Fiction: Overpass

This story comes from my collection, School Police, available now.


Anne Wondra was eighteen and Ken Pierce was thirty-five. She was beautiful and had a face that fuzzed out of focus for Ken, like a dream. Ken met her at a bar, they talked, she showed him her fake ID, and she told him she ran by his house every three or four days. One time, in June, he called to her when he saw her, she came over, and he asked her out. She agreed, they went to a movie and three weeks later he took her virginity. He only met her at night, only when she wasn’t seeing her friends. He would never meet her parents. He would never see her bedroom and never tell her he loved her, which he did.
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On the first day of August, she told her father that she was spending the night at a friend’s and went to his house. Ken was waiting in the back yard. They lay in the sun like two Dutch pancakes, oiled and slick. Then they went inside and took a nap. Her skin was soft, her hair stuck up in back and lay in strands, wet with lotion and sweat. It lay in a halo around her. Her stomach was flat and muscular, her legs were long and thin and, as if to call attention to her youth, she painted her toenails a pink that was redolent of flamingos and had fingernails as red as a tequila sunrise.

“Ken,” she said, “I’m hungry.” He noticed that it was the first time she had talked all day. Her silence was lazy. She was languid. They had not made love that day, just lazed around the house like an old couple. Ken’s heart pounded in his ears. He could see the future as if in a glass: she would leave him today.

He got up and cooked some boxed fettuccine with mushrooms. He brought it back to her and put it on the bed. He shook her awake and she rolled and looked up at him. “I think I’m going to go home,” she said, finally, after looking at the food.

The noodles congealed.

“What?” Ken asked.

“I don’t want to do this anymore,” she said. She sat up and ate. The sun peering through the Venetian blinds tattooed tiger stripes onto her stomach.

Ken said nothing.

“OK?” she asked.

Ken nodded. She left an hour later, after eating and sleeping, and didn’t kiss him goodbye.

In the dark minutes after her departure, he waited for the sinking feeling and then the feeling of closure. With her it was simple: he was someone tall and older that she could build memories upon. For him it was a strange, fleeting and addictive brush with youth and beauty and in that beauty he found what he thought to be love.

That night he went the gym. He did crunches, presses, drank water and eyed the women on the floor. He tried to prowl but something was broken so he limped. The air was oppressive in the gym and no one wanted to work out. They all stared at the television high above them or, Ken thought, at Him. They could tell. He was thirty-five, he had slept with beauty and lost it forever. He was quit of beauty.

He thought about the other officers in the school district where he worked. Ken was school police. The rest of the school police were fat bastards, useless. He knew he was better and hadn’t just gotten lucky with Anne. He had big biceps, a flat stomach, all his hair. Brown eyes, a dark complexion. He was handsome, not perfect, but all his problems were small and manageable. His hands would sweat on odd occasions. He had a higher voice than most.

After the gym, he went home and drank six beers and fell asleep on the floor. He woke at three and went into his bedroom.

Her scent hung over the bed like cooking. He desired to see her. He called her house, but hung up like a teenage boy. As soon as he hung up, the phone started to ring. He dreaded that her family had Caller-ID and that they knew about him already. He imagined her father, a man not much older than him, asking about a strange midnight call while they were all eating breakfast.

The next morning he called in sick to work.

At about noon, Ken went out to the yard and lay in the sun. He folded up Anne’s chair first. He touched the slats and imagined that the soft plastic still held her shape. When they first met, he was convinced nothing would happen. He had had many women before, but these, in his opinion, were weak and lonely and had settled for him out of weariness. He worked on himself obsessively, trying to reach the perfect mix of muscle, charm, and seductiveness, but he constantly failed. Before Anne, he went to work, came home, went to the gym, the bars, the laundromat, the grocery, and talked to women who gave him fake phone numbers or one or two nights of tepid conversation and then, eventually, sex. He never had to ask for anything, and was never at a loss. With Anne, he thought he had reached the end of an insipid, fake Tunnel of Love ride, the boat ratcheting to a stop, the carnival looming around him, the promise, after ten minutes in the dark, of a full day, of a full lifetime of palpable joy.

He felt that he could give Anne everything. He had a job, a house, and a good, calm future ahead of him. School police for one more year, then real police, then sergeant somewhere. He imagined coming home to her and taking his hat off, asking what was for dinner.

Thoughts of her hung around him. Thoughts of her stuck to his skin. He knew he was sunburned when his skin felt cold, almost, tingling. He went inside and lay on the floor again. He ran his hands down his stomach, along his legs. He lifted up and bent himself in half on the floor. He did mid-air bicycle kicks for five minutes. Then he called her.

“Anne,” he said, winded.

“Anne,” he said again. Silence, just the wind somewhere, then a siren that he suddenly heard in stereo. It was passing her house, then passing his. He was so close to her that things moving in her world echoed then collided with things in his. That’s how he felt. He felt as if his voice, her name: Anne, Anne was rippling out over the city, changing it.

Then the line went dead. “Anne,” he said again. He put on his uniform and went into work. He was chewed out for wasting the day in the sun.

“I needed the fresh air,” he said to his supervisor.

“So did I, Pierce, but I was here,” she said. She put him on the night watch at the high schools. Sixteen trips to each school during an eight hour shift, a circuit, a cursory inspection, radio back, and move onto the next one. His heart fell and fluttered when he passed Anne’s old high school. Near the end of the night, around 3am, he started seeing her dart in and out of shadows. When six o’clock came and the sun started to rise above Del Ray, he drove home drunk with fear.

Then came the weekend. For the next two nights, he watched television with the sound turned down. He grilled hot dogs and drank coffee and sat in the sun. The days, which began at noon and ended at about 10pm, were long and languid, flaccid, lacking distinction. Sometimes the sun would get too bright and Ken would go back inside and sit on the couch. He tried to read the newspaper. By Sunday, the paper was scattered all over the floor, ripped from where his flip-flops had trodden, crumpled under the bed. Every thirty minutes or so, every time a program on television finished, he would masturbate. He thought he was sick and went to an urgent care center in the mall.

“I’d like to culture for strep throat,” the doctor said.

“I don’t have a cough. I’m just so tired,” he said.

The doctor nodded. “I’d like to test for mononucleosis,” she said. Ken nodded.

“That sounds about right,” he said.

He was looking for something to take his mind off of things. He drove back to his house. Above the freeway there was a railroad bridge. Painted on the bridge were the words I love you, Merica. As he was sitting on his couch, touching the newspapers with his bare feet and inhaling deeply the hot air coming through the patio door, he was struck. He got up, went into the bathroom closet, and took out the brown spray paint can he had used to prime his car when he scratched it against a drive-thru. He drove up to a railroad crossing, in the city, and parked a few blocks away. Then, with the spray can in his pocket, in the rising Sunday heat, he walked down the railroad tracks.

***

Del Ray was a flat city, and the tracks must have run through the flattest part. He could make out houses, ahead, barely. It looked like a different country. The sidings were black stained rock, the rails were rusted on the bottom and polished where the wheels rode. The polish shone in the sun.

Ken began walking slowly, trying to maintain his footing. He was wearing sandals, shorts and a T-shirt. He kept the paint in his pocket. He had lost the cap and occasionally he heard a hiss when he touched the can wrong and shot out some paint onto his waist. He rubbed the paint off as best he could with his shirt, but after a while he gave up. Finally, he just carried the can in his hand.

He recalled a time when he and a friend, now dead, had walked along the railroad tracks in King City, where he grew up. He remembered seeing a deer along the tracks, perfectly slender, muscular and young, poke up out of the brush and flash its eyes. The friend had died in a camping accident: beer and a cliff, someone was playing the guitar when he fell. The story was when the people he went camping with returned to the campsite after finding him dead, the guitar’s strings were all broken. That was years ago. He rattled the paint can in his hand and thought of snakes. He thought he saw Anne in the brush, poking up and flashing her eyes.

Ahead, low hills slung up on both sides of the tracks. He looked behind him to see if a train was coming. He had been walking for an hour and hadn’t found an overpass. He thought he saw something in the distance, a glint, but he decided it was the signal post. Finally, he saw the red light at the top of the post: no trains. Along one of the tracks, shaded lightly by the trees. He came to a big rock and sprayed his name KEN in two-foot letters. Then he wrote ANNE, then crossed it out, then sprayed it again, bigger, an affirmation.

The sun shone through an old fence to his right. It stippled the ground and brush with tiger stripes. The earth was tan, like Anne’s skin. It was getting hotter. Somewhere, behind the heavy brush and trees on the left side of the tracks, someone was shooting a basketball. The ball was full of air, Ken could tell, and it echoed with each shot, bouncing into the rim with a twang, then coming back, sometimes in the bushes, sometimes a rebound on the court. He then remembered he was probably not fifty feet on either side from houses and pools and parks. But it was quiet, and he was walking, and he was alone.

The hours in the squad car came back to him, patrolling schools, sitting with his partner talking about women, the only topic that they cared to discuss. His partner was quiet and a prude, so Ken liked to stir him up. As his love of Anne grew, he stopped describing the relationship in details that might have made a good movie and eventually stopped talking about her at all. He made up another woman, Lisa, to which he ascribed Anne’s traits. He embellished, added things that weren’t true and hid a few things that were: love, midnight thoughts of marriage, a desire to meet the parents, her eyes on the only morning he spent with her, gazing up from the pillow, big and beautiful and his.

He came to something dead on the tracks. It was mangled between two ties, bones poking through a deflated hide. He looked at it closely and saw it had been an opossum. It had a long rat tail. The acrid smell rose up to meet him as he passed it, and stayed with him for a time.

He created game plans in his head: he would call her that night, ask her to be friend, tell her he still wanted to see her. He would tell her that he loved her, that much was true, and maybe she would come back to him, boomerang style.

He could hear the freeway, a snake hiss like a river. He’d soon be at the overpass. He kept walking, the smell of the dead thing still with him. He lifted off his shirt and stuffed it into his shorts. He was sweating, the sun was coming down and his tan was noticeably darker, his muscles standing out. Then he heard the train. It had snuck up on him. He had not heard the whistle. He jumped off into the brush and rolled down the embankment. It roared by on the opposite track.

He was panting, cut by stones and brush. He sat looking at his dirty feet, unsure as to what caused him to jump off as the train clacked past, the sun spiking through the beams of the car carriers. He shook his head and coughed. The train clattered away.

He wanted to do something reckless. He thought of lying between the rails as the train passed, but only fleetingly. He didn’t want suicide. He had a life worth living.

Ken kept walking, but not on the tracks. He was on the steep embankment. He didn’t trust himself on the tracks, and in a haze he almost didn’t trust himself on the overpass. But he would make it. He walked back to look for the spray can. It had fallen from his hand during the train rush. He wasn’t behind rows of houses now. He saw a warehouse and a parking lot through the trees, and where the lot stopped and the dead scrub began, he saw the white of a discarded tennis shoe. Now, the stones of the embankment had taken on a yellow glow and the sun had reached its apex and was slowly swinging down. The trees that lined the tracks were dark, the tracks themselves were silver. Ahead, the overpass glowed gray.

He reached the overpass. There was a tall, curved fence over him. If a train came, he would have nowhere to go. He was inches from the tracks. Ken looked both ways, down the track, up the track: no trains. Cars whispered underneath him. He put down the spray can and took off his shorts. He stood stark on the overpass, looking down. They probably only saw his chest from below, foreshortened, his tan dark against the blue of the sky.

On his wrist, in black felt pen, he had written these words: I do not love Anne Wondra. He copied the message onto the inside of the railroad bridge with the spray paint, where no one could see it except passing engineers roaring through at high, hot noon.

***

The journey from is always shorter than the journey to. Ken Pierce walked back to his car along the service road, not along the tracks. He kept his head down and could still feel the dull heat against his legs and buttocks, the honking from below and the police car that had stopped below him, idled on the berm, and then continued on.

He got into the car and drove home with the windows down and the radio playing.

Every woman who ran along side him on the sidewalk looked like Anne. Every flash of blonde from every outdoor café caught his attention. The buildings had a bright cast to them, like the rocks along the tracks, brightened unbearably by the sun. He felt light.

When he came home, he sat on the couch and retraced his steps. The long walk, the messages he wrote: I do not love Anne Wondra. Slowly, as the sun went down and he massaged his legs and feet, he finally knew that eventually and inevitably it would be true.

Photo by Oleg Kuzmin on Unsplash

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