Joyland

The Midwest |

The Turnpike

by Leia Menlove

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

It is summer of 1978, and a woman without a wedding ring drives east on the Will Roger’s Turnpike, the straightest route out of the State of Oklahoma. Drooping grasses and yellowed brush drop away on either side, leaning westward, as if to point her back to where she started. It is early afternoon and her husband will not be home for hours. The woman wears her dark hair long but full. It is a style fashionable to Oklahoma City women, and her eyes, big in her face as a starving child’s, are traced in black liner.  White cotton bellbottoms encase her thighs, and an embroidered peasant blouse of red and white covers her slightly sloping shoulders. The memory of a bruise blooms sallow over one cheek. She drives just under the speed limit, worried that the car will overheat in the desert heat.

In her purse is a tube of nude lipstick, a wallet, and a loose cashier’s check in the amount of $7,000 dollars. She left her house keys on the kitchen table in Oklahoma City. In the backseat sprawl two little boys: Daniel, just four, collapsed in sleep with one round cheek against the door, mouth open and moist, tennis shoes flopped in two directions; and Mark, shaggy head cocked and tongue in teeth, bent over a kangaroo coloring book.  Mark will be nine in October. Unlike his pale brother he has deep skin and dark irises that conceal his pupils. He looks like his mother, who has been told her features are “you know, ethnic?” by the women at the cosmetics counter. He does not look like his father. Neither boy has asked after their father since the last toll station.

“Don’t get crayon on my book,” says the woman, adjusting her rearview mirror.     

“Mommy needs that for classes.” Mark adjusts his Crayola scrawl.

*

“Mom!  Stop!”

Mark spots a turtle just past the Big Cabin Travel Plaza, the last oasis for miles on this empty stretch of highway. A snick of the seatbelt and he is over the seat and leaning across her, clean-dirty boy scent rising in her nostrils. He might be her favorite -- if she were to admit to herself that she has one -- this heroic, floppy-haired creature who has taken charge since they left, twisting the gas cap at the Texaco, carrying bags.

They are shy of the border, and her chest squeezes under the press of time but she slows anyway and pulls the car -- a newish Dodge Dart -- off the highway. In the rearview mirror she sees a single car will soon overtake them.  

“Be careful.” Above and around hulks the Oklahoma sky -- a sky that rests lower on the horizon in this part of the world than any other she knows. It is as if a woman sat on stool overhead, the blue hem of her dress puddling on the earth all around. The lone car drifts by. “It’s safe,” she says.

“It’s huge!” Mark hurries to free Daniel from his seatbelt and to yank him, still half asleep, onto the gravel.  

“Turtle?” Daniel squints.

“It’s hiding!” Mark drums a solo on his brother’s head and looks to her. Two hundred miles of empty turnpike stretch ahead and behind, clearly visible, but still she makes them each look left and right twice before they cross. She knows it’s not good mothering to let little boys out on the turnpike to save turtles. The state troopers warn about it in the Sunday supplements. Her husband, a professor in child-psych, would frown and warn of the hazards of teaching children that risk is gallant. But Will isn’t here. Today is a special day; a day for strange new things, for great distances, for yes, gallantry -- for small boys saving a turtle. And Linda likes turtles. They risk their lives on the highway. All the protective armor -- and still they crumple like paper lanterns when the trucks come.

Mark takes the lanes in four easy strides. “Watch out in case it bites,” she calls. She spots a truck miles to the East.

“It’s a box turtle!” Mark shouts. He straddles it -- the size of a man’s shoe -- and hurries back, elbows held out.

“Truck!” she yells.

Daniel has been following the action from the shoulder, laughing, hopping, cow-licked hair rising in the heat. “Box turtle!” he shrieks.

Mark sets the turtle down in the scrub grass. “Painted box turtle.”

The semi heaves past, juddering the car and unbalancing Daniel with its wind. When they can see again, the turtle has grown a head and legs. It is already moving. It parts the grasses like a painted helmet on the march. She wishes she knew more about turtles, about where they go. Perhaps it will turn around in an hour and cross again. She hopes, for its sake, that this is a once in a lifetime trek, like her own, a trek made not from danger but from nothingness, from dry grasses and dust, toward a place where there is greenery and black earth. There is nothing behind them both but more sky and red dirt, after all. The ancient-looking shell in all this open land is a comfort. It tells her that the limits of the world are nearer than she guesses.

*

The engine mutters and dies just past the Missouri border. Ignoring the boys’ questions, she stares out over the steering wheel, over the hood of the Dodge like a prehistoric shell. If she waits too long she will lose her way among the bluestem and buffalo grass, she will turn and go, back to Oklahoma, back to all the space there that nothing that can ever fill.

*

It’s what they call a Big Rig. Fifty feet long. Eighteen black wheels. Silver-trimmed mud-flaps, chrome mirrors, a cab so high an adult can’t see in the windows. Streaked with dust, it exhales as it stops, dragging its shadow up the highway beside it. She has replaced her wedding ring and it flashes as if in sympathy with the rig’s chrome bumpers.

“All right!” whoops Mark.  

Linda relaxes. Truckers are the Knights of the Road. They aren’t dangerous. Oblivious, Daniel naps in the shade of the backseat. “Mark, back to the car.” She passes the youngest boy’s door and pushes it closed.

The great truck hisses and is silent. Footsteps crunch on stone. A man of perhaps 30 limps toward her, one hand on his left hip. “You two in some trouble?”

“It just stopped,” she touches the hood.  

“Gas?”

“Plenty of gas in it,” Mark calls over the car.

The man looks at Linda. “Long trip?”  

She nods, gestures north.

He says, “Saw you out here and thought: that ain’t right. Nothing but nobody for miles on this stretch.”

“Thank you for stopping,” she says.

“I’m James,” he takes a half step forward to reach his right hand out, boots sliding on the gravel. “This is my rig. Rig’s a truck.”

“We know what a rig is,” says Mark.  

“I’m Linda,” she says. His hand is dry. He holds for a second, so that she has to step forward for balance. “I need to call triple-A.”  

“Nearest phone’s not for a while,” James looks at her shirt.

She thinks of Will, calm, navigable Will. Will with his skinny thighs and iodine stain eyebrows, the pretense of omniscience, of a cure to life’s wide open danger. It had been Time when she had married him: that was all, time to grow up and leave home, to stop being a little girl, to stop being target practice, to escape the destiny of women in that town, destined to be no more than the swelling after a bee sting. But nine years of the South, she lost track of the seasons and colors she had known.

“I’d radio on my CB but darn thing went out.”

“Do you think you might stop and make the call for us, when you get somewhere? Tell them where we are?” She is careful to stay well away from him. Some men get a mean streak when they are attracted to a lone woman, as if they have been robbed of something. “I’ll give you change for the call, of course.”

“I’ll get your purse,” says Mark.

“Them boys are gonna be hot out here,” James says. He winces as he shifts his weight. He is a pale root of a man but his hair is very black.

Mark shouts something but his boy’s voice is swept past with a string of southbound cars.

“I’ll give you a lift to the next stop,” James says. He smooths his dark sideburns.  “You don’t wanna be waiting on the road after dark.”

*

For mile after mile the Big Rig passes the shattered hulls of turtles, ruptured and cracked by pig trucks and oil transports and RVs. A ceaseless flow of wheels rolls over it all, she thinks, trailed by dust devils and cigarette butts and escaped strains of country western music.

“Why do they do it, Mom?” asks Daniel, face pressed against the cab’s passenger window. Shards of shell and meat blossom beneath the car, legs and tail and heads disconnected from the central mass, edges sagging in the evening heat.  

“I don’t know, honey,” Linda says. She starts to tell the boys the first thing in her head -- a thing that would engender chin-swaying disapproval in Will -- were he here -- on the premise that such stories encouraged “a failure to cope with the non-anthropomorphic reality of wildlife.”   

“They think with that shell nothing can hurt them,” she says anyway.

“Could be,” nods James.

“But why do they go on the road?” presses Daniel.

“Maybe they need food or maybe their family is across the road. Maybe it was time to get up and go -- they were bored by where they were, and it was eating them up. So they went.”

“And then BOOM -- a truck!” shouts Daniel.

James snorts.

“Yeah,” Mark agrees. Linda looks ahead. She seems to remember that in Michigan people were gentler, children kinder.  

“Want the radio on?” asks James.

“Praise the lord, it’s hot out there and wouldn’t you like to stop at Hal’s Truck Stop for a fresh lemona--.” She starts forward and turns it off.  

“I’m sorry,” she tells James, who looks at her strangely from blue-white eyes.

She thinks of her husband, shaggy red hair above and red hair below. How she cinched in when he touched her, as if he had dipped his hands in mud.

*

“Hal’s Truckstop” lies off Highway 44. Rows of cars and RVs flank the neon-lit entrance; beyond straggles a line of tired trees. This is where truckers rest, James tells them as the truck trundles to a stop. Truckers look up from where they lounge and smoke. One nods at James, who returns a complicated gesture like a flick and a point and an OK that Daniel immediately tries to learn. James climbs down and comes around the cab, lifts Daniel in one arm and offers the other to Mark. Mark refuses it. Linda is careful not to brush James as she gets down.  

The truckstop is a shining haven from the dull road: gleaming cassettes of Dolly Parton, Willy Nelson; sprawling banks of candy bars; a tower of blacked-over magazines; a diner; a procession of pay phones. A chalkboard advertises steaks for $9.00; another “Showers with soap, 25 cents.” 

*

“We got no one for miles, bless your little heart,” the AAA operator apologizes, high and sweet. “Not for about... 3 hours. But we advise you to stay with the vehicle, ma’am, just in case we get out there sooner.” Linda says she will and hangs up.

“You don’t have to take us. I’ll find a way to us back,” she tells James, who is having a smoke outside. “You’ve done so much already.”

He glances at his feet. “It’s no thing to run y’all back. I’m doing real good time for this haul.”

The highway has been reduced to a froth of grey and yellow in the darkness.  Beside Linda are the boys, their arms and legs and sleeping exhalations jumbled in the darkness of the cab.

“What’s in Michigan?” asks James.

“I was born there,” she says. “My family is there.”

“So it’s goodbye, Oklahoma?”

She is silent, considering. “There’s so much open space there. Not enough trees. Nowhere to rest your eyes. And nothing to take your mind away when you look out: Just red fields and red dirt. Lots of nothing. Dirt gets into everything. Just everything. I think trees will be good for the boys. And normal dirt,” she shakes her head, puts her hands to her hair, as if demonstrating that the dirt is even there.

James shrugs. “Sure. Boys like frogs and ponds and forests and things. But I guess that’s not the only reason you’re running away,” James says, nodding to himself.  “From something. Something big. Yep, I thought I would run away once, when my number came up in 69? Fucking first lottery... got me before I was ready. Fuck.”

Linda glances at the boys.

“But I stayed instead of running to Canada. I went and did my tour, my duty, shot a gun, nearly lost my leg. You have to face the music, kid. I don’t know what it is, but running can’t help. Not if you have no one to run to.”

She has a thought like sweat dripping down a spine: He is crazy.

The miles tick by, 18 wheels bounding over seams and cracks. The tape ends.  James smooths his hair with his right hand, and drops the hand on the seat between their thighs.

“You know,” he says.

“I think we must almost be there, by now,” she says.

“I’m thinking.”

“It’s right up there, maybe?”

“I’m just thinking,” he says, “about the boys’ father. I saw the ring. He must be worried about you. You haven’t called him, I don’t think.”

“Will? Will won’t expecting a call tonight,” she spits, and then hesitates and amends it: “Until a little later.”

He wipes his nose with his right hand. The truck lists over the line. “You are a nice lady. I can tell. Classy. Smart. All those books piled in your car. And the boys are real nice, too.” A firefly smacks the windscreen, phosphorescence the size of a dime. “Aw, shit.”

“Thank you. You have been so good to help,” she says, watching him flick the windshield wipers on. She cranes her neck. “I think it’s in the next mile. We must be close now.” She reaches over to pat the boys. Her heart beats. The cab is cold. Mark opens his eyes and looks at her.

“You’re real pretty,” James says. 

“Thank you.”

“I make good money on this rig.  Get to see the world.”

“I bet you do,” she says, watching the insect’s remains seep and deliquesce in the wiper liquid.

The truck is moving slower. Sixty miles per hour. 58. 55. Another truck overtakes them, accelerating into the night in a glow of red lights. James talks.

“Whatever problems you have, I’d help you face them. I mean, you’d have somewhere, someone. It gets lonely for a guy out here on the road.”

Linda listens. She feels that she listens to Mark listening.

“...How it makes a guy feel when no one is waiting for him anywhere.  Sometimes I just want to pretend, I mean, if I can’t have a real family along with me.” 

“It’s just up ahead, isn’t it?” she says, hoping she is correct this time.

“Sometimes I go over the border near Las Cruces, find a girl and take her out.” 

In the splash of the headlights, “...But it’s not the same as having a nice girl, ” he says.

“I don’t --” she says.

“Listen,” he says. The truck slows more. The highway is empty. “I like you. I’ll be honest: when I saw you, I thought I could take care of you. I thought I could help you out. I thought you might be the one. We could travel the nation. Long hauls. Boys too. All of us. Never the same city twice in a row.” She shakes her head. He talks louder. “It’s not safe for a girl like you. I mean, I can see your old man didn’t take good care of you,” he says, and places his index finger over her bruised cheek. She tilts her head away from him, craning out of the way like he is a branch snapping into her face.

“I did that while playing with Daniel on a swing,” she whispers. “Will wouldn’t hurt a garden snail.” She looks past James out the windshield, the memory like the smear of insect.

And then the CB crackles. “Cod Two, you’re slow. Trouble? Bird out," James lunges for it. It clatters to the floor, where it whispers to itself in the darkness.

“I thought your CB was broken,” she says. Air wafts Daniel’s hair. Beyond him Mark’s eyes are wide. She puts her hand over Daniel’s head, her cool fingers reaching. “It’s okay,” she tells them, but she is as aware of the CB as a scorpion in a baby’s room. “I appreciate the... kindness, James. I know you mean well. We’re doing fine. We just need to get home.” She tries to sound soothing.

“I can see you’re trepidatious. Moving on is a traumatic enterprise. My father never left me in one spot for long, and when I grew up, right away the war picked me up and slingshotted me,” James tells her. “The point is, in this life, you think you have a choice.  Do the right thing or the wrong thing, the selfish thing. Me, I didn’t have the choice to do either, they just called me up and told me to go -- 26 years old in the Mekong Delta. Fuck.” His eyebrows are sweating. “How about if someone gave you a choice -- a choice to do the right thing and stand your ground and do something for someone else, like I did -- or do the wrong thing and act selfish and let it all melt down around you.”

At last the Dodge rises out of the darkness, beached at the highway’s edge. She fingers its keys with her right hand.

“Middle of nowhere.” He squeezes her wrist once, and climbs out.

“We’re getting out,” Linda says to Mark handing him her keys. She is, for the moment, unable to move. Will would say it’s an adaptation -- to freeze in danger. “Not a very good adaptation, I would think,” he would say.

James hauls open the passenger door. “Get up.  Get up,” Mark says. Daniel climbs into James waiting arms.

“Mark, you’re a big boy. Unlock the car and air it out for your momma,” he says. Linda watches the boys go. “Perhaps,” she says to the empty cab, “they freeze so that others can escape.”

“I want to talk to you,” James is climbing up. She watches until the boys have the doors open. “You know that some of these big rigs have little sleeping cabins in the back?”

“Stop it,” she says. “Please, just stop it. I want you to know I’m not afraid of you. If this bruise has you thinking this way, that you can act this way, you’re all wrong. No, don’t touch me. That’s right: No one did this to me, this bruise! My stupid old husband cowers at a moth. I bumped my face on the swing set, pushing Daniel. I’m clumsy, that’s all. Not weak.”

James squints, puts his hands up like a crook, caught. “I’m just trying to help. But you don’t seem to know how much I helped -- how dangerous it is out here. Someone could hurt those boys. Skin them like rabbits.” He jerks his head at the Dodge. “Let them rot in a field without eyes. And you, you could end up in someone’s trunk somewhere, nowhere. You should be thanking me -- should be thinking of your boys -- you should be licking my boots.” He shrugs at this injustice and picks tobacco from his teeth.

She rubs her thigh. A good mother would corroborate his vision of gratitude -- would make sure the boys are safe. She looks through the windscreen at the boys waiting on the shoulder, staring into the darkness, shoulders sharp. They are just fledgling birds, she thinks. So ruinable. Something in the grass has caught their attention and she tries to make it out: a turtle, vast as if it has emerged from another time, half in darkness, forelegs outstretched, beak open like the mouth of an old man, looking back at these little creatures of the road. They must seem embryonic to it, half-built, stupid. It is enormous, mere feet from them.

“James,” she says. “I’m going.” She waits for the explosion, and closes her eyes as she slides to the door.

When her feet touch the gravel she opens her eyes. Up inside the truck James looks at her and then past her. He tosses the cigarette out the window. “I’m in a good mood,” he says. “Take care of those boys.”

The boys are staring into the field, oblivious to her approach. “What’s the biggest turtle you’ve ever seen?”  Daniel is saying.  

“Big as a tire,” says Mark.

“I bet there’s one as big as a car out there. And I bet we could catch it, Mark. We could catch it and maybe put it in that big truck and take it home!”

“We’re not putting any turtles in any truck,” says Mark. “Besides, Dad said we shouldn’t try to save turtles anymore. It’s too dangerous.”

“But Mom said. We can!” the younger boy puts a finger up his nose. “Mom let us do it today.”

“Mom doesn’t know. Dad said so. He says she’s irrigational.”

“Okay, boys. That’s enough turtles for you,” she says, her voice loud. She cannot see the enormous turtle; bored it has probably slipped away. She is aware of the truck. “Get in the car like you were supposed to.”

“James said air her out!”

“Get in, get in,” she says.

Inside they press down all the locks.

“Mom?” says Mark.

“Mommy?” says Daniel.  

At last, the lights shift and the truck, in a prolonged shriek, pulls away.  

“I am a pretty bad wife,” she says. The truck’s lights dissolve in the night.  

“There was a turtle,” Daniel says.

She nods. “I know you won’t understand this now, but I just couldn’t stay in Oklahoma any more.”

“With dad,” says Mark.

“With anyone,” she says.

“But I don’t think I’m a bad mother,” she shakes her head and then twists to face them over the car seat. “I’m not a bad mother. Do you know that I would never let you two come to any harm? Do you?”

The boys nod. Daniel’s hair flops over his eye. He looks at Mark, and nods again. She is calmed. She has to know that this is true, that these diminutive grim creatures agree that no matter what, she would never risk letting them get hurt.

And they will never let her get hurt: This is decided as well, in some small way in the tacit agreement of little boys. She shakes her head and taps the wheel. They drive northeast, following the turnpike. In coming years she will always wonder if she loves them enough, if she is the kind of mother she should be.

“Did you see that big turtle, Daniel?” she asks a few miles later.  She wants to know if it was really there, whether she imagined it. But the boys are asleep. As she passes the bright lights of Hal’s truck stop, she revs the engine.  There will be more turtles tomorrow.