By Joe Greco.
Jim Cranston sees the end of the road, quickens his pace. Sweat rivulets run underneath his plaid sport shirt, matting the gray hair on his chest. Ahead is one last crossroad, but no traffic light, no stop sign. He looks both ways. To the left are some rundown warehouses; to the right, a few scattered houses and a 7-Eleven. He jogs across the hot asphalt, bounding the last few steps and hopping onto the sidewalk like a baseball player completing a home run.
He walks ten paces to the end of the pavement. Beyond is an empty field, bordered by a cyclone fence. He studies the last square of sidewalk, perfectly formed, framed by wild grass. Then he notices the jagged asphalt, gradually blending and disappearing into dirt and gravel. He smiles.
He pulls the cell phone from his pants pocket, dials. He hears three rings, then Betty’s voice. “Hello? Jim?”
“I made it. All the way down Washington Boulevard. You should see it. Crosses Summer and just stops. Wow!”
“My God, Jim. It’s scorching hot outside. I’ll come get you. Say again where you are.”
“End of Washington. You might say intersection of Washington and Summer. But can you really call it an intersection? There’s probably no more than twenty feet of pavement past Summer.”
Betty hesitates. Jim knows what she’s thinking. Last year one of their best friends had started wandering off for no particular reason. They’d learned he had Alzheimer’s.
Jim clears his throat. “Betty, I’m not lost for Pete’s sake. I know where I’m going. When the road ends, I stop.”
“I’m leaving the house right now.”
Jim puts the phone in his pocket. He thinks about waiting for her, asking her to get out of the car, pointing out the jagged asphalt against the last perfectly laid square of sidewalk. But he isn’t sure he can explain his excitement about it, so he turns and begins walking back up Washington.
Betty Wilkins met Jim when they were in the third grade. He spent Saturday mornings in the library while the other boys played baseball. He knew all the answers in class; sometimes he seemed to know more than the teacher. But the other kids would point at him and laugh.
In fourth grade he announced that he’d build a bottle rocket and launch it to Mars. The rocket soared forty yards before it shattered his neighbors’ garage window.
In high school he earned an A+ in advanced calculus freshman year; the same in physics sophomore year. He told everyone he would go to Harvard or MIT, then become an astronaut. By the time he was a junior, he made his spending money tutoring fellow students.
Betty was the prettiest girl in class. Her friends were not his. But she approached him one day, said she needed a C in physics to be on the cheer-leading squad that fall. She would pay him, of course, from the money she made babysitting and working part time at the hamburger stand.
Jim’s heart leapt. He didn’t care about the money; he would tutor her for free, anytime she wanted. There was just one condition. She had to want more than a C. He could explain Einstein’s theory of special relativity, he told her. Then general relativity. She would understand, he told her. She would understand just fine.
They sat together on the spring grass in the courtyard eating their lunches. He took a pen and sketched numbers and curves on her brown paper lunch sack. On the first day she thought he might be playing a joke on her. On the second day she knew he really expected her to understand everything. On the third day she asked a simple question and he smiled at her for the first time. Behind his black-framed glasses she saw eyes blue like the May sky.
Betty pulls the Buick to the curb. Jim climbs in.
“My God, Jim, you’re drenched with sweat.” She hands him a bottle of water. “Drink it. Do you know how easily a man your age can get heatstroke?”
He drinks. She drives, steers into the left lane, makes a U-turn. They ride in silence past three traffic lights.
“I was thinking last night about Washington,” he says. “I used to take it to work back in the eighties. Before they put in the freeway, of course. Remember?”
“I suppose. It was a long time ago.”
“But I’d always turn on Crandall, never go farther south. Up and back. Back and forth.”
“There was no need to do otherwise.”
“Maybe I thought I didn’t have the time to see where it went. After Crandall, I mean. Or maybe I just wasn’t interested.”
“Or maybe you had more important things to do. Like your job, your family.”
“Maybe. But, anyway, it’s different now. I wanted to know where it ends.”
She begins to speak, then reconsiders. They drive home silently.
Jim asked Betty to the Spring prom two weeks into senior year. She knew he was afraid someone else would ask first; she laughed, but said yes.
On prom night he arrived in a white tuxedo with a ruffled violet shirt. When he pinned a large white orchid corsage on her pale green evening gown, he told her the flower’s Latin name.
When they danced close during the slower songs, Betty wondered whether she really understood anything of relativity.
Betty parks the Buick in the driveway. She opens the house’s front door. He follows her inside.
“I’ll fix your lunch,” she says.
“I’m not hungry. I’ll just have some iced tea.”
“You should eat. Go sit in the living room. I’ll bring it to you on a tray.”
Jim sits in the recliner. The coolness of the air-conditioned room descends deliciously onto his hot skin. He closes his eyes and thinks about the end of the road. He grips the arms of the chair in excitement. If only he could make her understand what he’s feeling, he thinks. But some things are so difficult to explain.
Jim stayed home, went to state college. They married at twenty-one. He finished his degree, found a job designing computer chips. His job was to shrink, make smaller, squeeze more miniature electronics onto the silicon. They had a son and a daughter. The children inherited his knack for math. He never missed a day of work. He fixed every plumbing and electrical problem in their house. After five years of marriage, she convinced him not to wear white socks with his gray slacks and black oxfords. On Saturday mornings they’d go grocery shopping, and she’d let him buy a maple doughnut at the bakery.
Their daughter has Jim’s blue eyes. She drives eighty miles, hugs her mother, makes a pot of tea.
“Is he really in any danger, Mom? It sounds like it ends up just being a long walk.”
Betty shakes her head. “It’s not a walk. It’s some weird obsession, Grace. He could end up anywhere, anywhere the street he follows goes.”
“What do you think it is? Is he depressed? Scared?”
“Of what, Grace? Of death? Of no longer being useful? Doesn’t it seem damned obvious? It’s so damned obvious, it’s silly.”
“Did you ask him about it?”
“Oh, I asked him. You know what he did? He laughed at me. He told me that I was being silly.”
“He must have told you something, given you some explanation?”
“Sure. Because he wants to know where the roads end. That’s it. Believe it?”
“I don’t know. It’s so weird. Even for him, it’s just so weird.”
As the years passed, he tried to socialize with Betty’s friends, the insurance salespeople, the lawyers, the government clerks. Sometimes he tried to speak to them about things they couldn’t understand. Sometimes they nodded their heads politely; sometimes they held back their laughter. Sometimes Betty was embarrassed. Sometimes she stared out the window, wondering why she’d accepted a prom date in September.
“You’re worrying her, Dad,” Grace says.
He nods his head slowly. “I know. I’m not sure what to do about it, though.”
“Can you explain to me? Maybe I can help.”
He stands, turning away, looking out the window. “I can’t even begin to tell you how fascinating I find it. Where roads end, I mean.”
“OK.” Grace nods, folding her arms slowly. “But why? It’s a little—“
“That’s not what I mean. It’s just a little, well, troubling.”
“It shouldn’t trouble you. Did I ever tell you that I built a bottle rocket when I was nine years old?”
“No. I would’ve remembered that.”
“I was aiming for Mars. I was so convinced I was going to succeed, maybe not right then, but some day. Damned thing flew pretty well. Too bad it hit the McDonnells’ garage window. My parents made me apologize for building that beautiful rocket, made me promise not to build another one. I had to mow lawns for three weeks to pay for that window.”
He walks to the window and stares out, saying nothing. She fidgets, waiting for him to speak. “Maybe I should go,” she says, rising from her chair.
When Grace was nine years old, Jim taught her how to make a kite and how to fly it. He never gave her answers to her math homework, only questions. In his study on his desk he kept a photo of her mother in a red and white cheer-leading uniform, leaping, smiling, auburn hair cascading over white sweater.
“Wait,” he says.
Grace stops. “It’s OK, Dad, if you don’t want to talk about it.”
“Gracie, I so loved you guys. But sometimes I used to stare out the window wondering whether I really could have been an astronaut. One night I dreamed I’d shrunk myself like one of those miniature circuits on a computer chip and climbed into my bottle rocket, and I blasted off for Mars. I looked back at the Earth and I said to myself, ‘How about that? There’s the North Pole.’ And then I awoke, and I felt sick.”
Grace had never seen her father cry. But now she noticed mist in his eyes and his lower lip trembling, slightly.
Jim couldn’t concentrate on his work. They offered him a decent compensation package to retire. He accepted it, knew he didn’t have a choice. On his last day they took him to a Chinese restaurant and sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
Grace convinces her mother to go for a drive. She steers the car down Washington, past Summer, and parks near the curb. She opens the car door. “Let’s get out, take a look.”
They walk to the end of the sidewalk. Grace points. “It’s just like he told me, Mom. The last square. It’s perfect.”
“But look at the asphalt. It looks like they just stopped at a coffee break and never came back. Why did they go to the trouble of perfectly laying the sidewalk, but let the road end in a jagged mess?”
“Who knows? Who cares?”
“He does. He wants to know. He wants to know why some paths end like that sidewalk; why others end like the asphalt.”
“What difference does it make?”
“It makes all the difference in the world. Stop worrying about him.”
Betty stares at Grace for a moment, turns back slowly towards the car. “I don’t know what to do with him. He won’t take up golf. He won’t join my bridge club.” Betty sighs. “Maybe I could get him to go on a cruise. Like other people our age. Would it be so damned bad to act like other people our age?”
“Well, ask him, Mom. Do they have any cruises to the North Pole?”
“Never mind. Maybe Alaska. Start with Alaska. You’ll never know till you try.”
JOE GRECO is a Northern California lawyer and writer. He has an A.B. from Dartmouth College and a J.D. from Stanford Law School. His short stories have appeared in Long Story Short, Emprise Review, 34th Parallel, Bartleby Snopes, Still Crazy, Right Hand Pointing, FictionDaily, and others publications.