Traffic Jam by Manuel Martinez
When the traffic on the expressway backs up so badly that the cars sometimes don’t move for days, the commuters give up on driving altogether and begin to walk. Some of the refugees head straight for Manhattan two or three miles away, and some head back into the safety of the suburbs, but others wander down our street in what was once an almost a fashionable neighborhood in Brooklyn. They bang on the doors of brownstones, begging for water or a toilet or places to plug in their phones, and that’s when Rachael and I know that it’s time to go scavenging through the abandoned cars, looking for whatever we can eat or drink or sell.
It will be weeks sometimes before the cars are cleared, some stripped and piled up along the sides of the expressway like the snow that used to be plowed from the streets back when anyone bothered to plow, and other cars will be towed back to the suburbs and resold, the cars shuffling owners every so often, the abandoned items in the cars gathering in layers that reveal the history of each car to anyone who cares to read them. And even though the traffic jams are inevitable, the commuters always come again because they are fueled by the abundance of the city, and wherever there is abundance, something will be waiting to take some of it for itself. There are tiny green plants now covering the overhead electrical wires, sucking up some of every watt that is transmitted, and gasoline cannot sit too long before it is clogged with a brown slime that voraciously devours the energy locked in the molecules, reducing the gas to an organic and oily sludge. There are rodents that nest inside of transformers and who grow fat on the electrical fields, and funguses fouling every light socket and electrical plug. Nature exacts a tax on everything, which is why the skyline is slowly dimming and why fluorescent lights flicker incessantly. And Rachel and I are part of that. We don’t strip the cars for scrap metal or parts. We don’t have the tools or supply networks for that. We take the small things that we can pawn or use for ourselves, things have been forgotten or thought to be useless. It is work that I am particularly good at. I can put my hands on a floorboard littered with pens and half-empty rolls of breath mints and know just where a diamond earring would have rolled. I can look at the crevices next to a seat and know that that’s where a wedding ring lies waiting for me to dig it out, and before I even lift up a spare tire, I know that I will find a bottle of gin beneath it.
But for now, even though the traffic is inching by, its movements barely perceptible, the commuters are still hopeful. They stay in their cars because the skyline seems so close. It seems like something they could almost touch, and so there is little for us to do up here in our third floor squat. We drink salvaged peach brandy while Rachel braids necklaces and bracelets from the strings she’s pulled from old towels, and I try to convince her that we should make things permanent between us. I want us to push our filthy mattresses together so that we can live as husband and wife instead of at the whims of her affection. But she knows what I am after and wants no part of it, so I must make my case without arousing her suspicions.
We live in a large room on what seems to be the inaccessible third floor above a burned-out muffler shop that sits on a corner next to the off-ramp of the expressway. The second floor of the building collapsed into what had been the garage bays and the break room and the narrow counter where bills with inflated labor charges had been handed to customers who didn’t have the strength to argue, and so the third floor seems both unsafe and impossible to get to. But I have a sixth sense for secret pathways and the contours of inanimate objects. When I first looked at the muffler shop, I knew that with just a little bit of ducking and climbing, I could get to the narrow staircase that is all but invisible to anyone else.
With the windows boarded like they are, no one knows that we are here which is what keeps us safe. But it is stifling here in the dead middle of summer, and Rachel is wearing nothing but a pair of tattered panties while she is sitting on the floor with long strands of string looped around her big toe to hold them in place while she works. The braid that seems like it is magically lengthening between her foot and her fingers is somehow more colorful that the towels that she had pulled apart to get the string, a miracle of color in this room filled with the drab brown of old wood and the fading red of crumbling brick.
“I love you,” I tell her, and she gives me that smile that says that she is sorry for me because, she believes I am looking for something that can no longer be found.
But looking at her fingers twist the string, I know that we could accomplish so much together. I am short on manual dexterity. My strength is in my intuition, in the little things that I don’t know how I know. I often have to get Rachel to pick up the quarters that I can tell are hiding in some dark and narrow space but can’t retrieve for myself. With her pale skin glowing in the sunlight is seeping around the boarded up windows, and the peach brandy starting to sing in my head, I can see our children moving effortlessly through the river of abandoned cars on the expressway, extracting every bit of loose change, picking the cars as clean as a bleached bone.
It isn’t that Rachel is not at all interested in me. It’s just that she believes in impermanence and refuses to be defined. Sometimes after we’ve had a particularly fruitful haul—when we’ve found a handful of small bills stashed in a glove compartment or trunk filled with boxes of almost brand new shoes, she will be in the mood to celebrate. We’ll cook a chicken over scraps of wood and eat it with a can of creamed corn. We’ll feast and wash it all down with a bottle of peppermint schnapps or coffee liqueur, and out of nowhere she will kiss me long and hard. She will push me onto our bare floor, and as long as I don’t try to pull her any closer to me than she wants to come, she will smother me gloriously in the middle of the room.
But afterwards she will crawl off to her mattress, and if I try to follow, she will tell me to stop trying to ruin things. I will be forced then to sit alone on the other side of the room, and try to sort out why, in a world that has become as precarious as ours, she would not want to cling as tightly as she could to whatever is available.
She keeps her eyes on her braiding and says to me, “You need to learn to respect the integrity of the self. The less there is for us to rely on out there, the more we have to protect what exists inside our own skin.” The words make sense as words, but not an idea that I can live by. My skin is not something that contains me fully. I can feel myself escaping every time I exhale, and when I inhale I want nothing more than to bring her in. She looks up at me from her braiding and doesn’t like what she sees.
“Go to bed,” she says. “Sleep it off.”
When I wake up it is to the sound of traffic at a standstill and commuters wailing in the streets. Rachel is already awake, and when she hears me stretching and yawning, she asks me if I’m ready.
I am always ready. I hardly ever dream, but when I do, I will be in a confined space, surrounded by a darkness that is littered with small, valuable objects that I cannot see but that I know I could touch if I could only move my hands towards them.
“Let’s go,” I say, and Rachel and I sneak down the stairs into what once was the muffler shop. We duck under the fallen beams, crawl over the counter and walk out into the morning light. We head towards the exit ramp, moving against the traffic of refugees that are snaking their way around the rusting bodies of stripped cars that keep anyone from actually using off-ramp as it was intended, and up onto the expressway itself. I climb up on the cab of an abandoned semi so that I can look at the traffic jam before we begin. It is like a bright, metallic river winding its way towards the skyline that is catching red from the early morning. Something in me tells me to go start moving towards my right, and Rachel follows me as pass cars that I know have nothing in them but fast food wrapper or crumpled receipts and get to a minivan. I stop at a minivan even though there is usually nothing underneath the Cheerios and plastic toys that usually litter the floor of a minivan. But when I open the side door, I see a small table saw looking right back at me. Power tools are always in demand at the pawn shops, so we can eat for a week off of this.
“You go on,” Rachel tells me when she sees it. “I’ll carry this back to the squat.”
Rachel is stronger than her tiny frame would suggest, and she picks it up and walks towards the exit ramp, the weight of the table saw making her rock side to side while she does. I watch her until she disappears around the side of a panel truck near the exit ramp, and then get back to work. After an hour or so, I’ve got too much to carry—a hedge-trimmer and a six pack of beer, two brand-new shovels as well as fourteen dollars in loose change weighing down my pockets. I head back to the squat, and when I get upstairs, I can tell right away that something is wrong. The table saw is there, but I can feel other things missing—her bag of sting and braided bracelets, her pillow, the thin dress she would slip on when it was too hot for clothes but she didn’t want me to look at her as hungrily as I often did.
I sit down on the floor and pretend that she is coming back. I pretend that I will wait for her here in this room where all the charred wood beneath me being softened by molds and gnawed by rats, and pretend that the walls will hold even though the bricks are steadily crumbling into sand. With the evidence of impermanence all around me—the lights of the city that every night grow a little dimmer and the abandoned cars piling up on the expressway that had never been engineered to support so much dead weight—I try to believe in the floor beneath my feet in the way that children believe in the wisdom of their parents. I want to believe that the ceiling will never fall down on me in the same way that I somehow still believe in the redemptive power of love.
© Manuel Martinez, 2015
Manuel Martinez earned his MFA in fiction writing from the University of Florida and is presently an Emerging Writers Fellow at The Center for Fiction in New York. His stories have been appeared in The Sun, Blackbird, The Los Angeles Review, The Quarterly, The Literarian, and others. The true story of how he faked his own murder appeared in Coral Living. He lives in Brooklyn. www.manuelmartinez.com
Traffic Jam was read by Alex C Ferrill on 4th February 2015 for Entrances & Exits