Franny itches to ram the Jeep Cherokee she’s been sitting behind for the past forty minutes as their respective vehicles creep along the interstate. With no exit for five miles, countless vehicles are gridlocked in place. She’s not close enough to see whether the problem is a closed lane, an accident, or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; instead, she compulsively reads and rereads the sticker on the bumper that proclaims, “When prayer was in school, drugs weren’t.” Franny imagines a corresponding sticker: “When prayer was in school, so was segregation.” Still, she’s unlikely to post bumper stickers since she’s agitated by having to read them. Her foot twitches at the gas pedal while she searches her field of vision for less irritating reading material.
The Jeep’s large side mirror appears to reflect a confident, stylish woman whom Fanny fantasizes is returning to a perfectly swept home after collecting her children from private schools in time for evening prayer services. Nevertheless, every so often, the woman’s four adolescent passengers, scream, “Chinese fire drill,” and bolt from the car only to re-enter on the opposite side. No doubt, they do this to drive the woman, and the cars behind her, crazy. When Franny’s daughters performed the same maneuver at traffic lights, she railed about its racist overtone, so the girls modified it to “American fire drill.” Franny’s learned to appreciate small victories with her children.
The first time the kids exploded from the Jeep, 500 feet from where they are currently sitting, the driver got out to yell them back into the “fricking” car. Franny smiled at the word choice. A substitute for the f-word, in line with the professed bumper-sticker faith. Clearly, the woman is the mother of one or two of the teens, who are all well dressed and fashionably coiffed. The woman hadn’t frightened them much, since they have exited at least two times since. With every vehicle inching along, it’s unlikely they are in danger, but one never knows about teenagers or adults trapped in traffic snarls. Franny eases her foot, putting the car in neutral. Of course, most of the drivers around her haven’t noticed because they are bowing their heads to the cell-phone god, which is what Franny would be doing if she hadn’t left her phone at work. In all this time, only two cars have been brazened enough to cross the grass partition and drive into the flow of traffic on the opposite side.
Still, Franny seethes with agitation not because of the bumper sticker, which she is sick of reading, nor the blasting woofer of the Mustang sitting to the right, nor the unseasonal March heat, nor even that she’s left her cell and can’t call her children’s school to advise them she’ll be late. What bothers her is that it’s Chuck’s day to pick up the kids. Franny was supposed to go directly home from work to clean out the fridge and kitchen cupboards before Chuck’s parents arrive this evening. According to Chuck, his contractors’ meeting was essential. “Essential” is the word he used. Satisfying his parents is not essential, even though Franny will be expected to keep them happy for the entire week of their stay. Her hypercritical mother-in-law will refuse to eat if she doesn’t approve of the hygiene, which incurs the added expense of taking all their meals out. But there’s no use thinking about it now. She’s here, in the clog, without a phone, with little hope of getting anything done before their arrival. The cavalcade lurches another twenty feet forward. Then, Franny puts the car back in gear, her foot hot against the accelerator.
She drums her fingers on the wheel of her Corolla. Since she’d forgotten her phone, she rummages for a CD, choosing The Weepies over Pink to alter her mood. Pink’s edgy, while the lilting tones of The Weepies float gently above the fray. Franny needs buoyancy now.
The kids in the Jeep must be bouncing in their seats as its rear end bobs to some pulsating rhythms Franny can’t hear above the woof of the car beside her. She almost feels sorry for the Jeep mom who is probably praying up a storm inside. Franny, herself, prefers screaming to prayer any day.
Suddenly a man in a Lincoln ahead of the Mustang bolts from his car to take a tour of the bottleneck. His bumper sticker, which she saw moments ago, reads, “If you can read this, you’re too CLOSE.” Whenever traffic backs up for more than fifteen minutes, there’s always a guy who leaves his vehicle and strolls through the maze of automobiles, as though whatever clogs the city’s arteries is something he, alone, among countless police and emergency personnel dispatched there, is capable of setting right again. Superman in Clark Kent’s disguise.
Up the road, she notices other men clustered together. They are not yet at the apex of the congestion, but Clark Kent approaches as they point and gesture wildly in the general direction of the jam. Franny imagines their conversations.
–Big accident up there. Big car, little car, twenty-ton truck.
— Clark Kent asserts, Fellows, I’ll take care of it!
–Thanks, man. So glad you’re here.
–Yeah, dude, thanks for stepping up.
If Franny’s friend, Maddie were here, she’d take orders for fast food and hotfoot it up the hill for a modest running fee. Maddie turns water into wine whenever she can. Not Franny. Franny is more likely to haul off and slug someone. Hers is a vengeful god, she realizes, as her foot continues to flirt with the gas pedal. She needs something to do besides wait!
Two emergency vehicles from the exit behind her squirrel a passage through the cars, flashing their lights and raising grating sirens every ten feet. The traffic tries to respond. The presence of the vehicles signals, at the very least, several misfortunes up ahead. The dashboard clock confirms Franny’s already missed the 3:00 pm school pick up. She calculates how much time will elapse before her children become alarmed.
The driver on the left is chattering on her cell and momentarily Franny wonder whether she should leave the car to borrow a phone until she recalls she doesn’t know the school office number by heart. Always genuinely conflicted about cell phones since everyone hangdogs over them all day, herself included, Franny silences hers whenever she drives. Perhaps her kids will simply assume she’s on her way when they can’t reach her. Maybe, they’ll call Chuck, who will leave his meeting. That prospect eases her right leg somewhat. Besides, with such extensive congestion she is surely not the only late-arriving parent this afternoon.
Ten yards ahead, Franny watches a homeless man make his way through the clog, wearing a sign that announces he is a vet and will work for food. He’s tall and lanky with disheveled clothes.
The Lincoln owner returns, stopping by several cars to relate his findings. He glances at Franny but decides not to bring her the Word. Perhaps, her Corolla is too common or foreign to warrant an exchange. However, the vet can’t afford to be discriminating. He stops at each car to receive a donation or be ignored. Franny watches the vet move on quickly from the Jeep with nothing to show for it, so Franny grabs a five from her purse, which she holds out to him at the window. She considers whether she does this only because the Jeep mom does not. Still, her grandfather was a Korean War vet, “Not that anybody remembers that war,” which is what he says whenever he mentions it. Franny has never known why her grandfather says this, but she’s learned to be grateful to veterans. Remembering them is important, she knows.
He smiles and thanks her. “‘Preciate it ma’m.” he says; “God bless.”
“Know what’s holding us up?” she can’t help but ask.
He stops, “Fuel tanker crashed into the viaduct. Blown her clean up.”
“My God, really?” she answers.
“Oh, yeah. They can’t get to the bodies, ‘cause of all the rubble. You see that cloud of dust down there?” He points to the right, “That’s the viaduct.”
Franny realizes she’s fortunate not to be behind that truck or worse yet, on the viaduct, “Wish I could let my kids know I’ll be late.”
“Haven’t got a cell phone?” he asks.
Franny shakes her head, “Left it at work.”
“You can use mine,” he offers.
“You don’t mind?” Franny marvels at a homeless man packing a cell. Then, at least, someone cares about him.
“Nah.” He smiles and lifts a black potato peeler from his pants pocket.
Franny looks at the peeler then up at him.
He smiles, “I got 4500 free minutes every month. Nation-wide long distance. My Aunt Pearl pays for it.”
“But?” Franny waves her hand, “Oh, no, never mind. It’s okay.” Franny is nothing if not polite.
“Go ahead. One good turn deserves another.”
Franny shakes her head, “No really, I couldn’t . . . impose.”
“Just punch in the number, and hit send,” he shows her the phantom dials.
“Go on. Don’t be afraid.”
Franny pantomimes dialing and invents a conversation, “Hi. This is Mrs. eh, Dillon, I’m supposed to pick up my children.” She looks at the delirious man in front of her who is so young but weathered and cracked open like an egg. “I’m stuck in traffic, and I won’t be able to make it for a while.” Franny waits an appropriate amount of time and says, “Thanks a bunch. Yes, thanks.” She hands back the potato peeler, trying to smile, “Thank you, sir,” she says.
“No problem. You take care now.” He winds through the cars behind her. She watches him in the mirror, pondering where he will sleep or what he can do with a measly five bucks. When the lane opens, the kids fly out the Jeep’s door again.
One saunters toward the Corolla and calls something to Franny, who nods as though she has understood, thinking they’ve seen her dial the potato peeler. Then another ventures closer, “He’ll only use it for booze,” the girl shouts, nodding toward the vet.
Franny narrows her eyes, as her right foot gets heavy on the pedal, holding the brake so the Corolla revs while remaining stationary. The girl stares back blankly.
Franny yearns more than ever to ram the Jeep, wondering if it might even be a civic duty to do so, just to make a statement, to assert the value of alcohol under dire circumstances. Nevertheless, she believes the only statement made will be that she is crazy and irresponsible, so she resists the urge. If she were arrested, who’d pick up her kids, or clean out the kitchen cupboards for her mother-in-law? Or give the vet a few bucks?
The teens are laughing as they disappear inside the 4×4, which moves forward another twenty feet.
Franny suddenly thinks of the Rapture, or what she’s heard about it, at least. People will fly from their vehicles and into the arms of their designated savior. Maybe this is the Apocalypse after all. Chuck’s doing what’s essential in Messer; the kids at school are calling the cell phone she’s forgotten, and a vet is carrying a “loaded” potato peeler telegraphing feeble claims into the atmosphere. Even the unseasonable heat suggests as much. Franny longs to rise from the car and drift along the highway toward release. Instead, she leans back and takes a big gulp of the Weepies’ “Open Your Hands” and manually pulls her leg from the gas.
Two older women perch on the side railings of the freeway watching from some 60 feet away along the grassy incline. They are eating what appears to be a colossal serving of popcorn. They point to and look solemnly after the buckling rows of cars. The jam’s becomes a spectator sport. No one knows what it will do next. One of the women wears a sleeveless muumuu, while the other has a tank top and cut-off jeans. As Franny’s Corolla approaches their line of vision, they wave at her. The larger woman does so furiously as though Franny were a long-lost daughter.
Franny turns her head forward and tries not to look. From her peripheral vision, she sees that the women mean to get her attention. She turns back to them and nods. She has no idea why she does this—to still them or permit some awkward connection? Who knows? As with the vet, she feels she owes them an acknowledgment. Of what, she doesn’t know, but when the women smile and seem strangely satisfied, Franny feels calmer as well.
One of the girls in the Jeep has her foot placed out the window in a mock wave, which cracks up the popcorn-ladies who point to it. Franny wonders why she can’t laugh as well. Why is she always so serious? She should let it wash over her like rain.
The traffic funnels from four lanes into two. Several cars drive forward to be directed across the median into the opposite-bound traffic stream, which has obviously been redirected elsewhere. Abruptly, the teens burst again onto the road, just as the woofing Mustang darts into the tiny space in front of Franny causing her to slam the brakes. There is a thump of bumpers. Franny’s arms slam the horn into an extended blare. Then, her head snaps back against the headrest, sending a sharp pain down her neck and shoulders. She looks frantically for the source of the collision, only to realize she’s missed the Mustang, which attempting to miss the kids has slammed into the Jeep’s bumper, which now reads “When pray –drugs.”
The teens, all four of them, hover beside of the Jeep, looking tense and alarmed.
The Jeep mom bolts from the car screaming at her children, gesturing like a silent era traffic cop, no longer appearing composed but frantic. Her children look on with terror. Like Franny, the woman is depleted, on edge, a circuit of random movements.
Within seconds, the Mustang driver erupts from his own vehicle shouting oaths concerning lug nut kids, pouring over his car as he might an injured child. The Jeep mom responds with a string of modified expletives: “Shut the front door” and “For crying in a bucket.” Each of them gesticulates hopelessly, bending over to scrutinize the damage, primarily to the Mustang. Franny is mesmerized by the rawness of collision. Perhaps, we are all meant to be ever in motion, a migrating species, eternally embarking and arriving only momentarily. We circle the sun, in an ever-expanding universe.
Franny shakily cranks up the Weepies, crooning, “You get what you make of it/ So be amazed.” The cellphone woman to the left buzzes down her passenger window, mouthing, “Are you okay?” Franny nods stiffly, and the woman gestures to the space in front of her, an acknowledgement of sorts like the one Franny gave the vet and the women on the hill. Taking a last look at the Jeep mom, who obviously was never as poised as Franny imagined, whose now apprehensive passengers were probably nothing more than bored teenagers looking for distraction, and the Mustang driver’s throbbing beats keeping his own irritations at bay the way The Weepies have for her. She even considers whether Chuck’s ambiguous relationship with his parents has tempered his escape to the contractor’s meeting. In a quagmire of unexpected journeys and random orbits, Franny eases into the space between the cellphone woman’s Civic and a tan Nissan Ultima, whose bumper reads, in case Franny didn’t know already, “Hell is Real.”
Grace Epstein has written plays, fiction, and poetry as well as scholarly articles that have appeared in variety of publications, including Genders and Great Lakes Review. Six of her plays have been produced in colleges and professional theaters.