Gridlock © 2022
Written by Joshua Sky
Art by Ian Tolmay
The metal tide crawled, each vehicle vying for inches beneath the burning pacific sun. It was bumper to bumper, without a horizon in sight. Forever in queue. Today was an unusually slow haul and Cort felt fatigued, having been cocooned in his vehicle for four days, silently yearning to go outside. Silently picturing a place in the past that was long gone – a place.
"Are you okay?" the car asked.
"...Fine, Dave. I'm fine."
Dave, his car, was an old Toyota that was rechargeable, reliable, but also beat-up and in desperate need of a wash. Somewhere there was a list of items written down on a crumpled sheet of paper, noting to go to the doctor, dentist and car wash - none where crossed off.
"We got any new screen savers? I'm feeling claustrophobic." A menu of different holograms appeared: Forestry, pornography and Hawaiian tropicality. "Let's go to the beach.” The car's windows transformed into blue rolling waters and palm trees from a live feed on Maui. Air-conditioning vents dryly coughed the faint fragrance of plumeria, and sunscreen.
"Time till arrival?"
"Three days, eighteen hours, twenty-two minutes."
"Jesus, traffic that bad?"
"Apologies, I will be sure to flag faster routes should they become available."
"Fat chance," he muttered, remembering his days as a kid, when you could go from the Valley to West LA in under an hour. Back then, the metro still existed, and you could still find free street parking. Back then, it didn't take three hours to make a left turn out of a CVS drive-thru. That was before the Big One, the quake that converted LA into an inescapable parking lot.
Cort knew that others didn't live like this in cities outside of California, but it was difficult to imagine life elsewhere. This is where it's happening. Sure, it's in your car. But this is where it's happening! Fame, fortune, Grade-A avocado toast. Los Angeles was the capital of all three.
That big break would come.
It had to.
Besides, this is where Sheila lived, the prettiest creature to ever grace his presence. They first met at an In-N-Out five years ago. She was one of their high-end real waitresses that would deliver to the cars in their complimentary lot, with a maximum parking time of 15 whole minutes. He remembered it clearly: How she gracefully glided across the asphalt on her hover skates, wearing her crisp red-white uniform, paper hat tilted to the side, atop her wavy brunette hair. Her beautiful almond complexion, bestowed by Mexican heritage and generations of her family living along the sunbaked coast. Her perfect smile, when cracked, matched the power of the San Andreas Fault. He struck up a conversation and had somehow been able to charm her into a date.
They went to an AMC to catch a flick, the latest Fast and Furious. Almost as shitty as the previous 47 installments. The movie was an exciting, albeit predictable period piece, depicting cars having enough open space to actually race. He sprung for a spot so that they could actually get out of the car and sit in front of THE BIG SCREEN.
She was his destination. Hopefully she had made a decision. Hopefully she'd say yes to the big question. He felt nervous, given that her family despised him. Her parents believed Cort was an inherent loser. Their reasoning being that he wasn't pre-sold, didn't have a stable job, and didn't own any land or parking spots. Truth be told, he could barely afford to rent a spot, let alone dream of owning. He feared that he and his car might end up homeless.
He grunted, hugging his knees against his chest. What if she says no? What if she didn't want to marry him? He wasn’t getting any younger, already pushing deeper into his thirties. Cort yearned for meaning and was tired of being so damned alone. Sheila wasn't just his only friend, but his best one. In a good relationship both partners build each other up, they act as a team. And he and Sheila made a great duo. The problem, besides her family, was distance. She lived in Culver City while he was in the Valley. 20 miles apart, to a man in Cort’s position, the expanse was the equivalent between Earth and Proxima Centauri.
"Cort? ... Are you hungry?"
"We're nearing fast food vendors if you would like to make an order."
"Sure." He glanced around, realizing how unruly and unkempt his car-apt had become. Though somewhat spacious, Cort was a book hoarder. When you reside in a vehicle, there isn't much room for Tolstoy. He knew that people in other cities lived in apartments, the idea of that much free space gave him the chills. Confined spaces seemed more natural. Of course, it'd be nice to have more leg room, but there's a limit. One can forget about their individuality if they're out in the open for too long.
"What's on the menu, Dave?"
"Taco Bell, McDonald's, Panda Express, Chipotle, Baja Fresh--"
"Option deleted. Jack in The Box, In-N-Out, Arby’s -"
"Oh, man, what to pick? Me and my gourmet tastes! Okay, let's see, ummm, guess I could splurge with a double order. Y'know what, yeah, let's do that. A cheeseburger from In-N-Out, animal style, I don't really like their fries, I know that's sacrilege."
"I'm not judging you."
"You're not, but I feel the judgment in my cholesterol-filled heart." He smirked. "Um ... and let's do, let's doooo d-d-d-d, Jack in the Box, tacos. Pull the trigger."
In less than fifteen minutes two delivery drones were knocking at each window. He rolled them down smelling a thick pall of carcinogens from the boiling highway. As Cort took the bags, the machines scanned his wallet and flew off to their next customer. After dinner, the sodium high kicked-in and he laid low, staring at a star system projected on his roof, drifting in thought.
Cort did a mental review of his existence. He knew he was bright, likable, and willing to work hard. However, building a life takes more than that. He had to bring something of value to the table, he just didn’t know what. He wasn't pre-sold. Being rich has become a prerequisite in today's society. If you weren't already established, people didn't want to have anything to do with you. Especially in this town. Sheila's parents hated him, but could he really blame them? They just want to ensure that she'll be taken care of. Who doesn't want their daughter to date someone from one of the brand-name families? They’re wrong, he thought with defiance. I’ll take care of her. I’ll make good money. I’ll provide. If we have kids, I'll make sure that they'll have the pre-sold life I never had.
Sheila is The One. Pretty. Sweet and caring. She was there for Cort during a dark time. Hardcore unemployment. He couldn't find work for a year. He barely left his car, and she was there for him every painful inch of the way. She's the one who told him he could start getting freelance work again. That he'd be great at selling car-apts via holo-commute. She's the one who encouraged him to keep trying. She held faith when he lost it in himself.
"I've never met anyone like her." He whispered aloud.
"Too bad about her parents." Dave replied, triangulating Cort's thoughts. "Maybe you can win them over, somehow."
Cort nodded grimly, remembering the first time he met Sheila's mom. She seemed like a sweet woman. On their first outing, he took her out to a Starbucks. Cost a lot since they "dined" indoors and he had to make reservations in advance. The toughest booking since his last trip to Walmart. It was difficult to imagine a time when startups were legal, and non-chain eateries still existed. A time where it was easy to have a good time, a normal life. In the good old days, you could just waltz into a store anytime during business hours, buy what you needed, and get back home- a real one. Imagine that.
Cort shelled extra dough to have Dave parked away from the cafe. He didn't want Sheila’s mother to see the lovely piece of crap he drove. The evening went swell. Each of them had their own specially concocted sugar loaded coffee; with energy shots potent enough to keep them awake for days. They talked at a blitzkrieg pace, and her mother kept saying,
"I like you. You're funny and don't seem like a schmuck." When he departed, they said their goodbyes. Outside, however, he could feel Sheila's mother tracking him with her eyes, looking to see what vehicle he'd get into. Trying to discern exactly how much he was worth. What he was bringing to the table. The next time they saw each other, he took them out for dinner at Chipotle. The organically grown ingredients cost him a week's wage, and of course, everyone wanted real guacamole, but damn it was worth it. There, Sheila's mother leaned over the table and asked that quintessential Californian question: "Do you have a car?"
"Of course I have a car. What do you think I am, a New Yorker?"
"No, it's just... Can I see it? Would you mind?"
"My car. Um... yeah, I suppose." He felt embarrassed, kicking himself for not making up a lie to avoid her prying curiosity. After eating, they hiked over to the Toyota and Sheila's mother saw him for what he drove: a dented beater.
She turned to him with a warm Splenda coated smile. “Hey, don't be embarrassed, when Sheila’s father and I started dating, neither of us had a vehicle." Cort cocked his head. Life without cars? It seemed impossible. Out here, you're up to your knees in nowhere without one.
Sheila's mom placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and pressed, "Gradually we saved and built a beautiful life together. That's a good relationship. It's not about what you have in your pocket, it's about what you have in your heart."
Cort gave an embarrassed nod, feeling ashamed for being deceptive. Sheila was smiling and everything seemed like it was going to be okay, and for the first time in a long while, he felt accepted .
Of course, that was a lie. "My mom keeps talking shit about your car,” Sheila said. “She keeps nagging, 'you want to be with a poor guy? How can he drive around like that? It's embarrassing.'"
The highway groaned. Cars crawled beneath the black shadows of bridges, rising in the air like concrete leviathans suspended in freefall. Slowly, the gray super-parking structures of West LA peaked above the verge. Days had passed and Cort was making his painfully slow approach to Sheila's. Now she had a nice parking spot. Spacious, large, and with an added bonus, a guest rental beside it. Damn he felt like a pauper. He had just one tight spot on the 88th floor of an ancient parking structure in Burbank. Granted, the view was nice. Strip malls into infinity!
The car slowly parked, releasing a mechanical sigh of relief. They made it. Sheila's car-apt was a large pink cube with a Hello Kitty sticker gif on the back window. The vehicle was brand new and in perfect condition.
"Would you like us to sync?" Dave asked.
"Just a moment, I'm gonna stretch."
The glass came down and he climbed out onto the roof. He cracked a few vertebrae and sat in lotus position, glancing at the heaving silver landscape. There was a special beauty to the city's flow. A robotic choreography that sped and shimmered along an artificial landscape. All those people, all those cars, rushing to go nowhere. Each holding occupants who had their own dreams, aspirations, and the fear that they may never be attained, just like himself. But somewhere, inside, he knew he was different. Everyone has to believe that. Otherwise, what’s the point?
He slipped down, his worn Nikes touching the ground. It took a minute or so to orient himself, find his balance. It suddenly occurred to him that he gained some weight that was easy to ignore until he had to stand. He knocked on Sheila's door and waited. Ten minutes passed. She always made him wait. A classic power move. To be fair, she was getting ready. She took great pride in how she appeared with him and out in public. Somewhere inside, she probably fancied herself an undiscovered celebrity. Diva glam.
"Hello!" She called as the power window glass came down. She was wearing a mood dress made of ruby red, digi-glitter, matching her lipstick. As always, she looked beautiful. They kissed and the door slid open. The amount of space she commanded was incredible. They could almost stand! Though her car wasn't organized, it was far cleaner than his. Large pleather couch, a little shelf full of trinkets, a trove of sparkling costume jewelry, and a closet big enough to house Narnia. They plopped onto the sofa and held each other quietly, as he ran his fingers through her thick, jet-black hair. "I got your message. What did you want to talk about?" She asked with feigned ignorance.
"Marriage. The future. Do we have one? I proposed, and you haven’t given me an answer."
She said nothing, which was her way of saying everything.
"Is that how you feel?"
"No ... I just. What about my parents?"
"Who cares? I'm not marrying them. They'll learn to accept me. And if not, then to hell with them."
His brazenness brought an almost evil smile to her face. "And what if I say no?"
"Then to hell with you." He swallowed bile, regretting having said something so cold. "If you don't feel the same, then this was doomed to begin with."
"I can't disavow my parents. They can be turned, but we have to prove ourselves. Prove we can make it. Forge a real life."
He took her hand in his, "This is it. Right here. Real life. I'll find a way. I'll buy us a good parking spot. We'll get one right on Mulholland Drive, overlooking all of LA." He sighed, "Why can't anyone believe in someone's potential?"
"I don't know. But, for what it’s worth ... I believe in yours."
He leaned back, taking her full in his gaze.
"So, does this mean you're saying 'yes?' Or, are we over?"
The whole time she had been coy, suggesting that they might be done struck a chord. "No, babe. I'm in. I've just been thinking of driving away from it all. I wanna see something new. Do something new. Live, y'know?"
"So, let's do it. Let's drive to some far flung destination, get married. Where will we go?"
"Anywhere. Just not here. And not Vegas."
Cort felt elated. He'd been yearning to fly on a plane for years, but the backlog into LAX alone was at least two weeks. By the time you would get to the airport, you would have already used up all your vacation.
"Let's take that drive. We'll elope and figure things out, together," she said with a grin.
"Whose car are we takin'?"
"Definitely not yours. I can't believe you made it here without having to call Triple A."
"Well, why not upload your car's personality, so we can take both?"
Half an hour later they completed the upload, and Sheila was right.
"Gosh, Cort. It’s magnificent here. The processing power alone is transcending," Dave uttered in amazement.
"Don't get too comfortable," Nancy said in her smooth voice. "You're in my house."
"That makes two of us," Cort quipped.
"Destination?" Dave and Nancy asked in unison.
Good question. He looked to Sheila, her eyes full of excitement and wonder. "Just go! Surprise us!" Cort took Sheila's hand. "I love you."
"I love you."
The car started, revved its engine, and pulled onto the highway, immediately getting stuck in gridlock stretching beyond the horizon. The vehicle pushed forth into the 405 sunset. They were off to adventure. But first, traffic.