“Have you got the road map?” Pop asked, as he settled himself with some difficulty in his son’s car.

“Oh, Pop, nobody uses a paper map these days. I’ve got a Garmin.”  Kevin laughed indulgently.

“What the hell’s a Garmin?”

“You remember, I told you: it’s a navigation system. It’ll tell me exactly where to go.”

Pop muttered under his breath that he could tell young whippersnappers where to go without any help from a machine. Kevin pretended not to hear. It was five a.m. on Saturday morning, a time not conducive to conversation. Father and son were traveling to visit Pop’s daughter and Kevin’s sister, Janie. It was a fourteen-hour drive, but being male, they’d planned to start early and make it in one day. Pay good money for a room just to sleep? No way. For once they were in complete agreement.

They received their first directional instruction as they left the neighborhood. Turn left on Maple Avenue. Turn left. The woman’s authoritative voice sounded so sure.

“Left?” Pop snorted. “That road’s been closed for years.”

“Yeah, that’s a bit of a snag with the satellite, I guess,” Kevin said. “She always tells me to do that. I just ignore her.”

“Who’s she?”

“Well, the nav system, you know. Mine has a British accent. I call her Gwyneth.” Kevin followed the familiar streets that he knew would take him where he wanted to go.

Turn left! Gwyneth ordered again. Then, when that didn’t happen: Recalculating.

Gwyneth sounded truly distressed that she was being ignored, but she gamely picked up the directions for Kevin’s new route. In one mile, take the right-hand ramp to I-75. When Kevin complied, Gwyneth seemed appeased. They drove along peacefully for a couple of hours, and then Pop expressed the need for a pit stop. Kevin took the next off ramp, and Gwyneth had a robotic hissy fit.

Keep on the highlighted route, she snapped. As soon as possible, make a U-turn and return to the highlighted route. Then, frostily, Recalculating.

“Sounds like she’s getting’ mad,” Pop said.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Pop,” Kevin said, sounding a little frosty himself.

They stopped for lunch, causing Gwyneth to Recalculate again, then for coffee, and a couple of more times for Pop’s bathroom breaks. Each time Gwyneth had to refigure their route, her voice became tighter and her diction more clipped.

“She sounds mean now. I wouldn’t put up with it,” Pop said.

“Pop, you’re imagining things. It’s only a computer’s mechanical voice.”

“Yeah? Well, I swear I just heard her sigh exactly like your Mom used to when I’d really pissed her off.”

Finally, Kevin switched off the navigation system. It was easier than arguing with his father.

“You know, I’d like to take some back roads,” Pop said. “You can’t see anything on the durn interstate. Be good to look at some scenery.”

“Might take longer,” Kevin said.

“Well, so what? You can always call Janie on that phone of yours if we’re going to be late. Now, if I had my atlas with me, I could figure out the best roads to take.”

“No need for a map. Gwyneth will guide us.” Kevin said, reaching for the On switch.

Guide them she did, taking them over rivers and through woods, with directions delivered in her impeccable British diction. Turn left, turn right, proceed for three miles to Old Mill Road. Then turn right.  

Pop stopped trying to keep up with all the twists and turns, settled back and enjoyed the passing farms and fields. But as the miles rolled by, he thought he should be recognizing the landscape. After all, he’d grown up in these parts and lived here until old age had forced him to relocate to his son’s home. Nothing looked familiar.

“Are you sure we’re on the right roads?” he asked Kevin.

“Must be. I’ve been following Gwyneth exactly.”

Just then, Gwyneth spoke up: Turn left on Good Intentions Road in one point two miles. Turn left.

“Never heard of it,” Pop said.

“Maybe it’s new since you lived here.”

But the road didn’t look new. Old-growth trees arched overhead as two lanes melted into one. Pavement gave way to gravel. Gravel gave way to grassy ruts. Then there was no road at all. Kevin stopped the car. He fiddled with the navigation system, but Gwyneth was silent.

Darkness descended suddenly, like a curtain being drawn. “I guess I’d better see if I can turn around,” Kevin said in a small voice. But there was no room to turn. He put the car in reverse and edged back cautiously. Where was the road? Tall grass swished against the sides of the car and rendered the back-up lights useless. Finally, the car gave a cough and came to a halt.

“Oh, great! We’re lost and now we’re out of gas. What else can go wrong?”

“Look, there’s a sign of some kind,” Pop said, peering into the darkness. “Must be a  town nearby. I can’t make it out…welcome…looks like h – something.”

Kevin’s eyes were sharper. “It says ‘Welcome to Hell.”

Gwyneth spoke. She didn’t even try to hide her triumph.

You have arrived at your destination.





Waffles and Wi-Fi

Ain’t No Easy Runs. Marlene had made the first few bars of that song his ring tone back when life was sweet. Back when she called him her road warrior. Jake rolled down the cab window, hoping the fresh air would keep him awake for a few more miles. He wanted to get to Moline before he stopped. He’d climbed behind the wheel at 4:30 that morning, with Marlene’s words ricocheting in his ears.

“If you’d rather drive that damn truck than be with me, fine! You just go right on and do it. But don’t expect me to be waiting for you when you get home.”

They’d been up all night arguing about it. He’d tried for the hundredth time to explain that it was his paycheck that paid the rent, bought the groceries, and held the Mastercard bill at bay – the card with the monthly payment that was more than the rent. Jake could barely keep up with the interest, let alone pay the balance. Marlene made a face and looked away, tuning him out. Letting him know she found him unbearably tiresome.

She said, “I guess I’d better look for a guy who can afford me.”

That struck terror into Jack’s gut. It was his biggest fear put into words.

He’d done everything he could think of to jolly her along. Shopping was the most certain cheerer-upper, but it was also the most unmanageable. The closet was stuffed with Marlene’s clothes, many still with dangling price tags. The UPS truck delivered boxes from Amazon just about every day. But he’d been afraid to complain, and gradually Marlene had backed him into a no-win corner. He had to work to pay her bills; she threatened to leave him because he worked too much.

The cab bucked like a rodeo bull, sending stabs of pain into Jake’s lower back. Maybe he was getting too old for long-distance trucking. He’d deliver the parts he was carrying to the big John Deere plant in Moline, then pick up a load of lawn mowers bound for California. Coming home, he’d haul something else; he didn’t know what yet. It was a run he made often, but it never got any shorter. Scuttlebutt said Deere was looking into rail shipping again. It was a pervasive rumor that took on new life every couple of years. If it happened, a big part of Jake’s income would disappear down the rails. Maybe then Marlene would get her wish and he’d have to find another job. One where he’d be home more.

Finally, despite the rocky ride, Jake’s eyelids refused to stay open. He knew he had to stop for a quick nap. If he came upon a weigh station in his present state of fatigue, he’d be pulled off the road, no matter how much he fudged his hours of service log. His pay was based on miles and time. The farther he went and the faster he got there, the better the paycheck. But I have to get there alive, he reminded himself.

A huge neon sign glowed in the gathering dusk: Waffles and Wi-Fi, it proclaimed.  Okay, that would do. He crunched into the gravel lot, parked nose to tail with another rig, and cut the ignition. The sudden silence pulsed in his ears. Making a pillow of his arms on the steering wheel, he rested his head and instantly slept.

A blast from an air horn jerked him upright. He saw the back end of a semi-trailer just a few feet in front of him. Frantically, he stood on the brakes, bracing his arms to control the wheel. As his brain fully awoke, he remembered he was parked.

Breathing hard, he glanced around quickly to see if he’d been observed. The nightmare emergency stop was a joke among truckers; he’d laughed about it himself. Wasn’t so funny when it happened to him. Shaking with left-over adrenalin, he climbed down from the cab. Maybe he’d get one of those waffles, get some carbs into his bloodstream. Forget about sudden stops, both real and imagined.

He pulled out his phone. He’d text Marlene, pretend that all-night fight hadn’t happened. Maybe she’d be willing to pretend, too. He pictured her curled up like a kitten in their messy bed, even though it was more likely she was perched on a bar stool at Whiskey Joe’s. His thumbs tapped out, “Honey, luv u, miss u.”

It would be a good sign if she didn’t respond right away, took some time to cool off. He was gambling she wouldn’t answer while she was still mad. He had a feeling he wouldn’t want to carry that answer with him on the endless miles between here and California.

His phone rang.




The Roundabout

“Now buckle up, Clara. Hear that chime? That means you don’t have your seat belt on.”

“Oh, okay, sorry. Can you help me, Ida? I can’t reach the buckle.”

“Here…oh my goodness, it needs to be just a squinch longer…there you go.”

The ladies were on their way to a mall they hadn’t visited in at least a year. They’d seen an ad for nautical-themed outdoor décor, and agreed it was just what their porches needed. Ready early, they’d sat in Ida’s living room in their good pantsuits, purses at hand, and waited until 9:30 to set out. No sense in arriving before the stores opened.

Ida drove her 2001 Lincoln Navigator, the last car her late husband bought before his demise. James had been a large man and he insisted this was the only car that fit him. It was too big for her, but it was paid for (sinful, what that car cost!) and in perfect shape. If there was one thing James had been a stickler about, it was car maintenance. So the paint retained its showroom luster, the wire wheels sparkled, and the leather seats were still buttery-soft. Ida could see over the steering wheel if she sat up very straight on a cushion, which she always did.

“Let’s see, we could take the interstate, but I’m going to stick with surface streets to avoid the traffic,” Ida said.

“Much better,” Clara agreed. “We can take our time; we’ve got plenty of it.”

They laughed companionably. Time had expanded in their old age. Days were long, sometimes tiresomely so. It would help if they didn’t get up at 5:30 in the morning, but they both did, and then complained bitterly when they fell asleep during their favorite evening TV shows. Clara, the more technologically daring, had mastered Tivo, and Ida could always catch up on what she’d missed at Clara’s house.

“Oh! Oh!” Ida was shaken from their comfortable conversation by the sight of something new in the street ahead. “What in the world? Clara, do you see this? It’s a big circle! What am I supposed to do?”

“It’s a roundabout, I think,” Clara said. “I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never seen one before. Supposed to take the place of an intersection and be safer.”

“I don’t have a choice, there’s no way around it.” Ida said. “I guess I’ve got to get on here.”

She’d slowed to a crawl as she scoped out the situation, only to be propelled from behind by a horn blast. The big car shot into the curve and traveled rapidly around the circle, completely ignoring the Yield signs. More horns joined the exasperated chorus as Clara sped around the circle again. And again.

“What should I do?” she wailed to Clara, who was hanging onto the dashboard with both hands.

“Slow down!” Clara shouted. Her voice tended to get loud when she was upset. “I think you’re supposed to go to the inside lane.”

“Well, how will I ever get out of here if I do that?”

“I don’t know, but if you stay in this lane we’ll get squashed. Just keep merging over until you’re in the center. Then you’re supposed to merge back to the outside when you see your exit.”

“How the hell do I know which is my exit?” Ida said, panicked into unaccustomed profanity. She did as Clara said, though, and it brought a blessed lull in the horn-blowing. But then, as she feared, she was stuck in the inside lane, circling and circling. Clara looked increasingly green as the big car slewed around the tight circle.

“You’re not going to throw up, are you, Clara?” Ida asked. “You know how James was about this car. Don’t you dare throw up in it.”

“I’m trying not to,” Clara moaned, hand over mouth. “But you have to stop going around in circles. You know I get motion sickness.”

“I can’t stop,” Ida said through clenched teeth. “It’s no use telling me to stop when I can’t. Here, use this litter bag in case you puke.”

Clara held the litter bag with its Spearmint gum wrappers and used tissues under her nose, just in case. The mint smell actually calmed her nausea a bit. She glanced over at Ida’s white knuckles and wild eyes and knew she’d have to take charge.

“Okay, now, Ida,” she said with a confidence she did not feel, “put on your blinker for a right lane merge.”

Ida looked doubtful, but she obeyed.

“Now get over one lane.”

Ida did so successfully.

“Now signal again, and merge right again.”

Ida did.

“Okay, you’re on the outside. Take the first exit. It doesn’t matter where it’s going. Just get off.”

Limp with relief, Ida exited the roundabout. They found themselves on an unfamiliar street headed in the opposite direction of the mall. Ida took the first opportunity to pull over to the curb and park. Both ladies got out of the car. Clara put her hands on her knees and took deep breaths. Ida cried a little.

“Sorry, it’s just nerves. Would you mind if we went home, Clara?”

“Not at all, I think that would be best. I don’t need any more stuff for my porch, anyway.”

“Me either. It was just going to be an outing for me. I probably wouldn’t have even bought anything.”

“We had an outing, that’s for sure.”

Clara’s mouth turned up at the corners. Ida felt an involuntary grin stretch across her face. Then they were leaning against the car, laughing helplessly.

“What shall I dooooo? It’s a big circle!” Clara said through tears of mirth. “That was you.”

“Urp, urp, I’m so sick,” Ida mimicked. “That’s how you sounded.”

After a few minutes they wiped their eyes, pulled themselves together except for a few stray giggles, and got back into the car. Ida sat up straight behind the wheel.

“I think I’ll get on the interstate to go home,” she said. “Put on your seatbelt, Clara.




Just Looking

He liked to look in windows. He knew it was wrong and could get him in big trouble, but   a glimpse of fire burning in a grate, a vase of flowers on the window sill, a table set for a meal proved irresistible. He couldn’t help himself, he had to look. If there was a sheltering bush with a good view of the house, he’d linger a bit, watching the family as they ate dinner or gathered around a television set. Then he’d resume walking slowly, blending into the shadows, head down, but eyes darting.

A slight figure, so pale that his face became ghost-like in the dark, he’d walk for miles, zeroing in on homes with the curtains open and the dogs inside for the night. He was careful not to go to the same neighborhoods too often. There was one house he particularly liked, though, one that pulled him back to visit more often than he should have.

The busy family that lived there hardly ever thought to close the blinds. Lamp-lit windows made golden paths on the lawn. Doors slammed, voices called, and bikes lay forgotten in the driveway. The house was white; it reminded him of a wedding cake, a gleaming haven in the gathering dusk. He’d scoot under the branches of an evergreen tree in the front yard and look his fill.  A basketball goal hung over the garage door and once a boy and his father were playing together. They were so near he could smell their sweat.

“Hey, let’s go in,” the father said. “It’s too dark; I can’t even see the darn hoop.”

“Let’s shoot free-throws, then. You can do that with your eyes shut, can’t you?” They laughed together like old friends.

Watching the pair of them, he felt sick and empty. His stomach growled. When had he last eaten? Propelled by hunger, he turned toward home.

Reaching the bridge, he scrambled down the embankment. One of the others had a small campfire going, and it lit his way through the broken bottles around the pup-tent. He hoped his mother had picked up something from the 7-11 – maybe one of those hot dogs that rolled perpetually under the heat lamp. His mouth watered.

But the tent was empty. There was an open can of beans and a plastic spoon on the cardboard box that served as their table. That meant his mother didn’t expect to come back to the tent to sleep that night. He shoveled in the beans, wrapped up in his crusty blanket and curled into a ball to preserve as much body heat as possible.

When he closed his eyes, he saw the warmly lit rooms of the houses he’d passed. He heard the boy and his father laughing. Maybe someday, he thought as he slipped into merciful sleep. Maybe someday. For now, all he could do was look.




Sick Leave

Zelda liked to have someone to blame if she got sick. Whenever she felt a symptom coming on, she’d cast around in her mind to think who might have given it to her. There was always someone. Then she’d tell that person exactly what she thought about his or her thoughtlessness.

“I don’t need your germs,” she’d lecture her friends. “I’ve got things to do. So if you’ve got a sniffle or a cough, stay away from me. The twenty-four hours before you even know you’re sick is when you’re the most contagious.”

Her friends (a dwindling number) were indeed very careful to keep their distance if they felt at all unwell, but strangers – well, strangers will cough on the bus, they will put their diseased paws all over the shopping cart, and they will spew sneezes like Mount St. Helens. This despite Zelda’s most ferocious glares.

She used hand sanitizer when she was out and when she got home, scrubbed her hands with hot water and soap for thirty seconds. She timed herself by singing the alphabet song with her own personal twist: “ABCDEFG, don’t you give your bug to me. HIJKLMNOP, I intend to be germ-free. QRSTUV,WXY and Z. Now I’ve sung my ABCs, use a tissue when you sneeze.”

The worst germs of all were baby germs. Zelda was convinced they had a particular potency. This was a problem because her daughter was a working mom and the grandbaby came down with something every other week. Zelda was often dragooned into baby-sitting so the parents could go to work. She’d wear a mask and gloves, and her daughter joked that the baby wouldn’t recognize his own granny on the street.

Of course, Zelda got every preventive shot available. Pneumonia, flu, shingles, tetanus.  When she asked for gamma globulin, her weary doctor hinted that Zelda might be a bit obsessive.

“Germs help us build resistance,” he said. “Exposure actually strengthens the immune system.”

Zelda looked at him like he was crazy. Aside from the physical misery of being sick, she just didn’t have time. She was a busy woman. People relied on her; she had obligations and responsibilities. She’d explained that to him several times, but he couldn’t seem to take in how inconvenient a case of the sniffles was to her. So she took sensible precautions. Certainly she did.

But inevitably, it happened. That first tickle in the back of the throat. Sneezes. Aches. Coughs. Fever. Zelda denied it as long as she could, but finally had to admit she was sick. She knew exactly where she’d picked it up. Andy had been barking like a mad dog at the PTA meeting just three days before. But she was past caring. She crawled into bed and pulled the covers up to her chin.

Zelda slept most of the first day and night. The second day she watched some television, dozed and blew her nose. By the third day, the homemade soup a neighbor brought over tasted good. On day four, she felt much better. She took a shower, changed the sheets and slipped back into a fresh bed. There was an old Humphrey Bogart movie on television that she’d never seen. The afternoon passed pleasantly. Friends of the Library Committee called to inquire why she’d missed their meeting. “I’m sick,” she said. Really, people could be so demanding. She cancelled her dentist appointment, yoga class and oil change. “I’m sick, don’t know when I can reschedule.”

It was a happy moment when she discovered a tub of ice cream in the freezer that she’d forgotten. She ate most of it while she painted her toenails. Then she gave herself a facial and took a bubble bath. When people called to check on her, she said she felt too ill to talk.

Zelda did make one phone call, however, to Andy. He quaked when she announced that she was sick in bed because of him. “I, I, I’m so sorry,” he stammered. “I know I shouldn’t have gone to the PTA meeting, but Jill was receiving that award…”

“Actually,” Zelda broke in, “I called to thank you. It’s the best down time I’ve had in years. I’m going to get sick more often.”