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The Midwest

Ava Collopy

    Immediately after breakfast Shawna ran in and started yelling at Phil about “the incident” again where his son in law had been in her daughter’s—his stepdaughter’s—bed without permission.
    “...BUT NOTHING HAPPENED!” he said.
    “BUT HE WAS IN HER BED!” she said.
    “THAT’S NO EXCUSE!” she said then suddenly turned to Bridget, “What do you think?!”
    “I... I’ve got a job interview,” she said and rushed to the basement to change into her blue jeans and midnight blue work shirt then rushed out of the house, not wanting to get involved in the whole “he said/she said” dispute that made it look like both of them were exaggerating the facts of what did and did not happen. Bridget hadn’t been there when something did or didn’t happen and she had problems of her own besides. She knew better than to get involved in a family dispute anyway.
    She got in her white beater truck and drove to a small, one-story office building, filled out an application, and briefly talked with a woman in her back office with her two medium-sized black dogs. It worked in her favor that she got along well with dogs. She was set up for telemarketing in a small room with three other new employees and a seasoned angry black woman. After three hours she decided that it seemed like this was an operation that constantly turned new people in unpaid training over to get free labor so she grabbed her things and left. In exhaustion and boredom she retreated to a dinner at the nearest Perkin’s Diner, even though she really couldn’t afford to. After dinner she made one cup of coffee last as long as humanly possible then slowly went back to the house.
    When she returned she walked past the front door, sitting room, and dining area to the kitchen to see in the backyard Phil was bob-catting again, tearing up the backyard as his son Jackson stood nearby clearly irritated. Jackson’s girlfriend Kylie stood in the kitchen grinning. She said, “You know he didn’t put boards of plywood on the yard when he rolled it back there so he wrecked the whole lawn.”
    “Yeah, that sounds like Phil,” Bridget said. “He was haphazard when he had us move the fridge out and put a new one in, and the oven, and another fridge after the one stopped working. Every time I turn around I want to start singing Imelda May’s ‘Mayhem’.”
    “Yeah, I know,” she said almost laughing as Bridget leaned on the kitchen table and looked down at the mail between her right hand and Shawna’s purse.
    “A baby magazine addressed to Delilah?!” she said.
    “Oh really?” Kylie said with a country girl smile that matched her confident stance, blue jeans, and sweatshirt with her long light brown hair.
    “She’s only 16!”
    “Yeah, that’s not right. My dad said no babies until I’ve graduated college and my mom gave me a good talking to about those things so I know, you know, what I need to know to protect myself.”
    “Yeah, that sounds like my mom. This is just ridiculous—Delilah’s so talented... I mean, she excels in reading, writing, math, and she plays the keyboard. They really should be encouraging her to do something with her life. She shouldn’t be thinking about kids until she’s, maybe, 30.”
    “Yeah, after school. It’s so weird that Shawna would let her get that.”
    “Uh... yes and no. My mother was showing me her books on caring for babies when I was four yet she didn’t start teaching me to read until I was six, and then only because I had to get ready for school, like by law. I pretty much had to teach myself to read.”
    “Jeez, that’s weird.”
    “It’s weird but it’s sadly not all that uncommon. I mean, the first week I was here Shawna and hers threw a baby shower for a 19-year-old and no one was talking to the young woman about college or anything. And when I hinted that I thought it was a bad idea to celebrate a teenage pregnancy Phil just got mad at me and said, ‘They’re not teenagers—they’re both 19!’” she said as Kylie laughed.
    “You know when my friend Jenna was joining the Navy to get job training, the GI bill for college, health benefits, world travel, and so on many women practically ran up to her to preach to her about what a mistake she was making and how they didn’t understand how any female could join the military.”
    “Yeah, and when she graduated Boot Camp and later A School she didn’t get any Hallmark cards or anything. But girls I knew in high school that got pregnant and didn’t have abortions got cards, baby showers, the works. We didn’t even get cards for finishing high school. Women really get nothing for any accomplishments that don’t involve motherhood. Even weddings are celebrated mostly because everyone thinks babies will come from them.”
    “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
    “Yeah, there’s Mother’s Day, there’s no Professional Career Woman’s Day or Female College Graduate Day or anything like that.”
    “There’s Father’s Day but no Career Man’s Day.”
    “There’s only Father’s Day because there’s Mother’s Day, and no one needs a Career Man’s Day, working men and men’s education has never been a problem,” she said as Jackson stormed in and off to his room.
    “Uh-oh, time to go be supportive girlfriend, he’s my ride to school,” Kylie said and followed him. Bridget smiled and returned to the basement.
    The next morning she got up early and tip-toed by Phil in the front room sleeping on the couch and snoring loudly. She slipped through the living room and into the kitchen and began making breakfast as quietly as possible. She looked around for her eggs, cereal mix, and other food and couldn’t find any of it. “Oh no,” she said under her breath, “he ‘re-organized’ the kitchen again, just like his mom when I was staying with her—oh my god!” After searching for her food for several minutes she shrugged her shoulders and ate whatever looked like something she might buy. She rushed to the upstairs bathroom as Shawna came down and Phil began waking up. She brushed her teeth, used the toilet, and showered then rushed back down to the basement as she heard them fighting again. She rushed out the garage and down the driveway to her dusty white beater Ford truck and drove 15 miles away to the Coon Rapids, Minnesota Temp Agency and walked into the front desk.
    “Hi, it’s me again. Do you have any work this week?”
    “Uh... no. We might have a little work next week,” the receptionist said.
    “That’s what you said last week.”
    “Well that’s how it is. You know we have a lot of men coming in here with qualifications. Excuse me,” she said and walked some files into a back room as Bridget threw up her hands in frustration.
    She drove back to the house with her mind already made up. She checked the oil and added a quart then checked the water and antifreeze by sticking a small tester into the radiator then added half a gallon of water. She turned the engine on and ran it hot then turned it off and checked the transmission fluid and added half a quart.
    She entered the house casually and used their computer to check her e-mails by the light of the lamp she’d bought. She went to Google Maps and printed out a couple of pages with the ink cartridge she’d bought then made some notes in her U.S. driving atlas as Shawna and Phil continued to argue in the kitchen as they passed each other between cigarette breaks, his on the back porch and hers in the garage. Bridget tried to ignore it then went back downstairs and tidied up her loose things into her two suitcases, two backpacks, and her laptop bag.
    She went back upstairs and began looking for her food and gathering it together in two brown paper sacks then shoved them into a cupboard as Shawna and Phil brought their argument in again. They wound up asking her about things and she counseled them once again, nearly quoting psychology and counseling books she’d read over the years. She sympathized with both of them; Shawna for her dad never being around and her mother being an alcoholic and Phil for having an abusive step dad and a terrible mother who was impossible to be around, and then bit her tongue before she’d say too much again and would make him mad at her for telling the truth about his mother. But she had said too much and he walked off and pranced around giving her the silent treatment. He’d never done that before. It made her wish he and his family had done that all along. Between their cigarette breaks she snuck her bags of food out to the truck, then her two suitcases, and then her two backpacks and laptop bag. She started the truck and drove through Anoka County and into Hennepin County then drove into Saint Paul to take in the Twin Cities one last time.
    She drove through Saint Paul and its comfortable neighborhoods and classic buildings with nice architecture and across the Mississippi River on First Avenue Bridge into picturesque downtown Minneapolis with its bright tall buildings silhouetted against the dusk sky. Then she hit I-35 West and went South for two hours while listening to her mixed Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart CDs to relax. When she could she pulled over to get out a fleece blanket and a towel to put over herself since the heater was broken.
    The night was dark and the sky heavy with clouds. As she drove ever lower she reached beyond the shadow of the clouds. Hours later on a desolate stretch of open freeway the truck’s engine began having problems. She checked to make sure the gauge wasn’t in the red and it was fine. Even still she pulled over and stepped out of the towels and blankets she’d piled over her into the freezing windy night to check the radiator. She slipped under the engine with a flashlight to make sure the new freeze plug she’d hammered in was still in place and it was. Then the engine wouldn’t start. She pumped the gas pedal when starting and that made it go for a while, then it shut off again and she coasted onto the shoulder of the freeway. After a few tries she got it going again just to have it shut off and she coasted onto the shoulder again. Then it wouldn’t start at all. She popped the hood and went outside. The engine was making a hissing noise but she couldn’t tell what was wrong. She knew it wasn’t electrical but that was about all she knew. She got back in the truck and bundled up again. She didn’t know if she was in Minnesota or Iowa since state borders in the Midwest weren’t marked as well as borders elsewhere in the country. She breathed deeply then sighed. “Well,” she said to herself, “at least I’m not still stuck with those crazy people in Minnesota,” and she meant it. They reminded her of the Verve Pipe lyrics:
    “The only thing you ever gave were bad directions/
    I’d say it to your face but I can’t find you.”
    Out there she felt relief because if she was on her own she could handle whatever came up because she could remain calm and drama-free. The nearest city lights looked about 20 miles away but so be it, she would think of something. She wanted to take a nap actually but it was too cold for sleep. She thought about putting on her heaviest jacket and piling clothes over her legs when a state trooper pulled in behind her. She slowly got out and walked towards the back of her truck. “Are you broken down then?” he said.
    “Yep, sure am. So do you know if I’m in Minnesota or Iowa?”
    “You’re in Iowa,” he said and gave her the exact mile marker. She thanked him and said, “I can take it from here,” then got back in the truck. She called AAA and they sent a tow truck within the hour. The driver was a tall slim but sturdy man with dark blonde hair and an infectious smile. As he drove her to the nearest auto shop with her truck in tow they talked about trips they’d taken; she’d driven that truck over to the West Coast, up to British Columbia, Canada and down to Baja California Mexico, hitting Seattle, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas in between. He’d driven his old Camero to the East Coast, Ontario, Canada, and Coahuila, Mexico. They talked about trips by driving, by Greyhound bus, by train, and by plane. They loved travel and would scrape together whatever money they could to escape to anywhere new. She talked about dance classes she’d tried: Rumba, Tango, Waltz, and the hot dance instructors—tall muscular men, a blonde Russian woman, and a married couple fighting that she didn’t get into it with. He talked about fishing and camping. “You’ve never gone?” he said, “You seem like the type.”
    “I grew up on a farm. I helped my dad and brothers hammer up barns and work sheds. I had enough of that and just want city life. In fact I’ve been meaning to go to college so I could get supervisory or managerial work, you know, not real work,” she said and they laughed.
    “I’m Jack Douglass by the way.”
    “I’m Bridget Shaughnessy, nice to meet you.”
    Eventually they pulled into the nearest AAA-approved auto shop, in Clear Lake, where she left the truck. Jack took her to the nearest AAA-approved hotel and waited in line with her to make sure she got the AAA stranded discount, knocking 30% off the price.
    In her room she took a hot shower then fell into a warm, soft bed. She picked up her phone and thought about calling her friends for some support but felt awkward knowing how much more together they all were so she just put the phone down. A while later there was a knock on the door. She answered it to find Jack, freshly showered and shaved, wearing nice slacks and a casual wool sweater. He smiled warmly and said, “Would you like to go to dinner?”
    “Sure, just one moment,” she said and closed the door. She popped out of her old Lara Croft Tomb Raider T-shirt and boxer shorts for bed and into tight jeans, a T-shirt, and a leather jacket then went out with him. They walked to the nearest Perkin’s Diner and had a nice big meal followed by a home-baked pie for dessert. Then they walked back to the hotel, “You know, there’s a great view from my room,” she lied, “do you want to see it?”
    “Sure,” he said, playing along, and they ran up to her room. Within five minutes they were kissing and had their hands all over each other. They turned off the overhead light but left the bathroom light on for some soft lighting, took out some condoms, and had fun taking turns on top. They cuddled for a while then separated so they could sleep soundly.


    In the morning she awoke early, left him in bed, and went downstairs. She ate two complimentary continental breakfasts before she started working on the situation. She sat down in the lobby with black coffee and spent the next few hours making phone calls and sorting everything out while Sheila, the middle-aged blonde woman at the front counter, helped her out as much as she could.
    She found out the truck’s engine was beyond repair but the mechanic knew a guy who might buy the deadweight vehicle so he could put a new engine in it and sell it. There was a U-Haul nearby but AAA offered discounts on Penske truck rentals. She only needed a pickup truck or smaller but the smallest truck they had at the moment was a 24-foot Mack truck and it wasn’t cheap. The woman on the phone worked out as many discounts as she could, even an AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) discount because Bridget had previously been on her dad’s AAA policy and he was with AARP. Then she just needed to find a way to get to the Penske place in Mason City. Sheila handed her a phone book and there were a few cabs listed. When she called one was out of town, one was sick, one might be able to be there in several hours, and one was busy but could pick her up in about an hour.
    She waited for the taxi while drinking more coffee and appreciating how very nice everyone in Iowa was. It was about a seven mile and 15 minute ride into Mason City with two pleasant working class women listening to a classic rock radio station. They chatted about the weather, music, and the fact Minnesotans were crazy and their road systems made no sense at all whereas Iowan roads made perfect sense. She handed them a $20 bill then walked into the Penske place with her three credit cards in hand, hoping that they’d approve or take pity on her.
    20 minutes later she was driving back to Clear Lake using a small map Sheila had given her. At the auto shop she talked with the shop owner and handed him $50 then met with his friend, an older man, and shook hands on a deal to sell her truck for $500. She handed him the title and he handed her the money.
    She moved her two suitcases, two backpacks, laptop bag, bicycle, helmet, tool set, spare tires and inner tubes, and various truck engine supplies, the jack, the five-gallon gas can, the wool blanket and emergency and first aid kit, and everything else from the pickup to the Penske truck then ran into Jack. They walked to Perkin’s again and he bought her lunch, then they walked back to the auto shop. He led her into the back room of the auto shop to an office that was comparatively posh so they could have sex again. Half an hour later they smiled and waved at each other as they drove their separate ways.
    She drove to I-35 south for about 113 miles and 1 hour and 40 minutes to Des Moines while she blasted herself with heat, an incredible luxury by then. She put on one of her mixed Garth Brooks CDs. It was so black that all she could see was well lit freeways and the fact she was driving through a very flat expanse of land. In Des Moines she took an exit onto I-80 west. The rest of the approximately 140-mile and two hour and 10 minute drive through Iowa was uneventful. She snacked on food she had rather than stopping for food and peed by the freeway. She stopped in gas stations marked with green for diesel fuel availability and used those bathrooms when she needed to. The gas tank was huge and the cost stunning. She knew the $500 would be used up by or before she reached Oregon and she might have to start charging gas on one of her three credit cards and hope to find a job to pay them off.
    As she entered the late night she drove into Omaha, Nebraska, a place that looked full of freeways and tons of big rigs and therefore industry. Up until then Nebraska had been like the state that didn’t really exist to her, just as Wyoming had been before she’d gone through it a few years before. It was flat just like Sheila had said, but she was always happy to be anywhere new. Somewhere in Nebraska in the dead of the black night she pulled over for a snack and a big rig smashed off the driver’s side rearview mirror as it passed at 65 miles per hour. The metal frame smacked into and cracked the windshield. Given that it was night and she was in the apparent middle of nowhere she decided to keep going until morning then sort it out. She could see approaching vehicles by their headlight glare and there were very few other vehicles anyway. She thought in the morning, as soon as she saw a big enough city, she’d call Penske about a replacement truck and hope they’d let her transfer to one without having to pay any more money.
    She continued to drive, stopping for black coffee at gas stations when she filled up. The freeway was a straight line along the 450 miles and six hours, and several CDs with everything from Evanescence to Metallica, to Utah but she kept her eyes on the roadway.
    As morning came she saw the familiar flat rocky plains of Wyoming, a rugged desert having its own kind of beauty. She drove through the 393 miles and 5 hours and 41 minutes of Wyoming, a place that seemed so devoid of towns she couldn’t get a new Penske truck. She drove by staying in one lane as much as possible. When she had to move she’d look for the shadows the vehicles around her might cast and leave her blinker on for very generous amounts of time before changing lanes. It wasn’t all that hard to drive without a driver’s rearview mirror until she’d have to egress the freeway to gas stations then ingress the freeway again.
    The scenery didn’t change much until she reached Utah and continued as the freeway lead down through some hills and by a river. Outside of Ogden she took a gas stop that led up a hill and to a strip mall with a Wal-Mart, which she knew would have just what she needed for the idea she’d come up with the night before. After she got the gas she parked the truck and ran across the street and into the Wal-Mart. When she got back she duct-taped a handheld mirror to what was left of the framing for the driver’s side rearview mirror, which just barely got the job done.
    Into the evening she drove through 80 miles and one hour to Idaho and 270 miles and three hours and 50 minutes through it on I-84. Into the night she drove into Oregon, across the border and to the edge of the Rocky Mountain Range and down its cascading waves of highway until she reached relatively flat ground in the desert terrain of eastern Oregon. Around 1 a.m. and 72 miles and one and a half hours into Oregon she stopped in Baker City for gas and two large black coffees. She drank both as she kept driving west with her single-minded imperative of reaching home. A while later she stopped to pee by the desolate freeway. She felt a strange feeling of someone dangerous watching her, assumed it might be a wild animal, got back in the truck, and hurried away. She felt better when familiar names like La Grande, Hermiston, and Pendleton started popping up on signs. She drove without stop, continuing to play different CDs like Raphael’s Los Exitos, which she’d hoped would help her pick up some Spanish. She drove until after dawn had broken the black night and 240 miles and three hours and 45 minutes from Baker City. She began to feel strained and tired by the time she was passing Hood River but she just rolled the window down and breathed some fresh, cold air then ate some more carrots for energy and because the chewing helped to keep her alert. 58 miles and 1 hour and 20 minutes later she was happy to be back in Portland and turned on the radio to hear Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man” and Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”.
    She drove 20 miles and half an hour across town out Saint Helens Road and Highway 30 to Sauvie Island, so far out into northwest Multnomah County that although the addresses said Portland it wasn’t legally considered part of Portland for voting purposes.
    All of the western Pacific Northwest was gorgeous with towering hills of green trees and water falls but Sauvie Island was particularly calm and pleasant. Most of the island was made up of small, family-owned farms but there were also nature aficionados, pretend back to the landers, and outright hermits. She drove along the two-lane roads without guard rail, off a side road, and up the gravel driveway to a large farm house surrounded by blackberry vines, raspberry bushes, blueberry trees, and patches of lavender. She stumbled into the house and fell asleep on a futon couch.
    She awoke with a cat sleeping on her shoulder. She got up and fed the cats then began to make some lunch or dinner or breakfast, or whatever it was. She found cans of soup, beans, and vegetables, opened and mixed them, first rinsing out the sugary sauce they were packed in. She microwaved them in a large bowl and added Smart Balance healthy fake butter alternative and a dash of sea salt as a truck pulled into the driveway. A few minutes later two older middle-aged men came in.
    “Hi dad, hi Mr. Flanagan,” she said.
    “You’re back!” Bob said with surprise and delight.
    “You can just call me Doug—I’m practically your uncle.”
    “Thanks Doug.”
    “Where’s the truck?” Bob said.
    “Uh, it’s in Clear Lake, Iowa. It had a total meltdown.”
    “Really? You should have called, I would have sent you some money.”
    “No, it’s fine,” Bridget said dismissively, “I was just glad to get away from my mom’s family. You know a lot of my half cousins once or twice removed or whatever have businesses and Phil was supposed to own a contracting business but they either had no jobs or offered me none. Then they’d complain I wasn’t paying for enough, when I had no money coming in.”
    “Really?” Bob said.
    “That must have been annoying,” Doug said.
    “Yeah, but they sure tried to get me to rent a trailer in a park outside of Grand Rapids and a house in Bemidji, and lied to me about the rental prices. For one, I heard Aunt Priscilla placing an ad in the paper for her house then she lied to me about the price.”
    “Really?!” Bob and Doug said.
    “Yeah, I think I know why grandma stopped doing much with them. I like Phil’s sister actually and was going to stay with her. Then when I got there they were like, oh by the way we forgot to mention she now has a woman with a baby sleeping on her couch, and I told them I do not like babies or small children but they wouldn’t listen. It was enough that she has kids around 10 but a screaming newborn? Oh my god—it was total sexist insanity, and insanity in general. But Aunt Rhoda did have a zip-line that her sons had put in and I rode it then found out I was the only female ever to ride it. For all her big talk and big chainsaw she really is a very typical woman.”
    “What chainsaw?” Bob said.
    “Oh this big chainsaw that she made a huge fuss about to saw a small branch that wasn’t blocking a path anyway. It was a status symbol to her to prove her strength and then it wouldn’t start so she took it from me and said I wasn’t pulling the chord hard enough and I was like, look lady I did this for the first time at 12 and I know how to do it. So she couldn’t get it to start and then said she didn’t know why and got me a handsaw. I chucked the branch aside and went swimming in the creek she called a river. I tried to tell her that either the chord was frayed or she put gas instead of gas/oil mix in it.”
    “That’s what most people do.”
    “Yeah, but she wouldn’t listen. Anyway, I’m glad to be back. We’ll have to catch up after I get some rest.”
    “Yeah, okay,” Bob said with a smile as Doug walked into the next room to read the latest issue of The Oregonian.
    “So... how are you getting along with your friend Doug?”
    “Oh it’s okay. The rent was cheap and I... I really didn’t know where else to go. And there are plenty of farms on this island so I should be able to get some work and maybe stay here until I’m retired.”
    “Really? Cool,” she said and they paused in awkward silence. “I’m really sorry you lost the farm dad.”
    “Yeah, so am I. That farm was in our family since they came over on the Oregon Trail in 1893. Have you heard from your mother at all?”
    “Uh, no, we’re not talking. Not since I berated her for running off with that guy.”
    “So you don’t know how your sister and brothers are?”
    “Uh, well, I’m sure they’re fine dad.”
    “Yeah, yeah, I guess,” he said, and their postures slumped.
    “So... is there another guest room or...”
    “Uh, yeah... hey Doug, can she stay in that other room?!” he called into the next room.
    “Yeah, sure!”
    “So, what’s the rent?”
    “Don’t worry about it honey I’ll pay it. You have enough to worry about.”
    “Yeah, sure,” she said, almost wanting to argue then deciding not to since he didn’t need his status as a man and a provider knocked down any further. They paused for a moment then she went off to bed.


    After a day’s rest she drove down past Saint Johns Bridge to the nearest Penske depot. She took out the papers and a Penske employee looked over the truck. “I refilled the gas tank on my way out here,” she said with a smile. “I was warned that if I didn’t I’d get charged for a full tank. I don’t know if it got a little low on the drive out here but I did just refill it,” she said and continued to smile as she saw the young man notice the beauty mirror duct-taped to the smashed driver’s side mirror frame by the cracked windshield. “I bought the insurance too,” she said. “It should all be in the forms.”
    “Yeah... it is,” he said, still staring at the riddle in front of him.
    “Well great, I’ll be on my way with a receipt then, okay?”
    “O... kay,” he said hesitantly as Bridget grabbed the receipt from him and rushed to Doug’s car and drove back to the island while muttering instructions about driving a clutch to herself. She thought it might have been dishonest to say she’d driven one before but she didn’t know when she’d ever get another chance to learn how to drive one and she was finding it wasn’t all that hard anyway, it was just a matter of getting enough practice.
    Back at the house she chopped wood, built a fire, and warmed the house. Later she took out her laptop, connected to the Wi-Fi, and checked her e-mails. Then she went to the website of Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, where singer-songwriter-activist-author-actress Jewel went as a teenager. She filled out a request for an informational pamphlet to be sent to Delilah in Minnesota. She did the same for Musician’s Institute in Hollywood, where Sarah McLachlan’s husband and drummer Ash Sood went. She found a few colleges in Minnesota and requested they send Delilah their information too. Then she put the computer down and walked away. It was all she could do for her, and more than she’d been obligated to do.

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