Crossroads


by Susan Schoenberger

THE REV. HARRY WENDLE coasted to the four-way stop as three other cars approached from different points of the compass, but Harry, who was westbound, had no idea who got there first and found it hard to care. The Buick sputtered as he stopped and pinched his eyebrows, trying to shake the image of the dying friend he had just visited in the hospital. It didn�t seem fair that a prostate gland, or any other part of the body, could do its job for years without a hitch and then suddenly sabotage its benevolent host. He glanced down, wondering just which turncoat organ would be the one to kill him off.

Through his smudged windshield, Harry saw the road and the other drivers, but he couldn�t stop thinking about Bernie, shriveled to the size of a boy, scrawny legs twisted in the hospital�s poly-blend sheets. All the poor guy wanted was a little spiritual back rubbing and Harry had complied, having seen prostate conversions before. What had crept up on him as he prayed quietly next to the adjustable bed was the realization that he was no closer to God than this half-dead agnostic. In his youth, the layer of doubt around his heart had been tissue thin. Lately, he could only hope he hadn�t been promising �life everlasting� for forty-odd years under false pretenses.

The doctor had warned him not to expect much, so Harry had been a little surprised by the life he felt still pulsing in Bernie�s hand. Tomorrow the strength in his grip might be gone but so would the fear, the naked shine of it in his watery brown eyes. That�s what Harry believed, or hoped anyway, was God�s grace.

A thin black sock slid down Harry�s right ankle as his foot rested heavily on the brake. He was in no hurry to get home. Dolores would be waiting for him at the kitchen table and he would have to tell her about Bernie�s imminent demise and about the tremulous, painted-on lips of Bernie�s lady friend, or significant other, or whatever term people used these days. He could never remember her name.

After five days of rain, he noticed the sun had emerged to expose the overgrown lawns of the neighborhood near the hospital. The stretch of paint-starved duplexes had an end-of-summer look: uncoiled hoses, plastic wading pools a murky green, weeds in every crevice of the sidewalk. Wasn�t that little Italian place right around here? He could dash in for their chicken parmesan sandwich with the mozzarella a little crispy around the edges. Seeing his friend�s concave chest had made him suddenly fond and protective of his own ample midsection. But then Dolores would complain if he didn�t eat enough dinner, and it was pot roast with those little red potatoes. He could feel his stomach aching with hunger, or maybe that was his prostate. A warning sign.

A teenager waved from a yellow Escort heading north. The Escort was a rusting two-door number with a crystal dangling from the rearview mirror casting painful shards of light around the intersection. When the light from the crystal wasn�t searing Harry�s retinas, he could just make out the boy�s lower face and narrow shoulders between the sun visor and the steering wheel. The face was unfamiliar, but he waved back, smiling and raising his eyebrows to convey a greeting: �Ah, yes, nice to see you.� Probably the new alto in the youth choir.

The boy edged the Escort forward, but stopped short when the car directly across the intersection from Harry, a sleek black Acura, started forward at the same time. A white station wagon with a blond driver � a mother, Harry noticed, with young children in the back � idled across from the Escort, apparently, like Harry, content to wait it out.

He glanced in the back seat, strewn with loose papers and church ledgers. He was supposed to be interviewing accountants to replace the church bookkeeper, who�d been lifting cash from the collection baskets to bankroll her bus trips to the casino. The church council wanted a professional, but Harry kept putting off the chore, wishing vaguely that the ledgers would disappear or better yet, the whole car. It would have been cheaper to keep the embezzler anyway. Poor old bat played the nickel machines.

Harry decided to go for the chicken parmesan when some unpleasant thought flickered in the corner of his brain. Suppressing it, which he tried, was like pushing a beach ball under water and so it emerged: Harry Jr.�s court appearance next week on a drunken-driving charge, his second in three years.  Dolores would handle it -- pay the fines, inform the court of the latest treatment program, remind the judge that no one had been injured this time. Harry just had to show up, because even a drug-addled screw-up got a few points for having a minister in his immediate family. But he hated the thought of sitting there with the judge looking down on him wondering the obvious: Where did you go wrong?

The young mother in the white station wagon suddenly raced across the intersection. Then the new black Acura started forward again. They could fight it out. In the end, it was your prostate that killed you. Or your druggie son, who couldn�t hold a job and dragged your good name � your name, because they never remembered the Jr. -- through the police blotter.  Dolores still believed she could jolt him out of it, but she didn�t listen to what they said at the meetings. It had to be his choice.

It was three-thirty, and if he stopped for the chicken parmesan now and ate only half to three-quarters, he could make a passable go at the pot roast if Dolores would hold dinner until six-thirty. He could say he was working on his sermon.

The black Acura passed him, and Harry noticed a long, crooked scratch on the driver�s side door. Shame, too. So new. Harry waved again as the Escort went by, but the young boy had his eyes on the road.

 

A TEENAGER WITH A BOWL CUT on his straight dark hair reclined in the low-slung driver�s seat of the battered yellow Escort. His name was Milo Marsden and he was 17.

Milo had acquired his driver�s license just six months before. He was an excellent driver, his coordination honed by video games, although he had a tendency to speed. Milo had the windows down to catch a breeze, and his legs were stuck to the black vinyl, glued there with the cheap sunscreen they issued to lifeguards. The lake had been crowded � last day before school and finally some sun.

�Okay, people,� Milo said aloud. �Prehistoric Buick here pulled up first, so he goes, then the station wagon, then the Acura, then me. We move to the right.�

Milo should have been home already because his mother needed the Escort to get to her waitressing job. Her car was in the shop getting a new transmission, which Milo figured was two thousand dollars straight out of his college fund. But he wasn�t worried. His mother would sell a fucking kidney to pay her share of sending him to college. Milo wondered what his asshole father would say when he found out Milo was second in his class and had a stack of brochures on his desk: MIT, Yale, Cornell, Harvard. He couldn�t wait to give his father the tuition bill: Sorry, dad, guess your new wife will have to pay for her own braces.  

 �Okay, grandpa, if you�re not going, I am,� Milo said, stepping on the gas. The black Acura gave up the wait at the same time, and they both hit the brakes. Milo punished the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. Across the intersection, he caught the woman in the white station wagon stifle a little smile and he felt the urge to smash up her boxy new Volvo, the kind all the rich young mothers drove.

On a second look, though, he realized that the station wagon�s driver could have been related to Sherry Silva, maybe an older sister. She had that same blond shoulder-length hair and those smoky eyes that revealed something Milo couldn�t have named but felt to him like the knowledge of sex and lost love. Sherry Silva carried her books tight to her chest, but he had seen her put the books down once or twice and he thought of it now, the way she stretched out her T-shirts. The station wagon suddenly bolted through the intersection, and Sherry�s relative winked at him as she drove by with two kids harnessed into car seats in the back.

 �Hell,� he thought, shaking his head. �I guess she likes me.�

Milo glanced at the old man, who was now looking into the back seat of the Buick. Not enough anti-geezer legislation. To his left, the Acura was revving up again and he nodded, waiting for it to cross. Inside was a young woman in a fast food uniform with her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. He watched intently as she steered past him with one hand lightly on the wheel, flipping her cell phone closed with her chin.

 �My turn, Seymour,� he said, adjusting the sun visor. �You can sit there all day if you want.�

He looked at the digital clock on the peeling dashboard. His mom would be standing on the porch in her white shirt and black pants, staring at her watch. Milo put the car into first and pulled smoothly through the intersection.

 

NICKIE HARRIS rolled up to the stop sign in a new black Acura, her eyes like two hardboiled eggs behind her sunglasses. The air conditioning raised the fine hair on her arms, but she could still feel the sweat in the center of her back.

Nickie was eastbound, on her way to work at Dunkin� Donuts, but she had to drop off the Acura at a chop shop along the way. She was doing this as a favor to her boyfriend, who was not so much a boyfriend as a parasite with a remote control. This was completely clear when she was more than fifteen feet away from him. Up close, she lost all perspective when he called her �baby.�

She asked herself, scanning the intersection, if he had ever gone out of his way for her, besides the time he bought her that fake Louis Vuitton bag on the street in New York, and it wasn�t even her birthday. She�d replayed that memory until it was as hackneyed as a pop song, her Whitney Houston moment.

And yet here she was, driving to the goddamned chop shop because �you�re already going that way, baby.� She should have asked for a bigger cut, too, judging from the car�s loaded interior: leather seats, GPS, the works. She wished it was cold out so she could try the seat warmer.

After the chop shop � and she could only imagine what kind of scum worked there � she would have to walk to Dunkin� Donuts, which was just off the interstate ramp. Tonight, she would plan her strategy for throwing her boyfriend out, which would somehow involve sending his precious Panasonic out the window. She could do it if he wasn�t home.

Nickie had a theory that she attracted men who were drawn to her nose, which was delicate and upturned, almost childlike. They assumed the rest of her was just as compliant and sweet-natured, but internally, she was hawk-like and beaky. She saw every boyfriend�s flaws within minutes of meeting him and she carried the knowledge around, circling silently, until each one defiled the nest and had to be removed.

The evening shift at Dunkin� Donuts was usually slow: a few old ladies with purse paranoia muttering about the price of a small coffee, truckers pushing for another hundred miles, one or two families on trips with the moms wanting decaf and a bag of doughnut holes for the kids. She�d have time to plan the final showdown. She could already see him looking up at her, collecting his shoes and underwear from the street, �But baby �� 

The boy driving the shitty yellow car was waving the old guy through the intersection, but he wasn�t moving. Nickie thought she heard a siren in the distance. She started forward but stopped short when the yellow car tried to cross at the same time. If she got picked up, she�d turn that bastard in so quick he wouldn�t have time to shut off the TV.

Jesus.

Nickie dug the cell phone out of her purse and hit the speed dial.

�Hey, did you call your mother back? � Yeah, I�m still in the car � I know, a friggin� seat warmer � Just call, okay? ... Yeah, bye.�

Nickie sat up straight and flicked her pony tail off one thin shoulder. At least it wasn�t raining anymore. When it rained, a hopeless, hollow gloom descended on her � the desperation of reruns.

Just as she was about to move again, the station wagon tore through the intersection. Nice way to drive with a couple kids in the back. Nickie put her foot on the gas as she slapped the cellphone shut.

She could feel the old man watching her drive past, his eyes on her hideous orange uniform, wondering what she was doing in that expensive car.

 

PLASTIC BAGS OF GROCERIES shifted in the back of the white station wagon as it pulled up to the stop sign, facing south. Melissa Ramble reached back to grab the soft bare foot of her two-year-old, Michael, and give it a squeeze. Michael kicked her hand away but Susanna, her four-year-old, stretched her leg out.

�Squeeze my foot,� she yelled.

Melissa found Susanna�s foot and looked around the intersection, wondering who should go first. Probably the big blue car, an old Buick like her grandfather�s with a white-haired man inside. When she got home, she would have to remember to call a florist and send something to her grandmother in Virginia. She hadn�t even called on her grandmother�s birthday, that�s how much things were slipping.

 Melissa noticed the hanging plants on the porch of a nearby house and remembered the large flowering hibiscus on her back porch. She wasn�t much of a gardener, but she�d bought it during one of those made-up errands that let her leave the house and spend money on a slow afternoon. She hadn�t watered that plant for at least two weeks.

She could feel herself losing it. Slipping right off her velvet throne.

The unraveling of her tightly wound days began on the morning she had answered the door without checking and found a smiling Jehovah�s Witness, a Watchtower in his outstretched hand. �Guidance,� he�d said, as though he sensed that she needed some.

Two days later, she read it during nap time while eating a cup of yogurt at the kitchen counter because there was nothing else to read within reach. Now, on top of everything, she was worrying about what Jesus would think of her endless catalogue flipping and phone calls and home-improvement projects. She had begun to examine her lack of charity and woke up shuddering after dreams of retribution involving flames. It had occurred to her, lately, that the money she spent highlighting her hair could support a family in Borneo for a year.

But she loved her hair. It was her best feature.

After calling the florist, she would make the cupcakes for Susanna�s play group and she would pay the bills that should have been sent out yesterday. She would finish cleaning the kitchen, having stopped halfway through unloading the dishwasher when she realized she didn�t have any eggs or canned frosting for the cupcakes. Then a load of laundry. When she brought in the groceries, she would remember to clean out the cookie crumbs and juice boxes from the car.

And she would cook the wild Atlantic salmon, call Tom and tell him to get a bottle of wine, because it had been three weeks since they�d made love. Not that it could have been helped, since Tom was away on business and then Susanna got the stomach thing, then she had the stomach thing, then Michael was up all night with the stomach thing. If she could just manage to stay upright after dinner, stick to one glass of wine, resist curling up on the bed after the baths and stories from the illustrated children�s Bible she had purchased from a television ad. Tom had said nothing about the children�s Bible, though she had seen him move it off a stack of papers on the kitchen counter.

The boy in the yellow rust bucket was waving the old man through the intersection, but the Buick wasn�t moving. The yellow car and the new black car moved forward at the same time, and Melissa could see the boy in the yellow car whacking the steering wheel in frustration. She smiled. Bowl haircut � haven�t seen that since high school.

She pressed her hand against her abdomen and sucked it in as far as it would go, which wasn�t far. If she got home before three-forty-five, she could do the Power Yoga tape before she had to start dinner. So call the florist, then the cupcakes, the bills, yoga, then dinner. Oh, and laundry. She looked back at Michael, who was crying because his pacifier � she swore again she would throw it out tomorrow � had fallen out. She felt around behind her seat and found it on the floor, flicked off the dirt she could see and handed it back to him as another car pulled up behind her.

Christ, she forgot the light bulbs, the one thing Tom had asked her to pick up today. Now she�d have to stop at the hardware store on the way home. She stepped on the gas and plowed through the intersection. As she drove by the yellow two-door, she closed her eyes for a moment. What was it again she was supposed to do first?

 

HARRY WAS THE LAST ONE to make his way through the intersection, turning right. He tried the next left and found the little Italian place. Once he had parked, he rested his head on the steering wheel for a moment, focusing on nothing in particular but allowing his troubles to condense around him like a fog. A moment later, he felt a lightening sensation, his good nature reminding him that he had no more burdens than most and quite a few less than many.

Harry thought of the young boy he saw in the car to his left, the alto in the youth choir who had waved at him. Such a boy embodied the promise, the faith, that Harry worried was gone from his life. Yet if it still existed in that boy � a boy who would have heard Harry�s sermons, would have lifted his voice to a God not yet trampled by disappointments � then it still existed for everyone.

Harry thought of the blond driver, a young woman in the thick of her life�s work, toting children around, rushing from one thing to the next, flush with busyness. She, too, was evidence of God�s grace, of the blessed submersion that occasionally allowed us to forget people like Bernie, to tune out the suffering that would otherwise paralyze us all.

He opened the door to the Buick, noticing that the decrepit old boat didn�t have a single scratch that rivaled the shock value of the one on the new black Acura that had passed him at the intersection. He put his feet outside the passenger door and pulled up his right sock, feeling suddenly robust and hungry. He could use the scratch on the Acura in his next sermon: When our flaws appear in high relief, it�s a simple matter to restore the finish. It�s when they accrue after year upon year of nicks and bumps that we forget the unblemished beauty of our original ideals, and thus � such a useful word in sermons � when we most need to call upon our faith.




BIO: Susan Schoenberger lives in West Hartford, CT, with her very patient husband and three children. A longtime journalist, her short stories have appeared in Inkwell and The Rambler, and her first novel, Intercession, won the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition in 2006. Susan is the recipient of an Artist Fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, and she is working on a second novel about the Great Recession.