Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Stop Sign

The telephone rings early in the morning but Joanne Alabama doesn’t pick it up. Jeff is in the backyard smoking a cigarette near the fence. He hasn’t said a word to her in over an hour. He just finished packing the van and there is a small ring of sweat darkening the neckline of his t-shirt. He had promised to mow the lawn before they left but the grass is reaching up towards his ankles and he doesn’t seem to notice. Fortune is upstairs in his bedroom. The phone rings again. Joanne looks at herself in the mirror; her thin blonde hair falls to one side of her face. She brushes it away. Her cheeks are covered in small wrinkles. She smiles. The phone rings. The wrinkles on her face seem to multiply four times whenever she smiles. On the last day of classes at the high school she smiled when she told her students she thought Annie Dillard was overrated. They just sat there. Some of them passed notes in the back. She stops smiling and pulls her bangs back down over her face. The van needs gas and maybe even a good wash before they leave for their trip. Joanne takes the keys from the counter and walks out the front door. The neighborhood sits silent except for the sound of the phone which is leaking into the driveway through the windows of her house.
Joanne gets into the van, shuts the door and turns the keys.
The engine drowns out the phone.
Joanne turns on the radio.
Billy Joel drowns out the engine.
Joanne sings, it’s been always burning since the world was turning and drowns out Billy Joel.
She pulls out into the street and drives through the neighborhood. She drives past the stop sign Fortune ran towards the night when he first heard Jeff yell at her. That night, she chased after him in her high heels. Her heart nearly fell apart inside her chest when he ran across the street without looking. Fortune was yelling over his shoulder that he was running away forever, that he wasn’t coming back. The houses of the neighborhood were pulling around him like the walls of a cave. She pleaded with him to stop. She said that she was sorry. She offered cookies but he kept running. Her legs got tired and she stopped and waved. She yelled and told him to make sure that he wrote home every now and again and then she watched. At the sign he finally stopped. Fortune stood alone in the middle of the road in the darkness, leaning a little to the left. He turned around slowly and appeared smaller as he entered under the glow of the street light.
He spoke just over a whisper and even then she could hear his small voice cracking. He looked up and said that he didn’t know how to write and started to cry. Joanne smiled and felt happy and warm and scared all at once. When she reached him she knelt down onto the pavement and held him tightly in her arms. She wanted to tell him that it would never happen again. She wanted to tell him that he didn’t have a reason to run away but she couldn’t. She just held him there in the street with the lamp shinning above them.
The street light is broken now and the stop sign is covered in graffiti.

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