all-american dreadSomewhere out across the roads and highways of America there’s a pair of headlights trying to run and track me down, headlights that know me better than I know myself which will one day light me up and scatter me into a thousand drifting dust motes. I’ve felt them coming for years now across this hardscrabble land of wasted dreams where I’ve ended up in central Michigan like a rolled-up newspaper on somebody’s back porch, the driver behind their high beams inscrutable, indecipherable, faceless as a water board or a stone you could throw far out into the night with no hope of ever hearing it land or hit anything. Somewhere these headlights are picking up speed and getting brighter with every passing mile all the way from El Paso and Santa Cruz or the Baja peninsula hauling a whole nation’s hopes and fears as the needle of the speedometer clips eighty and keeps right on going, and I know I’ll never be able to escape the glare of those halogen rays and the way they’ll x-ray through my skin and body and my life in a klieg light reckoning or the Valhalla of a peculiarly American flash point, Jackson Pollock careening into the night on his last fatal car ride or Jimmy Dean crashing his Spyder in a head-on collision that took him out at the righteous age of twenty-four so that he’ll stay young and beautiful forever. I’ve seen and felt tracers of these same headlights every day and night in so many flashes and wink-bright reflections and have noticed how their lighted kin scan across the walls of our bedroom after midnight as I lie in bed waiting for them to arrive and blank me out for good, Tom Petty singing “Free Fallin’” or a late night preacher on the AM dial talking about hell or sin or the time he was saved in a cheap motel room by pressing a bible against the smooth cheek of the male prostitute who just went down on him. I know these headlights are coming for me and they’re coming for you, coming for everything and everyone made in America from cheeseburgers to the second amendment with the smell of gun smoke wafting toward the ceiling fan, which I cannot help but love and abhor with equal and appalling abandon and a madcap keening whose pith and origin lie so deep down only the logos itself can touch it, the Big Boy off 127 the biggest hero around and also the reason the whole shooting match is about to go up in flames, gas stations stocked with clear bags of deer feed lit up all across this land like garish islands in the middle of seas of withered corn with only rusting grain elevators and oil derricks to break up the horizon, headlights after headlights appearing in the distance like bright, glowing beads on a never-ending string and people driving everywhere for every reason there ever was or could be, to leave a broken home or marriage or because you just told your boss to fuck off and you have no prospects ahead of you whatsoever, zip, zero, nada. I see cigarettes mashed up in the ash tray in the finest sifting of carcinogens known to humankind, see how in one car the driver has painted her nails cherry red and is weeping at the wheel like Mary at the foot of the cross, the pulsing dashes of yellow lines counting off the sobbing and the tears like some great continental metronome of any driver’s suffering. These are American roads and highways along with the people who drive across them, some of us so broken and lost and soul-stricken all we can do is keep driving, allowing only our headlights to lead the way wherever they might take us even as those other headlights, those other high and blinding beams, have yet to find us and expose everything we ever were and will never be, everything we had hoped to keep hidden away like so many baby chicks huddled near the radiator.

Robert Vivian is the author of The Tall Grass Trilogy, and his latest book of essays is The Least Cricket Of Evening. He teaches at Alma College and as a core faculty member in the low residency MFA at the Vermont College Of Fine Arts.

Photography by Paul Bilger