Justin Muschong

He could remember lying on the thick Persian rug, staring at its intricate patterns and imagining entire universes living and dying under his gaze. When that bored him, he rolled back and forth across the shag, getting dizzy and tired and falling asleep, waking up when his sister folded the rug over on top of him. The close dark, the fuzzy cocoon, his sister’s laughter.

When he got older he couldn’t fit on the rug anymore, and it didn’t seem as thick and warm, and he no longer saw universes within its patterns. He wandered the house instead, building forts, defending them against invading hordes, discovering crannies and the open secrets hidden in desk drawers, grandfather chests, and filing cabinets.

He began school and his world expanded. He found excuses to leave the classroom and wander the halls, searching for something he couldn’t name. The grid lines of the tiled floors, the running pipes in the bathrooms, the black rows of words on white textbook pages hypnotized him, freed his mind to picture new existences.

As a teenager he wondered about other people. What did they think about all day? What did they feel? He bicycled through the town, watching storefronts and homes, imagining what it was like to live there or work at that place. He sought out back alleys, side streets where few went. He thought he could touch the aura of such places, the mood that hung over like an unseen haze, visible to those who were awake and alive.

After high school he worked at a market. The routine, the customers made him bored and angry. He knew this place, he knew this town, he knew these people. They were no longer enough. One day he exploded at a man asking about the fullness of lettuce and tipped the entire lettuce stand over. He left before the owner could fire him, dumping his apron in the fruit section.

He took his savings and hopped trains, riding from one end of the country to the other. The journey only took a few days. He would look out windows and open his mind, picturing what else was out there just behind the fabric of the atmosphere. In forests he saw epic battles fought to a standstill, in lakes he saw sea monsters awaiting a hero, on mountains he saw expeditions on the brink of death. Several trips later, he began recognizing scenery and knew it was time to leave again.

His parents wanted him to go to university but he thought it would be more of the same, so he booked a trip across the ocean. In the port city, he glanced down streets where sailors drank and smoked, warehouses buzzed with loading and unloading, peddlers offered wares from all over the world. It gave him a familiar thrill, a glimpse of another life. It was the same on the ship. Ladders, bridges, decks, port and starboard. Every moment was a discovery, even those spent watching the blue waves roll on toward the gray horizon.

He didn’t know what he was discovering, but he knew it was important. The ship reached New York City, where a fellow countryman promptly stole his suitcase. He showed up at the apartment of a distant aunt without a dime. The aunt put him in a bed with two screaming children and told him to find a job. The next morning he set off into the city, not intending to return until he had secured work and proved himself worthy of her generosity.

He stumbled from street to street, following each whim to another new sight. A pretty girl in a sundress would lead him to a dark bookstore would lead him to a cramped alley steaming with garbage would lead him to a moving truck brimming with possessions would lead him to a café where a dozen languages were spoken in a dozen dialects and everyone was shouting. Nothing led him to a job. The next day he left New York, knowing it wouldn’t allow him to focus on anything as trivial as work. His aunt bade him farewell with the address of a friend in Minnesota who could help him out.

The friend was in the logging business. He went to work transporting lumber on massive trucks, unloading it into the yard of a sawmill. It was loud and routine. Work was much less interesting when he was the one performing it. After several months he could afford the down payments on an aging Packard and a brand new mobile home. He preferred the Packard.

He began driving across the plains, picking a random destination on a map and going there for a day, finding a restaurant or store to loiter at for an hour or two before driving back. Each one offered variations on the same buildings, the same food, the same greetings, the same clothing, the same faces. He began looking at people and wondering nothing.

One day a chainsaw bounced off a tree and tore into a lumberman’s arm. He helped treat the wound and take the lumberman to the hospital, made the worrying sounds the others made and shook his head and vowed no more accidents. Then he went back to his mobile home and set it on fire, sitting on the hood of his Packard and watching the orange glow carry across the fields.

The fire still raged when he got into the car and drove west, crossing the mountains, passing quiet towns where only one or two lights were on. He didn’t sleep, continuing on until he reached the ocean. He walked down to the beach and sat in the sand and watched the waves roll in, knowing that beyond them was Asia, beyond Asia his old home, beyond his old home another ocean, beyond the ocean the States, beyond the States him again. He tried to picture all the lives and worlds in all those beyonds and couldn’t.