The night lights up like lightning. Not a single cloud in the sky. Only fireworks: red, white, and blue as far as the eye can see.
There are lights on the tombs. Graves in the middle of nowhere. An old cemetery still in use. The lights on the graves: red, white, and blue.
It’s the Fourth of July, and I’m driving down a country road in the Indiana backcountry thinking about freedom and smoking a J. I’m thinking about a night in early June thirteen years ago that ended with me chained to a bench for a crime that, in many states, is no longer real.
The road feels crowded. My headlights in the dark; that’s all I can see. Fifty feet of light. I keep imagining a deer jumping out of the trees, or something worse. I’m alone on this road.
Or am I?
That night thirteen years ago was my first time getting arrested. Minor misdemeanor. $250 fine. I got pulled over for driving down a one-way street the wrong way, a gram of grass in my glove box. They impounded my car and took me to the station with a lump in my throat. There they chained me to a bench, waiting for my dad to come pick me up.
In a lot of ways, I’m still sitting on that bench waiting for my dad. On the right nights, all I have to do is close my eyes and I can almost feel the ankle bracelet digging into my right calf and hear the low drone of the fluorescents while the officer writes the report.
The road winds through the blackness. My car hugs the turns. It’s surprisingly wooded along this stretch of road for being so blatantly farmland. Compared to the rest of the countryside it’s almost as if I’ve stumbled into a Grimm fairy tale. The trees seem to be clawing at the road with their limbs, crowding, hunting.
About twenty minutes into the drive, a set of headlights emerges in the distance. Another car. With both my windows down, there’s almost no way they won’t smell the joint. I stub the butt in a coffee mug that’s been sitting on the floor of my car for weeks and shift restlessly in my seat. I put the windows up. I take a few deep breaths. I thought maybe I’d learned my lesson.
God damnit; haven’t I learned my lesson?
But things get worse. The car waiting at the intersection for me to roll through is a cop. The sheriff’s cruiser. It’s reflective detailing shines like mad eyes in the darkness. The situation gains about a thousand pounds in ten seconds. Joint out, windows back down, there’s still the smell of pot clinging to my clothes to contend with. The smell in my hair. On my breath. The look in my eyes.
I can see my destiny through the driver-side window, flexing its hands on the wheel of a Dodge Charger, waiting for my Smart Car to pass. Its buzz cut frames its eyes perfectly in the shape of a man, an image of sheer terror staring out and back at me, watching my every move like the sawed-off barrel of a loaded weapon. Heartbeats gallop as my car passes through. I feel a sudden drop in my stomach, like the bottom just fell out of everything. My skin stretches tight across my chest.
Holy shit, I think. This is it. All those years of keeping my nose clean only to have the hammer fall in the middle of a field in rural Indiana. Ten years. Gone. Down the tubes. But when I look in my rear-view mirror, the cop isn’t following me. He enters the intersection and turns the opposite direction. All I can see are his taillights. And then, nothing.
I cough and clear my throat. I’m sweating. I try to tell myself it’s from the unseasonal heat that’s touched the area — highs in the nineties for three straight days — but it isn’t. It isn’t and I know it. Who am I trying to fool? It’s the fuzz.
I crest the next hill with the wind blowing through my hair in dead silence. I can hear crickets and bullfrogs chirping through my window. The smell of earth and vegetation blitzes the senses. I keep trying to focus on the road and the fragrance of the world but instead all I can see are my hands in cuffs and that night spent in jail, I can’t shake it.
There I was, all of eighteen and crying into my hands as I tried, with just enough luck, to convince my dad to come pick me up, my only phone call.
“Maybe you should spend the night in jail,” he said, “to teach you a lesson.”
Fireworks light up my mind.
I spent the entire next day sitting on the edge of my bed. It wasn’t my first offense. I’d been in trouble before, but never arrested. Never detained. It was the first time I’d been caught lying; I mean really lying to my parents. I’d been lying about my pot use for over a year. Now, my parents had all the proof they needed, and I, somehow, expected them to come bail me out. My dad let me sit in the tank for two hours that night to think things through. A behemoth of a man with few teeth who never told me his name asked me, “What are you in here for, little boy?” and laughed. I cried and kept in the corner of my cell.
I drive on through the darkness trying to remember the penalty for Possession of Marijuana in the State of Indiana and silently scold myself. For what? Nothing happened. I think about California, Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington, Colorado, Alaska, and Illinois. Places I’m not but wish I was, and try as we might, geographic relocation never changes the past. A past that almost happened again.
I start thinking to myself I must be one of the luckiest bastards on the face of the planet, but with a record five-counts long I know that can’t be true. It’s like I’m a magnet or something. Whenever I have weed BOOM there are the cops. Sometimes I get away, but anybody who’s had multiple scrapes with the law will tell you the times you get away rarely matter. It’s the ones you get caught that remain. If you don’t get caught, nothing happens. Those moments become parlor stories. Magic tricks. Fables told in drunken company when the telling didn’t matter anyway.
That’s what I keep telling myself: “I didn’t get caught; he went the other way.” But there’s this tightness in my chest and a crawling sensation all over my skin. I try sticking my head out the window and take big gulps of air. I try clearing my nose and throat. I think about putting music on but can’t take my eyes off the road long enough to do so. All I can do is sit in silence under the weight of my past and wonder whether my next move will be my last.
Wearing this silence like a lead coat, I pull up to a stop at an intersection. There’s a sign: “Greensboro,” it says. “Population 116.” Pebbles crunch under my tires as my vehicle comes to a halt. In the nearby distance, in the house across the street or the one diagonal, someone laughs.
I turn left and head down the town’s main drag. Lights on in the windows, bodies moving in some of them performing the rituals of evening with unconscious diligence. People gathered together. And, me, on the road, by myself, grappling with the idea of who I ought to be against consequences that never happened.
I don’t see a single other vehicle on the road beside mine the remainder of the drive. I never see the deer I thought I was going to, either.
All I see are bright flashes in the sky and their echoes against old tombstones.
Chad W. Lutz was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1986 and raised in the neighboring suburb of Stow. They graduated from Kent State University with their BA in English in 2008 and from Mills College in Oakland, California, with their MFA in Creative Writing in 2018. Their first book, For the Time Being, is slated for a March 2020 publication through J. New Books.