When I was 19, I lived in York, South Carolina and worked at a chemical plant. I would work four, twelve hour shifts and then be off for four days before returning for another four on. Due to the way pay periods were structured, this meant every other check included eight hours at time and a half. Chemical Operators, even back then, get paid very well to begin ; because of this I had more money than a single 19 year old with a head full of bad ideas really needs. My bills were minimal and I owned my car outright, a dark blue Dodge 600 with high end tape deck and custom speakers. One day as I was on the way home from the grocery store, something caused a gallon of milk to leak and by the time I arrived home I had an empty jug and soaking wet floor on the passenger side. I used a wet vac to suck it all up (or so I thought), but after a day or so of baking in the hot Carolina sun, my car was flooded with the odor of curdled milk. I tried to shampoo the carpet, sprinkling it baking soda, spraying on odor neutralizer… just about everything I could think of. The sour milk smell was stubborn though and refused to abandon its haunt, driving me to desperate measures.
I had a bottle of cherry scented air freshener that I’d picked up at Pep Boys, the idea being that you’d depress the pump a time or two to spay a mist which reminded me of the cherry tree in our yard when I was growing up. At my wit’s end, I dumped the entire bottle onto the floorboard, figuring if I couldn’t get rid of the stink then maybe I could at least mask it. At first, that old Dodge smelled like an orchard in full bloom; but over time the cherry and sour milk smells merged. As a result of this, I ended up with a vehicle which always smelled like cherry yogurt.
Outside of my writer’s group, I didn’t have any real friends to hang out with, so I made regular trips to West Virginia to visit my cronies. Some of them would occasionally ride back with me and spend a couple weeks visiting. It was in the middle of one of these visits when an emergency arose and my guest had to return to the Mountain State immediately. I was in the middle of my weekly rotation at the plant and had just gotten home from an 8 AM to 8 PM shift, but we loaded up the car and hit the road anyway. I made pretty decent time, stopping only when necessary and ended up dropping my friend off around 1:30 in the morning. As soon as he was out of the car, I turned around and headed south again.
Being a six hour drive, I knew I’d be able to make it home in time to show up for my shift, but I was already extremely tired. If I’d been smart, I would called off sick the next day and got some rest… but if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have this story to tell. No, what I decided to do was drive straight through the night, stopping only for gas and coffee. The interstate was pretty much abandoned at this time of the morning and I thought if I took the speed limit signs as a suggestion rather than law I could make it back in time to have a little nap before work. To help accomplish this goal, I also had a little baggie of yellow jackets. I popped two or three, washed them down with strong coffee, and stepped on the accelerator.
I’m not exactly sure how fast I was driving, but I knew it was at least 120 miles per hour. I straddled the center line so I could take the curves without letting up on the pedal too much, rolled down the window so I was gusted with the cool night air, and cranked the stereo as loud as it would go. With The Misfits blaring through my speakers, that old Dodge rocketed through the darkness and I ended up passing through the entire state of Virginia in a mere fifteen minutes. Anytime I’d start to feel a little drowsy, I’d pop a few more yellow jackets, drink some more coffee, and slap my own face when straight stretches would allow. At the rate I was going, I would be able to have more than just a nap when I got home… I would be able to get some honest to God sleep if I played my cards right. So I kept right on taking that speed. I couldn’t even begin to guess exactly how many I took because, in retrospect, it seems like I was popping them like Tic Tacs.
I was still a ways outside of Charlotte when the trip began to take its toll. My heart was hammering so hard it felt like it was about to break my solar plexus and my breathing came in quick, ragged pants. My hands and feet felt numb and tingly and the entire world seemed to flicker rapidly, as if I were going through REM with my eyes open. Despite having the windows rolled down as well as the air conditioner blowing cold on my face, beads of sweat trickled down my forehead and that cherry yogurt scent suddenly seemed overly sweet and nauseating.
I decided to take the next exit, get out of the car, and stretch my legs for a bit, which was probably the best decision I’d made since embarking on this journey. The exit I took lead to a four lane highway with a town about five miles or so from the off-ramp. The first early morning commuters had just started straggling along and the further I drove, the worse I felt. Knowing I’d never make it to the town, I pulled over onto the berm, removed my seatbelt, and opened the door.
My brain told my legs to stand. My brain was used to being obeyed without question and my legs honestly thought they were capable of carrying out their mission. Rather than standing, however, I sort of fell out of the car, toppling onto the ground in such a way that half my body was lying on the shoulder of the road and the other half was across the white line. My brain said to push myself up with my hands, but they had involuntarily pulled in close to my chest so it looked as though I were doing an impression of a dying T-Rex. Furthermore, my legs had also contracted and I was almost in a fetal position. Again and again I tried to get my muscles to cooperate, only managing to wiggle my fingers as I rocked back and forth on the pavement.
By this time, I was really starting to freak out and I kept praying for one of the cars to stop and help me, but they only made wide arcs and continued on their way. I have no way of knowing how long I laid there, completely immobilized and only able to watch the apathetic flow of traffic stream by as if I were nothing more than road kill… but it felt like an eternity.
Finally, I heard a voice from behind me, some distance away, asking if I needed an ambulance. I tried to answer. My brain yelled , Yes! Oh God yes, please, please, PLEASE! But my tongue felt like it had swollen, like it filled my entire mouth, blocking both sound and air, so I rocked back and forth more rapidly, hoping my Good Samaritan would recognize this as non-verbal agreement.
“I’m going to call you an ambulance, okay?”
At this point, tears began streaming down my face and once I started crying I couldn’t stop. Snot oozed from my nose and slid down my cheeks, road grit sticking to the mucus and tears, and even though I wasn’t cold, I’d begun shivering so badly that the little pebbles and stones poked and scraped at tender flesh.
Eventually the paramedics arrived. They asked me questions to which I could only shake or nod my head by way of reply. They took vitals, repeatedly shined little flashlights in my eyes, and asked me to follow it without moving my head.
Can you stand?, they wanted to know. I shook my head no, so each paramedic hooked their elbows beneath my armpits and hoisted me up. With my arms and legs still drawn up, they carried dead weight to the back of the ambulance and sat me down before wrapping a blanket around my shoulders. One of them cleaned my face while the other took my vitals again. More questions followed.
"Sir, what are you on?”
I was beginning to regain some degree of control, so I attempted an answer.
“Theed.” I could speak again, but my tongue still felt too large for my mouth, making me sound as if I had an extremely bad speech impediment. The paramedics exchanged confused glances and asked the question again.
“Theed,” I repeated more emphatically, “mon theed.”
Somehow they correctly translated this into I’m on speed. After a while, I was able to speak clearly again and my muscles lost that rigor mortis-like stiffness. They asked if I wanted to go to a hospital. I declined. So they told me there was a gas station a couple miles up the road and I should park there and get some sleep. Part of me was incredulous. Sleep? Sleep??? I’d eaten yellow jackets like candy, my floorboard was littered with empty coffee cups, and they honestly expected me to sleep?
The moment I laid down in the backseat, however, I knew they were correct. Consciousness was a thing rapidly speeding through a dark tunnel, the pinpoint of light at the end growing progressively smaller as if I were rushing away from the world and into the comforting darkness of my own head. No dreams. No wavering between the checkpoints of wakefulness and the void. My taxed body simply shut down to give itself time to regain strength and energy.