by Heather Rolland
The tar spreader lumbered up the hill, spraying a thin film of blackness on all in its path: road bed, weeds, and the occasional careless worker’s feet or Gatorade bottle. The dump truck’s gates clanged, followed by the shush of gravel, flowing like water out the back and onto the waiting tar. Raked and rolled and rolled again, inch by inch, mile by mile, the rutted old dirt road received its makeover. Julia watched from the picture window of her doublewide’s living room—the one Bruno had installed during the first decade of their tenure on the mountain.
The burning-tires stench of tar filled the trailer. Julia turned her back on the window and returned to the kitchen table. Counting among her blessings her increasingly poor sense of smell, she lit a cigarette and took a drag before placing it in the brown glass ashtray. She pulled out the chair she always sat in—the dark-stained captain’s chair with turned pine legs—and left her cigarette to burn down to the filter.
Bruno on the John Deere mower, April through October, damn near dawn to dusk. Bruno under the John Deere mower or someone else’s, or a farm tractor, an ATV, or snow mobile; hell, that man would probably lie down on the ground under a sewing machine if he thought he could get away with tinkering with one. Julia inside, resentful and alone. Bruno outside, embraced by a world of tools and grease and cold earth. Waiting for Bruno to be done kept her busy on all the long Sunday afternoons of their marriage. My god, that man loved to fuck with engines, Julia acknowledged, almost out loud. It wasn’t much more than a year since he’d gone, but Julia rattled around the trailer, empty, like a birthday balloon stuck in some tree branches in the woods. She made sure that she never went to the bank and the post office on the same day, in an effort to expand her errands.
“You should come down for a while.” Lisa, the oldest, invited her mother every time they spoke. “You can stay here for a few weeks. Maybe the change of pace will cheer you up.”
“I don’t need cheering up,” Julia growled, the midday Jack and diet Coke giving her words that extra edge. “I just don’t know what to do with myself.”
“Have you been drinking?” Lisa asked, unable to scrub all the condemnation out of her voice. Julia hung up. Like choir members practicing their lines for the upcoming Christmas pageant, Julia and Lisa repeated this exchange regularly.
Laurie, the middle child, called to ask for money every few months, but Julia had stopped answering. The youngest was serving time for a DWI and open container.
“I’m not depressed,” Julia said aloud, referring to the most recent phone conversation with Lisa. She wandered between the living room and kitchen, eventually arriving at her spot looking out the closed window. The tar spreader and dump trucks listened impassively. “I’m not drinking too much either. What the hell else is there to do? And why shouldn’t I drink? What do I have to stay sober for?” Lisa would have answers: Go on a diet. Go to church. Join a knitting club. Go to yoga or Zumba classes or join a gym. Go to bingo at the Knights of Columbus on Wednesday nights. Apparently, Lisa knew how to be old, alcoholic, and widowed, better than Julia herself.
Bruno spanned Julia’s entire life. It was hard to remember anything pre-Bruno that didn’t involve Saturday morning cartoons or catching frogs and crayfish in the neighbour’s pond. Married by the time they were twenty-two, with Lisa on the way a few short months later, Julia had grown up with Bruno at her side—or at least on the property somewhere, on or under that godforsaken tractor. Yelling over the engine’s rumble and the whir of the mower blades gave Julia the practice she needed to win the husband-calling contest at the county fair three years in a row. Back in the day Julia had a set of lungs, Marlboros be damned.
Myocardial infarction. Julia had trouble pronouncing it, her mouth refusing to wrap around the words. For the first few months, Julia just left the tractor where it was when Bruno had the big one. She couldn’t force herself to start it up, so there it sat, a monument to Bruno, while the weeds grew up around it. After a season of abandonment, and a barrage of offers from neighbours, Julia paid a kid from town to brush hog the yard and put the damn thing away. The same kid braved the mountain road to plow all winter, and Julia derived some satisfaction from paying him for doing a job she could have easily done herself if she’d ever paid any attention to Bruno and his enthusiasm for all things mechanical. “Bruno must be drilling his way to China with all the rolling over in his grave he’s doing every time I pay that drooling moron from town,” Julia told the dust plumes as they billowed up from the gravel being dumped.
She was used to missing him. Bruno was friendly; he talked to the neighbours and anyone who’d listen—the checkout girl at the local convenient store, the other overweight, grease-stained, wife-ignoring mechanics at the county DPW where he spent his forty-hour weeks, and the tourists he pulled out of the ditches on the side of the road every winter. Julia stayed inside, watching through the closed window, the downturned corners of her mouth visible since she never hung up the blinds Bruno’s mother gave them as a wedding gift.
But death wasn’t part of the contract. He was supposed to come inside every evening, long past when she wanted him to, long past dark, and long past her first beer. He was supposed to come inside and talk and belch and fart and piss her right the fuck off while she cooked dinner. His death dug her up, her roots severed and then balled in burlap, as if that would staunch the bleeding—but the gardener wandered off mid-task, leaving Julia uprooted and awaiting replanting.
The tar spreader seemed to be stalled at the end of her driveway. Men in hard hats and mesh vests milled about, looking and poking and scratching. Julia noticed and ignored them, smoking while scrolling through her news feed, and then flipping through the magazine she picked up last week at Price Chopper. The machinery’s total lack of movement regained her attention an hour or so later. The quiet had become oppressive, with the sounds of engine hum and gravel flow replaced by the occasional cawing of a crow or buzzing followed by the sharp slap of the flyswatter.
Julia headed down the driveway, huffing past the scrawny and lichen-splotched spruce trees, telling herself that it was time to get the mail.
She set her sights upon the pot-bellied, bearded flagger because he reminded her of Bruno at his best. Maybe Bruno was a few tattoos short in comparison, but close enough. Julia felt like this was a guy who spoke her language.
“Do you need to get out of your driveway, ma’am?” He took a step towards her as she approached.
“Oh. Ummm . . .” Shit. He spoke first. “No. I mean, not now.” Do I need to get out, she wondered. “Eventually,” she added. “What’s going on?”
“The spreader broke down. Needs a part. We called it in.” He took his hard hat off and rubbed his bald head. Squinting against the sun, he replaced it.
“Oh, okay.” Julia hesitated. She glanced up at the mailbox and back at the man. She waited, but he didn’t speak again. “I’m just getting the mail,” she explained.
He nodded and turned away. She hurried as much as the steep hill allowed, and then hoofed it back inside.
The next day came and went without any movement by the tar spreader. Men and trucks came and went as well. Julia stayed inside and watched the lack of progress from the window.
At 11 a.m. on Day Three a team of skilled surgeons gathered to take apart the blocked tar spigots, replace the broken parts, and assemble them anew. They were still at it during Julia’s trek to get the mail at 3 p.m.. The flagger mumbled something about having the spreader out of her way by the end of the day as she passed. Julia nodded and kept going. At 4 p.m. the work crew packed up and left, while the spreader remained unrepaired and unmoved.
On Day Four Julia assessed her cigarette and creamer levels. “I need to get to the store today,” she told the flagger.
“Okay,” he answered. “I’ll tell the foreman.”
Julia walked up the hill to the mailbox while they conferred.
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience,” the foreman began. Julia watched him wave away blackflies and gnats while he apologized. He was a young man, pink-faced and short-haired. Julia remembered when she thought men that looked like that were cute. “We’re still waiting on another part for that thing, and we can’t move her ’til we get it. If we try to roll her, she might throw a rod and that would snap the damn header in two.” He might have said something slightly different from that; Julia couldn’t be sure. She may have substituted something from her memories of Bruno and his machines. She stopped listening as soon as she realized the apology wasn’t the preface to “I’ll get this thing out of your way right now.”
The flagger looked from Julia’s face to his boss’s face and back again. “Ma’am? I can run to the store for you if that would help.”
The foreman’s game face slipped for a moment, but he recovered quickly. “Yeah, good idea, Mark.” He pulled a pen and memo pad from his shirt pocket. “Write a list, ma’am, and Mark’ll take care of it.” His eyes darted to the broken tar spreader sitting squarely across the end of Julia’s driveway, and he added, “On us.”
Days Five and Six, Saturday and Sunday, passed without movement or visitors. Julia thought about running into town to grab a six-pack and Doritos, since it was the weekend and all, but she remembered her incarceration before she got as far as the front door. Jack and diet Coke and a package of frozen poppers would do just fine, she told herself.
Day Seven dawned warm and sunny, the kind of day that makes you forget everything and get distracted by everything else. Julia forgot to take up her mantle of indecision and irritation upon waking, lulled by the breeze that had picked up. It blew those damn bugs away, making it possible to be outside without misery and a swatter.
The breeze also picked up that scent which early May breezes carry—the scent of hot days to come, of bloom and fruitfulness, of light that lasts into the evening. Julia carried a camp chair to the end of the driveway and set it there. She plopped into it and sat, enjoying the breeze, her coffee, the sun, and the tar spreader’s company. When Mark, the flagger, showed up for his day at work, Julia was there. “Want some?” she gestured at her cup.
“We’ll have this thing out of here soon,” he replied.
It rained all of Day Eight. Julia ventured out to get the mail with her umbrella, and asked Mark if he might pick up another pack of cigarettes for tomorrow. The foreman countered with a fresh pack of cigarettes and new promises of having the tar spreader out of her way by Wednesday. Julia didn’t ask which Wednesday. Mark brought hazelnut Coffee-Mate every three or four days. Julia started bringing a second camp chair out, so Mark could sit down with her in between flagging duties.
The barred owls across the street asked “Who cooks for you?” all afternoon and evening, as they had for most of the thirty-seven years Julia had lived there. It was on Day Ten that she heard them for the first time through the windows she opened when she came inside.
“I don’t know what to do with myself,” she repeated to Mark as he hauled himself out of the chair and into the road, unfurling his blaze-orange flag. “Ever since Bruno died, I just don’t know what to . . .” she trailed off, fishing a black fly out of her coffee. “I’m not exactly sad or anything. I just don’t know what to do. When he was here, I always knew what to do. Clean up after Bruno. Bitch at Bruno. Be frustrated because Bruno was mowing the lawn again. Make dinner for Bruno. Wash Bruno’s work clothes. Make sure Bruno had something to bring for lunch.” Her gaze fixed upon the tar spreader’s empty seat. “Now, I just don’t care. No, not even that. I don’t know whether or not I care. I don’t know what I feel besides empty.”
“Go for a walk,” Mark suggested.
“What?” Fat cigarette smokers don’t take walks, you moron, Julia thought.
“Take a walk. You’ll feel better if you take a nice long walk.”
Week Three ended with a visit from the foreman wielding a weedwacker. He buzzed and whirred that thing around the parts of tar spreader that overhung the sides of Julia’s driveway, cleaning up all the growth that had sprung. Julia didn’t tell him that the end of her driveway was now tidier than it had been since Bruno died. He said something about the spreader’s part being on back order and a dock worker’s strike in California being the reason why it was taking so long. Julia nodded to whatever he said and asked for takeout pizza for lunch.
Somewhere knee deep in Week Four, enough was enough. Tomorrow, come hell or high water, Julia was leaving the property. It was time. Mark was nothing but a gentleman, but Julia had run out of things to say. “I have to do something, anything,” she admitted, standing at the window and speaking in the dark to the shadowy hulk sitting at the end of her driveway. It wasn’t so much the need to go out, as it was the realization of how much she was enjoying staying in.
Go for a walk.
Moving the spreader was a major carnival. Trucks, winches, men, noise, and smoke filled the dirt-above, fresh-oil-and-loose-stone-below road. Mark was there, flag in hand, keeping the crew safe as they pointed and looked and leaned over sideways, and looked some more and scratched their heads. By early afternoon man and machine triumphed, and the tar spreader was dragged a scant six feet northward. North, uphill, and a tad westerly towards the roadside ditch. Julia’s constant companion for the past month finally relented and released her from her odd detention. Julia, now that she was free, once again had no idea where to go or what to do.
She waited until they all left. I really don’t need an audience for this, she thought as she carried the camp chair back to the trailer. I wonder if the damn truck will even start.
Go for a walk.
It was the only thing she could think of. Her mind had gone blank, what with coffee, bread, milk, and a fresh pack of smokes supplied by Mark only a few days prior. It was the imperative to leave that demanded a response, not a destination that beckoned.
Go for a walk.
I don’t go for walks. I’ve never gone for a walk in all my life.
The truck started. Julia hadn’t changed her clothes or put on makeup. She was just going to drive around the block. I live in the middle of nowhere, she acknowledged. There is no block. She guided the truck between the huge spruce tree and the corner of the tar spreader that still impinged upon the driveway by a few inches. She eased onto the road, her heart racing like a sixteen-year-old with a “borrowed” vehicle and a bottle between her knees.
Julia coasted down the newly oiled and chipped section of her road, taking it nice and slow. Tourists will speed on this and end up wrapped around a tree up by Miller’s place, Julia thought, and it made her smile.
Just four right turns and this little adventure will be over, she told herself, guiding the big Ford onto the county road. That’s one.
Sunlight gave way to clouds, and the May softness to chill as the breeze picked up. Julia pressed the button on her door, closing the window.
The second right took her up the neighbouring hill, up into a high hollow that ran between Catamount Hill and Mount Aurora. She never really drove that way because the road was closed all winter and a rough ride the rest of the year, but it was the quickest way back home.
At the height of land Julia eased the old F150 onto the wide grassy shoulder. May in the mountains is worth stopping and admiring, even if you live less than a mile away as the eagle flies. She sat there a few minutes, the last of the sun’s warmth radiating out of the black pleather upholstery. She sat like a lizard, absorbing all that remained from the seats of the truck. And then she got out.
Julia slammed the door behind her. She leaned back against the front fender and just looked around. Mount Aurora hunched to the south in the near distance, the Lenape Creek valley showcasing the higher peaks and deeper cloves that stretched out for forty miles, all the way to the big river.
Julia looked, unabashed by the decades she spent not bothering to look. She lit a cigarette and squinted through the smoke to keep looking. Ridge upon ridge, tree-covered and painted with cloud shadows, rolled out before her. This scrubby collection of foothills, all of them offering a vantage point, was home to Julia and to Bruno. It was where he lived his whole life—beginning, middle, and end—and where Julia remained. She looked hard, threw the cigarette into the dusty gravel, and kept looking.
It’s pretty, she thought but immediately corrected herself. Pretty is for a little girl with a new haircut. It’s something else, and beautiful didn’t begin to cover it. Brutal and without compassion, naked, clinging, lovely, and also rough and hard. It was life and death and everything in between—all the meals eaten alone in silence, all the fox kits playing on the lower lawn year after year while Julia watched from the trailer window, all the heavy and wet spring snows with their downed power lines and days upon days of cold dampness invading the trailer. It was thirty-seven years of white Christmases and overtime for plowing, the orange-pink light on the hillsides that took their breath away when they drank their beers together, watching the hillside turn colours and listening to the ravens croak and caw.
How Julia had loved Bruno all those years, furious and hurt and lonely. But then he’d come inside, cold air and the scent of gasoline clinging to his unshaven cheeks. He’d crack a joke and open a beer and wrap his arms around her; Julia would drink it in—the roughness of his cheek against hers, the softness of his kiss, the depth of his laughter—and everything would be good.
Julia kept looking at that view, though it was now too blurry to see.
Go for a walk.
She blotted her eyes with the cuff of her sweatshirt. A weedy ATV track led off in the direction of Mount Aurora’s summit. Julia clicked the car’s remote, and the familiar beep-beep of her door locks sounded out of place in the stillness.
She looked around one more time. Her gaze was met and held by the nothing and everything she shared that seasonal road with—gravel, dust, shell casings, bottle caps, and all the living and dead things that patch of earth held. She kicked a stone loose and watched it skitter across the road. Then she turned away and walked up the track.