Driving, Part III

Continued from Part II

The border agent shut the window of his booth and picked up a phone.  After a few minutes of conversation, he hung up, opened the window and told me to drive through the gate and off to the right where another agent would meet me.

I did as I was told.  As I pulled up to an older, heavier, balder agent whom I presumed was the one waiting for me, I saw a female agent emerge from the building behind him.  She was a few years older than I, I imagined.  She had a commanding stance, feet apart, hands behind her back, standing on the curb as her colleague walked in front of my car to approach my window.  I could not tell whether she was his partner or supervisor.

The new man, fair of skin and with short reddish hair, ran through essentially the same script as his counterpart in the booth.  When we got to Breakfast, however, he seemed less surprised but certainly as bemused.

“Well, sir,” he said, “this is unusual.  We’re going to have to search your car.”

“Be my guest,” I replied. 

These poor people.  My hatchback had a Yamaha drumset, all of its hardware and cymbals, boxes of files from the prior school year, and another box of materials from my ESL summer program that had recently ended.  I think there was a bag of Burger King garbage, too, from a few weeks earlier.

It took them some time to go through everything while I sat on a bench nearby.  I had brought Robinson Crusoe with me, and I read several pages.  I read the part in which Crusoe goes out naked to a shipwreck but later explains how he fills his pockets with food he finds on the ship.  Mystified by this, I recalled that I was clothed and nowhere near any food.

Perhaps twenty minutes passed, maybe a half hour.  Whatever the case, I was told I was free to go.  I sure was hungry.

The woman who helped search my car told me I would find a diner a few miles up the highway on my right.  I wasted no time.

I had a rather large breakfast, as was my wont at the time: eggs over easy, bacon, sausage, hash browns, and toast.  I drank two glasses of orange juice and two cups of coffee.

Incidentally, the bacon was not Canadian bacon.  For some reason, this makes all the difference to me.

Then I had an idea. I would call Joel.

It took some doing.  I needed Canadian coins for the pay phone, and I only had American money.  I worked it out with the cashier when I paid my bill, and I walked over to the phone and placed the call.  I had to put a lot of coins into the phone, but I knew it would be a short conversation.

“Hello?”  I had obviously awakened him.

“Joel!  How are you feeling?  Did you grill those turkey burgers?”

“How do you think I feel?  I was out, and I stayed up late!  Why are you calling me so early?  Did you go to the Majestic?”

I paused a moment. Should I tell him? Oh, what the hell

“No, I’m in Canada.  I told you where I was going.”

“Jeezus, Paul! Stop playing! I was sleeping! Can’t your lame-ass joke wait until the afternoon?

“All right, all right,” I said.  “I’m just messing with you.  I guess you’re not up to going to the Central Market for breakfast then.”

“No!  You twit!  It’s too damn early!”

“Fine. Go back to sleep.”

“You are such an ass,” he grunted, clearly unable to remain awake much longer.

I hung up the phone and shrugged my shoulders.  Time to head home, I thought.

Some minutes after, I was at the border crossing again, this time entering the United States.  Most anyone can predict the scene at the U. S. Customs booth as I handed over my driver’s license.

“Citizenship?” the agent asked.  Young fellow, perhaps my age.

“U.S.”

“Where ya from?”

“York, P-A.”

“What brought you to Canada?”

“Breakfast.”

A pause, a raised eyebrow. “Breakfast?” he asked.

“Breakfast,” I confirmed.

“How long were you there?”

“A little less than an hour.”

Without hesitation, he said, “Please pull into port number three, exit your vehicle, and go into the office.  A customs officer will meet you there.”

I complied, making sure I had my book with me when I went into the building.

The man I was to talk to was at a desk behind the counter, talking on the phone.  He seemed to know who I was when I entered and he looked up at me.  A few yeahs and rights later, he hung up, stood up, and walked toward the counter. He stared at me for a moment before saying anything, his cold blue eyes and the stony look on his full-moon visage betraying a kind of impatience.

“Breakfast?” he asked.

“Breakfast,” I returned.

“You some kind of smart-ass?” This was the U.S./Canada border, but for some reason he had a southern accent.

“No. Just hungry.”

Another agent walked over from nearby.  She had her arms folded.  A slight smile registered on her face.

“Hungry.  Right,” the first agent continued.  “And you just had to drive eight hours for breakfast.”

“It only took me seven, actual–”

“See, I knew you was a smart ass!”  He looked behind him to the other agent, then back at me.  “And just what would make you drive seven hours in the middle of a Friday night?  And don’t you tell me breakfast, smart-ass!”

I didn’t know what to say, since breakfast was my only mission.  I responded with the only other thing that would be true.

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“Couldn’t sleep?  You ever try countin’ sheep, boy?”

I had no response.

He continued, “Well, ain’t no law against crossing international borders for breakfast. But most people with the munchies in the wee hours got other things goin’ on. When the agents and the dog are done with your car, we’ll talk again.”

He reminded me of Jackie Gleason’s character in Smokey and the Bandit, only younger and thinner. His eyes beamed at me, as if he were waiting for a response. I could think of none, so I said, “Uh…may I sit somewhere? I have a book I’m reading.”

“Look around, son.  Plenty of seats.  Make yourself comfortable.  It may be a while.”

So I sat. And read. I don’t know how long it took. I read maybe twenty or thirty pages. Crusoe at this point thanks God for his isolation because it has made him devout. He is lonely, though. The cannibals haven’t come to the island yet with the prisoners they would eat. He would later rescue one of the condemned to be his companion, but for the moment, he is alone but grateful.

And I realized that I had gone about nine hours without overthinking.

I had driven all the way north through Pennsylvania and hours through upstate New York, I had seen the enormous rising shadows of the Adirondack Mountains before the sun came up.  I had not turned my radio on the entire way.  I had just driven, my only music being the hum of my tires on the road.

And my whirring mind had settled; my dark thoughts brightened with the sunrise.

But I looked quite the suspicious character, having driven all those hours to cross a border and eat my morning meal.  Though now I knew…it wasn’t breakfast exactly that impelled me north.

Should I tell them?

Before I could answer myself, Customs Officer Buford T. Justice returned to tell me my car searched clean, and I was free to go.

“Is it true?” he asked. “I’m dying to know. Did you really drive all this way for breakfast?”

Should I tell him?

I wanted to, but there were no words for it.  A secret journey, maybe?  I couldn’t say that.

Instead, I nodded.  “Had stuff on my mind,” I added.

Buford cocked his head somewhat, no longer suspicious.

“You gonna be all right, son?”

“I think I already am…for now,” I replied.

He gave a single nod and smiled.  “Well, you have a safe drive home.”  He turned and walked back toward the counter.

“Or maybe,” he called back over his shoulder, “you’ll get hungry on the way back and decide to drive down to Juarez for tacos.  I’ll call down there and tell them you’re on the level and not to give you a hard time.”

He chuckled to himself.  I smiled as I walked back to my car.  I was getting tired.

Shortly after five in the afternoon, I arrived home and collapsed on my futon.  My next memory was my digital clock.  It said 5:47.  I was sitting up, trying to remember what human speech was and how to answer a question someone had asked me.  But who had asked? 

I looked to my left.  It was Joel, sitting on the edge of my couch, leaning forward.

“Should I come back?” he asked.

I suddenly remembered how to speak. “How’d you get in?”

Your door was wide open. I came in to see why. I hadn’t heard from you since this morning.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I was on the road and just got back.  I must’ve crashed as soon as I walked in.”

“Back from where?”

Should I tell him?

“You wouldn’t believe me,” I said.  And before he could press me with another question, I chose a vector: “How about some turkey burgers?”

He looked at me oddly. He had just found me asleep with my apartment door open. But truly, how much stranger was that than anything else he had seen from me for the past month? His face suddenly changed, and the old Joel grin shined forth.

“Bring up some beers! I’ll get the grill going.”

The Police, Ghost in the Machine, “Secret Journey” (1981)

Cover photo courtesy of Tom Swinnen of Pexels.

I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge sponsored by Two Writing Teachers.

13 thoughts on “Driving, Part III

  1. Your piece reminds me of why I love fiction. It introduces me to new people and new situations and allows me to see and feel so much. Through a more close read of your craft, I might even figure out how you did it. But on this Friday morning, I’m just glad you gave me a comment yesterday to my writing which reminded me I wanted to read Part III and it got me to return here. So glad the border guards were kind to our driver as at the end of Part II I was worried. On a closer reader, I want to propose a reason for why he was reading that novel. You, the author, could have had him read anything and I know authors choose for specific reasons. But today, I just read to enjoy. Thanks for that gift.

    1. Again, thank you! So kind of you to take such an interest in my story. Interestingly, all of these events actually took place (minor embellishments for literary continuity), and I happened to be reading Robinson Crusoe at that time. Perhaps it was merely fortuitous, but I certainly see some symbolic significance now. I had isolated myself personally, and I cannot deny a few parallels between myself and the narrator.

  2. Our stories are larger than they actually were, aren’t they. I’m struck by how “whatever” you were feeling while you were there but how nail-biting the retelling becomes. I marveled at your journey and felt so relieved when it all came out “ok”. I wonder if those border crossing guards told of “that kid from Pennsylvania who drove all the way up here just to get breakfast. Crazy kids!”

  3. I enjoyed the ending to your story. Though I have the feeling it wasn’t the ending to your journey. All those hours being alone with the voice in your head is impressive. I would have given in to the draw of the radio at some point.

  4. Ah, a wonderful second installment and conclusion. You have a real talent for narrative, dialogue especially. You write like a novelist.
    Love that you shared what you were reading and let us draw the parallels. Love all the chats with your friend, both from Canada and once you get home. Love the quip about tacos in Juarez. And love that you, without asking us directly, invite the reader to remember our own secret journeys. Well done!

    1. So kind of you to get my points and say so. Wow! Thanks. (The Juarez crack was essentially the only embellishment, but I could not help myself!)

  5. So much to notice and linger on in your words here. This does read like a novel, and when I read novels, they spring to life like a movie in my mind (as mentioned previously; often happens as I compose my own writing). The great gift of writing memoir is the freedom of adding artistic touches. It’s your memory, your story to tell; the incorporation of the book you were reading at the time is fabulous – it becomes an important device, a symbol, in the narrative. -A southern border agent in Canada?? So unexpected but so perfect! One of the ‘good ol’ boys’ – oh, I’ve known plenty of those. So, I note throughout that there’s an undercurrent, a pull, in this “dark time,” something leading you on this secret journey. Many clues. The song itself, most of all:
    You will see light in the darkness.
    You will make some sense of this
    And when you’ve made your secret journey
    You will find this love you miss…

    -Beginning to make sense to me.

    So, so well-done.

  6. Oh Paul! I loved reading this and remembering those times in our lives. One of your true gifts is your thinking and overthinking. Although I know it is exhausting (I’m sure there are more profound ways to disprove how it feels). Thanks for sharing this and giving me a different insight into this time. We laughed about it but you were carrying some burdens. I hope you were able to momentarily lay them down. Hugs to you my friend.

    1. Thanks, Kim, and hugs back. I was a very sick young man. I do not know how I would have managed without my friends. I’m glad you are one of them. Easier to look back on it all now. And the laughs were welcome. Miss you!

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