The double line of stationary vehicles stretched for nearly a mile along the narrow access road before disappearing into the distant woods. Andy’s car sat in the right-hand lane. He was boxed in by a blue minivan on the left, a white two-door directly in front, and a black-bodied, chrome-grilled, muscle car directly behind. The temperature had remained in the 70s all day as groups of clouds slowly tracked across the sky, casting giant shadows on the surrounding marshland.
Andy didn’t mind the wait. He had been waiting for one thing or another all his life.
Andy tapped the search button on his in-dash radio and watched the digital numbers cycle through. The car’s speakers produced nothing but static. He switched the radio off. He had CDs but he’d already played each half-a-dozen times over the past two days. He listened instead to the music coming from the pickup truck three car-lengths ahead. It was country bluegrass, but at this point nobody seemed to mind.
When the free concert was announced, it was as if a switch had been thrown somewhere deep inside Andy’s being, prompting him to move, to act. In less than an hour he had emptied his refrigerator and kitchen cabinets into an assortment of coolers and shopping bags. He’d grabbed a week’s worth of clothing and loaded it all into his car. At the time, the concert was still a week off. He figured he would drive the 1500 miles, get there early and camp out in front of the main stage. Apparently, a couple hundred thousand people had experienced the same epiphany. He’d be lucky now to get close enough to see the stage, let alone the performers on it.
There was a flutter of movement to his right.
A red-winged black bird flew out of the reeds and landed on a wooden post nearby. The bird tilted its head one way then the other, as if inspecting the long line of vehicles, before taking flight again. Andy watched it glide effortlessly through the air. It tipped and turned until it returned to its nesting spot.
The white two-door in front of Andy started its engine and slowly rolled ahead, then stopped. Andy started his engine and closed the gap. He sat for a moment eyeing the continuous chain of trunk hoods and rooftops. Like a long red fuse growing ever shorter, brake lights fizzled. The fuse burned out when it reached the white two-door. Andy put his car into park and turned off the motor.
Andy imagined some distant checkpoint where cars were being searched and inspected before granted access into the festival grounds. Just the logistics of parking a hundred thousand vehicles in an orderly fashion seemed inconceivable. Obviously they couldn’t use the surrounding marshland. There must be higher ground somewhere beyond the trees, fields the size of airport runways, thought Andy. This notion was reinforced by the occasional thrum of helicopter blades heard in the distance.
The muscle car behind Andy was late in waking up; it roared to life, its engine shaking the earth. The gap Andy produced by pulling forward allowed just enough room for a yellow subcompact to slide over from the left lane. The subcompact quickly nestled in behind Andy and cut its engine. A young couple sat inside. The driver wore wire-rim glasses and a smug expression. His female passenger wore large sunglasses; her straight blond hair made her look thin. The car’s dash was littered with food wrappers, the backseat stuffed to the ceiling. They passed a joint between them.
Horns blared behind the muscle car as if to reprimand it for its lack of attentiveness. The muscle car revved its engine loudly, deliberately, in response. It shook the food wrappers on the subcompact’s dash. The subcompact’s driver turned and leaned out the window. He held up the joint to the muscle car. It was either a peace offering or a way of saying, “Chill out.” If there was a response, the muscle car’s tinted windows prevented anyone from seeing it. After half a minute, the muscle car cut its engine and the waiting continued.
As the sun went down, the noise level rose. People congregated at tailgates and sprouted two- and three-thick from sunroof openings beers in hand, joints between fingers. Portable searchlights acted as campfires for the groups to gather around. Music overlapped, the multiple beats often disharmonious, but every now and then a strange tribal rhythm resulted. The young couple behind Andy had disappeared from view, the sounds of their lovemaking creating a music all its own.
Andy was content to eat the last of his cheese and crackers, half an apple, and a chocolate bar. He washed it all down with a can of cheap beer. He couldn’t afford the good stuff on his limited income. His unemployment checks had run out at the end of last month. He was two months behind on his rent. He should have been looking for a job instead of trekking halfway across the country to sit in a line waiting to get into a free concert, but he just couldn’t submit himself to any more rejection. The concert was the opposite of rejection. It was an open invitation. Just get there and enjoy. Though Andy didn’t know a single soul around him, they were all there for the same reason. It made him feel like he was a part of something big. A vast community of strangers. Even if, in a few days, it would all be gone.
Flashlights flickered near the edge of the marsh. The lack of toilets was just one of the many inconveniences for those waiting in line. For the most part, the men simply walked down the embankment, turned their backs to the line of vehicles, and did what they needed to do. The women ventured a little deeper with their rolls of toilet paper, squatting in the reeds, the dark providing the only privacy available. Andy had decided early on not to use Nature’s bathroom facilities. He used empty water bottles to hold his urine. It wasn’t pride that prompted this action; it was sanitation. After two days and tens of thousands of bladder- and bowel-relieving concertgoers, he could only imagine what the edge of the marsh had become. In fact, the pine-scented air had taken on a sour tinge. Luckily, a light breeze blew now and then, keeping the air from stagnating.
Andy leaned his head against the window frame and listened to the music drone. He dozed.
He found himself walking alone on the access road. It was daytime and a brilliant blue sky arched overhead. He felt the sun on his face, and the air smelled like freshly mown grass. He continued walking toward the woods because something was waiting for him there. The marsh lay on both sides filling an empty swath as far as his eyes could see. He walked without care, the elevated road lending the feeling that he was on top of the world. Perched on a wooden post ten feet ahead sat the red-winged black bird. It cocked its head to one side as he approached. He was about to speak to it, as if it were a pet, when it opened its beak and cawed loudly. Gawwwwwd! Gawwwwwd! He could swear it was saying God. And then the empty blue sky filled with noise—Gawwwwawwwawwawd—a chainsaw sound Andy couldn’t pinpoint. He ran toward the woods, the sound growing louder, bearing down on the back of his neck . . .
Andy lurched from sleep into the collective rush of a thousand engines starting. With his eyes half shut he fumbled for the ignition key. The white two-door in front had already pulled forward and the red glow of its brake lights filled the gap. Andy moved his car up, his heart thumping; the dream still fresh in his mind. Once again the distance traveled was little more than one car-length. Brake lights blinked out, engines stilled. Behind him, Andy felt the heavy vibration of the muscle car as it crept up close to his bumper. Puzzled, Andy turned and saw the yellow subcompact now sitting down near the edge of the marsh. He stared at the small car. The young couple had apparently abandoned the vehicle in favor of traveling ahead on foot.
The muscle car roared victorious before settling its engine. Its headlights blinked off. Andy eyed the vehicle in his rearview mirror.
Its chrome grill leered. Its black body appeared to blend in with the night.
Andy popped a can of warm beer and drank two full gulps. He wiped his mouth and belched, still watching the muscle car in the mirror. At last, he relaxed, sat back and waited.
Overnight a thick mist crept up out of the marsh. It filled the darkness with a diaphanous haze. The ever-present music thinned and faded to muffled thumps. With each incremental move of the line of vehicles the odor of fuel exhaust clung stubbornly in the air. More vehicles were abandoned along the soft, grassy shoulder. Some sat empty, doors flung open wide like roadside wrecks. Others loomed like ghostly creatures having reached their evolutionary dead-end. Andy stayed awake throughout, counting the passage of time with each lurch forward into the soft tunnel of night.
By daybreak the line of traffic was strangely quiet. Andy attributed most of the abandoned vehicles to drained batteries, whether from too many engine starts or CD players left on to cycle repeatedly.
As the hours passed, the sky brightened but the blanket of mist held.
Andy shifted in his seat. The muscles in his back had begun to complain. His legs felt leaden. He waited until the line nudged forward again before sliding over into the passenger seat. He opened the car door and stepped out.
It had been three days since the last rest stop along the highway, two days since he had entered the line. His feet felt thick and heavy. Ahead, a series of rear windows, rooftops, and passenger-side mirrors faded into the mist. Behind, all he saw were wheel wells and windshields repeated until they were no longer visible. There was little movement at this early hour. Andy assumed passengers were taking advantage of the quiet to catch up on their sleep, leaving designated drivers to their semi-conscious vigil.
Andy took two tentative steps toward the muscle car. Satisfied with the result, he continued on. He ignored his own reflection in the muscle car’s tinted windows. He wasn’t so much concerned with his appearance as what he might see beyond the darkened glass. He concentrated instead on the marsh.
Small birds flitted between the reeds. They flew to the thick grass and the garbage littered there, quickly pecking at potato chip bags and cookie wrappers before darting back to the safety of their nests.
For every two vehicles Andy passed in line, there was another vehicle abandoned along the embankment. Soon he found himself standing near the spot where he had awakened from the dream the night before. The yellow subcompact sat near the edge of the reeds below. There was something curious about the position of the car. Andy stepped onto the damp grass of the slope and carefully walked down to where the car sat.
Raw sewage sat in muddy pools where the grass had been trampled. The subcompact’s windows were fogged over with moisture. Andy stood beside the vehicle listening for sounds. He slowly wiped the driver’s side window with the edge of his palm, and peered in. As he did, a face peered back.
Andy stumbled backward and nearly fell onto the putrid grass. Were those wire-rimmed glasses he saw? Or simply tired rings around his own eyes reflected in the glass? He didn’t have time to investigate because there came a distant rumble as the line of vehicles started their engines once again.
The sound rolled through the mist like an approaching storm, building in volume as Andy scrambled up the slope. By the time he reached his car, the white two-door had already pulled forward. He quickly opened his passenger side door and slid in behind the wheel. But when he reached for the ignition key it was gone.
For a moment, everything slowed. His chest felt like marsh water had filled his lungs in place of air. He reached down and slid his fingers along the floor mat, but there was nothing there. Behind him, the muscle car rumbled to life. When it continued to sit stationary, horns began to bark and howl. Andy felt the world coming to a halt. Whoever was behind the wheel of that muscle car had stolen his keys while he was gone, he was sure of it. He wouldn’t be able to start his car, so he wouldn’t be able to move. He would have to be moved. The way the young couple in the subcompact had been moved.
Andy’s momentary paralysis broke when the muscle car thumped against his rear bumper. The back of his head slammed against the seat rest. At the same moment, he felt a pinch in the muscle of his left buttock. Andy reached into his back pocket and pulled out his keys.
He laughed. It was the laughter of a man who had just fallen through a trapdoor and landed on his feet, a busted noose around his neck. He plunged the key into the ignition. The engine started and he lurched forward. In his excitement he nearly collided with the white two-door in front, chirping his brakes and nearly rapping his head on the windshield.
Again, the muscle car rumbled up close behind, the bass-heavy sound of its engine vibrating through the floor mats. Just when Andy thought his car was about to split in two, the muscle car’s engine sputtered and coughed, and then quit. The muscle car tried to start its engine again but it didn’t catch.
Andy watched the black metallic beast in his rearview mirror. He tried to pierce the veil of its tinted windshield to see what was happening inside. He imagined a menacing, unstable-looking man, his face purple with rage, sitting behind the wheel. But there was nothing. Nothing Andy could see. The muscle car didn’t flex. No doors flew open. No monster emerged. When the line moved again, the muscle car was pushed off the access road by the vehicle behind it; it rolled down the embankment and came to rest with its hood nosed into the reeds. A beige late-model SUV took its place in line, engine idling smoothly. The tired-looking driver behind the wheel stared straight ahead into the mist, his eyes unblinking.
By noon, the mist gave way to an overcast sky. The canopy of clouds grew ever darker as the day progressed. However, a strange yellowish hue tinged the distant tree line, taunting those waiting in line with the promise of brighter things ahead.
The concert was tomorrow, and Andy still clung to the hope of making it in time.
For lunch he prepared a peanut butter sandwich. He ate a small bag of potato chips and drank the last of the milk before it went bad. He changed his shirt and removed his sneakers and socks to let his feet breathe.
The cars moved like clockwork, though the distant tree line never appeared to draw any closer. Car batteries were conserved. The line of vehicles sat in eerie silence beneath a sky that appeared to be as stationary as they were. But every now and then Andy heard the pleasing strains of a familiar bluegrass song, as if carried on the wind.
As darkness fell, the clouds at last let go of the moisture they had been collecting all day long. The rain was light at first but evolved into a torrential downpour that lasted through the night. The rain was so heavy, Andy could barely see the white two-door in front of him. Wisely, the line of cars stayed put, choosing not to risk moving and sliding down the slippery embankment. Andy decided he would try and catch up on lost sleep. He swung his legs up over the passenger side seat and laid his head against the armrest. As soon as his eyelids shut he found what he was looking for.
This time he didn’t dream. In fact, when he woke some time later, it felt as if he had been sleeping for a very long time.
The rain had stopped. It was morning. A bright blue sky arched overhead. He sat up.
He turned the ignition key to check the clock on the dash. The digital numbers were too faint to read. A low-battery indicator lit up alongside the check engine light. That didn’t concern him as much as the fact that it was perfectly clear outside and yet no engines started, no horns honked. The rush to hurry up and wait was gone. All of it had been replaced by a palpable silence.
Andy checked his rearview mirror. The driver in the beige SUV was missing. He must still be asleep, thought Andy. Andy stepped out to investigate.
He walked up to the SUV, expecting to rouse the driver. But the car was empty. Andy continued on, checking the car behind the SUV, but it too was empty; as were the ones behind it; as were the vehicles in the other lane.
Andy stared at the line of cars, both ahead and behind. He couldn’t see a single driver sitting behind a wheel.
Andy wove his way between bumpers back to his vehicle and leaned against the side fender, breathing in thick gasps. He tried to think. He stared at the white two-door in front of him, the silhouettes of three occupants a constant sight throughout the wait. He approached and peered inside just to make sure. Gone. All gone.
Andy looked up.
The sun peered down like a watchful eye. The air smelled like freshly mown grass. He focused on the distant woods. Today the concert was scheduled to begin, but he didn’t hear any music, no sound checks booming across the countryside.
Out of the sky, a red-winged blackbird appeared. Andy watched as it swooped down and landed on a wooden post two car-lengths ahead. The bird turned and stared at him. It didn’t make a sound. It waited, as if waiting for Andy to speak, to greet it as one would an old friend.
Andy recoiled instead. He retreated to his car and locked himself inside. He stared at the distant tree-line, a distance that never seemed to change no matter how far along the access road he progressed. He strained to hear the familiar notes of the elusive bluegrass song, but all he heard in the pervading silence was the drumming of his heart.
He needed more time. He wasn’t ready to leave just yet.
In fact, of all the things he didn’t understand about what was happening in that moment, there was one thing he knew for certain: they were not going to start the concert without him.