Tethered to Nothing can be purchased at Amazon.com in either paperback or Kindle versions, or downloaded for your iPad or iPhone from either iBooks.com or Smashwords.com.
From the author of "non-Hollywood" and "The 33rd Year" comes a collection of short stories, poems and song lyrics. From a player trapped in an elevator to a farmer with a library addiction to a young woamn who is the unwilling center of a religion, Neal A. Yeager manages to create unforgettable characters with an unmistakable streak of humanity.
"A hitchhiker changed my life once," said the beaming driver of the pickup truck to the young man carrying the gas can, "Hop in."
The greasy-haired young man had been standing at the side of the road holding a small gas can and smoking a cigarette when the truck had pulled up. Motionless beside his tattered automobile, which sat dead before his apartment, the young man hadn't really been looking for a ride; was in no particular hurry to get to the gas station then back to his home.
There was nothing for him here.
Yet he accepted the ride. The young man moved his slim frame toward the door silently, slowly, as if his shoes were weighted down with lead and heated to the point that they bonded with the asphalt of the street. He opened the door of the pickup truck with an arthritic motion and climbed into the passenger's seat, trailing an aura of crimson despair behind him.
"Yeah, you know you're lucky that I came along here," said the driver with the wide smile of a zealot, "A lot of people these days don't bother to pick up hitchhikers when they see 'em. They hear all of these stories about things that happen to people who pick up hitchhikers and they think that somebody they pick up's gonna slash 'em from their throat to their belly button. But I believe in picking up hitchhikers. I've always believed in picking up hitchhikers. I never could just drive right by someone in need of a ride and let 'em walk their dogs off," said the driver with good cheer. His devastatingly chipper expression made it obvious that he was thrilled to have a passenger in the cab. The most sincere of smiles gleamed upon his chubby face, as his gray hair curled out from under his cap in a surprisingly boyish fashion. He writhed in his seat like a child, excited to share the details of his school day. "Especially now," he continued, "It used to be I'd pick 'em up just if I was going their direction. But now -- hell now I'll go out of my way to take a hitchhiker where he needs to go. And do you know why that is? It's because back a few months ago a hitchhiker changed my life."
The driver ground the truck into gear and started once more down the street. As the vehicle accelerated, the passenger gazed out of the window and thought of the world passing by; draining away behind him into the cool blur of the past. He closed the lids over his hazy gray eyes and thought of the things that had been left behind.
And of the things yet to be left behind.
"I was heading into town one day, and there was this fella walking down Route 7 and he stuck his thumb out when he heard me coming up close. And there was something about him that looked kinda, I dunnow, out of place. Looked kinda, well, kinda proper I guess is the only word I can think of right now. He wasn't a suit-and-tie type. Not that he wasn't wearing nice clothes -- corduroy, I think. And maybe proper wasn't the right word to use after all." The driver paused as if searching for a proper substitute for the word proper. He seemed not to find one so merely launched back into his story, "But anyways, it turns out that he's a professor over at the university. And his car run out of gas like I guess yours did, so I picked him up. And turns out he's a real nice guy, real pleasant. He asked me questions like he was really interested -- instead of just to be asking questions. Which is good 'cause you know sometimes -- and I hate to generalize -- but sometimes them college teachers can be real snobs."
"And anyways, while we're talking, I find myself thinking that this guy is smart. Damned smart. You know, I never went to college. I see these kids all passing through there and I think that's great for them, you know. They've got some brains in their heads, so they're heading off to get more brains. I chose a different course in my life. I came out of high school and joined the service. I spent several years in Germany -- not in the war; I ain't that old, despite what you might think. No wars when I was in, and when I was in I was in Germany. Don't know how the hell I managed that one, but I did. But back to college. I have to say that I kinda looked up to people who had the brains to go to college. And I won't pretend that I wasn't a little jealous about people like that. And listening to this fella, I just came right out and said to him, 'Damn, I wish I was as smart as you.' And that's when he turned to me. And he said -- and I swear I'll never forget this -- and he said, 'I'm no smarter than you are. I've just learned to use my brain in a different manner.'"
"Now I'm sitting there thinking 'learned to use his brain in a different manner?' Now what the hell was that supposed to mean? I'm looking at this guy, and he knows all the right words to say and I'm sure he knows plenty of other stuff we ain't talked about. So I ask him, 'what the hell does that mean? I mean, you're obviously smart. A whole lot smarter than me, that's for sure.'"
"And he looks back at me and says, 'No.' And I just looked at him. Then -- oh yeah, at the time I happened to have a bunch of tools in the cab of the truck -- then he says to me, 'If we took this saw and we sawed off the top of each of our skulls, then took a peek inside, do you know what? My brain and your brain would look the same. We've both got the same gray matter upstairs. The organs are the same.' So, I'm looking back at him and I'm about to say something and he says, 'My brain is the same as your brain, is the same as Einstein's brain, is the same as a professional boxer's brain, is the same as the brain of the man in the car we just passed. Our brains are all physically the same.' That's what he told me: 'our brains are physically the same.'"
As the driver talked away, his silent passenger merely stared out the window. The passenger's cigarette had burned down to its end; smothered itself to death in its own filter. He tossed it out through the open chasm of the window and wondered if he had ever really been happy. Had any enjoyment managed to slip into his life in intervals longer than a few hours at most? My God, it was strange to think this now, cruising toward the gas station, that he hadn't managed to yank that elusive bit of happiness out of his short years. He clutched at the gas can; pulled it close to him; cradled it like a newborn. He needed the gasoline, that much was true. The only way that he could think to get this all taken care of and put behind him would be for him to go down to the station, pick up some gasoline, and bring it back to his home.
Before getting the ride, the passenger had every intention of walking the two miles to the gas station and back. It would have given him time to think about things. But now that he had accepted the ride, his time for thinking was running short.
But maybe that was for the best. After all, what had ever come from prolonged thinking other than misery?
Meanwhile, the driver continued speaking, "So, I'm looking at him and I say, 'well there's gotta be more to it than that, 'cause you're a hell of a lot smarter than I am.' And he says, 'No.' Then he goes on to tell me that if I wanted to train my brain in some way other than the way I had, I could do it. So I told him, 'Hell, I ain't trained my brain at all.' And he says, 'That's not true. For instance, what sort of things do you know about?' I told him I didn't know nothing about nothing. And he gets after me some more, so I tell him that I'm a farmer, so I know about farming, and that's about it. And his face lights up and he says, 'There you go! You know about farming. I, on the other hand, don't have a clue about farming. When I drive out of the city on the Interstate I see all of these farms and all that I can honestly say that I know about them is that they are farms. Which makes me pretty stupid about farms, wouldn't you say?' And I look back at him and say, well there ain't a hell of a lot to it.' And he say, 'I'll bet that there is. I'll bet that if you sat down and attempted to tell me what you know about farming, you would find that you knew so much that you wouldn't know where to begin. And,' he says, 'you are selling yourself short if you honestly believe that I possess brains that you don't.'"
"So I says, 'That all sounds good and everything, but I couldn't never make it through college. Hell, I barely made it through high school.' He says, 'you could make it through college if you wanted to. You could get a Ph.D. if you wanted to. It's all a matter of training your mind in that particular direction.'"
The passenger stared unseeing before him. Somewhere -- perhaps in Shakespeare -- there was a very eloquent statement about the hell that he was now going through. But it too was lost somewhere; somewhere back there in that coolness which whipped past the window. His eyes came into focus on an object on the dashboard in front of him -- as he thought how strange it was that a human deep in thought became myopic and failed to see even the plainest objects right in front of his face -- and saw that it was a book on computer science entitled The Evolution of the Electronic Mind.
A further examination of the cab by the passenger revealed a beaten-up mess with a faded dashboard and dirty vinyl seats -- reminiscent of his own decaying vehicle. His gaze traveled across the floor -- noting several rusted areas on the floorboard, one so severe that the roadway was plainly visible dashing below a spot near his left foot. Yet his gaze wouldn't travel up to meet the face of his driver.
He again turned his head toward the window and let his mind fall blank. It was all that he could think to do, given the present state of things. He began to think of the gasoline it was his mission to acquire. He wondered if it would somehow bring him happiness; allow him to be transported away from all of his problems and into a land of bliss.
"Anyways, after I dropped him off, I went back home, didn't think nothing about it -- mainly because I didn't believe him. But then it started creeping in on me, you know? This really smart fella telling me that I was just as smart as he was? Now how in the hell could I not think about that, I ask you? So the next day I'm out on my tractor. And when you're out on a tractor your mind wanders. You're out in this big field and you're just kinda going back and forth and back and forth. And I started thinking more about what this guy had said to me. How he was saying that I had the same brains that he did. And I wondered now what would I know that was as much as what this guy could know?"
"Then an idea came to me. I thought that instead of just sitting around wondering about what this guy said, I'd go try to find out if what he said was true. They've got that big ol' library down at the university, so I went there and asked the librarian -- this red-headed little girl, must've been a student -- for a book on the brain. And she looked at me like I'd just escaped from the loony bin or something but she showed me how to look stuff up on the computers. Then I went upstairs and I got this book on the brain and I went home and I opened it up and...it was complete gobbledygook. I didn't understand a damn thing. I turned to this page on the anterior thalamus and I just stared at it you know. It was like looking at Japanese or something. I mean, maybe Einstein might know what an anterior thalamus was, but I sure as hell didn't have a clue."
The pickup truck pulled into the nearly empty gas station. The passenger opened the creaky truck door and slid out of the vehicle without a word to the driver. He fished in his pocket for some cash; found only three crumpled dollar bills.
But it would be enough.
The driver leaned over the passenger's side of the seat and spoke to the young man through the open door, "I got dejected, and I drove right back into town that night, went back to the library and I slipped that book right back into the old return slot."
The young man pumped the gasoline into the small can. As he bent over the can the sweet petroleum fumes wafted up through the air to greet his nose. The gentle inhalations of the tainted air gave him a slightly high feeling; as if he were weightless, floating on air. But all too brief was the feeling as the pump snapped off and his consciousness fell back upon the earth. He capped the can, handed the three bills to the attendant, and climbed back into the truck, cradling the can once more.
"Then the next day I'm out there on my tractor, just thinking away again and something suddenly occurs to me. It hit me," said the driver as he thumped the steering wheel for effect, "It hit me like some religious painting, you know? I could almost see this glorious sunlight breaking through the clouds and hear a chorus of angels ringing in my ears," he said with his hands lifted off the steering wheel, palms toward heaven, "What occurs to me is: maybe Einstein wouldn't know what an anterior thalamus was."
"Now I was damn lucky that I was way out in the middle of the field when this thought hit me, because I was just driving in a trance for probably a minute. If I would've been near the fence I would've plowed right over it and out into the Interstate."
"But it was such an amazing thought that maybe Einstein wouldn't have any more of a clue about that brain book than I did. Maybe if you said 'anterior thalamus' to him, he'd have the same blank stare that I did. Maybe he didn't know shit about anterior thalamuses," said the driver with glee, "Then I thought about what that professor had said about my knowing farming, and I thought about my tractor. I mean, I can fix anything on that tractor, I know it inside and out. But I'll bet if this tractor was broken down and I marched Einstein out here into this field, he wouldn't know a damn thing about it. Who knows? Maybe he'd be one of those people who doesn't even know what a spark plug does," he gripped the wheel in excitement, "But I DO! "
As the truck rounded a corner the driver came down a bit from the high of his Einstein revelation. He settled back in the seat and adjusted the cap on his head, "So maybe it ain't such a stretch to think that Einstein wouldn't know what an anterior thalamus was. But you know what the difference was between me and Einstein? I'll bet that Einstein could read a book about the brain, or a book about tractors and he could figure it all out. He wouldn't give up and return the book to the library. He'd figure it all out. That's what I got to thinking."
"So that evening I go back down to the library. And of course that same girl's there and she looks at me like I'm even more of a lunatic today for asking for the same book that I got yesterday. And I have to tell her that I took it back yesterday too. Anyways, I get the book and I tried reading it again. And guess what? It was still gobbledygook. It still didn't make no sense. It took me two weeks to get through that sucker and still, almost none of it made sense. I felt like I wasted my time. I felt like I was stupid. I felt like everybody in the world must be smarter than me."
"Then after that I'm out on the tractor again, feeling depressed and all. And it starts creeping into my mind that, you know, I actually did learn some stuff from that book. I learned what the brain stem was. I'd heard people talk about a brain stem but I never had any idea what it was. Now I knew that that was the most basic part of your brain where the most basic, life sustaining functions happen. And I learned that it's called the reptilian brain because lizards and stuff only have that much of a brain. We've got that part of the brain just like a lizard, but we've got layers and layers on top of it -- the smarter the animal, the more layers of brain they've got. And I realized that I understood that from that first reading. I knew what the hell a brain stem was. I knew that brains have layers and that our brains have more layers than a lizard's brain and that's why most people are smarter than lizards are."
"After that, I decided to read the damn book again. And you know what? It started to make sense. I actually started to learn. Me! I was actually starting to make sense of a book on the brain. And suddenly I felt great. Here I was, learning things; arranging my brain just like that smart fella from the university had arranged his. And maybe, I thought, maybe he had even read this same book that I had read. And maybe if I could read this sucker until I understood every goddamned word in there, then he would be right, I would be just as smart about the brain as he was, because we got the information from the same damn place!"
"So I read that damn book five times. Well, I didn't read the whole thing five times, just the parts that I didn't understand on other times through. I read it over and over and over and over and over until it made some sense."
"And I go and start telling my family and my friends all about the brain. And they're all looking at me like I'm nuts of course. I think my son didn't want to come home there for a while because he thought his old dad had flipped or something -- thought I'd been out on that tractor in the sun too long. But I wasn't crazy. No."
The driver turned to the passenger, and with a distinct gleam in his eyes said, "I was enlightened. "
The young man looked down and noticed a small pool of gasoline soaking into the thigh of his pants. As he had been pumping the gasoline an excess of the liquid had spilled out upon the top and settled along the rim, and now that the truck was moving it was spilling down the side of the can. In the sunlight the passenger could see the twisted petroleum rainbows which formed in the thin film as it slid down the side of the can and down to his pants.
He wasn't concerned about the mess. He was on his way home and would take care of things there.
The smell of gasoline was penetrating through the air of the truck cab. Even though the windows were open wide and the breeze of a vehicle in steady motion whirled around inside, the passenger still could smell the rise of fumes.
Building up. Taking over. Drowning him. Rescuing him.
"Then another realization came to me," the driver continued as he turned his enthusiastic eyes back toward the road, "if I could use my brain to learn stuff about the brain, then I could use my brain to learn stuff about all kinds of other stuff. So I went back to the library -- this time that little red-headed girl wasn't there -- and I walk in the front door and say, 'what can I learn now?' There was a whole library full of stuff to learn. It's a damned amazing thing when you think about it: here was this huge building just full of stuff to learn."
"But I didn't know what I wanted to learn. I just wanted to learn something. So, I'm walking over to the computer catalogue to look up something to learn, and I hear these two kids over at the side of the room talking in French. And that made me think about when I was stationed in Germany. You'd go out to the local bars, and not know what people were saying. I mean, they'd talk to you in English -- you could always get a drink because they knew your language -- but when they talked amongst themselves you never knew what the hell they were saying. Of course when you don't understand what someone's saying, you get paranoid that they're talking about you. So anyways, I decided I'd learn German and I checked out some of these language tapes."
"So I take the tapes with me out on my tractor. Now people really think that I'm nuts because I'm out there alone on my tractor talking to myself in German. But you know what? I'm getting the hang of it. It's slow, but I've already gotten through the first two levels and I'm getting a basic comprehension of the German language. Now all I need is someone to speak it with so that I can get better at it. It doesn't make much sense to say, 'Good afternoon Mr. Schmidt. It is a beautiful day for a picnic' in German to yourself. And now that I've started to learn German, I actually want to get some books on English. Because it seems kinda weird to be learning another language when I'm not that great at the one I already speak -- but now I know that I could be. I just have to train my mind that way.
My God, thought the passenger again, how had things ever gotten to this point?
"Now I've become an addict. A library addict. I go there to learn everything that I can think of to learn about. Sometimes I just walk towards a shelf and pick out something at random and that's how I choose. I learned about Machu Picchu that way. Do you know Machu Picchu? It's in Peru. They've got all these really cool-looking ruins there and the whole damn place is built up on the side of a cliff. The pictures were just. . . I don't know. "Beautiful" is I guess the right word."
"Actually, I'm headed to the library right now. I've gotta return these computer books -- yeah, I'm learning about computers. Me! Of all people! I never in my goddamned life thought that I'd know how to use a computer. But I've been learning on the ones there in the library and I'm hoping to get my own here real soon. I've found a bunch of stuff for farmers -- crop statistics, weather info, and the like. I want to use the computer to find some people in Germany that I can talk to over the computer, and they can help me practice my German. Maybe if I'm real lucky, I can talk to a German farmer."
"And then I gotta work on my English grammar and stuff because I realize that I don't sound like a smart guy. That professor I picked up, he sounded like a smart guy. Now, I don't want to sound like I think I'm hoity-toity, but I wanna learn how not to sound not smart. Because every day of my life I'm growing smarter and smarter."
The driver beamed happily. He was obviously proud of his accomplishments. Buy beyond that was a zealous urgency to transmit what he had learned on to another human being "I never gave much thought to life before, you know?" he said, "I just lived it. But now I see that there's so much more than just living it. There's just so much more that I wanna get out of it. It's exciting! I don't have to be just a farmer -- now don't get me wrong, I'm proud of what I do, and I'm not gonna give it up for nobody. But, what I'm saying is that I don't have to limit myself to that. I could be a farmer who's an expert in particle physics. Or I could be a farmer who paints the next Mona Lisa. Or I could be a farmer who designs a faster computer chip." His pace quickened as the blood rushed to his excited face, "'Cause I've got the same brain as Einstein! And so do you, and so does a professional boxer, and so does the guy in the car we just passed. And if we all learned how to use that brain. GOD DAMN!," he shrieked joyously as he squirmed in the driver's seat, "Think about where we'd be: a world full of Einsteins. It's completely possible! Think of it!"
The truck pulled to a stop before the spot where the driver had picked up the passenger, next to his bruised and beaten car. The passenger put his hand to the scratched and rusted door latch. As he opened the creaky door once more, his thin, gravely voice uttered the only word he would ever utter to the driver.
"God, I wish I could get across to you just how excited I am about this! It's such a thrill to be learning! I feel like a born-again Christian, only I'm a born-again Thinker! It's a GODDAMNED GLORIOUS THING!" The driver wrapped his arms around the wheel, hugging it in rapture -- as if he wanted to pull the entire vehicle into himself, "And imagine how it would be if the entire world was so excited about learning! Do you think there'd be wars in a world full of Einsteins? DO YOU?!"
"Our brains are carrying around the secrets for a Goddamned UTOPIA! It's right there in our grasp, if we would just reach out and grab it! We just have to make an effort to use them layers of brain above the brain stem and a life of perfection is ours!" The driver fell back in his seat, panting with the exhilaration of his verbal climax.
As the driver pulled away and headed once more in the direction of the library which had been his original destination, the passenger heard the friendly honk of the truck's horn.
The young man didn't turn his head toward the truck as it sped away into that cool blur of the past. Instead, he uncapped the can of gasoline, tossing the plastic top casually into the gutter. He held the can high above his head and stared, transfixed as the rainbows played upon the side of the shiny metal surface. Finally, he tipped the angle of the can and the gasoline poured out. He was buoyed by the lightness in the smell of it; overpowered by the sweetness of its liquid.
The former passenger reached into his pocket and pulled out a cigarette -- which he then slid between his moist lips -- and his silver-plated lighter.
"Yessiree," said the driver to himself with glee, "the brain is a powerful, wonderful thing," and looked into his rear-view mirror just in time to see his former passenger's clothing burst into flames.