“Ontario, California” by Kurt Mueller

Universal Acrobat (Kurt Mueller)
“The Universal Acrobat,” oil on canvas, Darwin Leon, 2010

A single caraway seed rolls back and forth across the dashboard as I navigate these curves and there’s a bag of juniper berries in the back and I think there may be some aniseed in here somewhere and I should be able to smell it, but all I smell is the jasmine oil some girl spilled on the front seat weeks ago and now I see the jasmine lines on the sides of the road, once a grander yellow, golden, fading to blend with the setting sun and it’s pretty, but I’ve seen this sunset before and I’ve been west before and this is not romantic. This eighty miles an hour is not romantic.

It’s only a hundred and fifty miles to Vegas and I’ll be awake all night and it’s been exactly thirty hours and twenty two minutes since I left and I’ve not slept at all. I look out the window.  I look at the sky and wonder where it is the angels fly. I look at the ground and wonder how many bodies are in it and why so many bodies are on it and that’s all we really are and I do not give a shit about anybody. We all need a villain and I suppose I’m my own.

I keep driving. Left hand midnight, right hand fixing my hair in cse I get stranded and some attractive girl should stop to help me. Even now my vanity is killing me. Right hand adjusting the rearview so I can make sure my collar is straight and my teeth are clean. Right hand turning the music up, and boy would I love it if someone would ever call me Big Poppa. Left hand out the window. Right hand waving at the desert around me. Look ma, no hands.

The Japanese beetle I picked up in Iowa is on its back on the dash and I watch it struggle to right itself, and its small wings, green and brown, metallic, flap until the bug finally flips over resting in the center of the panel, warding off evil like its ancestor scarabs of Egypt ages ago, the talisman and ornament to the pharaoh I’ve become. The beetle waddles about looking at the pictures I’ve taped up and left lying around and looks at me seemingly not believing my life, but it’s the only life I’ve got and these pictures prove it.

My car has one of those roofs with a piece of glass in it so I can get breeze in the day and create a sexy atmosphere at night with a girl in the car. It used to be called a sunroof. Now they call it a moonroof. Sexy.

So I look out the sex-in-the-roof and see nothing. I look through the windshield and wish everything else was this transparent. There’s some dead animal in the middle of the road. It must have been hit a few days ago. It looks real dead. I want to say it’s a raccoon, but I’m not sure. There is some fur left on the carcass. Most of it, though, is stuck in the little rubber crevasses in the tires of cars now scattered across the country. The animal must have been about fifteen inches long, minus the tail, if there was one, but it’s been condensed a bit. There’s a piece of lung becoming asphalt, and I can see the reflection of my tiny blue car in a shiny little tooth still attached to the head, and it can’t see me because both its eyes are missing and I’d assume some bird had them for breakfast this morning and I didn’t have breakfast this morning, but if I did I certainly wouldn’t have eaten eyeballs. A flat upturned paw waves me goodbye and I think all the claws are still in it and now I only see gray and red on the pavement in the side mirror inches from my left hand, and I’m pretty sure it’s a raccoon.

I see myself umpteen years ago on the center console and in the picture I’m trying to convince my mother’s sister that I’m dead and my brother is laughing at me and my mother has the camera and her eyes show me sprawled on the living room floor with my tongue out to the side and I have on some little shorts and a baseball shirt with partial sleeves and a Huey Lewis and the News logo ironed on it, and I remember now how my favorite song was Heart of Rock and Roll and my father took me to see them, and I would sing that song every time we watched Back to the Future and eat popcorn and I’d even eat the hard seed that didn’t pop and my brother said they would break my teeth but I didn’t believe him and he’s laughing at me, and it’s hard to pretend I’m dead with my eyes open.

Vegas is long gone and so are the mountains and so are a lot of things. I want to go to Disneyland, but the car won’t stop in Anaheim. Through Highland and Pomona I’ll drive past Euclid Elementary and kids will be playing tetherball and swinging and somebody will scrape a knee or get a bruise and I have a bruise on my leg and it’s not black and it’s not blue. It’s green like the shit I cough up in the middle of the night when I think my lungs are coming up. It’s green like the mucus that falls from my nose and hangs for a few seconds before getting stuck in the stubble on my chin. It’s green like the way it smelled when Opa died and I was five and the room was hot and bright and all my relatives were speaking German and crying and I didn’t know what was going on, but really it’s all broken blood vessels and dying skin, right, and all of us are dying whether or not we like to admit it.

There is a vent blowing air into my eyes and I can’t help but cry so I tilt my head back and swallow the gust and I swallow more before I switch the air flow to the floor vent and now it’s blowing onto my bare feet and the separate threads at the bottom of my pants tickle my ankles and I giggle and the threads finally settle, all fraying. All my ends.

I long for the double vision of back home but I can’t go back and I can’t sleep and I can’t stop. I have a bloody nose over on the passenger door. I must be about nine or ten and I’m crying and the picture is black and white but there’s a dark area under the collar of the white shirt I’m wearing.  My chin is pointed out and dripping and I’m holding my nose and crying. The woman next to me is not my mother. She is Tonka, the babysitter, and she smells like old people. I can’t stop crying and all I can think is that I’m dying and that God is letting go of me. I don’t want to go to Heaven. I want to go home, but I can’t. I want the bleeding to stop but it won’t and Tonka yells at me to settle down and I’d like to punch her in the stomach but I can’t see her because she’s making me keep my head back and all I want is for her to shut the fuck up.

I don’t think the leaves change color here. Every tree is bright and all the smiles are fake and the only world I know is this car I’ve been in for the last forty hours. Kids run and play and scream and joy is echoed through the metal and plastic of my little planet and the wheels rotate and my head feels like it’s spinning, everything I know echoing inside. All the cobblestone and history get run over and I keep going. I stick my head out the window, hair blowing in the wind like I’m the rebel without the fucking cause and right now I want to drive this car into something, anything. I wish I could take out the woman jogging on the sidewalk, silicone bouncing even in the sports bra and her hair can’t really be that blond and her skin is wrinkled and bronzed and she looks like a snake and she’s panting like she’s never had it this good before, and she must wish the prick in the blue car would quit staring at her and she wonders why everyone stares at her, and why does everyone have a fucking staring problem, and I’d like nothing more than for her to stare down the barrel of a shotgun and squeeze and get all the clutter out of her mind and onto the wall behind her.

I’ve gotten this far with a body dying behind the steering wheel that makes my hands sweaty and warm and my hands are running out of things to do and I tear down the picture taped in the upper left corner of the windshield over that strip of blue that’s supposed to block out the ultraviolet rays of the sun to make sure the water in my eyes doesn’t boil.  Out the window I go.

Now I can forget the family reunion when I was eleven that my brother brought his girlfriend home from college for and she’s there whispering in my ear how cute I am and how she wishes I was ten years older cause I’m much cuter than my brother and he’s good for nothing and they both laugh and hold their drinks in the air as my uncle sees us through a lens he bought for three hundred dollars and my father is impressed and tells my mother we need to get one and my mother tells me to smile and say cheese and my aunt tells me to say pickles and I don’t know what to say and my cousin punches me in the crotch and my mouth is wide open when the shutter opens and closes and we’ll all be run over hundreds of times today until we get blown onto a sidewalk somewhere and someone picks us up and wonders why I’m screaming and everyone’s mouths are in O’s except for the one little fucker laughing.

I don’t know how far the beach is but if I keep going west I know I’ll hit it and I’m on my way out of town. Billboards tell me to visit the largest mall in California and to eat more ice cream and drink more vodka and a sign tells me to have a nice trip and come visit again and see the new model colony for the twenty first century. In the rearview the windows of buildings become opaque the farther away I get.

The engine hums and I’m off to the beach. I forgot my surfboard and I forgot my trunks. I hope there’s sunscreen. I want to run and play in the sand and get a good tan and meet locals and have a daiquiri with a pink umbrella in it freezing my trachea making my face shiver, me feeling like my head will implode.

This tomb keeps going and all my remains go with it and right now I don’t want to see any of this road or any of these pictures. I want to see the inside of my eyelids and I want to see them for days. I don’t need memories so I take them down and throw them into the backseat with everything else I’m trying to forget, and the blue on the horizon keeps getting closer and I want the salt under my feet and in my mouth, washing away this tongue.



Kurt Mueller earned his BA from the University of Illinois, his MFA from Southern Illinois University, and currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin – Marathon County. His recent fiction appears in print and online.

Read our interview with Kurt Mueller here.