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Friday, May 6, 2011

A Drive in the Country

Update: In case you're confused what this story is about, let me clarify. On 9/12/2001, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando fled New York. US airspace had been shut down, making it impossible for them to fly. Reports indicate the trio rented a car and drove as far as Ohio. Reports also indicate that both Jackson and Taylor grew increasingly annoyed at Brando, who insisted they stop at every Burger King and KFC between Jersey and Ohio.

I don't know why this story fascinates me so. Apart from the obvious unlikely scenario--which is apparently about as true as any other event in these peoples' lives--the anecdote, for me, goes to something much deeper. Maybe. Perhaps it's just me being a starfucker of sorts, but the story is interesting to me because it involves these specific stars. If, say, it'd been a car with Jane Curtain, Lindsey Lohan and George Hamilton, I wouldn't care.

But Elizabeth Taylor. Marlon Brando. Michael Jackson.

In their heyday, each of these stars was, frankly, the top of the heap. No one was as beautiful as Taylor. No one could act as well as Brando. No one could perform like Jackson. But by 2001, most of the luster had been worn away. Each had gone into decline. People were still interested in them, but not for the talents they each possessed. And, by 2001, each of the three had endured a body-blow of sorts. Brando's sordid family life had been revealed in the most horrible way; Taylor's illnesses had made it difficult for her to salvage her career; and Jackson... well. We all know about Michael Jackson's tabloid troubles.

On 9/10/2001, Michael Jackson performed at Madison Square Garden. It was one of the last all-out concerts he'd give. Taylor and Brando attended.

On 9/11/2001, as America confronted its own decline, the three stars fled to Jersey (reports are sketchy, but I don't want to look too deep into the truth of what they actually did--to me, with all the madness of that day, there's no sense in trying to get at the truth of each individual event because what was done on 9/11 was less important than was later believed done, if you know what I mean).

On 9/12, fearing more attacks and forbidden from flight, the trio rented a car and drove to Ohio.

And we didn't know where the President was.

And our Vice President was in an undisclosed bunker somewhere.

And the Towers had collapsed, and the Pentagon was ripped open, and there was a crater in Pennsylvania.

And America, like a car containing Jackson, Brando, and Taylor, was revealed to be full of paranoid, terrified eccentrics, vulnerable and far away from the glory they'd once known. And, really, lost and afraid.

So that's what this story is about. I really believe that those three celebrities sum up America on 9/11--not Americans, but the United States of America and its place in the world.


A Drive in the Country

“It’s interesting,” Brando said, then fell silent, his eyes whipping back and forth in his head as he studied the passing landscape, which was both lush and barren like the soul of America.

Michael cleared his throat. Threw a cursory glance at the rearview mirror. Reflected back at him was the image of Liz, her head leaning placidly, despite the potholes and dips, against the back of her seat. Her famous violet eyes concealed behind large black sunglasses. There were diamonds along the rims and earpieces, and the morning sun flashed from the diamonds. It hurt to look at Liz. Her skin and her sunglasses were radiant, blindingly radiant. White skin. White diamonds.

“What’s interesting, Marlon?” Michael said after a mile of silence had passed.

“The audacity. Men in flying machines with nothing but their dogma, their determination. You know, I always admired the kamikaze pilots of WWII, admired the ferocity with which they intentionally slammed their planes into whatever target was around. It’s what is missing in America, home of the soft and the obscene. We Americans, and I include myself among them even as they attempt to ostracize me--”

“They’re not ostracizing you,” Michael said quietly.

“They are. They do. They think of me as The Other yet I consider myself an American and I know something about the giant gut stuffed with meat rotting from the inside out.”

“Oh god,” Liz said from the back seat. “Must we, Marlon. On today of all days, must you go into your Colonel Klink routine.”

“Kurtz. Colonel Kurtz, you old cow. And why not. You’ve certainly been channeling Martha all morning.”

“If you two don’t stop,” Michael broke in, “I’ll turn this thing around and we’ll all die in another attack.”

Marlon cackled. He bent over, straining against the seatbelt until his forehead pressed against the dash. His silver ponytail caught the sunlight and, like Liz’s frames, glistened.

“Turn on the radio, Michael. I want to hear--”

“Oh no,” Michael replied, gently. “We don’t need to listen to that foolishness.”

“Well Michael, if we don’t listen to the news we won’t know if L.A. is still there. We may be driving into an ashram.”

“A madrassa, you silly cow.” Marlon stopped laughing long enough to make the correction, then resumed chuckling. His swollen feet shifted, rustling through the empty hamburger wrappers and empty cartons stained with the grease of long-devoured fried chicken. The sound reminded him of a walk he once took long ago, with a beautiful young woman. Through trees. Across a layer of dried leaves. He stopped chuckling, lost in the memory. He didn’t hear Liz mumble, “You outweigh me by a good ten stone.”

“So much lost,” Marlon whispered to himself as the young woman from long ago twirled in a clearing.

“A lot of loss indeed. Which, Michael, is exactly why we should listen to the news.”

Michael checked the rearview mirror. Liz was no longer reclined in her seat. Her head was up, her sunglasses were pulled down to the tip of her nose, and those eyes, long dulled by age, flashed a moment of their sharp glory. He blinked. The familiar tightening in his stomach. In his experience, looks so severe were thrown just before the punches.

“Elizabeth, please don’t look at me like that. I just can’t listen right now. I’m.” Pause. Consider. “I’m concentrating on the road. If we listen to the news I may not be able to pay enough attention.”

“I believe what the gentleman is trying to tell you, Liz darling, is that he’s distressed enough, and it is in our best interests to keep our driver as mentally comfortable as possible. Go back to sleep. We’ll be in California before you want it.”

Silence. For a while. The tires on the road, humming out of tune, offending the musician, comforting the actors. Cars slid past with a sound of finality--the sigh of displaced wind, the roar of country-road mufflers. Michael kept the car at a steady 45, well under the speed limit. He was wearing a surgical mask and a baseball cap. He wanted to wear sunglasses--Liz’s, to be exact--but was afraid they would interfere with his ability to see clearly when the missiles reigned down and he would be forced to demonstrate his only hidden talent: defensive driving.

“It’s interesting,” Marlon said after a time.

“Must you begin every inane thought issuing from your mouth with ‘it’s interesting’?” Liz shot back. “I’ve been in the car with you for ten hours. When you’re not stuffing your mouth with heart-attack aids, you’re insisting uninteresting things are interesting.”

“Elizabeth my dear, you’re far too old to have pre-menstrual syndrome so I must come to the conclusion that you’re simply a bitch. Which is a shame because you used to be a delightful person.”

Liz considered this. “It’s been a tough few years. And an awful few days.” She swallowed. “I apologize.”

Marlon nodded. Said, “It’s interesting.”

Liz groaned. Michael smiled for the first time since they’d all three fled New Jersey.

“What’s interesting, Marlon?”

“We three here, in this... car, this mechanized transportation device... we are America at this moment. We’re in a place we’re unfamiliar with, our decaying carcasses far away from the former glory, ravaged and pillaged and nearly destroyed. Time is a kamikaze pilot, my friends, and we are targets.” He picked a piece of lettuce from his teeth. “Ah but in the day, my friends, we were the kamikaze. Benevolent, true, but fierce and glorious.”

Michael sighed. “If I turn on the radio, Marlon, will you be quiet and let us listen to the news?”

Liz returned her sunglasses to their proper place, leaned her head back into the headrest. Said nothing.

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