After the Freeway

Sandy woke up hot. The sheets were sticking to her legs, and she could smell her own sweat. She stared at the light fixture in the ceiling of the trailer. It was a big rectangular plastic box, spotted dark brown with dead bugs.

She reached down to pull away the sheets that were bunched around her waist and crotch, and cringed when she found that they were wet with sweat. She breathed in the strange salty odor of her body, the smell of just-mown grass, a faint gasoline whiff.

She could no longer smell the dead thing smell of whatever mouse or rat had died in the wall. For weeks, while she and Dad were microwaving dinner or brushing their teeth, they’d hear a metal scratching sound inside the trailer. They found dark brown droppings in the silverware drawer, between the forks. And then one morning, Sandy picked up a pair of pajamas she’d left on the floor and discovered a huge hole had been chewed through the butt of the pants. Without saying anything, Dad had gone outside and spent all morning plugging up the holes in the trailer with red clay.

A few days later, they were sitting on the couch eating breakfast when they heard the scratching again. Dad put his fork down on his plate and slowly dropped his head into his hands, covering his face with his fingers for several long minutes and not saying anything. Sandy hadn’t understood why he was so upset until a few days later, when she noticed the sweet garbagey smell in the bedroom.

Dad tried to take the linoleum off the bedroom walls, but after listening to him tear at the hard plastic covering for over an hour, Sandy heard him say fuck and we’d have to tear the whole trailer to pieces. She walked into the bedroom and they stood staring at the yellow plastic walls, until finally, Dad sighed and said it won’t smell forever.

And it was true—Sandy couldn’t smell it anymore. But she didn’t know if that was because the creature had advanced from the slimy stage to the dry fur-and-bones stage, or because she had gotten used to the smell, the way she could no longer smell cat piss on the rug Dad had brought home in his truck one night, or the fart smell from the chicken processing center that had been built a mile from the trailer park.

She kicked the sheets off her legs and got out of bed. Her big white T-shirt was sticky with sweat, and she pulled the cotton fabric away from her body. On these summer mornings, their Airstream trailer—Tin City, she and Dad called it—absorbed all the morning heat and the small metal tube got even hotter than it was outside.

Sandy pulled back the accordion door that divided the bedroom from the rest of the trailer. Even though she knew Dad would be at the store, she was relieved when she saw the empty couch, confirming she had Tin City to herself.

She went to the kitchen sink and crouched to look out the window into the neighbor’s yard. Annette had an old Airstream like theirs, but the square of grass in front of her trailer wasn’t scraggly and brown—it was crowded with big pots full of orange and yellow marigolds, stone statues of fat angels covered in moss, and pink and silver pinwheels that twirled in the wind and glinted sun. There was no car in Annette’s driveway, and her trailer looked empty.

Sandy turned on the kitchen sink and held her hands under the faucet, feeling the water run hot, then warm, then almost cold. She cupped her hands and splashed water onto her face and into her mouth, then spat it out. She took her toothbrush from the stained Black Bear Diner coffee cup and brushed her teeth over the kitchen sink, which they had been doing ever since the bathroom sink stopped draining. She rinsed her mouth, spat, and splashed water on her face again—it was the only thing that cooled the hot feeling throbbing in her head, if only momentarily.

Then she went back to the bedroom, and slid open one of the cubbies under the bed. She pulled off her T-shirt and underwear and stuffed them into the pillowcase she had used for dirty clothes since she decided to start doing her own laundry last winter, when she started her period. When it happened, she’d told Dad he had to start bringing brand-name maxi pads home from the store. The next day, he came home with two packages of Always pads in a paper bag, and didn’t mention the cost.

She pulled on a clean pair of underwear—white little kid underwear that Dad had ordered in packs two years ago. The elastic at the waist was stretched out and the lace was frayed. She pulled on her favorite cut-off jean shorts, an underwire bra (even though her best friend, Ramona, said she didn’t need to wear one yet), and a hot pink tank top with green palm trees and the words Hotel Flamingo printed across the front. She opened the closet door to look at herself in the long mirror. She was too gangly and skinny, all brown limbs, like a little kid. She turned her arm to look at the scab on her elbow. It was round and dark and bigger than a quarter. It hadn’t been so bad when she’d first gotten it.

She had been playing with the group of boys that hung around the trailer park. She usually just watched their games but somehow, that day, she ended up on the back of one boy’s bicycle, staring at another boy—also perched on the back of a bicycle—getting ready to play chicken. The boys riding the bikes were both older—14 or 15, and she and the boy on the back pike pedals were both skinny and small. The real chickens.

One of the trailer park boys—Danny Ordin, who lived in a big trailer with old paint cans and tires in the front yard—helped her steady herself on the back pedals, and said, don’t worry. One of them always swerves. Usually Ralph. And then Ralph—who was riding the bicycle Sandy was perched on—said like fuck. Later, Sandy wondered if Danny’s comment was to blame for what happened next.

Ralph and the other kid rode their bikes straight at each other, and neither of them swerved. There was a loud popping sound and Sandy flew into the air, then slowly back down. She thought this will hurt right before she fell onto Ralph and brought him and his bike down to the ground in a tangled heap.

For a moment, they lay on the ground, their bodies heavy and throbbing, until Ralph leapt to his feet, kicking dust on Sandy’s face. Danny pointed at her and said look, and Sandy turned her arm and saw the fat stream of blood running down her elbow to her wrist.

When the scab formed, she picked it off too soon. The raw red wound on her elbow bled, and then an even thicker scab formed over it. She picked that scab off and it grew back thicker, so she picked off the new scab and another thicker one replaced it. Now, finally, the scab was an impenetrably thick badge covering her elbow, so dark it was almost black, so dark that after rolling down the hills by the high school, she saw, to her disgust, that the dark circle was streaked with grass stains. She shook out her arm so she didn’t have to see the scab, and looked back in the mirror.

Her light brown hair looked stringy, as always, and she combed her fingers through it. In the summer, freckles appeared in clusters on her nose and cheeks, making her face look dirty. Her eyes were too small and her nose was too big and her lips were chapped, ringed in a red circle. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the Bonnie Bell Grape Crush chapstick she’d gotten at a birthday party in sixth grade, a year and a half ago. Now the chapstick was almost gone, hollowed out to a purple crater, bisected by a fingernail imprint. Sandy stuck her pinky into the tube and twisted it to collect some of the last of the chapstick onto her finger, and then smeared it over her lips. Better. She closed the closet door.

On her way out of the trailer, she ducked down to look out the kitchen window again, but Annette’s driveway was still empty. Earlier this summer, just after the school year ended and she was finished with seventh grade forever, she had walked outside to see a big, shiny red car parked in the driveway next to theirs. And then she saw him, wiping down the car with a cloth. He had blond hair and a smooth tan chest Sandy could see because he was wearing blue jeans and no shirt. He looked up and saw her, smiled, and said why hello there. He spoke in a friendly, slow drawl from down south—Georgia maybe, or Florida. His shiny new car and beautiful body seemed to cast a bright spotlight on Sandy, and she was suddenly aware that her hair was unwashed, her old yellow tank top grubby, and her stretchy shorts too small. Her face got hot and she smiled at her feet, then scurried away.

After that, she had thought this would be the summer of the handsome neighbor, but even though she had seen the red car parked in Annette’s driveway a few more times, she hadn’t seen him since. Still, she always looked for him before she left the house—the next time, she’d be ready.

She slipped her feet into the jellies she’d left by the door and stepped outside. She sighed when she stepped out—there was a light breeze and the air was slightly cooler than it was in Tin City. She jumped down the metal steps two at a time, then skipped down the dirt road that ran through the trailer park. When they’d moved here years ago and she was just a little kid, Sandy had said to Dad, if our house is Tin City, what’s all this? and pointed to the clusters of trailers. Tin Galaxy, he’d replied. Even now, she was impressed that he’d come up with that.

Sandy walked to the gravel entrance to Tin Galaxy where, for the few feet between the trailer park entrance and the highway, the road was shaded by big leafy trees. Then she stepped onto the unsheltered heat of the highway. Dad often said that kids shouldn’t walk along the highway, but he had never said that Sandy shouldn’t, and walking along the highway was the fastest way to get to the store. Besides, he didn’t say that anymore, not since they built the freeway 20 miles away, and everyone started driving on that instead of the highway. Freeway, highway. Hotel, motel. Heaviness, weight. Words she had once thought meant the same thing, but had entirely different meanings in the world of adults.

The highway was long and straight—two dusty lanes divided by yellow dashes, nothing growing by the road but itchy yellow grass. In one direction, you could see the tall gas sign outside of Dad’s store. In the other direction was town, with its cluster of stores and houses, the post office, the fire station, the schools. Sandy walked in the direction of the store.

There was nothing to look at on the walk but telephone poles, scraps of black tire in the road, and the wide blue sky. If she had gone to the creek instead, she could have caught lizards and handfuls of tiny black snails. Or if she’d gone to town, she could have paged through the glossy fashion magazines at the grocery store. In the summer, she and Ramona would sometimes walk to the outdoor football field at the high school and sit on the bleachers and talk for hours and maybe even see a group of boys arrive to play a game of touch football and ignore them. But this summer, Sandy walked to the store by herself nearly every day. Only kids played in the creek, and the walk to town was longer than the walk to the store. Besides, Ramona was in Tucson for nearly the entire summer, where she had a witty and fashionable 17-year-old female cousin who would drive Ramona to the mall or the ice cream shop where the cousin’s boyfriend worked. The boyfriend, Ramona said, was neither witty nor fashionable.

The boys that hung out around Tin Galaxy were dirty and wild and treated Sandy like a boy, so she only hung out with them when she was really bored. She sometimes walked to see her friend Fiona, who lived less than a mile away—just past the creek—and was probably Sandy’s second best friend, but Fiona was weird. She was adopted, and when she was a kid, one of her foster dads had raped her, and even though now Fiona had nice foster parents, who were old and grey-haired and Christian, when Fiona and Sandy were hanging out, sometimes Fiona would start talking about the best positions for having sex, and how different people’s genitals had different smells. And one time, Fiona had pulled a couch cushion off her foster parents’ couch and straddled it. Then she moved her hips back and forth, rubbing her crotch on the cushion, and told Sandy she should get the other couch cushion and do it too.

Whenever she came home from Fiona’s house, Sandy would tell Dad she didn’t want to play with Fiona anymore. But after a few days of wandering around Tin Galaxy in slow summer boredom, Fiona would call and ask her if she wanted to come over and Sandy would hear herself say okay.

She could see the store clearly now. It looked abandoned, its windows covered in dust and peeling old stickers. A dirt road curved in a U-shape in front of the store, connecting the highway to the store and its single gas pump. The rest of the yard was all gravel and patches of yellow grass. There was an unused garage attached to the store, filled with oily car parts and junk.

When they first moved to town, Dad just worked at the store, but a few years ago he bought it from Rich, his old boss. Dad had plans to fix up the store and hire a mechanic to work out of the garage, but then they built the freeway.

Sandy pushed open the door with a faint jingling sound and walked inside. The store was always slightly cooler than outside, probably because Dad kept the lights off. But to Sandy, the store seemed to create its own coolness—it was somber and reassuring, like the empty rooms of a museum.

Dad was sitting behind the counter, reading a book, and he looked up when Sandy walked in, smiled, then looked back at his book. Because of his bad back, Dad had recently replaced the stool behind the counter with an old desk chair that had wooden arms and a padded seat. The seat of the chair sat far lower than the stool had, so when you walked in, you could only see Dad’s grey head and the top of his shoulders above the counter, making him look smaller and even older than he was. Is that your granddad? the kids in elementary school used to tease.

Sandy walked down the snack aisle. Dad hadn’t set up proper drawers or dividers, so the candy bars were just stacked on the metal shelves. And since he had changed the delivery schedule from weekly to biweekly to monthly, inventory sometimes got so low that on some days, like today, there would just be a single Snickers or Mars bar sitting on the dusty shelf, with an orange sticker stuck to the shelf below it, like a museum display of the last remaining Snickers bar on Earth. When she was a kid, Sandy had played with the pricing gun for hours, sticking orange stickers on everything. The highway cost $3.00, an old tin can was worth $850.00, Sandy was valued at $7.00, or $100001, or 44¢.

She surveyed the snacks. Dad wouldn’t let her have candy or Ho Hos or Twinkies for breakfast, but muffins or nuts or granola bars were OK. Cookies were a toss-up—double chocolate cookies got a No, but oatmeal raisin cookies got an OK. Nutter Butters sometimes got a pass, but not every time. She looked at the acceptable cookies—the Nilla Wafers, the Fig Newtons, the Barnum’s Animal Crackers in their red and yellow circus train car. But something about the empty shelves could start to make her feel sad, so she grabbed an apple pie, which always got an OK, and left the snack aisle for the soda coolers.

The rows of soda coolers never depressed her. The deep shelves were almost always well-stocked, and the cans were shiny and pristine. Everyone drank soda—movie stars, basketball players, all the kids at school. And soda was cheap—Dad didn’t even have to stock generic brands. Sandy stared at the cans of Coke, Diet Coke, Fresca, Pepsi, Sprite, Orange Crush, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, and Mug Root Beer, at the plastic bottles of orange and apple and pineapple juices, at the Gatorades and Perrier and fancy waters with snowy mountain peaks on their labels. She paced slowly in front of the coolers, stopping when she reached the beer coolers. Even though some of the labels were interesting, with pictures of snarling dogs or pretty girls, the alcohol was not. A few months ago, she and Ramona had stolen a can of Ramona’s stepdad’s beer, and drank it behind the big tree in Ramona’s backyard. Sandy had been disappointed by the taste—bitter and watery at the same time. To her, the beer coolers contained nothing but bottles and cans full of the same frothy brown disappointment, disguised behind colorful packaging.

She selected a can of Diet Coke, possibly the most glamorous soda of them all. She walked to the counter and put her hands up, showing Dad the pie in one hand and the soda in the other. He looked at one, then the other, and nodded.

Sandy walked out of the store, then entered the garage through the side door. She went to the locker Dad let her use and pulled out the red and orange beach towel (why did Dad always buy her things in boys colors?), the small black radio, and the catalogs that had arrived in the mail the day before.

She walked to her spot—a grassy patch between the store and the highway, a few feet from the dirt road—and laid the towel on the grass. She arranged the radio, the catalogs, the soda, and the pie on the grass in front of the towel, then lay down on her stomach and turned on the radio. The only channel that it picked up beside talk radio was the oldies station, but she listened anyway, hoping they might play “Young Girl” or “Last Kiss” or “Time of the Season”, which, with the breathy, undulating way the singer sang it’s the ti-i-ime of the season sounded like summer to her, like the musical version of a heat wave rising off the sun.

But when she turned on the radio, after a few seconds of crackling, the song “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” started playing—one of her least favorites.

She unwrapped the apple pie, pulled out the pastry, and took a bite. She had stopped eating the pies in front of other people after Ramona had told Sandy that they put lard in the pies, but she still enjoyed the sweet crumbly taste, and couldn’t detect any salty animal flavor, so she ate them when no one was around to see her. She opened the can of Diet Coke and took a sip. After the sweetness of the pie, the soda tasted flat and metallic in a way she liked.

She grabbed the catalogs. Dad didn’t stock magazines at the store anymore, but catalogs were free, so every time Sandy had the chance to use a computer with the internet, she’d search for the fanciest stores she could think of, then go to their websites and order their catalogs. One of the catalogs—Through the Country Door—always came with a sticker on the front that said This might be your last catalog! and even though Sandy knew it was a marketing ploy, and even though it was one of the worst catalogs she got, the sticker always gave her a sinking sense of guilt (they knew she never planned to buy anything from them!) followed by sense of dread (all the catalog companies—J. Crew, Anthropologie, Barneys, and Nordstrom—would stop sending her catalogs next!). The sticker This might be your last catalog! really meant: Catalogs are for customers. Or: Catalogs are a privilege, not a right.

Sandy looked at the two that had arrived the day before—IKEA and Victoria’s Secret. She knew she should look at the IKEA catalog first, and save Victoria’s Secret for later. Looking through the IKEA catalog was fun at first—you could imagine you lived in the sunny dining rooms, the bedrooms with fluffy beds and oversized art, the kitchens with the hanging lamps and fresh flowers and big bowls of fruits. But they were thick catalogs, and after pages and pages of couches and curtains and coffee tables and perfectly arranged rooms, Sandy felt overwhelmed and frustrated, just the way she felt the one time she’d been to an actual IKEA store. She tossed aside the IKEA catalog and picked up Victoria’s Secret.

She was familiar with most of the models—the Angels—and had her favorites. Even though it was a childish pastime, was in fact something she had done since she was six or seven years old, she created characters for each of them. The one with the dark blond hair, sea green eyes, full lips, and crooked teeth was Sandy’s favorite. Sandy had seen her name printed once—it sounded French, and Sandy imagined the girl spoke with an accent. Sandy cast her as the kind but maligned stepsister of the thin pretty blonde with wide shoulders and small breasts, and best friend of the slightly older model with short red hair and bright eyes.

She opened the catalog to a photo of the French girl in a lacy pink bra and matching pink underwear. She was sitting on a window seat, staring out the window. Her breasts were full and round, almost rising out of the lacy bra, and her stomach curved in gently. Her face was in profile, her cheekbones defined, her lips pouting slightly. Who was looking at her? The stepsister’s arrogant boyfriend, maybe, or the poor but loyal coachman that lived on the grounds?

Sandy slowly paged through the catalog, looking carefully at each photograph, until she reached the back pages, where they tried to sell Victoria’s Secret clothing. There, the models wore high-waisted jeans, tight red or purple or teal turtlenecks, and leopard print coats. It ruined the fantasy world she had created for them, which was elegant and vaguely antiquated, peppered with carriages and princes and fancy balls. She flipped through the back pages quickly until she reached the end, then tossed the catalog aside. Once she looked through it, a catalog instantly became garbage.

Sandy looked up. The store was quiet, the highway dusty and empty. She kicked off her jellies, curling her sweating toes. She suddenly realized how hot the day had become. Her forehead and upper lip were beaded with sweat. She reached for her soda, but the can was hot and she knew even before she took a sip that the soda would be warm and flat. She yanked at her jean shorts, which felt tight, damp with sweat. Suddenly, she felt so frustrated she could scream. She curled her hand into a fist and pushed it against her crotch, pressing the hard bones of her knuckles into her pelvic bone. The frustration shrieked inside her, a hot wave roaring though her body.

And then it passed, and all she felt was a dull pain in her fist.

She sat still for a moment, then breathed. She wiped the sweat off her lip and took a sip of warm soda. She grabbed the IKEA catalog.

She was looking at lighting appliances when she heard the car approaching. She looked up and saw a rusty old green convertible coming down the highway. It looked like it was slowing down, but Sandy wasn’t certain until it was almost to the store and, at the last minute, the car served into the U-shaped driveway and stopped in front of the gas pump. When Sandy saw the people in the car, her heart started pounding in her throat. They were young, and impossibly beautiful.

The guy driving opened the door and walked to the gas pump. He was tall and skinny and wore a black suit and tie, and an old-fashioned black hat. He stared at the gas pump, taking off his sunglasses. His face was the most beautiful face Sandy had ever seen. He had pale skin, big eyes, and bow lips, like paintings she had seen in her Art History book of male angels with aloof faces, thin bodies, and wings as ornately feathered as an eagle’s. He was frowning, not realizing he had to go inside and pay Dad if he wanted to get gas. He turned to the girl and said something. She opened the car door and twisted sideways before getting out—after she stood up, Sandy understood why: she was wearing a tight-fitting, 50s-looking black skirt and black high heels that she couldn’t really move in. She had wavy brown hair and red lipstick and she wore a tight green sweater and big jewelry Sandy could see even from a distance. Why were they so dressed up? How had they ended up here? They looked like movie stars, but from a movie Sandy had invented.

The girl walked in front of the car to the gas pump in that old-fashioned way, like Jayne Mansfield in one of the old movies Dad tried to make her watch. For the first time, it occurred to Sandy that maybe it was the clothes that created the walk—that maybe a tight skirt and high heels could make anyone, even Sandy, walk like that. But then she looked at the girl’s big breasts, little waist, and round hips swaying back and forth, and knew, in a sinking way, that it wasn’t just the clothes.

The girl looked at the gas pump, then at the guy, and then she laughed. She said something to him and he laughed too. He wrapped his arm around her waist and they walked to the store, the girl’s head leaning against the guy’s shoulder.

Sandy watched them disappear into the store. She looked back at the green convertible, then felt a cold splash of panic. Should she go inside? It would be her only excuse to get close to them. But it wouldn’t take very long for them to pay for gas, and if she walked in right when they were leaving, it would look stupid if she turned around to follow them out. But what if they stayed in the store to look around? But—look at what?

She grabbed her jellies and was about to slip them on her feet, when the radio started playing “Love Me Tender.” The song started with just a simple guitar and Elvis singing, but the sound seemed to fill the whole open dusty space.

Sandy froze in the expanse of that mournful, artificial voice. She put down her shoes.

The couple came out of the store, laughing, the guy’s arms wrapped around items she recognized—a bottle of wine, fizzy water, bags of sour candy and chocolate bars. Sandy watched them walk to the car and Elvis sang:

Love me tender, love me true
All my dreams fulfill
For my darling, I love you
And I always will

And Sandy realized that in a moment, they would leave, and she wouldn’t see them again.

She watched the guy walk to the car and open his arms with a grand and careless gesture, letting all their purchases fall into the backseat. Then he swiped the gas pump nozzle from its holster effortlessly. He tossed the nozzle from one hand to the other, like a cowboy in an old Western, making the girl laugh, then slid the nozzle into the green car. Sandy watched the girl wriggle back into her seat, open a bottle of fizzy water and take a long drink, her head thrown back, exposing her white neck. She watched the guy lift off his hat, revealing dark brown curls, and spin it deftly on the tips of his fingers, around and around and around, until finally the hat spun off his fingers and landed in the dirt, and the guy picked it up with a flick of his wrist that sent the hat high into the air, where he grabbed it with his other hand—another trick. And then she watched him remove the gas nozzle from the car and reholster it in the gas pump. He leapt into the front seat without opening the car door and started the car.

Then the little black radio crackled and, as if hearing it, the guy lifted his head and looked at Sandy. He had sunglasses on again and wasn’t frowning or smiling, but he didn’t move and she knew he was looking right at her. He raised his hand to his hat and lifted the brim slightly, and smiled. And then they drove away.

Sandy jumped up and ran down the dirt road and into the highway with no shoes on. The pavement burned the soles of her feet as she watched the car drive away.

Years later, Sandy would find herself thinking about this moment. When she was leaving town in the passenger seat of her 32-year-old gym teacher’s car; when she held Dad’s hand in the trailer, having returned home years later to watch him die of prostate cancer; when her second husband had said to her, this is it for me; Sandy was still there, standing barefoot on that empty highway, watching a green car fade into the distance.

Rachel Tusler is an author and playwright from the United States. She graduated with a BA in English and Comparative Literary Studies from Occidental College. She’s had a short story published in Eunoia Review, and has had workshops of her plays Change Anything (Occidental New Play Festival), The Borgia Sisters (Occidental College), and The Dark Things (Fertile Ground Festival) produced. She also self-produced a staged reading of her musical, Shanghaied!, at The Siren Theatre in 2017. Live On Stage commissioned Tusler and composer Lisa Ann Marsh to create their short musical, The Machine, for the 2019 Portland Mini Musical Festival. Tusler currently lives in Bangkok, Thailand.

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1 Response to After the Freeway

  1. Cynthiacolemanemery says:

    Seemed like I was listening to memories unfold while reading this summer story of girlhood. So many sounds and smells and tastes. Thank you for your lovely story.

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