Traffic Signals

This story is paired with “Third Epoch, The Story Continued by Isidor, Ottavio, Baldassare Fosco” from The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free. 

It was a cold day in Georgia, and Boone Bender stood behind the teachers at Druid Hills Middle School as they yelled at the Jesus freak.

“Leave it at the church,” said Ms. Feelers, the music teacher, as she waved the Jesus freak down the street.

The Jesus freak circled the school again, raving for lost souls, and the Algebra teacher Mrs. Brown said to no one in particular, “Someone ought to call the cops.”

Dark gray smoke billowed out of the rusted-out Impala’s tailpipe. Shouts boomed from the driver’s side window, from the round unshaven face of a middle-age man. Greasy hair like a scarecrow jutted from his trucker’s cap in cowlicks. The sleeve of his rolled-up plaid shirt swung in and out of the driver’s side window. From his hand, pocket-sized copies of New Testament bibles swung over the fence of the school. The Jesus freak shouted, “He’s a carpenter, young friends…He’s a mender of souls children…He can rebuild you in his image.”

Kids pitched the new testaments like fastballs. Others batted them with bare palms. They kicked the books like pucks, passed them like Frisbees. A few got caught in the barbed wire crowning the chain link fence. The razor-wire ripped the pages loose. The scriptures littered the concrete, clung to the wheels of the buses, danced in the air above their heads. Scripture rained like confetti.

The buses flocked in, rounded the unloading zone. Air brakes hissed and their doors popped open.

Lacey Pedair debussed. A teenage girl dressed in white from head to stocking feet. Puffy blouse over black tank-top and off-white chinos – a fresh start on Lacey’s first day at a new school. She stepped down from the bus into the chaos of the recess yard.

This was the first time Boone saw Lacey Pedair.

Lacey darted across the recess yard, untouched through the crowds, a lightning bolt slicing the clouds. Boone followed on a parallel path. As young people do, they made eye contact and both looked away. The wind cut through Boone’s thin coat. He thought she began to say something, but her teeth chattered instead, and the bible-chucker in the Impala interrupted their meeting at the doors of the sixth grade hall by barking, “Jesus is an outlaw, taking from the rich and giving to the poor.”

Lacey stopped and watched his last assault of bibles. The Jesus freak catapulted a handful of the brown books, and they battered the playground’s fence. Lacey bent and picked up one of the torn pages. She leaned against the bricks where Boone played wall-ball every afternoon.    She was the first person Boone had ever seen pick up any of the Jesus freak’s debris…anyone except Hansel the janitor. She dropped the first page, reached out and caught another one as it fluttered down in the cold stale air.

Boone stood in the hallway as kids pushed past. He watched her through the wire mesh windows of the door. He watched her dishwater blond hair flap stiff with hairspray in the wind. He watched her puffy blouse hang loose on her wire-hanger frame like white flag of surrender. He watched her roll the little page into a tight tube and slide it behind her ear. He watched the other kids move around her like a mudslide.

Out in the street, the crossing-guard shooed the Jesus freak away, and the Impala roared down the street rattling bones and hound-dog yowls. The kids wrapped their fingers in the chain-link, breathed in the exhaust from the street, screamed after him, “Come back, Jesus freak, save our souls.”

The Jesus freak would be back on Friday, around lunch. He’d blast gospel music through fuzzy blown-out speakers, but Boone wouldn’t notice because Lacey would be sitting under the old oaks, peeling an orange as the sun cut through the moss. The sunbeams would spotlight her like she was an actress on a stage of oaky roots.

Boone’s lunch was a disappointing sandwich in a see-through bag and some plain chips. Lacey tossed orange peels to the ground, threw carrots in her mouth along with orange slices, drank a soda on top of that. Boone admired her recklessness.

*   *   *

When Boone was sixteen, his brother Carson moved to an apartment downtown, with two other guys. It was above a video store that had a dirty backroom full of porno. Boone couldn’t wait to see it – the apartment or the video store. He borrowed his dad’s Bonneville, told him he was going to a friend’s house and off he went down Calhoun Expressway. Miles from familiar suburbs, he took two wrong rights on the way and lost himself in a place his brother would later call, “Little Beirut.”

Boone inched along unmarked streets, looked for signs to lead him to anywhere else. Houses resembled wet papier-mâché. Old factories had been stoned to death by neighborhood kids. Summer burned hotter there. The corners bustled with boys and young men. Women and girls gathered on porches. Old men sat against spray-painted walls. Voices mingled into bundles of sound – a chaotic song to Boone.

Boone stared straight ahead, rolled through the stop signs. Sometimes people on the corners approached the Bonneville as it crept along. Once when he did stop, Boone thought a man reached in his pocket, and all Boone could do was shake his head and keep driving.

Further out, the factories thickened and the corners cleared. In his rearview mirror, a figure on a bicycle approached the car. The figure dressed in black, from black Converse to black gloves to a black sack tethered to his back. On his face, he wore a black gas mask. His eyes lost behind two black O’s.

The figure sped past Boone, striding down the broken yellow line. Boone followed, like following a moth to the surface of a caved-in coal mine. The masked figure stepped hard on his bicycle’s pedals, flew down side streets and through parking lots. He followed him across cracked asphalt, where sun-burnt weeds jail-broke out of the surface, only to die stuck halfway to freedom. He followed him past rows of Section 8 housing, where children drew hopscotch squares with chalky rocks in the streets. Everyone else ignored the masked man.             Everyone ignored Boone.

Boone wondered what was in the bag on his back – bulging and malformed. He thought dead animals at first. He didn’t know why he thought that. Then, he wondered why he’d be following a man with dead animals on his back. Then, his mind shifted to body parts. Then, he really second-guessed his following.

The masked man veered into an unpaved alley, lined with rotten wood fences and trash cans, over the fences hung the dead branches of a hundred dead trees. And for no good reason, Boone turned the car and trailed behind him as the branches scratched signatures into the roof of his father’s Bonneville. Boone winced and stomped hard on the brakes.

There, halfway down the alley, the masked man had jumped from his bike. He’d let the bike fall into a mudhole. He yanked the mask from his head and threw it down on top of the bike. He flung the bag from his back and ripped it open.

Boone knew he’d lodged himself into an awkward situation. He was a peeping tom at best, a stalker at worst. He knew he should’ve put the car in reverse and hauled himself out of that awkward position at once. But he didn’t.

He waited as the man’s hand disappeared inside the blackness of the bag. When it appeared again, he was holding a piece of shiny copper tubing. The man cocked the tubing back and let it fly at the car.

Boone tried to get the car in reverse but put it in park instead. He yanked it back down to the R and retreated in reverse down the alley, slamming his dad’s fenders into splintering fences. The low branches screeched across the roof of the Bonneville. All the while, the man chased him, pelted the car with more copper tubing until the car dropped back onto the grey street, leaving the man behind.

Boone, more lost than ever, drove until dark fell on the poorly lit streets. He finally found a gas station and pulled in for directions. Inside, behind the counter, it was Lacey. She wore white polo shirt with a green Hess logo embroidered over one breast, over the other breast was a name tag that read Sybil. Her hair tied back in a bun. Boone thought she might have a twin. Maybe it wasn’t a real twin, maybe more like a cosmic twin, a doppelganger or an angel disguised in a familiar face sent to help him.

Lacey looked up at Boone and smiled. “Hey you, what’re you doing here?” She asked like they were old friends, like their relationship consisted of more than Boone staring at the side of her head in biology class.

“Sybil?” Boone said – his face a lost puppy’s.

“I don’t want all the creepers who come in here to know my real name.” Lacey’s smile wasn’t tremendous, but it had a subtle charm. Since the day Boone first saw her, she had gotten more and more popular at school. More and more people had discovered that smile.

Boone had gone in the other direction. He strode with a lanky gait. His skin was acne ridden. His words never came out in the right order. Before he realized how pathetic he’d sound, he said to Lacey, “You got to help me.”

“That’s why I’m here.” Lacey ignored how pathetic Boone sounded. She smiled her subtle smile, and Boone let go. He told her the story of the masked man.

She laughed.

Boone told her more.

She snorted, and they both laughed so much they didn’t notice the old lady holding the milk and honeybuns standing behind Boone.

She gave Boone directions. She gave her number.

Boone gave her a call. And they talked and talked, about Lacey’s family who owned a string of gas stations. No one was ever home at the same time because they were all filling different shifts at different stations. Boone talked about when he finally made it to his brother’s downtown apartment, how Carson told him what a glory hole was.

They laughed all the time.

But Lacey used late night phone calls for something else. She told Boone about her real mom dying when she was young, and her stepmom wanting to be called mom. She talked in code about other guys, and Boone changed the subject.

Boone asked her about the page of the bible she kept the first day he saw her, and Lacey changed the subject. But Boone kept asking, and after a few weeks, right in the middle of giggles about how horrible hair metal is, she said, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love can cure a multitude of sins.”

“What?” Boone asked.

Lacey said, “That was on the page of the bible I picked up.”

“Weird?” He said.

“I know. Not the kind of thing you think about when you think about the bible.” Lacey went quiet on her end of the phone.

Her silence, her soft breath over the phone, Boone finally said, “Do you think we could actually go out and talk face to face sometime?”

“I guess,” she said.

Whenever Boone wasn’t working overtime at the carwash to pay his dad back for the Bonneville’s new paintjob, they did go out. Lacey picked him up in her Jeep Renegade, and they’d ride with the doors off down to Clark’s Hill Lake. Boone wanted to grow his hair out just to let it splash around in the wind. But he never did. Long hair on men seemed so messy to him.

One Saturday, after Boone rode the zipline out across the deepest parts of the lake, after everyone else already went home, Lacey and Boone sat, talked in the Renegade until their swimsuits dried and kissed.

*   *   *

As young people do, Boone and Lacey broke up several times over the years, pursued other love interests. Boone would think about Lacey with other men, and he knew she could be comfortable with them, at ease in bed after sex. It was never that way for him with other women. Leading to sex, the urge directed him, pushed him here or there. But afterwards, the sweat made him itch. His skin felt tangled.

Boone and Lacey found each other again after college. He called her and asked her to meet him at the old train depot, a place they used to meet in high school, a place with a retired caboose that was once used in an exhibit when the depot served as a museum. But it’d turned into a hangout for teenagers, a place for Boone to lose his virginity to Lacey.

It was there in the rusted mechanics of a train’s bunk house where Boone brought flowers and a pawnshop ring and asked Lacey to marry him.

They did a quickie service at a courthouse when they were twenty-three, moved to Atlanta, bought a small house on the outskirts of everything important. Boone became a traffic engineer. It wasn’t his childhood dream, but his father worked in shit all day as a plumber, and his brother had joined in the family business.

Boone worked as much as he could, tried to make sure he moved closer to the invisible goals he set for himself. Find the girl of his dreams – check. Marry said girl – check. Move away from the things you don’t want to become – check. Get a job filling up boxes on a spreadsheet – check. Buy a house and fill it with logical things – check. Get a better car – not yet. Have kids – working on it. Become the boss of people who fill up boxes on a spreadsheet all day – any day now. Retire with Lacey and drink rum – can’t wait.

Lacey didn’t make lists unless she was on the way to the grocery store.

“If you could have anything in the world, what would you want?” Boone asked Lacey, after he’d snuck home for lunch and surprised her, ended up wrapped around her, making love in the hallway. They lay sweating, still half-clothed.

“More attention,” Lacey said. She lifted her saucer-sized brown eyes to him. The older she got, she began to look more serious than she intended. “Always, more attention.”

“More attention?” Boone said. “What is all this then?”

Lacey’s subtle smile crept, and she devoured him like a panther again. Boone offered no resistance.

Lacey went to school for business. Her dad bought another chain of Hess convenient stores for her to look over in the Atlanta area. She drove around all day in a little green car with Hess written down the side, making sure the employees ran a steady ship. Occasionally, she’d work a shift behind the counter at night.

Boone worked all day and into the night and began to go out in person to watch traffic patterns at intersections he’d been researching.

Their laughs became ghosts. Their life moved in texts and memos on sticky notes, stuck to the kitchen table.

At first, Boone wrote I’m sorry my workdays are so long…miss you, Boone.

Lacey wrote back I know you’re working hard for us. No need for apologies. Love you, L.

They jotted details of each other’s days. They wrote charming intimacies that only they would get – Miss your caboose and Remember to wear a gas mask in traffic.

But after awhile, Boone’s notes sounded more like instructions – Dog needs medicine. Apply to the back of neck, don’t touch for 24 hours.

Lacey wrote shorthand – Home 11 Maybe.

Years passed. They tried for kids. Kids never came, and doctors told Lacey they never would. She went back to school for nursing. Boone was promoted. Lacey acted less and less happy for him. He got home later and later at night.

Maybe Boone wanted to mend what was breaking. It was a Monday. Boone missed Lacey’s voice. He wanted to make her giggle while they ate lunch, wanted to make her cover her mouth to keep from spitting out her half-chewed salad. Maybe they could’ve made love again, and after, they could’ve sat outside on the porch, shared one of her cigarettes in the afternoon sun, talked about their future.

But when Boone’s wheels hit the driveway, his gut itched and burned. Something wasn’t right. He should’ve gone back to work. He should’ve never sank his key into the lock. The house darkened by noon shadows. The air thick with cherry blossom. He braced his hands against the walls of the hall as he inched to the master bedroom. His head buzzed. The creaking of the bed, the bang of the headboard – so cliché. Boone knew the dirty grunt was all Lacey. She whispered, “Call me Sybil.”

Boone’s gut hardened to knots, anchor-sized knots. He stood in front of the cracked door, watched Lacey snarled around their neighbor. His name was Arnold, people called him Arn, a nice guy they’d had over for cookouts – all so cliché.

Boone didn’t run away. He watched the performance in silence – a sickening tragedy that he studied until it was over, until she toppled sandcastle.

*   *   *

Boone moved into the extended-stay hotel and wouldn’t answer the door or the phone. Lacey came by his office, and Boone dodged her there too. He hid in stairwells for hours while Lacey walked around with Myron, the intern, looking for her.

Boone’s mom and dad both called and said, “This is something you have to deal with face-to-face, son.”

Lacey called twenty times a day for a month, then ten times a day, then once. She had admitted guilt. She had blamed Boone. She had screamed and cried. She had doomed herself to hell. Three months went by.

In her last voicemail, she was past the hectic tears, past the regret, she simply said, “Boone. Goddamnit, I was lonely.” She sighed.

Boone sighed too.

He didn’t return her call. He plunged himself into work. Divorce never crossed his mind. Nothing eradicates heartbreak faster than mathematics. He spent days determining variables of accessibility in level crossings, pushing for signage to better explain the “Boulevard Rule” to the laymen.

He shared a workspace with Cheryl. She loved to sing Carpenter songs, Superstar on repeat. “Don’t you remember you told me you love me baby,” she’d sing. “Baby, baby, baby, oh baby…I love you.”

Boone really didn’t mind. Cheryl pushed her short hair behind her ears. Her nose was a bit too big for her face. She nervously laughed after most things she said. She laughed at everything Boone said. He flirted until she understood he was flirting.

After a week of this, they slept together. They started stealing away to the third floor, which was mostly vacant. They’d have sex mostly clothed – Boone’s pants around his ankles, Cheryl’s skirt hiked up and panties pushed aside. The knobby commercial carpet burned Boone’s knees raw. He buried his face in Cheryl’s neck. Her perfume smelled of caramel and something. Boone liked to think he was cheating on his wife, Sybil, not Lacey. He wanted to be someone else too. He’d liked to think that any minute Sybil, the hot-blooded minx, may walk through the door of the empty office and catch them there. She may scream or faint or stomp him and Cheryl into dust.

Sometimes after work, she’d accept Boone’s invitation to his car, and they’d climb into the backseat. The two of them knotted their feet in the seat belts, fumbled around until they lied and said they were satisfied.

Other times, Cheryl talked, and Boone let her drown into the hum of office noise. “Tom Tanny does not know me…I’m a real gangbuster!  Know what I mean?”  Cheryl would say about their boss, Then she’d add, “Know what I mean?” to every sentence as if she’d quit speaking English all of a sudden.

Other times, Boone separated the noise and focused so acutely he heard the water cooler burbling down the hall. But then, Boone would snap back. He’d roll his chair close to    Cheryl’s and let his hands glide over her body. He’d leave the door open, waiting for someone to catch them. He’d whisper things in her ear that made no sense. “She has her claws in me.” “I want to explode into butterflies and ash.” “I want you to torture me. Waterboard everything out of me.”

Cheryl wouldn’t understand the references. She’d shake her head. But she’d still say, “Well…let’s sneak down to the third floor?”

Boone would go back to work like nothing ever happened. He’d say, “Has anyone ever told you they hated you?”

Cheryl was confused. Boone didn’t help. He’d approach her in the elevator, kiss her neck softly. She’d push him away or clinch his already wrinkled shirt in her fist and kiss him more. All of this torture existed between them in levels, and these levels depended on the day, depended of their moods, depended on the weather, depended on the Carpenter song playing in their heads.

Days passed and new findings on traffic patterns would be disbursed via email. Memos on fluid dynamics filled Boone’s inbox. Cheryl sang Close to You. After Boone chose not to speak for a week, Cheryl finally said on the following Monday, “You know what I do when I’m depressed?”

When Boone didn’t respond, she said, “I join an online group, doesn’t matter what kind, any group will do, GoodReads…I’ll buy something on eBay-”

“Neo-Nazi skinheads?” Boone turned in his chair, no sign of a smile.

“What?” She shook a little, not just her head, her whole body shook.

“Ever join the Klu Klux Klan when you get a little blue,” Boone said. “That should change your tonal disposition.”

Cheryl stood without a word and left the office.

Boone went back to a spreadsheet on proposed traffic lights.

*   *   *

Friday seemed to be a good day to fire people. Boone knew this. All week he felt the ax falling. Cheryl wouldn’t work in the same office anymore. The janitorial staff had seen him down on the third floor with the sharpies in his hand. It wouldn’t be hard to figure out who wrote all those things on the wall about Cheryl and Karen Carpenter. They probably couldn’t figure out who Sybil was though.

As he sat in Tom Tanny’s office, he wondered if they’d escort him out in handcuffs. Boone would like that. He’d never worn handcuffs. Boone thought, maybe it would be a straight jacket or maybe the county traffic division had a secret security team he’d never seen. But then he thought, no, it would just be the police with handcuffs.

But Tom never pushed any buttons on his phone, and no men in uniforms ever came in the office. Tom simply asked, “Boone, have you considered therapy?” He asked Boone about his anger issues and about his wife. He talked about a possible suspension so Boone could, “work things out.”

“Have you ever cut yourself, Tom,” Boone asked with no anger or no smile. And when Tom replied with a stare, Boone said, “Sometimes, I stay up late at night thinking about cutting myself. Not so much to hurt yourself, more to let the demons out.”

“That’s dark, Boone,” Tom said. “Perhaps, we should just cut our ties-” Realizing what he said, Tom stood and picked up his office phone and asked human resources to join him in his office.

To his disappointment, no one even escorted Boone out of the building. He simply packed up his stuff in a box that he was given by a woman he’d never met from human resources. He didn’t rush. They didn’t really fire him. The woman from human resources called it, “medical leave.”

Boone walked down the hall. He stopped at the door of Cheryl’s new office. She didn’t look up from her computer screen. She wore a white sundress with yellow flowers, and Boone remembered it was spring again. He thought she looked quite beautiful, really fragile in the soft glow of the monitor. He wanted to tell her he was sorry, but he didn’t. He walked toward the stairs where he’d hidden from his wife instead.

The intern Myron waved goodbye, and the sleeve of his oversized button-down and the bangs of his fifteen dollar haircut waggled along. He said, “Need any help?”

Boone shook his head, “Nope.”

*   *   *

Boone stayed at the extended-stay long enough to pack his bag. He drove by the house he shared with Lacey. The grass overgrown, a FOR SALE sign stuck in the center of the wild Bermuda grass. She was long gone, who knows where. Boone couldn’t follow.

He still had the passwords to all of the field traffic applications for the Variable Message Signs or V.M.S.…those warning signs on the side of the highway. Atlanta had over a hundred of them. Late that night, he drove out to the roads leading to Cheryl’s house. He reprogrammed one of the V.M.S. to read Sorry Cheryl, I’m an idiot. Down the road, he changed another one to read Rainy Days and Mondays.

On the way out of town, Boone pulled over every time he saw a V.M.S. He changed Slower Traffic Keep Right to a scroll that read Above all, love each other deeply, because love can cure a multitude of sins.

Boone changed Speed Monitored Electronically to I don’t know why I can’t turn away from my own darkness. He changed the next one to But I need to start trying. Every once in a while, he’d type in Beware of falling zombies or Toenail chewing kills 2 million Americans, just for the fuck of it. He’d laugh out loud – a man alone on the side of the highway, laughing hysterically.

Boone did this again and again. From Buckhead to Forest Park, from I-20 to Peachtree Street, Boone stamped over fifty V.M.S. with messages. He changed all the passwords so it would take days to reset them all.

When the sun peeked out, he drove to the airport and left his car in long-term parking. He perched on a stool in the Falcon’s Nest, a sports bar in terminal B. He drank overpriced rum and cokes. The halogen neon broke prisms through stained glass footballs. He waited three hours for a thirty minute flight.

Boone felt strangely at home in the small airplane seat. Communicating in nods and shakes to the flight attendants, he incubated.

On the edge of sleep, Boone remembered the last good day he’d spent with Lacey. Ironically, the last good day was a Saturday night. They’d gone out to eat a late dinner. They’d laughed. They drank too much. Walking back to the parking garage, Boone wrapped his arms around her, as they stared down Peachtree at the line of traffic lights. Boone hummed in her ear, “grum…grum…grum…green.” And the first light went green. Traffic raced on. Lacey snuck a glance back at Boone. Her put his lips near hers, without even looking at the street and mouthed the words “yada, yada, yellow.” She looked back just in time to see the next light turn yellow.

Lacey broke off the kiss. “How’d you know?”

“Magic,” Boone stole another kiss. “Magic and trafficology.”

“Do another one.” She demanded, wrapped his arm tighter around her as they walked.

And he played Peachtree like a symphony.

*   *   *

When Boone landed, he took a cab from the airport to his brother Carson’s house. He closed his eyes, laid his head back on the seat. The cabbie sang along with the radio, a twangy gospel song. The station yanked in and out of static.

In what seemed like seconds, the cab’s brakes squealed, and the cabbie turned with a scrunch of the leather seats. He said, “Twenty-five even, friend.”

Boone opened his eyes, took a minute to focus. On the ceiling of the cab, the headliner had been ripped down and in its place were dozens of stickers, aligned like wallpaper. All the stickers said the same thing JESUS SAVES. But in the back seat, parts of the stickers were ripped away. But this wasn’t an act of simple blasphemy. If you let your eyes adjust, someone had carefully ripped the stickers to read SAVE US, over and over again, in ragged black and white. Or more like SAVE scratch/scratch/scratch US.

“You with me, friend,” the cabbie said.

Boone nodded. “You bet.” He pulled out two twenties and said, “Did you used to own an Impala?”

“An Impala,” the cabbie’s face went slack in the oversized rearview. His face was too young—his voice not gruff enough. “I wish. Impalas are great cars. They’re tanks.”

Boone overpaid him for the faire. “Keep it,” he said, and climbed out of the cab.

The cabbie thanked him as he roared off. Gospel echoed down the street.

Carson’s house was a far-cry from the apartment above the video store with the porno backroom. He was back to the suburbs, a few neighborhoods from the house Boone grew up in, where his parents still lived.

Inside, Carson put together Legos with Boone’s nephew. They built cities only to tear them down and rebuild them better than before. They’d construct towers, leaving mismatched cornerstones. His nephew pushed it over with the wave of a hand—empires tumbled by a toddler. Sometimes, Carson’s wife Amber joined in the building. Sometimes, she just watched their little show from the couch.

Boone stood with one foot on the curb and one foot in the street. He teetered unbalanced with a duffel bag in one hand, his phone in the other. He thought about making a call, thought about who’d he call then thought better of it. He wasn’t ready and neither was she. Empires tumbled by toddlers.

He exhaled a breathy fog. A “Hallelujah” escaped.

NBR7BraceyphotosmallDG Bracey is a teacher, a student and a freelance writer from the Carolina coast. He’s published short stories in various journals and reports for a weekly alternative press. To keep up with him, like DG Bracey on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, and if you see him on the street, give him a wave.