Into the Burbs
by Sean Hower
“I don’t know why you we couldn’t wait for my cell phone battery to recharge,” Frank lamented as he hung his arm out the window of Liz’s Stanza. He stared at the shadows that grew and shrank over his skin as they drove beneath the streetlights. He began to angle his hand so that it would ride the cool, night wind.
“Because you go everywhere with that thing,” Liz said as she sliced across two lanes of traffic to make the on ramp for the interstate business loop. She left a barrage of horns in her wake. The interstate was the fastest way to Old Town, and the only way she knew to get to Dante’s. She bullied her way into the fast lane and settled in at a comfortable eighty-five miles an hour.
“It’s okay to put down the gizmos,” she continued, sending Frank a sidelong taunt. “They’ll still be there when we get back.”
“You’re just mad because you fragged your hard drive and didn’t have a backup of any of your school work,” Frank said. “Technology is your friend. Embrace it. Love it. Sell your soul to it!”
Though Liz liked Frank, she couldn’t let the software geek think he had won their little exchange. She reached across and playfully poked at his ribs. “Technocrat! Ya’ll are weird.”
Frank squirmed to evade the assault. “Hey, we can get gas there,” he said, pointing to a sign advertising a gas station at the next exit.
Joe who was curled up in the back seat, poked his head up front. “No way,” he announced, putting his arms around both Liz and Frank as though he were about to sell them a used car. “You’ve got a quarter tank of gas, that’s enough to get us there. Remember? There’s that station on the corner, a block from Dante’s. You can fill up there after you drop me off.” He gave each of them a broad grin.
“If you’re twitching that badly, you can get one of those instant cappuccinos they have at the station,” Liz offered up, sliding into the far right lane to make the exit to the station. “My baby’s thirsty.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me! Liz,” Joe leaned closer to her, “you know what they put in that stuff? Sugar, _non_-dairy creamer, mystery oils, dipotassium phosphate, mono and diglyerides, lactylate, lecithin, artificial this and artificial that, and whatever else they can think of. Instant coffee is the last ingredient. Think about it.” He shivered.
“It’s good for you,” Liz said with a smirk, knowing full well his point was valid. If it wasn’t the best, there was no point.
“Look at it this way, Lizzi Dear,” Joe began, “would you drink Smirnoff when there was a bottle of Skyy waiting for you?”
Liz pulled out of the turn lane. “Point taken,” she said, patting Joe on the cheek. “Now sit back, Dear. Your twitching is making me nervous.” She cut back over to the fast lane.
“Liz,” Frank said, grabbing for the ’Oh-Shit! Bar’ that was just above the passenger-side door. “You’re going to kill us.”
“Bah! My baby will take care of us,” she said, petting the dashboard affectionately. “Isn’t that right, Sweetie.”
“What are those signs?”
A pair of Slow, Construction Ahead signs raced by.
“They started on this already?” Liz said. She strained to see the extent of the damage up ahead.
“Started what?” Joe asked, a nervous tinge in his voice. He pulled himself back up to the front seats.
Reduced Speed Ahead. 45 mph. Radar Enforced.
“Road construction. They were shutting down part of the interstate at night for some kind of repairs. But it wasn’t supposed to be until the fourth.”
Fines Double in Work Zone.
“Ah, Liz? It’s the fifteenth,” Frank reported, showing her his watch.
“No way,” Liz said, glancing at the display. She had lost all sense of time this semester.
“Great,” Liz sighed. She dropped her car out of race mode into a painfully slow fifty miles an hour, and then to a spiteful twenty. She stared at each construction sign with disdain as they crawled by.
There weren’t very many cars on the interstate, but as a line of orange cones gradually whittled away each left lane, traffic began to clutter. Liz waited as long as she could before she merged, running over a few cones with each last second maneuver and receiving a few hand gestures from the other drivers.
The detour led them down from the interstate and on to a four-lane road that wound through a cluster of trees and small parks. In a few blocks, they were at an intersection waiting for a red light. A SuperMart was on the left-hand side of the road and a strip mall lined the right. Traffic was building and when the light finally turned green, there were twice as many cars queued than had taken the detour.
As they drove on, the road twisted in an “s“ and passed through a couple of major intersections. Then it narrowed to two lanes and traffic began to thin out. The storefronts and parking lots gave way to the high sound-barrier walls of suburban sprawl. Liz didn’t know anything about this part of town, except the blurred glimpses she would catch from the interstate as she sped off to somewhere else.
“Um, this can’t be the right way, Liz,” Frank said after a few minutes.
“Don’t worry. I’ve been keeping track of the direction we’re going in. If we take the next right we’ll be back on the interstate.”
Liz dropped to a speed that nearly took the turn on two wheels. They raced by a large stone monument announcing their arrival in Whispering Acres. Houses lined up around them like troops for roll call. Each earth-tone structure stood on its own postage-stamp yard not more than an arm’s length apart. The lawns were in different themes that spawned in clusters, with the most popular a variation on a pioneer concept: wooden wheel, pieces of rusting farm or mining equipment, and a boulder or two to suggest a frontier lifestyle.
“Is it much further Papa Smurf?” Joe asked anxiously fixating on each house as it sped by.
“Not far now,” Liz responded.
The road twisted in on itself several times, crossing first Rolling Hill Way, then Happy Valley Court, and then Green Oak Road. With each turn, Liz relied on her intuition and ignored the street names. They came to a four-way stop at Happy Oak Hill Drive. Liz first looked up and then down the street. The same rows of houses laced either side of the road. The same glossy SUV’s sat idly in the drives.
“Hmmmm,” Liz sighed. She didn’t want to be lost. She wanted to be drinking Cape Cods.
“We’re lost,” Frank said, looking around. “How much gas do we have?”
“Lost?” Joe’s voice boiled up from the back seat, quaking as though he had just hit puberty. “Say it ain’t so.”
“No we’re not,” Liz barked. “We just have to take a left here, and that should drop us off back at the main road.” She peeked down at the gas gauge. It still indicated a quarter tank. But she knew her car, and she knew that once it dropped this low, the gauge was useless. “And we’re fine on gas too.”
“You know, they have GPS for cars now,” Frank said, looking up into a night sky rendered flat by the city’s lights. “If you get lost, you just tell the computer where you are and where you want to go and it gives you instructions. It can even show you detours due to construction.”
Liz stared at Frank. She wanted to wipe the smug look off his face with a piece of sandpaper. It would, of course, be an act of tough love. “Bah,” she burst. “Paper maps are just as good.”
“But you can’t leave those at home, can you?” Frank said.
“And whose fault is that?” Liz asked. They both turned and looked at Joe. He had been job-hunting for the past few weeks and had left the map on the kitchen table.
“What? I need the extra money,” Joe said.
“Well, if I had my cell phone I could just call for help.”
Liz glared at Frank. “Don’t go there, techie-boy,” she said.
A woman was walking down the sidewalk toward their car. She was decked out in a polo shirt, slacks, and sneakers. Her hair and face were made up as though she were going out for a night on the town. She held her head slightly upward and to the side. She had two schnauzers in tow that were linked to her via a leather leash. Each dog wore doggie-pants and a doggie-polo with a blue scarf on one and a pink scarf on the other.
“Hey, let’s ask her for directions,” Frank said, pointing to the woman as she approached.
“We don’t need to ask for directions,” Liz said. “Geez, I’ve got everything under control. Just like a man to assume the woman can’t handle herself.”
“Okay. That’s it. No more sociology classes for you,” Frank said, pointing accusingly at her.
“Coffee,” Joe called out, his voice trailing off.
“Fine, we’ll ask,” Liz said, setting the car off in the woman’s direction. “But I’m just doing it to keep you quiet.”
“Excuse me, Ma’am,” Frank said as they pulled up beside the woman.
She startled as her two schnauzers pranced up to the car. They sniffed around, looked up at Frank with little smiles, and yipped.
“Yes?” the woman said, struggling to keep herself and her pets at least five feet away from the car. She looked like a frightened rabbit.
“We’re lost,” Frank began.
“We are not,” Liz interrupted, craning her head so that she could look at the woman. “We just, well, strayed from our path a bit,” she explained.
“We’re lost,” Frank continued, “and we need to get back to the interstate detour. Do you know how?”
“Oh,” the woman sighed. Her schnauzers continued to tug at their leashes. “Well, let me see. I’m not really sure, actually,” she said.
“Well, can you tell us how to get back to the main road?”
“Coffee,” Joe said.
The woman looked at Joe then back at Frank, vexed. “Well, now let me see.” And so she began to rattle directions back to the main road. Both Liz and Frank listened intently, confirming each step the woman detailed. When she finished, Frank thanked her and reached out to pet one of the schnauzers, but the woman pulled the friendly dog back with the leash. “Come along. We have to get home,” she said and set off at twice the pace she had been going.
Liz pulled a U-turn and began following the directions the woman had given them. First turning left, then making a right. The line of houses continued, unbroken.
“Hey, didn’t she say make a left at Winding Oak Place?” Frank asked as Liz made a right at a four-way stop.
“No, a left at Windy Oak Lane and a right at Winding Oak Place.”
“Coffee? Where are you?”
As they drove on, a high wall replaced the houses along the right side of the road. Two-foot high steel spikes spaced about a foot apart rose from the molded concrete. Barbed wire was strung across each spike and hummed with an electric charge. A line of thorny bushes hugged the base of the wall and inched nearly half way up its height. Floodlights pointed down onto the road, lighting it in a gray haze.
“I told you this was the wrong way,” Frank said, slapping his knee as he glanced about nervously. “Now who knows where we are. We should just turn around and head back the way we came.”
“Look, we’re not lost.” Liz could feel her patience withering away. Yeah, she loved Frank like a brother, but that wouldn’t stop her from thrashing him with the sofa pillows when they got back. “I’ve got a handle on things here. It’ll just be a few more minutes and we’ll be at the interstate again.”
“That’s what you said ten minutes ago, but we’re still lost. Stop over there,” Frank said, pointing to an entry gate he spotted up ahead.
“I need to stretch my legs.”
Liz eased her car up to the heavy iron gates that blocked the road. A brick guardhouse the size of a telephone booth divided the entry. Smoked glass windows were on three sides of the booth. A keypad jutted out from its left side. A squat brick monument about half as tall as the guardhouse sprouted up out of juniper bushes. Pleasant Escape Community was written out in a flowery, gold font. Brick colonial homes, the largest any of them had ever seen, lined the road beyond the gate. They were all the same design. They were all painted the same color. They all had the same barren lawn.
As Liz pulled up, a uniformed man opened the top half of a door on the right side of the guardhouse. At first glance, Liz thought he was a cop, but when she saw the plastic badge on his chest she realized he was just a security guard.
“State your business,” he said. He looked them over like a detective sizing up criminals brought in for questioning.
Copyright © 2004 by Sean Hower