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Louise Turan

What Changes


     Woods had a phone, Walter did not. He closed his account, believing it made more sense to get a new one with a California number once they got there. Who was going to call him anyway? The only person was his sister, Tee, and she was so pissed she might never talk to him again. Woods kept his because they’d need a phone for directions and weather, as well as contacting his uncle when they got to San Diego. It’s not like they have phone booths anymore. Walter shrugged. It didn’t seem to matter either way. They weren’t planning on coming back.
      On the day of departure, they stopped at the South End Grocery Store at 5 a.m. The small store opened early for lobstermen and laborers. Steam blew off their coffee as they made their way back to Walter’s truck, both agreeing how great it’d be to never see freezing temperatures again. 
     Walter took the first shift. He liked driving but mostly just liked his Ford pickup, a trusted friend he could count on. Seen him through a lot, this truck. Best friend he ever had and was the only thing he owned in the whole damn world. Except for the backpack, sleeping bag, and a few clothes in the back, and $200 in his wallet. He and his sister, Tee, were brought up in foster care, ending up somewhere, though that somewhere was not what a kid would wish for: surviving with the bare minimum. Walter never got in the habit of owning things, things that tied you down, like bank accounts, or phones, or homes, or jobs where you worked for someone else. Never in his wildest dreams did he ever think he’d be driving to California. The deal with Woods’s uncle sounded pretty good, which is mostly why he agreed to go, and besides, he had no better options. But he kept his thoughts to himself, which is what he did most of the time. He’d never been a talker to begin with. 
     Woods was lost in his own thoughts. Buying Joey’s window-cleaning business, what he thought would be a piece of cake, had turned into a nightmare. He knew nothing about budgeting, juggling a schedule, or maintaining the equipment and supplies. He lost one client after the other, all of them wondering what the hell happened to Joey and who the hell was he? When he told his mother he had lost all the money she had given him, he expected the usual—anger, criticism, blame—but Ronnie said nothing. He thought maybe the way she looked, pale and drawn, was a reflection of his news. Instead she urged him to take what was left and leave Rockland. Her brother Jerome in San Diego would help set him up with a place to live and maybe even a job. Just go, she said. There’s nothing left for you here. It may be your last chance to turn things around. 
     Waiting for his coffee to cool, Woods reached in his jacket pocket for a cigarette. He lit it with a match because his phone was plugged into the truck’s lighter. Walter turned his head and glared.
      “Hey, put that out, man. You know my rule. No smoking in the truck.”
     Woods opened the window, ushering in a blast of chill, and tossed his butt. In his side mirror he watched the red sparks hit the pavement and melt in the blackness. 
     “Sorry. I thought it didn’t matter, you know.”
     “No. Rules are rules. Nothing has changed.” 
     Woods pushed his hood back, his voice testy.  
     “But isn’t that the point? Change? Something better than what we had back there?” Woods drew an emphatic thumb in the opposite direction and then crossed his arms. 
      “Yeah, you’re right,” Walter said after a long silence. “We want something better.”  
     “Okay, now I have a rule,” Woods said slowly. “No more talk about home, about the ‘back there.’” 
     “Okay, no more talking about back there.” 
     Woods threw up his arms.   
     “Walter, are you going to repeat everything I say all the way to San Diego? We haven’t even gotten to Bath, which means forty miles down, more than thirty-one hundred to go.”
     “Well, you brought it up. Talking about back there,” Walter grumbled.
     Woods had finished his breakfast sandwich but he was hungry. He reached into the knapsack at his feet and pulled out a candy bar. He held it in Walter’s direction. 
     “Wanna bite?” Woods offered, like an apology.
     “No, thanks. Mind the wrapper.”
     Woods crunched the shiny paper in a ball and mimicked trying to swallow it. 
     Walter’s laughter was what he expected, but the bright sound jolted him. He sunk down in the seat, closing his eyes to images bulldozing their way into his brain. His father’s body sprawled on the floor of the trailer. Leaving Marion and his mother, barely saying goodbye. Losing everything he owned. 
     “This is crazy, isn’t it?” Woods said, becoming solemn.   
     Walter looked at Woods for a minute and then back at the road.     

     “No, it isn’t,” Walter replied forcefully, surprising them both.
     Woods’s phone lit up the dark cab. A call from his Aunt Carol. No more talk about home. Woods turned it off. 


     Ronnie finished folding laundry and went to the back bedroom. She was sleeping on the first floor, not only to let Woods have his privacy on the second but also because she was too tired to take the stairs. Her doctor said they’d move her into hospice care soon.     

     What to make of her last few months of life, she wondered. She imagined this is what happened at the end, when death came, wondering about all the regrets, the what-ifs, the whys and could-have-beens. These thoughts were consuming her night and day, and she longed for peace of mind, some kind of knowing if change was possible. How to transform herself into the mother she could and should have been, a mother who loves her child unconditionally, who cares and is compassionate. This kind of love seemed to come naturally to others, like all the women she knew at the grocery store. She remembered their stories, the sharing of pictures. How attentive they were to their children’s needs, supplying never-ending hugs and kisses, talking in soothing voices that caressed instead of shamed. The love she knew, and the one she gave, was wordless and measured, and never without a cause or reason. That is the reality. Life is not soft and mushy. It is hard and tough, full of potholes and disappointments. Woods had learned to see the world through her eyes, though she remembered, at times, his warm little arms reaching for hers, how she had turned away. So much easier than commitment or the risk required by loving and being loved back. Better to withhold and safeguard hearts, but for what? she asked herself now. Was there anything left to ask for or give? Was it too late for her and Woods? 
     The weight loss from the cancer was beginning to show, as much as she tried to hide it with baggy winter clothes. Her skin was pulled tight against her cheekbones, her blue eyes red and rheumy. Carol, her sister, was the only one who knew the truth. Woods had temporarily moved home, but she had not told him. He planned to go back to his father’s trailer as soon as he got the place cleaned up. Woods said he’d get to it eventually.
     She heard the back door in the kitchen open and close, a pair of stomping feet from the snow.
     “Is that you, Woods?” she called from the back bedroom.
     “Yeah,” he slurred. 
     Empathy. Compassion. Understanding. She searched for those feelings blindly, like something lost in the dark. The kitchen cabinets creaked open, rummaging sounds, water running, plastic bag ripped open. Footsteps down the hall, approaching. He stood in the door frame, his hand deep in a chip bag, his mouth full.
     “Whassa mattah? You sick?” He chewed loudly. His shoulder tried to find a stationary spot on the door frame but kept missing.
     “No,” Ronnie said. “What’s the matter with you?” 
     “You’re drunk. You’re gonna get fired.”
     “So what? Been fired before.” He jammed his hand in the bag, making crunching noises.
     “Drinking is bad for you, Woods. Your dad died because of it.”
     “Like you care,” Woods laughed. 
     Ronnie paused before responding. Here they were, going down the same path, saying the same things, hurt taking over like a storm. She took a deep breath.
     “I do. Care,” she said, breath rushing out. Her heart beat hard against her chest, as if wanting to jump out, begging to talk. 
     “Ha, since when?” His laugh turning ugly. 
     With effort she pulled herself up and gripped the edge of bed, facing him. 
     “Since now. I want to change. Both of us start over,” she pleaded.
     Woods stiffened.
     “You mean, like you’ll be the perfect mom, and I’ll be the perfect son? We’ll bake cookies together. You’ll tie my shoes and call me your dear son instead of a terrible disgrace?” 
     Ronnie held up her hand and surrendered her head to the pillows. 
     “Forget it. I thought we could make things good between us for once. Before,” she added.
     “Before what?” he asked suspiciously. 
     “Listen, Woods,” she said, her voice weakening. “I sold the house. I’m moving in with my sister next week. You’ll have to move too.”
     Her news sobered him speechless. 
     “I got forty-five thousand dollars for the house, the barn, and three acres,” she continued. “I’m giving you a third, the rest to Carol and her kids. God knows they need it,” she sighed. 
     Ronnie watched her son’s mind come alive again and then darken.  
      “Okay, so what’s the catch?” Woods looked skeptical.
      “No catch. Take the money and do something good with your life. Maybe you and Marion get married. Fix up the trailer. Go back to school. Get a good job.”
     Woods stared at her. 
     “You’re talkin’ crazy now.”
     “I know.” She turned over, her back to him. “I need to sleep.”
     Woods stepped closer to the bed. 
     “Mom, when can I have the money? I heard about this window-cleaning business. My friend Joey is selling real cheap. I was gonna quit my job at Dragon anyway,” Woods said with renewed energy. 
     She spoke so softly he barely heard her say, soon. Or did she say son?


     Most nights they pulled into a truck stop, had dinner, then slept in the cab. They covered the back of the truck with a tarp, rolled out a camping mattress and sleeping bags. One night, outside San Antonio, it rained like cats and dogs, so they splurged for a roadside motel. Lights out, the odor of their take-out burgers and fries lingered and mixed with the small, musty room. Walter couldn’t sleep. He had been doing most of the driving and was still pretty wound-up, like his feet were still pumping the gas and brakes. 
     Going to California was either going to be the best thing he’d ever done or the worst. Walter wouldn’t be surprised if it was the worst. He wouldn’t know a best thing if it hit him. His sister, Felicity, agreed. Everyone called her Tee, though, because Felicity was an odd name for someone born miserable.


     Driving all the way across country was the dumbest thing she’d ever heard of. For what? Jobs they didn’t have? Like California was some kind of fucking end-of-the-rainbow? She hated her life too, but what if Walter got there and found nothing, a pot of shit instead of gold? And what if Woods dumped him? As far as she was concerned, Woods had been a bad influence on her brother since high school. She also knew that Woods was frequently Walter’s protector. Both were very tall boys, Woods pale, thin as a rail, and Walter pudgy and square-built with dark hair, heavy brows, and a slight underbite. Kids called him “Cave Man” and Woods “Pipe Man.” They were a pair, those two, apart for a long time until this crazy idea of moving to California brought them together again. Leaving was all Woods’s idea, his fault, Tee said. Agreeable, nice Walter. Walter the Wuss. He had never stood up to anybody his whole life. He was not a fighter, not like her. 
     But she was partly jealous. Walter had nothing to tie him down, no wife, no kids, while she was stuck being a single mom with her two kids. At least her job at the grocery didn’t suck, so they had enough for the basics, which was better than most. At the grocery store she had been friends with Woods’s mom. She and Ronnie joked about starting a club, “Rockin’ Single Moms of Rockland.” There were so many of them, wives with no and no-good husbands. If it wasn’t alcohol or getting a fist in your face, it was about trying to survive with the few good jobs that existed beyond seasonal work in towns where everyone came to vacation but not to live.
     Tee wanted to leave and find a better life too. She remembered growing up, not having electricity for weeks, not having food, unbearable times with some good mixed in, but the older she got, it was bad all the time with no good at all. Tee didn’t tell Walter she was going to miss him like hell. She had decided long ago to never let herself miss anything or need anyone. It hurt too much, and hurt was a waste of time because it got you nowhere. Instead, the night before he left, she gave Walter a piece of her mind. Things she needed to say and things he needed to know for his own good. Go as far away as you want but it won’t change nothin’.


     They were driving through the Arizona desert, the endless highway stretching into the horizon in a long, black line. Usually driving helped Walter keep his mind off things, but the sameness of the landscape, the yellow and brown scrub, one reddish-colored mountain after the other, made it worse. Tee’s goodbye rang in his ears like a curse. He knew she was telling the truth because it made him feel uneasy, out of sorts, like wearing brand new clothes. He had said the same to Woods, told him about what Tee had said, about nothing changing. Woods shook his head.
     “Tee is wrong. Everything has changed. You and me. We are not the same. We are not the same failures we were if we had stayed. We are going to start over.” Woods pounded his fist in the air. 
     “Start over,” Walter nodded.
     Woods rolled his eyes.
     “Walter, repeat after me. Our lives are going to be great.” 
     “Our lives are going to be great.”
     Woods threw his head back and laughed.
     “What’s so funny?” Walter groused.
     “Because these past five days you’ve been repeating everything I say, and it’s been driving me crazy, and now I want you to repeat what I say!” Woods slapped his knee.
     Walter was not amused.
     “Hey, you want me to drive? You’ve been goin’ on six hours.” Woods yawned and stretched.
     “Sure, but I think we may be lost. I haven’t seen a road sign for miles.”
      Walter pulled over on the shoulder, and they got out of the truck. Before getting in the driver’s side, Woods checked his phone. It had been turned off for days. Fifteen missed calls from his aunt. Fourteen voice messages. He played the most recent one, from two days ago. 
     Woods, it’s Aunt Carol. I’ve been trying to reach you. Why don’t you pick up? Your mom didn’t tell you before you left but now I gotta. She’s got cancer. She’s in hospice and they say it won’t be long now. I hope you get this.
     Woods leaned up against the side of the truck, shielding his eyes, staring out into the vast landscape of mountains and plains. Shadows were lengthening but temperatures had not dropped. 
     “Nothin’ says we can’t go back, you know,” Walter said. “No rules this time.”
     Woods knew Walter meant it as a joke, to try and make him laugh. Woods turned his head and looked at Walter. 
     “Thanks, Walter, you’re a good man.”
     They stood next to each other in the silence and heat of the desert.
     Woods got in the driver’s seat. With no cars coming either way, he made a sharp U-turn and sped in the other direction. The hot Arizona road slipped beneath them. 

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