FEATURE

Next Exit: A Short Story

A family car trip takes a detour.

by Nalini Jones ’01SOA Published Winter 2012-13
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They stood clutching his hand as she walked. Twice she turned back and waved. She was wearing thin leather slippers from home, Francis noticed, and a plain cotton white kameez with churidar. Her shadow kept a crouching pace beside her. She grew smaller and smaller and disappeared over the crest of the hill.

The girls were quiet. “Come,” said Francis. They had brought their books out of the car; Nicole held them against her chest. “Come. Who will read me a story?”

They had reached the highway when he noticed a light flashing red on the dashboard.

They sat on the slope. The book was open in Francis’s lap and Nicole read in a loud, singsong voice. She put her legs out, but Tara leaned against Francis, curled into something nearly as small as the way he thought of her still, or the way he sometimes liked to think of her mother.

Marian had only walked a short distance, five minutes or so, when a car pulled up gently in front of her. She hesitated, but the man had rolled down his window. He was in his forties, she guessed, a black man in a short-sleeve button-down shirt. “That your family back there?”

She nodded, reluctant to speak, then felt this was inadequate. “Yes, under the bridge.”

“Thought so,” he said. “You look like you belong to them. Where you all from?”

“We live here. My husband’s at the university. But I’m from India.”

“India!” He looked at her appraisingly. “How do you like it here?”

This was a question she’d encountered hundreds of times before, at faculty gatherings, dinner parties, lunches with other women. She belonged to a book club, an international group, an art-museum league, a parents’ advisory board. She had cooked large batches of samosas and dressed up in a sari and given talks about India in the girls’ school. She was, by nature, a cheerful person, not given to flights of nostalgia, innately well-mannered. She was very happy here, she was accustomed to answering.

But the man looked at her, a stranger to whom she owed nothing. His elbow was out the window, his face broad with a strong chin and — was it her imagination? — kind eyes.

“I miss home,” she told him.

He nodded slowly. The sun beat down on the pavement and the top of her head. When he smiled it was not with pity.

“My name is Willy. Let me give you a lift.”

She did not think of what her father would say, or her husband. She got in the car, buckled her seat belt, and thanked him.

When Nicole had read both books, she ran to look at the pilings. Tara did not follow. She got up and watched the cars flicking past on the highway. Francis, whose hip had begun to ache, got up also.

“What’s wrong, darling? Not feeling well?”

She stood before him, already as tall as his belt, and spoke with both formality and forgiveness; she knew he could not help her. “I want my father,” she said.

He looked past her, to the highway. For a moment he imagined it was Marian speaking, or his sons — one at sea and one he didn’t know where — or the daughter he had lost before she was a week old. Sometimes he looked at Nicole, who did not resemble her mother or father, and wondered if she might have his own lost daughter’s eyes or nose or chin. He would not recognize any of her features.

“Grandpa?”

“What is it?”

“How far is two miles?”

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