The Wayside

by Greta Igl

 

 

They drove down Highway 16, Leslie lost in that half-conscious daydreamy state, her head against the back of the car seat as Mark drove and the hills and the woods whizzed past. The crisp, early autumn air billowed in through the open windows. Outside, the sun shined down mirror-bright. In July, such sun would be unbearable, but September was softer, more forgiving.

 

She’d dreamed of David just two nights ago.

 

It was a blur now, the dream, something about David trying to see her or contact her or maybe she’d tried to contact him. But just thinking about David had left her with that unsettled feeling. She figured it was because she and Mark were coming to Wehler’s Crossing, one of the tourist spots dotting the Wisconsin River. After all this time, she still remembered how David had shown it to her, how eager he’d been to share it. It was in Wehler’s Crossing that she’d fallen in love with him.

 

Mark broke into her thoughts. “Wayside ahead. One mile. You need to stop?”

 

Leslie shook her head. “I’m fine.”

 

At the side of the road, a hill rose up and the road cleaved its way through the sandstone heart. The cool shadow and ochre stripes and towering walls looked familiar. A faded memory told her they were getting close. They came out from the far side of the hill and into the open. A stand of jack pine staggered, found its feet, and grew into a full-fledged forest.

 

Then she saw it: the wayside.

 

She remembered it like time had melted away: the curving half-moon driveway, the two outhouse buildings tucked into the woods on the hill, the pines with their bottom branches shaved off. How the sap had crusted over the trees’ wounds, but the top branches were heavy with cones. And the soft fragrance of the bed of rust-red pine needles where David had spread his blanket. The smell of his soap and crushed pine needles filled her memory, his warm skin against hers as they made love. They’d stopped there just for that, so caught up in each other and the woods and the fun that they couldn’t wait. After, they’d worried about getting caught and had pulled on their clothes, laughing. She’d drunk ice cold water from the kelly green pump. David had teased her as he’d worked the handle.

 

A lifetime had passed for all of them.

 

The driveway was now blocked off at both ends; a heavy cable with a sign said simply CLOSED. No hint of explanation. Beyond the cable, the road had grown choked with wispy grass that struggled to make a home in the cracked blacktop. The clean boundaries, the undergrowth hacked back around the edges, the tall grass on one end mowed to make a lawn -- all gone, so dramatically different that Leslie wasn’t sure this was the place she remembered, even though she knew that it was. The water pump, now rusted, stood snarled with grass. The sturdy brown picnic tables were somehow gone. Even the tan and brown outhouse buildings had been demolished.

 

Her eyes and mind registered her loss, then even the present moment was gone, trailing behind them as they rocketed down the road. If she’d been alone, she would have driven back, let the bittersweet of the passing fill her. But she wasn’t. There was Mark and he’d never understand. So she stared out the window and coddled her hollowness. Part of her past had been erased.

 

The silence in the car stretched. She wanted to say something about the wayside, but didn’t dare. They wouldn’t fight. That wasn’t Mark’s way. But his knowing would unfurl problems. A smudge of hurt would darken his eyes. She’d have to live with the fact that she’d put it there. She knew Mark and his quiet ways. The shadow would live there a long time.

 

The past, the wayside, David. It didn’t matter.

 

The miles flew by. They came upon open farmland. Leslie stared at the blur of corn. Mark drove and hummed along with the radio, his happiness intact in blissful ignorance.

 

She’d loved him. Dear David. Her funny, passionate David. Now even the traces were gone, except in her memory.

 

The corn flew by. The sun sank toward the fringed tassels on the horizon. She gave Mark’s hand a gentle squeeze.

 

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Greta Igl’s short fiction has been published by an assortment of literary magazines and anthologies, including Every Day Fiction, Boston Literary Magazine, and Word Riot. Her short story, “In Limbo” was nominated for the 2009 storySouth Million Writers award. She is currently at work on her novel, Jamieson’s Folly.