Traffic Islandby Matthew Kirby
Jennifer Bryson Boyce went by the name of Niffer because there were too many Jens in Catoosa County. She didn’t know, exactly, how to boil potatoes. She dumped some potatoes into a pot and turned the knob to HIGH/LIGHT. Her kitchen got a little sun, which was good, but it buzzed. It shook a little and she could feel it through her slippers. But what did she want? It was a historic building. It was the offices where General So-and-So stayed after Atlanta burned. She tried to picture the general and his men wandering around her kitchen wearing the kind of tight, grey military pants that showed off their butts. Their butts were like the butts of horses, as are the butts of all men who ride horses. She imagined the General opening the door to her humming refrigerator and bending over to pluck out a Fanta. She crossed the kitchen in her padded slippers, took the Fanta from his hand and opened if for him. He didn’t know how, because he was from the olden times.
Their eyes met. He was crying a big old, silky tear for Atlanta. She wiped it away with a paper towel and kissed him. He stuck his tongue in her mouth. She grabbed his tight, horse’s butt.
Why was it that horses were generally attractive to women? And it wasn’t that they had big units, which was what Dobb had told her. As a matter of fact their units were a little too big, and oddly shaped, like turkey basters, instead of men’s units which had a nice, military look like submarines, at least the good ones did. The bad ones were more like mushrooms. Dobb’s unit was alright. It was kind of like a submarine that had collided with an iceberg and come away a little bent, dented on one side.
Niffer looked out the kitchen window to where there was some grass, then some forsythias, a gravel drive and the backside of some kind of a processing plant. She often wondered about the plant. Its walls were white, with red rust stains making their way downwards in interesting patterns. Every once in a while a man in a white painter’s outfit with a rubber apron would come around the side of the building and check on the pipes that stuck out of the wall. Once he tightened some sort of valve and Niffer could see his rear end straining with the effort. Definitely not horse-butt. He was the sort of man who had a big belly that was tight, like a drum; an inwardly curved back and a small, scrunchy baboon’s butt. He was slightly bowlegged too. It was not entirely unsexy.
She poked one of the potatoes with a fork. It felt hard, like a water chestnut. She picked up a box of macaroni and cheese and read the directions. Milk, butter: she had not foreseen a need for these ingredients. She had been relieved when she bought the box. ‘Macaroni and cheese,’ she had thought. ‘What could be easier?’ Now she felt duped. She would have to walk to the Bi-Lo, since Dobb had the car.
Walking to the Bi-Lo, she felt left out. The town planners apparently had not foreseen the possibility that one’s significant other might have taken one’s car to haul some cables in and have left his own car, a straight shift, in its place. Where she walked was a combination between a grassy ditch and a strip of gravel. By the time she got to the underpass it had turned into a nothing. A nothing with half of a dead raccoon lying in it.
Looking past the raccoon, to where the highway split, she saw a grassy expanse surrounding a patch of trees: a traffic island. Niffer had never given much thought to traffic islands in the past, but there it was, golden and meaningless in the evening sun. The trees were of some weedy variety she always saw on the sides of highways during road trips. She wished she knew the names of things sometimes. The raccoon lay motionless at her feet while the wind moved little tufts of its fur. She thought about the Bi-Lo with its cold isles; rude, anorexic cashiers and stumbling bag boys. She thought about the smell of freezer burn and leaking dairy products and more and more she didn’t feel like dealing with dinner. She felt more like hiding, like facing nothing, like curling up into that which is not. The trees on the traffic island waved their meaningless arms at her, beckoning. "Hello trees," she said.
There were two structures: a beige, brick box, like a break area for amusement park employees or something and a brown dome along the lines of a wooden pup-tent. Jennifer Bryson Boyce didn’t dispute their existence, since she didn’t know what to expect in the middle of such an un-place as a traffic island. In front of the structures were two men, able-bodied and young, sitting on tree stumps and doing absolutely nothing else. Maybe they were more like boys. Well, they had the bodies of men. Especially the one with the beard. That one had an especially manly body. It was kind of a shame, she thought, for it to be wasted like that: on a stump on an island in the middle of nowhere. Who was it that said if you have a lamp you should put in on a hill instead of hiding it under a bucket? Niffer decided this was more her style of conundrum, this issue of this manly waste, than butter and milk and the realms of condiment obscurity.
"The snow fell over my life in October of nineteen-ninety-four," the bearded one explained. "My enlightenment came at no great cost. At no personal sacrifice or inconvenience. You see, I did nothing anyway. My daily activities were conducted in a stew of boredom and fear. My waking question at that time: was I huge, like a God? Or insignificant, unknown or worse "unaccountable."
He introduced himself as Steady, which was a shortening of Steadfast Stanley. His shirt was yellow, with the name of a county in Northern California screen printed on the front and a lot of holes on the shoulders. "Now I pretty much raise chickens, which isn’t all that difficult." He gestured vaguely in the direction of an empty chicken coop. The door was open and most of the chickens had climbed up a neighboring tree. "Just scatter seed once a day and figure out where the hell they’re laying their eggs. Recently they’ve been laying them up in Byron’s tree house. They can’t hide from me, can they Byron?"
Byron was a tall kid in corduroys who looked least like he belonged on a traffic Island. Maybe it was his haircut, which seemed a little bit too layered. Byron left the tree he had been leaning against and sat on the other side of Niffer. He broke a stick on the underside of his shoe and started making hash marks in the dirt as he spoke.
"Those hens don’t stand a chance against the logistical genius of this man right here," Byron said, pointing the end of his stick at Steady Stan. His arms were ropy and tan and the bones in them jutted out at nice angles as he moved. Niffer nudged the side of his shoe with hers:
"So what about you, Byron?" He tilted his head barely to one side, considering.
"Well, I was at Tulane for three months. Supposedly, I was considering getting into public health. Then I had a trailer in the back of one of my Dad’s properties. Played some cards, smoked a little pot. Edited a zine that was pretty much, you know, witty. I had articles about aliens, about different bike trails you could take, a mock wedding announcement section that pretty much just trashed these lame people I knew. I wrote most of the stories in it myself."
"And after that, let’s see, I worked occasionally. Handed out leaflets for my dad when he was running for District Assembly. He lost, but I got paid. And his friend won in her district so dad got me a job with her as a kind of a personal assistant. She fired me though," he said, looking at the ground. "There was this school boundary redistricting meeting and I came wearing this tie I have with little boxing snowmen boxing on it. Just for that she canned me. It was my only tie."
The three of them sat with their feet in the dust as the sun descended and its light was splintered by the trees. A couple of leaves fell softly into the dirt. Steady spit sunflower seeds while they all listened to the gentle creaking of the shrubbery, the chewing of ants.
Then the ducks started up. They came from somewhere behind the chicken coop in rapid single file with their slick chests puffed out. The chickens lamented the arrival of the ducks by throwing clods of dirt up in the air with their wings and making high pitched gurgling that Niffer didn’t know chickens could make. Her knowledge of farm animal vocabulary was limited to the Old McDonald Karaoke Keyboard she destroyed by submerging in her own urine when she was eight. The ducks tore around the stump sitting area like miniature, ambitious race car drivers. Apparently, the shiny man-ducks wanted a piece of the mousy looking female. She sort of half flew and half ran, flapping into trees and falling out of bushes. Steady and Byron were on their feet and howling. "Gerrrrrrrrrrtrude! Show those cheeky bastards what you made of, sister. Get on over, baby girl!" Every once and a while one of the cheeky bastards would manage to mount the poor sister and in those moments Niffer practically fell off her stump trying to see whether the man-ducks had little units or what. Much to the relief of the chickens it was over quickly, with Gertrude honking out a tartish victory rasp and Byron and Steady settling down to their stumps happily.
Byron explained that when Gertrude made her entrance it signified that the time had come on the traffic island to start drinking beer. So Steady got the beer out of a tub in the wooden dome and cracked one open with great, slow earnestness, resting the can on one broad, hairy knee.
"What do you do, sister?" he asked Niffer quietly.
"Oh," she said, and readjusted herself on the stump. "I don’t raise chickens." And then for some reason Byron started playing the harmonica. His lips were wide and salmon colored and his eyes bulged a little. He was like a newt or something; a long, skinny frog. His harmonica playing was soft and tuneful, though. It felt alright. "I used to work as a foot and calf model in Atlanta," she went on, "Now I really don’t do much of— well, sometimes I try to prepare things. Like macaroni and cheese, or other food products." Stanley was nodding his head at her very seriously with his eyes woven together by a close series of brown hairs. Byron continued to play slowly, weaving back and forth. She pictured him sitting on a deck chair on the Titanic, blowing his harmonica into the wind.
"Honestly I’m not really good at food. As a foot and calf model, I had to spend a lot of time with my feet up so I didn’t really, you know, do anything. I mainly just went on the internet and shot at my little brother with my Super Soaker. But then he figured out how to explode barbeque packets on me with his slingshot, so I didn’t even do that. I just went on the internet." She looked at Steadfast Stanley to see if he was listening, but he just sat there, cross-legged with his eyes closed. The sweat from his beer was creating dark mud spots on his dusty hand. A potato bug was preening itself on his other knee. The lapse in the conversation made Niffer sad. The world had too many parts that couldn’t be fit together, not by her. "Basically Stanly, I don’t know. I live behind a factory that I don’t know what they make. I need to go to the Bi-Lo. There’s no way to walk there. My husband took my car to move some cables. My floor shakes. It’s a historic building but I don’t know why." She looked at the potato bug on his knee. She wanted to hand him the broken vessel of her life.
Stanly opened his sweaty eyes and spoke. "We live on a traffic island; we subsist on chicken eggs and the money we make from their sale. How long will we remain like this? Who knows. Are there others like us? A few that we know of. Look," he said again, flicking a seedpod randomly into space, "history is up to something very strange right now. Something will happen. I promise it, ma’am."
Leaf fell upon leaf. The chickens joined Byron in his dirge. He began to play so softly she could barely hear him. Then he just stopped, on one awkward half note; incidentally. He put the harmonica in his lap and she looked at it. It gleamed like some grandfatherly thing dragged out of her fading memory. She looked at his lap and a seed pod fell in her hair.
Later that night, after she had finished having sex with Dobb, Niffer sat on the edge of the bed to wipe. She looked at his sleeping body. Dobb: cable mover, straight shift driver, gritty macaroni eater. She slipped on her padded slippers and went quietly into the kitchen. Through the window, she could see the rear wall of the processing plant looming with silent intent. The refrigerator buzzed softly in the moonlight and she reached into its momentary illumination to pluck out a Fanta. The fuzz-coated sugariness of it tasted good and complemented the vibration of the linoleum.
Gradually, the room filled up with other ghosts. An Iroquois man adjusted his headdress in the darkness. Two visiting Quakers tapped the leftover tobacco out of their pipes and into their extended palms. A freed slave reclined against the cabinet and the moonlight reflected off the sweat of his bare, muscular shoulders.
"I heard you went to the traffic island this evening," he said as Niffer popped the top off a cool Fanta and handed it to him.
"Yes, well, I just couldn’t deal with the supermarket today; with the cashiers and the aisles. You know?" He nodded, drumming his fingers on the countertop, and took a long pull on his drink. The Iroquois man cleared his throat.
"Supposedly, they’re planning on shutting that Bi-Lo down next month."
"It wouldn’t surprise me," the freed slave replied. "Everybody goes to the one on Ringgold Road anyhow. The vegetables are fresher."
Matthew Kirby lives with his wife near the parade grounds in Brooklyn. He is working on a collection of short stories and co-designs the literary annual Raised in a Barn.