Originally from Kansas, Ann Graham has lived in Texas for nearly forty years. Her MFA in painting and drawing continues to inform her writing practice. She attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers workshop and has been published by Grey Sparrow Journal, Digging Through the Fat, The Oddville Press, and the Panther City Review. Her writing prompt book, Ready, Set, Go Write, is available online, and she contributed research to Fort Worth’s Giants of Jazz. She maintains a blog at www.ann-graham.com and can be found on Twitter @AnnGraham7.
On the Road Again
Driving for any length of time, you encounter all shapes, sizes, and colors of signage. Some are large and imposing. Some are small and hand-painted. Some implore you to obey commands or to make a purchase. And, some remind you of the life you had with Elizabeth before you died.
Massage, a large pink and brown sign, hand-painted
Elizabeth gave killer massages after you’d worked, open to close, at your Texaco full-service gas station. She’d unkink your shoulder blades with her sharp elbows. You were never positive whether she eased the stiffness and pain or if you were just glad she’d stopped.
When you were seventeen, old man Russell took you on in his transmission repair shop. He’d throw you a Jackson at the end of the week if he thought you’d done more than squat. Between that experience and the Okmulgee High School auto mechanic program you were set to earn a living by the time you were twenty. You finally got your own station. The next year, you married Elizabeth.
Rest Area, Safe Phone Zone, another sign
You hover above a dark cherry metallic 1998 Malibu, its clear-coat peeling like sunburned skin. There are half a dozen kids inside. Long dark hair streams from the rear passenger window. You try to get the driver’s attention because he’s weaving from lane to lane, and you see there’s a line of big rigs about to enter from the ramp. You’re banging on his windshield to no avail. You’re unsure how your new powers work or even exactly what they are. As soon as you think that, you grab the hair flowing from the rear window and give it a tug. It seems to have worked. She yells at the driver, and he centers the Malibu. After another mile, he exits for the rest area safe phone zone.
Dump Station, a small sign posted on a fence
RV folks need to get rid of their gray water as they lumber down the road with their homes on their backs making dump stations necessary. How brave they are to have no roots deep in a place.
Elizabeth had her hair dyed—she called it a touch-up—every eight weeks at Wak-n-Yak, the beauty salon all the neighbor ladies used. Elizabeth said she needed to dump her grievances as much as she needed her hair done. She made no beans about how much you had come to annoy her and that yakking to her friends and her stylist was inexpensive counseling. You called it gossip. She called it gospel.
You and Elizabeth lived in a neighborhood with single-family houses, lawns, garages, back yard patios with gas grills, and front porches with swings and gliders. Once you told Elizabeth that you were going to buy the biggest RV on the market so that the two of you could travel the country, side by side. She said you could call a lawyer while you were at it.
Do Not Cross Solid Line, a federal highway sign
The traffic is congested. You’re watching the cars, trucks, and RVs creep alongside the largest casino complex you’ve ever seen. For a few seconds, you float next to a Subaru Outback stopped at a red light. You watch the woman hand pieces of beef jerky, one at a time, to the driver, then she hands him a can of Dr. Pepper. He takes a sip and holds the can for her to replace in the cup holder. They seem to have a system.
You and Elizabeth rarely rode together. Toward the end, you were rarely together at all. She wasn’t with you the day you missed the yield sign.
Motel California, a sign advertising an inexpensive motel
You and Elizabeth started dating in May 1976, bicentennial, voter registration, Elton John’s bisexuality, and all that. You hooked up at a school dance neither of you wanted to attend. She wore a red, white, and blue maxi. Dresses at that time were either mini or maxi. Her hair, Farrah Fawcett style, draped her tanned shoulders and turned you on. Her date was a football jock who went off with his buddies to guzzle Budweiser while several of you also ditched the dance to smoke pot under the bridge that spanned the Arkansas River. Even though it was close to the high school, the vantage point allowed you to see anyone approaching well before they sniffed out your pot. Long story short, Elizabeth dumped jock-boy and you were a bona-fide item. This sign reminds you how you wore out your Eagles album in the cassette player of your GTO. Up and down 21st, cruising with your gal, some vanilla soft-serve at Jack’s Burger Shack, windows open, and music blaring.
Be Prepared to Stop, a sign in a construction zone
Sure, sailing down the road at ninety miles an hour and these dopes are supposed to be prepared to stop. Your attention is hiked and you hope the drivers are half-aware. Traffic is heavy and some damn idiots are doing ninety and some barely reach sixty in the passing lane. Can’t they read? You guess it’s hard to read a sign while using a cell phone. You wonder how you could interrupt them or if that would make it more dangerous.
Flea Market, a bent sign nailed to a big tree
Peach preserves glistened like amber in the morning sunshine; the hand-printed labels faced the shoppers. Elizabeth set out her jams, every Friday, at the Southside Flea Market off 67. It was also marked with a large, homemade sign. You told her she should charge more for all the labor, packaging, and driving involved. She said it wasn’t for the money. It was for the camaraderie. She sold a jar every week to a retired Army General she called Clarence who’d told her, and she told you, that he began every morning with an English muffin, toasted, buttered, and laden with her luscious peaches. Then he winked, she told you, and said he thought about her pretty hair and wide eyes as well.
Please Stay Alert, another federal sign
After weeks of mustering the power to leave Highway 75, the road on which you were killed, you make it over to Bella Vista Avenue. A new blue Honda Accord sits in your driveway. At first you think it must belong to a parishioner from Christ the Servant Lutheran Church, but you see Elizabeth hop into it. You follow her to Kroger and you sit on the cart return until she exits the store with a bundle of multi-colored flowers wrapped in a clear plastic cone.
You follow her for forty miles on the Dallas North Tollway. She weaves in and out of traffic. Not only is it difficult to keep up, but you also find it perplexing that she’s driving assuredly and almost aggressively. You decide to sail higher for a bird’s eye view. At last she pulls up to a valet stand, and you watch her smile at the doorman as she swings her favorite Coach handbag into a boutique hotel on Main Street. She’s wearing a pink, fluttery dress you do not recognize. You float back and forth across the entrance all night. The following morning, she emerges with a sturdy man you think might be Clarence.
Cherry Ice Box Cookies, a billboard
You asked Elizabeth once what the hell were cherry icebox cookies. She said they were soft, chewy, maraschino-cherry-flavored cookies. Why the hell are they called icebox cookies? She said because you were supposed to shape the dough into logs and chill them in the refrigerator, icebox, until the dough was very cold. Ha, you said, mystery solved. She made a batch the next weekend and you thought they were damn good. You told her she should sell some of those at the flea market. She said no, not interested. She asked where did you hear about cherry icebox cookies? You told her they’re advertised on a billboard along I-20 outside Dallas.
Yield, one of the most common signs
You believe the yield sign to be the most important road sign. After all, isn’t all driving an act of yielding? In fact, you’ve come to believe that successful relationships practice mutual yielding. In fact you now believe that if you’d yielded to your wife once in a while, or if you’d both done a little yielding, you might still be alive. Who doesn’t yield to a rock hauler? You hadn’t seen it, because you took a sip of coffee at that instant, the wrong instant. You wish you could tell these distracted drivers that they should heed highway signs.
Hospital, a potentially consequential sign
This blue sign—a nice blue, not too dark, not too light—with a white arrow pointing west, reminds you of that day not too long ago. This sign does not point to the hospital where you were taken, but points toward another hospital that you assume is quite capable of saving lives.
Oklahoma Welcome Center sign
You wish you could still piss and take a dump and eat cherry icebox cookies with a mug of coffee and talk to Elizabeth and love her. It’d feel really good to do all those things.
Well, the least you can do is to stop by the Welcome Center.