n the Southwest, where the roads run wild, you can still find rest stops or the occasional corner of some small town yielding a gang of gas pumps flanking a glass-bound all-night convenience store. But very rarely do you cross one of those towering thickets of city sprawl, blocks deep and sudden like they've sprung up full grown. I always half-expect to see, at the outskirts, a skyscraper with a wall shorn off, its inner stack of floors laid open like the building had overstepped the bounds of its growth.
From afar the sprawls look like high, broad plateaus punched cleanly and precisely out of the land by a cosmic machine press. But once inside you can almost imagine yourself in the midst of a real city. Driving down the streets you pass strip joints and cathedrals, theaters and cinemas, fine cuisine and fast food. Filling the newsstands you'll even find newspapers and magazines about the city scene. I've watched movies in these urbatanical gardens with titles I've never heard elsewhere. The music you find on the radio, from one end of the dial to the other, AM or FM, are melodies sui generis. The only thing more plentiful than these urban accoutrements is the throng of the crowds.
Which came first, the city or the citizens? Did the buildings grow of their own accord, attracting a populace only after they had reached maturity? Or did a mob wander into the desert and, lost and desperate, maybe suffering from hunger and thirst and need for shelter, or maybe just agoraphobia, plant the seeds of urban civilization, cultivating their glass and mortar fields until the crops ripened and became habitable?
I'll probably never know for sure, and frankly, I suspect the truth is probably neither, both, and a combination of the two, mixed with something unguessable. I like the mystery.
Without doubt, the masses and the city need one another. When they want, people are sometimes capable of the most beautiful accomplishments. In many ways, the urban oases outshine their blueprint counterparts. I'd sometimes feel the impulse to stay in one of these sprawls. With time I'd forget its limited scope and become a painter or poet of concrete and bustle. Of course, whenever such a whim took me I'd feel the rumble of an engine in my chest and the small heat of a tiny light bulb against my heart. It was probably for the best; I'd never seen the facades of the buildings crumble, and I don't know if they would, but I'm not sure I could bear to be such a witness. To be spared from the death of a dream is sometimes preferable to never attaining it.
After all, I do still carry the touch of a soft cheek on my fingertips.
I'd been on the road all night when the Fairlane brought me to into the outskirts of a city washed in the purple glow of early evening. Street lamps popped on as I passed, illuminating wisps of populace roaming the sidewalks. This was the in-between-time crowd, out after the work crowds had gone home and before the nightlife commenced. I passed a lean old man, dressed in tweed and capped with a derby, closing for the night a pharmacy with green metal columns supporting purple eaves. Next door, beyond a wide pane glass window, under the white glow a fluorescent-lit cafe, men in fedoras hunched on stools over a counter, while another man in a white paper hat filled a glass with milk from a tall silver tank. Across the street a hooded subway entrance descended into the depths, and I couldn't help imagining tracks branching off a main tunnel and plowing into rough-hewn stone walls. The thought gave me chills, and I wondered at the disillusionment of the city's conductors.
I was melancholy and wanted to sidestep any potential company that evening. A lonely automat up a dark street, left of a cluster of traffic lights and down a row of burnt-out streetlamps, promised sanctuary. The windows of the place were small and thickly paned. From the inside they compressed the night into four oblong cubes. A narrow aisle down the middle split two ranks of squat booths. Dim, hooded lamps hung at each partition, and all the ambient light seemed squeezed around the vending cubicles along the rear wall. I sat with my back to them at one of the booths where I ate a cherry pie covered in the blob of my shadow.
I hadn't noticed the woman until I shifted in my booth to get a better view of my dessert. In a black gabardine skirt and jacket, capped with a burgundy cloche under which black curls crept, she sat across the aisle two booths toward the door. She might have been there when I walked in, or might have come in while I was at the vending cubicles. Her spine was straight, shoulders square, legs loosely crossed under the table, right ankle over left. Her hands rested loosely on the tabletop, one on each side of an empty plate. There were crumbs on the plate; or, at least I thought there were, until I noticed there were no crumbs at all, and no plate either. She folded her hands over the empty spot, and gazed forward in the direction of the vending machines. I could tell she was looking elsewhere.
Just then tinny music piped in though a small metal speaker over the door. A man, accompanied by brass and strings, was singing a festive song about snowy days in June. I'd never heard it before. It caught the woman's attention too, and she turned her head toward me, as if I were the one singing the song and the sound of my voice was her cue to take notice of me.
"Evening," I said, consciously lowering my voice a tad to show her the singer was someone else, feeling strangely guilty at the possibility of betraying her.
"Hi," she sent back in the tone of someone finally getting to sit down with a companion after a hectic night. Then she glanced at the plate on my table. I'd finished eating, but that didn't seem to matter. "Red Cherry Pie," she said, speaking the phrase in staccato breaths, giving each word equal importance, refusing to subordinate one to another. The way she said it made me think of three curls atop three vanilla soft-serve cones.
I smiled, and she asked if she could join me.
"Snow in June," she whispered sliding into the booth opposite, leaning toward me, elbows braced against the tabletop, as though sharing a secret in a crowd. "Have you ever heard of such a thing?"
"A lot of strange places down a lot of strange roads," I said, "but snow in June I never have."
"All roads, even the strange ones, especially the strange ones, are always somebody's construction."
"That they are."
She glanced down at her hands and smiled. "You know, when I was little, I had a friend who had a butterfly collection. He caught the bugs with nets, drugged them with ammonia in a jar, and then pinned them to a display case all himself. One day, I told him the bottle he put the butterflies in before he pinned them up was called a killing jar. He didn't know that. Isn't that strange? Somewhere in his books on butterfly collecting, he must have come across those words. But he didn't know. He told me I was wrong. He got angry and told me to leave."
I nodded. "You'd think he would have known."
"When I saw him a week later, his collection was gone. His room was full of banners of football teams, not butterflies. I asked where his collection had gone, and he laughed and joked that only a girl would mistake football for butterflies.
"But do you know what I noticed? On the way home, I tripped over a bend in the road. The dirt road that led through the open fields to his house was different. I had walked that road so many times; I could do it with my eyes closed. And when I was walking home that evening, I tripped over a bend."
She paused, eyes far away. "Then I remembered that I'd tripped over the same bend earlier. When I was walking to his house. But I had just put it down to distraction, because I was nervous about seeing my friend again after making him angry.
"But there it was. That bend in the road that had never been there before."
Her gaze drifted back to me, and she took a breath, as though she wanted to say more, but was waiting for me.
"Did you, did you follow the old way back?" I asked. Her face softened, and she folded her hand in front of her and leaned in.
"You know, I did. I closed my eyes, and walked off the road. I followed the old way back to his house, over the uneven ground and the weeds." She closed her eyes now, and made a walking motion with the first two fingers of her right hand.
"What did you find at the end of the road?"
Her pantomime ceased sharply, her index finger stopping in mid-step like a leg kicking an immovable object. Her eyes drifted open.
"A house. His house. I was at the stoop of his house, where his house ought to be. The door was open."
She leaned in close again, like when she'd first sat down and asked me about snow in June. "That was very clever, you thinking I should take the old way back. It's exactly what I did, and you knew it. I still know where that house is. I can still find it. If you want..."
I reached toward her with the hand I use to drive with, and traced the curve of her cheek with the tips of my fingers.
Out beyond the automat, beyond the four oblong cubes of night set in dingy tile, the Fairlane rumbled its engine, and I felt a tiny heat in my chest.
The woman heard engine too, and must have seen something in my face because she looked at me a long time. I let her, hoping she'd finish her invitation, or speak any one of the plethora of wrong things that might break the world off its axis and send it rolling into Mystery. But she didn't. She pulled back, straightening her spine against the backrest, leaving our touch in the air between us. She squared her shoulders, and rested her hands loosely on the tabletop. Then, very quietly, she pronounced:
"Glove Box Heart."
She said it like she'd said "Red Cherry Pie." But this time the words made me want to tap my fingers--first index, then middle, and last ring--against Formica tabletop.
But, the night didn't end there. Don't think it did. This isn't some melodramatic tale of doors slamming shut. At least, I don't think it is. We talked more, you see, she and I; we talked for hours. We smiled and laughed, and she hung on my every word, and once made me laugh so hard I made her laugh at me. And the Fairlane never made a noise. Not once.
But wheels the color of blacktop, indistinct from the city streets and the wild roads out beyond the skyscrapers waited for me. And when I opened the glove box, there inside was my heart, set into molded plastic.
A place for everything and everything in its place, I tell myself aloud in the driver's seat. But, secretly, since that day, I have ridden with the fingers of my left hand curled into my palm, and never again pressed the pads into the tough leather of the steering wheel.
Thomas Cummings currently lives with his wife and their three cats in the high desert of southern California, where he works at a local newspaper. His weekly movie reviews have appeared in its pages for over five years, and his fiction has appeared in the pages of CSU-Bakersfield's literary journal Orpheus, and on the Web at ChiZine, Bewildering Stories and The New Absurdist.
Back to the Top
Issue 11 |
story copyright by author 2004 all rights reserved