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Short Fiction: ‘Highway 204, Revisited’

The old man traverses the highway median using a 9 iron as a walking stick, the blade hitting the ground in a canted way so that his legs give – just slightly – with every striding attempt at support. Not enough give to be considered any kind of curtsy. He grips the golf club like a ski pole instead of like a golf club, stabbing at the ground and stumbling forward, as the weighted club head twists back toward him. He continues this way, turning heads. In no respect is he being obstinate by holding the golf club in a more traditional fashion while using it for an obviously different purpose – the idea of the club head as a natural cane handle whose opposing pole would make level, consistent contact with the ground just hasn’t occurred to him. He’s holding the iron in the direction it is intended to be held, weight falling toward earth.

Weeds and overgrown grass in the median seem to have developed a bad case of palsy in the afternoon wind, which attacks from no discernible direction. The wind causes what’s left of the hair on the old man’s scalp to make similar grotesque dancing motions. Cars drift along both sides of the highway divide in opposing directions, as if two different manifestations of time.

The old man’s skin is the color of scar tissue, a color you can’t determine whether is caused by over- or under- exposure to the sun, a color you usually find on newborn babies still moist from the womb’s sauna. Its smoothness is consistent with its color. He doesn’t appear to remember the posture of being cradled. Crawling, on the other hand.

Someone driving by in a shell-like Jeep Wrangler yells Fore! from the car’s doorless driver side and tosses a styrofoam cup half full of pink smoothie that lands at the old man’s feet and explodes onto his velcro sneakers. The person is likely young. He has passed along with the sweep of time in his Jeep Wrangler, his actions left behind him in a past with which he refuses to make any kind of acquaintance. The old man ignores the apparent vomit on his sneakers, stops in front of a metal pole with a circular orange reflector attached to the top on both sides. The pole looks like a translucent sucker that has been tongue-eroded by a child to its last visible molecule; at nighttime, when caught in headlights, more like a cigarette in the ground’s mouth emitting a single ember at its tip. To the old man, the pole is a landmark. It indicates the end of one median and the possibility of another. America is pocked with these landmarks.

Across the street sits the Vann Thomas Motel. Everything about it implies a time that isn’t here and now. For starters, it’s a motel. Color TV is the only advertised amenity. The rotting wooden structure of the facades and awnings is topographic. Some doorways remain open, but not inviting. Smoking residents who prefer their carbon monoxide intake amid fresh air squat on their haunches outside of their respective rooms’ bare doorways, indicating the Vann Thomas has some kind of ban on lawn furniture. The total number of rooms is likely one a high school student could count to in Spanish.

The old man crosses the street during a red light, beginning at yellow caution to ensure himself enough time. The sound of the golf club head grazing cement is universally sickening, like teeth biting into a curb. His figure crossing the road – as viewed in mirrors and through un-paned glass – sets itself in stark contrast to the stalling cars. He shuffles left along the X axis as they wait on Y. His short bursts of movement at negative tick mark intervals are visible at a stoplight a half mile down the road. Highways tend to be the only landscapes outside of seashores that provide such a clear and extensive panorama, one notes.

The old man walks into the motel’s parking lot, first passing its rhomboid sign that leans to the west, influence of wind undetermined. A woman behind the front office window turns her head the other way as someone approaches, out of habit. Twin vending machines hum in conflicting minor keys. The whole place emits the melancholy air of a miniature golf course, as its stumbling customer’s club head catches in potholes 1 through 18 on his journey through the parking lot.

Several motel doors before the old man remain closed. He walks toward the missing tooth between doors number 5 and 7. She stands against the door jamb with a lit cigarette in one hand and an unlit cigarette on deck in the other. Chain smoking with the same urgency in which you move your lips to replace your thumb on a beach ball nipple to avoid losing air. She speaks around the cigarette and its smoke, words that have been uttered before. Nothing new.

‘Somethin Ah kin help yew with?’

The air conditioner groans from its spot half-in and half-out of the window sill, leaking, dripping at a steady rate that could easily replace the second as the standard unit for time. She looks as if she were born wearing makeup, and the makeup has been rubbed away over the years by tears and fists and other elements, leaving her eroded. Teeth are not revealed but are clearly flush with the gum line, judging by her speech.

‘Ah said.’ She repeats her question.

He pulls something ancient and quilted from his jacket pocket. She tucks the unlit cigarette behind her pierced upper earlobe and extends her hand. He places a wad of bills, folded over in total supplication, in her outstretched palm, and crosses the threshold into the motel room, dropping his 9 iron onto the carpeted floor. The door behind him remains open. He can hear faintly the motorized battle of time as background noise.

‘Yew ain’t poh-lease, is yuh?’ She asks the question already knowing the answer to be irrelevant. She unfolds the money and conducts her version of counting the bills, focusing more on quantity than printed value. She counts again, nods or shakes her head, and places the money in her sweatpants pocket, somewhere away from her heart and near her pack of smokes.

The old man stands in the room, scans it as if in appraisal. Perhaps in comparison. Lamps without shades support luminous, bare bulbs. Wallpaper peels from corners and seams, curling away from mold. Stale crusts of various fast food items rest on all surfaces. Rolls of aluminum foil stored in the corner seem to be the only objects of preservation in the room.

She enters and kneels in front of him. The door is still open. She begins the process of untucking his shirt.

‘What tha fuck did yew wear a belt for?’

She laughs, spits onto the carpet, oblivious to environment. He doesn’t respond. The belt is braided, like a young girl’s hair. She struggles pulling the prong out through the slit. His chinos are the kind that have two buttons, one visible and one fastened inside the waistline. Frustrated, she yanks the pants at the pleated thighs, breaking the second button, dropping them to his ankles – the fashion choice of so many vulnerable men in bathroom stalls.

She looks up at him from her knees, the height of a child, looking up with incredulity, as he looks down with understanding. Behind her eyes are clouds. The surface above the clouds is so clear and placid it might as well be reflective.

From my view by the highway, she might be praying for forgiveness.

 

 

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