A FORK IN THE ROAD
by Gary Delmar Jaycox
“Can I pee in the back of your truck? Pleeeese.”
Thus roused from a fleeting daydream, I turned to my left to see her standing there. On the other side of my door. Out in the hot mid-day sun. I recognized her instantly. Tank-top. Well, that’s the nickname I’d given her after she pulled her shiny red convertible up alongside my SUV about an hour earlier. She was piloting one of those sporty two-seaters. You know, the kind with enough luggage space in back for an overnight bag stuffed with a change of clothes and maybe an extra tooth brush. A brown leather saddle occupied the convertible’s only other seat. A worn duffle bag was slung over the saddle’s horn that protruded upwards. From my elevated vantage point, I’d spied her outfit first. A tight fitting, yellow tank-top partnered with a pair of worn cut-off jeans below. That was about it. Her light blonde hair was gathered up tightly into a neat ponytail that fell over her tanned shoulders. I’d finally been caught staring in her general direction one too many times. She’d returned my gaze with a quirky smile and then directed her attention back to a cell phone that was balanced on her lap. And that was that. Or so I’d thought at the time. But now she was standing next to me, not two feet away, grasping what appeared to be a thermos bottle in one hand, and a half-emptied roll of paper towels in the other.
“Can I pee in the back of your truck?” she repeated, this time with greater urgency. “There’s no place for me to go out here,” she added, motioning to an odd collection of people along the roadside that were randomly milling about.
Now better acquainted with her predicament, I opened my driver’s side door and hurried to the rear of my SUV so that I could raise its liftgate. She hopped in and then quickly latched the door shut behind her. The concrete pavement radiated the day’s heat upward as I made my way forward. Leaning against my SUV’s front grill, I could see that the interstate highway remained one big parking lot. Both west-bound lanes were jammed with a mix of cars and trucks for miles ahead. It was the start of the Fourth of July weekend. So, everyone was out and about, each with their own purpose and destination in mind. And yet all of us were now bound together by one rather inconvenient fact. Simply put, we were all hostages of the highway.
Without warning, the liftgate slammed shut sending vibrations through the SUV’s rigid frame and into the small of my back. I turned in time to see her stowing several items away in her duffle bag. Then she quickly stepped forward in my direction.
“Thanks, Cowboy. No way I was gonna make it through on a day like this,” she said, pointing to the sea of idled cars and trucks that enveloped us.
“No problem,” I answered casually, intending to put her at ease. “After all, my truck is a sport-utility-vehicle,” I added, placing an emphasis on the word utility. There was a moment of laughter between us.
“Bad day to be out here with Fred,” she continued.
“Fred?” I asked, half expecting to see some guy sitting in the seat where the horse saddle had been moments before.
“Yeah, Fred. That’s what I call my ride.”
“I’m sorry,” I responded playfully. “There are a lot of names that you might attach to a car like yours. But Fred isn’t one of them.”
“Exactly right,” she countered. “And that’s why I call him Fred. Speakin’ of names, mine’s Ellie,” she offered while extending her right hand forward.
I introduced myself as I grasped her hand. She had a surprisingly firm hand shake. An honest one.
“You’re a long way from Pennsylvania. You just passin’ through?”
For the second time in less than fifteen minutes, her words caught me off guard. Pennsylvania. How did she know that? Did I have a Philly accent or something?
“The tag screwed on to the rear bumper,” she said, if somehow sensing my confused state. “The Pennsylvania license tag; the one attached to the back of your truck,” she added more assertively.
“Oh, yeah that.”
“I mean, it is your truck, right? After all, you did just let me pee in it,” she continued, now re-armed with her quirky smile.
I assured her that, yes, it was my truck and that I was indeed just passing through. “Just letting the road take me,” I added. She nodded in a knowing manner but didn’t say anything.
“Well, looks like we’re stuck here a while. Nasty crash eighteen miles up near the bridge. Fatalities accordin’ to the traffic alert that came in over my cell.”
“Bridge?” I asked after pausing briefly.
“Yeah, the bridge. The big one leadin’ to the other side. To the other side of Ol’ Blue. You know, the Mississippi.”
Up until that moment, I had no idea that my travels had carried me this far west. I simply hadn’t been keeping track since the night before. And now here she was, telling me that I was less than twenty miles from crossing over the Mississippi River. I tried to explain my new-found revelation to her. And then in my own defense I added rather hastily, “You know, it all sort of looks the same out here.”
“Yeah, well that’s what you Easterners like to say. Just corn, soy and wheat. Flat dirt that’s all the same. Right? Except, it’s not. Not if you spend the proper time gettin’ to know it, that is.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to imply anything,” I interjected quickly, sensing that maybe I’d somehow offended her.
“Not a problem, Cowboy. Besides, you’re the ones back East that are missin’ out,” she countered while gently shaking her head and attendant ponytail from side to side. There was a hint of playfulness in her voice, a bit of exaggeration as if she enjoyed verbally sparing with me. We spent the next several hours together along the roadside, hostages as we both were. She offered up that in an earlier life, she had been a graphic designer, working in Chicago for a dozen years before taking on a shorter stint in Kansas City. And that following her divorce, she’d abruptly switched paths. Now, she was a certified riding instructor freelancing on the mid-western equestrian circuit. Anyway, there was a free-spirited way about her. One that I surmised was both sustained and nurtured by big open skies and the wide-open road.
During the previous afternoon, I’d been west-bound on the interstate, coasting down along the forested slopes of the Allegany Plateau, an ancient landform that, both geographically and historically, has always served to isolate the eastern United States from the middle of our country. As the terrain gradually bottomed-out and then opened-up, large farms sprouted on the horizon signaling that I was finally entering America’s Heartland. The sun, dipping ever lower in the western sky, pressed its warm red-orange glow through my windshield as I motored forward. This was my favorite time to be out on the road. A time when things slowed down a bit. When you could plan for tomorrow and yet still appreciate where you’d been hours before. Earthy aromas swirled in the air, propelled upwards by the day’s latent heat that energized the ground along the highway. As the sky darkened, intermittent flashes of pink and electric blue illuminated tall thunderheads that mushroomed off to the northwest.
By now, most of the traffic had forked over to the right, responding to road signs stationed along various exits that promised good food and a decent place to bed-down after a long day. As if somehow drawn to the turbulence gathering on the horizon, I continued pressing forward however, choosing to pursue what was clearly the less travelled path on into the night. And that’s how it would be for the next sixteen hours or so. Driving flat and often arrow-straight through darkness, dawn and then on into the new day. Rolling ever westward. Ticking off mile after mile. Purposely moving away from all that had been. That is, until I encountered the two-lane parking lot choking the interstate. And the little red convertible that had come to an abrupt halt seconds later in the passing lane situated to my immediate left.
“Let me be frank. We’d like you to reconsider your decision.” Those words, voiced by a Senior Partner in the law firm where I’d been gainfully employed for some time, marked the start of a tense, one-on-one meeting that had been hastily called two hours earlier, ostensibly on my behalf. I’d found myself sitting in a glass-enclosed corner office atop one of the new gleaming high-rises that shaped Philadelphia’s evolving skyline. This, about five weeks prior to my eventual foray west. From my vantage point, I could see him fingering the one-page letter that I’d submitted to the HR group the day before. My Letter of Resignation.
“Do you intend to join another group across town?” he inquired directly.
“No, not at all,” I replied defensively. “That’s not why I-”
“Well, what then? You’re one of our rising stars here at the Firm. And we need you in Corporate. If it’s more money or higher profile work, we can negotiate that.”
For the next several minutes, I tried to explain my decision as best I could. My reason for leaving. I wasn’t seeking additional compensation or better opportunities or any of the other things so often coveted by those emmeshed in the arena of law. There had to be more to life. There just had to be. And I’d recently arrived at a crucial time in my own life when I needed to find out. One way or the other.
“So, you’re willing to walk away from our team, your career and all that you’ve strived for?” he asked while shaking his head, telegraphing his disbelief.
Before I could reply, a young woman with shiny-black, shoulder-length hair entered the room from a small alcove that was partially hidden off in one corner. No more than half his age and sporting three-inch heels and a string of pearls that highlighted her bronzed cleavage, she was impeccably dressed. That is, save for the fact that her above-the-knee wool skirt was about a half-size too small, and a button or two appeared to be absent from her white blouse up-top. There was a brief exchange of papers between them as their eyes locked on one another. No words were spoken. And on that occasion, none were required. I watched as she turned and then slowly sauntered away, retracing her steps back toward the darkened, private recesses of his office. There was a moment of silence before he elected to continue our meeting, now clearly better armed, and fully intent on pressing his case.
“You know, you’re on the fast-track to make Partner.” His demeanor had softened.
I nodded but remained silent.
“Should you elect to stay with our firm, there’s no telling how far you could go, or what you could ultimately have,” he said while pointing subtly toward the private corner of his office. “Look, we know that there’ve been some changes in your life. But you’re making a major decision here. Think about what’s truly at stake. Take a few days. Then get back to us.”
So, that’s exactly what I did. And three days later, I officially resigned.
About eleven months before my little tête-à-tête atop the Philadelphia skyline, I’d been out in my driveway happily applying a second coat of wax to my brand-new SUV. It was a beautiful Saturday morning at the start of what promised to be another great summer. Karen stepped out into the garage wearing the pink terry-cloth robe that she’d wrapped around her about an hour before.
“Hun, I’m going to get cleaned-up and then drive to the grocery store. When I get back, I’ll fix us a quick breakfast.”
“I’ll go. I’m already dressed,” I replied, eager to take my truck out for a quick spin.
“Oh no. I want you to finish up what you’re doing here. Remember, we’re going that new club tonight in Old City. You’re taking me dancing.”
She turned and then playfully re-entered the house. Dancing. That’s right, I had promised. And I loved my wife. Dearly. So, dancing we would go.
“You missed a spot,” she teased as she strutted past my truck, now dressed to run her errand. “Don’t look at me, concentrate on your work,” she continued, still in her frisky mood.
I followed her silver BMW as it slowly rolled down along the cul-de-sac that shaped our leafy neighborhood. This for what would be the last time. My cell phone vibrated to life forty minutes later. I was at the accident scene ten minutes after that. What had been her car lay crumpled along the side of the road, its driver’s side door caved-in due to an errant delivery truck that had failed to properly heed a stop sign. Sesame seed bagels littered the car’s carpeted floor. An odd mix of yellow egg yolks and white shell fragments clung to the tan dashboard and fractured windshield above. A small pool of blood was partially smeared along the edge of the driver’s seat, while strands of light brown hair caught and tangled within the webbed shoulder harness were all that visibly remained of the BMW’s former occupant. There were the inevitable questions, of course. Like those asked to complete the on-site accident report. Was she familiar with the area? Was her car in good mechanical order? Had she been drinking? Was she on any medication?
“Yes.” “Yes.” “No.” “No,” I answered robotically in a numbed state, surrounded by an odd assortment of red and blue lights that flashed and blinked out-of-sync. Later on, after that fateful morning had passed and her final affairs had been settled, there were other questions that clung stubbornly to life, eager to assert themselves over and over again. Uninvited questions that danced freely with my mind. Like, what if I’d gone to the store instead of her? What if we’d decided not to have breakfast? What if we’d remained in bed for another ten minutes or so that morning? Or if we hadn’t made love at all? Nagging questions. The kind that dealt with life’s inevitable choices. Or as I’ve always called them – our forks in the road.
Forks. Choices. There are the different kinds of course. Most are of little or no real consequence on any given day and are thus quickly forgotten. Whether to do this or that, to go here or there, to say one thing or another. And then there are other forks that are of major import, forcing us to agonize for days or even weeks at a time over an appropriate course of action vis-a-vis an outcome desired. But there is also a third kind of fork. The dangerous kind. The ones that lurk just below the surface and are thus mostly hidden from view. The stealthy ones that you enter into without fully knowing. That is, until you pop-out on the other side often with life-altering consequences firmly and forever attached. Interesting thing is, when all of our forks and choices are gathered-up and then threaded together back-to-back, when they’re viewed collectively in this way with the aid of twenty-twenty-hindsight, for each of us, they constitute a life lived. But when these same forks are engaged in the forward direction, when they’re encountered separately along the rigid and unforgiving arrow-of-time as each must, well……you just never know.
“Hey, did you hear what I said?”
I turned to see Ellie tugging on my arm.
“Look, the traffic. It’s breakin’ up ahead.”
Sure enough, off in the distance, cars and trucks that had been long idled were starting to creep forward, their red brake lights pulsing on and off in a halting, irregular manner. Like a stubborn clog stuck in a narrow drain pipe slowly working its way free, the traffic-jam choking the west-bound interstate was now starting to clear. We stood in the middle of the highway for several minutes, sandwiched as we were between a large SUV and a sporty red convertible. Not saying anything. Just watching. Ellie was the one to finally break the silence.
“Look, you gotta be kind of tired, havin’ been out on the road all this time. Comin’ as far west as you have. Well, there’s a little place up ahead, about half an hour on the other side. On the other side of the bridge.” She hesitated briefly before continuing. “It’s not much. But my cookin’s not too bad. And the conversation’s bound to be a whole lot better. If you want…if you want to get off this road for a while, then just follow me after we cross over. Okay?”
I nodded as if I’d fully grasped her offer. But I hadn’t. Not at that moment anyway. Instead, I’d turned my attention back toward the narrow strip of concrete, and toward a red-orange sun that was beginning to stage its appearance along the western horizon once again.
“Of course, you could keep on drivin’ along, too. Follow this highway far enough and it’ll take you clear across the High Plains. Heck, it’ll eventually carry you over the Continental Divide. And once you’re on the other side, if you chose a proper path, well you’ll cross over the Sierras and then glide down into the coastal valleys of California. But, you’ll have to tap your brakes eventually or you’ll roll right on into the Pacific.”
There was a gleam in her eye, a knowing one that I imagined was at least partially informed and shaped by past experience. But then her demeanor shifted. And before I could respond, she added hastily, “I guess stayin’ out on the road would be an okay choice too.”
“Ellie, I’d really like to-”
But she didn’t hear me. All around us cars and trucks were firing-up their motors, revving to full power, with those in command clearly eager to get on with their delayed travels. I watched as she hopped into her red convertible, it’s finely tuned engine quickly stirring to life. Tank-top once again.
“Hey Cowboy,” she shouted-out as she turned in my direction, “Thanks for the use of your truck.”
My seat and steering wheel were uncomfortably warm as I hurriedly started my own engine, now in need of demonstrating some degree of forward motion lest I receive unwanted encouragement from those idling in the right-hand lane behind me. For the next several miles, the red convertible and my SUV maintained an even pace, driving along side-by-side in halting traffic that gradually thinned as it ramped-up to full speed. Then, without warning, the convertible abruptly switched lanes, darting into a space that had opened up directly in front of me. And that’s how the two of us proceeded forward. Motoring along in single-file. Moving toward the mighty Mississippi. Toward the gateway to the American West. And all that lay beyond.
Flashing lights up ahead marked the fatal accident scene near the base of the bridge. The one that Ellie had mentioned earlier that afternoon. A powder-blue SUV, flipped upside-down, rested off in a field not far from the highway, its roof partly caved-in due to the sheer weight of what was now positioned above it. Two bicycles and a large ice cooler were strewn haphazardly in the grass nearby while a child’s bike clung stubbornly to the truck’s rear bumper, its small wheels spinning slowly as they pointed oddly skyward. Pink handle-bar streamers animated by a gentle breeze blowing off the river dangled and sparkled playfully in the late-day sun.
My mind raced as it retraced: a carefree summer intercepted; a young family’s path forever altered; another fork cruelly presented. I regained my composure a minute or two later.
The four-lane suspension bridge that spanned the Mississippi provided an unobstructed view of the river below. Roiling, frothing and deep muddy-brown, the water flowing under me appeared agitated as if it was in a hurry to get somewhere else. Ol’ Blue was anything but blue tonight I though as my truck touched down on the other side. It didn’t take me long to notice that I’d landed somewhere new. Rolling hills and thick forests enveloped by ever-lengthening shadows replaced the flat, featureless terrain from before. Gone were the sprawling farms and their wide-open industrialized fields crammed with corn and soy. This new place had a different feel to it. One that was both comforting and somehow oddly familiar. The twin aromas of native clover and sweet-fern swirled and mixed in the air, while the setting sun offered up its seductive orange rays once again. No storms tonight I thought as I casually surveyed the cloudless horizon ahead. Then, without warning, the small convertible in front of me began to slow in response to a large exit sign that suddenly appeared off to the right. The car’s red break lights and pulsing directional signal added to the red-orange glow that streamed through my windshield. A radiant glow now formed of blended light divergent both in its source and in its intended path forward. Light filled with different opportunities, possibilities……and, yes, promise. The kind of promise that ultimately attends each new day. Taking a deep breath, I adjusted my SUV’s speed and direction so that I might properly follow the light that now beckoned me forward.
About the Author:
Gary Delmar Jaycox holds a PhD in chemistry from Dartmouth. After several years at Columbia University and Caltech, he spent the next quarter century at DuPont as a Principal Investigator in their Central Research Division. Two of his short stories have recently appeared in The MacGuffin and Adelaide Literary Magazine.