Category — Benoit Jammes
by Alex Holmes
For the past few years (and in fact every year that I can recall whilst living in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex) there has been a major construction project on the highways around my home. Since 2009 the stretch of Highway 114 that runs from Grapevine and Southlake to Irving has become a complete and utter clusterfuck (rather than the normal mess that it typically is thanks to the DFW airport). This construction project reaches a few miles in each direction from the airport, throwing up barriers, roadblocks, blinking lights, and dust – tons of dust. But in the end they say that the long wait will be worth it, there will be many new lanes and new bridges that I’m sure are completely necessary.
Something about the Texas Department of Transportation makes them want to completely restructure every street, alley, and parking lot every few years. Some of this is due to necessity, and I get that. My once small hometown of Flower Mound grew seemingly overnight, and the main intersection (where Long Prairie Road meets Cross Timbers Road) that was once only two lanes going in each direction now stretches across six lanes, three going in each direction. The suburbs and cities are constantly growing and we have to accommodate all of these new residents with larger roads. It makes sense.
But this newest project that has very effectively gunked up all roads around the airport has a certain nuisance to it that I can’t put my finger on. It’s a project that is expected to still take another couple of years as they finish erecting a few more bridges (that are going on top of other bridges that they’ve already built), and rather than taking the entire project in little bits in sections so that only five minutes of any given transit through the area is slowed down they started the project in every location that “needed” reconstruction. And so a solid 7 or 8 miles will be marred by this construction project for years to come.
For the majority of the time that the construction has really been underway, I have been away from my once-home in the Dallas/Fort-Worth area at school in San Antonio. Every break I get off for summer or just a quick lapse in spring or winter, I fly or drive back home and find the road once again completely changed. The highways are still under construction but the twists and turns of construction make the road one that is completely new. On and off ramps are busier than the highways as people try to dodge the terrifying orange and white barriers that mark the ways where you have to go (rather than the direction that you want to go in).
Every year the roads change. I find myself driving back from the airport or all the way from San Antonio and realize, this is not the road that I grew up with. These are not even the roads that I drove on just a year ago. The constant construction has been confusing, yes. But even more terrifying than the confusion and chaos that the road work brings is the sense of unknowing, the sense that this place is no longer home.
Before the construction had gone completely out of control I was sixteen and a half approximately, and really wanted to get my driver’s license before turning seventeen in the spring.. The highway was only just beginning to get a few cones and barriers as hard-hatted construction workers took measurements and tore up the shoulders of the roads. It was nothing that should have intimidated a young student driver. What intimidated me was that my father was teaching me to drive rather than enrolling me in what he thought were bullshit driving schools that probably cost too much.
Picture me. Shaggy blond hair with an acne splattered face clutching the leather bound steering wheel to what was once my mother’s 1993 Toyota Avalon. A hunk of metal and parts to which I still don’t fully understand careening down the frontage road to 114 right after making the turn off of W Northwest Highway. It was mystical, new, adventuresome, fast, and Mary, Mother of Jesus, it was god damn terrifying.
I had performed well in parking lots and neighborhoods, aced drive-thrus and the easy going forty-five mile per hour zones that were scattered across the Flower Mound and Grapevine suburbs, and it was time to test my mettle and get on the highway finally. Ok, thought sixteen-year old Alex, you can do this. No big deal. Which of course was completely and utterly wrong.
My hands shook as my eyes darted back and forth from road to rear view mirror to side view mirror and back to road again. I twisted my neck in a quick jerk to make sure that no one was to my left as I wanted to merge on the highway. I made a jerk to my right as well just in case some mad man (or more likely soccer mom in a mini van) was trying to pass me and sneak onto the highway at the last second. I saw no one in my way, no other machines that could run me over, pin me to the shoulder, or spin me out once the hit me.
So I put my blinker on.
“Clickclick. Clickclick,” it chattered at me as I slowly began to move into the access lane, adjusting my wheel ever so slightly so that I wouldn’t jolt into the next lane. The lane markers bumped under my slightly too bald wheels that my dad said we’d replace soon. I thought I was ok.
“Whoa,” said dad.
The unseen car behind me held nothing back as they slammed down their horn for what seemed like an hour.
“WHOA,” said dad as I quickly jerked back into the lane to let a very disgruntled woman in a maroon sedan pass by me, all the while shooting me looks. Glances that shouted, “Watch where you’re going!” Hand gestures that implied, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
My heart pounded as breathed in and out and in and out to re-prepare myself to get on the highway. My dad said something about blind spots. Something about not rushing. Something about my safety. And I nodded in response as my blinker clickclicked at me and I merged onto the highway.
Once I was on it was fine. When you’re driving at sixty miles per hour and everyone else is going just as fast as you, it doesn’t really seem that different from driving thirty or forty miles per hour. You’re all moving forward, at the same speed and in the same direction and it doesn’t really matter.
I was disappointed in myself all the same. I hadn’t seen the car and my father was visibly and audibly upset. I couldn’t see his face (because I am an impeccable driver and always keep my eyes on the road), but I could hear his eyebrows descend and create the crease that forms between his eyes just above his nose when he’s upset. I could sense the puckered lips that are slightly turned down at the edges, and I could feel the disappointment that he felt to.
“There’s always a next time,” he said.
I flew back home for the spring break of my freshman year of college, and the monstrous construction project had been in full swing for a few months. I’d seen it start as I headed off to school and what not, but the suburbia I once knew was quickly changing to look more and more as just an extension of the ever-growing metropolis of Dallas. Three new bridges had sprouted out of the ground just outside of the tollbooths that take you through the North side of the airport. Barriers blocked off the old access roads and made you take the terrible cloverleaf exit that never lets you go in the direction that you want to go in.
My mother had picked me up from the airport this time around. My father, the usual chauffeur was busy attending to my brother who was at a band event of some sort.
“Wow, what a clusterf….fluff,” I told my mom (that point in my life where I was still uncomfortable swearing openly in front of her).
“Yeah it’s been pretty crazy,” she told me. “Travelling’s been really chaotic recently… no fun at all.” My mom had been travelling out-of-state since we had moved back to Texas when I was five years old, and the commute to and from the airport had been a bi-weekly trip for our family. Once on Sunday or Monday to see her off, and then again on Thursdays and Fridays to pick her up. Some weeks she’d be lucky and would only be gone from Monday to Wednesday, but those were far and in between.
It’s always been strange to have her drive me, or me and my brother around. Since my dad was a stay-at-home dad he was the one we saw and knew and always had taking us to and fro. We were always a little terrified (and still are) whenever my mom drove. Although she was the breadwinner and seemingly the wise and knowledgeable one of the household, after childhood we realized that mom was a little spacey. Sudden lane changes, missed exits, and various other mishaps on the road lead to the family never being overly excited for mom to hop behind the wheel.
We were always a bit distant, but still had a solid mother-son bond. But something in the air of that car ride had something wrong with it. We talked about going on the same ski/snowboard trip that we had been making for the past few years, discussing how everything was already packed. We passed along the cordial how is everyone. Dad was good. My brother Adam was good. As we pulled up to the toll-booths that guard both entrances to the airport I began to settle back into my seat, shuffling my back pack back and forth between my feet rather than putting it in the trunk of the car.
“How’s Scout doing?” I asked.
Scout was our thirteen year-old shih-tzu that we got just after our other shih-tzu Bailey had passed shortly after moving back to Texas. Scout had been deaf at birth (which was an interesting process of finding out when he was a puppy and refused to responded to our calls and shouts no matter how loud we yelled) and in his old age he had developed cataracts and effectively gone blind. Along with him walking along the walls like a bowling ball along gutter guards, we now had to stomp our feet or imitate tribal drums on the ground in order to get him to come to us after feeling the vibrations.
I knew the instant my mom hesitated that something had gone wrong. Her eyes started doing this thing that they do when she’s either moved to sadness or happiness, where they tear up just enough so that she has to dab at them before they start to make her make-up run. She took a napkin from the side of her door and made sure that a tear wouldn’t do just that.
“Well, honey something came up.”
Oh no, I thought as she inched closer and closer to the “TollTag Only” check point.
“We didn’t want to tell you or bother you with anything. We knew you had midterms this past week and didn’t want to stress you out anymore.”
“We took Scout in earlier this week, and well.” Brief pause for a gasp and another dab at a tear. “He just wasn’t holding on anymore. It was his time. We took him in yesterday and put him to sleep.”
As we finally made our way through the toll booths the huge exit road quickly narrowed into two lanes of bumper to bumper traffic, and ll that I let escape my lips was a brief “Oh.”
My mom apologized and re-explained and I told her I understood. But I didn’t. I wanted to know two days ago when they were talking about it. I wanted to know the day before and say something corny into the phone before he was put down. Even if he was deaf. He was my dog too. And god dammit it just wasn’t fair.
So we sat in silence in the backed up traffic waiting to pass the road blocks and cones and unfinished bridges.
Two summers later my family and I would still find ourselves trying to avoid the chaos that surrounded the airport and stretched across 114. My father and I had just passed into Southlake after crossing over a construction route from Grapevine. At this point my grandmother had recently been moved into an assisted living home and was not handling it too well. Along with not agreeing with the staff, generally forgetting things, and missing her dog (who wasn’t allowed inside the home) my dad was constantly going there to visit her and try and make her understand why she needed to be there. My father explained how she couldn’t cook for herself and how she had trouble moving, but he chose to leave out the parts about her memory beginning to fail (partially for her sake, but mostly for his during the long lasting phase of denial). While my mother and aunt had slowly but surely begun to admit it and discuss it at family gatherings, dad still wouldn’t accept that grandma was slowly falling off her rocker (mentally)
“Woof,” I state plainly as we cross the bridge and merge onto Southlake Boulevard. I knew that things were bad, but the way my dad was phrasing them made everything just seem bleak. I could hear the hopefulness in his voice that she’d be ok, but at the same time knew that nothing was going to change, and in the end things would only get worse.
“By the way, how’s David?” I asked.
David was my ex-step grandfather. He had met my grandmother shortly after my biological grandfather passed away (circa 1970) and they quickly got hitched after he had assured her slightly more financial stability (which ended up being not so entirely true). If you want to conjure up an image of him, think of a very round Santa Claus figure in flannel and overalls who works on computers and get drunk by 4 PM. As I child I had always noticed his rosy complexion. A few years before my grandmother’s institutionalization (?) they had divorced and he had disappeared with various and sundry items from their house, claiming that he didn’t need the help of my aunt and uncle’s or any of the family and would make it on his own. I still don’t know the full details of his relationship with my grandmother, but from what my father reveals, none of it was too good.
Months after the divorce he was calling and practically begging for help, to which none of my family responded (nor did his once estranged daughter who had gotten in contact with us after he fled to her post-divorce). Knowing his ritual every other month pestering I figured there was some new story that could be told.
“Oh gosh. I guess we never told you, he died. A few months ago.”
I was shocked.
Not shocked that he was dead (it was a long time coming with his habits and health).
Not shocked that I was un-phased by his passing(after understanding him more in my teenage years he no longer seemed so great. The once perceived tinkering idol fell as I realized his computer projects were piles of expensive parts sloppily pieced together, and the relationship he held with my grandmother didn’t amount to much).
I was simply shocked that no one had told me. A man that I had grown up with, a man that had been in my life for seventeen years before he left and was effectively exiled. Although I would grow to see the ugliest sides of him, as they were the ones that he showed us, why hadn’t I known?
I was sad, if not for him for the lack of family he had at the end of his life. Sad for the mistakes he made and the trouble he put us through, although this was also a relief to know we wouldn’t hear from him again. Sad that there at the very end of his days I couldn’t have even fathomed a tear for him because my family had deemed it unimportant enough to not tell me.
My face grew long with a frown and my eyebrows stretched upwards, making my eyes appear larger than they normally seem.
No Texas highway is the same. When you’re driving down them during the day it’s somewhat noticeable, but more often than not you’re distracted by the Texas landscape and great blue open skies (or at least I am). The real difference in highways is clear once you drive down them at night.
You have you’re average suburban roads that are typically well lit and well-tended (until May comes and you realizes that the landscape artists that the various counties hire know nothing about water conservation, Texas climates, or plants in general). Then there are the super highways that you begin to see when you get closer to the downtown areas. The lights are always, creating false and yellowed halogen daytime. But once you get to a certain point, usually 50 or so miles outside of the city you get to those awkward country roads that are still labeled as highways, but are only two lanes with a ten foot wide strip of grass running between them. There are no streetlights to light the way, the only lights available are your high beams that you cordially turn back to normal when a fellow late night companion zooms by at eighty miles per hour at what seems like inches away from you.
Every year that I go back to Dallas from college in San Antonio I end up on 114 again, for better or for worse. I’ve had some terrible times on the highway, but at the same time it has always gotten me back to where I need to go (be it a favorite restaurant, the lake, or home itself). What was once a perfectly fine suburban highway has become a superhighway with multiple handfuls of bridges, and more lanes than I’m comfortable driving in honestly.
But sooner or later it’ll be done, and everyone will frolic and rejoice because the God-awful construction will be gone.
And sooner rather than later I’ll be done with my college education. I won’t take as many trips back home, and won’t even get to abuse the renovated super highway. As the years have gone by and my undergraduate degree is closer and closer to being done, I realize that the highway wasn’t for me, and despite all the trouble it’s given me it is not the road I want to be travelling down. The roads, the city, my home has changed. The same routine path that had been so clearly laid out before me is no longer there, and the people who were once there are slowly going away, disappearing, and losing touch.
What is frankly terrifying is that I have no idea what road I’m going to travel down from here. There’s graduate school, jobs, and what not, but from here on out it’s one big mystery to me. I know for damn sure that I don’t want to repeat the same things I’ve done for the past few years of my life. If I have my way something new will begin, and quite soon and abruptly. But until I know exactly what that is, it seems that I’ll be travelling down the dark roads, with high beams on as I speed away.
About the author:
Alex Holmes is a recent graduate of Trinity University in San Antonio, graduating with a Bachelor’s in English. He is beginning graduate studies in education, again at Trinity University (unable to escape his Texan homeland).
He can be contacted at email@example.com.
June 29, 2013 Comments Off on “114”: Alex Holmes/Creative Nonfiction
Out of Fashion
By Thaddeus Rutkowski
In school, I wore bell-bottoms made of brushed felt. The pants were tight around the thighs, but the bells — which had fringes — were very loose around the ankles. I kicked the fringes when I walked. For a top, I wore an orange corduroy shirt.
I walked alone in the halls of my high school. No one wanted to walk beside me. If I happened to be walking toward someone, the student stared at me as I passed.
I had one teacher — a Spanish teacher — who was a perv. He would notice any girl who wore a miniskirt. The school had a dress code — one of the rules was that the hem of a skirt had to touch the floor when the wearer was kneeling.
Whenever this teacher had any doubt about the length of a skirt, he would have the student kneel on the tiles, and if the fabric of her skirt touched the floor, she would be allowed to take a seat and the class would resume. If not, the teacher would dress her down, in Spanish.
When I walked into the classroom wearing my bell-bottoms, the teacher looked at the fringes brushing the floor and shook his head. He waved a finger, then rubbed one finger over the other as if to say, “Shame on you.”
“Tomás,” he said, addressing me by my Spanish name. “Tomás, we don’t do that here.”
My math teacher didn’t care what clothes students wore, but he was a sadist nonetheless. He said he would raise students’ grades, on one condition. “If you take a whack,” he said, “I’ll give you a higher letter.”
He opened a closet door to reveal a collection of paddles. He had flat wooden bats in various shapes, some with holes drilled through them for a greater sting.
Students lined up around the classroom, waiting to be paddled. The line included girls as well as boys. One by one, they went to the front of the room. Each of them took a swat, except for one boy, whose grade was too low for the paddle. He had to accept a kick. The teacher hauled back and booted the boy. The force of the blow sent the boy hopping forward, but he didn’t make a sound.
Only a few students were doing well enough not to get whacked. I was one of them. When the teacher noticed me sitting at my desk, he said, “You, Mouse, come up here. You’re next. You also get one — that’s a real number, plus one — just for being here.”
I rose from my seat and went forward.
At home, I put on hip boots to go fishing. My brother called the rubber wear “hippie boots.” I walked to the creek with the tops of the boots folded down. When I was ready to wade, I pulled up the tops and buckled the rubber straps around my belt.
As I walked through the fast-moving water, I realized the boots weren’t really necessary; the creek was only about two feet deep. I could have waded wet and made my casts. I could have fished without stepping into the water at all.
I put away my hippie boots when I returned from the stream. The next time I went out, I decided, I would wear sneakers.
My father took my family to see the movie Alice’s Restaurant. The movie was rated R, and I looked forward to seeing some sex, but there was next to none in the film. There was some nudity when the main character was given a physical exam for induction into the military. There was drug use among the people who were living communally. There was some swearing. That was it.
Later, my father became angry about a scene in the movie. In the sequence, one of the characters, a recovering junkie, gets high on drugs and swings around on some kind of apparatus. As he hangs like a monkey, he says repeatedly, “I am an artist!”
“That guy was no artist,” my father said. “He was a horse’s ass.”
After a few drinks, my father called me to where he was sitting. “I’m a real artist,” he said, “I’m serious, too serious for the rest of the clowns. But you don’t give me my due. You treat me like your social organizer. My job is not to entertain children!”
My mother brought home a small box from the hospital where she worked. The box held greeting cards. “Look,” she said. “It’s drawing by your father.”
I looked at the sepia-colored drawing my father had made. It showed the hospital where my mother worked. Every edge of the building was sharp; every angle followed perspective. The roof of the car port jutted out over the area where ambulances arrived. The windows of the rooms looked new and clean.
I could see that my father had talent. He had exceptional eye-hand control. I couldn’t understand how his hand could be so steady, even after years of drinking.
My sister embroidered an image from one of my father’s paintings onto a lapel of my jacket. In light- and dark-blue thread, she constructed an antique bottle, the kind with a stopper instead of a twist cap. It was one of the bottles my father had dug from an old dump in the woods. He’d cleaned the old glass container and set it up in a still life.
The bottle floated there, against the tan color of my cotton jacket. I wore the jacket to school, and some students noticed the splotch of color in the shape of a bottle, but no one asked me what it was.
I tried writing a piece in the manner of a book I was reading. The book was ostensibly about fishing for trout in America, but it was really about a character named Trout Fishing in America. He did some fishing, but he did a lot of other things as well.
My piece had a beer wino in it. This wino drank only beer, which he bought by the case. He would start drinking in the afternoon, and he would go until he fell asleep in front of a television test pattern at night. He drank beer like a wino.
Somehow, my father saw my story. After he’d read it, he said, “Is this all you can do? Write funny stories? Why don’t you go to your room now and write another funny story?”
I went out to the porch, where there were hooks in the ceiling that had once held a swing. The swing must have broken and been taken down. Or maybe it hadn’t been broken, and had just been taken down. Perhaps my father took it down. Maybe he just didn’t like the idea of rocking in a swing on the front porch, chanting that he was an artist. It might have signaled boredom to him, as if people who sat in swings had nothing better to do. He had his ways of relaxing— sitting on a porch wasn’t one of them.
Most of our neighbors did, however, have porch swings. I would see them sitting there on summer evenings, looking out from their front porches. They wouldn’t be talking. They’d just be staring.
When I walked by, they wouldn’t talk to me. They wouldn’t wave, even if I waved. So I didn’t wave. I even avoided eye contact when I passed by.
The last thing I wanted to do was to have a swing on our porch. I didn’t want to rock back and forth in it and chant, “I am an artist.” That would be an embarrassing thing to do.
About the author:
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. He teaches at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and at the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. His writing has appeared in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Fiction and Fiction International. He was awarded a 2012 fellowship in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
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April 27, 2013 Comments Off on Thaddeus Rutkowski/Fiction