Christie's Free Way
Christie was already up and steadily stirring her pale lumpy oat bran over a low flame when Flannery began to bark and a deep rumbling growled up from the cedar floorboards. She had started her day early to allow plenty of time to walk her ancient Schwinn down the dirt road to town and to get the front tire repaired before her Bollywood Dancing class at the community college.
Such barking didn't alarm Christie, since Flannery barked at pretty nearly everything bigger than a child that happened to pass within twenty yards of the old house. But what could cause such an ominous rumbling under her brown-stockinged feet? A low-flying jet airplane, she supposed.
Suddenly, the whole house shook, rattling windows, dishes, and Christie's partial upper plate. Even the goldfish bowl shook and sloshed, which caused a frenzied fluttering about by Agatha and Joyce Carol, who then peered out at Christie with big, panicky eyes and fibrillating fish lips. Flannery's bark turned furious—the way she barked at motorcycles and leaf blowers—and she scratched at the front door. The wooden spoon in Christie's hand fell into the steaming pot of mush.
If we're having an earthquake, she tried to calmly tell herself, I hope it's not quite as bad as the last one. Which was 43 years ago, damaged the old Courthouse and some of the town's best Victorians. The sun is out so it's not a twister, thank God. But earthquakes stop: this tremor didn't. While Flannery scratched and whined, Christie nudged her back from the front door and steadied herself as she slipped her moccasins on. Then she squeezed out onto the porch and shut the door.
Where there should have been, on this dewy April morning, nothing but green grassy fields on the outskirts of town, there were now giant bulldozers and steam shovels lined up for hundreds of yards on either side of her small frame house. Voraciously gulping and chomping huge swallows of grass and ground. Literally, making the earth move.
Nobody heard or noticed Christie, so intent were they to dig and dig, as she padded cautiously out into her front yard, hands up and out to balance herself. Physically and emotionally. They were so intent that the men and machines on the north side didn't even seem to notice there were men and machines on the south side. Or conversely. The equipment on the north side all said Beckerwart Construction. Which jingled a little bell in Christie's throbbing head. Wasn't Beckerwart the maiden name of Congressman O'Donnel's new wife? Moreover, Christie saw that the machines on the south side were from TJN International, which was curious because those are the same initials as Senator Thomas J. (for Jefferson) Nesbitt.
Christie flapped her arms and yelled at the steely-eyed earthmovers, but Christie flapping and yelling is not the most eye-catching of human behavior, because Christie is not a large article and demureness was sewn into her fiber like embroidery in a fine linen handkerchief. Thus, Christie wasted her efforts upon unmindful machinery and was herself unmindful of a simultaneous development: In-between the two long lines of ravenous godzillas, just beyond her front yard to the west, began to grow a mound of dirt fresh from the violent digging. Likewise, behind Christie's house, just past her backyard, another mound started to rise up between the giant apparatus. When she finally gave up waving at the beasts and looked up and down her property, she realized a very succinct fact.
Well, I'll be hog-tied, exclaimed Christie to herself: With huge unstoppable machines on either side, and rising mountains of dirt to the front and to the rear, she was trapped!
She ran inside and switched on the news radio station. ". . . the five-term senator stated in no uncertain terms that, unless the other party was willing to compromise, there would be no budget and the government would have to shut down at 12:00 a.m on Friday. We'll keep you updated here at news central with hourly reports straight from the capital. . . KOPA local news time 7:08. Construction began today on new Highway 117, the recently-approved eight-lane freeway which will connect Little Grove with suburban Centralburg. With round-the-clock construction, officials estimate rapid completion of the project, which is expected to bring much-needed economic growth to the Little Grove area. . ."
The physical and the emotional conspired to make this a very wobbly and jarring moment for Christie. Although slumping was not normally part of her vocabulary, she might briefly be forgiven for doing just that. Into her nicely-lacquered kitchen chair, where it became woefully clear that Christie was no longer listening. And had started in worrying—big time—about a million desperate scenarios orbiting her head and about one friend who licked her hand and understood.
Well, as these things usually go, the bulldozers and steam shovels soon gave way to giant graders, pavers, colossal cranes, and cement mixers by the dozens. Dirt trenches became concrete roadways before Christie's searching eyes. The mounds of dirt to the front and the rear were reincarnated as freeway overpasses. Christie's house now sat smack dab in the middle of an eight-lane freeway. And the moment that construction was completed, lines of impatiently-waiting cars and trucks poured onto the freeway like red army ants onto a sleeping fawn.
"Felice, please tell me you made some headway," Christie pleaded breathlessly when her friend, who was a certified paralegal, finally got back to her.
"I wish I could, dear," began Felice in a voice that did nothing to lift Christie's sunken spirits. "First, I went to City Hall. But they told me they don't have jurisdiction because the County has control and maintenance of all highway corridors, including thirty feet on either side of the highway. So I went to the County."
Christie's eyebrows were close-knitted and wary and, holding the telephone tight with both hands, her mouth hung open. She said nothing while Felice's voice rambled on through the wires.
"The County said they can't do anything, Christie, because the highway itself is a State highway and they would need authorization from the State to access the median strip."
"Can't we get authorization from the State?" implored Christie, with deep lines squeezed into her forehead.
"Well. I wrote and I called. The State Department of Highways politely told me that they are not in a position to help us. It seems the State and the County don't get along. They haven't cooperated with each other in years."
"Oh for Pete's sake, Felice! That's not funny." Christie had been doing some deep breathing to try and relax. It wasn't working. So she closed her eyes, shook her head, and mouthed a string of angry, awful words she would never have uttered aloud. That helped a little. Inquiring bleakly if there were any options left, she sat down and rested her elbow on the kitchen table to try and keep the receiver from shaking against her ear.
"Well, all I could think to do was call the Feds, Christie."
"Oh, the Feds."
"The Federal government. You know."
"I know who the Feds are."
"Well—they listened and were sympathetic, but—they have no money left after giving the State the ten billion dollars that it cost to build the freeway. Are you there, Christie? I'm so sorry."
"I guess that's it, then. I might as well be in prison, right, like some, some perpetrator! For fifteen years to life."
Felice had to agree with Christie that yes, quite frankly, she was between a rock and a hard place. And she, Felice, was sorry and didn't know what else to say. Unlike the booming roar from the 117, there was a perfect silence on the other end of the telephone line.
Mornings, as April deepened into May, found Christie stopping, now and then, during her daily routine, and gazing out her bedroom window at the steady stream of traffic heading westbound toward busy Centralburg and its suburbs. Or, warm afternoons in her backyard vegetable patch, she'd often pause to contemplate the cars, trucks, busses, so near she almost felt them graze her copper cheeks, whipping eastward into downtown Little Grove.
Where exactly, she wondered, are they all going in such a hurry? What plans do they have, what are they thinking and feeling as they rocket along? Where is Virginia Leiber heading in her blue Dodge pickup? Probably just needs another bushel of seed corn for her silty acreage over by the river. Where did Candace Crowley get money for a new sports car? Is that Gavin Waller driving his mom's Buick? When did he finally get his license, and why isn't that boy in school right now? Her head pounded with the dizziness of all these comings and goings.
With what little vista was left unobscured, Christie's anxious eyes would search the distant fields, woods, roads, rooftops, where she had loved to wander, catch a matinee, a concert in the park, see the children playing. But, and this should come as no surprise, if there's one thing that Christie wasn't, it was a complainer.
She would have preferred playing canasta with her cronies at the Little Grove community center. But Christie was a good sport and counted herself fortunate that she could now play the license plate game until the cows came home.
She would have preferred doing her regular Monday volunteering at the Boys & Girls Club, showing kids how to make art out of odds and ends. But now she found fulfillment making little chew toys for Flannery out of empty toilet paper rolls.
Every evening, Christie sat on her front porch, humming softly and just slightly sharp, and watched the sun dipping down behind the stately overpass. Flannery dozed nearby, but even if alert, would not have heard her mistress' humming over the din of the late rush hour traffic. The dying sun smeared the western horizon with brilliant blood orange juice, thanks to layers of emissions that the freeway had bestowed upon Little Grove.
Christie sat watching until all she could see were two skinny Christmas trees, a twinkling red one on the right and a blinding white one on the left. She would have preferred, later, in the semi-darkness of her bedroom, being lulled to sleep by gentle crickets and frogs, as before. But she accepted philosophically the perpetual rumble of revving engines as a substitute lullaby, on these nights of long uncertainty.
Christie was no complainer, and yet— she and Flannery had needs.
"Bless you, Stuaaaaaart!" called Christie as she heaved her bag of accumulated garbage over the center divider and into the open cargo door of Stuart's large van. It was a Wednesday, noon, the time when Christie's friend, who was a retired shoe distributor, would make his weekly drive-by, going east at about 35, which was as slow as he dared in the fast lane. For ballast, she tied her finished library book to the garbage. Today, it was Atlas Shrugged.
At 3:00 p.m. Stuart came along westbound and tossed her two or three bags of groceries, dog food, and supplies. He also tossed her Invisible Man from the library.
"Thanks! See you next . . . Hey, you're losing your bumperrrrrrrr!" yelled Christie, horrified, to the diminishing rear end of Stuart's rust-coated van.
It was lunchtime and Christie was toasting a Swiss cheese on rye and deciding whether to tune in to NPR or Democracy Now. She turned the volume up and wondered if the traffic noise was increasing or her hearing declining. Her hearing was suddenly vindicated when a terrible crash reached her ears. She ran outside to see. It was a bad one. In the westbound number 3 lane. A three or four car pile-up. She didn't stop to watch, but ran back inside and called 9-1-1. The 9-1-1 operator didn't believe Christie when she said she lived in the middle of the freeway. She hung up on Christie, threatening to report her for making crank 9-1-1 calls. Hurt and disillusioned, Christie went back outside and was relieved, in part, to see that someone else had called in the accident and paramedics were on the scene.
But she was particularly chagrined to see that, even in the presence of this dreadful reminder that freeways are hazardous, the cars in the two fast lanes were driving just as wildly and heedlessly as ever. Drivers were making indignant gestures at one another and even at the paramedics. One car in the number 1 lane just swerved and cut off a car in the number 2 lane, almost causing another serious accident. Behind the wheel of the car that angrily swerved, Christie thought she recognized Doris Carpenter, one of the nicest ladies in town and one of the most dedicated volunteers at the Little Grove Hospice. It took several moments for all this implausibility to sift and settle into Christie's troubled mind.
Two weeks later, Christie was in her garden, trying to save the few vegetables that hadn't succumbed to exhaust fumes, when they came and put up a sign on the far side of the 117 West. She could just barely make out the words on the sign. She didn't know who Gilbert M. Rademacher was, but now there was a Memorial Highway in his name.
Its solstice having come and gone, June was winding down, and Christie was as aware of that cosmic circumstance as anyone in the tri-county area. She was, in fact, lost in sobering reflection one morning as she picked up freeway litter from her otherwise cozy backyard. As if some unseen hand reached and tapped her on the shoulder, all at once something had changed. It was the air. Or something traveling on the air.
There was a strange stillness. A new noise or – a different noise. Flannery whined, the way she did when she wanted exercise.
"OK, my love. Let's walk." Christie rested her little hand on the big dog's neck, and the two began circling the house. The fact that the eastbound 117 was utterly jammed with vehicles and nothing, not a single car or truck, was moving, didn't register in Christie's consciousness. Not until they got to the westbound side, and the realization hit her: this freeway is full. This freeway is so full that there's nowhere for anyone to go. There's nothing moving for miles, east or west. This freeway is a parking lot.
Christie thought about that for a minute, and then she walked Flannery around the house two more times. She stopped and listened. Still, no movement. She saw a sea of motor vehicles, engines running, drivers honking, swearing. Perspiring, thumping their steering wheels, craning their necks to see what was the problem. Flannery whined and pulled at Christie's sleeve. Christie stood watching for more than a minute. Then she gave the dog a pat on the head, turned, and went inside her house.
When she came out, three minutes later, she held the ottoman from her den. And upon it, her sketchpad, her charcoals, and Flannery's favorite Frisbee. The ottoman, she placed next to the center divider. And before she knew it, Christie and a barking Flannery were over the divider and making their way through a labyrinth of idling motors and stunned motorists.
People stared. People got drop-jawed and looked around at each other. Christie crossed the westbound 117 and chased her ebullient pooch up the on-ramp and out to the country roads and fields just beyond. The freeway remained like two shuddering, dying snakes.
Sarah Garfield, a June graduate of Centralburg State, was the first one to turn her engine off and get out of her car. She looked around, dazed almost, at her fellow commuters. Then she stiffly wound her way between cars in the direction that Christie had vanished. George and Jerry Moreaux, the vertical blinds sales reps, sheepishly shut down their van, locked it, and hustled off the freeway. A trickle turned into a torrent as more and more frazzled motorists abandoned the westbound freeway. The eastbound travelers soon took their cue and were striding toward the nearest ramp in droves.
The sun climbed high and the hot summer wind dusted the now-silent concrete river, strewn with ten thousand empty machines, like rotting fish in a dried-up creek. And the wind whistled a tune and amused herself. Whispering "freedom" to all her friends who listen best when there's nothing to hear.
About the Author
Chuck Redman has practiced law in Los Angeles for 35 years. His novella The Meateaters was published serially in Between the Species (1986-87). More recently, his short fiction has appeared in Lowestoft Chronicle, Writer's Digest, Hemlock Journal, and The Jewish Magazine.