An Excerpt from the Novel That Summertime Sound (MTV Books, 2009)
Invisible Dan drove the car, a green Volkswagen Jetta that hurtled along I-80 in the middle of the night. We’d just coaxed him into fifth gear—he’d never driven a stick before—and now allowed ourselves to drowse, drifting on the edge of sleep as we whisked through central Pennsylvania. The Promised Land was still two hundred miles away. Columbus, Columbus, Columbus. Was there a word more beautiful in all the language than this one, which bespoke whole worlds of firstness, freshness, discovery? Westward we flew, as the word made a rosary under my breath, the engine’s hum and the seat’s vibration lulling me deeper. Then a truck slid past on the left and Dan panicked. He ground the gearbox and stomped on the brake.
The car spun a full 360 degrees. Dust kicked into the air and Dan screamed as we fishtailed over to the shoulder and stalled. We sat there a stunned second. Then Marcus, dear old Marcus, leaned forward and took charge.
“Easy there, hoss.” He bent across from the backseat to show Mr. Invisible once more how it worked, the H-shaped pattern of the gears. “Like this.”
The gearbox ground again, the car sputtered. We were at forty-five degrees in the middle of the interstate, angling across the yellow line.
“Try again.” Marcus’s nicotine-streaked fingers pointed towards the stick. “One more time.”
“Um—we’re in the middle of the highway.”
“So what?” This was Marcus in a nutshell. No matter that he’d eaten six hits of acid since sundown, was staring out at a world that might’ve been teeming with green insects as he saw it. Nothing bothered him, everything was cool. You’d buy anything he wanted to sell you. “We’re fine.”
You’d buy anything. In a sense I’d already bought. I should’ve been lounging by my parents’ pool in California, instead of trapped in a car full of tripping lunatics hurtling towards the Corn Belt. We were headed towards Ohio for an entire summer. Who else could’ve convinced me the Buckeye State was Paradise, that its people were as Gods in their colorful extremity.
“Look.” He gestured once more. “Just depress the clutch there and then let go, hoss. Slowly.”
Cluhutch. The way he said it, sitting on the ‘u’ there for a moment, drew the word out into a squelchy Middle American parody, hillbilly Elvis deluxe.
“There, see?” He spoke otherwise with well-mannered precision. His accent was unplaceable, people sometimes thought he was English. “See how easy that is?”
The car shuddered. Marcus said,
It was two-thirty in the morning. He and Lena, the car’s owner, had both driven earlier shifts and now claimed they were tripping too hard to drive. Maybe they just wanted to torture us, Invisible Dan and I, the outsiders. We were perpendicular in the center of the primary interstate that cut across the northern half of the U.S. Yet so what? The highway was silent. The road was a moon-slicked ribbon that cut between head high stalks of—corn? Wheat? I had no idea. Ohio might have been Kansas for all I knew, for all I could distinguish the local agriculture on sight. I was from Los Angeles, after all. Everyone I knew, the New Yorkers and New Englanders I’d met during my freshman year at Harper College, yearned to be there instead in January or July. They envied my Hollywood birthright. I’d grown up with famous people peering into my crib, folkie musicans and Laurel Canyon royalty. My father was a producer. I ought to have known all there was to know about exaggerations and lies. So why on earth was I going to Columbus, instead of going home? Why take Marcus at his word?
“Goddamn it!” Invisible D pounded the wheel with his palms. It was easy to forget he was here, this crop-headed and morose Bostonian who looked like Peter Parker’s still-more-innocuous twin. “Will someone please help me? Please?”