This is a short story I’ve been working on for one of my classes. I’ve been wanting to share it here – enjoy!
They were building a highway. It would stretch from the northernmost tip of the state through the mountains and all the way to the ocean, five states away. It was progress. It was speed. It would bring produce and packages and soldiers. It was the mark of every modern society.
Unfortunately for Norris, they were building the highway right through his farm, right in between his house and barn, where the old dirt road ran through to connect one town with another. Some engineer in Washington had decided that Township Road #132 was the ideal place to link the new Interstate. Anywhere else would run into a lake or mountain range, wasting money and time.
The highway wouldn’t interfere with his farm at all, they had told Norris. It wouldn’t ruin his land or crops. They were essentially just widening the road that was already there, which did belong to the government, after all. It was part of the President’s new initiative. It was progress.
Construction began at the beginning of summer. Crews came and plotted out the new boundaries of the road. It would be a four-lane highway with low railings on either side. You’ll still have your privacy, they told Norris. One edge of the highway was to come twenty feet from his house, the other twenty feet from his barn. We’ll build a bridge so you can get across, they said. It won’t interfere with your farm at all.
So every morning Norris got into his rusty Ford pickup, clattered down the makeshift service road, across the skeletal wooden bridge stretched over the fledgling highway, and down another makeshift service road to the barn, where he fed the animals and started his work in the fields. Around midday he’d return to the other side of the highway for lunch and then work in the other fields. “It’s a damn nuisance,” he told his wife.
When the highway finally opened, it droned with business. Huge trucks carried cargo to faraway cities and little cars, like brightly colored insects, carried people. The house, barn, and garden were soon coated with a perpetual layer of dust, and there was an incessant hum that echoed off the old farmhouse no matter what the hour. Norris and his wife began not to notice it until they went out for errands or church or visited other people’s houses and felt an emptiness in their ears.
Norris remembered when a single car on the old dirt road was an occasion. He’d been young then, a short skinny boy with a blond mop head, freckles and snaggleteeth, spending his summers running wild through the woods and cornfields. Dad came in from the fields every night at six, covered in dust, with rings around his eyes like a raccoon. Norris was expected to be home by then too, if he planned on getting a dinner and avoiding a spanking. Mum had dinner on the table by six fifteen, usually meat and some kind of vegetable, with her famous bread. They’d sit in the golden light of the summer sunset, eating and drinking the light and balmy air as they ate and drank their dinner.
One evening as they were sitting down to eat, Norris looked through the open kitchen window and saw one of the cows staring back at him, right on the other side. All of the cows had gotten out of the pasture by a break in the fence, and had ambled over to the scent of dinner.
“Dammit!” Dad said, jumping up from the table. The dust shook from his overalls.
“Bill,” Mum noted before jumping up as well.
The three of them struggled into rubber boots and ran out into the yard, where the three dozen brown and white cows strolled lazily in the evening light. It took hours to corral them all into the barn. Norris whooped and jumped to get their attention while Mum and Dad chased the herd into a little knot, then drove them into the barn while Norris held the door open and welcomed the bovines in like a circus master. When he shut the door behind the last straggler, he slipped in the thick mud, and when his parents tried to help him, they slipped too. Then, weak from exhaustion and hilarity the three of them pulled together and slid their way to the house, laughing in spite of themselves. By then, dinner was cold, but they were too hungry to care.
One day at the end of a summer, when Dad was in the fields and Norris had been drafted into the service of window washing, a blue Ford Model 18 drove up the dirt road in a cloud of shining dust and parked in the yard. The car stood out crisply against the faded green cornstalks and the yellowed white house. The man it carried stood out too, in a navy pinstriped suit and matching hat. He marched up to the porch, his patent leather shoes clicking like snap peas.
“Good afternoon, Ma’am,” he said when Mum answered the door. He swept off his hat and held it to his chest like a martyr. “My name is Ellis Chaney and I work for the township. I’d like to talk to you about improvements to this road here.”
Mum brought him in and offered him a seat at the table. Norris watched through the windows, wiping away the grime with his sponge so he could see better.
“Ma’am, it has come to our attention that the roads in our fine county leave much to be desired. They are beset with dust in the summer and potholes in the winter. Ma’am, we in the township value our citizens, folks like yourself who are the lifeblood of this county and state. We are considering paving this road here. It’s high time we had some progress in this area, and it’ll certainly make travel and trade faster, a boon for everyone involved. We’d like to hear everyone’s input on the matter.”
“Well, that’s certainly an idea,” said Mum. “But I’m afraid my husband isn’t home. I’m sure he’d like to give his two cents.”
The man cocked one shiny, groomed eyebrow. “Of course ma’am. I can come back another day if that’d be better.” He rose to leave. “But if I may ask, what, Ma’am, would you say about paving the road? I’d like to have your two cents.”
Mum blushed a little. “Well, I think it’s a very nice idea. It’d be… nice to go into town and back without getting so dusty.”
The man smiled. “Of course, Ma’am. If I may say, however, you look quite fresh and lovely. Not dusty at all.”
Mum blushed more. “Oh. Thank you.”
Only after the man had gotten back into his car and sped away toward another white farmhouse did Mum notice Norris at the window. Her face grew scarlet.
“What have I told you about sneaking around?” she said. “I don’t have all day for you to wash one window! Get on to the next one!”
Dad came in from the fields at six. Mum didn’t mention the Man in the suit.
As the weeks passed the cornstalks grew brown and dry and Norris was drafted into the service of school. Every afternoon he hurried home down the dirt road, his books and lunch pail holding on for dear life, hoping to get a few rambles in before Mum called him to chores and dinner. The sun was setting sooner now, which meant Dad came in from the fields earlier, which meant Norris only had a short time to avoid any work.
One afternoon he got home to find the blue Ford Model 18 in the yard. He remembered the Man in the suit, but since the dirt road was still dirt, he had filed him away as not useful. He wondered, as he panted sweaty and dusty in the afternoon warmth, if the Man was finally bringing some good news.
Norris burst into the house, forgetting to wipe his feet on the rug. A bump and clatter was heard upstairs, and then a wild parade of footsteps brought Mum and the Man in the suit (a brown one this time) down the stairs. Norris blinked. Mum’s face turned scarlet.
“What have I told you about wiping your feet?” she scolded. “Look at this floor!”
“I’m sorry Mum,” said Norris, feeling more guilty than usual for the mess.
“Go get the mop and clean it up. I will not have you tracking mud into this house.”
With a glance at the Man, who smiled with all his perfectly white teeth, Norris went to the broom closet for the mop. When he returned, the Man and the blue car were gone. Mum was putting bread in the oven for dinner. Norris worked silently, erasing every speck of dirt in the hallway. Suddenly Mum was behind him, her hand on his shoulder.
“Dear, I’d like to talk to you.”
Norris blinked. “I’m sorry about the mud.”
“Don’t worry about that,” she smiled. “I’d like to talk to you about Ellis.”
“The Man in the suit?”
“Yes… Mr. Chaney – the Man in the suit.”
“What about him?”
“He was here to talk about the road, you understand?” She began to blush.
“And your father and I have talked about the road, and we don’t agree on it. I agree with El-Mr. Chaney. We’re trying to figure out what to do with the road, and until we do, it’d be best not to mention anything to Dad. He’s tired from working so hard and shouldn’t have to worry about another little thing. You understand, don’t you?”
“Good boy. Go on, then. And remember: we don’t need to talk about Mr. Chaney or the road. Not until we think up a solution.”
Norris went on until the whole house was mopped. Of course Dad wouldn’t want the road to be paved; he hated progress of any kind. It made sense not to worry him with it. At least, it sounded right.
That night dinner was quiet. Dad ate hungrily, Mum bustled around making sure everyone had what they needed, and Norris could neither talk nor eat. He still felt guilty, and he couldn’t remember why.
“Dear, eat your vegetables,” Mum said. He jumped.
“I’m not very hungry, ma’am.”
Dad put his fork down. “Eat your food, son. Times are thin and we need to show thanks for our blessings.”
“Yessir.” Norris tried very hard but the food in his mouth was tasteless and sticky. It was like swallowing dust.
“What is the matter with that boy?” Dad shook his head.
“He’s just tired, is all.” Mum moved her food around, then passed the butter to no one in particular, then got up to refill everyone’s water glasses. She spilled the pitcher a little and went back to the sink.
“I’m fine, sir,” Norris said, forcing down a bite of bread. “Just tired.”
“You weren’t like this yesterday,” Dad finished off his meat with a final bite. “I hope he isn’t coming down with something,” he said to Mum. “I’ve heard reports of the flu in town. Any kids at school come down with the flu?” he said to Norris.
“No sir,” Norris gulped down his newly-filled glass of water.
“He’s fine,” said Mum, “and even if he is coming down with something, I’ll just run him up to the new doctor Ellis was telling me ab – ”
She stood still for a moment, then sat down slowly and set the pitcher in between her and Dad. Norris stared at her in horror.
“Who’s Ellis?” Dad looked up, sensing the change in the air.
“That man from the township. I mentioned him to you. He came over again today asking about the road.”
“I thought we already told him what we thought about it. His name’s Ellis?”
“Yes. Ellis Chaney. He’s from the township.”
“Well why did he come around again? I hope you told him we don’t need a paved road here.”
“Well, I didn’t want to be rude. He wanted to double check with everyone. He had some very good things to say – ”
“He must be pretty friendly if you’re on a first name basis already.”
Mum began to blush. She smiled and looked at Norris. “Dear, please go up to your room and do your homework.”
Norris sprung from the table like a squirrel from a cage. He had barely shut his door before their voices started talking faster and louder. By the time he fell asleep an hour later they were shouting.
He woke the next morning, and the house was silent and gray, like the fields after a rainstorm. His parents’ door was closed and Dad’s work boots were gone. Norris dressed and packed, then left for school, running away down the dirt road as if sunshine would be found at the end of it. All day he dreaded going back home. He didn’t feel guilty anymore, just sick.
He trudged back home down the dirt road, fearing everything that might meet him when he got there. He didn’t want to hear another shout, see another stiff smile, hear Mum say “dear” one more time.
He was still a ways off when he saw the blue Ford Model 18 parked in the yard. The engine was running and all the doors were open. Mum and the Man in the suit (a black one today) were loading it with suitcases. Norris broke into a run. Mum and the Man got into the car and shut the doors, and sped away in the opposite direction to a town Norris didn’t know. They were almost out of site by the time he got to the house.
“MUM!” he screamed. “Come back!” And he knew she must have looked back, at least for a second, and seen him crying in the road, but the car didn’t stop.
It never came back again.
In the years that followed, the house was always gray, and dinners were always quiet, and there was no more bread. Norris and Dad washed the dishes and mopped the floors and went to sleep for work and school in the morning.
And every so often Norris would dream of the blue Ford Model 18. Mum was driving it, and she would, unlike most people, be able to find the dirt road and the yellowed white farmhouse on it, and she would drive herself up to the house and let herself in. Norris would smell her perfume and fresh-baked bread and come bolting down the stairs, and she’d wrap him up in the kind of hug she used to give him when he was little. Dad would come in from the fields, covered in dust with rings around his eyes like a raccoon, and she’d kiss him, and the three of them would sit at the table to a dinner of meat and vegetables and bread in the golden light of the sunset.
But now none of that would ever happen, because now there was a highway.