Suddenly We are All Separate, All Alone in Our Private Universes

Excerpt from the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12 by Robert M. Parsig icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12

Robert M. Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" book cover. [Formatted]

     At one stretch in the long desolate road we see an isolated grocery store. Inside, in back, we find a place to sit on some packing cases and drink canned beer.
     The fatigue and backache are getting to me now. I push the packing case over to a post and lean on that.
     Chris’s expression shows he is really settling into something bad. This has been a long hard day. I told Sylvia way back in Minnesota that we could expect a slump in spirits like this on the second or third day and now it’s here. Minnesota—when was that?
     A woman, badly drunk, is buying beer for some man she’s got outside in a car. She can’t make up her mind what brand to buy and the wife of the owner waiting on her is getting mad. She still can’t decide, but then sees us, and weaves over and asks if we own the motorcycles. We nod yes. Then she wants a ride on one. I move back and let John handle this.
     He puts her off graciously, but she comes back again and again, offering him a dollar for a ride. I make some jokes about it, but they’re not funny and just add to the depression. We get out and back into the brown hills and heat again.
     By the time we reach Lemmon we are really aching tired. At a bar we hear about a campground to the south. John wants to camp in a park in the middle of Lemmon, a comment that sounds strange and angers Chris greatly.
     I’m more tired now than I can remember having been in a long time. The others too. But we drag ourselves through a supermarket, pick up whatever groceries come to mind and with some difficulty pack them onto the cycles. The sun is so far down we’re running out of light. It’ll be dark in an hour. We can’t seem to get moving. I wonder, are we dawdling, or what?
     “C’mon, Chris, let’s go,” I say.
     “Don’t holler at me. I’m ready.”
     We drive down a country road from Lemmon, exhausted, for what seems a long, long time, but can’t be too long because the sun is still above the horizon. The campsite is deserted. Good. But there is less than a half-hour of sun and no energy left. This is the hardest now.
     I try to get unpacked as fast as possible but am so stupid with exhaustion I just set everything by the camp road without seeing what a bad spot it is. Then I see it is too windy. This is a High Plains wind. It is semidesert here, everything burned up and dry except for a lake, a large reservoir of some sort below us. The wind blows from the horizon across the lake and hits us with sharp gusts. It is already chilly. There are some scrubby pines back from the road about twenty yards and I ask Chris to move the stuff over there.
     He doesn’t do it. He wanders off down to the reservoir. I carry the gear over by myself.
     I see between trips that Sylvia is making a real effort at setting things up for cooking, but she’s as tired as I am.
     The sun goes down.
     John has gathered wood but it’s too big and the wind is so gusty it’s hard to start. It needs to be splintered into kindling. I go back over the scrub pines, hunt around through the twilight for the machete, but it’s already so dark in the pines I can’t find it. I need the flashlight. I look for it, but it’s too dark to find that either.
     I go back and start up the cycle and ride it back over to shine the headlight on the stuff so that I can find the flashlight. I look through all the stuff item by item to find the flashlight. It takes a long time to realize I don’t need the flashlight, I need the machete, which is in plain sight. By the time I get it back John has got the fire going. I use the machete to hack up some of the larger pieces of wood.
     Chris reappears. He’s got the flashlight!
     “When are we going to eat? he complains.
     “We’re getting it fixed as fast as possible,” I tell him. “Leave the flashlight here.”
     He disappears again, taking the flashlight with him.
     The wind blows the fire so hard it doesn’t reach up to cook the steaks. We try to fix up a shelter from the wind using large stones from the road, but it’s too dark to see what we’re doing. We bring both cycles over and catch the scene in a crossbeam of headlights. Peculiar light. Bits of ash blowing up from the fire suddenly glow bright white in it, then disappear in the wind.
     BANG! There’s a loud explosion behind us. Then I hear Chris giggling.
     Sylvia is upset.
     “I found some firecrackers,” Chris says.
     I catch my anger in time and say to him, coldly, “It’s time to eat now.”
     “I need some matches,” he says.
     “Sit down and eat.”
     “Give me some matches first.”
     “Sit down and eat.”
     He sits down and I try to eat the steak with my Army mess knife, but it is too tough, and so I get out a hunting knife and use it instead. The light from the motorcycle headlight is full upon me so that the knife, when it goes down into the mess gear, is in full shadow and I can’t see where it’s going.
     Chris says he can’t cut his either and I pass my knife to him. While reaching for it he dumps everything onto the tarp.
     No one says a word.
     I’m not angry that he spilled it. I’m angry that now the tarp’s going to be greasy the rest of the trip.
     “Is there any more?” he asks.
     “Eat that,” I say. “It just fell on the tarp.”
     “It’s too dirty,” he says.
     “Well, that’s all there is.”
     A wave of depression hits. I just want to go to sleep now. But he’s angry and I expect we’re going to have one of his little scenes. I wait for it and pretty soon it starts.
     “I don’t like the taste of this,” he says.
     “Yes, that’s rough, Chris.”
     “I don’t like any of this. I don’t like this camping at all.”
     “It was your idea,” Sylvia says. “You’re the one who wanted to go camping.”
     She shouldn’t say that, but there’s no way she can know. You take his bait and he’ll feed you another one, and then another, and another until you finally hit him, which is what he really wants.
     “I don’t care,” he says.
     “Well, you ought to,” she says.
     “Well, I don’t.”
     An explosion point is very near. Sylvia and John look at me but I remain deadpan. I’m sorry about this but there’s nothing I can do right now. Any argument will just worsen things.
     “I’m not hungry,” Chris says.
     No one answers.
     “My stomach hurts,” he says.
     The explosion is avoided when Chris turns and walks away in the darkness.
     We finish eating. I help Sylvia clean up, and then we sit around for a while. We turn the cycle lights off to conserve the batteries and because the light from them is ugly anyway. The wind has died down some and there is a little light from the fire. After a while my eyes become accustomed to it. The food and anger have taken off some of the sleepiness. Chris doesn’t return.
     “Do you suppose he’s just punishing?” Sylvia asks.
     “I suppose,” I say, “although it doesn’t sound quite right.” I think about it and add, “That’s a child-psychology term—a context I dislike. Let’s just say he’s being a complete bastard.”
     John laughs a little.
     “Anyway,” I say, “it was a good supper. I’m sorry he had to act up like this.”
     “Oh, that’s all right,” John says. “I’m just sorry he won’t get anything to eat.”
     “It won’t hurt him.”
     “You don’t suppose he’ll get lost out there.”
     “No, he’ll holler if he is.”
     Now that he has gone and we have nothing to do I become more aware of the space all around us. There is not a sound anywhere. Lone prairie.
     Sylvia says, “do you suppose he really has stomach pains?”
     “Yes,” I say, somewhat dogmatically. I’m sorry to see the subject continued but they deserve a better explanation than they’re getting. They probably sense that there’s more to it than they’ve heard. “I’m sure he does,” I finally say. “He’s been examined a half-dozen times for it. Once it was so bad we thought it was appendicitis…. I remember we were on a vacation up north. I’d just finished getting out an engineering proposal for a five-million-dollar contract that just about did me in. That’s a whole other world. No time and no patience and six hundred pages of information to get out the door in one week and I was about ready to kill three different people and we thought we’d better head for the woods for a while.
     “I can hardly remember what part of the woods we were in. Head just spinning with engineering data, and anyway Chris was just screaming. We couldn’t touch him, until I finally saw I was going to have to pick him up fast and get him to the hospital, and where that was I’ll never remember, but they found nothing.”
     “No. But it happened again on other occasions too.”
     “Don’t they have any idea?” Sylvia asks.
     “This spring they diagnosed it as the beginning symptoms of mental illness.”
     “What?” John says.
     It’s too dark to see Sylvia or John now or even the outlines of the hills. I listen for sounds in the distance, but hear none. I don’t know what to answer and so say nothing.
     When I look hard I can make out stars overhead but the fire in front of us makes it hard to see them. The night all around is thick and obscure. My cigarette is down to my fingers and I put it out.
     “I didn’t know that,” Sylvia’s voice says. All traces of anger are gone. “We wondered why you brought him instead of your wife,” she says. “I’m glad you told us.”
     John shoves some of the unburned ends of the wood into the fire.
     Sylvia says, “What do you suppose the cause is?”
     John’s voice rasps, as if to cut it off, but I answer, “I don’t know. Causes and effects don’t seem to fit. Causes and effects are a result of thought. I would think mental illness comes before thought.” This doesn’t make sense to them, I’m sure. It doesn’t make much sense to me and I’m too tired to try to think it out and give it up.
     “What do the psychiatrists think?” John asks.
     “Nothing. I stopped it.”
     “Stopped it?”
     “Is that good?”
     “I don’t know. There’s no rational reason I can think of for saying it’s not good. Just a mental block of my own. I think about it and all the good reasons for it and make plans for an appointment and even look for the phone number and then the block hits, and it’s just like a door slammed shut.”
     “That doesn’t sound right.”
     “No one else thinks so either. I suppose I can’t hold out forever.”
     “But why?” Sylvia asks.
     “I don’t know why… it’s just that… I don’t know… they’re not kin“… Surprising word, I think to myself never used it before. Not of kin… sounds like hillbilly talk… not of a kind… same root… kindness, too… they can’t have real kindness toward him, they’re not his kin… That’s exactly the feeling.
     Old word, so ancient it’s almost drowned out. What a change through the centuries. Now anybody can be “kind.” And everybody’s supposed to be. Except that long ago it was something you were born into and couldn’t help. Now it’s just a faked-up attitude half the time, like teachers the first day of class. But what do they really know about kindness who are not kin?
     It goes over and over again through my thoughts… mein Kind—my child. There it is in another language Mein Kinder… “Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.”
     Strange feeling from that.
     “What are you thinking about?” Sylvia asks.
     “An old poem, by Goethe. It must be two hundred years old. I had to learn it a long time ago. I don’t know why I should remember it now, except…” The strange feeling comes back.
     “How does it go?” Sylvia asks.
     I try to recall. “A man is riding along a beach at night, through the wind. It’s a father, with his son, whom he holds fast in his arm. He asks his son why he looks so pale, and the son replies, ‘Father, don’t you see the ghost?’ The father tried to reassure the boy it’s only a bank of fog along the beach that he sees and only the rustling of the leaves in the wind that he hears but the son keeps saying it is the ghost and the father rides harder and harder through the night.”
     “How does it end?”
     “In failure… death of the child. The ghost wins.”
     The wind blows light up from the coals and I see Sylvia look at me startled.
     “But that’s another land and another time,” I say. “Here life is the end and ghosts have no meaning. I believe that. I believe in all this too,” I say, looking out at the darkened prairie, “although I’m not sure of what it all means yet… I’m not sure of much of anything these days. Maybe that’s why I talk so much.”
     The coals die lower and lower. We smoke our cigarettes. Chris is off somewhere in the darkness but I’m not going to shag after him. John is carefully silent and Sylvia is silent and suddenly we are all separate, all alone in our private universes, and there is no communication among us. We douse the fire and go back to the sleeping bags in the pines.
     I discover that this one tiny refuge of scrub pines where I have put the sleeping bags is also the refuge from the wind of millions of mosquitoes up from the reservoir. The mosquito repellent doesn’t stop them at all. I crawl deep into the sleeping bag and make one little hole for breathing. I am almost asleep when Chris finally shows up.
     “There’s a great big sandpile over there,” he says, crunching around on the pine needles.
     “Yes,” I say. “Get to sleep.”
     “You should see it. Will you come and see it tomorrow?”
     “We won’t have time.”
     “Can I play over there tomorrow morning?”
     He makes interminable noises getting undressed and into the sleeping bag. He is in it. Then he rolls around. Then he is silent, and then rolls some more. Then he says, “Dad?”
     “What was it like when you were a kid?”
     “Go to sleep, Chris!” There are limits to what you can listen to.
     Later I hear a sharp inhaling of phlegm that tells me he has been crying, and though I’m exhausted, I don’t sleep. A few words of consolation might have helped there. He was trying to be friendly. But the words aren’t forthcoming for some reason. Consoling words are more for strangers, for hospitals, not kin. Little emotional Band-Aids like that aren’t what he needs or what’s sought… I don’t know what he needs, or what’s sought.
     A gibbous moon comes up from the horizon beyond the pines, and by its slow, patient arc across the sky I measure hour after hour of semisleep. Too much fatigue. The moon and strange dreams and sounds of mosquitoes and odd fragments of memory become jumbled and mixed in an unreal lost landscape in which the moon is shining and yet there is a bank of fog and I am riding a horse and Chris is with me and the horse jumps over a small stream that runs through the sand toward the ocean somewhere beyond. And then that is broken…. And then it reappears.
     And in the fog there appears an intimation of a figure. It disappears when I look at it directly, but then reappears in the corner of my vision when I turn my glance. I am about to say something, to call to it, to recognize it, but then do not, knowing that to recognize it by any gesture or action is to give it a reality which it must not have. But it is a figure I recognize even though I do not let on. It is Phaedrus.
     Evil spirit. Insane. from a world without life or death.
     The figure fades and I hold panic down… tight… not rushing it… just letting it sink in… not believing it, not disbelieving it… but the hair crawls slowly on the back of my skull… he is calling Chris, is that it?… Yes?…

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