Saturday, September 06, 2003

Blankets: I-44

Ten miles outside of St. Louis, on I-44, the four lanes of traffic stop suddenly. For the first few minutes, cars jostle lane to lane, trying to make a guess which ones are clogged, which ones are free. This happens all the time in cities. Nobody blinks.

After five minutes, nobody is jostling. Nobody is moving. A few people hit the far right shoulder and ease up the road, angling for an exit. But I'm a visitor, just passing through. I've taken enough wrong turns to stick to the big slab.

After fifteen minutes, we still haven't moved. Cars are still running, but brake lights are going off as people stick their transmissions into neutral. It's 85 degrees with bright sunshine, so it's a little warm out there in the concrete river. Twenty minutes in, we start to creep forward. No more than 6 feet at a time. I pass, slowly, a guy in a suit and tie waving a manila folder over the over-heated engine of his Taurus.

Thirty minutes in, I can tell we're easing off the interstate, all four lanes headed for an exit still 1/2 a mile away. There's a sort of resigned steadiness to it. Somebody lets you in eventually. You wave. I'm punching the radio, trying to find a damn traffic report, but all I get is college football. Suddenly it's all just one big lane of traffic. We're forty-five minutes into the adventure when we line up and pass by the scene.

I see the first white blanket as it appears in the corner of my eye as I pass a state trooper's car. It's a body under there; I can see a black boot stuck out. But the heavy white blanket covers the rest of it. Then, thirty feet ahead, in a similar pose, another blanket, the outline underneath smaller, the pinky finger of a hand the only visible marker. Two troopers in brown, without hats, stand facing the traffic, one next to each of the bodies. Off on the other shoulder I see a motorcycle, upright, nearly unmarked, and a sedan, a woman sitting on the hood, another trooper writing down the things that she says.

I'm ten feet from it. I'm drinking Mountain Dew. I've got U2 on the CD player. I have a map on the dash. I'm wearing sunglasses. I've got half a tank of gas and I've got a lot of miles to drive yet before I stop for the night.