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California Dreaming

by Alexander Jones

I wanted the car since I was eleven or twelve.


Since then I’ve gotten most of what I wanted; I've laid on a black sand beach and snorkeled at the Great Barrier Reef, had good times in expensive places with beautiful women and delicious food.  I made a lot of money and I spent it all on myself but I was not a hedonist because I knew it was all bullshit, and because all I really, really wanted was that California Dream.


Now I could have it.  Properly.  Finally.


My boss drove me across the George Washington Bridge and out to Jersey.  He was quick but careful, kept the radio low.  I liked my boss, and felt grateful not to have to take a bus to the dealership.


The George Washington was my favorite bridge; that engineered metal span conjured the feelings I have about all of Manhattan and living there.  Gaudy, shiny, powerful, infinite; monolithic yet gossamer.  I loved its impersonality and callousness; they motivated me to carve my place and allowed me aloofness.


I used to cross the bridge in my mother’s car or on the bus, and I wanted all of it.


I got it.


 “You nervous?” my boss asked, coming through an interchange.  He checked his mirror then stepped on the gas.


 “Nervous, no, I’m not nervous.  I’m… wired.”


He smiled at me.  “Horny, like.  I remember buying my first toy car.”


“Yeah.”  Wet palms, anticipating the California Dream.  I wanted the car, but it wasn’t the same level of desire.


“Make sure you get driving gloves, then.  Those rubber steering wheel covers with the little bumps never look right.”


We made our way there.


I tasted copper in my mouth like blood, and squirmed around in the seat, trying to get comfortable, but I was already comfortable, just high strung as the dealership got closer.  I wanted the car longer than the California Dream, but less intensely, I always believed.  Now I wasn’t so sure about that.


The dealership came into sight.


I used to pass this dealership on the way into the city from home.  I would stare out the window of my mother’s car or the bus.  Rich people; the eighties junk bond yuppies giving way to the nineties tech start up yuppies, all always wearing pressed pants and starched collars, smiling happily as they walked the lot.  Some had wives beside them and children running along behind them as they selected a family car for the happy family.  Or playboys, wearing shades and smoking a cigars, sliding into a sports cars.  Everyone at the dealership always seemed to be having more fun that I was, stuck in traffic watching them, wanting to have what they had.  Bubbly people driving new cars home to shiny happy lives and careers they relished.


I used to think all of this, riding into the city in my mother’s car, breathing carbon monoxide fumes and wondering how long it would take mom and dad to dry out before I could come home.


 After the California Dream and killing my brother, I rode the bus. 


I wanted one of those cars; when I had one that belonged to me, that meant I was successful and happy.  I'd believed that for a very long time.  Now I wasn't so sure, but I still wanted that fucking car.


My boss signaled for the dealership driveway.


My throat bobbed and I wiped my palms on my pants, aware of the horny feeling he’d mentioned earlier.


“Don’t have a heart attack before you’ve got the title.”  My boss patted my shoulder.  “I’m jealous.”


“I’ll leave it to you,” I said, opening the door before he’d stopped the car.  I hopped out.


“See you next week."


I opened the smoked glass door to the dealer’s office.


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The car.


The car: A supercharged, fuel- injected, turbo- pumped, high- torque- precision road machine, six gears, four cylinders, two leather bucket seats and me: one (amped, promoted, elevated, money- to- burn, ready-to-rip-up-the-road) driver.


My father once advised me to bargain down to a tank of gas when buying a new car, but I didn’t have to since they throw that in for free when you’re not buying a used Dodge.  I gave the dealer a cashier’s check my boss gave me, embossed with our firm’s letterhead, took the car keys and shook the dealer’s hand.


I didn’t like him, a wannabe shark radiating calibrated self assurance in his overly priced suit, who'd now switched to smirking obsequiousness since he had my money and his commission.


But I didn’t care about him, or my money.  The California Dream was worth the price.


I pulled out of the dealer’s lot so fast my tires spun and I kicked up gravel, slicing into traffic like a scalpel. 


                                                                                                                                        *  *  * 

No one came for my college graduation ceremony, because I had no one.  Instead I went out drinking with Mort, my former roommate and his extensive family network of younger siblings and cousins.  By then my family was nothing but my two testicles, as I was fond of saying back then. 


The next morning I drove two hours home, the first time I’d been home since my freshman year, went to the Morning Street bridge over the Delaware River, and jumped off.  Mort had rigged me a safety harness and I trusted him because Dupont hired him as an engineer right out of school and he liked mountain climbing.  Plus, I really didn’t give a shit whether it held or not, which made trusting the safety line much easier.


No one would miss me.


Standing over the water, holding the pedestrian path railing, my stomach churned to match the churning water.  My breath got short and my hand clenched tight around the steel as I readied to pay my debt, unburden myself of sin. 


Then I jumped.


The California Dream started, as the river rushed up to meet me.  I stopped falling as I fell.  The California Dream was like a hole in time- the calm in the midst of the storm.


The falling took so long that I saw each individual ripple and lurch of the river.  And my life, as if I’d already separated from it; I saw my brother smile at me, and smile at me again, some other time, and I felt light.  I felt excited, as the wind blew in my hair and my heart thumped in my chest.


Time stretched out like a line under stress, I was nowhere near the water yet, I wrote an encyclopedia about everything I thought and experienced in those few seconds.  The insides of my eyelids were pastel pictures, I painted each one, I grasped relativity like Einstein-


-and then I hit.


But I didn’t, because Mort’s safety line worked.  My foot pulled one way, my hip followed it, and the rest of my body tried to pop out through my eyes.  My stomach contracted harder than ever before or since, as I stopped short of the water by thirty feet.  I vomited.


My ankle broke, and my leg hurt for weeks, but I survived.  Those seconds, when time slowed down and stretched out, that was the California Dream. 


Jumping off the bridge kept me mellow for a while.


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The car handled like part of me.  I could spin like a top and stop on a dime.  The engine purred like an overfed cat.  The cylinders didn’t thump as they compressed, but formed a base rhythm I wanted to dance to.  I turned off the radio and listened to my car as I tooled around Jersey, getting the feel of my machine.


When I got on the New York State Thruway, I sparked a blunt.  I'd didn’t really do drugs anymore, but christening a new car was a must.  The weed was killer Hawaiian bud from a vendor I’d met, and the cigar was a smuggled Cuban my boss gave me, rolled in the privacy of my office this morning.


It smoked nicely, and I blew cumulus clouds.  I purposely knocked an ash onto the passenger floorboard, just to be the first.  I stepped on the gas and swerved around a rig, laughing and exhaling smoke, loving the hum of my engine.


One hundred and fifty miles later, I got off a different interstate, close to home.  But I didn’t go.  It wasn't home anymore, anyway.  A road wended its way up the side of a mountain, with bluffs overlooking the Delaware.


I followed it, gripping the steering wheel, snaking through the switchbacks at ninety miles an hour.  I could die, if I turned the wheel too hard.  That exhilarated me, but the California Dream never started until something happened.  Right now I enjoyed my car too much to really think about it.


A sheriff came after me, lights flashing, but I didn’t feel like getting a ticket, so I gunned the engine, roaring until he was out of sight, turned down a side road and kept going.


My brother and I went fishing, right around here.  I got into a mud slinging fight with him once, when I was about eleven.  The memory overwhelmed me, seeing him holding a big bass in one hand and a handful of sludge he pelted me with in the other.


My eyes burned, and I wiped at them, though no tears actually fell.  I missed him.  He’d love this car.


I took roads at random, just taking turns, flying over mountains and blasting through valleys fast enough to feel centrifugal force around curves.  The region had finally been pacified and civilized- my phone had full service.  I thumbed through my contact list, ready to dial.


But I had no one to call, no one to share my exhilaration or reminisce about how far I'd come.


My boss had dropped me off; my coworkers weren’t really friends.  Boasting about the car at a lunch would be sufficient and more appropriate than calling randomly to share genuine emotion.  I'd broken up with my last girl, letting her keep a Rolex I left at her apartment as severance pay for five months of fun.  My family was gone- I killed my brother, my mother died of alcohol related liver failure, and my dad went prison for assaulting someone with a pool cue.  He got stabbed, standing in line for lunch one day.


And then I was alone.


Fuck having no one to call so I could gloat over my car, I had no one at all.  Marianne.  Marianne would enjoy sitting next to me while I drove this car, commenting on the view and the trees until finally she started pestering me to drive, but she lived in Montreal now with someone ‘more emotionally honest with her.’


I smiled.  My father liked her.  He met her, the last time I went to see him at the prison, the last time I saw him alive.  Then he was dead, but I was with a woman he liked.  That made me feel good.  Now she was gone, too.


I would have let her drive, when she asked.  Marianne was a good driver.  She made me feel safe.  I felt safe, driving, but that was different.  I felt safe now because the California Dream was mine, one way or the other.  You're never safer than in those few seconds before you pull the trigger when you're playing Russian Roulette.  I felt safe when she drove because I trusted her.  I trusted my boss, eventually, and I trusted other people to act like people, but I never trusted anyone like Marianne.  And my brother, but I killed him, so how trustworthy was I?


I cried, suddenly stricken with tears flowing out of my eyes, staining my shirt front and the black leather of my bucket seat.  I could call Mort; I'd Facebooked him, wished him a merry Christmas now and then, but that wouldn’t relieve me.   I wiped at the tears, but more came.


I drove like this for a while.  Why I was crying?  Maybe it was the weed, screwing with my head.  Yeah, sure.  That’s all it was.


I thought of my father, and made the first right turn, east.  I'd already covered hundreds of miles and felt primed for hundreds more.  I was awake, alert, and breaking in my new car.  I wanted to do a thousand miles, before going home.


The sun went down, and I watched it, heading up a mountain.  The light shone bright yellow then orange, and I pulled the leather sun visor down.  The sun turned red, a glowing disk sinking below the next mountain.  When the sky turned the color of red wine, I pushed the visor back up.


At least ten big prisons dotted the countryside in this part of Upstate New York.  As a kid I used to bike around a big federal jail behind my house.  The one I drove to right now was called Eastern.


I passed it, moving along the shoulder of the road at thirty miles an hour as the prison drew closer, became perpendicular, then grew further distant.  My father had been locked up here.  One time I sat outside this place all night long, wishing I could see him and talk to him.


I didn’t know what we’d have said to each other, but that didn’t matter.  I never got the chance to tell any of my family that I was sorry about killing Donny, so I never told anyone.  My father might have understood, but maybe not.  He might have cared, but maybe not.  Someone nailed him with a sharpened spoon, and now his responses could only be 'maybe.' 


I told a few people about Donny.  Mort, he'd understood, and Marianne had too, but I never told anyone about the California Dream.  Marianne had guessed.  I got nightmares.  More than twenty years after it happened, I still woke up sometimes in the middle of the night at the impact, when the California Dream ended.


In the nightmare, my fifteen year old fingers were slim on the plastic steering wheel of Donny’s truck, the backs of my hands and forearms still boyishly devoid of coarse hair or scars.  Donny let me drive, after my mother told him not to.  He didn’t let me drive to spite her, but rather because he knew I wanted to.


Driving was new, but I thought I had it, until we hit this hairpin turn, coming down the side of a mountain.  Donny told me I was going too fast, but I didn’t listen to him, and then the truck shimmied and my heart clenched and I stomped on the brakes.  We didn’t skid; the truck started spinning.


The California Dream started- those seconds of perfect Zen awakeness, awareness.  People like to say that 'their lives flashed before their eyes' in accidents, but for me it was the only time I'd ever been perfectly even with what was happening around me, not thinking, not remembering, not emoting, just… being.


 Donny gripped my shoulder, and I clearly saw how white his fingertips were.  His face twisted in terror as we spun toward a solid block of mountainside.  In the rear view mirror, my own face seemed remarkably impassive.  “California Dreaming” played on the radio.  We needed to get down on our knees and begin to pray, like the Mamas and Papas say.  I never got the chance to tell him I was sorry, sorry for caring only about my own breathy livewire body, focusing only on how alive I was, like my heart was going to beat itself right out of my chest.  Ecstatic.  There was only my own life, even though my brother was squeezing my shoulder so hard his fingers were bloodless.


The impact was an orgasm of shattering glass, twisting metal and dying Donny, but the mountainside didn’t yield at all. 


I would wake up, covered with sweat and tears, gasping for air after reliving this in a nightmare.  And Marianne would hold me and sometimes we talked about it.  How scared I’d been.  How my life had been radically reshaped, how it made me more alone and … and that’s where I stopped talking.


I told her about my family’s downward spiral, my mother’s lusty relationship with Vodka, and my father’s inability to stay home and make eye contact with me or my mom.  I told her about throwing myself into drugs and girls and schoolwork, anything that gave me the illusion of change or diligence or distraction. 


But I never told Marianne about the California Dream.  She knew I was holding out on her, that I hadn’t told her something, and one time she got pissed off and started guessing.  She never guessed right, and I never told her, and eventually she left. 


I could never tell her that it turned me on.  Sitting in the truck whirling around like a cheap carnival ride, knowing Donny and I were in serious jeopardy when we hit- all of that made me feel more alive than anything else ever had.  Those few seconds- four of them, tops, were more passionate than all the years preceding or following them.  The bridge jump had been close, a soul stripping acid trip in college had been good, so had getting mugged, but I secretly yearned for the wreck with Donny.


I turned onto another road.  My father’s prison lay way behind me, and my headlights illuminated the twisty road as it ascended.  Even at eighty miles an hour I didn’t overdrive my headlights.  The car responded perfectly as I twitched the wheel, slaloming up the winding pavement.


I loved this car; it was a much more perfect extension of my self than Donny’s rotting pickup truck.  And I was a much better driver now.  An adult- look at all the cool shit I can buy, I can afford this car, and you don’t need to fix it in our driveway after dark, Donny.  Look, dude, no hands!


I laid them flat in my lap for a second, before grabbing the wheel again.  I passed a road sign, warning of the hairpin turn.  I beat the wheel with my fists, tension tightening my muscles; my biceps particularly coursed.  My sweaty hands slicked the wheel and my breath came in and out quickly.  I wound up like the spring being set in one of those snapping mousetraps. 


Before the hairpin turn was a straight, narrow corridor of road, with cliffs on one side and roughhewn mountainside on the other.  I entered it at sixty miles and laid my foot on the gas.  I shot forward.


“Awesome,” I grunted through clenched teeth.  The corridor was less than half a mile long; it flashed by, and before the end of it, my California Dream started.


My foot came off the gas, tendons contracting and flexing with the movement.  The trees and mountainside glared out at me, pointillist.  My fingers held the steering wheel loosely, and I saw each pebble at the side of the road, counted the motes in my headlights.


I jerked the wheel; the car swerved dangerously.  Adrenaline dumped and my heartbeat spiked like an elevator bursting through the roof and my teeth clenched tight enough to rend my gums.  Bloody drool oozed from the side of my mouth, slicking my chin.


I jerked the wheel in the other direction, and this time followed through.  The car went into a flat, high torque spin, like a masonry bit chewing into brick.  The mountainside loomed close, then swung away on the far side of my rotation, and when I faced it again, it was even closer, then I faced the other way again.


The California Dream overwhelmed me.  Funny if I had a heart attack before I hit.  I would be dead in seconds; I shuddered.  I was almost home.  No one would miss me.


“What are you doing?” Donny asked me.


I was eight, and for some reason I had decided to pour maple syrup into the fish tank on the shelf beside the television in our kitchen.  I drank a lot of it first, smearing the stickiness all over my racecar pajama tops. 


“Uh,” I said, just grasping with sticky fingers how stupid I looked.


“What the fuck are you doing?” he asked, advancing on me.


“Um, I, um…”


The mountainside was now so close that I could see the cuts and crags in the rock surface.


“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?” Donny yelled, shaking me by the shoulders.


I stomped the brake pedal with both feet, and hiked up the emergency brake.  I hit the wall, California Dreaming. 


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I awoke.


I pushed open my car door and dragged myself out.  Airbags, crumple zones, seat belts… an expensive car came with the best.  I'd loved that car.  But like the best, brief, turbulent romances, it came to an ugly end. 


There was nothing left.


My lips were split; my nose had burst like a swollen, overripe tomato, and the bruising would probably reach all the way to my eye sockets.  I had trouble turning my neck.


But I was alive.  Alone, but alive.


I started walking. Limping.


At the base of the mountain a few miles away, was a small town.  College town.



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Alexander Jones has short fiction and poetry appearing in Akashic Books, Bastion Magazine, Crack the Spine and DASH, among other publications. His nonfiction was recently anthologized by 2Leaf Press; multiple short stories he’s written have received honorable mentions in Writer’s Digest’s Annual contests and an essay he wrote won GoRail’s 2012 contest. He has a BA in English/ Creative Writing and a second BA in History. He works as a metal fabricator and lives with his family in New Jersey.

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