Turnpike

by Cindy House

This is the road you take twice a week to pick up your son. These are the traffic lights you stop for or rush through, depending on the minutes glowing at you from your dashboard clock. There is the dinosaur miniature golf course built into the side of the hill. Next to that is the bowling alley. There are too many gas stations to count dotting the side of this four lane stretch of highway. It’s not the neon logos of chain stores that catch your eye each time. It is the strange collection of little motels that stun you with their determination to stay in business. This is the turnpike you take for twelve miles on Tuesday and Thursday nights when you bring your child home from his court ordered visitation.

You pass the strip club and you stare as you drive by just as you always do. The parking lot is never empty. The lights are always on. Sometimes a girl stands outside next to the bouncer, smoking a cigarette. You slow down to see her better because there is something you want to know about the girls who work there.

When the stepmother is being awful to your son, you have the craziest thoughts. Sometimes, like tonight, you just imagine how it would feel to take a match and hold it to the hem of her dress or at the bottom of her thick, bristly, ridiculous braided hair. You can see yourself removing one shoe and using the heel to gouge holes in her miserable face. You hate the way her smile turns downward, the way it makes her skin look as if it is melting. You wonder why it has never scared your son because you remember being five and at that age, this stepmother would have been the truest version of a witch that you could imagine.

Other nights, you have visions with less violence, less mess. You have seriously considered stopping at Centerfold’s and introducing yourself to the girls who dance there. You have pictured yourself hiring one of them to show up at your ex-husband’s door in a thin strappy dress armed with personal details and a screechy claim of pregnancy.

You see yourself in a tan trench coat handing a young dancer in a thong a photo of the woman who forced your son to eat pistachios and then insisted it was a random puke and not an allergic reaction even while he complained about his throat getting tight.

“Make sure the stepmother is with him before you start,” you can imagine yourself saying. “Here’s a photo of her.”

You haven’t done that yet. You always decide you won’t do that. It seems to you that hiring third party strangers never seems to work out and the news is filled with people coming forward to say they’d been hired to kill, kidnap, lie.

At the worst, after she sent you the crazy emails, you started dressing up for pick up. You read the lines demanding that all discussion about your son go through her from now on and you knew it was adolescent but there you were, strutting down their cracked tar driveway in high heels, blown out hair, full makeup, and a little black dress. The old you might have thought it was a little obvious, a little transparent, but the new you, the you dealing with the stepmother, knew that obvious was the only way to go.

Those times when you felt her eyes traveling up and down your body, the one night when you watched her stomp back into their house and slam the door, it was like winning and when you hugged your boy and carried him to your car, it felt good to know who was angry and afraid now.

After you pass the strip club, you stick your hand inside your bag on the passenger seat, feeling around for the package of gummy bears. You have a ritual for pick up and the most important part is the surprise.

You are afraid of everything now. You fear that the day will come when your son won’t want to climb into your car, when he says he wants to stay with Daddy. It makes you anxious to think of him realizing the power he has over you. At what age will candy stop working?

This isn’t what you imagined when you thought of yourself becoming someone’s mother.

You stop at the last light before you leave the turnpike and something makes you look to the side of the road. It’s a small pair of eyes glinting in the pale melon-colored streetlight. Animals have become so aggressive, you think. Or maybe you heard that somewhere. Who said that recently?

Possum, you think as the light turns green and you step on the gas. You saw a possum in broad daylight just last week at your little boy’s school. That’s where you heard the phrase about aggression. Another mother said that to you as the two of you watched the possum walk towards the children on the playground. The animal’s white fur looked stained and oily and you noticed it swaying, leaning towards one side and then the other.

“Maybe it’s high,” you said, grinning. But she never laughed or even smiled. Instead, she stared at you.

“We should tell someone,” she said. “Don’t you think we should tell someone?”

She thought the animal might be dangerous.

“A possum out in the daytime, it’s got to be sick,” she said.

After you take the left off the turnpike, you coast down the hill, past the handful of houses before your ex’s. You swerve into his driveway and your eyes land on the window where you always look for your son’s little head behind the glass. The house is completely dark tonight, not a single light anywhere, but their cars are in the driveway.

They’ve finally done something, you think.

Your best friend at age fourteen, Sandy Sterner, had a regular babysitting job with this one family on her block. You used to go with her often. You and Sandy would ignore the baby and nervously dial boys you liked, praying their mothers wouldn’t answer. There were no cell phones then, you were just a kid.

The Mehru’s had one baby at that time, a boy named Robbie. You remember their name because in your small town, they were the only people from someplace else. The only people whose skin was dark. You never remember the baby crying. When you think of him now, you can still see his big dark eyes and his inky straight hair and his surprised expression. He seemed underweight, skinny for a little baby, but what did you and Sandy Sterner know, two girls in their freshman year of high school.

Once Sandy showed you a Penthouse in the father’s top dresser drawer, just dropped in with the dingy boxer shorts and the dress socks. You looked through the magazine and you and Sandy named the girls at school you could imagine posing like this.

Back then, people used play pens for babies. Sandy called it Robbie’s baby jail. She used to plop him into it and sometimes the two of you would leave the room for a very long time to pick at things in their refrigerator or look through their drawers or talk on the phone, twirling the long cord around your wrists. For the first time, it hits you that you never once questioned the baby’s silence or even told another adult about the way he never cried and the bruises he had on his body sometimes.

You and Sandy stopped being friends the next year. She told you the boy you liked couldn’t stand you, said you were fat. You told her that you thought she had a weak chin and her profile was ugly, something your mother had pointed out to you after the first time she met Sandy.

You never missed her.

Home on break one semester, you picked up part of the newspaper from the kitchen table where your dad had left it and saw the Mehru name in the headline right away. Your town was small and it was a family anyone would remember, the Mehru’s, the only people from somewhere far away, the only ones with heavy accents.

Mr. and Mrs. Mehru divorced while you were busy writing papers and getting drunk at school. You had forgotten they even existed. In the time that had passed, they’d had two more children and then a nasty divorce. High conflict, the paper had said.

The article was about Mr. Mehru shooting Robbie and his two younger sisters in the head as they sat in the back of his car, strapped in for the ride to their dad’s apartment for weekend visitation. One, two, three, and then a bullet for himself.

A photo was included next to the article and in the photo, they showed Mr. Mehru’s four door sedan, dewy in the early light. Police cars filled the background and uniformed bodies circled the car. You held the photo up to your face to get a better look and what you assumed had been a shadow on the back window of the car seemed to actually be blood. The photo was black and white and it was hard to see the vehicle but with a closer look, you could easily see a splatter pattern on the glass with three distinct centers from the three small skulls.

You think about little Robbie Mehru now as your shaking hands dig for your cell phone in your purse. Picture his face as you push the right numbers, swallowing again and again to stay calm, your eyes on the large picture window where you usually see your little son’s head by now.

It rings and it rings and it rings. With each ring, you hear yourself whispering please, please, please.

What a stupid stupid girl you have always been.

*

CINDY HOUSE lives in New Haven, CT with her husband and son. She is a regular opener for David Sedaris on his fall and spring tours and is represented by Dan Kirschen at ICM Partners.

(Photo by Lucas França from Pexels)

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