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Notes: We’ve all battled it: ‘sleepdriving’

Notes from the Small Pond by Parnell Thill

The problem with getting tired when you’re driving is that it seems there’s never any really good, obvious place to stop. Of course, there are the official Rest Areas, like that one right outside Forest Lake, but by the time you’re there, your adrenaline is already amped from the combination of about-to-be-obnoxious traffic or the excitement of getting where you’re going. Who wants to stop then? It’s those dead miles between here and nowhere when you’ve already punched through all the radio stations and can’t bear another Tom Petty song about free falling or, God forbid, another song by whatshername shining like diamond in the sky or whatsherothername with the wish I wouldn’t have used up all my shock capital before I was 30 patheticism coursing through every song.

These are the moments when falling asleep at the wheel is a real probability. Your eyes physically pried open, but not really seeing, breathing as regular as any teenaged Saturday morning, head bobbing downward in articulated jerks ’til your chin hits your chest and you slam awake, terrified, the exit to White Castle already behind you.

You try screaming at yourself and the inside of the car wraps your voice around your head and then dies, instantly, leaving you just as groggy as you were prior to your half-hearted primal scream. You notice, all at once, that your heater is blowing full power and you reach out and crank it down, disappointed you didn’t notice that earlier. You roll down your window and frigid air plows in and blows your death-by-procrastination paperwork piled in the backseat into a roiling tumult of stapled papers, folders, food wrappers and lost socks. You buzz the window closed and readjust your hips in the seat, squinting out the windshield toward the miles yet to cover. Within five minutes you’re nodding off again, despite yourself.

“Damn…” you say to yourself. “I gotta sleep.” You scan both sides of the freeway for somewhere and eventually, in a do-or-die attitude, like deciding whether or not to chew your frozen mountaineering partner’s flesh, you swerve into the parking lot of an in-between convenience store, try to inconspicuously find a quiet place to park. Finally, you resignedly park at the edge of the lot where it’s clear this is where the employees park, one of the bumpers hosting two stickers, one reading: “ObamaCare Doesn’t Care!” the other reading: “NRA Get Outa My Way!” So you know it’s someone who just likes adhesive stickers and whatever talk-radio/parent/co-worker is loudest.

You put the car in park, shut off the engine, crank back the seat so you’re all but lying down, pull your hat over your face, take a deep breath and exhale slowly, like someone about to be hypnotized. The engine ticks as it cools and small puffs of cold air find their way through the window glass. Still, you’re warm. And relaxed. You sense you’re in that twilight wilderness between consciousness and not, that critical real estate that must be traversed toward satisfying sleep, or retreated from in favor of wakefulness, however miserable — that purgatory place only meant for transition, not habitation in full.

There’s a rapping on the glass above your head and you fly like Peter Pan, through space and time, back to inhabit your body, your sleepland opportunity now lost. The rapping noise continues, insistently. You pull the hat off your face and tip yourself up on your elbows, squinting upward, sun cracking in.

“What?!” you say to the face peering in. Early 20-something at most. Thin, straw-colored chin hair, sprigging downward at you. “What do you want?” you say again, really wanting to know.

“Oh,” the chin says back. “I was just wondering if you were sleeping here or what? Just checking.”

You let your elbows down and fall back, pull the hat over your face again. You hear the kid crunch away through the snow, open his car door, then close it, turn the ignition and drive off. The silence feels good, but temporary.

“Yes,” you say to yourself. “I was sleeping,” you say. And your eyes, behind your hat, won’t stay closed.

Cloquet resident Parnell Thill, former Pine Knot author of “Notes From the Small Pond” column for nearly a decade, is working on a collection of short stories by the same title, along with other writing projects.