Two weeks. The traditional fortnight between initial visit and final results has become, like everything else in the digital age, unacceptable, anachronistic—like the word fortnight. But even in the dying city, where history is erased as it happens, a few anachronisms linger. If I’d paid a hundred bucks I could’ve gotten my results in an hour, but because I used a free clinic I had to sweat it out for fourteen days. During that time I did nothing besides track down extension cords and light bulbs and forks, tasks that didn’t consume time so much as fritter it away. And though the confrontation between van and cab had, to say the least, piqued my curiosity about my family history, it was too little too late. The following morning, my results were due.
By then the papers were calling it a heat wave, THE WORST, in this, the age of global warming, SINCE LAST YEAR. I’d lived in Florida, Louisiana, Arizona, but all those places paled in comparison to a New York City subway station on a summer day. The ten-minute journey from Dutch Street to the World Trade Center left me breathless, and the shiny orange jumpsuit I was wearing, lightweight but airless polyester, didn’t help a bit. The sweat that formed inside the jumpsuit ran straight down my legs into those shoes, and the kilnlike station was so scorching that the people riding its escalators looked like hot dogs Ferris-wheeling through those plastic cases you find in highway convenience stores. But there was the train, silver-shelled, doors open, an oyster waiting for whatever came first: breakfast, or a bit of grit. I threw myself inside, let the air conditioning coat me with its transforming layer of coolness. Its breath was a buffer between me and the too-bright light at the end of this particular tunnel, an airbag, a back draft, an undertow I gave in to willingly. I closed my eyes and let it pull me down. What I longed for was the solace of the ocean’s bottom, the gentle cradle rock of suffocation. What I got, once again, was Selden.
I was on my way, that time, nowhere. I was only leaving. I’d been kicked out of my twelfth home in nineteen years. This time my evictor was a not-quite-elderly woman named Lily Windglass, a second cousin, I think, by marriage, but once removed, I could never quite parse it. Lily Windglass smoked Tareyton Milds but only in private and she had spinster written all over her lined face. Not the Boston spinsterhood of resigned isolation but a Western spinsterhood of “I ain’t got time for nobody’s tomfoolery cept my own”—which is to say she just barely managed to discharge her obligation to see me through my last year of high school before stuffing all my possessions into two cardboard boxes and sending me packing. My clothes didn’t fill one box and my books spilled out of the other, but both fit easily into the trunk of what Lily Windglass referred to as “the second-best car,” a red Chevy Nova with one hundred eighty-six thousand miles on the odometer and the rust-flecked starburst of a shotgun blast on the driver’s side door. The car, a tank full of gas, and a three-pack of underwear were her “goin’-far-away presents” to me, and she nodded at the shotgun blast on the door in case I didn’t get it. Her parting words were, “Insurance expires in six months. After that you’re on your own.”
That was deep down in Arizona, and after Arizona the only place to go was Mexico or north. At the Grand Canyon I had to choose and I veered east; at the southern tip of Utah’s single city, the long sliver of Nephi–Provo–Salt Lake grown like moss on the western foot of the Wasatch Mountains, I picked up I-70 and let it carry me through the pink-and-brown crenellated canyonlands into Colorado, and it was all so beautiful, I have to tell you, I just couldn’t stop. I was greedy. I wanted that beauty to unfold forever, and I kept driving. The Colorado River is like a piece of string cutting into the brown paper package of the earth, and I drove along with it, against its current, one natural wonder after another unfolding before my eyes, until eventually everything was subsumed by the Rockies. They were big, that was for sure, but so what: a half dozen times I had to pull over to let Lily Windglass’s second-best car cool down, and I nearly lost everything in a brakeless flight down the other side—and there, suddenly, were the Plains. Can you imagine! You could see the shape of the planet, the sky arched over the earth like a fluffed sheet. There was nothing to catch your eye, nothing to trip on, just an endless green-and-brown glow raying away, and all I did was let gravity carry me into it. Once I was down in it, of course, everything was different: it was a whole lot of nothing, too hot and too dry, and gas went up a quarter a gallon. But it was also as far from a border as you could get, and the only directive I’d given myself when I left Lily Windglass’s house was that I would stop before I reached yet another edge of the country.