MONA LISA IN A PICKUP
The trip had started out well enough. I was even looking forward to it, to some extent; partly because I was going to bypass the most boring part, in central Ohio, by heading south from Akron, instead, into the mountains. Ohio is strange in this respect; just outside of Canton, you go hard into Appalachia, in effect, entering another world. Before long, you notice it in the vehicles on the road, the cars become noticeably older and dustier, with plastic sheeting duct taped over missing glass, ancient, wheezing pickups, some with beds of bolted planks, replacing those having long ago succumbed to rust or other damage.
You notice it, too, in the people in the vehicles. I saw it strikingly, in a thirty-something woman, who struggled past me on the interstate, in an uncommonly decrepit Chevy, likely even older than she was. Her life written into her face; she appeared as one of those captured in WPA photographs from the 1930s. Shortly later I saw two other women, maybe in their forties, who tried to coax their Vietnam War era pickup around me on a long upgrade in Tuscarawas County. The truck was so faded that its original color was anyone’s guess; it was listing badly to the right, and the decades old V8 was sounding unnervingly like a jackhammer. I let off on the gas, slightly, as they pulled abreast, their old Ford half-ton being pushed well beyond its capacity. As I did, the driver looked over at me, contempt on her face. She knew what I was doing. A whole reality conveyed instantly; it bore a level of emotion far transcending embarrassment or shame in any ordinary sense. She despised my patronizing gesture, and me even more so; yet as our eyes met, a deeper, mutual recognition welled up in her countenance. A slight Mona Lisa smile crossed her lips. Until then, she never would have guessed, but at that moment, she knew.
The remainder of the trip was less eventful. Once on Interstate 70 west, the vehicles immediately became newer, shinier. A suit behind the wheel of a sleek black Lexus sneered at my bumper sticker. An immaculate, nearly new pickup overtook me, so quietly as to escape notice until it was a fait accompli.
The two roads look fairly similar, and were probably built by the same engineering firm. Yet, the experience of travelling them is wholly different, being defined heavily by the destinations of those sojourning on them. I-77 south continues into the increasingly taller ridges of southeastern Ohio, crosses the deeply cut river valley, and then into the jagged mountains of West Virginia; farther still, into Virginia and the western Carolinas. I-70 west, on the other hand, leads to the relatively more prosperous metropolitan destinations of Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis; and judging from the license plates, even Houston and Dallas.
The starkness in the differences of travelers on these two interstates is nothing short of shocking. The farther from Appalachia one gets, however, the more one forgets all of this. Yet the schism in the American citizenry remains. South of Columbus, for instance, a Daddy Warbucks type in a new Lincoln, tried to force me off the road after spying my bumper sticker.
These experiences led me, somewhat unwillingly, into a deeply reflective mood. My nearly new Dakota belies who I am. The Appalachia of my youth was a hardscrabble place, a place of coal tipples and forlorn dust coated communities, of futilely helping my consumptive father eke out a threadbare existence in the humblest of trucking businesses, of frantically shoveling coal over my shoulders in dust-choked cellar bins, the caustic powder biting the corners of my eyes and clogging my nasal passages, and leaving my thick-lensed glasses as opaque as a sheet of black construction paper. Worse, though, was of the fear stricken looks on the faces of poverty stricken breadwinners knowing they could ill afford the load of coal we were delivering, yet simultaneously realizing that their families would freeze without it.
As I drove on I-71, mile after mile, flat as a billiard table, the more thoughts from this earlier period of my life welled up in my mind. My disquiet was compounded by the images of continually enduring the invidious gazes of classmates disparaging my station in life. Even worse, though, I recalled Mr. Telford, the principle of my high school, upon realizing that he lacked proper cause to throw me out of school, trying his utmost to convince me to quit, the person with no future he saw me to be. Yet the very worst was remembering signing up to take an academic scholarship exam, and consciously thinking early that Saturday morning, that if I was ever going to be hot, boy, it better be that day. When I finished the four-hour exam, I left with a feeling of satisfaction, thinking that I might just have pulled it off.
I recall when the results of the exam were posted a few weeks later, being chagrined that my name wasn’t on the list of those awarded scholarships, posted under the glass-covered bulletin board in the main hallway reserved for the most official of announcements. Shit, I thought, I really believed that I had nailed it.
Then, more dramatically, what welled up in my mind was the strange brew of emotions roused in me when, during last block that day, I was summoned to the principal’s office. Shown in by a worried looking, grey haired secretary, I was confronted by not only the principal, but the vice principal and the guidance counselor, as well. All middle aged men, all taller and a good bit more massive than the skinny kid with thick glasses, bargain basement clothes and worn out shoes cowering before them. Less than cordially, I was directed to a chair, and the heavy wooden door was closed firmly behind me.
“Alright, how did you do it?” snarled the principle, all three of them glaring hostilely in my face.
“Do what?” I stammered. I honestly had no idea what on earth they were talking about, what they could have meant with the hard edged, accusatory tones in their voices. “Okay, so you’re saying that I didn’t score well enough to get the scholarship;” came out, involuntarily; “I honestly guessed that I would be a contender, but if I didn’t, well, I reckon . . . ..”
I was cut off, “You know full well what I’m talking about,” growled Mr. Telford; “you think you are pretty smart, don’t you? We know what you tried to pull; you thought you’d get away with it, too, didn’t you. Well, we’re not going to let you,” he yawped, “and, as soon as we figure out how you did it, you’re being expelled! You get that, don’t you?” he screamed, shaking his finger a couple of inches from my nose.
He was trembling all over in rage; I thought for sure that he was going to hit me or try to choke me, but he didn’t. The vice principal and the guidance counselor had turned slightly different shades of red, and both were sneering viciously at me. I felt much like Roquentin in Sartre’s Nausea, engulfed in a world of appearances. Mr. Telford’s hairline was receding oddly, forming a misshapen ‘W;’ his nose, slightly bent to one side, and crooked, too, looked strangely like a cedilla. I avoided looking directly at his eyes, as they clearly bore a nastiness I didn’t want to deal with right then. I was so used to censorious treatment by school administrators, however, that the content of his accusation didn’t register for a few seconds.
“You think I cheated?” I blurted out, incredulously.
“We know damned well you did!” he shrieked; “you’re not going to get away with it, either.” He was really shaking now; “Just who do you think we are?” he demanded, his finger again in my face. “Get out!” he shouted, gesturing toward the door, with that same finger, but drawing it in, as he drew his hand back, clenching it threateningly into a fist.
I was shaken, but I was amazed at the presence of mind I had somehow retained through his entire harangue. I had come pretty much to expect things like this, and so, in some sense, I didn’t find it to be all that shocking. Still, I was taken aback by it. As I walked out of the office, past the front desk, and down the hall, the full significance of what had just happened was beginning to sink in. I had just been formally accused of cheating on a statewide scholarship exam. Rather than graduating from high school in a few months, I was very likely going to be expelled. No diploma, no scholarship, no college, no anything.
I went to my locker, gathered what I needed, and took the shortcut past the mobile classrooms to the student parking lot. My embarrassingly beat up old car sat alone now, forsakenly, in the last row of the lot, where I usually parked it, so it would attract the least notice possible. It was only as I was fumbling with my keys that it dawned on me that I was liable to get some real grief from Mr. Lofgren for being late for work. How late was I? I didn’t know for sure; I didn’t have a watch and the clock in my pathetic old car hadn’t worked since I’d owned it.
I managed to sneak in as stealthily as I could, and punched in only seventeen minutes late. Not too bad, I thought, given the crap I had just had to deal with. I hurriedly emptied all the trash cans and push broomed the showroom floor. Damn this job was mindless; good thing, too. That day, I wasn’t in the mood to do anything fancy. But what the fuck was I going to do? I knew I was going to have to deal with it at some point, but I didn’t want to think about it right then.
All these memories brought to mind an especially troubling series of visual images, as I drove on the interstate that day; but even more vividly, it dredged up from somewhere the wildly vacillating range of emotions that overwhelmed me that afternoon. Wes came up from down stairs, saying that I was needed in the wash bay, right now. One of the salesmen had to show a car in a few minutes, just in from transport. It needed to be readied, immediately. I followed him downstairs.
In all honesty, I didn’t usually mind this job, menial and dehumanizing as it was. The thing that made it vaguely tolerable was the thought that, unlike Wes, I was doing all this on a temporary basis. I had applied for admission, and had been accepted, at a respectable state university. I had gone through this process on the basis of an amorphous hope that some way of actually paying for it would miraculously arise. And, then that scholarship exam became available, and I signed up for it, and then . . . . . Boy, I didn’t like where this train of thought was going. I began to feel sick.
I had no memories of the rest of that day. I apparently went home after work, apparently ate dinner, who knows? I don’t think it was the very next day, but it might have been. I remembered the events extremely well, though. Racking my brain for an inroad for dealing with this disaster, I saw Mr. Smithson, the guidance counselor, in the hall. I anticipated, unreflectively, seeing a look on his face as ferocious as the one on it in the principal’s office. My attention was attracted, now, by his expression, softened subtlely, not quite friendly or receptive, but tending more in that direction than I had expected. It occurred to me that this might be the inroad I needed. It wasn’t that promising, but I didn’t have a lot of time to get this situation resolved, so I asked him if I could see him in his office after last block. He did say yes, though not eagerly.
When I showed up there about 3:45, his door was not ajar, as it was generally during the school day, but I could see through the frosted glass window in it that his light was on, so I knocked, gently. He opened the door and stepped aside to allow me entry into the office, and to a single wooden chair to the right of his desk. There was neither a warm nor welcoming atmosphere in the room, however.
“What do you want?” he asked. I had hoped for a more conciliatory tone in his voice, but none was evident. There was no way to make this easy; I might as well just come out with it.
“Look, I didn’t cheat on that exam,” I said, but not with the level of confidence I was hoping for.
I normally would have said that I liked Mr. Smithson. He was a decent sort, much more personable than either Mr. Telford or Mr. Carver, the vice-principal. So, why wasn’t he being more receptive to me, now? He really thinks I am guilty of this, doesn’t he?
“Why do you think I cheated?” I asked. Might as well cut to the chase, I thought. This is not the kind of thing you make small talk about. He didn’t answer; he did get up, though, and open the top drawer in the file cabinet to the left of his desk. After thumbing through a couple of folders, he pulled one out, sat down, and began to read through its contents. Page after page, some hurriedly, some rather slowly. It was at least a half an inch thick. Eventually, he looked up.
“Your grades really aren’t all that bad, are they,” he said, tentatively, and with an element of surprise in his voice. The expression on his face became a bit milder. His believing me was creeping into the sphere of possibility. Taking off his reading glasses, he looked at me intently for several seconds, studying my countenance. Twenty years of being a guidance counselor must have taught him some things about how to read students faces. I could tell that now I might really have some chance of convincing him. “Boy, I better play this right,” I thought. He put his glasses back on, and taking the pen from his shirt pocket, he began writing, hastily, on the pad on his desk. He wrote quite a lot; and though I tried to get some idea of it, from my angle I couldn’t decipher enough of it to tell what it said.
At this point, the series of images and odd nexus of emotions in my memory shrinks, as to the horizon in a perspective drawing. There is a strange gap; my recollection only picks up the train of events beginning a day or two later. Apparently my 17 year old mind was on overload by then, unable to arrange the dysphoric thoughts and feelings into any meaningful scheme.
I drove farther down the interstate. I felt totally drained. It was beginning to get dark now, and a light rain was falling. In forty minutes, I would be home.
About the Author
Timothy Allen is trained as an academic philosopher; adventitious vision loss, however, bestirs his revisiting sundry wisps of retained visual imagery, which then clamor for expression. He lives in the mountains of upstate New York.