The morning fog still hangs heavy in the air, its dense white accumulation clouding my view abroad, and symbolically foreshadowing what I am to expect each new day on the commute. Sliding the key into the ignition, I rotate my wrist forward and cue the serenade of guttural groans inharmoniously vocalized by my cold diesel engine. The dashboard lights flicker like eyelids slowly opening and closing as to gently allow entrance to the morning light. I slide the gear into reverse, and the car groans, a plea to stay in bed. Now in first gear, his unbalanced feet have hit the cold floor, and it’s time to go.
The commute is a two lane country road in Serbia from Subotica to Senta. It covers nearly 60 kilometers of small villages and vast farmland. On an average day, I arrive to work in less than one hour. Exiting Subotica, I enter into a minefield of deteriorated road, potholes abound, flexing my suspension with each step. The road condition later improves, and I begin to replace loose items, now scattered about the interior. The most important of these items is the iPad, the source of my daily podcasts. Podcasts are series of digital audio files that are released episodically, and range from a variety of topics. Weekly, I listen to podcasts that contain messages from my church back home in Kentucky, or reviews and previews for each American football game. One podcast, “Stuff You Should Know,” answers some of life’s bigger questions, like “How Silly Putty Works?”
Between Subotica and Senta, there is only one required turn and is otherwise straight, yet most days it resembles an Indy Car circuit due to the many developments present on and alongside the road. I increased the volume on the podcast to suppress the repetitious pant of the engine as I neared a railroad crossing. Out of a small shack, a man appeared waving a red flag as to warn drivers of an incoming train. The train appeared and disappeared very quickly, having only two cars. Only the graffiti seemed to linger amidst the blur. The man lowered his flag and returned to the solitary of his shack, whilst I continued across the tracks. The fog had not yet lifted, and thus the visibility remained very poor. I quickly approached the red tail-lights of an old Yugo, a common sub-compact car here in Serbia. The car was inching along, puttering nearly 30 kph below the speed limit. I was in a cloud, the red Yugo amidst a blanket of white. Pulling into the lane of oncoming traffic, I relied on faith hoping to see a glimmering whimper of yellow, a warning to return back to my lane. I saw no such color, and successfully passed the Yugo; inside, an old Baba with a white-knuckled grip on the wheel, eyes squinted, and head strained forward.
The fog eventually burned off, but it wasn’t until I had to pass more Babas in Yugos with blind faith. Now with more clarity, I was able to maximize the speed limit. Freshly burnt fields raced alongside my car; their black, charred remains, a sign the harvest is over. Nearing one of the three villages along the commute, I was taken back to the bonfires of my youth with the warm smell of chimney smoke. The road was now littered with bicycles, Babas and Dedas pedaling away. There were steel water jugs on the rear of these cycles, always two to balance the load. The water inside was most likely from the local well. The Babas and Dedas’ sense of direction was clearing failing though, as they repeatedly wandered in front of my car. Swerving in and out, I navigated the maze of geriatrics successfully.
Arriving into the center of this small village, an enormous church sits at the right, shadowing the streets below from the sun. It is said this church is a replica of one in Italy, built for a city. Here in this diminutive village, it resembles a fortress.
Upon exiting the village, I was stuck behind a large truck with no chance to pass. A plume of gray-black smoke bled from its exhaust and consumed my car, permeating through the vents. I gasped inhaling the carbon-dioxide infused cancer, it saturating my lungs. My chest burned, and I coughed with no relief. I slammed close the vents and covered my mouth with a sleeve. Even after passing the truck, my lungs still panged as I took in fresh air; the capillaries seemingly clogged with soot.
Further into the commute, I had to circumnavigate more obstacles, of which there were now horse-drawn wagons and tractors to go with the Baba-driven Yugos. I had just accelerated to cruising speed when I crested a small hill and caught glance of the horse-drawn wagon ahead of me, moving at a leisurely pace in my lane. I slowed quickly, the iPad sliding forward and off the passenger seat, disconnecting the headphones from my ears. “Silly Putty is a non-Newtonian fluid, which means it…” The iPad with headphones, and consequently my podcast collected on the floorboard, only a murmured and inaudible explanation of non-Newtonian fluids resonated. Now, closely trailing the wagon, farm debris, or more specifically corn stalks, caught wind and settled on my windshield. I engaged the wipers, ridding the debris from my view, and promptly passed the wagon at my first chance. As I looked into my rearview mirror, the now departing horse appeared unaffected by the loud manner resounding from my accelerated engine.
Ahead, in the oncoming lane, a growling ogre on wheels took up both lanes. This farm tractor had what resembled four large teeth protruding out, hungry to devour my car. I passed unscathed, but was forced off the road to make room for the mechanical beast. In the past, I have seen other cars, which have seemingly lost their ways and ended up buried in stalks of corn, or overturned in a field of disinterested sunflowers, faces drawn up instead towards the sun. I speculate these cars were also forced off the road, fearful of these massive rumbling and groaning monster tractors.
The commute through the final two villages was no more eventful than the first. The now common warm smells continued to greet me with warm memories of Christmas, and the bicycles still continued to believe they were akin to cars, in need of the whole road. On the outset of the final village, there was a man aside the road, arm lifted, hand formed into a loose fist, and thumb erect; the international sign for “hey, may I hitch a ride?” In the US, hitchhikers are now rare, which is especially surprising due to the distance between US cities and the heavy reliance on automobile transportation. As a child, I remember seeing hitchhikers, roadside with their thumbs up, an entreating look on their faces. However, there were some isolated accounts where hitchhikers had turned on the commuters who granted them transport, stealing their possessions, and sometimes murdering them. Therefore, as any loving parent would do, I was discouraged from picking up hitchhikers from an early age. Today, the man’s entreating face soured in discouragement as I passed him and remained fixed with a frown as the two cars behind me followed suit.
Outside the village, I recommenced a faster speed. The road was straight, and the land lay flat. Visibility was the best it had been during the entire commute. Running parallel to each lane was high grass, so thick that whatever lurked inside remained hidden from this aforementioned increased visibility. Unlike the horse pulling the wagon, the large pheasants inside this brush were stirred by the bark of my engine. Several pheasants took to a frightened flight curiously in the direction of the road instead of away from it. The fatter one didn’t ascend quickly enough. The fatter one rocked the car with astounding force upon impact. The fatter one showered the departing road in a plume of feathers. My father travels half way across the US to hunt pheasants. I hunt them on the commute to work, and have no need for a gun or dogs. In this high season for pheasants, the bark of my engine coupled with blunt force trauma inflicted by my car at 100 kph is enough to put dinner on the table or a trophy on the wall.
I arrived into Senta shortly thereafter, feathers still stuck in my windshield wipers. The factory is in the industrial part of town, and my car kicked up heaps of dust in the final straight-away. I pulled into my parking space five minutes later, and slid the gear into park. Outside, the morning air hung heavy with dust; the sun reflecting through the particles distorting my view like a kaleidoscope. The podcast had only just concluded, and I slid my hand behind the wheel and gripped the ignition key, rotating my hand backward. The dashboard lights slowly faded out and the groans of the engine ceased. Then there was silence, a retreat back to slumber. The commute was over; my day was young. Sleep well car, for tonight, the commute takes on a new challenge. Darkness.