Gridlock by Matt Runkle

Friday, November 30, 2012


First, let me orient you here. That’s something you worry about, right? Orientation? I hear it’s rare for people to live in cars in your time, so I assume you have a house. In the world Irene and I inhabit, houses are hidden. The only reliable structures these days are gas stations.

I hope this is useful for your science fiction novel.

The year is 2012, and the world now moves so fast that everything’s come to a slippery halt. Cops and robbers have joined forces. Embryos are transmitted via blood. With the disappearance of schools, we’ve become a race of autodidacts.

Also—generally speaking—people tell more lies.

So here I am, sitting at a gas station in the pale light of the early morning. “In the Still of the Night” wafts faintly from the outdoor speakers. Ice coats the concrete, and Irene slips as she exits the station. She adjusts her balance, then walks toward the car without lifting her feet.

Irene was wheelchair bound when we were in Corpus Christi. Saturday nights, I’d roll her downtown to hang out at the tattoo shop. “Getting a tattoo is a lot like naming a kid,” Roger told us, while his band warmed up behind him. There were a lot of men in his band.

The world was still a lot like your own then, although buildings were beginning to transluce. Also, our encounters with men were growing stranger. We hadn’t started eating at gas stations yet—I don’t think so, at least—but misunderstandings were becoming commonplace. Roger was one such case, obviously: we thought that when he spoke of tattoos and baby names, he was really speaking of permanence, and of unwitting biases. But metaphor wasn’t a part of his reality. His trade didn’t allow for it, I guess.

“I coat the window with my breath, and draw another teddy bear.”

Irene scrubs her chubby knee with the hem of her skirt as she climbs into the driver’s seat.

“What did you get?” I ask her.

“Orange crackers.”

She opens the package and hands me a square.

“Hydrog,” I say, only it sounds like “Hi Rog,” because my mouth is full of it.

I almost catch her wincing. “Partially hydrog,” she says, recovering with a shrug. “Everyone makes compromises. Especially at gas stations.”

Once, before we got our car and became eternal teenagers, we were intrepid. Our girlishness was uncontrived, and we felt old beyond our years. We had yet to master the art of deliberate vulnerability. A man in Nag’s Head once scared us so badly, we lived in the sand dunes for at least a month. Days were spent marching wearily with the other tourists. Nights, we ran terror-stricken from the patrolling dune buggies. I slowed my stride to match Irene’s, and it was almost like getting a good night’s sleep. You might want to include these nights in your science fiction novel.

“I miss the heater,” I tell her. “The air’s so cold and still.”

“You’re a rare one, baby,” she grins. “It’s why I love you, you know. You’re specific.” She opens her phrasebook and reads: “You’re specific in the face of a culture that—when, on the rare occasion it approaches truth—it does so only in the abstract.”

I stare at my go-go boots, which rise like buildings from the bitter, moldy floorboard. “Do you think I dress naively?”

“You’re asking the wrong girl,” she says. “I don’t know why I haven’t put on pants in this weather. Because I’m fat, I guess. And lazy.” She reaches across me to add breasts and a penis to the teddy bear I’ve drawn in the fog on the window. Her bosom is gently cupped by my clavicle.

A man in nice, new clothes appears in a nice, new car, and rolls down his window. He says he’s here to pick up some people who got in on the 9:45 bus from Jackson Hole. It’s 8:30. He asks to bum some gas money, and Irene points to the soggy sign in our windshield.

“If you’re so smart, why do you have such a crappy car?” he asks.

“Get a job,” says Irene.

He gives us some statistics: he’s 45, the oldest of 15 children (seven girls, seven boys), and his mother is 89. Irene asks how old the youngest sibling is.

“He just graduated from Stanford,” he says. “He’s an attorney. One graduated from Harvard. Attorney. One from Princeton. Attorney. One’s a doctor, one’s a dentist. I’m the only bum, because I had to support them all, driving big rigs.”

“What do you think?” Irene asks me. “Abstraction or lie?”

“The beautiful and paradoxical thing about art,” says the man, consulting his phrasebook, “is that it obscures appearances to reveal deeper truths.”

“Green light,” says Irene, jaws clenched, and the man disappears.


It’s night now, and thugs have taken over the gas station parking lot.

“I need a drink,” says Irene, opening her door and stepping into the exhaust and dirty bass lines. Her ass mimics the battling hydraulics. She whistles at it over her shoulder, and almost slips again.

So, how about this for your science fiction novel:

A motel in Corpus Christi. A man falls from the second story as he’s carrying groceries to his room (People do this during your time, right? Have rooms and buy bags of groceries?). He’s in a coma for three days, and when he finally wakes, the first thing he asks for is not his wife. It’s his radio, because he wants to listen to a certain talk-show host—a host whom he’s never even shown mild interest in before the accident. This is kind of what happened to Irene, only metaphorically. Roger was a musician and a tattoo artist, not a talk-show host.

“Grape or strawberry?” Irene asks through the window. She’s holding two bottles of flavored malt liquor.

I point at the grape, and she twists it open and hands it to me. Then she gets in the car and sets the strawberry in my lap.

“I thought you needed a drink,” I say.

“I forgot, I think I’m pregnant.”

She lifts up her sweater, and sure enough, there’s a tattoo of a dripping cherry just below her navel.

“Roger,” I say.

“Roger,” she says.

“But that was four years ago.”

“End times,” says Irene. “Apparently, I’ve been endowed with biblical child-bearing abilities.”

I try to remember what the sign in our windshield says. Something about work, I think. Or cigarettes. Or maybe it was something about the end being near.

A beautiful thug knocks at my window, and I roll it down, erasing another teddy bear—this one wearing halo and horns.

“Put your hands on the side of the car,” orders the thug.

“I’m innocent,” I tell him. “I was born in 1977.”

“Those who are so selfish as to fall in love,” he reads from his phrasebook, “can no longer claim innocence.”

“But I’m a baby,” I say. “I need love in order to properly develop.”

“I thought you said you were born in 1977,” says the thug.

“End times,” I tell him. “I’ve taken a serum that allows me eternal youth.”

“Those who lack vulnerability become monsters,” explains Irene.

“You got a cigarette?” asks the thug, fluttering his long, dark eyelashes.

“Sorry,” says Irene. “We don’t smoke. Read the windshield.”

I roll up the window and finish my grape. “Angel of the Morning” wafts out of the car radio.

“He was gorgeous,” I remark.

“Maybe,” says Irene. “In an abstract kind of way.”

I stomp my boot in a numb-toed try at infantilism. Irene, like always, remains unfazed.

“Remember how scary that man in Nag’s Head was?” I say, and maybe I really am crying. “How sharp his eyes were, and how he hollered without opening his mouth? How we were sure it was finally the apocalypse, and we went to the wilderness to wait it out?”

“Yeah, baby, I remember.” Then, with the help of her phrasebook: “We prayed their neglect would deepen, that tourism would become obsolete, and we would once again be left with the potential for beauty.”

“And we were.”

“Were what?”

“Left with the potential for beauty. Look how lovely your knees are.”

Irene switches the radio station. “Insemination!” screams an angry male voice.

“How’s that novel coming?” she asks, taking the strawberry from me and cracking it open.

I hate when she asks that question. She’s so entangled with the plot that I can’t really talk about it.

And that’s why I’m leaving the task to you. With your house and your desk and your sense of stability, I imagine you’ll come up with something quite moving. Either way, it’s science fiction, right? A genre that protects the innocent.

I coat the window with my breath, and draw another teddy bear.


Matt Runkle is a writer, cartoonist, and book artist. His writing has appeared in The Collagist,Beecher’s, Monkeybicycle, Wigleaf, and on BOMBlog. The forthcoming third issue of his zine,RUNX TALES, is currently being funded at Indiegogo. Brooklyn Arts Press will publish a collection of his short fiction—including “Gridlock”in 2013.

© 2012 – 2013, Metazen.

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