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An inconsequential back road

Matt Zalaznick

Close enough to be washed by the glare from this river of headlights, and bothered faintly by the bitter electric whisper of Spinnaker Drive, is a county highway that may as well be a hundred miles from the interchange, for it’s almost certain that no one who stops in Burrow Junction for the night, not the harried actress, not the driver following her, not the businesswomen, salesmen and land developers who will sleep in the rooms above and below, on either side – none of them will ever wind up on this deafeningly inconsequential back road that leads in both directions only to tinier, more dreadful and neglected towns – castaway places drained by their dark distance from the freeway, choked off from the flurry of the world like wizened berries fallen from a tree and decomposing in the mud. Standing along this county highway, within the jaundiced pallor, is Penny Stitch: a frumpy, haggard woman wearing thick trifocals, an orange vest and a hard-hat. Penny is holding a pole with a stop sign attached at the top. Her face, and the mist of her breath, is every few seconds stained by the sharper yellow lights blinking from the long row of barricades behind her. Light brushes her from many sides, from close and from faraway, but she is by herself, buried in gloom. A few hundred yards in the distance, detached from its muffled metal crunching, is a backhoe digging up the closed lane of the highway. She can imagine, but not see, the rocky gash in the road that is being illuminated by the ruthless beam of the road crew’s spotlights. As usual, a cigarette with a drooping wand of ash is dangling from Penny’s worn-out cheeks and sagging lips. As usual, her mind is pestered by the other moments of her life: her nervous daughter; the pile of outstanding utility bills; the rotting floor of her mobile home; the cash-strapped church; the trouble she is having recruiting members for the Townie Lee Docks Fan Club of Northern Wyoming, which she’d founded but which was not yet officially recognized by the national organization; and also, the needlepoint Christmas ornaments she is sewing to send Townie for her tree. Each ornament depicts a scene from one of Townie Lee’s movies. Though she is still behind schedule, she’d that afternoon finished the very tasteful love scene from “Kiss of the Cosmonaut,” where Townie played Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Unfortunately, Penny – president of an admittedly far-flung and renegade fan club – isn’t aware that Townie Lee thinks of herself as an observant Jew and forbids Christmas decorations of any kind in her New York penthouse apartment, her beach house in Hawaii and her slope-side condo in Aspen. Penny, as she always does when sewing, had pricked her finger several times. She’d even managed, somehow, to stick herself three times in the leg and once in the chin. The throbbing pain is now kicking in, along with the pep pills she takes to keep her awake when she has to work nights. Cold is seeping through her thin gloves from the steel pole of her stop sign, which faces a rusted, sputtering, idling pickup truck. She is familiar with the driver: a life-long dweller in Burrow Junction – a widower and a plumber, probably drunk, clearly agitated and irritated by the delay. He is revving the engine and inching his truck forward in growling spurts. She is frightened he might bolt. She imagines pressing her arms against the grill of his truck; she can almost feel the strain of holding him back, of using all her might to stop him from barreling down the one open lane of the road toward his doom, toward the six or seven cars that, with a recent twirl from STOP to CAUTION of the sign held by Penny’s sister sentinel 500 yards away, have received permission to press ahead across the sparse northeast corner of Wyoming. A line of cars is now passing the truck and shuddering up the road in the other direction. A warped station wagon with one working headlight, a mangled bumper and its dented hood tied down by mildewed rope pulls up behind the drunken plumber. The passenger door opens. A young woman gets out. Penny’s daughter, Dapple Del Toboso, come to loan her mother $500 to get the heat turned back on in her mobile home. Dapple walks grudgingly along the shoulder of the road. Penny feels scratched and scraped by the girl’s abrasive expression as she approaches and as she gets closer, Penny can see that the girl’s lazy eye is in its usual stubborn drift, wandering toward the outside corner of her eye socket – toward the open plains and empty mountains, Penny realizes with an unsettling shock – while the good eye grumbles, pouts and pecks.Dapple pulls a wad of bills from her thin, frayed coat. The windy and cold the unfathomably windy and cold part of the winter is only a few months away. Penny has promised herself not to bring up either the unpaid car insurance or the overdue phone bill that has swelled beyond her control because of all the long-distance calls to her own lonely mother in Globe, Arizona. Penny’s radio squawks. With the wad of $20 bills still in her hand, the cigarette still dangling from her mouth, she twirls her sign, STOP to CAUTION. The frowning plumber and his truck rumble off along the line of blinking barricades, followed by the tied-together station wagon Dapple hitched a ride in. Dapple squints at the heap as it stutters down the road. “See ya’ at church Sunday?” Penny asks her daughter, who gives herself a few blasts from an inhaler she has taken out of a coat pocket. Though her daughter has not attended a mass in ten years, Penny always asks. No matter how many Sundays go by, Penny Stitch sits in her pew looking back over her shoulder, hoping each shadow that appears in the door is her daughter.

This is the second part of the serialization of Matt Zalaznick’s short story, “Junktown.” The Vail Daily is serializing short stories and novels written by locals. To submit a piece, contact Vail Daily editor Matt Zalaznick at 748-2926 or mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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