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Welcome to Purgatory

 

 

 

A fateful meeting of metal and flesh had made him a fugitive.  From that turbulent moment, the endless freeways and highways thrust him further and further away from home.  Even now his escape from the accident continued to spiral with a momentum that was far out of proportion to the original deed.  Across a continent to flee judgment in one small town, he exiled himself from his past, marooning himself on a road that was leading nowhere.

          The road had imprisoned him.  It was where he had committed his crime, and it was punishing him.  Each time that he stopped for food or rest, the road ahead reminded him that he had to go on.  Every car following mysteriously behind became a threat.  Every town was merely a frightening stopover filled with suspecting faces. 

          Even now, after several hundred miles of driving, the terrible accident filled him with dread.  Because of his previous record, it would be three strikes for him.  He couldn’t go back to prison—probably for the remainder of his life.   He had driven evasively from the scene, propelled by this fear, taking a circuitous path from highway to highway.  Only once had he seen anything suspicious in his mirror, but he knew they were still in pursuit.   He had heard about the accident each hour.  There was an interstate all points bulletin out for his arrest.  They would never give up, not after what he had done.  For hundreds of miles he had driven as if they were right on his tail.  At times his concern seemed to be unwarranted by the facts.  Across a continent to flee a murder in one small town, he exiled himself from his past, marooning himself on a winding road that was leading nowhere.

          The road had imprisoned him.  It was where he had committed the crime, punishing him for his cowardly act.  The two people he hit had died instantly.  Though there was hardly a dint on his grill and he had stopped once to wipe off the blood and brain matter, the smear left on his conscience was indelible.  The road was therefore, from a different vantage point, his refuge, allowing him a limitless avenue to make his escape.  And it was his protector.  Each time that he stopped for food, gas, or rest, it reminded him that he had to go on.  He seemed safe as long as he moved.  Yet every car following mysteriously remained a threat.  Every town was merely a frightening stopover filled with suspecting faces.  The world he felt safe in was a narrow corridor surrounded by homeward bound strangers.

          His only consolation was being able to stop and look out once in awhile at them and hope that he, too, could find a new home.  Although he was too exhausted to continue his journey, he was only a hundred miles from the California border and wanted to cross before dawn.  Had there not been a statewide net in place, he would have preferred crossing into the Canadian or Mexican borders, but that was out of the question.  His only possible refuge was his father’s old cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains.  It was the only good thing the old man had ever left him.  His mother wrote to him about the cabin while he was in prison and told him that his father wanted him to have it.  The old man had waited until he was serving time in prison to make the offer.  The fact that he had been dead all these years and he had only his mother’s words worried him.  Though in a remote location and on a rocky, mountain road, squatters could have taken it over, it could have burned down, or the old man might even have sold it in spite of his mother’s claim.  Nevertheless, it had become his only goal; he had read about criminals hiding out for years in remote locations.  If it was still there and uninhabited it would give him respite for a while until he could plan his next move.  Unfortunately, the current major Southwestern city he was passing through was congested with homeward bound commuters.  An apparent accident ahead increased the congestion, until he found himself in a traffic jam reminiscent of cities on the east coast.  In a path frequented with sudden, inexplicable detours, he at least had the grim satisfaction to know that he had a full tank of gas and was on the right road.  He had all the time in the world.  He had nowhere to go except ‘away’.  And yet these stoppages made him feel vulnerable and trapped.  The traffic on both sides of his car soon became dense and sluggish.  As fingers of diversity now, it controlled his dilemma, yet, for the time being, allowed him time to search the side of the freeway for a promising off-ramp.  While he scanned the landscape on his right for just the right detour, he spotted a row of flares, a disabled vehicle, and a red flashing light ahead.  A well-honed caution instinctively drove his steering wheel to the left, when a car-length patch of pavement appeared beside him.  But this decision, along with his decision not to pull over when he had the chance, turned out to be a miscalculation: the off-ramps were now out of reach, the flashing light became a tow truck in his rear-view mirror, and the traffic seemed to close ranks around him.

          Rumbling close to him, approaching menacingly behind, it goaded him on a great chain of being.  To his tired mind, he had become merely a particle in its body, unable to escape its momentum.  When he had recovered from this distorted impression, his mind was lulled into an even more dangerous state: drowsiness.  At this point, the pressing traffic, which had kept him alert and on guard, began thinning out on the outskirts of town.  The iron stream began emptying itself quickly into the surrounding suburbs.  Still moving heavily near the city limits, the highway had veered west to avoid a huge row of black mesas.  Most of the remaining motorists emptied more quickly into outlying suburbs as they chased the dying sun home.  Now, as the road dipped south again, he seemed to have the road to himself.  The great and uncompromising feeling of guilt and loneliness he carried with him was dulled by exhaustion.  Sunset and the collapse of night signaled to his eyes that he was on the brink of falling asleep.

          In spite of the danger, he decided to wait until it was completely dark before stopping to rest or get something to eat.  But as the sun blinked out below the horizon, his eyelashes fluttered desperately to make room for blurred and unsteady vision.  Finally, a sudden dull pain coursed through his brain, and he awakened as suddenly as he had fallen asleep.  Either he had hit something or rode over a bump in the road.  There was no one in front of him.  Had his forehead hit the steering wheel?  What caused such a momentary shot of pain?  Immediately trying to sum up his dilemma, he gripped his steering wheel and peered breathlessly ahead.  He knew that he had fallen asleep, but it couldn't have been for long.  A second or even a split second could have been disastrous, he thought, shaking his head.  He had been careless not to pull into a MacDonald’s or other drive through for coffee.  He could have tail-ended someone or veered off the road.  And yet, to his surprise, there was no one ahead or behind him.  He was moving at the same speed, in the same lane, and going to the same place he had been going for days: the California border.

          Once again doubt consumed him.  What if his plan to sneak into California proved foolhardy?  There could, even at this early stage, be a roadblock?  Was his crime great enough to warrant such a measure?  Much of his fear, he realized, after so many miles, was magnified by the deed, itself: the faces of the old couple he struck, the sickening sound of bones crunching and the thump of his wheels driving over the bodies in the road.  Despite his fears, however, he had seen nothing yet to justify them.  There was so much other news crowding out that one event: the current war, a new terrorist threat, and a multiple murder at a military base.  Was he that special?  His throbbing head, drooping eyes, and trembling frame told him once again that he needed food again and he needed rest.  At this stage of his journey, he decided it was time to stop.  He was ravenously hungry and craved a shower, and he couldn’t drive another mile without once more falling asleep.  Pulling off the road, he sat there a moment, letting his headlights burn the dark.  With hesitation, he turned off the ignition and lights and set the gearshift in park.  In the middle of nowhere, having no idea where he was, he felt safe enough to sleep.  Reaching into his glove compartment, he pulled out his clock, its phosphorescent face emitting an eerie light.  Next to it sat a bag of Fritos, which would have to suffice for dinner, until he officially stopped.  Raising the clock up carefully, he set it for one hour, and then adjusted his seat to a comfortable angle for sleep.  After closing his eyes and snuggling into his coat, he let his mind and body take flight on that path of retreat on which he was again driving: always away, never toward—away from his life, pursuits, family, and friends, away from everything he once loved.  As he dreamed, the images changed to different people and different places but always came back to the same familiar theme: the road, his crime, and the long, long journey away.

          At the end of a series of crashing events, he had arrived, from a world in which all the atoms were in collision.  A failed career, broken marriage, and drift into white-collar crime, culminating in the hit-and-run crime committed on the road had led to this point.  If he hadn’t hit those pedestrians, he wouldn’t have taken this detour.  If he had of stopped, instead of fleeing from the scene, he could have told them the couple had been jaywalking.  What prevented him from making this decision was the fact he had been drinking beer that evening, and there appeared to be no witnesses.  If he hadn’t been drinking, if there had been witnesses, and if he had been clear-headed enough to make the right decision, he might have gotten off with a DUI and escaped jail…. If—that awful conjunction that would haunt him all his days.  One terrible event, far worse than graft and cooking the books had brought him to the lowest point in this life.

          Now in the midst of sleep, with his alarm clock set to ring, he was about to take the greatest detour of his life.

 

******

         

          From out of nowhere again, lights appeared in his mirror, but this time he did not see them.  Entering his ears, but too faint to awaken him rom sleep, were the sounds of an engine being cutoff, a door lightly shutting, and footsteps on the shoulder.

          “Sir,” a voice came into his dream, “please get out of your car!”

          At first, he thought he was still dreaming.  A nonsensical imagery had been playing in his dreamscape.  The flashlight in his eyes proved to be his wake- up call.  Again, the shadowy figure demanded he exit, rapping the window impatiently as he remained frozen in his seat.

“This is the highway patrol,” the man bellowed. “Open your goddamn door!”

Jolted into action, he turned the key, ground the ignition, and sped away down the road.  Stomping the accelerator to the floor, he was thankful he was driving a V-8.  In hot pursuit, siren blaring, the squad car began its chase.  For several miles he was chased, gradually gaining ground on the trooper, until something dreadful happened.  Up ahead a man was crossing the road.  In the middle of the desert it could have been a Navajo Indian or a stranded motorist.  It made no difference.  This time, he swerved the wheel to miss the jaywalker and found his car plunging over an embankment and suddenly in mid-air.  Certain that his time had come, during the time he swerved off the road and crashed, he found himself praying for forgiveness and mercy for his immortal soul.  A lifelong Catholic, he managed to recite the Rosary.  When his vehicle hit the ground, his head hit the roof of the car, then, as it began to roll down a short hill, slam the windshield and then the side of the door.  For those moments, as he lapsed into unconsciousness, his body floated in the inner space between life and death…and then there was darkness.

When he awakened, he was lying in the sand, outside of this vehicle, apparently thrown clear of the burning car.  “Thank you, Lord,” he mumbled. “I’m alive.  That’s all that matters.” At this point, he fully expected the trooper to find him, arrest him, and bring him to justice for his crime.  In fact, he was resigned to his fate.  But the desert was quiet.  The night that had collapsed onto this corner of the world was, with the exception of a cloud-covered moon, forebodingly still.  He was alive, he concluded now, and he had been given a second chance.  If he was caught now, at least he wasn’t dead.  If he somehow escaped, he must somehow find that cabin and lay low for a very long time.

Without a car, however, his task was daunting.  He would have to run into the desert to escape capture and surface far down the road, hoping to reach the next town.  He could not imagine what he would do at that point.  He had just enough money for motels and gas.  Now he wouldn’t have to worry about filling his tank, but he would have no transportation.  His prospects boggled his mind…. Yet he was momentarily free.  Looking back as he ran into the desert, he could see no one on the highway.  Why hadn’t the patrolman shown up?   He must have seen his burning vehicle.  Where was his pursuer?  It occurred to him, as he walked in a daze those moments, the highway patrolman should be on the side of the road now, studying the scene, and yet he was nowhere in sight.  Slowing down, as he scanned the ground below, he found the setting eerily silent.  Not so much as a cricket chirped nor did a single night bird fly overhead.  When, after a short while, his eyes could make out the distant lights of a town, he felt safe enough to skirt the shoulder of the highway.  Scanning the road behind once more, he surged ahead, a second wind feeling him with courage and strength. 

When he reached the outskirts of the town, a sign greeted him, barely legible in the light.  Strangely enough, the letters of the sign had been etched in stone, which seemed peculiar for such a small town.  As he approached the sign, he was finally able to read it.  The moon broke through the clouds that moment, highlighting the inscription.  It read Welcome to Purgatory.  There wasn’t a population figure below it, which also seemed strange, and beyond the pretentious landmark, sat a hamlet of darkened houses and one lone building that read simply ‘Motel’—none of which inspired confidence.  But he knew, as he passed the sign, crossed the threshold into the town, and entered the manager’s office that he would finally be safe.  No mortal man could touch him now.  Considering his crime, he would, in fact, be here for a very, very long time.

          “Greeting stranger,” an elderly man called out. “We’ve been expecting you.  Hah, another “death bed repenter.  If you hadn’t uttered that prayer, you’d be in a much worse place…. Will, you have a reservation.  Let’s call it an extended stay.”

“So, it’s true,” he replied numbly. “I passed a town called Furnace Creek in New Mexico.  It looked like this in the dark, but this really is Purgatory!”

“Of course,” the man frowned. “What did you expect?… Heaven?… Hardly, after one last minute prayer.”

In spite of his earlier resolve, sudden misgivings filled him.  A chilling thought rang in his head: he wasn’t alive; he was dead.  Nevertheless, he was greatly tempted to escape and continue his odyssey to the mountain cabin.

“How long will I be here,” he asked looking around the room in panic—a century, a millennium, a million years?

The man shrugged. “That depends on you sir.  I’m just the caretaker—a sort of gate keeper, until my times up.” “By the way,” he warned, “there’s no way out.  You’ll find that out soon enough.” “Go ahead,” he made scooting motions, “flee.  Everyone tries it.  I did to.  Run, along now!”

As he backed away from the desk, the man stood there grinning with amusement, a gleam in his dark eyes.  Into the night he ran, due west, unwilling to accept his fate.  He had, after all asked for forgiveness, surely, he merited heaven.  He must be in a hospital bed right now, in a coma.  This had to be a bad dream.  He must wake up and rejoin the living…. He was not ready to die.  As he ran passed a row of apartments, darkened or dimly lit, however, he looked forward and saw a rectangular shape looming ahead of him.  Running around to the front of the shape, he saw in the moonlight those same words, etched in stone: Welcome to Purgatory.

Seeing the empty desert behind he felt encouraged, and began running again, his goal to prove that he wasn’t dead.  The unsettling silence was depressing.  He longed to see headlights from oncoming vehicles or the lights and sound of a plane overhead.  At least, he expected to hear birds, insects, or the wind whistling alongside his face…. And yet there was nothing.  Finally, when he saw lights in the distance, his pace slowed.  He dreaded what lie ahead.  “Please God,” he prayed, “give me one more chance!”

  But he had his chance.  As he approached another rectangular monolith, he could make out in lunar light the words again “Welcome to Purgatory.”  Beyond this landmark sat the same Motel office and its apartments.  With one last ounce of rebellion, he ran directly into the desert and, after a fruitless stretch, saw the highway ahead.  This time he was able to see the demarcation of the town, from sign to sign, the small cluster of buildings and motel complex fixed squarely in the middle.  Moving like a sleepwalker this time, he arrived in the manager’s office, walked up to the desk, and was handed a key.

“It’s so dark out there,” he muttered. “Even the moon shuns me.”

“It’s always like this here,” the manager explained wearily. “There’s no day—only night.  It never changes.  You don’t sleep.  You don’t eat…. You just pray a lot… and wait for your turn.”

“How long have you been here?” He turned to ask. “What was your crime?”

“I was a garden variety thief.  I’ve lost track of time in this place.  There are no clocks or calendars here…. If it’s been this long for me, think how long it’ll be for you.  Get used to it and do your time…. You’re going to be here a long, long time.”

 

******

          The burning wreck he had left behind was now surrounded by an investigative team from nearby Kingman, Arizona.  A fire engine sat on the shoulder, as fireman returned their gear to the truck.  The highway patrolman, who had chased him, stood in the background with a fellow officer, a dour look on his face, as he explained his hot pursuit.

          “I did what I thought was correct, but I should’ve let the bastard go and called ahead.”

“What exactly happened?” asked the second officer, staring at the smoldering car. “Did he just loose control?”

“I dunno.” The first officer shrugged. “Why he cut his wheel like that I’ll never know.  Maybe it was suicide.  There wasn’t any traffic on the road, not so much as a rabbit.”

“Well he’s toast now.” The second officer smiled grimly.

Down in the hill, an investigator was shining a light into the wreck, muttering to his partner, “I don’t think he suffered.  This must’ve shattered his skull.  The number of the plate that highwaymen gave us belongs to hit-and-run driver.  Unless someone stole his car, that’s him inside.  Well, he paid for his crime.  Son-of-a-bitch ran over an old couple.  He just kept on going.  He got a taste of what’s waiting for him.  I bet it’s pretty hot there: h-e-double-l!’”

“No one really knows,” the second investigator chided. “That’s one place we don’t return from.  I’m getting along in years.  In my church, we believe in a middle place for some folks.”

“You mean Hades?”

“No.” He shook his head. “It’s called Purgatory.”

“Oh yeah,” the first man chuckled. “That’s where you get a second chance.  When I was young, I remember the preacher of my church.  For him, it was either turn or burn—no in between.  I kind’ve like what the Catholic’s offer.  I’ll probably get a few centuries in Purgatory myself.  Is it hot or cold down there?”

“Who's to say its down or up,” the other men said thoughtfully. “It could be hot or cold.  It might just be a dark unfriendly place for folks to ponder on their sins.” “I don’t want to go down there.” He shuddered comically. “I might meet my ex-wife.”

The two men laughed, an edge to their voices.  Their laughter carried up the hill, sounding callous to the highway patrolmen now leaving the scene.  Recalling the behavior of the driver, the first officer sat in his patrol car a moment, staring into space.  Why had that man swerved off the road? he asked himself, recalling his frightened face.  He had a fast car and might very well have escaped.  Instead, he turned his vehicle sharply in what seemed suicidal, winding up burnt to a crisp.

 “Damn-it-to-hell!” he muttered, “I shouldn’t have chased him down.  Why’d he do such a damn fool thing?”