She gripped the door handle of their twelve-year-old Jaguar when she saw the red lights of slowing cars at this midnight hour. A squeak slipped from her throat as she pressed a sandaled foot on the floorboard and he grumbled, “I see them, I see them.”
“But I always see them first.”
The Pasadena Freeway’s hairpin turns were treacherous. Stopped cars sometimes appeared to come out of nowhere, the sharp curves preventing a driver from seeing the wall of red before it was too late. A driver had to be firm on toes, anticipate the dangerous spots.
The play at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown, L.A., ended surprisingly late. The show had been enjoyable, a comedy of errors made even better because the tickets were given to them by her husband’s coworker in the bank’s real estate department. Traffic was surprisingly heavy even for a Saturday night. She’d been sweating when he honked the horn going through the Figueroa Tunnels, afraid of the cars to her left and right. The lanes were narrower than on most Southern California freeways because there was no room for expansion.
Putting her fingers on the cold glass, she craned her neck to see the old houses at Heritage Square. For years she passed by on her way to school and never learned the exit to get to the park. The insides of the Victorian houses culled from decaying Los Angeles neighborhoods were left to her imagination. There was a new one there – white siding, green shutters on two stories of windows, a black door. Moonlight lit the homes. They were ghostly in their natural states of emptiness.
“Just needs a white picket fence,” she said more to herself than to him but he heard.
“Quaint and predictable can be beautiful.”
The car swished to the left and then to the right. She forgot to keep her eyes on the road and the turns made her a little ill. As old as she was, she still got car sick. The window came down with a press of a button and a whoosh of air came inside. She breathed in the chilly night. Cool for midsummer.
He chuckled, “Please, you hate predictability. It’s why you left your job. You wanted the excitement of living hand to mouth.”
“I left because my mother died and there was nobody else to take care of the kids.”
Their ten year anniversary was in two weeks. She bought him a modest Rolex watch. Can a Rolex ever be modest? She’d saved up for it, cutting a few indulgences here and there such as making sandwiches for the kids instead of having them buy at school, picking up canned coffee from Von’s instead of stopping at Starbucks, and buying clothes at Target instead of Nordstrom’s.
They passed through Highland Park and Lincoln Heights. Only one time in her life did she actually get off the 110 before hitting the end of the freeway at Arroyo Seco Parkway and that was to check out a new condo that had gone up at the entrance to Highland Park. The place was gorgeous, the price fit her first year lawyer’s salary, but the impoverished surrounding neighborhood rubbed against her Pasadena self. She bought the Jag instead and lived in an Arcadia apartment until she met her husband. The idea of a condo filled with her books, a computer, and silence, almost brought tears to her eyes. A flush of well-learned shame followed.
The car swerved around another curve, the traffic breaking up. She shut her eyes, mocking sleep, like she often did.
“I called the sitter,” he said. “She’ll be here on Saturday at the usual time. I know it’s not the actual day of the anniversary but…”
“Makes no difference to me.”
He turned on the music, zipping around stations. The easy listening came first, followed by the oldies, then the top hits, finally landing on Led Zeppelin at the rock station.
“Is that ‘Stairway to Heaven?’”
“I always think of–”
“Whoa!!” He slammed on the brakes and she put her hands out. The car’s tires screeched and a thump bumped beneath them, and she could tell they were spinning so she screamed, continuing to hold on to the dash, closing her eyes, thinking they were going to die and god damn it why didn’t she get the trust signed last week like she wanted and Jesus Christ, she wasn’t going to see her little angels again, and just before they hit, just before she was supposed to say, “I love you,” like all the movies say she is supposed to, she reached to him and said, “No such thing as fucking picket fences.”
They slammed hard against the metal railing of the center divider to amazing silence. In minutes she realized the quiet wasn’t real because traffic continued on the other side of the freeway. Cars all around were only in the process of slowing. They sat in their crunched sedan facing the wrong way. They could be seen at least. Perchance they were in a place where the curve didn’t block views. Everyone stopped. Seeing white lights coming toward her was even more frightening than red. She looked outside, out her husband’s open window, and in the middle of the freeway was a massive black animal. A dog, a deer, a wolf, a big cat from the Zoo, maybe. Who knew what it was? How could a person possibly tell now?
Tears fell and she swallowed the lump in her throat, turning to her husband, “Are you okay?”
“Yes, yes…Christ.” He turned the key in the ignition. Miraculously the car started. He was breathing hard and looking in her direction. “Are you hurt?”
“I don’t think so. I thought we were going to die.”
“Maybe we did.” He opened the window and poked his head out. “Doesn’t look like heaven. Stinks just like the city I know and love.”
He eased the car around, cars all stopped dead. There were voices. People were out, milling, poking at the dead thing in the middle lane. An act of God, someone said. Unstoppable. Came out of nowhere.
Sitting back a moment, he waited. Reached over and held her hand, “Picket fences? We’re about to die and you’re still thinking of those stupid houses?”
She laughed a little and shrugged. “An epiphany at the moment of death.”
“Stupid-ass epiphany. We’re living the picket fence life, baby. We got everything anyone could ever hope for.”
“Of course we do. It’s just what I wanted. What I dreamed about when I graduated. I don’t know what I meant.” She smiled and squeezed his hand back. People were getting back into their cars. A flare burned around the dead creature. Smoke snaked upwards.
“I’ll call the insurance company in the morning. Miracle we don’t need a tow.”
The empty houses had long faded into the night behind them. Up ahead was the first of several South Pasadena exits. The neighborhoods there were filled with Victorian houses, houses that had people inside, children in beds, bikes waiting to be ridden, swing sets in backyards, cars in garages, and white picket fences with their pointy tops and rusty nails.
The car took the last of the exits and disappeared to the left, white exhaust enveloping them. Their last twenty dollars in their wallets would pay for the sitter.