Fiction · 02/26/2020

Important People of New Jersey

Walt Whitman, Woodrow Wilson, Molly Pitcher, Vince Lombardi. These are the important people of New Jersey, she thinks, the people whose names adorn the service areas that dot the turnpike like prayer beads. They are not former presidents, she knows, because one of them is a woman, but they have done something great, something to have their name above the long, flat, tan stone buildings that house steel toilets and tiled floors and racks filled with brochures for Wildwood, Six Flags Great Adventure, Liberty State Park, and the New Jersey Shore. One day she will do something so great that her name, Lesley P. Hatch, will be above the sign listing the restaurants contained within — Roy Rogers, Arthur Treacher’s, Starbucks, and Cinnabon. One day, she thinks, her mother will be proud of her, her brother Brian will be jealous of her, and her father will look at her instead of the middle distance while chewing on a toothpick he plucked from Denny’s early this morning.

“You come right to the Roy Rogers when you’re done.” Her mother stands in front of the women’s room. “You hear me?”

Her mother is wearing a long, gray, button-up sweater, buttons as big as poker chips. The stems of her eyeglasses curl downward after where they meet the lens before curving upward to latch onto her ears. Her mother wears her glasses in public so infrequently that it’s at this moment that Lesley realizes how dated they are, how haggard she looks, the skin under her eyes little sandbags. Her mother’s eyes meet hers only briefly before they stare into her purse, looking for her wallet.

“I just want a hamburger,” Lesley says, even though her mother hasn’t asked. Her mother forgets things. Forgets her. Her attention is focused on Brian, her brother. Brian, with his weird blood cancer that makes him look like a vampire, his eyes darker than their mom’s. Brian, who they’re taking to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where he will undergo some sort of experimental therapy.

Sloan Kettering. Maybe she is aiming too low; maybe it would be better to have her name on a hospital. But maybe she doesn’t. People die there. And she would have to be a nurse or something, even though she can’t stand the sight of blood and its raw, metallic smell, the way it creeps out of Brian’s nose instead of boogers and how it smears on the back of his hand when he wipes it away. The sight of balled-up red and white tissues in the bathroom trash can, little boulders by the side of his bed.

She squats over the toilet and holds her breath. Except for the bathrooms, most things about the service areas excite her; she has every brochure from every center. At home she keeps them in a folder with a cat on the front and lays them on her bedspread in rows. She studies their covers, the families on them, and tries to remember the last time she has gone anywhere that was not a hospital. Sometimes she makes up stories about the Hatch’s trips to Adventure Aquarium or Six Flags Great Adventure but when she does, she just thinks of her mother with her slouched shoulders and droopy dog eyes and her father staring at nothing and chewing on that toothpick, and they do not belong there, where people laugh, their eyes bright, eating caramel corn, and therefore she does not belong there either.

The hand dryer in the bathroom is pretty cool. The way her skin ripples, loose, above the top of her hand. Like she could unzip herself and step out of this body and trade with the girl who just walked in, the one with light-up sneakers and a pink sweater. She wonders if she squishes her whole body under the powerful jet stream of air what it would feel like, but she can’t because there is an older girl behind her, waiting, waving her damp hands and popping her gum, so Lesley darts outside into the food court.

This is her favorite part of the service center, of these trips, period. Although there are a lot of people in New York, and at Sloan Kettering, most of them are just as frowning, sad, and preoccupied as her parents. The service center is different. People are coming and going, coming and going. Maybe some of them are going to the hospital, but many of them are going to the shore or the casinos or state parks or to see the Empire State Building. Or, like when they drove up last Thanksgiving for Brian’s first set of tests, to see family. Everyone is hungry and needs to pee or buy lip balm or a souvenir from the gift shop and this is the place where everyone is taken care of, where they leave full and satisfied and ready to push on, along the great caterpillar of highways and toll booths that will take them where they are going.

Waystation. It was one of her vocabulary words this fall. A stopping point on a journey. In her Widowspeak Warriors books, it’s the village where Diyana and Sprite stop and rest for the night, eating elfin porridge or dwarf biscuits, where elders of the briar sing songs and impart important wisdom, like patience, or preparation, or forgiveness. It’s where Diyana challenges the local brute and wins the axe throwing contest. It’s a place before victory. Or, just as often, danger.

But still. The hay-stuffed beds, at a safe distance from the fireplace, are warm, the fairy hot chocolate sparkly and sweet, the songs solemn but hopeful. When Lesley is at home, she pretends she is in the village sharpening her weapons, soaking her bones in the elfin baths, steeling herself for battle. Not like the battle Brian fights, but the battle that will cement her legend in song and in block letters above a service area in New Jersey.

On the way to the line for Roy Rogers, she sees it: a Diyana and Sprite bookmark in the Molly Pitcher Gift Shop. It’s one she doesn’t have, where Diyana and Sprite, straddling their unicorn, Maze, are flying right toward her, almost out of the bookmark. She stops, mesmerized, her hand hovering above it.

“Diyana and Sprite.” The voice is older and deep, but not her father’s. She looks up at the man, to her right, his hands jammed into the pockets of his fleece pull-over. His beard is very light, stubbly, as if he just started growing it, but it’s inky black and trimmed neatly, darker than the wisp of hair that hangs outside his NY Jets ski cap. “My girls love that stuff. They have all the books.”

“Me too.” Lesley tucks her head into shoulders. She’s not used to older people talking to her, taking an interest. Except the nurses at the hospitals. But their voices are so high-pitched and loud, their movements animated like cartoon characters, she knows they’re not sincere. Sincere, another vocabulary word of hers. A real, genuine feeling.

“Who’s your favorite?” The man is looking right at her, his eyes brown like root beer candies.

“Sprite.” She cranes her head out of her shoulders like a turtle. “Because she can talk to Maze and Maze understands her.”

“My daughters like her, too,” he agrees, smiling at her. A moment passes, and his root beer eyes look at hers, and she feels like he is Sprite and she is Maze and she wants to talk about their adventures in Gelflandom, the caves lined with quartz and the Mirrors of Knowing. Things that, when she mentions them to her mother, her mother shakes her head, heavy as her eyes, and says, Not now, Lesley. I can’t right now.

In this instant, time moves again, and she is aware she should be in line at Roy Rogers right now, standing next to her mother, reminding her she would like pickles, because she likes the way they embed themselves in the cheese, their surprise sourness next to the sweetness of the ketchup.

“I have to go.” Her head cranes downward into her shoulders, and before the man can say anything else she’s gone, running across the tiles that always feel slightly greasy, and she slows down, not because her mother will yell at her, but because she’s afraid she will slip, and then her mother will really yell at her.

“Where’s Brian?” She hooks her arm through the doughy pylon of her mother’s sweater arm.

“In the car with your father,” her mother answers, staring at the menu board. Brian mostly has milkshakes, sometimes French fries, but mostly he sleeps. When he’s awake he plays the handheld game system her parents bought him just for the hospital. She cannot remember anyone other than this Brian, the one swaddled in blankets, like a baby, the sound of his puking, his large, bald head like a tootsie pop shrouded underneath a New Jersey Devils ball cap. Are you scared? She asked him one morning as he sat at the breakfast table, a chocolate nutrition shake sitting in front of him. He didn’t answer her, and she didn’t know whether to tell him she was scared, scared that he might not be around anymore. Like, forever. Or that some days she didn’t care, that she was tired of all of it — the trips, staying with Aunt Lorraine and her snippy dog Pumpkin while everyone else was at the hospital, re-reading her Widowspeak Warriors books over and over on the sofa. But mostly she was scared, scared that their parents talked about things she didn’t understand like platelet counts or hema-something or sepsis, or otherwise moved through the house silently, like ghosts.

“Can I get a bookmark from the gift shop?” She clings to her mother, attracted like a moth to her warmth and softness, the gravity of her.

“You have plenty of bookmarks, Lesley. You leave them all over the house.” Her mother moves forward in the line, throwing Lesley off balance, and when she grips her mother’s arm to keep from falling her mother tugs her arm away. “Stop — I can’t have you hanging all over me right now.”

Right now. There will never be anything, she thinks, but right now, and right now is a void in which she is trapped, everything she knows far away on the other side.

“Can I go to the car?” She doesn’t want to go to the car but she doesn’t want the tears, hot in her eyes, to slide down her cheeks in front of her mother. Crying makes her mother angry. Everything makes her mother angry. Lesley knows, on the surface, it’s all Brian’s fault but not in any way in which she can be angry at him for it so she is angry at other things like bugs on the sidewalk or the rocks in their driveway or Kelly Annadopolis at school who thinks she’s so hot.

“Go straight to the car,” her mother says as the line moves up. “Do you remember where we’re parked?”

She turns without answering, her tears now blurring her view of the rest center, and instead of going outside she turns right toward the souvenir shop. The bookmark is in the same place on the rack, facing the opening of the store. She pulls the bookmark confidently from the rack as if unsheathing a sword. Then, as she turns to walk away from the shop, she sees the bearded man a few feet away from her. He smiles, patting his back pocket.

“Let me buy that for you.” He stands beside her now, nodding her toward the counter. “Okay? So there’s no trouble.”

She nods, unable to articulate the panic that tremors inside her stomach. Her mother will be mad, so mad. Your brother is very sick, and all you can think about is a stupid bookmark. What the hell is wrong with you? She can feel her mother’s fingers handcuffed on her wrist, yanking her through the slippery food court. Wait until I tell your father.

“My daughter loves Dana and Sprite,” the bearded man says to the counter clerk as he glances down at Lesley, fetching the three bills from his wallet. His hand is covered with scars, deep and red, and Lesley wonders if that’s why he keeps his hands in his pockets.

“Diyana,” Lesley corrects, and instead of getting upset the man smiles at her as if she has said something else like, “thank you.”

Diyana and Sprite, anyone who knows anything will tell you, are kindred spirits. (Kindred: a member of one’s own family.) But they’re not related. Diyana found Sprite in the village of Petomikin, a waystation not unlike Molly Pitcher. Sprite’s family had been killed by the Dragonlords, and Sprite, an orphan, lived by her wits but also petty shoplifting. Diyana, noticing that Sprite was good with her wild beast, Maze, a unicorn with a horn as thick as a log, took her under her wing.

“Do your parents know you’re here?” The man asks outside the souvenir shop. Out of the corner of her eye Lesley can see her mother’s figure at the counter, waiting, staring at her cell phone.

“They don’t care,” she explains, running the slippery plastic of the bookmark along her palm. It’s so dull, she thinks, not like Diyana’s curled Raffa knife. “We’re taking my brother to the hospital. He has cancer.”

The man blinks, his eyebrows lifting. Then, after a moment, he smiles at her. She wants to crawl into his smile like it’s a sleeping bag. He digs his hands back into his jacket pockets, pulling his fleece open and exposing his chest. His t-shirt is faded, but she makes out the words on his chest before they disappear: Fiona Hartley Memorial Run. She marvels at all the ways a name can be remembered.

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Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water and The Tide King (both Black Lawrence Press), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and two collections of fiction (From Here and Close Encounters). Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers. She’s also editor in chief of the literary weekly jmww.