Weary

Marzy Mays waited behind one other customer, and shortly it was her turn.  Wearing her most confident face she stepped forward to clutch the high countertop and told the agent: “I’d like to buy a bus ticket.”

“To where, Lady?”  The agent had seen this old Negro woman on the sidewalks many times.  She could have been a “homeless” person except that he had never seen her attempt to use the depot’s rest rooms.  Then again, maybe she didn’t bother with facilities.

Marzy hadn’t heard well.  The waiting room echoed with the clank and clang of heavy doors, whoosh of dragged suitcases and parcels, the voices of live conversation and the aural assault of the required pseudo-music.

She guessed at the question and answered: “Uh, where can I go?  I mean, what cities does the bus go to?”

The agent had anticipated this kind of conversation when he saw Marzy further back in the line.  How did I know this was going to happen? he asked himself silently while he turned around to reach for a stack of schedules on the desk.  He pushed one across the counter.  Can you…”

“Uh, yeah, I can read. I can read fine,” Marzy assured him.  She took the schedule and wobbled to a bench to study her choices.  The booklet was about twenty pages thick, and the print was extremely fine.  Marzy feared she’d take an embarrassingly long time to read through it, but it fell open to the middle, and while she was collecting her wits and courage, three or more names on the left-hand page struck her: Lima, Findlay, Bowling Green…  There was something right about those names.  Briefly she flipped through the latter half of the schedule, then the front, but in the scan nothing else appealed to her.

Back at the ticket window she pointed to the correct spot on the lucky page and asked: “How much to Lima?”  She pronounced it Lima as in Aunt Jemima.  She, of all people, would know.

“Eleven seventy-five.”

Marzy said no more, but with a satisfied smile she carefully measured piles of change onto the counter top.  She sensed the agent’s studied patience with her, and in her heart she thanked him.  Then she pushed the coins across the worn marble in low stacks, watching them go as a duck might watch her ducklings paddle away to explore.

“Gate Two in a half an hour,” the agent said noncommittally as he slid her a ticket.

Marzy returned to a bench facing Gate Two.  When a bus pulled in five minutes later and three or four passengers debarked, Marzy wanted to leap to board it, but she thought she’d better wait for a call.  The terminal was not very busy this morning, but it was early yet.  Marzy looked around and tried to determine whether others might be boarding with her.  No one else appeared to be ready for travel, though, so Marzy resolutely held the bench down.

She shifted often, unable to satisfy her desire for comfort.  It wasn’t the hard bench that was at fault, exactly.  Something felt, well, out of place inside her.  It wasn’t a pain, really.  Indigestion was an approximate description.  Marzy was pretty sure she had eaten well that morning, but she fussed that she couldn’t remember where.  Or what.  But she never took chances with her diet, so the unsettled feeling wasn’t from something she’d eaten.  It also had an insidious side to it, teasing her into a momentary panic a couple of times as she sat, then subsiding so that she all but forgot the discomfort.  Then it would creep back and just sit there with her, inside her; her companion, her parasite, her secret.

When her bus was called, Marzy was the last of a half dozen or so who went forward, while from the platform she could see that a couple of heads had stayed on board during the stop.

Now, Marzy had learned some dignified ways in her seventy-one years, and this was one of those times to use them.  She was careful not to put on airs as she climbed the steep steps into the front of the coach, but she wanted to be respected as a worthy traveling companion by whomever she might meet.  So, with her best plastic Lazarus bag clutched close under her right arm, she stopped in the front of the aisle to choose a seat.  The seven or eight others were already seated, and maybe three pairs of eyes gave her a fleeting glance.

Marzy was smiling.  She felt it.  It felt awkward, and she worried that it was her subservient-obedient smile.  She tried to change it to one more gracious, but by this time nobody was looking.  The driver pounded up the steps, dropped into his seat, and hissed the door closed while Marzy continued to a suitable seat next to the window on the driver’s side of the bus.  She wouldn’t be hurried, but she feared that, if she didn’t lower her rather large body to a seat soon, the bus would lurch backward out of its berth and topple her.  Again, she sensed a white man’s calm but unpredictable patience while she sat.

Diesels sounded angry to her when they roared into action.  They were power under protest, like tigers performing in a circus ring.  This one roared that way now, backing out of its berth.  Then with gears gnashing into forward it jounced across the deep gutter into the street.  It growled through several more gear changes, and Marzy watched a blur of mismatched buildings slip past.  One thing she noticed, always noticed, were the people.  There were people on sidewalks, beside parked cars, in windows, on steps.  There were approachable people, such as she, and there were people who resembled park statues, such as those wearing neckties or those in high heels.

No matter how fast the bus careened through the streets, nor how blurred the buildings became, the people were distinct — their hair, their shoes, the rings on their fingers.  But nobody looked toward the bus.  No one saw Marzy leaving.

One moment Marzy saw a face that was familiar, but only inasmuch as it reminded her of someone.  A girl — a college student — had sought out Marzy and some of her acquaintances recently, and had “studied” them for a psychology class.  She was a pleasant young thing.  Her name was Randa Tash, Marzy remembered, and she called herself black, but the pity was she was as pale as anyone of the other dominant race which calls itself white.  Marzy chuckled half aloud over this black identity thing.  She preferred to be a Negro.  She hated to be called colored.  And she cringed at the contrived word Negress.  To her, Negro was dignified.  Yes, it referred to skin color.  But someone who wasn’t really coal-black in color could wear the name nonetheless.  And Negro was capitalized, even by white people.  They respected it.

Randa Tash hadn’t meant anything to Marzy personally.  She’d been around a few times, then had stayed away.  Maybe school had finished for the summer, or something.  As Marzy appreciated the soft, formed coach seat with its erect back, she pondered the only thing she could recall from all that Randa Tash had said to her: “You people live from moment to moment, don’t you.”

You people, she had said, after earlier claiming to be one of the same.  Then she had said, moment to moment, which was true of Marzy; the girl had understood well.  Or maybe she had understood Marzy well, and by You people she was referring to the certain few urban wanderers she was interviewing, not to members of any particular race.  The plain fact was, Marzy couldn’t keep anything outside the moment in her present thoughts.  If she tried to plan which street to turn onto next while she was out walking, by the time she reached that intersection she always completely forgot the plan.  If she tried to catch a fleeting memory of something past, even a useful thing like where she’d last seen a certain friend, or that friend’s name, it escaped her.  Memories were pleasant when they showed up, but they were like chipmunks or like hummingbirds: They came and went of their own accord, not to be captured and held for later examination and enjoyment.

Marzy tried to remember now how she had made up her mind to board a bus this day.  She could recall pushing wide the front door to the terminal, and a little of what took place inside, but where she had been before that, or with whom, she couldn’t say.

Out her window Marzy opened her eyes and glanced at the passing fields.  Corn it was mostly, waist-high and thrusting for the sky under a very warm and very friendly July sun.  She shut her eyes again.  She would probably doze, and that would be nice, but she knew her butt and her back would sweat against the cloth-covered seat.  When it would be time to rise and leave, her skirt and blouse would stick to her.  Well, she’d deal with that when it became necessary.  Her insides were soothed by the rocking of the bus, at least for now.

A bit of her history swam across her drowsy thoughts, then.  These were the rare memories that she could recall at will.  In her bag she carried crumbling clippings and wrinkled photos of that certain period, which helped keep those days alive for her, but they came back now more vividly than if she had sought to consider them:

Her church.  She could see it, but couldn’t say now where it was.  A big square church, brown with white trim.  The roof was steeply pitched and was capped with a blunt steeple.  Inside Marzy was clapping and singing, leading the singing.

She could see the man in the pale yellow suit while she sang, and she knew that he would want to talk with her after the service.  He was a Negro, just like everyone else in the church, but he was not familiar to her.  So, she found him afterward, and yes, he was thinking of speaking to her.  Would she like to be a professional performer?  An actress?  He needed a woman much like herself to tour the Midwest as Aunt Jemima.

Aunt Jemima!  What a gloriously happy time that had been.  All through the mid- and late-1950s she really was Aunt Jemima.  She had an act of songs and storytelling that she put together herself, and she took her act to elementary schools and high schools, parades and holiday celebrations.  She even appeared on many local television shows.  She understood that she was one of perhaps a dozen such women across the country who had been hired to promote Aunt Jemima pancakes, of course, but not to do so overtly.  If she did her job well, and she did, then thousands and thousands of people would allow as how there really was an Aunt Jemima, and they had seen her in person.  They would remember this in the grocery store aisles.

aunt-jemima

A special pride went with her identity as Aunt Jemima that comforted Marzy even now.  She never shared it with another living soul.  It had been the deciding thought when she took the job many — how many, dear God! — years ago.  She didn’t care about the sponsor or the product, although she was confident in its quality.  She didn’t care how much money it brought in.  She didn’t mind acting in a certain way on stage, the way she had been instructed to act in order to project the Negro kitchen servant image.  She was creating the character, in fact, against a mental model she knew too well; in years past she had known plenty of neighbors who had played that rôle in real life.  She was proud to do the job because people who bought the product would make terrific pancakes and would believe that a Negro was responsible for the recipe, for the perfection of it, for the reliability of the product box after box.  To this degree Marzy had understood marketing, although no one had ever taught her any of its precepts and assumptions.

Marzy remembered when it had ended, too.  The memory came back forcefully in her nap on the bus.  It had nothing to do with her.  She was tops.  It was the company.  They wanted to keep the name, but didn’t want to have such a stereotyped front person.  Nobody took pains to explain this to her, though.  One day she walked off a school stage, and another stranger was standing there like the man in the yellow suit.  He asked for her props and then simply said: “We won’t be needing you any more.”

That wasn’t so bad, it turned out.  She only had to tell one job agency who she was, and she had a job as a cook in the governor’s mansion.  They didn’t hire Marzy Mays; to them they had hired Aunt Jemima, even though she had given her real name.  She didn’t even have to prove whether she could cook before she joined the governor’s kitchen staff.

For the next — how many years? — she toiled at this job.  She had the 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift, Saturday through Thursday.  Breakfast, of course.  And it had been good work, but very hard.  She vaguely saw faces in her mind, the approving faces of family and old friends who were thrilled to know someone who had made it so big, and so late in life! — first Aunt Jemima and now cooking for the governor!  Who was governor then, anyway?  To Marzy it hadn’t been important.  He didn’t know her either, so why should she remember?

The recollections faded fast, and Marzy felt herself waking.  The bus was cruising up I-75 and the slight elevation gave an artist’s perspective of a Midwest cityscape, rendered to fit narrowly in the bus’s window frame.  Yes! Marzy thought.  It looks right!  Then she feared that maybe it was right, but maybe it wasn’t the town for which she’d bought her ticket.  She struggled to remember the name of the town she was going to, and gave up without looking to see what was printed on the ticket.

But the bus did turn off, and entered the city, and whisked past houses and buildings that were different from the ones she had seen that morning.  In no time the bus stopped and she was in the aisle.  She had waited to be the last one off, and counted herself lucky that she was, for she had to adjust her moist clothing while the others filed ahead of her.  She had sweated warmly in the soft seat.

Outside the terminal Marzy wasted no time wondering where to go.  She still had bits of the memory from her nap to ponder, and so she let her feet plot her a southerly course past shouting signs, rich marbled bank-fronts, and huge storefronts.   Her stomach begged attention, and she burrowed into her Lazarus bag for a brown banana and a courtesy pack of two crackers.  Her dry throat could wait for moisture.

The memories fizzled, and Marzy had no present thoughts at all for a while.  She knew that a toilet would be needed by day’s end, but that was a minor worry.  No, now her feet ached.  In fact, once she had begun walking she ached everywhere.  She could tell that her organs ached deep inside her, as if her companion discomfort had shared its poison with other gullible parts of her body.  Her muscles were fatigued.  Even her skin felt strained.

Marzy could put a word to it all: weary.  She was profoundly weary, in a way that someone working bent over in a field should feel at the end of the day.  But Marzy had only sat and ridden and napped.  She was sure she shouldn’t have felt so…

Marzy paused to consider her location.  She was near a street corner and she had just crossed a concrete bridge spanning a narrow, muddy river flowing between steeply-sloped banks.  An endless line of small businesses stretched ahead — gas stations, one- and two-story stores where someone sold appliances or repaired shoes or cut hair.  Here and there a bar, a corner grocery.  Here and there between these buildings were once-proud residences on hard-trampled bare earth lots still dotted with tenacious tufts of yellowed grass clinging to foundation corners and sidewalk edges.

Marzy dropped her gaze and pressed on.

The aching never stopped, but it didn’t threaten to grow any worse.  She felt, after a while, as if she had walked two hours.  Once in a while she’d had a sense of wrong direction and had let her feet retrace some blocks.  Once in a while she worried a little that she was not in the town she had hoped for.  If she weren’t, that was OK.  She could handle any town.  She wasn’t even sure she had ever been to the town for which she had bought the ticket.  She had just known she wanted to go somewhere, and Lima sounded nice.  It sounded right.

The businesses had given way mostly to houses.  Some were row houses of brick, two or four apartment fronts to a building.  Most were single family homes and were very modest.  Eventually, as she trudged onward, the homes were very humble.  Occasionally she paused again and looked ahead and all around.  At one such stop she realized that there were no white people among those in sight.  Nearer the bus terminal she had passed people on the street who didn’t acknowledge her.  Now she was passing people in their yards, and they watched her openly.  The women faced her and watched.  The men, many in white undershirts showing off their dark arms, took a back-to stance with their hands on their hips and peered at her over one shoulder, then the other.  They were all Negroes.

Marzy trudged onward.  The pain in her feet, the challenge in her chest, the need to relieve herself, all became intense simultaneously at times, then all were forgotten soon afterward.  Eventually, if she had thought about it, Marzy would have realized that she felt none of it any more.

At another stop in her forward progress Marzy found herself standing on the ties between a pair of rails.  These were busy rails, too: no grass growing in the ballast, fresh black oil down the center of the roadbed, shiny crowns to the rails themselves.  She hurried off the tracks and onward into the neighborhood beyond the tracks.

She passed several quiet, well-kept little churches.  As she turned to glance at one such, bigger than most of the others, the setting sun, split by a distant rooftop, caught her square in the eyes and left her sightless for a few moments.

About this time a small car rolled to a stop beside her and a thin older man with a bald head and pink scalp leaned across the seat toward the open window near her.  “You look like you could use a lift, Ma’am,” he told her.  “I’m just offering, understand.  You look mighty tired.”

Marzy stopped and pondered for a moment, but concluded that she didn’t even quite comprehend what he had told her.  “I’m just fine, thanks, Mister,” she replied.  She realized that her voice wasn’t as full as she had intended, but she was pretty sure she had given him a grateful smile.  Then she slouched back into her journey.  The little automobile pulled back into traffic and Marzy noticed that the man seemed to be concerned for her still as he drove away.  In her heart she thanked him.  He didn’t know her, and yet he cared.  She pressed on.

Now and then she read street signs.  They told her nothing.

Marzy dropped one heavy, hard foot ahead of the other.  She was rewarded, at last, by one street sign: Mizpah Mission Drive.  It stirred no memories, although she half expected that it might as she pronounced it to herself.  No, it was simply a pleasant-sounding name that was interesting to contemplate until the thought and the name would slip from her mind’s clutches and elude her.

She began having a serious problem walking.  The narrow, quiet street was paved, but the paving didn’t fit the surroundings.  The houses — well, now they were shacks — sat flat on the ground.  They had a little more yard space than the larger houses had.  The paving was laid onto the same flat dust as the poor shacks, and there were no storm drains or gutters or curbstones.  Everything from tar to floor was on one earthen level.  Marzy tried walking on the dirt at the edge of the street, but it was too rough and threw her off balance more than once.  But the pavement was too hard.  She ached the same all over, but once again her feet really hurt.

In the gathering dusk the streets were empty except for an occasional cat with matted fur or a child sitting still on a tricycle, watching her pass.  Voices and smells of cooking drifted from open doorways, then radio crackle and the brief tap of a hammer, all signs of life crudely lived, but obstinately too.  This was not a neighborhood that anyone passed through on the way to anywhere else.  The cars in the yards were few and broken.

A profound sadness descended over the old woman, as if from a realization that she was nobody, nowhere, with no one and nothing.  Then she glanced around one more time, and saw a shack she knew was right.  Yes, it was right.  “Thank you, Jesus!” she muttered. Twenty, forty, sixty paces — she counted them — eighty, eighty-six, until she reached the warped door.  A hasp hung loosely.  There was no padlock.  The house was dark inside and silent, but of course it would be.  With more effort than she expected to need she pulled the door part-way open.  It scraped hard against the earth.  Vines grew in the hinges.  She couldn’t pull it closed just yet, but that could wait.

The yard was wide and ran far back from the street.  The dwelling was too small for the lot, and seemed to have sunk into the earth, crouching perhaps, trying to make itself inconspicuous.  Inconspicuous it was, too, and inconspicuously Marzy disappeared into the shadow of the entryway.

And inside!  “Dear God…” she rasped when she glanced around the darkened main room.  “It looks like I didn’t clean it this morning.”  Everything was gray, either with dust or from fading — everything consisting of a broken down oak drop-leaf table with a suggestion of white paint in the crevices, a two-burner white enamel gas stove, a cupboard hanging in a tired tilt from the colorless gray wall, and several plastic bags of unidentified belongings or trash against the front wall.  A stool stood at one end of the table on the rough-planked, leaf-strewn floor.  A movement of air, hinting of a coolness yet several hours away, grazed Marzy’s cheek and she turned toward the only source of deepening twilight.  The room’s only window was half gone, leaving a wide section of glass only on one side edged with an odd diagonal curve from top to bottom.  As Marzy tried to comprehend the broken pane, a wasp circled in through the open half and then out again straight-away.

“I didn’t leave it like this,” Marzy cried half-inwardly, half in a mumble, like a child saying: “It wasn’t my fault.”

There was a narrow room off the back, and if she could have walked that far she would have been sure to find the bed.  If the rest of the house was like this, then the mattress probably lay bare, in need of sheets.  Where were her sheets?  She couldn’t look just now.  Just now she needed to sit, and the stool was right behind her, next to the table, where she could rest an elbow and catch her breath.  How long had she been standing here without drawing a breath?

Glancing over her shoulder, Marzy aimed her butt at the stool and let her legs give out.

Patrolman Neal Schwertfager, one of a proud line of Schwertfagers of mixed German descent who had made careers of law enforcement, and Rookie Wendell Upthegrove, no less proud but the first of his former-Georgia-sharecropper lineage to wear a badge, were standing alongside their patrol car outside the central police station, discussing baseball with a trio of teenage boys, when the call came in: body found in an abandoned house at 1419 Rayburn Street.

Schwertfager and Upthegrove were partners.  Rayburn was on their beat.  Neal flicked on the old car’s original red bubble-gum-machine when they pulled out on this call, but no siren.  People were just now going to bed, and besides, this was a no-pulser.  The night was tropical and the air eddying through the patrol car’s open windows was thick with the voices of the night: shouts, screen doors on taut springs, muffler decay, wolf whistles, naughty laughter, colicky crying, even a flush, and above it all the descant of crickets.  To their passing car it was all merely scraps of sound, an orchestra tuning up, a trip around the radio dial, a barrage on the senses.

Neal drove at a moderate but no-nonsense speed, the sounds professionally shut out but first professionally filtered for a cry of distress, a crack of weaponry, a tinkle of shattered glass.  Wendell concentrated on a string of words here, a movement there, and finally concluded that it would be interesting just to walk this street, Metcalf Street, at night, so that whole, uncut, even though brief, episodes of others’ lives, played from open windows and railed porches on the public stage of a darkened summer night, could be absorbed and analyzed.  He wondered why such a simple exercise wasn’t part of an officer’s formal training.  He would make it part of his own.

“Remember Aunt Jemima?” Wendell asked Neal as the car’s tires provided a drone for the trip to the south side Lima neighborhood.  Schwertfager gave him an affirmative nod but kept his eyes on his driving.  “House we’re going to is the one Aunt Jemima used to live in.  Before she was famous.  My old Aunt Marzy, actually.”

“Aunt Jemima was your aunt?” Neal responded, giving his partner a glance that held no mockery, just a measure of amusement.

“Yeah, really.  My great aunt.  Marzy Mays is her real name.”  Wendell sat silent for a few seconds, then added: “Nobody around here’s seen or heard from her in ten or twelve years.”

“I saw her way back in, probably, fourth grade,” Neal said.  “Lincoln School.  Would have been 1954 or thereabouts.”

“You went to Lincoln?” Wendell asked.  “So did I.  Missus Mummaugh, kindergarten.  Missus MacDonald, first grade.  You were there before me, I think.”

Neal chuckled.  Probably only five or six years before Wendell, he guessed.  He and this Army M.P.-trained rookie were a lot more alike than different, and Wendell wasn’t wise-cracking about the veteran officer’s age, only remarking on it in order to gauge the span when they had both passed through the same elementary school.  A few seconds later they turned off Metcalf and cruised passed the school itself.  Schwertfager faced front as they went by but noticed that his partner turned and took in the whole street lamp-lit scene.

Seconds later Wendell was thrown into a hard lean as Neal cut down a shortcut and then glided past a stop sign in front of Duff Truck Lines.  There was no other traffic.

“What’s she been up to?” Neal ventured.  “Aunt Jemima,” he added.

“Last I knew she was splitting her time.  She stays some of the time with a son in Columbus, but his wife thinks her mother-in-law is bats.  So she puts herself on the bus and goes to my Uncle Charlie’s outside of Cincinnati — that’s her brother — until he gets tired of her and ships her back to Stoney’s.”

“That’s her son.”

“Yup.”

“She rich?” Neal asked, guiding the car onto the first of several narrow streets in the target neighborhood.  He was just keeping the conversation going as a way of steeling himself for the always-unsettling first glimpse of a found body.  He wondered what Wendell’s reaction to it would be.

The rookie may have been bracing for the same jarring sight and seemed to understand the nature of the question.  “She did real well, for an old mammy.  Cooked for the governor after the Jemima thing.  But I don’t expect she had a pension or even a bank account.”

Neal slowed the cruiser half a block from the destination as Wendell radioed dispatch of their arrival.  The street was populated with a hundred expressionless faces turned toward the headlights, faces made blacker by the color drain of nighttime.  Casually, but respectful of the official car, the thin crowd parted and made way.  Neal pulled onto the dirt in front of the shack, the high beams aimed at the tilted cross-buck door.  A dozen grownups stood around the front yard in twos, and twenty kids on bike fossils were drawn up to an imaginary perimeter eight or ten yards from the shack.  At the half-open door, a white-haired old man in a sleeveless, yellowed undershirt and stiff, brown leather breaches, with skin so black it shone almost bluish, stood as erect as his hunched back would allow.

Upthegrove recognized the old gentleman, Everest Shambley, and waved to him with his flashlight as he exited the cruiser.  The young policeman had played pretend policeman in this very yard as a child, on visits to Aunt Marzy, and Ol’ Everes’, as he had always been known, had been a neighborhood fixture even then.  The two officers strode to the low doorway, and Wendell paused to shake Everest’s hand.  The old man seemed distraught, but didn’t, or couldn’t, say anything as Neal first, and then Wendell ducked inside.  A second or two afterward, those closest to the house heard Wendell’s choked voice from inside: “Oh, geez, Neal!  Oh, geez!”


THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE SHORT STORY COLLECTION TALES TO WARM YOUR MIND BY DAVID A. WOODBURY. ©1999, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner — A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved ramp approach to the state highway intersection. As we came upon the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, I saw a glint of red through the branches.

Off Course — No one suspected how an elderly couple first met in their younger days.

The Dentist’s Proffered Testimony — The Dentist’s proffered testimony, locked against public discovery for 87 years, until discovered in 1999, explains the disappearance of an entire railroad train in April, 1912.

The Resting Place — cool, dark, and too well hidden

How Miss Plover Handled Boxer Poop — without using gloves

That Face — When we pedaled our bikes back toward Kenny’s house, taking turns with the sloshing pot, we discovered what happens when a black, cricket-sized catfish hits blacktop that has been bubbling under the noonday sun.

Unjust Desserts — a fable

In School Days — He lives to learn, In life’s hard school, How few who pass above him, Lament their triumph and his loss, Like her — because they love him.

Stop, Look, Listen — the song by the Irish Rovers that inspired the title of the short story collection, Tales to Warm Your Mind

Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner

We were in the house on Greeley Chapel Road less than a week when they hung a traffic light at Dershem’s Corner.  Dad told of it when he came home from work that day.

“Did you see what they’ve put up at the corner?” he asked my mother as he met her in the kitchen, sounding more amused than annoyed.  “A traffic light.  Not just a flashing yellow one; a red-yellow-green, honest-to-God traffic light.”  I was in the front room, which was no distance at all from their conversation, the house was that small.

“That’s peculiar,” Mom replied, which always meant, “I’m confused.”

Dad went on, “Not a house or building of any kind on that corner.  Two pastures, an orchard, and a corn field.  And a traffic light.  What was wrong with the stop sign?”

“Do you suppose it’s because of that young couple and their baby who were killed last winter?”

“Who were they?  Just some poor transplants from West Virginia.  Not like they were the governor’s nephew or something.  And it’s not like other people have been killed there.”

“Not lately,” Mom said quietly.

“Hmmm?”

“A couple of my uncles were killed there when I was a little girl,” Mom recalled.  “That’s how it came to be called…”

“…Dershem’s Corner,” Dad sing-songed.  “Okay, like thirty, thirty-five years ago.  That doesn’t exactly make it a trend.”

“I suppose not,” said Mom.  “Maybe it’s just a bad intersection for accidents.  That corner does appear rather suddenly if you don’t know it’s there, and people do seem to go too fast on this road.”

On this road.  I had shortened it to Gree C Road, which Dad later took to mean Greasy Road, for some reason.  Our house sat midway along a flat, four-mile straight stretch without stop signs.  Two miles to the left out our driveway and you were at Dershem’s Corner, our usual direction whenever we went somewhere.  Two miles to the right, toward Allen-Auglaize County flatness and Midwest farming infinity, you came to the Erie Lackawanna Railroad tracks beside a little stream and a cemetery, where we would pick wild strawberries in the midsummer’s swelter.

Dad’s route to work took him to Dershem’s Corner for his wait at the new traffic light, across the broader, much busier State Highway 117, and four miles or so further on Greeley Chapel Road to the small factory where he worked, making some kind of airplane parts.  It wasn’t many days before he set a pattern of grumbling every time he came through the door from work.

“Light is red every time I hit it.  Every single time!”

“Well, the state road needs more time,” Mom answered vaguely.

“More time for what?  I sit there three or four minutes and I’ll be damned if more that five cars go by.”

“Please don’t run a red light, Wallace.  I don’t want you to get killed there too.”

The only regular occasions I had for riding with my father through that light came on Sundays when we went to and from church.  Sure enough, the stupid light might be green as it peeked through the elms overhanging the approach, but no matter how Dad timed his assault, the thing turned red in time to arrest his advance.  It was a veritable drawbridge lifted just before an invader could cross the moat.

“I swear someone sits in a house and watches me come up onto that light,” Dad began repeating as the days rolled on.

“I suppose they do,” Mom replied the first time he alleged this, not catching his drift.

“Someone has a button to press to change that light whenever they see me coming.”

At first Mom said: “They do not, Wallace. That’s ridiculous.”  On subsequent days she took to saying: “Which house, Wallace?  There’s no house near that intersection.”  Eventually she merely complained that she was tired of hearing it.

The traffic light became Dad’s overwhelming obsession.  But Dad had a surprise for him, whoever it was, wherever he sat, who had his thumb on a traffic light switch.  Dad bought a new car.

136yh-rear

I had wondered when he would do it for two reasons.  One, I had already concluded privately that that would be the way to break the spell of the traffic light, and two, Dad had promised me an incentive for moving out of Lima and into the countryside: I would inherit the black 1939 Chrysler that had served as our family car for ten years and had already been broken in for 15 years before that by Dad’s uncle, Homer Gettle, over in Fort Wayne.

At 14, I was not licensed to drive, but Dad had intimated, in a lighter moment, that he would let me learn by driving up and down Gree C Road.  “You mean right away?” I had asked, not ready to believe it.

“Sure,” he had answered, and spoke as well of using the lanes in Woodlawn Cemetery and Faurot Park when we could go off together for practice.

There was just one problem.  The Chrysler needed some work.  Nothing major, he had assured me.  But it wouldn’t be ready for me to take out onto the road until the problems were corrected.  I’ll say right here that it needed two things: some brake work and an adjustment to the throttle linkage on the carburetor.

I knew about the brakes.  Whenever we were out, Dad had to pump them a few times before we were confronted with any occasion to stop.  I understood, to a point, what this accomplished.  I had seen brake shoes and brake lines exposed on other vehicles.  Fluid was funny stuff.  That’s what I knew.

I was also aware of the linkage problem.  For months Dad often had to “kill the motor,” as he put it, which just meant turning off the key, and he’d coast to the side of the road, where he would raise the left side of the gull-wing hood and flip a short rod back down beside the carburetor because it “went around the eccentric.”   Then he could set out again as if nothing had happened, until it happened again.

Dad’s new used car was a ‘59 Chevy, two-tone baby poop.  Besides being twenty years newer and relieving us of the mechanical problems, this car had one additional advantage over the Chrysler, as I saw it: It was a station wagon.  The old Chrysler, a four-door sedan, stood six feet tall.  Two steel bars bracketed to the rain gutters made a roof rack.  U-bolted to this rack rose a covered plywood box, painted black like the car.  Inside it were the essentials for living in an extended family whose members were reliably unable to provide their own garden hoses, rope, copper tubing, lamp parts, and such.  Since Dad always kept a rake and sometimes other long-handled garden tools lashed to the lid of the box, the overall effect was that of a black armored car with a machine-gun nest on top, the rake handle nine feet off the ground and pointing frontward.

When the station wagon arrived, the stuff from the black box found a new home in a jumble behind the new car’s rear seat, while the rake found a new, lower perch on the Chevy’s luggage rack.  After that, the box lay empty atop the Chrysler.

The first few mornings with his new wheels Dad smugly rolled onto Gree C Road headed for work.  By the second week he was back to accusing someone of sitting in an upstairs bedroom of some house nowhere near the corner, with a finger on the switch to change the light as Dad approached.

The last I heard them speak of it, Mom suggested that Dad come home from work the long way some day, so that he could approach the intersection not by Greeley Chapel Road but by Route 117. Surely, if 117 was favored, then he would be too, she had reasoned.

+ + + +

I suppose Dennis Dershem’s name had passed my ears during the first few days in the new house. Mom was quietly excited to move to this stretch of road, where every house for miles was occupied by a Dershem or Sunderland or someone else connected with her ancestors.  So, for days, she enumerated her cousins, many of whom she hadn’t seen since childhood, even though they had never been more than ten miles away, and most of whose children she had never met.

Like me, Dennis was one of those children.  He was sixteen and a half when I met him but I had him by a few pounds and an inch or two.

It was late June.  School was out.  Dad was at work.  My little sister, Raelene, was at the next house up the road for the day.  Mom and my littler sister, Tammy, had ridden off with a carload of female relatives.

I was mature enough to stay home alone.  The Chrysler sat on a large patch of mown grass next to the long driveway.  I spent the early afternoon happily lying underneath the car with a toothbrush and a coffee can of gasoline, cleaning the grease from every inch of the undercarriage.  In two days I had polished the lower engine and suspension components this way, and now I was grooming the transmission housing as if it were going to a wedding.

I said “alone.”  Beside the car, his heaving chest too high to squeeze into any space larger than a culvert, lay our old Saint Bernard, Boner, (named by Raelene when she was too young to pronounce “Bernard”).

I was thin then, and scooted easily about on the cool, shaded grass beneath the great machine.  I had paused behind the transmission to regard a pair of exposed, inward-curving brake shoes poised to clamp onto a small drum on the driveshaft.  I pressed them to the drum and let them snap back to rest, agape.  A thin cable ran along the frame and its frayed end stopped just short of this pair of shoes.  Here, then, was my parking brake.  I mentally added it to my list of repairs, none of which I knew how to do myself.

Dennis appeared as a pair of Converse sneakers bracketed by a pair of spoked wheels somewhere near the front bumper.  I ignored him for a long time.  I wasn’t ready to meet kids.  Here was one on a bike, and I had my own car already, for crying out loud.

“This is a straight eight, ain’t it,” the sneakers said at last.  “New Yorker.  First year they made a New Yorker.”

I squeezed the parking brake shoes to meet the drum a couple more times and let them snap back, mostly in order to make some mechanical noise, before slithering out into the light.  I decided on a mildly smart-aleck approach, although it didn’t really describe me.  “What cousin are you?” I asked.

The kid looked hurt.  Then something in his countenance rose up to meet my toughness.  “You junkin’ this piece of tin?  Here, let me help you strip it,” he said and parked his bike.

“Hell, I ain’t junkin’ it.  Runs like new.  ‘Fact, my dad just sold it to me,” I claimed.

“You have your license?”  The kid helped himself to one hood latch and raised that side.

“Naw’chet,” I admitted grudgingly.  “You?”

“Didn’t pass the test yet.”

“You took it already?”

“Yeah.  I been sixteen since January.  I can drive, though.  Drove this road here since I was six or seven.  Cars, tractors, even trucks.  They don’t care how you really drive on the test.  They just want to see how you can act like a old lady behind the wheel.  I didn’t catch onto it the first time.  Next time I’ll know what they want.  Stop way back. Turn your head way left and way right like maybe a herd of cows is s’posed to stampede by any minute.  Proceed with caution.  Drive like you left on Saturday to get across the street to church on Sunday.”

He had me grinning.  “You really are sixteen,” I accepted.

“Sure.  You?”

“Almost fifteen,” I exaggerated.  I was really fourteen and one third.  And I reflected that once you hit sixteen you didn’t have to think in age fractions any more.

“What’s your name?” he asked me at last.  He had established his superiority in years, so was now empowered to demand that I reveal my identity.  Until we knew our rank, neither of us could ask.  He was also empowered to open the driver’s door and slide in behind the wheel.

“Larry.  Larry Miller,” I said.

“Okay, Larry Larry Miller.  I’m Dennis Henry Dershem.”

I made some comment about too many Dershems to keep track of them all.

“I’m the only one you’ll ever really need to know.  Don’t bother with the rest.  I can tell you all about ‘em sometime.  Most of ‘em are just simple.  Work too hard but don’t know nothin’ and don’t have nothin’ to show for it.  Lived out here all their lives.  Me too.  Nobody interesting to hang out with, except a couple of the girls are pretty nice if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t know.  “You mean our girl cousins?”

“Oh, yeah.  We’re cousins, ain’t we.  Yeah, they’re our cousins.”

“Whadja mean, ‘pretty nice?’” I asked, leaning on the door frame.  This was getting somewhere, although if it was going in the direction I suspected, it was alien territory for me.

“Just nice to look at and stuff like that,” Dennis frowned at me from inside the car, then, as if disgusted, he added: “We don’t mess around.”

“Good, ‘cause I have sisters,” I said lamely, not wanting to elaborate.  I didn’t want this kid, cousin or not, to think about them in some funny ways, either.

He seemed to forget the subject.  Instead, he gave me a raised-eyebrow look that spoke of mischief.  With a half grin, he asked: “You have a key to this thing?”

“Nope.  Not yet.”

“I seen you drive up in this here car when you moved in.  Lotta cars, so I was hopin’ this was yours.  I like the old ones.”

“What kind do you have?”

“I’m gettin’ our ‘51 Studebaker pickup when I get my license.”  I was at least even with him here.  I wasn’t “getting” this car.  I already had it.

“No key, huh?” Dennis mumbled, still in the driver’s seat.  He stiffened to reach into a pocket of his jeans.  The thing he held up looked like a pair of wires with alligator clips on every end.  “Do you know how to hot-wire a car?”

Part of me leapt with excitement.  Part of me shuddered in panic.  Since I hadn’t answered, he went on: “It’s easy,” and he reversed himself on the seat, head toward the pedals and feet in the air.

“Yeah, well, I don’t really have, uh, permission to drive this yet.  Besides, it has some, you know, small problems.”

“I can check ‘em out,” he said, reversing ends once again.

The starter button stuck out from the dash.  Dennis pumped the gas, floored the clutch, and with an exaggerated gesture, pushed and held the chrome button.  The Chrysler replied immediately with the contented hum of leashed power.

I ran around to the passenger side and jumped in.  It was in no way my intention that the car actually move an inch from where it sat, but hearing it run for the first time under my authority made me flush with eagerness.

Holding the clutch down, my cousin put the column-mounted shifter through the three forward and one reverse positions several times over.  He pressed in the large knob under the dash marked OD, and then pulled it back out.  This was the only thing he seemed unsure of.  “You leave it in overdrive all the time?”

“Yep,” I said, unsure of myself.  I recalled something Dad had said about it going into overdrive by itself when it needs to — if the knob is out, I assumed.

Dennis shoved the knob in.  “No sense in wasting it,” he said.  “Whatja say was wrong with it?” he then asked.

“Uh, the carb linkage sticks –“

Dennis revved the engine high and let go the gas.  It calmed right back to a sweet idle.  He did it again, the engine complying once more, then just said: “Yeah?”

“And the brakes are weak.”

“You just pump them up,” Dennis said, and did so.  I watched as the pedal started low and then responded with shorter strokes.  Dennis stood on it for a moment to show that it was hard.

“What else?”

“The parking brake is unhooked.”

“Where’re we fixin’ to park that we need a brake?”

“Oh, okay,” I said.

Then he pulled it smoothly into first and let the clutch out very professionally.  We were pointed toward the back field, away from the road, so I remained silent as we crunched onto the driveway and rolled past the house.

Dennis let the car make a couple of slow circles in the barnyard behind the house while he rolled down his window.  Then he spun the wheel with ease and pointed us in the direction of the road.  Boner was trotting along my side, pleading to go whithersoever we might be headed.  I stepped onto the running board, threw open the rear suicide door, and slammed it after the big oaf lolled in.

The car turned right, onto the pavement, and accelerated so gradually it felt like a train pulling out of a station.  I rolled my window down and actually relaxed as I peered over at my distant cousin.  He was fiddling with the few switches and buttons that protruded from the warped and buckled white plastic veneer that coated the metal instrument panel.  Then he threw me a reassuring grin.  Boner laid his heavy chin onto the back of my seat and sniffed the stirred air.

Dennis began explaining all.  I let him feel superior and just said “Oh,” over and over.  He thought the radio, huge and brown and ‘30s-looking, was the neatest part.  Even back then they had push buttons to set the stations.  He even knew that the radio antenna ran beneath the running board.

Then he showed me about shifting.  This I already knew, too, but it didn’t hurt to hear it analyzed so thoroughly by a truly good teacher.

Over the course of four or five minutes we lazily covered the couple miles to the single-track railroad crossing.  Dennis let the Chrysler roll to a stop directly over the main line.

“What are you doing?” I asked, annoyed, not alarmed.

Squinting up the rails, he said: “Look.  You can see halfway to Indiana one way.”

“Halfway to Jupiter the other way,” I added, agreeable, and was about to gently urge that we not wait until a headlight appeared in either direction when Dennis backed into the maintenance road alongside the tracks and turned us back toward home.

“Let’s give it a little try-out,” he suggested, picking up speed in first.

As I uttered: “Uh…” he knifed into second and pressed the gas.  The flat-head straight eight had reserves I had never seen my father use.  Boner, his massive head resting between our shoulders, began panting.  I noticed that, as Dennis shifted into third, he also pulled out the overdrive knob.  The flat, straight road ahead was clear and quiet for at least a mile.

We gradually picked up speed until Dennis stomped the gas as hard as he could, his back stiff against the seat.  The car glided forward as if we’d changed gears once more.

My cousin-teacher-pal grinned at me and then let off the gas — only this time the pedal didn’t rise from the floor in response.

The car still accelerated.  Glancing at me, Dennis exaggerated the act of lifting his foot from the pedal, but the car didn’t take the hint.  We both peered straight ahead.  Dennis muttered some curse.  Boner began a faint whine.

Dennis next began calmly pumping the brake.  Each push sank deeper toward the floor until the brake pedal, as the gas pedal beside it, refused to come back up at all.

“Quick!  Hold the wheel!” Dennis ordered.  As soon as I reached toward it he let go and dove to the floor.  While he tugged the gas pedal, I kept us on the center of the road, where the painted line would be if this were an important highway.  Within a couple seconds, at Dennis’s tugging, the pedal separated from the rod that connected it to the linkage.

Flipping onto his back, on the floor, Dennis glared up at me wide-eyed.  His head lay on the dead brake pedal, his feet pressed into the back of his seat.  Back-handed, over one shoulder, he pressed the clutch.  The engine, freed from the work of propelling the car, screamed in agony.  Boner howled.

“Let it out!  Let it out!  You’ll blow the engine!” I yelled.

Dennis was already letting go in order to fumble with the wiring behind the dash.  Dad’s trick of turning off the key wouldn’t help at this point — no key.  He yanked some wires out and made some sparks.  The radio hissed.  Something popped like a dropped light bulb.  But nothing changed.

Fields whisked past like sample house lots — wheat, corn, wheat, clover, oats, wheat — as fast as you could say the words, which, frankly, it wouldn’t have occurred to you to do.  Occasional trees shot past us like close-set fence posts on either side, doing that rapid wum-wum-wum that trees make when they rush past.  The air inside the car was a hurricane.  The two or three houses before ours, along the road, weren’t even blurs.  I did recognize the green lawn of our house looming on our left, but before I could think of anything, like BLOW THE HORN, it was gone.  (I thought I saw a red car in the driveway, way up by the house.  That would be Mom and Tammy being dropped off.  That would also mean Dad should be home soon as well.)

With Dennis still operating behind the dash, yanking his hand back now and then, and cursing, I held the wheel true.  I had no idea how fast we were going — I doubted, in a flicker of lucidity, whether anyone standing in our driveway even would have realized that a car had sped past — but when I glanced at the speedometer for the first time I felt the loss of presence that always accompanies shock.  It was stuck on the maximum, but I was too stupefied to register what that was.  A hundred?  A hundred twenty??

Just beyond our house came a set of three minor dips in the road.  Whenever he had the family along, Dad liked to take these at about fifty, giving us all a triple dose of that momentary sense of weightlessness that kids love and mothers disapprove.  I knew those dips well.  At fifty they were just over three seconds apart.

Dennis had just hauled himself upright when we topped the first one.  As we fought for the wheel — Dennis leaving the steering to me and only trying to steady himself with it — I counted one second to the next and one more to the third bump.  The car’s suspension bottomed out on each one but there was no graceful sense of weightlessness in the series. The car remained a level, shuddering projectile.

As we took the bumps I lost some control of the steering while Dennis’s chest slammed helplessly against the wheel.  He seized it first by the cast-metal horn ring and pulled back, pilot-fashion, breaking the ring right off. Then he leaned into the wheel with terror in his eyes and took over once more.  He held us on course.

My mind has always been good at math.  Three seconds between dips at fifty meant one second apart at a hundred-fifty.  Still the old Chrysler seemed to be gaining.  And at a sedate rate of a mile a minute it would take two minutes to cover the straightaway from our driveway to Dershem’s Corner.  At a hundred fifty, we would cover one mile in something like twenty-four seconds, or two miles in — something less than a minute!

As we closed the distance on the Corner, the car’s suspension, or drive train, or entire body — it would never again matter — began to rumble violently at the strain on all systems.  Something vibrated.  Then something else in sympathy.  Then things began to fly off in rapid succession: hubcaps, which were discovered months later, the after-market rear-view mirrors, and the wide wooden lid to the black box above us.

Nevertheless, our velocity climbed.

There wasn’t time for thought.  It’s true that a few images bulleted through my mind as fast as the minor features passing along the roadside, each vision representing an option, I suppose, but each with a built-in objection: Jump out — but, then, how do you tuck and tumble at that speed, and what of poor Boner?  Turn the wheel slowly and take us into a field — but the ditch was too deep and we’d roll over.  Step on the clutch and let the engine blow, but what kind of explosion would that make in our faces?

As if to accentuate our predicament, Dennis jerked uselessly at the parking brake handle.  It locked in the “up” position — holding nothing. He tromped one more time on the flaccid brake pedal…

Then time ran out.

A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved, inclined approach to the state highway intersection. As the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, rushed closer, I saw a glint of red through the branches.  In another second we zoomed under the arch of high branches like an experimental fast train entering a tunnel.  In a half second, wum-wum-wum-wum-wum-wum, we were out the other end of the tunnel, approaching Mach-point-3.  Boner was licking my ear, but it was more his shrill whine that bothered me, so I slunk down in my seat and let my eyes roll skyward.

When we hit the long, steep grade to meet the edge of Route 117 it felt as if we’d taken a giant speed bump.  Already lying low in my seat I saw the traffic light pass inches above the windshield — and it was green!  Then came the percussive crash of traffic light meeting gun turret.  And that’s all I remember until all had become still once again.

Dad would later tell how he had taken Mom’s advice and had come by way of 117 in order to approach the intersection that afternoon from a different direction.  Another car, a pokey ’54 Rambler, blocked his way or he’s sure he could have beat the yellow light and lunged around the corner onto Greasy Road, bound for home, before it gave us the green.  That Mom’s prayers were answered and he was prevented from racing the light became the remaining bit of evidence I needed for the existence of a benevolent God.  Instead, he coasted to a stop behind the obstructing vehicle and stared at the yellow lens giving way to the red one, grinning at the irony of the curse that was still upon him.

He would then tell how the filament in the red light facing him had barely begun to glow when a lumpy, black fuselage without wings, resembling a 1939 Chrysler, with the dog, Boner, facing him and pleading at the rear window, rocketed beneath the light, its wheels fully eight feet off the ground and still ascending.

The meeting of the plywood box with the gently-swaying traffic signal was the bonus in the show, the sort of special effect they don’t print on the ticket or even announce in the pre-show publicity.  Only the lucky seat-holders find out about it.

Plywood chunks fluttered far and wide while the sheered metal jacket of the signal spun skyward.  Severed utility wires completed the performance with a shower of sparks.  It was practically a two-ring circus, for if the audience were watching the sparks, they were missing our finale.

Of course, none of this passed through Dad’s mind as we were leaping the highway.  The instant passed too quickly, and Dad, for the moment, was dumbstruck.

The driver in the stopped car ahead of Dad’s opened his door and stepped onto the pavement in order to peer after us over the roof of his Rambler, too late to truly catch our descent.  Dad didn’t wait another second but jerked his wheel to the right, gunned it, passed on the berm, then cornered sharply right to follow us onto Greasy Road.  And greasy it had become.

Dad missed our touchdown, well beyond the improved grade on Greeley Chapel Road’s opposite approach to the highway.  That’s good, although he heard it as he was breaking free of the traffic.  What he missed was the violent annihilation of one mighty automobile which had served as his family car for ten years; one classic car that had promised to serve as my prize for many more to come.

There was nothing to salvage.  Of course.  By the evidence, as soon as the rear tires were relieved of the pavement’s resistance, the motor threw a rod which jackknifed the crank which burst the oil pan.  The weight of the engine pulled the front of the car downward, permitting, we suspect, a neat four-point landing.  All four wheels broke clean away upon impact.  The front bumper, meanwhile, turned under and scraped away the oil pan, the battery under the driver’s seat, pipes, shocks, drive shaft, differential, and gas tank before then shearing off the rear bumper.  These and all their mounting hardware strewed the roadway in a slurry of engine oil and rear-end grease and water.

The two big, pontoon-like front fenders fanned outward to become the wings on a snowplow, rotating the car a hundred eighty degrees to face Route 117 again, as if the hulk were contemplating another aerial assault on the light.  While we were airborne, the bi-fold hood turned into a crow taking flight, only to collapse and tumble into an orchard.  One rear door flopped open on the landing, the upper hinge apparently a victim of fatigue.

Dennis’s face and chest did a number on the steering wheel for the second time.  He spent seven weeks in the hospital, preparing for a rigorous court appearance.  I broke a hip, lying, as I was, low in the seat and below the dash.  I was out in ten days, wondering how I had escaped breaking my back as well.  As I see it, my twenty-percent hearing loss was a consequence of the wheel-less car’s screeching on pavement and the cannon-like sound of the near-empty gas tank exploding belatedly when it struck pavement after performing its own independent quick flip in the air.

Dad parked well back from the menacing wreckage and watched as Boner exited lamely from the stilled, dark, mechanical carcass.  The big dog tried to run but dropped at the edge of the road, whined and tried again.  And dropped again.  We couldn’t afford vets in those days, but he healed.  Ever afterward, when he needed to be taken somewhere, we would have to tackle him and drag him into a waiting car.

In the days and weeks that followed Dad had little to say about the affair.  Nothing he could say was anything but obvious.  “The next car you own will be the one you earn yourself.”  I heard that once.  And once I heard him mutter in measured syllables: “One hundred sixty-five miles an hour!”

While I was still in the hospital, the three or so other witnesses who had comprised our audience made urgent inquiries with my parents and Dennis’s.  Then they went about their lives, the way people do who have been present at other incredible events.  I don’t mean events like plane crashes, which aren’t incredible, just spectacular.  I mean something incredible, like… like a three-ton car lifting off and taking kamikaze flight to destroy an offending traffic light.

+ + + +

Dad seemed mostly pleased in one small way.  For nearly a month, after the flight of the New Yorker, a stop sign filled in for the traffic light, and that suited him fine.  Then the light was replaced, only this time — (What?  Did they think the moment would ever be repeated?) — they hung it a good twenty feet above the intersection instead of the standard fourteen or so.

From then on Dad had one green light after another when he approached that corner.  My mother said it was because he had learned to time them and to come up onto the intersection more casually than before.

By summer’s end the state settled on a simple warning signal, flashing yellow for the state road and red for Greeley Chapel Road.  A one-paragraph blurb in the Lima News noted the change.  It didn’t mention our accident but said the change had been mandated in order to discourage those motorists who might otherwise be tempted to race the light.


For a photo of some actual Dershem family members, see the article, Fading Photographs, at this site.


This story appears in THE SHORT STORY COLLECTION TALES TO WARM YOUR MIND BY DAVID A. WOODBURY. ©1999, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Off Course — No one suspected how an elderly couple first met in their younger days.

The Dentist’s Proffered Testimony — The Dentist’s proffered testimony, locked against public discovery for 87 years, until discovered in 1999, explains the disappearance of an entire railroad train in April, 1912.

The Resting Place — cool, dark, and too well hidden

How Miss Plover Handled Boxer Poop — without using gloves

That Face — When we pedaled our bikes back toward Kenny’s house, taking turns with the sloshing pot, we discovered what happens when a black, cricket-sized catfish hits blacktop that has been bubbling under the noonday sun.

Unjust Desserts — a fable

Weary — Memories were pleasant when they showed up, but they were like chipmunks or like hummingbirds: they came and went of their own accord, not to be captured and held for later examination and enjoyment.

In School Days — He lives to learn, In life’s hard school, How few who pass above him, Lament their triumph and his loss, Like her — because they love him.

Stop, Look, Listen — the song by the Irish Rovers that inspired the title of the short story collection, Tales to Warm Your Mind