The following is an excerpt from my short story "Garden Gnome" to be included, in its entirety, as a bonus story alongside the first twelve Rock-n-Roll Reads stories to be published in a collection in the autumn of 2020.
For my wife, this and all things. For the people of Kansas, there's so much more coming.
And, of course, to the signatories of the Harper's Open Letter, for making it necessary.
by Geoffrey Allison. Copyright 2020.
At precisely eight o’clock in the morning, Lacy Hensley pulled out of her garage. Two minutes later, she approached the guardhouse of Chicory Place, a suburban enclave containing one hundred patio-style homes located at the edge of the city limits of Whispering Woods, one of a dozen towns and villages comprising the larger metropolitan statistical area known—and collectively and colloquially referred to—as Grace City.
Lacy pressed down on the brake pedal of her customized Ford Ranger and waited for the inconspicuous RFID transmitter, pasted low near the dash on the inside of the windshield, to trigger the gate. She raised her hand clutching a microwaveable breakfast sandwich and half-heartedly waved to Mr. Rickles, a former elementary school principal, volunteering for the morning shift at the gatehouse.
Then she turned, stared straight ahead, bit down on the sandwich, and waited for the arm to rise and allow her to exit.
“Have fun today. Get some ideas. We’re counting on you,” Mr. Rickles said as she pulled away.
Lacy turned left at the entrance to her housing development and eased onto one of Whispering Woods’ countless neighborhood roads named after shrubs or trees. At the first traffic light, she turned left again. This time merging into the morning drive-time traffic clogging the numbered streets. These ran in an east-west direction. Built to gather all the drivers the suburban town unleashed: the fearful and angry, the daydreaming: distracted and disengaged, and the worried and stressed-out-from-parenting-kids-shouting-in-the-backseat.
A crumb trail of asphalt pebbles—rolled smooth and flat—carried Lacy and the others toward the expressways.
Lacy guided her truck down an on-ramp and took advantage of the relative safety of having no cars to either side of her. Buffered by emptiness, she pressed the media button on the touchscreen of the aftermarket media system she’d installed in her ‘83 Ford Ranger.
The pickup was one of the first to roll off the Louisville assembly line and Lacy actually bought it in Kentucky, albeit decades later. She’d driven down to buy it off an automotive plant retiree. The truck’s original owner, who lived in Maysville—where Rosemary Clooney had been born.
The journey to buy the Ranger was a memory now. The final road trip with her father. Bittersweet, yet no less precious. Lacy kept it alive. Sometimes she found herself mouthing the imagery when she recalled the experience. She’d speak bits and pieces of the scenes out loud, giving a life to them as she did.
They were heading out of town, on their way back to Kansas. Her father was following her in his car. He honked as they approached a metal building with a sign that said it sold groceries. She slowed, pulled to the shoulder and her father pulled alongside her. He shouted through the window, suggesting they have a picnic before leaving town. They turned into the micro-store and bought bread and meat. And off-brand potato chips that tasted like chemicals. They had lunch in a sprinkling rain—along the banks of the Ohio River. Her father had tortured her. He kept pretending to wipe food from her face, as though she was still a little girl. Worse, he sang—and did so poorly, intentionally offkey—as he performed the artificial ablutions. He wiped away non-existent crumbs from the corners of Lacy’s mouth and belted out the lyrics to an old Coronet tv commercial Clooney had jingled.
And then… it happened.
Lacy closed her inner eye, blinding herself to the memory, and focused on the time displayed on the audio system.
Thirty or so minutes to get there.
She hoped it would be enough time to listen to at least two episodes of her favorite podcast. If she could tick off two episodes from her list it would make her feel productive, had accomplished something—anything, had earned a return on the time she was investing in the drive to Pandora.
She scanned the overhead road sign and flipped the turn signal before merging into the far-right lane of the interstate.
That’s not the word father would have used.
Freeway. That’s the word he used. Right up until his death. He had brought the word with him. Had packed it up like he had his clothes and dishes and brought it with him when he relocated to the Midwest. That was the term he had grown up with. The one he’d appreciated. The word fit his personality. It shaped it too.
Lacy considered the interplay. Her father had been a container of words. A utilitarian container, to be certain. Not ornate or fancy. A footlocker. A bunk trunk. But he had been carved and chiseled from words, too. Good and bad.
Lacy continued driving and thinking.
Heartland natives most often used the word highway. That was the word her friends and their parents used when referring to the monstrous cement tentacles.
Lacy used neither word. For all the bronc she’d been born with—and still displayed naturally, effortlessly—she had discovered ironies. As she matured, bits and pieces of her own personality revealed themselves. For all her untamedness certain specificities comforted her.
The word interstate felt accurate to Lacy. Suggesting a conjunction, or a series of conjunctions. If not downright inclusivity, then at least hints of connectivity, of fluidity. Interstate meant a road a person might take to get from here to there—even when here and there were separated by great distances and perhaps by culture and custom. Or states of being and feeling, too.
She listened to her own thoughts, as her podcast played in the background.
A thought crept into her mind. She cringed. She turned up the volume and tried to push down the unexpected blip floating to the surface of her consciousness. Wanting to drown it. The thought of the route she hadn’t taken. The riverside roadway set snug against the hills hugging the Sunflower River. The other route, twisting and winding, that also connected Grace City to Pandora. Filled with lost backwoods roads. Forgotten exits. And enticing entrances, too. Like the old wagoner’s trail that eventually became a tractor road and that now was the entrance to the infamous roadhouse: Justus Meats, Home of the Snyder Cut.
Her body shuttered as if it could shake loose the goosepimples blanketing her flesh.
Thirty minutes to Pandora.
Lacy continued her private calculations.
Another ten minutes to get across town and arrive at the gardens, assuming I can cut through the Ad Astra College campus without getting stuck by all the peds.
Lacy calculated twice more before settling on an estimate that felt solid and comfortable.
I’ll arrive a few minutes before the arboretum and gardens open.
“Unless, of course,” she said out loud to herself as she touched her belly. “I need to make a pit stop.”
Lacy felt motion. A lump of the microwaveable breakfast sandwich somersaulted in the confines of her stomach, where a pre-existing chaos—the reason for today’s road trip—already resided.
. . .
© 2020. All Rights Reserved.
Geoffrey writes about Whispering Woods, Grace City, Pandora, Ad Astra College, Justus Meats, and the twisting waterway known as the Sunflower River, and other fictional places, too.