There’s a stiffness that enters your spine when you catch headlights in your rearview mirror. Each vertebra locks into his brother and screams in a non-regional accent a news clip about serial killers, about gang initiation, about murderers in the backseat, about secret police, about cults. You abandon the beat you were drumming into the steering wheel to listen to twenty-four different tales of carnage. Or thirty-four, depending how you count and how well you’re held together. A lot of the time, even though you know it’s nonsense, you just have keep your back straight and your eyes on the road ahead until the other car turns, which it will. If you’re taking Riverside Drive away from town, though, one of those bones is probably right and the cops will find you still smoldering in a dumpster behind the disused department store a little after breakfast. Lucky for you, if you didn’t miss the turn, you can take the lane through the golf course and claim sanctuary on Curtain Road until the river runs into the bay on the other side of the green.
You meet all four seasons back there, which can be nice if you’re sick of the one you’re in. It’s always green on the fairway thanks to that grass you can buy that rolls out like carpet, but the mercury has a hard time climbing above freezing. Your skin could be crackling warm from the beach with trails of sand gummed onto your arms by melted ice cream and Jack Frost would still sneak up to breathe Chantilly lace onto your windows around the twelfth hole, where you turn right and the road really begins. There were rumors going around that he’d lost his touch and started tracing patterns from library books about spiders, but most people are sure that Jack still spins by hand. No use asking any of the golfers—men who talk about the fine breaks in their trousers and taxes—because there aren’t any windows on the carts they rent. Their caddies all know to pack an extra sweater, though.
It’s spring by the time your tires hit that first bit of dirt and gravel, and there’s no hope of topping twenty-five when you’re kicking up dust. You have to take it slow: you have to let the yellow pollen off the sunflowers and hollyhocks the size of birches (and better at stopping any breezes that drift up from the river) settle on your car; let the ripe skunk cabbages fill your dust-dry nose with a bitterness that stings enough to draw blood; let the radio turn to static, then turn it all the way down so you can’t hear anything but gravel spitting out behind you and your own eyelashes tapping against each other as you blink away tears. You don’t look Tito the horse in the eyes when you drive past the unnamed farm on the west side of the road. He’s the chestnut runt in the green blanket. He’ll follow the smell of the dust on your wheels all the way back to your house—hang the rain—and swallow you whole while you dream. The neighbors will forget what they know and think that the places where his hooves split the ground are new potholes and shake their heads and complain about the governor. You will never be found.
Before the trees start up there’s a telephone pole memorial, covered on all sides with staple-gunned tee shirts and ribbons. Its base has a nest of candles and plastic flowers nicked from graves in the cemetery that got cut in two when the new highway was built. No cars have ever crashed on that road, so it’s not for anyone in particular, but plenty of lost souls slip their silvery arms through the sleeves of the tee shirts on days when the moon refuses to leave the sky. That’s summer. They spend all day trying to wriggle free of the staples. If they manage to get down and go walking toward the woods, the tree with his roots above ground stops them. He doesn’t let anyone without shoes into the woods on account of the bone shards and poison ivy, oak, and sumac blanketing everything up to the parts of the trees that only bats can reach. And no civilized person goes walking around with no shoes on.
The road through the woods is coated with slick autumn leaves like black ice when it comes to skidding. Midway in, around October Twenty-seventh if you were to cut up the rows of a calendar’s dates and lay them flat against a roadmap, there’s a house with a light on in the attic at all times. In that attic a woman files her teeth with a special edition Mary Kay emery board that came with a small tube of lilac hand cream. She uses those pearly whites to shred the tire swings she has her son saw down from trees in local backyards. Doesn’t say much since words can’t make it past her teeth without getting cut up and leaving frothy bubbles at the corners of her smile, but she likes to hum; a lot of Gershwin numbers or the odd Kitty Wells ballad while she drags the rubber through her mouth. When the strands get really fine they shake with her humming and help the tune shimmy into the road to meet the ear of whoever’s driving by, kind of clumsy like someone who says, “I love you,” too soon.
The woman has a shelf of head-and-shoulders mannequins that look on as she works and limit their conversation to passive aggressive comments about the music selection. She uses them as models for turning the rubber strands into wigs: beehives, pin-curls, bouffants, pageboys, victory rolls, finger waves—nothing too modern, and always black. Folks call her Mrs. Ford. Her son brings the wigs to their respective backyards and puts them right where the swings were by dawn so all the mothers can have a hair-do that doesn’t go flat or frizzy in the rain. It’s hard work, but not thankless. Women in station wagons bounce down the road, not a hair out of place, and leave baskets of groceries and fashion magazines and energy-efficient light bulbs and, of course, special edition Mary Kay emery boards at the stop sign that marks the north end of the road.
Sometimes the uniformed gentlemen buried there wake up and use delivering the baskets as an excuse to go calling on her. They rarely leave with anything other than a new set of black sideburns to cradle their crumbling heads and a stern look from her son as he sweeps bits of their fingers and ribs off the porch. No such thing as an idle soldier, though. They found where in the woods the Improvement Committee dumped all the slate that used to make up the sidewalks, and they decorate doorsteps with slabs of the stuff, covered in scholarly quotations—Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, and the other sheet wearing greats—all written in red clay from the creek that runs behind their beds. They heard about the campaign to keep kids reading during the school breaks from the turkey vultures that bring news to all the dead things, and were trying to do their part to keep young minds learning. At first kids mostly fried eggs and worms on them in the midday sun of the hotter months and made the one with the cleanest fingernails eat the feast.
That got old pretty fast, or they all got in trouble, because after a while they stopped bothering and started sticking the slabs in their garages to use as sleds in the winter. They streak the snow bloody as the words wipe clean away, and shatter into shooting stars when the kids jump off and let them hit the back wall of the old schoolhouse that rots at the bottom of their favorite sledding hill. Once, a shard of slate flew back the right way and caught Bill Callahan in his right eye. Christie Rommel had to pack that side of his face with snow until her older sister came back with their dad in his Jeep. Bill didn’t like the pirate jokes about his eye patch at the time, but he got fun again a few years later when he started stealing beer off the back of delivery trucks. The kids drank them in the hole that was going to be the high school’s swimming pool before the state ran out of money, and Bill would put bottle caps behind his patch and everyone had to guess how many. Whoever guessed right got to go with Bill to the dump and split the refund money. When girls won, he’d take them the long way there down Curtain Road and recite a poem for each season and try to kiss them by the end. He sells shoes to army wives and widows in D.C. now.
There was more slush than snow the winter that somebody started cutting the heads off the figures in Nativity scenes all over town and sticking them at the entrances of Curtain Road. That wasn’t too weird, in that it was the kind of violence people associated with the holidays: Christie and her sisters threw delicate Christmas tree ornaments at the cement walls of their unfinished basement; their mother slapped them when they refused to sweep up the mess and called them whores of Babylon as they slammed out the front door; Mr. Rommel, Mr. Callahan, and all the other Misters cut more firewood than would ever be necessary to justify the time spent sharpening their axes at night; Bill’s little brother threw his tumor-ridded dog in front of a truck so he could get excited about a new puppy for Christmas. Everybody needs a release. What startled people was the man in his late sixties who started protesting in front of Town Hall. He had a sign that had, “Save Christmas, Save Our Town, Save Your Souls,” painted in long green letters and delicate holly boughs at each corner, and photocopied pamphlets with pictures of the bodiless heads inside. When people approached him to ask why he didn’t just go inside to lodge a formal complaint, he would only give a low whistle and hand them one of his pamphlets and a note card that read, “Smile—You’re Special.”