Fall/Winter 2020Non-Fiction

Notes on Highways – Zach Semel

“The highways show our indifference to death, so long as it’s someone else’s.”

-Timothy Findley, Journeyman: Travels of a Writer

 

  • My journey backward began
    • on the highway somewhere between Boston and New York
      • with a blue billboard
        • protruding accusatorily from the tree line.
          • A polar bear facing outward from the depths,
            • eyes dark like midnight tides,
            • mouth
              • wide open as freeway plains
              • submerged
              • pleading.
            • And even if the bear could’ve spoken a phrase
              • it would’ve choked
                • on the water that was
                  • further and further
                    • enveloping it.

 

  • Further down the highway, I spot
    • black vertical pipes
      • a hundred feet tall
      • gleaming graphite tubes
    • spewing smoke.
      • Not black smoke: not so rare—
        • black smoke
          • as if from crematoria
          • we find alarming
          • I once reported to the 911 dispatch while driving through South Bend
            • as it leaked into a side street
              • so thickly that I could barely see.
        • Rather, it was gray:
          • a light enough shade to be shrugged off as a geyser’s steam
          • or as condensation,
            • a foggy human fingerprint
              • set firmly upon the blue.

 

  • The trees founded this ground
    • I try to tell myself
      • when I think of how their trunks
        • seem to have sprouted around the highway,
          • adapted to shade its pristine curves
            • like jealous ivy
            • or propaganda-poster pests
              • greedily hoarding sunlight from the road
              • which, whether or not
                • it was the first thing to exist,
                  • most deserves to.
  • If I don’t think hard enough,
    • it is like the Red Sea:
      • entire ecosystems
        • families of flora and fauna
      • splitting for the passing of their betters,
        • only to,
          • with impossible ease,
            • stitch themselves back together again.

 

  • I first came to understand the importance of highways
  • in a middle-school Communications class.
    • Everyone else seemed to know
      • off the top of their heads
    • every nearby exit on I-95.
    • One girl proudly detailed which two exits would bring her closest to her house
      • and which streets she’d take from there.
    • A boy in that class was on my travel basketball team that year.
      • During our practices at the local elementary schools
        • when my coaches weren’t within earshot
          • he would elbow me hard
            • and call me “Jew”—
              • so simple a phrase that it seemed
                • we mutually understood
                  • a Jew to be so much less
                  • that it only needed pointing out.

 

  • Those memories
    • and my pity and guilt
  • always take me further back
    • to the Nazis
      • to the hills of their freshly paved, ever-expanding autobahn
        • rolling massive, unstoppable:
          • cement tides at once imitating
            • and defying
          • nature.

 

      • I thought of that road
      • as my tour bus huffed about the soft curves of the route
        • from Krakow to Oswiecim
      • and my guide
        • a soft-spoken Scandinavian woman
      • pointed out the factory
        • to and from which the prisoners of nearby Auschwitz
          • would march each day
            • in wooden shoes
              • until their infected soles bled:
                • for to walk the road
                  • was to be unworthy of it.

 

  • The tiny towns seemed to fade
    • into the rural grassland
      • within seconds of my passing them.

 

  • I feared
    • that the residents would still think themselves
      • small enough to ignore
        • the sudden presence
          • of walls and fences
          • of odious, polluting smells.

 

  • And I feared
    • that the myths were true
    • that the ashes of the Jews had been woven into the asphalt:
      • those light, wispy particles
        • still lying intact amongst the sedimentary layers
          • or having been eroded into further imperceptibility
            • by the natural occurrences of time.

 

  • Now, cruising through rural Massachusetts towards the City,
    • I dream of combing the rocks and pebbles
      • of I-95
      • for the remains of small creatures
        • tossed aside towards the median
        • or left to rot.
      • Would I find collections of clotted blood
        • and wisps of fur
      • or would we, too, have found a way
        • to make nothing
          • of even those tiniest of pieces?

 

Zach is an M.F.A. candidate in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University. He is an avid Celtics fan, a wannabe psychoanalyst, and a lover of all things garlicky. Some of his previous poems and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in DIAGRAM, CutBank, The Nervous Breakdown, Wordgathering, Breath & Shadow, Sh!t Men Say to Me: A Poetry Anthology, and other places. You can read more of his work at: https://zachsemel.wordpress.com/.

The author: John Carter

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