements, morning, noon, and right before bed. You wanted to go to Whole Foods, right? Nice organic shit. You think an apple from a fancy ass, hipster run, all organic and gluten free megastore is gone keep you alive longer than an apple from some mom and pop, organcless, gluten fuckin’ full, store? You think that’s control? Brother, it’s an illusion, and I’m here to pull back that big green curtain.”
He turned around, arm over the passenger side, twisting back. It was the first time Henry had seen his face. He was clean shaven and had a brilliant, charismatic smile. It didn’t fit, somehow; it was the face of the man who could charm a woman out of her panties or charm a man into buying time shares on a Florida swamp.
“Atoms careen into one another. They change in violent, itty bitty sparks, every second, of every day, of every year. Chemical A mixes with Chemical B and they react, they merge into something new, or they don’t and they react, violently. We are a great cosmic accident. We are Chemical A meeting Chemical B on just the right chunk of rock at just the right time. There was no rhyme or reason. It was chaos, and what resulted was violent, terrible, viral, beautiful, amazing, rare. There might be other life out there, just as fucking random as we are, but we arm a itty bitty oasis in a great, big, chaotic nothing!
The car, without his steerage, started to canter to the left. There was nothing in the desert, it was flat and dusty, but the fear was no less real and tangible. Henry could taste it, metallic and cold, in the back of his throat. His heart beat. His balls hurt. He felt like his skin was contracting in on itself, trying to pull itself into a tiny, hiding ball.
“You have to let go!” he yelled. Spittle flew from his lips and spat into Herman’s eyes. He blinked the spit away and said nothing. “You have to let it go!” he screamed again. A small vein bulged on his forehead.
“I can’t! I’m scared! Please stop, I don’t want to die!” Herman screamed in return. He sobbed, loudly. “I don’t want to die!”
The driver’s eyes softened. His smile faltered. He did not look forward. He did not put his hands on the wheel. But his demeanor, his mood, shifted. “You have to let go.” He repeated, but calmly, soothing. “You’re going to die, Henry. It could be today, right now, in this car. It could be tomorrow, by a bus. Or next week, your heart could fail. Or next decade, when your colon develops cancerous cells that eat you from the inside out. You don’t know. I don’t know.
“We could hit a cactus, or an animal, or a rock. I wouldn’t know, I’m not even looking. I’m only guessing, but I’d say we’re going well over one hundred miles an hour. I don’t need to look. I don’t want to look. It doesn’t matter. We have no control. Right now, right fucking now, the only things that matter are you and I. We’re having an experience.
Soothing. Reassuring. He could buy the panties off a woman or sell time shares to a man, or vice versa.
“You’re going to die.”
Henry relaxed his grip on the cushions. He felt sleepy, bordering on serene. He took a deep breath, could feel arid desert air and gasoline fumes fill his lungs. He closed his eyes.
“All the Grapenuts in the would ain’t going to save you, Henry. Life is chaotic, and random, and terrible, and beautiful. Enjoy the now, Henry. Right fucking now.’
Henry looked to his right, out the window, watched the land go by. Time slowed. Dust whirled up and around into perfect spirals, falling in on themselves in tight little circles. They were symmetrical and perfect. They danced, bloomed, shrunk and extinguished.
“You feeling it, big boy? The now?” the voice was faraway, buried by water and concrete and time. The driver was eons away. Henry was floating.
The car roared and sped ever forward into nothing. The driver watched Henry float away, that brilliant smile on his lips. Henry sat in the seat, the sunlight slanting in through the window across his face, upturned and at peace.
Henry let go.
The driver laughed, good naturedly, and pat Henry’s cheek. Henry didn’t notice.
Henry was gone.
Henry opened his eyes. He did not know how much time had passed. It was hot, in the car. The front two windows were open. The driver sat on the roof of the car, smoking a cigarette. His nametag was still, and he saw his name. “Billy”.
They were parked outside what appeared to be a corner store on the outskirts of a small village. An outpost, an oasis in the middle of vast and dangerous landscape. Henry pulled at his seatbelt, it frayed more. A high impact accident would dissolve that forty year old strip of nylon. He shouldered open the car door and felt out onto the dirt and gravel below.
“Hey champ.” Billy said, “How was your trip?”
“Where are we?” Henry asked.
“Earth.” He pointed to the store behind him. It was constructed of aged wood and large corrugated plates of steel, pocked with sand and grime. “This is earth. This is where you will find everything you need. They have water, and food, and maybe a bottle of whiskey. Ain’t no Grapenuts though. In this part of the universe, Grapenuts are fuck all. Take your list that the wife gave you, get what you need. Pay their high prices with a big, shit eatin’ grin, and remember, you ain’t in control.”
He did just that. He wiped and slapped himself relatively clean. He walked in. A single air conditioning unit, held upright by a few pieces of wood, several nails, and a lot of hope. It made the man behind the counter, old and beaten by sun and wind, cool. The rest of the store was a dry, sweltering heat.
Henry dug into his pocket and pulled out the list given to him. Gluten free bread. A list of vegetables with the instructions, in bright red and underlined Organic Only!. And so it continued, down the list. Henry looked up and around. They clearly had none of that. He turned around and found Billy standing right behind him. He was grinning.
“They have everything you need.” Billy said, “Fuck those fancy words. Those hipsters that eat all organic, all natural, raw food diets, they’re gonna die, just like you. They have the illusion of control. See that case over there?” he pointed to a plastic case, dusty, with a half dozen donuts. “Get one of those. Fuck, get two. It’s on me. Get two donuts, eat them with that high octane, truckers delight coffee he gots there. You’re gonna die, just like everybody else, but goddamn, does a donut taste good!”
Henry did just that. He wandered over and opened the cabinet. The air smelled stale, the donut was tough, almost a rock. Icing crumbled to dust when he touched it. Billy held out a Styrofoam cup full of a black liquid. It steamed, almost bubbled. It looked thick, sludge like. It smelled heavy, earthy, not just strong but stout. Billy nodded him on, that smile, selling Florida swamp timeshares.
Henry dipped the donut into the coffee. It did not soften or turn the donut to wet bits of bread like Henry assumed would happen. He bit into the donut. It was hard, did not give way to his teeth easily, but it was sweet, and powerful, hot and bitter with the coffee. He dipped it again, and took another bite. And another. He took the cup from Billy’s hand and sipped it, carefully. He devoured the donut, then took another, and did the same. His face was coated in bits of frosting and stale bread. He finished the coffee and asked for another. The old man watched them, warily, but Billy, ever the charismatic enigma, reassured him with a smile and a nod; “Don’t worry, you’ll be paid.” It said.
Henry dropped the list to the floor. He wandered the store. It wasn’t big, only three aisles, and one island covered in beer and booze. He dropped things into his basket. Non-organic white bread, just like he ate when he was a kid, peanut butter and jelly with the crust cut off. He loaded it with corn, beans, and tomatoes grown from a local farmer, and he could smell the pesticides and earth. He didn’t find the Grapenuts, but he found three boxes of colorful, crunchy, sugary cereals decorated with fanciful cartoon characters.
“That’a boy.” Billy said and slapped Henry on the back. He picked up a bottle, dark brown and foreboding. It had no real label, just paper tape with the words “grandpa’s homemade whiskey!” in scrawled, black letters. “A treat.” Billy said, “For the ride home.”
They loaded the truck with paper bags full of gluten, pesticides, and sugar. Henry climbed into the back seat and did not buckle in; it didn’t matter, the strap would disintegrate. It was an illusion of control. And Henry knew, as he settled into the hot backseat of the dusty Mustang, he had no control. He grabbed two donuts and another cup of coffee for the road. He was buzzed, electric, and beaming.
Billy settled the Mustang to the general direction from whence they came and jammed his foot to the pedal. They roared and jerked forward. Coffee splattered on Henry’s face, hot and burning, and he enjoyed the sensation, the now, wiped his face dry and licked the coffee off his fingers and hands. He laughed. They both laughed. And then Billy turned around again, no hands on the steering wheel, no eyes on the road, and handed him the bottle of whiskey. The top was off. It smelled of alcohol, but herbal and oaky. He drank and it burned his throat and stomach. He drank again. It still burned, but it was less. By the fifth sip it didn’t burn at all.
They sped across the desert and talked about the futility of life. They laughed at its absurdity. People fought so hard to stay alive, hard enough to miss out on great moments, and then die with absolutely to reason or purpose. It was random. It was chaos. If there was a God, and he, she, it, or they gave any types of shit about the human race, Bill reasoned, it was just a giant game of D&D, and the events of our life were the result of a twenty-sided die.
At one point, Henry vomited out the window at a hundred miles per hour. When he was done retching, he turned his face to the wind and enjoyed it’s coolness, felt the bits and specks of sand strike his cheeks.
In that moment, with a freshly emptied stomach heavy, relaxing buzz, Henry may have been the happiest he’d ever been.
They arrived, an hour later, at Henry’s home. It was a ranch, had straight, uniform lines across a lush, green, and freshly mown lawn. It appeared perfect, and serene.
“We’re here boss.” Billy said. He smiled that smile. “It’s been a helluva day. I almost wish I didn’t have to charge you but, well, you know, fella’s gotta make a living.” He leaned outside the driver door window, elbow against the top of the door, and smiled at him, eyes squinted shut from the sun. He pulled a card from his breast pocket and handed it to Henry. “This ride was random. You asked for a car, you threw your name into the bowl and chaos or destiny or both chose me as your guide to a new life. Next time you need a ride, you got my name, you got my number. That may be the only control you actually have.”
He revved his engine, the car lurched dangerously, like a large cat preparing to pounce. He winked to Henry and, over the roar of his large, red machine, he yelled, “Make sure you give me a good rating! Five stars, mother fucker!”
Then he took off, like a bat out of hell, squealing tires around a bend, and then another. Even when he was out of sight, Henry could hear him, roaring and squealing. He listened until the noise was gone. He tucked the card protectively into his pocket and dragged his groceries inside, pushing a piece of donut out from between his teeth.