3// Highways

The following is part of an ongoing fictional series taken from the life and times of the Second-Rate Scientist.  To read earlier installments, see “Previously on . . .” to the right of the page.  This is all a work in progress, an attempt to practice and, hopefully, refine something I’ve long admired in others.  If nothing else, the few stories which have rattled around upstairs for the past few years can be set down, for better or worse. Any comments are welcome.  And, thanks for reading!

The 1985 Chevy Caprice cruised at an efficient 48 miles-per-hour down the stretch of Highway 62 which ran from Montgomery, Indiana to Riverport. The car’s driver hunched behind the wheel, eyeing the pavement ahead of him suspiciously, as if it couldn’t be trusted. He could remember well a time when this highway was no more than a sparsely-traveled one-and-a-half lane road used only by locals as it worked its way through the acres of woodland which once lined this part of the Ohio River basin.

But this relatively rural part of Southern Indiana had not been spared the suburban sprawl which had infested larger cities like nearby Clarkstown, or even relative metropolises like Louisville and Kenport. As a result, over the past few years, highways like this were being constructed to not only service the housing developments which were popping up out of land that had once been fields of corn and wheat — a land dissected here and there by small creeks and other, larger river tributaries, and dotted at random intervals by acres of dense tree cover — but also the industrial buildings which had begun to sprout like squat metallic toadstools along the 3-mile corridor between Montgomery and the Ohio River.

To the eyes and mind of Harold Millhouse, nothing more grotesque could have overrun this once-rustic landscape.

Harold had not driven this road in several months, and the need to take this trip now was putting him in a foul mood. He had previously avoided this highway out of a deeply-felt need to express his disgust with the recent commercial and residential development of the area, even though his more rational mind acknowledged, very begrudginly, that his abstention did nothing to stop it. It was in this area that he spent his life, where he had married and raised his kids. It was in the woods which used to crown these gently rolling hills that he had learned to hunt and where he first experienced the singular joy of peeing outside.  It was in these streams where he learned how to safely handle a catfish, and where he had perfected the art of frog gigging.

It was here where he would escape the explosive anger of his father to explore for hours on end with his brother.

And now, what was here that was worth anything to a man like him? Just a few miles of generic shopping centers, fast food joints, and gigantic industrial parks. Was this “The Promise of Progress” the township coalition had touted during the godless push to bring the area into the “next century”?

Was this what stores like Graber’s and Miller’s Feed Mill and Tucker Brothers Lumber had been run out of business for? Not to mention the thousands of acres of woods, with its wildlife, now leveled and encased in concrete. Was this progress?

Progress. What’s so progressive about replacing acres of oak and maple trees, wheat and barley and corn fields, with factories churning out who knows what — Car parts? Weapons? Those little dolls which cost 50 bucks and which his granddaughters were always asking for?

It was a crime. Or should be.

Tightening his grip on the wheel, he hunched lower still, his body forming a near-perfect letter ‘C’, making him look every bit the old man he had become.

Progress. Say again, there Mr. Millhouse, and shout to the depths of Hell and back, Is this progress?!  What’s that? You don’t see how it is. Well, Mr. Millhouse, I reckon you’re what they call ‘Luddite’. You lack Imagination, Mr. Millhouse.  Now if you’ll kindly step aside, those of us with vision and good old American wherewithal will take over.  Never you worry.  You’ll see what we mean.  Yes sir, you’ll see, and you’ll thank us! 

Blah. They were just kids, the lot of them.  And those who weren’t, well, they should know better.

More to the point, he thought bitterly, was “progress” what was threatening his livelihood, the business his father had built? The one he was trying to keep going?  Not if he could help it.  It mattered little that neither of his children had any interest in taking the place over.  That was fine; they had encouraged their children to follow their own path.  No, it didn’t matter now that he had no one to take over even if he could save it.  Now it was simply a matter of principle.

Hmmph.  Principle.  The scowl on his face deepened, and he accelerated to 53 mph, his mission clearer in his mind than it had ever been.

Sensing the slight change in speed, the woman in the passenger seat, one Mrs. Margaret Millhouse – or Mags to most who knew her – looked up from the papers she had been fingering through in a large yellow envelope.

“What does the sign on the back of that truck say, Harold?”

“I don’t know. Can’t read it.”

“Well, I can. It says ‘Stay back 200 feet.’ You’d better slow down.”

“Of all the . . . How in the . . .?”

“Language, Harold.”

Harold let out a long sigh through his nose, and the slight and familiar whistle sound it made reminded Mags once again of a favor from a child’s birthday party. She imagined rather than strictly saw the hairs inside his nose blowing outward like tiny paper streamers, and the thought made her grin.

“How am I supposed to read that Margaret? How can anyone read a sign that small from 200 feet back? By the time you CAN read it . . .Well, the irony is thick! And ridiculous!”

“I don’t know Harold but you had better get back. That sign’s there for a reason. He may be carrying rocks.”

Returning her attention to the envelope in her lap, she began to rifle through the various papers bulging from its opening.”

“I ain’t going any slower. Appointment’s in 45 minutes, and I want to get there early. But not too early. Need to show that I’m taking this seriously. But also that I’m not desperate.  I’ve got a plan. We’ll take our chances with whatever that truck’s carrying.”

Continuing to shuffle through the papers, occasionally removing one to get a closer look, Mags said, “Well, Jane told me her grandson’s car was hit by a rock once and the rock went right through the windshield and hit him in the chest. He had a large bruise. Said that if it hit him in the head might’ve killed him.”

“Well, Jane’s an alcoholic who likes to tell stories. And you told me her grandson is in jail. Sold some pills to a high school kid. . . Seriously, who can read that sign from even FIFTY feet back? It’s a joke. Another example of us being set up to fail.”

“She’s not an alcoholic,” Mags replied. ”She just needs a little rum to help her sleep, that’s all. And this was before he went to jail. Or is it prison? It’s prison I think. Isn’t that where you go for a long time?”

“Well if that’s what she needs the rum for, then she must turn in after breakfast, ’cause I’ve personally seen her sip from that ’tea’ cup of hers early in the morning. And why would anyone believe or care what a pill pusher has to say anyway?”

“Ok, Harold. Just watch the truck. That’s all.”

A silence settled over them, save for the gentle hum of the well-maintained engine and the sharp sound of papers being riffled and re-arranged. For Harold, the silence was dominated by brooding and sour reflection. For his wife, it was a vacuum within which she could continue the business of making some sense out of the over-stuffed envelope Harold had handed her at the breakfast table that morning.

“Are you sure this everything?” Mags asked.

“For the last three years. That’s what they said we’d need. Never needed these things before, not when Old Man Duffy ran the place. But that’s when a handshake . . . ”

“I wish you’d hired that accountant like Mike suggested. Or at least let me come for a few hours a week. At least I could have organized. Now, I have no idea what some of these things are.” Reaching into the top of the envelope, she pulled out a small piece of paper, the top frayed, denoting that it had been ripped from a small flip-style notepad, the kind a young gumshoe might use to solve a mystery.

“Like this,” she said, holding the paper in front of her so he could also see it. ”It’s completely unreadable. . . illegible.  I can just make out ’$600,’ but have no idea what these words are.”

Glancing up from the road for the first time and looking at the piece of paper in her hand, he said, “Holstein. Whole. Old Man Johnson.”

“But that’s low for a whole Holstein. I thought wholes started at $800. At that price, you barely break even. Right?”

“I’ve known Old Man Johnson for 30 years, and every one of those years he brings me his steers. Call it a loyalty discount.”

“So even if they can read this. . . this, what, invoice? . . .which they won’t be able to, it’s on a scrap of paper and the pricing doesn’t make sense.”

“Never used to need such things. A handshake. Pay on time. Was all it took.”

Mags reached across and laid her thinning hand on her husband’s forearm. “Things are changing,” she said.

In response, he let out a long breath that was part grunt and part sigh. Eyeing a long, white, nondescript building with a lone neon sign that read “Chambers Freight,” he thought about the time he felled his first deer – a poor shot and a bad death, to be sure, but a start to what would become a lifelong passion – knowing instinctively that that event had taken place not too far from where that building stood; he was almost certain that the deer, a 4-pointer which was a bit on the scrawny side and, as it turned out, too young to provide much good meat, had bled out on land Chamber Freight’s parking lot now occupied, although he could not say how he knew this.

What was wrong with things the way they were? he thought, and let up on the accelerator.

But only slightly.

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