The Travelers by Mark Terrill

The Travelers


by Mark Terrill

Faultlines-XVI copyright by Devin McCawley

Having made one of their rare collective decisions, the travelers opted to stop for a brief respite at a rest stop along the autobahn. They parked between two large trucks, adjacent to a weathered cement picnic table. From the back of the Volvo station wagon, Francine produced a wicker basket and placed it squarely in the middle of the cement table, on which could be seen various stains and residues from previous roadside picnickers. From the basket Francine took out a block of Dutch cheese, a half-loaf of dark German bread, and a dusty, cobwebbed, vintage bottle of Coca Cola. The others looked on in various states of road-weary ambiguity and ambivalence.

From the autobahn came the sudden sound of screeching rubber, metal impacting against metal, and breaking glass. In the spirit of the prevailing ambiguity and ambivalence, Ralf stood up and half-heartedly began to slice the cheese. Nearby in the grass lay the usual empty beer cans, crumpled cigarette packs, and used condoms, all waiting for someone to include them in some redundantly mundane and boring poem.

Cornelius lit a Cuban cigar and stared off into the stand of fir trees that defined the perimeter of the rest stop. He was overcome by an urgent desire to discuss the things he no longer cared about, which seemed to be increasing exponentially from day to day, perhaps even minute to minute, but then decided against it. Instead, he dipped into an ongoing reverie in which a recent trip to the island of Crete was replicated in all its detail. There was the room in the hotel above the harbor with its polished stone floor on which the rainwater that had blown in under the door to the balcony had collected in a shimmering puddle; there was the squeaking bed with its ornate iron bedstead; the bedside table with its kitschy neo-art-nouveau lamp; the hulking wooden armoire with its creaking doors; and the all-pervading fallow atmosphere of a mostly deserted holiday resort in Greece in the middle of winter.

Again the sound of screeching rubber, metal against metal, and shattering glass could be heard from the direction of the autobahn, thus bursting the bubble of Cornelius’s detailed and comprehensive recollection.

Bread and cheese were passed around, and vintage Coke was poured into the white plastic cups that Francine had so thoughtfully included, where it foamed and effervesced with cheery familiarity, despite its advanced age. “Cheers,” Francine said, raising her plastic cup. It was the first word spoken since their arrival at the rest stop, and although no one could possibly foresee it, it was to be the last word spoken during their brief interlude alongside the noisy autobahn.

The others raised their cups in silence, wordlessly acknowledging Francine’s well-meant toast.

Brigitte returned from the women’s toilets and fell upon the bread and cheese like a person starved. Ralf glanced down at an empty potato chip bag lying in the grass nearby and was immediately aware of the lines of a poem beginning to form in his head. It was a terrible habit. He quickly looked away and forced his mind to think of something else, but being the visual sort of person that he was, there was no other choice than to think about what he saw, which happened to be one of the truck drivers climbing up into the cab of his truck. He was dressed in jeans and cowboy boots, a red and black checkered shirt, a black leather vest, and a black cowboy hat. Had they been in America, this would not have seemed the least bit remarkable to Ralf, but since they were in Germany, this struck Ralf as being most odd and incongruous indeed.

The truck driver had left the door of the cab open while he got settled in his seat, and suddenly Ralf heard the familiar strains of Hank Williams’s Your Cheatin’ Heart, and was immediately reminded of one of his first girlfriends who had a BMW 2002 with an eight-track tape player in it and a meager collection of cartridges which included, among others, The Greatest Hits of Hank Williams, which, during the course of their relationship, they had certainly heard at least one million times, until one night the tape finally broke and became an impossible tangle of shimmering black tagliatelle.

There was another accident on the autobahn, this time apparently involving several vehicles in a series of thundering chain-reaction collisions. Sirens could be heard approaching in the distance.

Having devoured the last of the bread and cheese, Brigitte leaned back and lit a cigarette, pondering the scene she had just experienced in the women’s toilets. There had been a large, noisy group of gypsy women and their children, washing themselves and their clothes, while a portable gas samovar steamed on the floor in the corner. For the most part, the gypsies had ignored Brigitte and gone about their business, and Brigitte had followed suit, although there was one older woman who seemed not to be able to take her eyes off of Brigitte.

After Brigitte had washed her hands and was combing her hair in the steamed-over mirror, she suddenly became aware of the older woman standing next to her, gesturing with the open palm of her hand. Brigitte started to open her purse to get out her wallet, but the woman shook her head and pointed at Brigitte’s hand. Then Brigitte understood. She held her hand out, palm up, towards the woman, who took it in her own hand and began to study it with an expression of utmost earnestness. Without looking up, the woman began to speak, but it was a language that Brigitte couldn’t understand, much less even recognize. She tried to discern from the tone of the woman’s voice if what she was saying was either positive or negative in nature, but the woman spoke in a flat, even monotone that betrayed no emotion whatsoever, although it was obvious from the woman’s demeanor that what she was saying was of great import. Brigitte watched the lips of the woman move as they contoured to the language she was speaking, and noticed a small growth just below her left nostril, out of which grew three shiny black hairs.

There was a long, suspended screech of rubber, almost in slow motion, followed by the violent crumpling of sheet metal and the spraying of safety glass and suddenly Brigitte was aware of herself watching Francine packing the remnants of their meager roadside repast into the wicker picnic basket.

Cornelius and Ralf had both gotten to their feet, and were silently involved in a series of stretching exercises, prior to getting back in the car and continuing with their journey.

When the last of the plastic cups and the dusty bottle of Coke were packed away in the basket, Francine found herself absent-mindedly staring down at the worn surface of the cement table, with its slight green shimmer of moss, and was immediately reminded of a recent walk she’d taken through Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, ostensibly to see the graves of Colette, Edith Piaf, Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Apollinaire, and the meister of remembrance of himself, Marcel Proust, when actually she had been most interested in seeing the grave of Jim Morrison, the infamous Lizard King, although she’d been too embarrassed to mention this to her friends.

She’d had no idea where to look for Jim Morrison’s grave, and couldn’t bring it upon herself to ask someone, but eventually she began to notice little arrows scratched roughly into the sides and backs of the tombstones and monuments, sometimes accompanied by the word Jim, and as she began to follow these crude signs they began to increase in frequency and complexity, sometimes including lyrics or quotes or poems. At one point she thought she heard some kind of music, and as she came around the corner of a large obelisk, she saw a group of people loosely gathered around a small plot, some standing, some sitting, with one guy strumming on an acoustic guitar, an inept attempt at Light My Fire, sung with a thick French accent.

Francine approached the grave, and then saw the small bust of Jim Morrison’s head, draped with beads and flowers and a pair of someone’s sunglasses, a crudely rolled joint pressed between the stone lips. The people gathered there were all quite young, dressed in vintage hippie garb, with colored scarves and snakeskin boots and black velvet jackets and fringed leather vests and a lot of other things that Francine hadn’t seen since high school. The people were passing around a joint, as well as a bottle of wine, talking in hushed tones, or just staring listlessly at the grave itself. The reverential atmosphere of the scene was impressive, but there was also something quite ludicrous about the entire scenario. Francine thought about the rumor that Jim Morrison hadn’t actually died, that he wasn’t buried in Père-Lachaise, and that he was alive and well and writing poetry somewhere in North Africa. It was with no small effort that she suppressed the urge to laugh out loud, although the last laugh certainly would have belonged to the Lizard King.

Then she was suddenly swept up in another powerful reminiscence of another visit to another grave in another part of the world. It had been mid-winter as she was visiting friends in Boston. She wanted to drive up to Lowell to see Jack Kerouac’s grave, but she couldn’t interest anyone to accompany her, and ended up going alone. Somewhere on the turnpike there had been a sign for Walden Pond; a big, blue, state highway sign like all the others along the turnpike. She hadn’t realized that she would be passing so close to the idyllic setting of Thoreau’s masterpiece, and wondered what he would think of seeing his humble abode listed as just another exit along the turnpike.

Having never been to Lowell, Francine had no idea where to look for traces of Jack Kerouac, and since she was expected back in Boston for dinner that evening, and somewhat pressed for time, she finally just asked someone on the street, who directed her to a downtown office of the state park system, where a woman in a ranger’s uniform gave her a handful of leaflets and maps and described the route out to Edson Cemetery where Jack Kerouac was buried.

Francine wandered around town for a while, trying to soak up the atmosphere and get a feeling for the place. There was Lowell High School, and there was the Paradise Diner, the supposed inspiration for the last name of Sal Paradise. It was bright and sunny, but there was a driving icy wind that seemed to cut through everything, including her clothes. Despite the abundance of sun and light, Francine had no problem seeing Lowell as the dreary, red brick mill town so often described by Kerouac. She went into the Boott Cotton Mills Museum where one of Kerouac’s rucksacks was on display in a glass case, complete with its well-worn contents. She looked closely at the small gas cooker, the battered aluminum mess kit, the plastic water bottle, the sewing kit, and a dog-eared little notebook with the pages full of penciled-in notes. Also on display in the same glass case was an old portable typewriter, worn and battered from years of constant use.

Afterwards Francine walked down the hill to the plaza where the Jack Kerouac Commemorative was located and read all the inscriptions on the massive stone monoliths, but the wind was just too cold to linger, and she got back in the car and headed out towards Edson Cemetery. The map she’d received was accurate and easy to read, and she parked outside the cemetery and walked in through the wide iron gate and continued to follow the directions on the map. It was a large cemetery, with the graves organized in neat rows, divided by streets into a symmetrical grid of blocks, much like a regular city neighborhood. The leafless trees formed stark, jagged silhouettes against the bright blue winter sky, while the leaves themselves swirled and skittered among the gravestones. Apparently she was the only person in the cemetery.

Suddenly Francine found herself standing directly over the grave of Jack Kerouac, a small rectangular slab of stone set into the grass, with the words Ti Jean inscribed across the top. Against her will, and in absolute contradiction with her personal nature, she was overcome by a feeling of immense sorrow and loss. She could feel tears forming in her eyes, in which the bright winter sun was now refracting, temporarily blinding her.

A long howl of abrading rubber was followed by a deafening grinding and smashing of metal and glass as a large truck jackknifed into the other cars already stationary on the autobahn after the previous accident. There was a muffled explosion as a car’s ruptured gas tank burst into flames. Francine closed the wicker basket and started towards their car. The others followed, and without exchanging as much as a single word, took up their places in the green Volvo station wagon. Ralf started the engine, searched futilely for a tape with some country music but then gave up, put it in gear, eased out the clutch, and started towards the autobahn, where thick, black smoke could be seen coiling up into the sky.

Francine sorted through the cassettes as well, looking for something by the Doors, and finding nothing, decided on a tape of traditional Gypsy violin music, which immediately launched Brigitte into another reverie, while Cornelius chewed on the cold stub of his cigar, trying to decide just what it was that he really cared about least of all. From somewhere in the distance came the sound of police and ambulance sirens, but they soon merged and mingled indistinguishably with the sound of the violin music, which Francine had decided to hear a little louder. It went without saying that the travelers were glad to be back on the road again.UG

Mark Terrill shipped out of San Francisco as a merchant seaman to the Far East and beyond, studied and spent time with Paul Bowles in Tangier, Morocco, and has lived in Germany since 1984, where he’s worked as a shipyard welder, road manager for rock bands, cook and postal worker. His writings and translations have appeared in over 500 literary journals and anthologies worldwide, a dozen chapbooks, several broadsides and four full-length collections, including Kid with Gray Eyes (Cedar Hill Books, 2001) and Bread & Fish (The Figures, 2002). He recently guest-edited a special German Poetry issue of the Atlanta Review, which includes his translations of Günter Grass, Peter Handke, Nicolas Born and many others. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, his own work has been translated into German, French and Portuguese, and he’s given readings in various venues in Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and Prague. Together with the poet Cralan Kelder, Terrill co-edits the poetry journal Full Metal Poem. His most recent publications are a chapbook of his translations of the poetry of Jörg Fauser, An Evening in Europe (Toad Press), and a full-length collection of his translations of the poetry of Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, An Unchanging Blue, Selected Poems 1962-1975 (Parlor Press / Free Verse Editions). Currently he lives on the grounds of a former shipyard near Hamburg with his wife and a large brood of cats.

Relevant links:

Mark Terrill’s web site

Mark Terrill interviewed by Christopher Harter for Bathtub Gin

Jay Corsilles’ “motion representation” (a video) of Mark Terrill’s prose poem, “The Stream”

Five prose poems in Exquisite Corpse

Two prose poems in The Brooklyn Rail

A suite of five prose poems in Stride magazine

“A Poem for Uncertainties” in Rattle magazine

“A Poem for Patriots” in Diagram

Two poems in Nth Position

“The Sweltering Sky” in Poetry Flash

“Not About Now But Right After” (prose poem) in Wood Coin

Two translations of Rolf Dieter Brinkmann in Jacket magazine

Two translations of Jörg Fauser in no man’s land

Review of Full Metal Poem in The Prague Post

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