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Roadways by Virginia Watts


In her creative nonfiction flash “Roadways,” Virginia Watts tells a compressed story in the present tense that expands and achieves emotional resonance through a sense of place and the memories it inspires. “Roadways” breaks a number of cardinal rules in flash, which often dispenses with backstory and prolonged description in favor of speed, momentum, and immediacy. “Roadways,” in contrast, opens by slowing the reader down, as we appreciate the wonder and beauty of the junkyard on the “often-traveled roadway of [the writer’s] childhood.” The detailed description of setting becomes paramount. The way that in “certain angles of light, the slanted orange of sunset” reflects—“blindingly bright”—off the windshields of the abandoned cars and trucks is reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s sacred “certain slant of light.” “‘Slow down,’ I’d beg my father, trying to hang on to the last glimpses of life still pulsing out there in those fields.” Hanging on to the last of life presages the inciting incident of the flash, which comes late in the piece, not at the beginning, as in most flash—the winter day when Watts took her ninety-three-year-old father’s last truck to the junkyard. When she puts the truck in reverse, the flash reverses to memories of his trucks in the past, before returning to the painful moment in the present when she has to look back. “I knew I would have to look back, once, to my father, waiting for my wave.” Memories inspired by concrete objects and setting heighten the emotion of the flash. “This piece is very much a heart cry,” Watts writes in her author’s note, “drafted in one sitting following the wrenching, personal experience of driving the last pickup truck my father would ever own away from him.”  —CRAFT


 

Along Route 322, an often-traveled roadway of my childhood, past the turnoffs for Annville, Cleona, and Quentin, a thing of exquisite and recurring beauty—an automobile salvage yard that everyone simply called “the junkyard.” Cars dumped and clumped, leaning affectionately into each other. A handsewn quilt of many colors rolling up and over the gentle hills so common in Central Pennsylvania.

VW bugs of all hues, the baby blues and reds standing out among the rest. A yellow school bus once. Tractors weak and boney without their massive, earth spitting tires. A psychedelic van with peace signs, purple curtains in every window. One of the best: A black hearse missing its hood, the back door hanging open like the corpse had sat up, hopped out, and run away. And in certain angles of light, the slanted orange of sunset, the window glass in those fields glinted back blindingly bright. “Slow down,” I’d beg my father, trying to hang on to the last glimpses of life still pulsing out there in those fields.

Winter didn’t take anything away from the junkyard’s magic. Under heavy snows the surrounding farm fields all the same, flat and empty, the junkyard undulated, dipped and rose up again. Had personality and promise and secrets to tell.

And so it was on a winter day a week ago that I had to drive one of my father’s last joys away from him. At nearly ninety-four, ever pragmatic and responsible, he is not renewing his license. I slipped behind the wheel of his pristine 1998 Ford Ranger pickup truck, put it in reverse, and swallowed hard. The last truck in a line of so many others.

My dad was never without a truck. Spent his life cowboying around the countryside, kicking up the dirt, landing him with the nickname “lead foot” and a sheepish grin as he arrived in the kitchen to face my mother with yet another speeding ticket. She’d say: “Why don’t you just up and join the damn rodeo already, Ralph!” His trucks were a thing of legend among my friends, too. The model everyone loved the most was a candy-apple red 1974 Chevrolet C10 my dad dubbed “Big Red” the afternoon he drove it home brand new.

For years my cheerleading squads and I decorated that truck with balloons and crepe paper so my father could drive us up and down Chocolate Avenue in Hershey’s Autumn Parade. With sandbags in the back, it was often the only vehicle that could get us home safely in the bad weather. We’d be huddled somewhere and someone would say: “Here comes Big Red!”

I knew I would have to look back, once, to my father, waiting for my wave, standing in a now empty garage with a cane in his hand, yes, but as tall and strong and larger than life as ever. My father who returned my wave as he always had. One big windshield wiper wash across anything bad that might ever happen to me in my life.

I waited until I reached the junkyard. Still beautiful. Stunning, if you want the whole truth. More green paint than usual. A cluster of tangled motorcycles like belly-up insects. I waited until then to open the glove compartment and find what I knew I would. Amid the paper AAA maps circa 1972, a hard, cold object I gripped in my fist. A flashlight with fresh batteries as of that morning, I was sure. Something my father felt we needed in every room in our house. A flashlight in good working order.

I clicked it on. And there, dancing inside the cab with me, my own bright and dependable sun.

 


VIRGINIA WATTS is the author of poetry and stories found in Illuminations, The Florida Review, CRAFT, Sunspot Literary Journal, Sky Island Journal, Permafrost Magazine, Bacopa Literary Review, Wisconsin Review, Dark Lane Anthology Series among others. Winner of the 2019 Florida Review Meek Award in nonfiction and nominee for Best of the Net Nonfiction 2019 and 2020, two of her poetry chapbooks are upcoming for publication by The Moonstone Press and a short story collection from The Devil’s Party Press in spring 2023. She has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize.

 

Featured image by Monika Baechler courtesy of Pixabay

 

Author’s Note

“Roadways” epitomizes why I hope to always write nonfiction in addition to other genres. This piece is very much a heart cry, drafted in one sitting following the wrenching, personal experience of driving the last pickup truck my father would ever own away from him. There is a unique artistry in the poetic form and wonderful creative freedom possible only in fiction, but when I am telling you something that actually happened to me, I am gathering you into my life. I am nearly breathing for you. There is no replacement for personal experience as creative force. Nothing reads like the truth.

And nothing writes like the truth either. The memories “Roadways” replayed for me were full of vibrant details and sensory presence. My father, young and vibrant again, sitting behind the steering wheel of one of his beloved pickup trucks as we rode up and over the gentle, rolling roads of Central Pennsylvania taking in the scenery, singing along with the radio. Nothing had changed. When I was finished writing, my sadness had eased and there under my pen, a story as if woven by a magical spell ready to share.

 


VIRGINIA WATTS is the author of poetry and stories found in Illuminations, The Florida Review, CRAFT, Sunspot Literary Journal, Sky Island Journal, Permafrost Magazine, Bacopa Literary Review, Wisconsin Review, Dark Lane Anthology Series among others. Winner of the 2019 Florida Review Meek Award in nonfiction and nominee for Best of the Net Nonfiction 2019 and 2020, two of her poetry chapbooks are upcoming for publication by The Moonstone Press and a short story collection from The Devil’s Party Press in spring 2023. She has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize.