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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He looked at her — this child of his daughter’s, a child he could not have imagined the day Marian left home. He and Essie had waited with Marian in the airport lounge, her eyes large and terrified, and he could think of nothing to say to ease her fright. “You have some cash in your purse? Check and see. You have your coat?” Essie was holding their daughter’s hand in two of her own, and suddenly Marian had reached out to touch his arm.

“You’ll write, Dad?”

He had meant to, of course, but he had never been good with his pen.

“We can get you a ticket to come home for Christmas,” he told her. Essie frowned at him, but if Marian knew he was lying, she didn’t let on. Her eyes filled with tears, and she held his hand. “You’ll let us know if you need anything?”

“I will.”

But she had managed on her own; she met Daniel and married and had these children. This was the first time, it occurred to Francis, that they had been left entirely in his care.

“I’m king of the world!” called Nicole, who was at the top of the slope.

Tara pointed to the place where her mother had disappeared. “Is that almost two miles?”

“Two miles, you want to know?” He spread his finger and thumb. “In the whole wide world, two miles is this much only. Nothing at all, see? Any minute, Mummy will come.”

“How many miles away is Daddy?”

He spread his fingers a little farther. “A small bit more.”

She stepped closer. “Where is Grandma? Where is Uncle Jude?”

Francis stretched his hands as far as they would go; he felt the pull in his chest and arms. For a moment he stood like that, and then he let his arms drop to his sides. Cars were passing; what would they think of an old fool with his arms out like a scarecrow’s?

“A long way off,” he said. “Many, many miles.”

Tara nodded, yes. When was the next time he would see this child, he wondered. How old would she be? How would her face have changed?

“But we can go on the plane.” She smiled, a funny little triangle of a smile. Then Nicole called her, and she spun away to join her sister.

He looked at her — this child of his daughter’s, a child he could not have imagined the day Marian left home.

Willy turned to Marian. “I have a boy myself.”

“Oh, yes?”

“He lives with his mother. I see him weekends.” He looked at her. “You’re worried about those kids of yours, I know. But we’re just about there.” They were already slowing to turn off the highway and almost at once a gas station announced itself, the sign towering above the road on tall posts. What would her father think of this episode, Marian wondered. How would he remember his visit? It might be his last. The journey was difficult for him.

“Here we go,” Willy said. “I got a can in the back. We’ll have you back with your family in a jiffy.”

Marian rolled down the window. The wind was warm and stirred the hair from her shoulders and suddenly she felt a new lightness. The crisis had passed. The girls were safe; already she was on her way back to them. Her father would be surprised to see her again so soon.

“What’s your son’s name?” she asked.

Nicole had devised a game. They raced across the top of the slope, from one piling to the other, crossing paths. Tara began to sing to herself again. So the fox and his wife, without any strife, they cut up the goose with a fork and a knife. She was beginning to feel hungry. Soon she would ask Grandpa for carrots.

Marian could see them up ahead. The girls were running, two shadowy forms joining together, amoebic, indiscernible, until they pulled apart again. Her father was sitting midway up the slope, and Marian was pained to see how tiny he seemed, washed up on this great bleached highway like a bone or pebble, a bit of driftwood. All her worry about what he must think of her drained away and left simply this: her father who needed her, who would soon be leaving.

“There,” she said urgently to Willy, who was already gliding toward them.

Cars blasted past, each its own punch of sound. Trucks bore down on them and roared away with a loud and terrible din. When Francis closed his eyes, the noise seemed to become a wall of water, boiling and churning, hurtling forward with a force so great that even out of its path, he could be knocked off his feet. He called the children, but they were like children at the beach, intent on their play and unafraid in a way that made him call their names again. Come closer. Closer. The cars and trucks sped on, grim-faced and steely, a current too fast and powerful for him to see properly. Was Marian in one? Another? He could not pick out faces, could not do anything but hold to the sound of his grandchildren laughing, laughing as though nothing could ever harm them, while he closed his eyes against the blur of speed. It rushed past like the torrent of years that had carried away his children and left him waiting by the side of the road for one to circle back and find him.

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