The Side of the Road
It was getting dark. I’d missed the last four tennis balls. I was off my game anyway. I couldn’t clear my head of work. My boss had been such a dick about my story. It was a solid story. I had cross checked all of my references and knew that it was an iron clad indication of how our senator had managed the budget. My boss was a pussy when it came to printing the truth.
I called out to Tom to end the game on account of I could no longer tell if my ball was on the line or not when I hit it cross the net. And since I hated battling him about line points I figured it best to call it. “Wanna grab a beer at Sill’s?” Sill’s isn’t really the name of the pub. It is what the locals call it because it is on Sill’s road. “Nah, I need to head home,” he replied. He was still catching his breath as we collected our balls. “Promised Sal that I would help her with dinner tonight,” he said. “Next time then… It’s probably better. I should head home and get some work done.”
“Ah, yes, the infamous novel,” said Tom. “How is it coming along?” he asked. “Ehh.” I shook my hand to motion so-so. In reality it was going much worse than so-so, it wasn’t really going at all.
We crossed the parking lot to where our cars were parked. He drove a new BMW, white with black interior. Tom never got his degree, but managed to do very well for himself. While the rest of us were broke on our butts trying to make it through college, he was raking in the dough working in sales. He is my great reminder that there are many ways to make it in this world. My car, a used Wrangler, with one hundred forty-six thousand miles on her, ran like a beauty and got me where I needed to go.
We lived on Whidbey Island just northeast of Seattle, WA. I inherited a small house on the double bluff after my grandfather died. I’d lived on the island for just two years, but it always felt like home to me. I used to spend the summers with my grand parents, and so I always regarded myself as one of the island kids. There were a pack of us, Tom being one of them. The rest of the pack had long since gotten the hell outta dodge, but I loved it. I only went into the office a couple days a week, at most. Tom did sales from his home office and only drove into the city for important meetings. He married a girl from Seattle a few years back and since then they bought a nice house on snob hill which is an enduring term for a wealthy neighborhood we used to teepee often when we were kids. “See you Thursday, same time, same place,” he called out behind him. “Yeah, take it easy.”
I pulled the car into the gas station and got out to fill my tank. While it was filling I ran in and grabbed a six pack of Heineken. I went back out and topped off my tank. I climbed back into my JEEP and started her up.
By the time I turned to head up the hill toward my house it was near dark. I could make up a shadow just up ahead on my right. It was the dress lady. I named her the dress lady because she always walked from the neighborhood just below my house, which I assume is where she lives, to town and back wearing a dress and sandals. She would wear a coat over her dress and socks with her sandals during the colder months.
It was the end of August, which is about the prettiest time of year in the Puget Sound so no need for the coat or extra outerwear. Still it was getting dark and I did not usually see her out this late. I have thought about pulling over and checking to see if she wanted a ride, but in the past I never had. I noticed that she talked to herself. Sometimes it looked like she was having an angry conversation with the asphalt. I could rarely make out her face when I passed by. She was older, I think, but it is possible that life made her look older than she is. I would see her carrying bags of books and groceries. Her trips to town must have taken her all day. It was at least six miles to the grocery store and another two miles to the library from her neighborhood, which would make a round trip about twelve to sixteen miles. No wander she was thin.
I’m not sure if it was the fact that it was growing very dark or the expression on her face when I passed that made me do it. I pulled over a few yards ahead of her. I left the car running and got out to greet her. “Can I give you a lift up the hill?” She didn’t look up at me. Instead she replied downward to the sidewalk. “I live at the top of the hill,” she said. “That’s what I thought. Here let me help you with your things.” “No!” Again she spoke not to me directly but downward.
Okay. I started back toward the JEEP and I heard her follow me. I opened the passenger door and thought twice about helping her in. I decided to just walk to my side and let her be. We started up the hill together. The silence didn’t feel nearly as uncomfortable as I thought it would. Her three plastic bags sat two at her feet, one on her lap. I noticed that she continued to grasp the car door handle as I drove.
“You walk to town everyday?” “Just about,” she responded. I put my right blinker on to turn into the neighborhood where I assumed she lived. It was the only neighborhood nearby before turning up the bluff where there were only a handful of homes, much bigger than my own. “No.” she said. She signaled for me to stop the car at the front of the neighborhood.
“Well, thanks!” She said in a cheerful voice that didn’t at all fit her personality. “You are the first person you has ever offered me a ride,” she said. “You’re welcome. Hey I am probably going to run into town for a coffee around nine tomorrow morning if you want a ride into town.” “That would be great. I will be right here at nine,” she said. “Okay, great, see you then.”
At home, Boomer greeted me wildly at the door. I usually took her to the courts with me, but she was wearing the cone of shame to keep from licking a sore spot that had just been treated. Other than Boomer, my sixty pound golden retriever, I lived alone. I was engaged once, but broke it off when I was twenty-nine, just before I moved out here. Partly it was because she wouldn’t move to the island with me and partly because I finally admitted to myself that it just didn’t feel right, at least night right enough to get married.
My life had been pretty simple the last few years. Often Boomer and I would comb the beaches surrounding the island. She loved running after the gulls and the sprays that the gooey ducks made. I loved the beach. The fresh cold air that often whips around and sometimes cuts like a knife grounds me and feeds my in a way nothing else can. I love sunny days when a cool breeze feels like a gift, but my favorite time is when a storm rolls in a takes over the bay, howling through the large evergreens, tossing branches, and ripping waves against the tide pools.
I meant to work on my novel once I got home, but I was exhausted. I cracked a beer and plunked down on the couch to watch the Mariners game. I must have dozed off somewhere in the seventh inning. Boomer was barking in my dream. I was having the strangest dream. The woman that I gave a ride to was running circles around my house, but it wasn’t exactly my house I was in, it looked more like Tom’s house, but it was still on the bluff. She was running quickly and every so often looking back at me. Our eyes would meet and I couldn’t look away.
I couldn’t tell if I was chasing her or if I was just watching her. It took me a minute to realize she was completely naked. Her body was beautiful and her skin glowed ever so slightly. Her hair reached down her back and gently glided like a veil as she ran. Then she stopped and stared at me. She stood there as the big starry sky and the light of the moon shown behind her. She was standing on the edge of the bluff backing up very slowly, but not releasing eye contact with me.
I outstretched my arm to touch her and she opened her arms wide and allowed her body to fall silently backwards off the bluff. I woke up to Boomer barking. I was breathing heavily. It was one thirty in the morning. The dream that had once felt so real quickly evaporated. I let Boomer out to the bathroom and then we went to bed.
The next morning I woke up at seven sharp, like every morning. Boomer and I went for our morning run, five miles of winding trails behind my house. I logged into my work email to see if there was anything important. I responded to a few emails then showered. I was in my JEEP at eight fifty five. I drove down to the spot where I’d agreed to meet the lady. I would ask for her name this time so that I could stop calling her the dress lady.
I felt a little odd having had such a vivid dream about her. However, I couldn’t be sure that my dream was actually supposed to be about her. It didn’t totally look like her, except I just knew that it was her in my dream. I slowed the car down and pulled to the side of the road. She wasn’t there. It was two minutes after nine. I didn’t mind waiting a couple extra minutes.
I reached behind my seat to grab the newspaper that I had stashed there to take to the coffeehouse. My passenger door opened abruptly which caused my heart to jump. She slid into the passenger seat and shut the door. This was not the same lady that I had picked up yesterday or that I had seen walking back and forth from town the last couple years. This woman was dressed in jeans, a red sweater and had long wavy blonde hair.
She must have seen the befuddled look on my face because she broke out into laughter. “Don’t look so shocked Scott,” she said. It took me a second to register that she had addressed me by name. “I don’t know your name, how is it that you know mine?” “My name is not important, but if you’d like you can call me Lucy, I have always loved that name,” she said.
“Okay then Lucy,” I replied, audibly sounding a bit weirded out. “Forgive me for sounding rude, but you are not acting at all like, well…you.” I realize that my remark probably gave away too many of my prior judgments, but it was out there now. “Not acting like me?” she asked. She was wearing a smile and was obviously enjoying the rhetoric. “But you don’t even know me,” she said. This was in fact true. I did not know her, but every time I saw her walking she was wearing a frumpy dress and a pair of Birkenstocks. Forgive me for noticing superficial things, but I was pretty sure she now had on a pair of black heels.
Without knowing what else to do I put the car into drive and we headed down the hill toward town. She was staring at me, which was opposite of what she had done the previous day. It was definitely making me feel uncomfortable. “How is your book coming?” she asked. “How do you know that I am a writer?” “Let’s just say I have a vested interest in your novel,” she replied. “Is that so?” “Yes.” She said without hesitation. “So let’s talk about how it is going. So far you have written about half the book, but you have barely touched the thing in months,” she said. “Okay, weird, weird, weird, who are you?”
“I…Am… Your muse,” she said. “Ha! Well of course you are.” I glanced at her in the passenger seat. She was sitting there bright eyed with a beautiful smile beaming back at me. I figured it best to play along because, well, she was beautiful and I was a little interested. “Okay, for the sake of time and so that I don’t say something rude, go ahead and explain.”
She waited a couple beats and then cracked her window. She sucked in the fresh air, as did I. “Do you ever take the top off and just drive?” she asked. “You’re changing the subject.” “I am not changing the subject, Scott, I absolutely have a purpose to this question,” she replied. Fine I’d play her game. She’d peaked my curiosity. Her strange behavior had infected me and I was bound to get the bottom of it.
“I haven’t taken it off this summer. Usually I take the top off each summer, but I just never got around to it this summer.” “True,” she said. That was all she said. We had reached the Java hut by this time. “I am going in for a coffee. Would you like to join me?” She stared at me. It sent shivers up and down my spine. It was the same look she gave me last night in my dream. “No, I will wait here. You go in and grab your coffee. Then I want to show you something,” she said.
“I do have work to do today, ya know.” “Oh, I know,” she replied. Something about her made me decide that either way I was going to end up complying with her. “Okay then.”
Chelsea was working the counter. “Your usual?” she asked. “Yup! And toss in a sesame bagel.” I had a feeling I should eat something now.
I walked back outside. The sun was out in full force beating on my face. It felt good. She was sitting in the driver seat. The top was off my JEEP. The radio was blaring. I slid into the passenger seat. “How did you get the top off?” I’d had the hard top on my JEEP which was impossible for me to take off by myself, so it left me perplexed by how she got it off so easily. “Where did you put it?” “It is back in your garage, where it should have been two months ago,” she said. She pulled out of the Java hut parking lot and got on the highway.
It was useless to try to talk because with the top off and the radio on, I could barely hear my thoughts, let alone have a conversation. I drank my coffee. I instantly felt the caffeine kick in. I sat back and let the sun and the breeze overtake my senses. I wasn’t sure why I was letting this strange woman lead me away. It felt right, to go along with it. I felt more alive and more relaxed than I had in many months.
She turned off the main road onto a dirt road. I knew this road. I knew practically every road on the island like the back of my hand. The first summer I had my license my friends and me had camped everywhere it was legal and some places it wasn’t. We took our new girlfriends out to the different lakes at night, for more than just looking at the stars.
She climbed the windy single lane path heading toward Lone lake. I wandered if she knew that is where I lost my virginity. I had an inkling that she did know. The JEEP bobbed and bounced along the path. The remnants of my coffee spilled out the small hole in the lid. She laughed loudly as she wrangled the steering wheel through potholes and around corners. She was breathtaking to look at. In life she was even more beautiful than the woman in my dream.
She stopped the JEEP at the trailhead. It was a short half mile walk to the lake. We got out and she started walking. I was ready to talk. I was ready to get some answers about who she was and what this was all about. “Lucy, stop.” “We don’t have much time, Scott. Let’s keep going,” she replied. “What do you mean we don’t have much time?” “We just have the day,” she said. “I am here to remind you,” she said.
I could barely keep up with her. I considered myself an athletic person, but she was practically jogging instead of walking. “Remind me of what?” She didn’t answer. We reached the lake. It was ten thirty and it was probably already in the high seventies. It would probably reach ninety by three in the afternoon.
“Undress,” she exclaimed. “What?” “Take your clothes off,” she said. She said this while taking her own clothes off and she was already half naked. The sun reflected off her pale skin. I felt inhibited by her crazy behavior. She undressed fully, allowing her clothes to scatter about. She walked toward the dock. At the dock she plunged off the side into the dark water.
I was left there standing alone, while this strange, beautiful woman was swimming naked in the lake. I stripped down to my boxers and walked out onto the dock. The water looked a cold. “It feels amazing. Just jump in!” she said. So I did.
The rush of the water against my body caused my blood to pump ferociously through my veins. I surfaced and looked around. Lucy had swum about fifty yards in front of me. I swam after her. After another hundred yards or so, we reach the middle of the lake. “Look around,” she said. The lake was deserted. There were no houses around it because it was part of a reserve. It was very quiet and yet I felt very exposed. “It’s nice out.” “Nice out?” she asked. “That is all you feel about this?” she asked.
“No, actually, I am confused. I don’t know why you are here, I don’t know why we are swimming in the middle of the lake on a Wednesday morning, when I should be back at my place working on my story, which is due by the end of the day tomorrow. I don’t understand why you were one person and now you are another. And I definitely don’t understand why you know and care about the book I am writing.” I finished.
“Your book is meant to be written and it is meant to be read,” she said. “You are going to give hope about life and how to live to many people who have let themselves die,” she said. “Too many people complacently take life for granted because it doesn’t live up to their expectations. You are trying to right this book, but lately you have become one of them yourself,” she said. I couldn’t tell where this was headed. She kind of struck a cord, but mostly I felt like she was wrong. I was living a good life. I kept in shape, I was good at my job, I had friends. I had a life.
“I am not talking about just merely having a life and living it day by day,” she said. Apparently she could read my thoughts. “Why did you pick me up yesterday? Why yesterday and not any of the other days that have passed the last couple years?” she asked. “I don’t know.” I didn’t know. I just decided to do it, to see. “It was getting dark, I guess, that is the main reason.”
“Ah, it was dark,” she replied. “I trust I know the way home in the dark. Do you?” she asked. This was starting to sound more like a riddle than an answer. “Frankly, this situation is strange. I am interested by you because you are strange and whatever you’re doing is eccentric, which by nature is interesting. I dunked my head under water and resurfaced. My head and body felt warm from tredding water.
“As your muse it is my duty to free you so that you can finish your book,” she said. “Free me from what?” “Yourself,” she answered. “Take my hand,” she said. She outstretched her thin pale arm. I took her hand. Her grip was hard, much harder than I could have imagined it being. She probably had a stronger grip than me and I’ve played tennis for twenty years.
“Take a deep breath,” she said. I did so and noticed that she did not inhale deeply. She pulled me under the surface and drug me below. Her skin began to glow, like in my dream. With every foot it got darker and her body subsequently became brighter. My ears popped from the weight of the water overhead. I could feel my lungs begin to burn. It had probably been about thirty seconds. Logs and fish and unintelligible debris flew past as we swam at the speed of racing horses.
My lungs yearned for air and I could feel her grip tighten on mine as my body struggled to get away, to find oxygen. It felt like she was trying to kill me. My body convulsed under her grip and my head lightened. I felt myself no longer paying attention to what I saw, but instead I was being drug through the dark slimy water until my inevitable death.
I saw stars; the sky was full of them. I assumed I was fully unconscious by this point. I saw her running toward the cliff. I ran after her. She floated of the side of the cliff and made it look so easy. I felt lighter than air. I floated off the cliff right after her. I dove through the air. I couldn’t see an end in sight. I was completely unafraid because I could tell there would be no painful landing, there was nothing to stop me from floating adrift.
Through my unconsciousness I felt that her hand was gone. My momentum changed and I felt my body being pulled up by the water. It felt like a rip tide and captured me and grabbed hold. My naked body surfaced onto gritty sand. My lungs were full of water. I retched water and my sesame bagel from earlier that morning. I lay panting on the cold hard sand. The sun beat down my back.
I must have fallen asleep there. When I woke subtle waves drifting up my claves and back down past my ankles. The motion of the soft waves made me feel like I was moving.
I opened my eyes and surprised to see where I was. I was laying on the beach below my bluff. My surroundings were surreal and I continued to contemplate that possibility that I was dead. I didn’t feel scared, really. I felt light. Which possibly meant I really was dead. I was thankful that I still had my boxers on because houses lined the beach where I would have to walk up the path to get up to my house.
It was a surprisingly easy and short walk home. My car was parked out front, with the top off. The air was warm and a little sticky, which is uncommon for the Sound. It looked like it was early afternoon.
I walked into the house where Boomer greeted me. She was startled by my appearance and barked at me excitedly a few times and then caulked her head sideways, as to say, “what in the hell have you been doing?”
“I don’t know Boom.” I shook my head at her. I pulled a beer out of the fridge and drank the entire thing in a few easy gulps. I belched loudly then slid down onto the floor and leaned my back against the cupboards. “I don’t know.”
I didn’t talk to anyone the rest of the day. I didn’t check my emails. I just got dressed and walked around the house. I stopped every so often and stared out toward the cliff allowing my eyes to drift off into the horizon. The cliff meant more to me now. It was the cliff that I had floated over and came back anew.
That night I sat down in front of my computer and wrote feverishly. I wrote like that for the next two weeks.
The following day I when I met Tom for our twice-weekly tennis match, he noticed something in me. He claimed that I looked different. He exclaimed that I had the same air he remembered me having when we were kids. I think he was right. I no longer felt that suffocating feeling like the world could collapse on me at any time and I could be pinned down with no where to go. I felt that there really was no where to go, but in a good way, and that changed everything.
Every time I drove to town and back I looked for a woman in a dress carrying bags walking alone along the street. I knew she wouldn’t be there. She had done what she came to do. I finished my book that same month. It was published and on shelves the following spring.
The following summer Boom and I swam out at the lake every few weeks. It was the place where I learned all a person needs to know. That you can choose to suffocate in the vast supply of air around you or you can float instead of falling because there is no end and nothing to run into.
– A Girl Who Writes