The save-our-street strategy

Jennifer Murphy, White God’s Eye. 2010, sticks and yarn. Courtesy Clint Roenisch Gallery.

Mommy and Daddy hate the other street. The other street used to be just another street, but now it wants to give us its traffic, to cause us pain. Now Mommy and Daddy host meetings in our house like it is union times. If it were union times, we wouldn’t have a house, or artichoke appetizers for the other angry people, but the spirit would be the same. I’ve never seen Mommy and Daddy so worked up. Usually, they’re at work. They just go to work and they hardly have friends. Not like me, who’s always on the phone, dampening the little holes. They got me Line 2, and when it’s for me, they yell, “Line 2!” like it’s my name. I never even noticed the traffic on our street. I don’t even drive.

“You still call them that?” says Kira, a friend who also has her own line. “I stopped calling my parents Mommy and Daddy when I learned to tie my shoes.”

“You’re so mature,” I say. “Can you give me maturity lessons?”

Daddy tells me to get off the phone, it’s time for Save-Our-Street strategy.

Daddy, he’s incensed about the other street, his neck bullfrogging out over his tie. He’s not even loosening the tie anymore, just gets home from work and starts dialing his new friends, Bruce and Bruce, the other save-the-street fanatics. Daddy’s got a widower friend now, too, and the never-married Vietnamese woman with a Long Island accent who gardens. She plants bulbs, waves him over for the update.

“They’ve got a lawyer now,” she hisses, smushing dirt. “That’s OK,” he says. “We’ve got the mafia.”

Daddy jokes, but only with our street. With the other street, he makes a point of racing down it, pounding the horn. He goes to town meetings and curses the mayor, whose name is May Hamburger. May Hamburger is in somebody’s pocket on the other street. They claim their street, Longview, is too narrow to have two-way traffic. Last spring, they say, a child almost died. Our street, Hillview, is wider; a thoroughfare, a boulevard. Hillview can accommodate.

But Mommy says they’re just worried about property values. The Longviewers, she says, only care about money.

“That kid did need stitches,” I say.

“Longviewers are selfish. They could care less if we live or if we die.” She’s folding chairs.

“How much did our house cost?” I ask.

“A lot,” says Daddy.

“It’s about safety,” she says, plunking a chair against a chair. “It’s about not getting stepped on. You know, the Longviewers hired a lawyer.”

“This is like the Balkans,” I say. “This is how ethnic conflict gets started.”

We did ethnic conflict last year in Integrated Studies, which is English and Social Studies combined in a classroom with an accordion divider. This year, we’re reading our thirty-seventh Steinbeck and getting quizzed on kamikaze pilots. Did they:

A) Drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima?

B) Fly on wind power alone?

C) Undertake suicide missions on behalf of the Japanese government during World War II?

D) Strafe Longview?

At least we’re not learning about Helen Keller anymore. Sometimes I write invisible letters on Kira’s hand in Integrated Studies. T-H-I-S (flat palm) S-U-C-K-S. We’re not making fun of Helen Keller, just using her techniques to get by. We have our own handicaps. Boys who crack Helen Keller jokes ignore our collective lack of breast. They’re probably from Longview.

No, Kira doesn’t live on the other street. She’s just a friend from the town. Kira thinks my parents are “awesome.” Once, I think, she saw them kissing.

Awesome Daddy is now shouting “furthermore” into a tape recorder.

“He’s losing it,” says Mommy, not at all scared.

Did he ever have it? I really don’t know. In the photo albums, he looks peaceful, with a fatter tie. The albums are pre-me. Mommy and Daddy slide around under loose plastic flaps, in front of trolley cars, the Dead Sea. Maybe trolley cars are the answer to the problems of street. Maybe monorail. In Technology, we cut out articles about electric cars, then paste the articles onto paper a little bigger than the articles. Electric-car articles hang around the room, next to articles about maglev trains.

Kira and I sand a lot in Technology. Our bridges are almost soft. But hers, with tighter scaffolding and a two-pyramid base, holds more pebbles. My bridge is not strong. I keep working on it. It keeps breaking. I keep fixing it. The bridge project is a way to pass the quarter until it is time for the end of wood. Then we have Math. Math seems to be about fractions canceling each other out, about objects in space, and the cute fish of infinity.

“Furthermore,” Daddy repeats, almost kissing the tape recorder. “Furthermore, if the town chooses to make Longview Road a one-way street without a fair hearing, then we, the residents of Hillview Road, will be forced to take matters into our own hands and, in the tradition of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, take unlawful actions against an unjust government.” He clicks off.

“Are you crazy?” asks Mommy, now afraid. In between “He’s losing it” and “Are you crazy?” lies a whole sea of meaning.

“I’m mailing it to Hamburger tomorrow,” he says. “If she doesn’t respond before Wednesday, we’re taking the street.”

“Our own street?”

Daddy looks around for a padded envelope, and sees instead a potential ally, the girl who just aced her test on India.

“Hey, punko,” he says. “Want to show Longview what we’re made of?”

I think of the post-me albums, the diapers, the boys who make diaper jokes about Gandhi.

“Do you want me to get hit by a car on purpose?”

“No, just clean up your room before the meeting tomorrow.”

“They’re not going to go in my room.”

My bed’s been made. I trot downstairs, sling around the banister at the base. I pile some hot artichoke on a saltine. The chairs are out, evenly staggered, Mommy style. She’s very exacting about the chairs.

“Good job, Mom.”

Mom? It just comes out, her new name. Is this how it happens? One day you’re “Mommy, change me, feed me, sprinkle talc all over my naked body,” the next day you’re complimenting her on folding-chair spacing. Mommy doesn’t notice.

“I need to review the talking points,” she says. “Don’t eat all the dip before people get here.”

People get here. The gardener lady’s wearing lipstick, maybe hoping to meet another enraged single. She’s dreaming, though, because except for me and the widower, it’s all furious couples in sweaters.

Daddy has maps, crudités, an easel.

“That was my easel,” I say, to nobody. Nobody asked to borrow it, either.

“The morning commute won’t be affected by the one-way chokehold Longview is imposing, since cars can still use both Longview and Hillview to go west,” he says, drawing parallel sedans going west. “But we want to get some folks out to protest Longview in the mornings, too. Bruce? Lillian?

“The evenings are when we have our real battle. As the streets parallel, we will get all of Longview’s eastbound commuter traffic.” He draws a fat line of trucks trying to go east.

“Not on our watch!” screams a Bruce.

“Not our kids,” says a wife, pointing at me. There’s applause. I represent something, a kid who might run into the street, basted by a car that should have been on Longview.

“She knows not to run into the street,” says Daddy. “But, as I said in the tape I sent City Hall, some kids don’t. And that’s why we’re not going to let these Longviewers commute in peace, day or night, until we get this one-way farce reversed and traffic is flowing freely on both streets in both directions again!” He draws cars going in both directions.

“Sign up for a morning or evening shift depending on your work schedule. Stay-at-home moms, we need you right now.”

Mommy calls them nonworking mothers.

Wish my parents cared about something,” says Kira. She’s using ketchup packets to make a rag look bloody for a skit we have to do about The Pearl. She’s going to play the mother and me the father. A doll is playing our baby. A Tic Tac is playing the pearl.

“You live on a cul-de-sac,” I say. “What’s the problem?”

“My dad has no interest in community service.”

I don’t mind playing the father. I’ve borrowed one of Daddy’s old jackets, and I’m roughing it up with a stapler. I’m going to need a mustache. Luckily, I have no breasts. Kira’s costume is from our linen closet. Her hair’s in braids.

“The kids who got Of Mice and Men are really lucky,” she says, trying to make our doll look deader. “I’d kill for that one.”

Both phone lines are busy over the weekend. One of the Bruces is getting divorced. He’ll be departing our street for a condo, a support group.

“I’m losing a real soldier,” says Daddy.

There was the time this Bruce stayed up half the night coming up with the perfect clipart for the “Hillview Is Not a Highway” flyer, the time he called Mayor May a cunt. After a while Daddy just says, “A soldier,” and Mommy and I fill in the rest of his sad.

Over on Line 2, Kira sheds her uterine lining for the first time. My bridge almost collapses with the news. My uterine lining remains intact. Happily married Bruce calls on Line 1 to talk to Daddy, now his one remaining Bruce, suddenly the only Bruce he can count on.

The town, for some reason, is not moved by the tape.

“Do you know what this means?” Daddy laughs, maybe thrilled to be ignored. “Hamburger wants war. Are you ready to mobilize?”

We’re sitting around the kitchen table Tuesday evening. Mommy’s drowning a tea biscuit in decaf. I’m coloring in my maison for French. I draw mon téléphone in ma chambre.

La Ligne Deux,” I write.

“I’ll call Bruce,” he says.

“I don’t know,” says Mommy.

“I have a Pakistan ditto,” I say. “But then I can help.”

Help means collating the new flyers, practicing our chants. The new flyers say One Way? No Way!

“I have to be at work early tomorrow,” says Mommy later. She’s in her nightgown, under her lamp. He’s pacing the den, pretending to yell at cars. “So keep an eye on him on Longview,” she says. “Don’t let him do anything crazy.”

“If he tries to do something crazy, how will I stop him?”

“Just tell him to stop.”

Wednesday AM, Daddy and I are standing in the shoulder of the other street, minivan gusts whipping our One Way? No Way! signs back into our chests. Daddy’s scanning for his friends. Never-married gardener is a no-show. Happily married Bruce is not present.

The cars just go west. There’s not much to see.

The widower friend shows up wearing his flannel jacket, dusted with dog hair. He and Daddy sort of grip each other hello, and then he leaves. We wait. A couple of women in terry cloth walk by, but we’re not sure if they’re Longviewers or Hillviewers or just power walkers.

“Maybe tomorrow I’ll bring Kira, so we have more people.”

“The whole street’s in denial,” says Daddy. “People completely disregarded the sign-up sheet. The stay-at-home moms stayed at home. But wait until they see how much traffic our street eats tonight. We’ll stand in front of our house with signs. I’ll make extra copies at work, so everyone has one to hold.”

Le matin prochain, le même. Except Daddy makes me and Kira sing a song. It has to do with sticking to a union till the day we die. We sang it last night on the sidewalk in front of our house. Daddy passed out lyrics. Mommy and I didn’t need them. The union song is from a cassette Daddy keeps in the car for long car trips. We have other tapes, but Daddy never plays them. What he does play now are cassettes from Line 1’s answering machine — Sorry, Alan, work’s been crazy, tae kwon do, Karen caught the flu. Mommy urges Daddy to delete, but he’s starting a list by the phone.

“Not flu season yet!” it says.

Friday morning, I lie in bed for a few minutes after I wake up, sliding the lump under my left nipple. It seems wider than usual, wider than the right. I scramble to my desk, flip through the index of Exploring Life Science until I find Puberty, female.

“Breast bud and papilla swell and a small mound is present; areola diameter is enlarged.”

This is it, this is Puberty, female.

At assembly, Kira tells me she can’t come anymore. Assembly’s in the gym. It’s Croatia Day. Puffed-sleeved maidens wave handkerchiefs while the teachers shush us. Every last Friday of the month, we’re herded into the bleachers to disrespect dancers from politically unstable lands.

“It’s only been two days,” I say. “We haven’t even done civil disobedience yet.”

“Why do you keep touching your breast?”

“I’m not. Why can’t you? Is your mom scared?”

“No. Your dad’s — ”

The dancers’ clogs make a sudden racket on the shellacked floor.

“What? My dad’s what?”

“Your dad’s awesome. But I don’t live in that neighborhood.”

Monday morning, we stand on a lawn on Longview instead. Even the widower’s given up, gone back to his usual routine, transferring photographs of his late wife out of albums that have lost their stick. Our signs have wrinkled, curled. They’re already mementos of this time.

“Longview is kind of scary without sidewalks, Daddy.”

“They could build sidewalks,” snaps Daddy. “There’s certainly enough room on their lawns. Then they’d have sidewalks.”

“Where’s the lady who gardens?” I say.

“Who?” he says.

“Bruce never comes.”

“He’s redoing his dining room.”

“What’s wrong with his dining room?”

“Gene Flusser!”

The driver of a passing car is a famous Longviewer, the one in bed with May Hamburger. Daddy drops his sign and gives Flusser’s bumper the finger.

“Is the finger in the tradition of Martin Luther King?” I ask.

“This one is,” he says. He leaves the finger up, for everybody. I put mine up, aiming it at the other street and also a little at him.

I guess we’re showing Longview what we’re made of.

We’re made of cells. We’re made of fatty tissues, which we either fear or desire, depending on where they deposit. We get labeled in textbooks — organ, organelle. We give traffic the finger.

Except traffic must have seen the finger, because Gene Flusser’s walking back, from kind of far. He can’t drive back because the street’s one way.

“Daddy, stop,” I say.

“Stop what?” he says, tucking his middle finger back into his fist.

“He’s coming.”

“I see him — Gene!”

“Alan! Aren’t you cold standing here?” asks Flusser.

“We’re staying warm,” says Daddy.

“Who’s this young lady?”

“She’s a fighter.”

It’s all very friendly, Longview, Hillview. What the view is of, nobody can say.

“Shouldn’t you be in school?” says Flusser, extending a handshake to me.

“I have a note.” One of my hands rests on my jacket where the new breast should be. The other shoots out to shake. “But I’m learning a lot out here. You guys could use some sidewalks. Why’d you get out of the car, Mr. Flusser?”

“I forgot my lunch, so I’m going back to get it.” He doesn’t even look at our signs.

I’m on yearbook now. I write poems about assemblies, come up with captions for boys who ignore me.

Kira and I didn’t stop being friends because of the street. We’re still friends. Now we’re crying about the Joads. Now we’re sanding boats. They will float on half an inch of water in a stoppered sink. They will never know the sea.

Mommy has a new enemy: the phone company.

“Thieves,” she says, highlighting my calls on the bill. But her heart’s not in the hate. The folding chairs stay folded in the basement. My easel stays folded.

Daddy’s not doing mornings on Longview anymore. He decided it was best to conserve our energy for our own street, because people in gridlock are more likely to be sympathetic. He’s not doing evenings on our street anymore either, though, except that he sits in gridlock with the others on his way home from work.

But walking home, sometimes I think I see him, one block away, planted on our sidewalk, a man with salt and pepper ringing his bald spot, a man with a windbreaker, Longview’s worst nightmare, the only man with enough love to turn the tide the other way.

More from Issue 25

Issue 25 Slow Burn

What’s missing isn’t the anti-imperialist Sanders. It’s the antiwar movement he was once part of, and which no longer exists.

Issue 25 Slow Burn

The nomination of a Supreme Court justice is the closest thing the United States has to the election of a pope.

Issue 25 Slow Burn
Uncanny Valley
Issue 25 Slow Burn
Burn Scars
Issue 25 Slow Burn

A film by Tsai Ming-liang can feel like a test. More specifically, a staring contest. How long can you look?

Issue 25 Slow Burn

there are places in which the mind thrives like plankton, where jobs / are easy to come by & every apartment overlooks the park

Issue 25 Slow Burn
Issue 25 Slow Burn
Falling Men
Issue 25 Slow Burn

The movies can put a positive spin on anything.

Issue 25 Slow Burn
Straight to Hell
Issue 25 Slow Burn

Sociologists are always in danger of being seen as paranoids, all the more so when they oppose powerful vested interests.

Issue 25 Slow Burn

P.S. I just bought my girlfriend a full set of Reiki-infused chakra crystals for Christmas.

More by this Author

December 14, 2012

The beard was just a beard. I had seen cooler ones. I had seen cooler ones at this wedding.

Issue 4 Reconstruction
Three Stories