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Rest Stop

Sheryl braked the old Ford at the end of the driveway to look back at the house.  Her husband Dylan was still asleep inside, behind the right eye, as Sheryl thought of their bedroom window.  The mouth of a door flanked by two windows gave the house a sad, startled look, as if it couldn’t believe its bad luck at being caught old and run-down in Avenal.  Dylan had roused briefly, levering himself up on an elbow.  “This time bring back enough to get my drums out of hock,” he said and flopped back down, his long hair coiling onto the pillow like oiled rope.

     Beside her Danny rocked in his car seat.  “Juice, Mommy.”

     Sheryl snapped back the stem of a banana and handed it to him.  He should be in the rear seat where it was safer, she knew that, but the belts there were broken.  “Juice later, Danny boy,” she said, shifting the LTD into drive.

In the distance the prison’s razor wire fence shimmered like a sickly mirage.  Dylan couldn’t work there because of a DUI, but most of his buddies did.  Once Avenal had lived off the oil in its hills, and when that was gone, it had invited the prison in.  Sheryl thought it was wrong for a town to depend so much on a penal institution.  It put crime in the category of good business, like tourism.

     She slowed to pass her friend Marlene’s house trailer next to a field of garlic.  New garlic shoots, like shiny green nails, poked through the soil.

     “Todd,” Danny said, waving a banana-smeared fist.  “P’ay.”

     “After we get back, Sweetie.  You can play with Todd then.”

Marlene claimed she was a hostage to that field.   Everything she and Joe and their two boys owned smelled like garlic.  Little sucking bulbs, she called them.  Her fingers were stiff and thick-knuckled from weaving garlic braids they sold to specialty stores.  Her hands braided even in her sleep, wringing and twisting the sheets.

Sheryl flexed her own fingers against the steering wheel and stared over the Ford’s dinged-up hood.  She was a hostage, too, but to the bald facts of her existence.  The negatives of Dylan, the positives of Danny, herself in the middle, added up to a kind of inertia. 

 “Random drift,” Marlene stated when Sheryl described the feeling.  “It’s the preferred method of travel around here.”

Sheryl reached over and tousled Danny’s blonde hair.  It was fine and straight like hers, fly-away, inclined toward static.  She was a student of hair, knew its strengths and weaknesses, its growth patterns, the wayward slant of follicles around a cowlick.  Danny seemed more hers than Dylan’s, which pleased her.  She’d loved Dylan’s hair once, the first time she saw him playing drums with the band.  Dark threads arced around his head like an electrified halo, drawing power from the percussive throb of the drums.  She’d wanted to touch it, feel its live crackle.

She handed Danny a cereal-filled baggie.  “Che’os,” he cried.

Warm air gusted through the windows.  The wind rippled the dry grass in waves, as if muscles moved under the earth’s skin.  It stirred the hairs on her arm and made her feel aroused in a way that surprised her, her breasts tight, her blood pulsing.  She kept that part of herself shuttered from Dylan, now that he’d taken up construction, now that he was building the aluminum wall in their bedroom.  He called it creative storage, a way to collect his empties until he was ready to cash them in.  She inhaled the wind.  It was restless and keen, earthy and botanical.  It smelled like freedom. 

 “We’re going for a ride,” she sang to the “Sesame Street” tune.

 “Goin’ widin’ in a car,” Danny sang back, flinging Cheereos and pounding the frame of his car seat. 

Every day she made a silent promise to this happy little boy: love and food, room to play and clothes to wear.  Simple things a child needed to thrive.  But the reach for them, the space between wanting and having, stretched longer and longer.

 At I-5, Sheryl merged with the stream of traffic heading north.  Big rigs and SUVs with tinted windows swung around her, all doing 80.  This was the fly-zone, the real world streaming by, marking the miles by time schedules.  Beside the road, almond orchards and new vineyards spilled off into the Central Valley. 

     The rest area was an island of green grass squeezed between the freeway and a fenced cotton field.  She waited for a car to back out of a shady spot and took its place.  Two concrete block buildings connected by a breezeway housed the restrooms.

     In the women’s restroom Danny patted a chrome dryer. “What ‘is, Mommy?”

“Hand dryer.  See?”  She punched the lever so he could feel the rush of air.  She wet her fingers to comb down his hair, smoothing it over the knot on his forehead. 

“I was just trying to entertain him,” Dylan had shouted when she came home to find Danny screaming in his high chair. “See Daddy play?” He used a pair of wooden spoons to bang out a tattoo on a line of pots and pans. “Daddy needs. . . his. . . god. . . damned. . . drums!”  he chanted, punctuating the words with vicious metallic whacks.  Sheryl had quit her job at the hair salon the next day.

 Leaning into the restroom’s metal mirror, she applied  lipstick.  How many faces had gazed into its scratched surface, she wondered, girls passing through, on their way somewhere, no different from her.  Except for Danny.  He was the great divide, the marker of her significance.  There was her life before Danny and her life after Danny, split neatly down the middle.  The time when she wasn’t afraid and figured things would work out, and the time afterwards, when her confidence in the forward motion of things vanished like mist in a dry wind.  The fact of Danny made her fearful and fierce all at once, like a cornered animal, ready to spit and bare her nails.  She rubbed off most of the lipstick.  It was important to look just right.

 A woman came in and splashed her face at the basin, glancing up at Sheryl in the mirror.  Dark sacks, like tea bags, hung under her eyes, and her wavy hair looked brittle.  Pocket curls, they’d called them in cosmetology school: hair so damaged it came off on the rods.  You pocketed those curls so the customer didn’t see them.  Drugs could do that to hair, prescribed or illegal.

When the room emptied, Sheryl took the sign from her purse and taped it to the wall: “Mother and baby stranded here in broken down car.  Need help.  Black Ford parked under tree.”

She’d done this once before when they needed money for the car.  She managed to collect more than a hundred dollars before a suspicious highway patrolman began to watch her.  Sheryl had left abruptly.

She walked Danny back to the car.  He was a pawn, her innocent cover.  She lifted him and buried her nose in his banana-scented hair.  Danny was caught in her drift.  Where she went, he went.  He wouldn’t know, though, wouldn’t remember.  She wouldn’t let him.

“Let’s get your truck.”  She kissed his ear and set him down.

A woman and a little girl got out of a silver Volvo and walked to the restroom.  Glistening neoprene buttons flashed on the heels of the girl’s sneakers.

Sheryl remembered the pair of little sneakers at K-Mart.  She’d stood in the aisle a long time, holding them, calculating how many haircuts and how much aggravation from Dylan they would cost.  Finally, a snotty clerk with teased hair stopped.  “You gonna buy those or just hang on to ‘em till the store closes?”

Sheryl stared at her.  “Hair’s got scales like a fish,” she said.  “Did you know that?  All going one way.  And back-combing roughs up those scales.  How long you been wearing this style?”

The woman shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Few years.”

“Hmm,” Sheryl said, eyeing her hair.  “Not much time then.  Some day soon, when you’re standing in the shower, it’s all going to just break off and float down the drain.” She handed the clerk the sneakers and left.

The mother and daughter from the Volvo stopped a short distance away.  The woman watched as her little girl turned a somersault on the grass.  Danny toddled over to put his head down, imitating her.

“How long have you been stranded?” the woman asked, studying Sheryl through sunglasses.  She had good hair, a precision cut that de-emphasized her square jaw.

“About an hour.  Car’s been acting funny for a while, going real slow, then it just stopped.”  Sheryl shaded her eyes.  “I called a tow service, but they want $100 just to come out.”

The woman nodded.  “How old’s your little boy?”

“Two and a half.  My husband’s waiting for us in Redding.  Got a job up there.”

The woman smiled then and slipped a hand into her purse.  “Better give him a call so he doesn’t worry.”  She handed Sheryl a ten-dollar bill.

 “I’ll do that.  Thanks a lot, ma’am, and have a nice day.”

 She waved when the Volvo drove by.  The woman’s face had softened when Sheryl mentioned the husband in Redding.  She wanted to believe that she and Sheryl had things in common, that they shared some of the same values.  Sheryl wasn’t just another single mother with a kid, but the lost half of a family waiting to be reunited.

Under the breezeway an overweight woman was talking to her husband and pointing toward Sheryl.  The man stared over at Sheryl and pulled out his wallet.  Sheryl turned away.

The woman arrived puffing.  “You poor little thing.  Stuck out here in this heat.”  She wiped her forehead.  “At the mercy of all these truckers and riff-raff.”  Her hair was bright lavender.  Someone had spun the color wheel too far, adding too much purple to offset the yellow in her white hair.

The lavender woman looked down at Danny.  “And this poor little baby, too.  A boy, isn’t he?” 

Sheryl nodded.

“If you were my daughter . . . but the good Lord only gave me boys.  You have to watch a boy, you know.  They have tendencies.”

Danny stared up at her, his mouth open.  Sheryl rubbed his cheek.

The woman leaned closer.  “They turn into men, don’t they?”

“Yes, ma’am, they do,” Sheryl said, cradling the back of Danny’s head.

The woman straightened, satisfied.  “Now I know you need money.  Money oils the wheels of the world.  That’s what my husband Harold likes to say.  But he’s a cheapskate, that’s a fact, and it’s been my cross to bear.”  She glanced at the car where her husband now waited.   “Five dollars is Harold’s limit.  And all you have to do is look at your face to see the sweetness.  Well, I have twenty dollars of my own money.  It’ll be my good deed for the day.”  She tucked the bills into Sheryl’s hand.  “I’ll say a special prayer for you and your boy here.”

“Thank you, ma’am, I’d appreciate that.”

“You’re just like an angel, you know, with that golden hair, just like a little angel.”

Sheryl watched the woman climb into the car, talking, while Harold stared straight ahead.  What would it be like to be trapped in an enclosed space with her the long, lonely length of I-5?  Payment to Harold, Sheryl supposed, for his contributions to those tendencies his wife had mentioned.  Still, she’d made it easy for Sheryl.  She didn’t even want to hear Sheryl’s story.  She wanted to make up one of her own.

By noon Sheryl had collected almost enough to redeem Dylan’s drums.  Redeem.  That was the word used for items in pawn, although Sheryl considered it a waste of a good word.  Rescue was the right word for those lost things, stuff abandoned for money.  Redeem deserved a higher meaning.  People and souls could be redeemed, sometimes hope.

She pulled the foam ice chest from the car and set it on the grass.  “Picnic time, Danny Boy.  Want a sandwich?”

“Sammich,” Danny said, lifting the lid.

Sheryl folded bologna rounds into slices of bread and poured juice.

While they ate, a couple of college girls drove up in a yellow VW bug.  They came over and sat down with Sheryl and Danny and shared a bag of chips.  The red-head crawled around in the grass with Danny, pretending to be a dog.

“You have beautiful hair,” Sheryl told the other girl, who was Asian.  “Bet it has a real long life cycle.”  The girl drew a black strand in front of her face and stared at it.  “If you never cut it,” Sheryl said, “it might grow clear to your ankles.”

The girl smiled.  “My mother’s did.”

“Lucky,” Sheryl said.  Lucky to have a mother who made you smile.

The two girls gave her ten dollars when they left.  Sheryl wasn’t much older than they were, but she would never have their freedom, grown women who got to be kids a while longer.  Like Dylan.  Real life hadn’t quite found its way into his head.  He’d been waiting six months for a friend to get a band together in Modesto.  Not even looking for work.  Not even thinking about it.

Danny rubbed his eyes, fussing.  She climbed into the back seat with him and read Go, Dog, Go.  When he was asleep, she lay down on the grass near the car and closed her eyes.  The freeway gave off a continuous roar like a waterfall.  A river of money.  Sheryl had created a diversion, a thread-sized stream, and now some of that money flowed to her.  It was only a temporary adjustment,  she decided, like water seeking its own level.  Some day when she was able, she’d alter the flow again, aim it toward someone else who needed help.  She imagined being lifted into the stream like a beached boat, like the African Queen she’d seen in that old movie.  She thought of how the characters in that story, Charlie and Rosie, had given up and lain down to die, only to be saved by a miracle, rescued by rain.  Redeemed. 

“Hear you got car trouble.”  A guy in a tee shirt and jeans stood on the sidewalk, looking down at her.

Sheryl scrambled to her feet.  “Yeah.  Yes, I do.”

He pointed a thumb at the breezeway where an old woman waited on a  bench.  “My grandmother said you needed help.  What’s the problem?”

“It was running like a truck.  Almost didn’t make it this far.  I called for a tow.”

“Mind if I take a look?”  His hair was thinning, and he’d let it grow long in the beginnings of a comb-over.

“Well, I don’t know . . .”

“I’m a mechanic.”  He reached in to pop the latch and walked around to lift the hood.  “Running rough, huh?”  He leaned over the engine, jiggling wires with big, red-knuckled hands.  “Engine’s pretty dirty.  Nothing loose, though.  You want to start it up?”

“No.  I mean, I don’t want to wake my little boy.”

He squatted to peer under the car.  “No leaks.”

“Anyway I already called.”

“I got my tools in the truck.  If you wanted to start it up.  No guarantees.”  He grinned, a quick, boyish show of teeth.

“That’s real nice, but—“

“You live around here?   Got somebody could come pick you up?”
     Sheryl shook her head.  “I’m just passing through.”

He looked in the car again, taking in the ice chest and Danny’s toys.  “You live in your car?”

“No, I don’t live in my car.  I’d never do that.  I’m just . . . stuck, that’s all.”

“So what kind of help you looking for?”

“Nothing.”  She fought back tears.  “Just leave me alone, okay?”

“Hey, look--”

“Sheryl.  My name’s Sheryl.”  The tears came.  “You shouldn’t do that to your hair, you know.”

His hands went to his head, smoothing back the hair.

She wiped her face with her fingers.  “When hair thins out like that, you should keep it cut real short so it’ll stand up, not lie down, like what you’re doing.”

He dropped his hands to his pockets.  “Is that right?”

“Yeah, that’s right, Mr. Mechanic.  If there’s one thing I know it’s hair.”

“I bet you do.”  He fumbled in his pocket and held out a bandana.

“No, thanks.”

“Take it,” he said, stuffing it into her hand.  

A twenty dollar bill floated to the pavement.

“Hey--”

“Take it,” he repeated, walking away.

Sheryl watched the mechanic settle his grandmother into a clean little Toyota pickup.  She crossed her arms, hugging herself, as they drove by.  The old woman’s mild, wrinkled face smiled out at her.  “Lucky,” she said aloud.

Her neck and arms burned.  She fanned herself with Danny’s book.  As he slept, she collected more money.  An older couple gave her twenty-five dollars.  She didn’t have to say much.  It was plain how tired, hot and miserable she was.

 Danny woke, crying.  She lifted him to her hip and circled the rest area, moving between patches of shade.

A blue van pulled in and Sheryl read its logo as it nosed into a parking space: Arc of Love Vocational Training Program.  Several people climbed out and began to unload cleaning supplies.  She hurried over to the restroom.  A woman with a mop and pail entered just as Sheryl pulled down her sign.

“Time to go, Danny boy,” she said, carrying him back to the car.

Danny crawled across the seat.  “Go, go.”

Sheryl sat behind the wheel, counting money.  She’d kept a loose tally, but couldn’t believe the figure in her head.  “You ready to go home now, Danny?  See Daddy?”

Danny reached for the ice chest.  “Mo juice.”

She poured some juice and recounted.  Danny dribbled the liquid down the front of his shirt.  “Be careful!” Sheryl yelled, grabbing for the cup.  Bills scattered as the cup flipped into his lap.  “Damn it,” she said.  “Stupid.”

Danny began to cry.  “Mommy’s sorry, Sweetheart.”  She pulled him into her lap and rocked him.  “So sorry, so sorry.”

She led him over to a faucet and turned it on.  Danny batted the stream, shrieking and stomping in the puddling water.  Sheryl splashed her face, running her fingers through her hair.  Danny stared up at her, giggling, and she dumped a handful of water on his head and mussed his hair.  He collapsed against her legs, laughing.  “All clean now,” she said, stroking his hair with wet hands.  “We’re all clean.”

A middle-aged woman stopped to watch.  She smiled. “Looks like you’ve got a happy little sponge there.”

Sheryl turned off the spigot.  “No, he’s not a sponge.”  She lifted her dripping child to her hip.  “Are you, Danny boy?”

“Funge,” Danny repeated.

“Will never, ever be a sponge,” Sheryl said, turning  away from the surprised woman.

She carried Danny to the car and buckled him into his seat.  She started the Ford and accelerated onto the ramp, merging with the flow, heading north.

“We’re going for a ride,” she sang to Danny.

A warm wind gusted through the windows, and the lowering sun shown full on their faces and gilded the flying tips of their hair.  The air smelled like vineyards and irrigated land, like grapes turning to wine, astringent as desire.  In the rear view mirror, the road spiraled away, receding.  Sheryl imagined the sad-faced house at the center of the spiral, growing smaller and smaller until finally it dissolved like a sugar cube.

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