Roadside

First place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest Roadside Nissa Cannon       I am dreaming about the aftermath of an earthquake—pooling honey and glass on the floor—when she calls from a hospital below the northern border, in a town we’d once known nearly well enough to call home.  I wonder what trail of breadcrumbs she’s followed. She says there is no rush, and I’ve learned not to ask for answers she hasn’t given.       Pammy has always been good at hiding things. At sixteen she hid condoms in purses, needles in lockers, cash in grab-and-go locations.  At six she hid her favorite dolls from me and Halloween candy like a squirrel’s horde.  She has spent her life trying to find things to hide the cracks from when our family bent and broke.        Pulling onto the highway I am unburdened by the familiar ghosts of things that were or might have been, but I know they will grow dense and tug at me as I drive.        At mile 300 I pull into a gas station thrust up against the back of a local airport paved with plants gone to seed.  Behind the carcass of the hanger are hills that must fill with lupines in spring.  On the horizon the sky is still blue where the sun used to be and the temperature doesn’t flag.       Next to the white noise of the freeway, two hotels perch like Siamese Twins, with “Vacancy” signs orange and buzzing in the night.  In the tepid night I am consumed with questions about how many pieces I will find Pammy in this time, and how I’ll know when we’ve reached the point of no return.       I follow a route traced in pencil on a AAA map, choosing the roads I’ve mostly chosen to avoid—roads that no longer lead where they used to, no longer lead home.  My route north will be pilgrimage and benediction.  If I pass through all the stations of our cartographic cross perhaps this time I’ll find her whole on the other side.       Each mile, each exit, an annotation: here is where I let a plastic horse drop from the window and cried until I ran out of breath.  Here is where we passed a car that had been on fire, the husks of flares beside it.  Here is the pool where Pammy made me swear I’d never kissed anyone, and five years later confided she’d once been pregnant, ducking her head underwater when I tried to look in her eyes.  Here’s a payphone I once tried calling home from to see if someone answered.       I drive past the places we would stop for clear plastic bags of fruit, the juice running down our arms.  Returning to the car, the pleather seats too hot to touch, we’d sit on bleached towels that bunched under our legs.  The marks the seat left looked like pebbles or ceiling tiles.         I drive the miles we’d stare out the windows and count cows or coax honks from the semis.  I pass the fields over which we watched the daytime moon climb the sky, clear as a fingernail, seemingly shrinking with each rung.       Along this road is a KOA advertising a waterslide, when all they had was a piece of cracked plastic leading into a pool full of sugar-glazed children.  We made friends with a girl driving to Arizona, and she took us back to a car that smelled like sawdust and something unpleasant and showed us her six hamsters, lying near-dead in the summer heat, breathing like asthmatic runners.        Around that curve will be a convenience store we stopped at the year we learned what neck muscles looked like tensed for a fight.  The man behind the counter had had hair like Elvis and a nametag reading “Rajit.”  I’d handed him bills soggy from my father’s pocket and his hands looked so clean I was embarrassed and pressed them against the soda sides to explain away their dampness.  He’d dropped my change on the counter without touching my hand.       All that summer we sat in the back seat, silent, slapping each other’s hands to words we mouthed without saying aloud, afraid to break the truce.        At a hotel advertising two swimming pools, Pammy and I watched our wet footprints dry as soon as we put down the opposite foot, and lay belly-down on the poolside—the smell of steamy chlorine and hot cement a heady mix.  On our stomachs we could see rusting metal chair legs and the bodies of wasps fished out of the pool.       Later, through the open door, I watched Dad with his knees drawn stiffly together on the side of the bed, talking into the phone, and Mom pacing circles on the balcony that hugged the hotel like a noose.  This is where I knew our family would soon be over.         Passing a payphone, I wonder if I should call Pammy, but I keep driving.  I have repeated too many times that where she sees shards among the wreckage, I see fragments of what we were before we broke.  I have not found new words to say this.       I drive past the places where we looked for her when she ran away: the alley behind Safeway, the aqua green motel.  I pass the place we found her once in a trailer with a man with a tattoo of Jesus on one arm.  I pass the place I found her once with her bare feet full of glass.       A hundred miles west of here is the hospital where I last sat up all night with her, while the revolving shift of nurses came and went.  It’s not just memories which repeat between us.       I am almost to my destination, a place familiar and yet strange, which like my sister both eludes me and is eternally mine.         I turn off the highway onto a road dense with trees.  I’ve seen owls in these trees, and something I thought was a ghost.  We didn’t come back here after Dad left, and the ghost I feel now is our long expired car pulling along beside me. I draw closer and the road seems less familiar, and I don’t know which bend will bring me face to face with her, but in my heart I know things will be no different than they have always been.       I will drive her to a spot one of us calls home, passing back through these same places again.  She will remind me of the things they said to each other when they thought we were out of earshot, and I will remind her about a stolen candy bar we shared in a campground shower and a glacial lake we never braved.        We will live together in these memories for days or weeks, and then we’ll return to our own lives.  I won’t hear from her for months, until there is an early morning call, and I’ll agree to make the drive to whatever point she’s come to, if she hasn’t gone too far.       The hospital looms down the road, a bright blur in the encroaching dark, and on the side of the road I pass a memorial with fading plastic flowers and graying stuffed animals.  There is no marker at the place where my own family crumbled.

 

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