Susan Gaissert / Creative Nonfiction, 2015

 

SUSAN GAISSERT 

 

Turnpike Girl

 

When we lived on Bunns Lane we had the New Jersey Turnpike in our backyard. Other people lived in houses with green lawns and flower gardens. We lived in a red brick apartment building surrounded by dirt and weeds and other red brick apartment buildings. Other people had driveways and patios and even swimming pools in their backyards. We had a big sliding board, and we had the turnpike.

We lived on Bunns Lane because my father was sick. He couldn’t work anymore, and Mommy couldn’t work because she took care of him. We lived on Social Security disability, and the government let us live in the apartment on Bunns Lane, where the rent was cheap. They paid for Daddy’s surgeries and medicine, too. Mommy always said she didn’t know what we would have done if it wasn’t for the government. We couldn’t pay the rent on Crows Mill Road anymore, so when she found out they had a place we could afford, she took it sight unseen.
 
The turnpike ran behind Bunns Lane. It was very loud. When we moved into our four-room apartment, I was only two years old. I don’t remember, but my big sister told me the noise was so loud, she couldn’t sleep. She told Mommy, and Mommy moved us into the front bedroom. She and Daddy took the back bedroom. They endured the endless groaning sound of the cars going by as they endured everything else. Daddy never complained, and Mommy was so tired when she fell onto the bed every night that the noise did not keep her awake. Eventually, my sister left home to go to college. The government paid for her tuition.

Everybody on Bunns Lane got used to the turnpike. The noise never stopped. Cars swooshed across the roadway at every hour of the day and night. I saw them from the back bedroom window upstairs. I heard them in my head all the time, the way I heard my breath going in and out of my nose and mouth. Life went on with the turnpike in the background. Sometimes I stood at the back screen door to feel the breeze, and Daddy stood there with me. I liked to stand next to him and listen to him breathe. The gentle sound of his breath made me feel calm and safe. He stood so still, with his cleft chin jutting out and his steady eyes gazing straight ahead. He was like a strong and beautiful statue. Mommy was always moving. She kept the apartment immaculately clean and made everything happen. Daddy and I were the lucky ones who could stand still and feel the breeze.

Sometimes Daddy watched me play in the backyard. I would go out the door, down the steps of the little porch where we kept the dented metal garbage can, and over the short sidewalk to the big dirt field. There was a tired old sycamore tree in the field and, beyond it, a tall gray metal sliding board. Off to one side, there was a large square of asphalt surrounded by a chain-link fence about three feet high. Everything on Bunns Lane was made of brick, metal, concrete, or wire. It wasn’t pretty but it was built to last.

I liked to feel tough, playing on the slide. I would shinny up one of its slanted poles, reaching hand over hand and stretching my arms as far out of my armpits as they would go, getting callouses on the palms of my hands. Then I would shinny down the pole, my inner thighs burning as they scraped against the hot metal and red marks formed on my skin. They were the marks of a tough girl. Next, I would run up the metal steps and go down the sliding board. It was very slippery because kids rubbed it with waxed paper. I would go down fast and land on my feet, and then I would look toward the back door. Daddy would be there, watching me. I liked to think he was proud of me. “Look at me, Daddy! Did you see what I did?” I would ask him in my mind, and my mind would create his reply: “Yes, my darling daughter. It was wonderful. You are wonderful. I love you so much.”

In the afternoon, Daddy always got tired and fell asleep in his recliner. Mommy would be busy cleaning the rooms or talking on the phone with Aunt Rose. That’s when I would go out back, but not to the slide. Past the slide, there was a hill made of sandy soil and tiny rocks and weeds sticking up out of clods of dirt. The hill had seemed treacherously steep when I was six, moderately dangerous when I was eight, and gently sloped by the time I was ten. When I got to the top, there was a narrow, flat ledge of dirt and then a chain-link fence, six feet high. It had barbed wire on the top, just like the fence in “Hogan’s Heroes” on TV. It separated me from the downside bank of the same hill, which led to a short, flat area and then the turnpike.

There were twelve hard flat black lanes, six going left to New York and six going right to South Jersey. I liked being in the middle, on Bunns Lane, with my own private view. I would stand at the fence, my fingers interlaced with the wires, and watch the cars zip by. I would listen to the grinding noise of them. I could not see any people inside the cars. It was all just movement and sound, like the ocean. I gave all of my attention to it, saying in my mind, “Look at me, Turnpike! Can you see me?” The only answer was the sound of engines going somewhere, going fast and never stopping.

Daddy started to take a new drug for his Parkinson’s Disease. It was called L-dopa. I heard Mommy on the phone telling Aunt Rose that Daddy was a guinea pig for L-dopa, and that each pill cost a dollar and he was taking twelve pills a day. I worried that the government was paying so much money for the L-dopa, since it did not seem to be helping Daddy very much. It made him throw up after every meal, and it made his face look odd sometimes, as if he was smiling, but I knew he wasn’t smiling. I wondered what the L-dopa was doing inside him, in his brain, which was where the Parkinson’s Disease came from. Dr. Cooper, the man who had performed Daddy’s surgeries when I was very little, had explained it to me. He told me that Daddy’s muscles couldn’t do what he wanted them to do because they couldn’t get messages from his brain. When Daddy’s brain told his legs to move, the message got messed up somewhere in between his brain and his legs. So his legs didn’t move the right way, or they didn’t move at all, and sometimes he fell down. L-dopa was supposed to make Daddy’s brain work better.

One day Daddy and I were standing at the back door, and he had that funny fake smile on his face. When I stepped out to head for the slide, he said, in his muffled voice, “See that squirrel?” and he pointed toward the tree. I did not see a squirrel there. Daddy chuckled and pointed again. “See him?” I went down the steps and across the sidewalk. I stood under the tree and called back, “There isn’t any squirrel here.” Daddy was laughing. The bottom half of his body was still, but his upper body was shaking and his mouth was open, in silent laughter. He was laughing at a squirrel that wasn’t there. It made me feel scared. I wanted him to stop. There had to be a way for this situation to make sense. I saw a clump of dry leaves under the tree. I scooped it up and walked back to the door. I held it out to him like a prize. “It’s dead leaves, Daddy,” I said. “It’s not a squirrel. It’s dead leaves.” He shook his head. He pointed at the tree again and said, “Look at him.” He was still laughing. I turned and walked away. I dropped the leaves back under the tree and walked past the slide, up the hill. I wrapped my fingers tightly around the wires of the fence and looked hard at the turnpike, and I didn’t look back to see if he was watching me.

Soon after that day, I was stalking Bunns Lane, looking for something new to do. I walked along the tall chain-link fence from One Building, where we lived, up toward Eighteen Building, where Bunns Lane ran out onto U.S. Route 9. Somewhere around Fourteen Building, I spotted something I had never seen before—a place where the fence had been pried up from the bottom, creating a space big enough for a person to crawl under. I crouched down and went to the other side. All of a sudden, everything felt different. My heart was pounding. My legs carried me down the hill, toward the turnpike. The noise got louder as I got closer. It got so loud that, by the time I reached the bottom of the hill, I couldn’t hear my own thoughts or my own breath. I only heard the car sounds. The cars themselves were almost a blur. They were going by so quickly the wind from them was blowing my hair into my face and pushing up against my body. I turned for a moment to get my bearings, and I was surprised to find that I could not see Bunns Lane at all from where I stood. I was not afraid. I let the waves of cars overtake me for a few minutes more, and then I went back home.

I got used to Daddy’s hallucinations. In hindsight, the L-dopa did help his brain work better, at least some of the time, and it gave him more years at home with us than he would have had without it. The maintenance men didn’t come to fix the hole in the fence for a long time, so I was able to visit the turnpike on many warm afternoons while Daddy was sleeping in his recliner and Mommy was moving around the kitchen with a wet rag in one hand and a bucket of ammonia water in the other. I would duck through the hole and make my way down to the magnificent turnpike, where I became faster than the speeding cars, more powerful than L-dopa, and able to leap red brick apartment buildings in a single bound.

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Susan Gaissert’s essay “Home” won the Nonfiction Prize in the 2014 Burlington Book Festival’s Short Works Writing Contest and was published in Green Mountains Review. She is working on a memoir about growing up in the 1960s with her disabled father and caregiver mother, and she blogs at http://susanflies.wordpress.com.

 

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