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Summer/Fall 2019

Turnabout

 

by Will Clattenburg

 

If it wasn’t depression in the clinical sense, it was close. All her days, all her hours. Here she was, just graduated from college, living at home. A prestigious college that her grandparents paid for, and no real job afterward. Every morning, she drove the forty-five minutes to Emmaus, New Jersey. Radio personalities talked in between songs she didn’t know, a soundtrack for a life she’d outgrown. The grass along the highway was green, the color of magic markers.

She parked at an office building with blue-tinted windows, took the elevator to the seventh floor, and found her supervisor each morning at five minutes to 9:00. The tests were already stacked in a small metal bin labeled TEMP on her supervisor’s desk, about four or five standardized tests sealed with red, orange, and yellow stickers on which bold text read: Do Not Break the Seal, and which, when opened, released a mild floral odor from the soybean-based ink that came off on her hands like pollen. She carried the tests back to her desk in a generic cubicle that she shared with no one and then sat and read them, read the directions that never varied, the questions with five answer choices, matched what she read with the diagrams and visual accompaniments, the rather crude stick figures whose purpose was to demonstrate relative velocity or forensic science. It didn’t matter if she understood the content—what mattered was grammatical correctness, that everything made logical sense.

After the temp agency processed their fee, she received $11/hour. So she read tests. Her eyes sometimes hurt but her employers weren’t cruel taskmasters—she could take breaks, have a coffee, gaze out the window at the field that horseshoed the parking lot. At 5:00 p.m., she handed her supervisor both her opened and unopened tests and drove in true rush hour back to her parents’ house in Flourtown, Pennsylvania. Day after day, week after week. And then one day, she decided she didn’t want to sit and read tests anymore.

She called the temp agency and spoke with a nice woman named Angela who urged her to reconsider her decision—if she quit midweek, without giving two weeks’ notice, the agency would have no choice but to terminate her contract. She would no longer be able to apply for future assignments! But she said, That’s OK, thank you for everything, and hung up before Angela could give her more valid reasons for staying on the job. It was Wednesday; the month was July.

She drove on I-95 South. Starting out, the sky was the color of sediment in a river. She approached Wilmington on a stretch of blanched Delaware roadway, passing the brick buildings and factories. In a short while, she was in Maryland where deciduous trees, Virginia creeper, honeysuckle, redbuds, sumac, and forsythia curtained off and almost touched the road.  Two hours later, she crossed the Potomac. The rain had held off until then, and now it looked like a faraway stippling against the surface of the Potomac where the river turned. Then, without warning, sheets of water began to hit her windshield. Still, she drove, slower, following the other cars’ brake-lights, her car cutting through the crystal-like opacity of rain. The rain stopped then resumed, then became very bad, her windshield wipers only capable of glazing her view, leaves and twigs striking the sides of the vehicle, getting wattled on the hubcaps and undercarriage.

The car crunched and absorbed slaps and gentle swipes as it crushed along, spraying water, and sliding in water, and breaking water into a thousand droplets. There was never any danger of flooding; the car was heavy, stately, a safe car for a safe girl who had always made safe decisions, a car her parents had bought her with safety in mind. So, she observed the culverts and runoff and the new grass from the safety of her car, still pelted with rain. She hadn’t checked her phone. It was going on noon, the storm had slowed her down. When it let up, she was driving through hills and copses of trees, dark foliage in the axillae of the landscape, everything washed and blurred—except at a distance she saw a heap of garbage bags. She slowed, then slowed even more. What looked like garbage bags was in fact a dead cow lying sideways on the side of the road, legs spread as far as the rumble strips. In the light of recent rain, the cow was copper-colored,  darker the closer she got. She didn’t stop. Even then it didn’t look real. But the incident was filled with a gravitas that seeded itself in her mind—she didn’t feel like she was in a hurry to understand its meaning. And for the next part of the drive, she was lighter, she could have laughed.

She was not someone to make spur-of-the-moment decisions. She had been expecting something different, some uneasiness to work on her and reshape her mind, an uneasiness that would give her a new perspective on herself, a culminating answer to questions about her future.  But the future comes slower than she’d anticipated—it would be future when the world was dry and all the leaves fell off her car and the grass in the gullies could breathe. She was not stopping. Be brave, she thought, be brave. She was entering a new phase of her life. The bloated cow had long vanished from her rearview mirror and up ahead the road shone like obsidian.