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Pavement Picasso



Pavement Picasso



I spent the final decade of the twentieth century wandering. Tolkein whispered in my ear: “Not all who wander are lost.” Ha. Some are.

I told myself I was writing a book. It would be a sprawling Kerouacian outpour of love for the American road. My notebooks were mostly still empty.

Hitchhiking across Pennsylvania, I got picked up by a trucker. He was tolerable for a couple of hours, but it seemed he had nothing on his mind besides Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades, for which he felt the man should be castrated. I didn’t like Clinton either, but it had more to do with bombs and banks than blow jobs. We were nearing Exit 143 on I-81 northbound when I said, “Let me off here?”

The afternoon was oppressive and muggy. I walked down the long sloping curve of the off ramp and found no town, none of the expected gas stations, motels, fast food. Just a wide and lonely four-lane divided highway sweeping into the tree-lined distance. Glad to be out of the close cab with the trucker, I strode with energy along the shoulder, east, in the direction the signs told me was the city of Hazleton.

On my left, trees, scrub, weedy fields, jumbled hills of cinders and slag. A railbed, a distant wrecking yard. On my right, a few houses, a church, the rear of an auto repair shop, a big empty dirt pit like a scar. Under the leaden sky, a feeling of desolation. An occasional truck roared past, stirring windblown litter.

Sweat was gathering on my scalp and under the pack on my back. Fifteen minutes of walking had not changed the scenery, but then I came upon something new. At first it looked like a dark smudge across the lighter gray surface of the road. I thought it might be lettering meant to be read from an aircraft, but then I drew near. The pavement was streaked with wide black lines, certainly tire rubber, deckle-edged with traces of tread. But these were not like any skid marks or peel-out tracks I had ever seen. They formed a graceful arabesque that curved and swirled and overlapped itself, spreading into both lanes, as fluid and free as if it had been painted all in one motion by a great brush. Zen calligraphy writ large.

I stopped. For several minutes I stared, wondering how this thing had been accomplished. Surely it was not made by a car. Maybe there was a tool, a rolling line painter that could simulate the semi-opaque scuffs of rubber tires on pavement. Maybe some spray-can-wielding graffiti artist had found a new style, a new canvas. Nothing seemed like the right answer. I kept walking.

I had had enough of this barren roadside. Where was the city? When I heard a vehicle approaching from behind, I turned and stuck out my thumb. A pickup truck from an earlier decade, a faded red Ford with rust-lined fenders, pulled to a stop on the shoulder and I climbed in.
“Hey,” said the driver with a nod and a grin. Not long out of his teens, jeans and t-shirt, work boots, baseball cap, as common a young tradesman as I could imagine. “Peter Pulaski,” he said, sticking out his hand.

“Thanks,” I said with a quick shake. I didn’t want to make friends. “Where the hell’s the city?”
“Haha, you just come off the interstate?” He kept his friendly grin as he pulled back on to the highway, steering with one hand. “You shoulda gone to Exit 145, man. Highway 93 -- that’s where all the stuff’s at.”

“Damn. How can I get there now?”

“I’ll take ya, no problem.”

“Hey, did you see that shape on the road just back there? I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
“Oh yeah, those are all over the place around here.” His hand came off the wheel to make a circle in the air. “That guy’s a freakin’ genius, ain’t he?”

“Does he paint them, or what?”

“Are you kidding? Shit no, man, he does that with his tires and his steering wheel. That’s art.”
I was skeptical but kept my mouth shut. We were nearing a residential area, the outskirts of town, I hoped. He made a sudden hard right turn off the highway onto the first cross street, a little two-lane blacktop that curved back in the bleak direction we’d come from. I was faintly alarmed but he said, “Gonna show you some more.”

Within a quarter mile I spotted a nearly perfect black circle in the lane ahead of us. He said nothing. A little further on was a ragged black figure-eight. I looked at him but he just cruised right over the top of it, making a dismissive snort and shaking his head. “Pathetic wanna-be.”
Then I saw patterns coming into view on the road ahead. He pulled to a stop on the shoulder and we got out. Within twenty yards of each other were two images, distinctly different from one another but still similar. One was more angular, the other more full of curves. They might have been highly stylized letters of an alphabet, but it was no alphabet I could read. If they were numerals or mathematical symbols, it was no system I recognized. It was as if they begged to be deciphered but offered no clues. As if they whispered, there’s meaning here, but it’s just beyond your grasp. They were a tease.

We stood in silence for a moment. “I gotta meet this guy,” I said.

Pete shrugged. “Good luck. Even the cops can’t figure out who’s doin’ this.”

“Do you think it means something?”

“Who knows? It ain’t English. Some professor from Penn State said it’s not any language in particular, even though it looks a little Chinese, a little Arabic, a little, y’know, Russian.”

“Cyrillic?”

“Yeah. Everybody’s got a theory, like it’s code from a Russian spy that’s picked up by satellite photography. Or maybe it’s aliens.”

“Like the crop circles in England.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think it’s, y’know, a hoax. This is an artist with a real skill.”
As we drove back toward town, I asked Peter to tell me more. For the next ten minutes I got a lecture that was much like the way an art critic might dissect the painting technique of an old master: detailed, technical, but in the end, entirely speculative. Occasionally I inserted a question, but mostly he was on an enthusiastic talking jag. This was his theory, after all.
“He uses all three basic types of skid marks,” Peter said, his eyes straight ahead on the road. “Acceleration, like peel-out, y’know; deceleration, which is braking skids; and yaw marks. Those are what happens when a tire is rolling but is also sliding sideways. Each type of mark looks different, has its own character. But see, this guy is working at a highly professional level, I mean he’s clearly using drifting techniques -- that’s a Japanese motorsport thing where he oversteers on turns. Rear slip angle goes way out there, so he’s in opposite-lock, completely counter-steering. And he’s doing some fast foot action on the brake and clutch, forward-reverse-repeat, J-turns right out of reverse. And bootlegger’s turns, with the handbrake for those tight one-eighties, like one right after another. He’s gotta have a limited-slip differential to do this stuff and may have modified his steering and suspension -- maybe just a knuckle, but maybe actual kingpin or Ackerman rebuilds, and either MacPherson struts or a double-wishbone. So the cops are looking at motorheads, y’know, guys with souped-up cars, all around the county…”
On he went, and I listened and nodded and said an occasional “wow,” while also looking out the window at the townscape rolling by. It had no unique features, a typical small American city like so many I’d been in. I had my eye out for a low-rent motel, and when I saw a likely candidate, I interrupted Peter’s monologue and asked him to drop me off. But then he surprised me.
“Hey man, no need to spend your money. I have a house, plenty of room. I inherited my family’s old place. It’s humble, but there’s an extra bedroom, nobody else there. Come on over, we’ll have a beer together.”

So that’s how I came to spend two weeks in a place I never intended to visit. Daytimes, Peter would go to work while I strolled around the city, went to the public library, lounged in diners. Nights we’d drink beer and chat.

Hazleton had once been an important coal-mining center but had fallen on hard times and still struggled economically. Peter came from three generations of miners but worked as a carpenter’s apprentice, building homes all around three counties. Cracking the top off a bottle of Sam Adams, he told me, “My great-grandad was just a few years off the boat from Poland when he was shot in the back by sheriff’s deputies at a miners’ strike. He survived, but nineteen guys were killed. That was the Lattimer Massacre, 1897. Important history for the United Mine Workers. But since then my family’s had a, I guess you’d say, an uneasy relationship with the police.”
“Well, me too,” I said. “I’m seriously curious about your street artist, but I won’t be asking the police about him. I avoid them.”

I’ve always loved a summer dusk in America, cruising the shopping strip of a small city, any one in any state. Suburban sprawl has its rare moments of beauty. Neon logos, every brilliant hue, hang against the horizon’s sapphire glow that darkens to deep cobalt above. Strings of taillights and headlights, red and white jewels on a thread, slide endlessly past. Steady hum of tires, low jangle of car radios. My window open, elbow out in the warm air, right hand on the wheel. No thoughts, just a long slow drift through the fading, glittery twilight.

I’d been carless so long I missed all that, so one evening I asked Peter to loan me his truck. “Sure, if you pick up some beer on your way back,” he said. It was an hour of simple pleasure, just up and down Susquehanna Boulevard in an ugly old pickup. Faded paint and rusting fenders, who cares? The truck was worn but sturdy, firmly planted on the road, heavy doors that closed with a satisfying whump, no plastic, no wobble in the wheel, a low roar from the V8, a stiff clutch, and gears that clunked solidly into place, steel on steel.
I lingered. Hazleton was, for that moment, my perfect home. Everywhere across the big USA, people were doing just what I was doing.

When full darkness had fallen out beyond the electric avenue of light, I pulled in to the Turkey Hill Farms convenience store, put some gas in the tank, and picked up a six of Sam Adams. The teenage girl behind the counter seemed friendly, so I asked her, “Have you seen the tire marks on some of the roads around here, almost like writing or drawing?”

“Sure. There’s been like five in the mall parking lot over the last couple a years. Most locals are kinda into them, like, did you see the new pavement painting?”

“Who does them?”

“Nobody knows. Me and my friends just call him Picasso.”

Driving back to Peter’s house, I mused… yes, there was something about the road images that was very much like Picasso’s single-line ink drawings, a single gesture, amazingly fluid. But these were not representational like his animals and faces and dancing humans. These were abstracts, both organic and geometric, made of double lines that were sometimes parallel and other times crossed one another in ways that seemed impossible, if in fact the pen being wielded was a two-ton machine made of metal, rubber, and glass.

The time came for my wanderings to continue, and with a little cajoling I got Peter to agree to give me a ride early the next morning to the I-81 onramp northbound. But just after one a.m. he woke me with a shake on my shoulder.

“Come on man, I wanna show you something.”

“Really? Seriously? It can’t wait til morning?”

“No, it definitely cannot. And you’re gonna love it, trust me.”

Peter drove. I buckled my lap belt and slumped in the passenger seat, silent. The headlights showed a meandering country road lined with trees. After a few miles, Peter said, “Okay, pay attention now.” He gradually slowed down to a creep along the right shoulder. I could see nothing but the road ahead and darkness all around.

Then without warning he stomped on the gas, pushing me back, and suddenly spun the wheel left. I slammed against the door and braced myself in terror that we would shoot into the woods across the road. But in less than a second I was flung forward, then left, then back, as his hands and feet moved too fast for my eye. Headlights in wild motion lit up slashing fragments of green and gray and shadow, as G-forces pushed me in every direction at once. Peter was locked in a fluid dance of gear-shift, wheel, brake-clutch-gas, limbs all a blur, eyes wide forward. Then I became aware that there were no more lurching transitions between our movements, everything was smooth and liquid, left, right, forward, back, underwater, slow but not. The solid steel of the old Ford shimmered, translucent, a window where no window was. The engine faded to a silence like distant music carried in the wind. We floated, we spun, we careened, a drunken ballet.

After what could have been no more than a minute but seemed like ten, we rolled backward to a stop. There on the road in front of us was an interlaced, spiralling figure pierced by three delicate arrows, a knot almost Celtic, a symbol almost Sanskrit, a new shape unlike any other. In the glow of the dashboard, I saw beads of sweat on Peter’s forehead. He turned to me slowly as if coming out of a trance, his eyes a glassy mix of ecstasy, surprise, and fear. I knew immediately that all his technical explanations didn’t matter a whit. He had no idea how he did it.
I didn’t have to say, “So it was you all along.” I gave a slow nod as our eyes met. His lips curled in the smallest of smiles and he turned his attention to driving us back home.
I carried through with my plan to leave the next morning. I gave him sincere thanks for his hospitality, but we did not discuss the previous night. “You clever devil, you,” I said as I got out of his truck at the highway’s edge. He grinned, I slammed the door, and that was the last time I saw Peter Pulaski.

I continued my wanderings for a couple more years, but there was one important difference: my notebooks began to fill up. I can see now that those two weeks of that summer set my direction for the next two decades: the books, the articles, the classes taught, the tenure -- all based on ideas and content entirely unrelated to that place and time. I never returned to Hazleton, PA, and never told anyone this story. In fact, we all know now that recall is notoriously unreliable, so with every revisit to the memory banks, have I embellished and revised? Only I can answer, yet I cannot know. Each of us can only be sure of one thing: this instant, the here and the now.



Brent Robison



Brent Robison lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York. His fiction has appeared in over a dozen literary journals and several anthologies, and has won the Literal Latte Short Short Award, the Chronogram Short Fiction Contest, a Fiction Fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. His collection of linked short stories, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, and his mystery novel, Ponckhockie Union, are available from booksellers everywhere. He blogs occasionally at http://ultimate-indivisibility.com, and co-hosts The Strange Recital, http://thestrangerecital.com, a twice-monthly podcast about fiction that questions the nature of reality. His second novel, now in progress, threatens to take him to the grave. 



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2 Comments

  1. My compliments to the wonderful art and playfulness of the writing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. most impressive work with light and dark operating in concert.

    ReplyDelete