Fiction by Sarah Hadley
Sitting at the red light, thirteen cars back, Frankie absent-mindedly drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. She was certain she wouldn’t make it through the intersection on the first green light, maybe not even the second. The light was notoriously short and her line was long. The crisp blue numbers of the clock told her that it was 4:30. Her drumming became a little more anxious, a little more insistent, as if she could signal a meaningful urgency to the traffic light.
The light turned green, and Frankie shuffled forward to fourth in line. One more cycle and she could get through. One more cycle and hopefully she would be on the highway heading toward the other side of town before the mass of nine-to-fivers were released.
4:37 the blue numbers read as she finally made it through the intersection. She sped up, more out of impatience than hurry, and fell into rhythm with the other cars around her. A familiar rhythm that caused Frankie’s mind to wander.
NAG DRYWALL was in large block letters on the large utility truck in front of her. There was an outline of a saggy looking nag—an odd image to put on something you wouldn’t want to sag, something like drywall. The flatbed carried stacks of drywall and at least a dozen ladders. Everything was coated in a layer of white—plaster, she thought.
She looked to her left at a shiny black sports car driven by a man sitting stiff and straight, gripping the wheel tight enough to turn his tanned knuckles white. He chewed on something so vigorously and with such force his jaw muscles pulsated. He could probably bite someone’s finger off. Frankie wondered if his house was as severe as he was. She imagined him in a modern house with cold edges, lots of stainless steel, and no carpet—where every click of expensive shoes was heard.
Her house was a simple Cape Cod in a traditional neighborhood, with a square lawn and predictable furniture, the kind you find at a box store. The kind that everyone ended up having. She wondered if people could guess what her house looked like by the way she looked driving her car. People like her, with predictable box blonde hair, cut into a predictably stylish but functional shoulder-length cut, driving a predictable small economy car, with a predictable house, and predictable furniture. Yeah, they probably could guess.
4:52, the traffic got a little thicker; she would not avoid it, but maybe she was far enough it wouldn’t be so bad. Out of habit, Frankie applied lip balm to her not really chapped lips. She had read somewhere that the makers of lip balms added an ingredient that dries lips out so a person would keep using it. She wondered if it were true.
4:56, Frankie heard the text alert on her phone. She reached over to the passenger seat where she had tossed it when she got into her car. She patted around the cloth seat with her right hand, found her purse, an empty coffee mug, two pens, and some gum—but no phone. She glanced down quickly, certain it must be there, somewhere. It would just take a second to find it.
Funny thing, she smelled it before she saw it. Before she heard it. The burn of rubber, when Nag the drywall truck skidded to a stop. She thought she would have heard it first. She thought sound would travel faster than smell. It was the smell that made her look up. It was the smell that suddenly invaded her boring drive. It was the smell that made her stop looking for her phone.
There were actually thirteen ladders stacked on the back of the truck—not twelve. And the drywall was warped, like maybe it had gotten wet. Or maybe that’s just how it looked before it was hung. She didn’t think she had ever seen drywall that wasn’t already on a wall. It wasn’t white; it was more of a gray color. Frankie felt dust in her mouth. It tasted like chalk.
She wasn’t sure why she could taste it. Maybe it was one of those suggestive things, like when you taste the memory of an orange as someone peels one nearby. She had only tasted chalk once in third grade. Mrs. Schroeder’s class. It was so dry it almost seemed bitter. Mrs. Schroeder gave Frankie the job of cleaning erasers that day. Which really meant a bunch of small children running around wildly banging chalk erasers together—creating a dust storm that would make Saudi Arabia jealous. It coated her eyelashes and the insides of her nostrils, and she tasted it in the back of her throat for the rest of the day. That’s not how she really tasted it though. She had pocketed a small piece of the chalk and went into the girls’ bathroom where she put the whole thing in her mouth and sucked on it. It was dry and so bitter; it felt like it was taking her breath away. Frankie spit out the chalk into the trough sink and tried to rinse her mouth out the best she could. It was a dumb thing to do—but not the dumbest thing she’d done.
Probably the dumbest thing she had done was toilet papering the town cop’s house during a sleepover with friends. The cop’s dog started barking when he saw them running around the front yard. The outside light clicked on and the girls scattered. Frankie froze. When Officer Jones opened the door in his red and yellow boxer shorts, the fly gaped open and twelve-year-old Frankie got her first look at adult male genitalia. She stood, unable to move, the toilet paper roll still in her hand.
That was pretty dumb. If she had run with the others, she wouldn’t have been returned to her parents in the middle of the night by a man with gigantic hairy balls. Officer Jones was pretty nice about the whole thing. Sure, she and the other girls had to clean up the mess the next day and every time Frankie looked at Officer Jones she was paralyzed with embarrassment over the thought of his balls—but all in all they got off pretty easy.
Frankie wondered what happened to those girls. They drifted apart in high school. Frankie was popular. Stella started using drugs their sophomore year. The last Frankie heard, Stella had done a short stint in prison and a few longer stints in rehab. Strange how differently people’s lives can go. Just small decisions here and there that end up weaving the entire fabric of your life. So entwined that pretty soon you can’t really pick out any one thing that led to where you are now.
Like the dead-end job that popular and studious Frankie was in. She worked long hours for a man who took the credit and gave her little money. Or the painfully dull relationship she had with Ryan. He was nice enough, that’s why it was easy to stay with him. It was familiar and predictable but far from fulfilling. The lull of familiar and predictable was a common theme in her life—a kind of trance. She saw that now, clearer than she ever had before. That’s bullshit. She didn’t want to end up old and boring without enough lively stories to tell her grandkids.
That’s it, she told herself. Today things change. Today I wake up out of this stupor and take control of my life. I’ll tell that asshole boss to fuck off. Then I’ll tell Ryan that we are done, but in a nice way, because he’s boring but not an asshole. And then I will take some of my savings and visit Europe. I’ve always wanted to see Europe. Right. That’s what I will do.
Frankie looked at the clock again, now with a growing anxiety to get home and start her new life. That can’t be right. It was still 4:56. Maybe the clock stopped. More time must have passed since she smelled the burning tires on the Nag. Why were the tires burning, anyway? And why did she taste drywall? Why were all those people yelling?
A man came running across the road, shouting, “Lady!”
The older woman stood on the pavement beside her SUV.
“Lady, don’t look. It’s not good. There’s nothing we can do. Don’t look. It’s ugly. Are you hurt?”
She turned toward the yelling man, unable to say anything.
“Here, sit down. Can you call someone to come pick you up? Your car isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Your phone is in your car? No, just sit there, I’ll go get it. You don’t need to see this. Finally, there’s the fire trucks. You sit here. I’ll be right back with your phone and you can call someone to come pick you up. Promise me you won’t look.”
The driver of the drywall truck sounded much more in control than he felt. He moved on unsteady legs back around his truck to the other side. He tried not to look again at the small economy car that was now embedded into the back end of his truck. There was a woman in there. Or what used to be a woman. He wasn’t sure if gender mattered after you were dead. He hoped it was quick; if it were ever the right time to wish for a quick death, that time was now.
Sarah Hadley is a writer who teaches women to be brave. You can connect with her at Courageous on the Page.