Car Pool

She beat that road every day to work, the years flying by like the blurred scenery.  The White House changed hands three times, her sisters got married and her best friend moved away.  In all that time, her job got easier to bear or else she just got numb. One thing she knew: it only ever paid enough to get by and not a dime more.  When the fridge broke or the car started to overheat, her guts twisted like she was passing gravels.  A long time ago – it seemed – she’d thought this life would be temporary.  She’d move on, move up.

Yet time made the route into the routine while her ass got bigger and her eyes dulled from blue to a quiet grey.   Most nights she pulled into the drive and couldn’t remember anything about the drive home.  She was so anxious to get there, she’d put off stopping to fill up the car.  The red light on the dash would stare her down all the way to the gas station the next morning and she’d just about go crazy worrying about making it there.  She told her mother this once and she said, “Why the rush to get home, Carmen? You ain’t got no one waiting for you unless you count that dumb cat.”

ImageJust after New Year’s a new girl started at the plant.  Her name was Emily.  There was a soft, sexy quality about her, like the bombshells out of old black and white movies.  She talked a lot and because she was so young it was mostly about guys.  She changed her nail polish every Wednesday night.  It was always something colorful and a little weird.  Still, Carmen found her eyes seeking out the new look each Thursday at lunch.  At least once a week something looked different in that ugly ass break room.  One day they discovered they lived on the same road.  Emily suggested they should ride together sometimes.  Carmen told her she’d think about it.

Emily’s suggestion came up when she had supper with her folks one night.  Her mother said, “Carpooling would be a good idea.  Just make sure she’s not a meth head or something first.  Once they know where you live, they’ll steal your TV to get a fix.”

That was her mother’s talent: finding the thing to be concerned about.  Carmen kept mulling it over.  Something had changed since the girl brought it up.  No one from work had ever lived near her and so it had never been an option.  But now that she could imagine having someone to talk to on the ride, it made her notice the silence of her drive all the more acutely.  She wasn’t really sure she wanted to talk to someone every day, but then again, it hadn’t seemed so lonely until now.  Maybe it was the drab winter countryside.

One February afternoon, she unwrapped her tuna fish sandwich, stared down at the soggy bread for a long while and somehow came to a decision.  She glanced over at the girl.  Today her nails were black with red hearts, five a hand, exactly fitting each square oval.

“How about we ride together every other day at first?” Carmen said.  “See how it goes?”

“Okay,” Emily agreed without pause.  “I can drive tomorrow.”

“I’ll drive.  Just give me your address before we go home.”

“I’ll text it to you.”

Carmen nodded and gave the girl her number.  The black tipped thumbs moved like lightning as Emily plugged it into her contacts.  The young ones handle their phones like part of their body, Carmen thought, feeling old not for the first time.

Emily lived in a plain brick rancher with beige trim, bearded with shaggy evergreen shrubs all around.  On the carport, someone had started to take apart an old Mustang and had never got around to putting it back together.  Spider webs draped the yawning hood.  She had barely stopped when the side door flew open and Emily barreled across the yard, bent against the cold, looking younger than ever under her fluffy hood and baggy coat.

She slid into the car with red cheeks.  “Good morning.”

“This your place?” Carmen asked, backing carefully out of the drive.

“No.  It’s my grandma’s house.  I live with her right now.”

“You’re lucky.  I never knew my grandmother.”

“Oh,” the girl said.  “Grandma’s sweet.”

As they drove along the highway, she was surprised that Emily didn’t talk her ears off as she had thought might happen.  Instead, she found herself doing the talking.  She heard herself asking if Emily was allergic to cats; she had vacuumed out her car just in case.

“He’s hardly ever in here – just to go to the vet – but I thought maybe there might be some from my coat or something. He likes to sleep on my coat if I throw it over his chair.”

Emily blinked at her and smiled. “I’m not allergic to pets.”

She asked the girl if she minded the radio and the girl said she liked anything but talk radio. She didn’t like all that political stuff.  Carmen told her the only talk radio she liked was an AM program about conspiracy theories.

“But just for laughs,” she said.  “You know the type I’m talking about?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, maybe I’ll subject you to it sometime.  You’ll either love it or hate it.”

Then Carmen remembered that this was just an experiment, them driving together.  Her own idea to treat it like a trial of sorts.  Why was she doing so much of the talking? This was not her way, usually.  She tuned in a pop music station and it seemed like in no time they were pulling into the parking lot at the plant.

“That seemed quick,” Emily said.

“It did, didn’t it?”

On the way home, Emily was just as Carmen had first imagined.  She chatted about everything under the sun and Carmen realized she was probably not a morning person.  It didn’t bother her as much as she thought it would.  When she stopped for gas, she glanced now and again through the window, watching the girl texting friends on her phone.

She asked herself if she’d ever been that young and decided at least not at heart.  Maybe there was something a little psychic in the air, because when they got back on the interstate, Emily asked, “How old are you, Carmen?”

“I’m thirty-seven.”

“That’s young,” the girl said.

Carmen snorted. “Do I look a lot older than that?”

To her surprise, Emily turned to study her, taking the question to heart.  What was it with these young people?  The way she was raised, you always lied and said people looked younger than they were.  It was a courtesy.  A no brainer.

Emily said, “I don’t think you look thirty-seven, but I’m not sure what that’s supposed to look like anyway.  I think you’d look younger if we changed your hair a little bit.”

She considered being offended.  She picked it up and put it back down again.  Instead she heard herself let out a sigh.  “I’ve been thinking about doing something different with it.”

“You’d look good with bangs,” the girl said. “The kind that sweep off to one side.”

“You think?” She shrugged. “Maybe you can show me something on your phone tomorrow. I’m open to suggestions.”

Emily smiled at her, but just as quickly her smile faded as they turned onto their road.  She pointed to an old farm house on the corner, one that had been abandoned and falling apart as long as Carmen could remember.

“Doesn’t that place just make you sad?” Emily said.  “I always wonder why it’s so alone like that.”

Her voice was so sweet and wistful, it made Carmen study the place closer.  She hadn’t noticed it in years.  Vaguely she recalled that she used to feel the same way Emily did about it.  It was good to have someone to make you notice things.  She felt relieved that the carpooling wasn’t terrible after all.  At least, not so far.

When she let Emily out at her house, she watched her dash across the yellow lawn before backing out onto the street.  She was smiling a little bit, thinking about bangs that sweep off to one side.  Then she remembered that tomorrow would also be a new nail polish day and she found herself chuckling.

“Carmen, you old ass,” she said into the car.  “You’re gonna paint your nails tonight.”

Good Night, Lucille

She was the last one to ever care about the place.  Her grandpa had cleared the land and her father had worked it. By his side, she made it her work, too, even though her mother warned her she’d grow thick and spotty. When she was a teenager, her sisters lay in a ring on the green living room carpet, looking at the dresses in the Sears catalog.  Lucille sat on the stairs by herself, studying the Almanac.  Image

She turned that soil each season of her life, till her hands were tough and brown and her back always just a little bent.  The years saw the passing of her mother and her father and then two sisters from cancer.  Her other sister, Jean, drove out from Washington in her shiny green sedan now and again, but it seemed she had lost her love of all things country.  She thought the ham was too salty, the bird egg beans too soft.  Sitting in the living room, Jean’s eyes would climb the walls with an air of disbelief.  

“You can hardly keep this place up anymore,” she’d say. “But you never cared about the house as much as the barn. Just like Daddy.”

She loved Jean, but Lucille was never sad to see her go.  The place went back to normal when it was just her and the dogs and the swallows.  Little by little, the house was falling apart, but she was sure it didn’t mind too much.  The farm had taught her to understand rot. 

She loved each turn of the year, knew how the fields smelled when they were ripening.  In the mornings, nothing pleased her more than to stand beside the silver wood corral, stroking her old mare’s nose and mulling over what would get done that day. 

By the time her hair was white, she was working smaller crops, and she let two brothers from El Salvador live in one of the old migrant houses at the edge of the place in turn for helping her with things.  They were nice boys with sweet smiles.  Some nights, she stood on the back porch and could hear guitar music floating over the place.  She’d lean against the post, close her eyes and wonder how it was that a song she’d never heard could seem so much like a forgotten lullaby. 

She passed in the Autumn, on such a night, quite happily sitting on the rusty porch glider, falling in and out of sleep.  It was foggy out, but the strains of the guitar still came across.  A light out at the barn flashed through the grey soup now and again, seeming to wink at her as though the land itself knew and was saying, “Good night, Lucille.”