The Ones Who Are Driven

Late in their resignation, the ones who are driven rarely sleep. Eventually, it is said, the long hushed noise of the road lulls them into a kind of perpetually half-awake state, where translucent dreams arrive and depart as something in between thought and phenomenon. Even on the precarious turns of a mountain road, where the edge of the car is almost flush with the edge of the cliff; even on the long straightaways of eastern Montana, where you can still encounter gas stations by the long asphalt straightaways; even in the gridded clog of the streets in southern Detroit, you can find these half-dreaming passengers, head against the window, looking but no longer seeing, moving but no longer traveling, breathing but no longer speaking. The NIH, in fact, nowadays classifies this as an addiction. I don’t remember the name they gave it. Nobody really uses it. I think we’d all prefer to believe that the ones who are driven aren’t sick or diseased or crazy or anything like that—just trying to get somewhere, but haven’t figured out where that somewhere is yet. I asked a friend of mine the other day: How are they different than any one of us? And then he said, Listen to yourself. Enough. Enough of that. This friend is tired of me talking and asking about these cases. Obsession is the word he uses. You’ve been obsessed with these cases ever since your mother passed, he tells me. It’s just an interest, I tell him back. She was interested in all this too. And I want tell him, Let me alone, fuck off, but I know that’s just my angry streak. He’d helped out a lot with her, especially toward the end.

* * *

I heard of one pair of teenage boys who left to be driven together. They had met each other in high school, I was told, in geography class. But they were in the East Texas where this kind of thing is still looked down upon, even still. Apparently, the second boy’s mother caught them together in the basement one day when she came home early. It’s said that there was no real fighting, but the second boy could tell that something had severed in the house. His mother didn’t speak to him for three days; when she did, the fury in her voice was businesslike, controlled. Five nights after the garage incident, the boys decided they would leave, but for how long, they didn’t know. In the middle of the night, they removed the two front seats in the car, squeezed in a small mattress diagonally, and loaded up the canned food and energy bars they had bought earlier that day after school with the first boy’s parents’ credit card. They plugged in Denver, CO to the console. No specific address. A few days after they left, the parents appeared on television, and they said, The only thing we know is that they’re headed to Denver. They’ve turned off location tracking. Please look out for a dark green Tsukuba. We need your help, anybody. Please. Dylan, Ari, if you’re hearing this, please, please come home. We miss you. We love you. Please, come home. Before that, the night they left, when they were trying to sleep, pressed together on the floor of the car, Dylan whispered, Ari, Ari, do you hear that? Ari stirred. What? Ari, do you hear that? What are you talking about? But the car began to slow and exited the highway. Nothing, said Dylan. The car eased into a charging station. They got out to stretch. Did you sleep? asked Dylan. Cicadas swelled; the city was hours behind. No, said Ari. Not really. Dylan turned to Ari. God, Ari. What are we doing? he asked. Ari didn’t answer. Instead, he said, I love you, and Dylan said, I love you, too, and took his hand. A clear bing came from the car, and they got back in, and the door slid back into place with a snug click. They kept going for many days. They blew through Denver. They didn’t turn around until they reached Calgary. By the end, they weren’t speaking — just looking out of opposite windows, quiet and breathing low, more than tired, that first hushed thrill of unbridled privacy having long given way to the resigned trance of the unspooling road. They had forgotten that they had programmed home as their destination until they pulled into the driveway, when the second boy’s mother opened the front door and ran to the car and started knocking frantically on the window. Other parents weren’t so lucky — something similar happened again only a few months later, but the kids never came back. Their car ran out of power somewhere near Death Valley during a snowstorm, and they starved to death half a continent from home.

* * *

Because these cars require nothing from their passengers, and because passengers will often just sleep through the night while the cars take them to where they need to go all on their own, and because the cars will soundlessly ease themselves into charging stations when their battery is low, and because the early Tsukuba doors would automatically unlock as the car shifted into park to begin the charging, there was, for a time, a certain kind of larcenist who would just wait at charging stations all night to wait for those cars that no one got out of when docked. People — especially if they were drunk — would often just sleep through the charging, and so these thieves could walk up to a car, quietly open the door, and take whatever they could see while their victims slept. Before the public caught on to this, and before Tsukuba updated the OS to fix the automatic unlocking, it is said that one of these people — one person told me her name was Kendra, another told me it was Kerry — saw a dark brown Tsukuba A8, which was the most expensive model on the market at the time, pull into the station she was scoping. When nobody got out of it, she walked over to it like it was her own, and looked into the window to see a silhouette of just one person in the back seat with his head lolled back in the headrest. She opened the door as quietly as she could and quickly slid her hand into his pocket for the bulge of his wallet. Something smelled horrible. There was a laptop on the ground, and she took that too. As she retracted her hand, though, she looked up and saw that his eyes were open. She was so shocked that she froze in place. She expected him to start yelling, to grab her. But he did nothing — just stayed there, breathing slowly, looking up at the ceiling of the car. She had heard of people being so tired that they fall asleep with their eyes open; she figured that’s what was going on here. But as she reached for the door to close it, the man turned his head to her, and said, Do you know where I am? The way he said it reminded Kendra or Kerry of her father in his worst years, right there toward the end, when nothing tracked. A soft bing came from the car; it was finished charging. You’re right outside of Steamboat Springs, she told him.

She wanted to leave with the wallet and laptop or put them back. But she held onto them and stood there, and it would take her hours to understand why she did that, even with the man awake and looking at her. It struck her when another promising-looking target pulled into a charging port: he was the one to close the door, his wallet and laptop in her hands. He reached out and slid the door shut, empty-eyed, totally apathetic. At the time, she hadn’t even realized the exchange that had occurred, his tacit approval of her theft, almost like a payment for her telling him where he was. She had turned and left before she could see him drift back up onto the highway.

* * *

It’s said that the house was empty when Jade decided. The air conditioning vent in the kitchen was rattling, and Katherine’s dog was snoring on the porch in the back. The dog was a constant reminder of Katherine’s absence; she didn’t come home for Christmas, nor for Thanksgiving before that, so Jade hasn’t seen her daughter since the summer. Her husband, Jim, was on a business trip, which was a new thing for his job; some might be inclined to put quotation marks around the phrase. Perhaps it was for that reason Jade decided it was time. She went upstairs and packed a backpack — three shirts, two pairs of underwear, a toiletries kit, Nabokov’s Lolita (she read the beginning of it in college, and thought this would be a better time than ever to finish it), and a notebook with three pens. She walked out into the thick lowcountry air, got into her A3 crossover, and announced her destination to the OS.

She planned to fill up the notebook by the time she got to Seattle. There, she would buy another notebook, and another book to read, assuming she’d finished the Nabokov, and then turn around. It was just something she needed to do. “This is just something I need to do,” she wrote in her notebook, marring the clean white of the first page. She had wanted to be a writer — had wanted to since before she and Jim had gotten married. Of course, it just got easier and easier for things to get in the way, until eventually she would go days without even thinking about it. But something happened two days before: as Jim was packing for his business trip, the morning light came through the window just right and fell directly on one of his three bathing suits folded on the bed by the suitcase (even though he had told her the trip was in Scranton, PA), and the polyester smoothness of the pale blue seemed to seemed to interact with the sunlight in such a way as to transform it. This was, she felt, one of those strange, small confluences of emotion and material that had compelled her to write in college. And so, there, at that moment, she felt that old compulsion return. Moments after her husband left for the airport, it was decided. She’d write the next On the Road. Or the next South and West. The next great American road novel could be written like none of the others had been written: that is, while the author is actually on the road, driving. Or maybe, if it wasn’t a novel, she thought, it could be a magazine feature, a long-form exposé about the rumors of the people who went crazy in these cars.

She wrote steadily for the first two days. This was when she was staying in hotels at night. On the third night, though, she was behind schedule, and decided to spend the night in the car. It was when she jolted awake near midnight, rocketing through the night in the automated rush, that she first made contact with a kind of eeriness that was new to her. She had remembered doing the same thing as a child on a road trip with her mother — she had had a dream about falling or something, and jolted awake, and her mom had said, Whoa, Jaders — nightmare? She’d been driving the car. She was always the driver. But Jade, slumping in the Tsukuba, felt more alone than she felt at home when Jim was gone and the dog was outside. As she tried to understand why that was, she looked out and saw the gray horizon unfurling against the dark indigo sky, and it hit her: she was, more than she had ever been, nowhere. Absolutely nowhere. Moving with no one at the wheel, the only human consciousness in the car having fallen asleep, now awake in the moving dark, something unknown taking her from one place to another, and perhaps another beyond that: she was nowhere. She switched on the light above and wrote down “NON-SPACE” in her notebook and underlined it three times.

But when the dawn invaded the cabin of the car and she opened her eyes the next morning, the noise of the tire’s traffic over the asphalt right on the line between silence and sound, she opened her notebook and looked hard at the underlined phrase, unable to remember what she meant.

* * *

There was a time before all of this ambulomiania stuff started happening, or at least before people started noticing it — a brief time when the Tsukuba A-Line was cause for celebration. It lasted about a year. The main thing was that accidents started tapering off, but generally folks that could remember the Jetsons felt like they were living in the future. My mother was one of those that remembered the Jetsons. In the final months, when it was pretty much all she could do to stay inside bed-bound and watch television, she’d even watch Tsukuba press releases. She’d turn the volume up such that I could even hear it outside the house. Maybe she felt at least some connection to the world watching these press releases — instead of her soaps or the news (fires, massacre, catastrophe), I think she felt like this was some evidence that the world may even be getting better. When I was a teenager, she had a brother who died in a car accident back out in California, where they’re from. He was drunk. Between his Chevy and a sequoia, the sequoia won. Even so, my mother loved sequoias. We don’t have them in southern Montana.

In those final months with my mother, she’d be inside for so long, so, so long, just watching television. In the kitchen window on the west side of the house you could see the Medicine Bow ridge, and every once in a while a distant light cruising up the switchbacked road up and over the top. Some nights, I would wake up in the early morning hours and just stand above the sink, watching. I’d do this until I would hear my mother stir, and then I’d go into her room, trying to breathe through my mouth, to empty the bedpan or, increasingly, to lift her out and change the sheets. By then, she could barely speak. The air in the room felt like an obscene, heavy cloud. She needed her medication every four hours — I’d drop the small colorful pills into the gape of her dark mouth that looked, in those days, like it was perpetually on the edge of a yawn.

* * *

I have a friend who told me that once his car had been in an accident when he was out east. He was in Buffalo, NY, and he’d just closed out a bar. So he’s there, waiting on his car to pick him up, trying not to sway on the curb, and he sees his car turn onto his street from the left. But then, on the right, another car turns onto the street, and accelerates, right down the middle of the road. Before he can do anything — not that he would have been able to, anyway — the two cars collide in a violent, sobering bang. He said that he hadn’t known before that you can actually taste a car accident, like if someone placed a watch battery right on your tongue like a mint. He’s stunned in the cold for a few seconds before he realizes what happened. He runs over to the other car because he knows nobody was in his, and starts calling out, Hey, hey, are you okay? Hello? The front hood of the other car is folded up; both cars are totaled. The windshield on the other car is completely blown out, but the windows are all still in the doors, shattered into cobwebs, so he can’t see in. He continues to call, but hears nothing from inside the car. He’s getting more and more worried, so he decides to punch one of the windows in. He wraps his jacket around his fist and punches. He tries to look in, but it’s dark, and he still can’t see anything. He calls again; when he listens close this time, he can hear some low wheezing. He doesn’t know what to do. He presses the crash signal button on his key fob as quickly as he could, so an ambulance and the police should be there soon. He tries to talk to whatever was wheezing, but before long it stops, and all he can hear is something dripping. When they come, they have him stand off to the side, shivering and feeling the adrenaline wrestling the alcohol in his blood. A police officer walks up to him. Strangest thing, the officer says to him. Wasn’t anybody in the car. My friend says, What do you mean? And the police officer says, There was nobody in there. In the other car. Unless they ran off. No, my friend says, I’ve been here since it happened. Nobody got out of that car. But I heard breathing in there, Officer. I swear, someone was breathing in there. The police officer sighs and looks at him. Well, yeah, he says. There was a dog in there. What? Yeah, just a dog. A dog? No people? Yep. Just the dog. Jesus Christ. Have you ever seen this before? my friend asks him. No, the officer says. Never. The ambulance leaves and a tow truck comes, with someone that was actually driving. The tow truck driver ends up giving my friend a ride home. That night, my friend will have a dream that he’s in a thirty-story office building that seemed totally empty; he’ll go from floor to floor looking for someone, anyone. When he gets to the top floor, people will be working in cubicles, all focusing. When he steps out of the elevator, though, the building will tip over and fall into the street in a splash of concrete and rebar. And while they’re all on the ground, he’ll see hundreds and hundreds of dogs ambling toward them from down the street, noses to the ground, nightmare-skinny, sniffing.

* * *

The Cheyenne Chronicle ran an article about it. The title of the article was “Safe or Strange? Driverless Cars Cause Nationwide Controversy.” Let me show you a part of it:

Last year’s thaw uncovered enough missing Tsukubas (and passengers) in such western states as Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota that the U.S. Department of Transportation has announced that they are commencing an official enquiry into driverless car industry, and especially the Tsukuba A series. The increase in disappearances has caused some in the community, especially local radio show personality Buck Weems, to wonder about foul play. When we reached out to him for comment, he said, “I think the evidence is showing that something’s going on with the computer system in the cars. I think the evidence is showing that. I don’t want to point fingers, but stuff like this doesn’t just happen. We have the documents, folks.” When pressed about these “documents,” Weems denied further comment.

“We promise that these cases have nothing to do with a bug or otherwise. We have seen too many voices in the media jumping to conclusions,” says Tsukuba spokesperson Ronald Atkins. “The data from our OS clearly show that, each time someone has gone missing, they themselves have instructed the navigation system, and the vehicles ran out of battery on the route toward the destination that the operators themselves set. Why they would set these coordinates is not a question for Tsukuba to answer.” He added: “What we do know, however, is that these instances do not come close to offsetting the decrease in car accidents.”

The American Psychological Association believes that it is a question for them to answer. Recently, the APA published a report entitled “Ambulomania: A National Crisis,” which detailed a psychological theory as to the strange phenomenon. Spokesperson Amy Halperin says, “We are inclined to call this kind of behavior addictive. As such, we believe we can treat it as an addiction. There is still much work to be done on what exactly these individuals are addicted to; however, as you can see in the report, we believe we have made significant headway on that front.” The APA diagnosis shows that the vast majority of cases involved middle upper middle individuals with a sometimes statistically significant family history of depression, anxiety, alcoholism, neurosis, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, bulimia, dysmorphia, affluenza, hypochondria, high blood

That’s enough. You get the idea.

* * *

I met one of them. Sort of. I was repairing a fence on the west side of my property. The divots had grown soft in the months of weather. It was time. It was just after sunrise, and I was digging a splinter out of my finger as I saw a car slow to a stop about half a mile up the road. The blue light in the center of the bumper was blinking, which meant it ran out of power before it was able to reach the nearest charging station. For a second, I was sure it was the one, so I put my shovel down and ran over to the vehicle. The road probably hadn’t been serviced since it was made, so it was cracked and uneven, and this car didn’t look like the kind that could handle this easily. The sky was smeared with the beginning of the day way off to my right; with the sunrise’s reflection, I couldn’t see into the window. I knocked and didn’t hear anything. I tried the door — it was unlocked. When it opened, I saw a mother holding her child. The mother had this blank stare fixed on the windshield ahead of her. Ma’am? I said. It took her a few seconds to turn her head to look up at me, and when she did, she had this kind of wonder in her face. Ma’am, I said, it looks like your car is out of juice. Oh, she said, coming to. Um, yes. Oh, fuck. Where am I. Where the. Am I? You’re about an hour away from Laramie, Ma’am, I said. She didn’t say anything. She just looked at the sunrise behind me and started crying. Here, Ma’am, I said, let me go grab my truck. My battery’s full. I’ll help you out, so you can at least get to Laramie. You’ll be alright, I said, if you can just get to Laramie.

* * *

She looked, actually, a little like the one I am wondering about. Besides her age and the baby. The one I am looking for would be much older and alone in the car. And these days I’m thinking it’s pretty much certain that she’d no longer be breathing.

I’ve been pretty well off since the workman’s comp claim from a couple years ago, so I bought the baseline Tsukuba model almost a year ago. Three months later, in early September, I brought my mother out to the car. For a second, I thought selfishly, so selfishly, that perhaps I should be the one to go. But I fought that impulse, and I set my mother, light enough to carry now, down in the backseat. She looked up at me. Where are we going? she managed to ask me, and then coughed. I could hear the fluid in her chest. I touched her shoulder bone, leaned into the car, turned my face to the console, and spoke to the OS, McKinleyville, California. And then, after that, Anchorage, Alaska. And I looked at my mother. Just tell it to come back when you get there. She looked at me, confused. I don’t know how to do that. I sighed and leaned back into the car. Turn back around and come back here after I reach Anchorage, I told the OS. And then, for reasons I am still trying to work out, I added, And turn off location tracking. I closed the door and watched as it started toward Medicine Bow.

She would go through the ridge, and then farther west the long rolling Ashley National Forest just before Salt Lake, and then through the wide flat impossible plains of north Nevada. I made sure to roll the front windows down so she could taste the air. After the car disappeared I went back inside to call whoever I could think of — the friend that had been helping me take care of her, the few members of extended family still alive or in touch — to tell them that she had passed. The funeral, of course, was closed-casket, which folks wondered about.

After she left, I didn’t sleep for three days. Which also means I was never really awake during that time. I thought about her on the road, mostly sleeping, probably, but watching the passing mountains saw up into the sky, letting them slip her into hypnosis.

That was six months ago. I don’t know what happened. The drive to the coast shouldn’t have taken more than two days, but there was weather after she left. Maybe she made it all the way to McKinleyville and then maybe even to Anchorage. Her medication is still by her bed. Maybe the car just slipped off the road into some snowpack. That’s the one I think about. What will happen with the thaw? Will the car, somehow, blink back on in the spring, when the snow melts and drains down into whatever valley gouges the land where she ended up? Will some metal heart beat back to life to return her body to my house? Frozen remains thawing in the automatic climate control? Tires flat from the cruel ground? Will I run to the car and break the windows, yelling, Mother, Mother, I am so sorry, Lord, I am so, so sorry? Forgive me, Christ, please?

I’ve taken to spending evenings on the porch, watching Medicine Bow, wondering.