A Drive in the Countryside
Pandemic Dreams Volume Two
A significant quantity of people were isolating at my Nana’s house in the countryside outside of Austin. Likely more people than the CDC would advise, but in the context of the dream I decided we had all been “caught” there during a normal trip when the pandemic began. There were some forgettable shenanigans at the house, but then everything kicked into high gear when I decided to take a road trip.
I wasn’t alone. Well, I was alone in my car. And it wasn’t my car, it was my dream car—an early-nineties Mazda Miata.1 Accompanying me on the drive, in their own cars, were two authors I follow online: Glenn Fleishman and John Scalzi.2I don’t remember what Mr. Fleishman was driving, but Mr. Scalzi was cruising in his brand new Dodge Challenger (bright orange with black racing stripes). This is the point where I really picked up that it was a dream, because everything was cut together like a movie. Multiple camera angles, helicopter (drone?) passes, third-person perspective, etc.
“Open that thing up, John!” Fleishman said to Scalzi. “The roads are wide open!”
“I’m a very conservative driver, Glenn! I’m responsible!”
The roads were, indeed, wide open at this point. As little traffic as there normally is on state highways in the Texan countryside, there was even less during the dream-pandemic.
Feeling the need to wash my hands—as one does in a pandemic—I pulled my trusted, well-loved bar of Dial soap (worn nearly oval in shape) out of the ash tray (cupholder? Did 90s Miatas still have ash trays?) and started lathering up.3COVID-safe, but likely not endorsed by the NHTSA. Tragically, partway through Happy Birthday for the second time, the bar of soap slipped out of my hands and flew out the window. I thought it was hilarious, and couldn’t stop laughing. That is, the “I” that was watching the dream, not the “I” that was driving in the dream. Driving-I was trying to maintain a sense of composure while dealing with the loss of his soap.
Actually, the guy in the car behind me (who I had temporarily become in this dream movie) couldn’t stop laughing, either, and he/I just couldn’t believe some weirdo was trying to wash their hands behind the wheel of a car with a bar of soap. Ridiculous, right? Liquid soap would have been more reasonable.
Mr. Scalzi decided to open that thing up and took the on-ramp to the freeway. He was no longer a player on the stage of this dream.
This is the moment when Mr. Fleishman said he had to pull over and take an important call. I decided to pull over with Mr. Fleishman, and we parked along the highway at the edge of a green field of alfalfa or whatever it is they make hay from. One of the large tracts that haven’t yet been developed and have big signs saying they’re for sale. The gentleman who laughed at my bar of soap (now lost) stopped, too; I think he was concerned about my welfare. I mean, who washes their hands while they’re driving with a bar of soap? I’d be worried, too, although I don’t think I’d be a creeper and stop to help someone over it.
We maintained acceptable social distance.
Mr. Fleishman wandered a bit further for privacy; he had an important call to take, after all, and didn’t need us listening in while he conversed on his giant headset. Not football-sideline giant, more like 1980s-secretary giant; think Plantronics not Motorola. Sadly, this is when Mr. Fleishman and myself parted ways. He continued his call, and I continued my drive. I got the impression there was somewhere else I needed to be and couldn’t wait around. Concerned About the Bar of Soap Guy also left the dream-stage. Which is fine. He was starting to get too close.
This proved to be more of an ordeal than, perhaps, I expected. The isolated strip of gravel shoulder along a Texas farm-to-market highway had dream-morphed into a crowded parking lot. I was beginning to do the Austin Powers J-turn required to get out of there, when someone decided to hop in the back seat. Two items of note: a Miata does not have a back seat, and at the beginning of this dream the top was up. Now, as a stranger decided to violate my social-distancing bubble, the top was down and the car suddenly had a back seat. Then two more people were somehow in the car with us.
Somehow the Miata has now simultaneously a 1960s VW Beetle. No doubt this was my subconscious Dream Editor trying, with a heavy sigh of resignation, to accommodate the sudden crowd of people my id had conjured while attempting to preserve the suspension of disbelief. We can’t fix this in post, it seemed to say. So I’ll do the best with what you’re giving me. Sorry, Dream Editor.
It took awhile to get out of my parking spot. Two other Mazdas were trying to back out of their spots at the same time—both Mazda 3s: one silver, one dark blue—and it got dicey. Honking was involved, but there was no injury to either person or material, and we escaped the parking lot unscathed.
Where was I going? Back to Nana’s. But first! What to do with the passengers? At this point I realized they were all young men, ages 16-20ish, and I had no desire to ether take them all back to my family (we’re trying to be responsible and social distance!) nor just drop them off on the side of the road.
“Where can I drop you off?” I asked.
They all shrugged and grunted, as teenagers do, and went back to their phones or whatever. I decided to head for one of those clusters of shops and restaurants that congeal around the intersections of highways and freeways; surely there would be someplace safe to leave them in the midst of all that civilization. As we drew nearer to the knot of commerce, one of the young men (the one in the front seat) said “Tony Roma’s!”. There was, indeed, a Tony Roma’s (the place for ribs) at this location. Apparently he was supposed to meet his family there. Onward to Tony Roma’s!
When we pulled in, there were his parents. They were most decidedly not practicing social distancing. In fact, it seemed like the CDC guidelines did not reach into this corner of Dream Texas, as it looked like it was business as usual at this particular Tony Roma’s and all the surrounding businesses. Also this Tony Roma’s had a lot in common with Margaritaville; there were a lot of parrots. Had Jimmy Buffet and Tony Roma merged? Have they always been the same person?
The Tony Roma Kid’s parents approached the car and thanked me for dropping their child off safely. His father started asking me about my now-fully-realized VW Beetle (no half Beetle/half Miata; the metamorphosis was complete! And I barely noticed! Sometimes Dream Editor does a good job.). The conversation escalated quickly and went from asking questions to correcting my ignorance.
“Is this converted to electric?” He asked.
“No. In fact, it’s mostly original, except for the parts that wore out.”4 “Nice! This is…what…nineteen sixty…?”
I wasn’t sure. So I guessed.
“Sixty-five, I think.”
The look of disappointment on Tony Roma Kid’s Father’s face was crushing. I got a mini-lecture about the various body style and wheelbase changes of Beetles from year-to-year and the assurance that what I was driving had to be late-sixties, not sixty-five. Sorry for disappointing you yet again Tony Roma Kid’s Father.
I dropped off Tony Roma Kid and proceeded to find a place to leave the other teenagers. This is where the edges of the simulation began to rip and tear. Maybe my brain knew it was about to wake up, and did its best to wrap up the narrative in the time remaining. It’s OK, brain; your best is good enough. And this was your best today.
I pulled into various parking lots and drove down various alleyways trying to figure out where these kids belonged. Tony Roma Kid somehow was back in the car, this time in the back seat, and I was angry. WHY ARE YOU BACK IN THE CAR I ALREADY UNLOADED YOU WITH YOUR PARENTS. I don’t think he answered me. I may have just screamed it in my head. My dream-head, inside my real head.
Eventually I think I just left the car parked in a tunnel (under an overpass? It looked like an underpass you would see in a movie, perhaps in L.A., near the river, graffiti on the walls, etc.) with three teenagers seated inside. I was fed up with the whole thing.
Both authors have figured prominently in my online reading lately. I follow Fleishman on twitter (he’s a freelance journalist, and has good facts). Check out his blog, although I mostly just follow him on twitter. I read Scalzi on his blog, Whatever, which he’s been writing for 20-plus years. And also on Twitter. I think he, among others, does a good job of contextualizing what a lot of us are going through right now. Curiously missing from our drem caravan was Chuck Wendig, another author who seems to do a good job of making sense of things, and published a book last year about a mysterious pandemic that swept the world during a U.S. election year… ↩
Dial soap, specifically whatever variety is yellow-orange in color, was the the ubiquitous soap of my youth. Either that, a bar of Lava, or both were ever-present in the dish by the faucet. ↩
I really wish I did have an electric 1960s VW Beetle. ↩