Traffic patterns

A short-ass story

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It can’t wait, though. It’s work, she wanted to shout at the billboard. Work doesn’t wait. It doesn’t fucking work like that, she found herself now shouting. Hands choking the steering wheel now, staring at the red light like the asshole that it is, “you smug bastard,” she exhaled.

“You don’t know. Or do you? What do you do when you turn off? And do you know when you’ll turn back on? If you do —“ a second car honks “— I have a follow-up question about sitting alone at red lights, but we can come back to it.”

Rodney: Part 3

“It’s the new slim fit shirts,” the store manager said over the phone to the store manager. “He can’t fold them.”

The regional manager didn’t understand. They were shirts, made out of cotton, with a crew neck and two short sleeves. She asked for Rodney.

“These shirts aren’t made to be folded,” Rodney intoned. “I’m sorry. I’m trying. I’m trying to learn how they want to be folded. But I’m, I’m sorry.”

The regional manager tried to say something but heard the rattle of the landline being passed.

“What about all the returns?” the regional manager asked the store manager.

“Oh that. The customers say that when they return to their homes or hotels, they realize they didn’t like the shirts, or they don’t fit right, or the material is too starchy. Or they’re from here and feel ridiculous walking around in an “I ❤️ NY” shirt. We’ve even had customers from other countries email us, asking if they could return the shirts and saying they’d be willing to pay the shipping. We tell them that’d be almost as much as the shirts.

“They like the slim fits, though,” the store manager continued. “Even the people who shouldn’t be wearing slim-fit anything. But they look awful folded. So we’ve had to hang them.”

Rodney: Part 2

The box on Rodney’s folding station had been opened. Still, it bulged. Rodney pulled it apart. More shirts. But these were different. They had rumpled into piles, whereas the others had slid into each other. They were soft like a memory.

He picked at the shirt where it clung to itself, releasing only to ripple into more magnetic folds. He slid his arms into it and exalted them outward. Then, with a snap, he flapped it against itself, as if to fan the others.

He moved the box and laid the shirt in its place. He smoothed it some more, then grabbed his board. He pinched the right shoulder at the stitch, then the bottom seam with his other hand, and folded. He mirrored his movement on the other side. At the bottom corners of the board, where the other shirts had halted as if called to heel, this shirt had trespassed further before lying down. Rodney nudged it back, and the shirt’s top shrugged at the folding board. He slid shirt and board, bringing the shirt’s bottom onto the table. He tried again. This time the shirt limped into place, and he finished the fold and slid out the folding board.

He peeled the shirt from the tabletop, one hand holding the shirt’s edge while the other’s fingers tunneled under it until the forearm forced a backbone atop which Rodney pressed his other forearm. With this vice grip, he turned the shirt over and laid it down. Also like a memory, it had wrinkled. He tried to smooth it, ironing his fingers along its folds. Back it bulged, in an inhale. He pressed it by hand, with the board. Relentless. He laid the board atop it and left.

In the break room, Sandra and Marty were watching cartoons. The microwave dinged, and Sandra retrieved her Hot Pockets. Rodney took his Gatorade from the fridge and sat down. No one laughed at the cartoon, so no one asked him why he didn’t. He had already seen this episode.

Rodney: Part 1

Rodney didn’t even need a folding board anymore, at least that’s what the others thought. Rodney thought otherwise.

He clutched a clear plastic rectangle around like everyone else. For a time, he decorated his like everyone else too, in his own way. They adorned theirs with stickers and funny sayings and pages ripped from books like Where’s Waldo? or I, Spy. Rodney’s had motivational sayings. Clichés like “A stitch in nine saves time,” “Slow and steady, it’s not a race,” etc. He had come up with a few on his own.

But one day he decided they needed to go. That day Rodney ran his fingers down a slim fit shirt he had folded. The tapered cut could compromise the inside of the fold, bunching it up and bloating the front crease when seen sideways. As he tried to smooth it out, his fingers kept hitting the folding board’s stuck-on sayings, like a speed bump. He stopped. He unfurled the shirt, removed the stickers, went to the break room to wash off the leftover adhesive. Eventually he would ask for an all-new folding board, which the store manager granted him unquestioned.

One day the regional manager had stopped by to inspect the store before it opened. She almost didn’t make it past the first table. The tourist tees were stacked like china. She couldn’t help but to pick one up, to see what a sight its unfurling could be and was, like dye pouring into water. She picked up another, another color, until she had held all the colors. Having undone a half-dozen, she carried them to the store manager to apologize and to ask how the store had achieved such a fold.

The store manager walked the regional manager downstairs to the stock room, past aisles of back-stocked shirts folded identically to those on the front table, and finally to Rodney. Dressed in cargo pants the same sickly tan as his shirt, offsetting his black Reebok classics, Rodney stood in the corner at a folding station that was little more a standing table with hanging rods for sizing stickers. Bent over a folding board, Rodney’s long bangs swayed above a shirt as if to wipe an energy from it.

The store manager introduced Rodney to the regional manager. Then she took a balled-up tee from the regional manager and asked if Rodney would show her how folds it. He did. The regional manager was awed that she didn’t even feel her phone vibrate in her back pocket.

Soon after the store opened, the regional manager stood at the front to greet the customers and see how they received the shirts. A family with young children at first dented the perfection, then a busload of tourists rammed through the rest. The regional manager was horrified and delighted. These were not good shirts. And they were ashamedly overpriced. Yet the people went rabid at them. Many scooped up multiple shirts in varying colors and sizes and proceeded to the cash register, having won. Within seconds of the table’s desertion, an employee rolled up with a cart of replacement shirts and a cart for the remains to take to Rodney.

The regional manager thought back on this moment, this epiphany, months later when looking over the store’s latest numbers. They had fallen precipitously while the number of returns had rocketed. She saw Rodney was still an employee, though his hours had gone down. She called the store manager.

Arielle: Part 3

The first time Arielle went back into the memory, she wanted to see what Delia was doing. They hadn’t talked since Trey’s party. Technically since before walking into Trey’s party. But it wasn’t like they weren’t going to ever talk again.

Delia would be up with the “A”s, which sucked because the teachers on stage were almost literally looking over the front row as if they might pull someone on stage. But “Ames” meant she’d at least be second or third row, with all the Abbotts and Acalas and Adamses. Fourth row in fact, Arielle found, having forgotten about the Aguilar twins and Aguirre cousins, plus the other two Aguirres who were each their own things.

Delia was on her phone. Promising. Arielle couldn’t interact with others in the memory. She had learned that the fifth time when she got up her courage after discovering on the fourth time that the memory captured stuff she didn’t even see or know about when the memory was being made. Mostly she was a spectator. But if she could spectate on people’s phones, she had even more to see.

Not so much on Delia’s phone though, not right now. She was playing with that pink focus filter and putting it on different people sitting behind her. Oh wait, she was adding superlatives. “Most Cliche” went to Tom Morgan. Yeah, duh. He wears a puka shell necklace and brings his own beer bong to parties. “Most Likely to Drive a Winnebago” to Claire Forte. Weird. Sandra Dayton had been the one who said she was going to drive through all 48 connected states before she graduated college. Arielle didn’t think much of the fact that Delia was saving these videos to her phone instead of posting them. Delia almost always banked posts. Arielle thought she tried too hard, but she didn’t have anything to say when Delia snapped back that at least she was trying.

Oh bitch. Delia had her phone aimed at Arielle’s section, then at Arielle, who could have taken her mother’s name Acosta if her parents had divorced because her dad had some secret family — no, two secret families — instead of loving each other and even, swear to God, deciding to renew their vows in Hawaii this summer. But no. Instead she was Arielle Ignacio, which would be great years later when she was making her name, but right now was the name of the person most likely to move home after college.

Arielle: Part 2

Ugh, right, making a memory, she remembered now. Caps, gowns, white chairs that weren’t built for sitting (is this where people’s picket fences went? she wondered), astroturf, bleachers. Bleh.

This wasn’t a memory. It was a stock photo. Not how this works. She knew at least that by now. She had to find some specific thing that made this now and could contain it later. Some flyaway moment that could be slowed into sand.

Was someone laughing? That had done it before. The way the cashier’s neck had folded into her laugh, like it had balled the joke into something her chin could hold for keeps. People won apple-bobbing contests with that neck clench. For whatever reason, she could return to that moment. Walk around in it. Watch herself in it. Rewind herself, switch herself to slo-mo, move around, grab a Slim Jim from the next checkstand, bark that she was snapping into it as she did — and nothing, the scene played on. Even better, she could step into herself and change how things play out. Except for the laugh. She couldn’t change the laugh. Anytime she did, she got kicked out of the memory, back to wherever she was when she entered it. Memories were strict with their rules.

She hadn’t learned many of memory’s rules yet. She had no idea how many there would be to obey or try to bend. She never would. Not that it mattered, especially not now. Now she just needed to figure out what made a memory. If she had learned it before, she had forgotten. She didn’t think she had, anyway.

Then it happened. Principal Wheeler was introducing Kayla Saunders for her speech, when the wind whipped across the stage. It yanked the programs from some teachers’ hands and laps, landing one against Ms. Geider’s cheek before heading off to wherever miracles return. Finally she saw it. Principal Wheeler’s tie was being pulled up and to the side, its knot pressing against his ear, the rest reaching to the sky.

It only lasted for maybe two seconds. Long enough for people to see, but too short for them to remember exactly what they saw. Later most said it looked like a noose around his neck, only to be substantiated later that summer when Wheeler left town.

Morbid bastards, Arielle thought. She didn’t see a noose at all. Okay, she did. How could you not? (Ha, knot.) But that wasn’t all she saw. The energy wasn’t going in that direction, like a noose. Mr. Wheeler wasn’t weighing down his tie. The tie looked like it was lifting him up. Trying to, anyway. He seemed to recognize it too. His normally red fingers were white against the edges of the podium. She could see him clinging. Then it was over.

When the yearbook team posted a video of it to the school’s Facebook the next day and their parents showed it to them, everyone felt fooled. The whole thing lasted less than three seconds, and Wheeler’s tie for maybe half a second (734 milliseconds, as Arielle would later time it). Yet no one would remember much else of the two-hour ceremony. Not Arielle’s sweat smile. Jimmy Vero’s attempted streaking that was spoiled by stage fright. Mrs. Gaylen’s speech and the laughs it elicited. Mr. Gaylen’s singing and the laughs it elicited. If it weren’t for all the scenes in movies and on TV of the newly matriculated tossing their caps, no one would remember much of that mess either. Not Arielle, though. She could relive it all, so long as she didn’t stop the wind.

Arielle: Part 1

A story

Take a mental picture of this moment, Arielle told herself. She tried. Thinking of the heat and the stage, backlit by the sun, beaming in their faces.

Whoever had organized the graduation ceremony must have been trolling, she decided. Why else schedule it for 5:30 pm on a Saturday and arrange for the stage to be on the west end zone, and not even flush with the end zone but angled so that the sun stared them straight down as it set? Who the hell tracked the trajectory of the sun like that? How big of a compass and/or protractor would you need for that?

Whatever. She would never need those again. She would miss proofs, though. She didn’t know it now, but a month into her freshman year, she and her dormmates would begin writing proofs of “Law & Order: SVU” episodes. They would even create an Instagram account to post them to, and that account would become the subject of a BuzzFeed article that would alter the trajectory of her life.

But at the moment, she was concerned with the trajectory of the sun, which was bowing to flash its light straight in her face, like an asshole. The moon would never do this.

She reminded herself that it wasn’t the sun’s fault. The sun didn’t know it’d be pitted into a staring contest with the North South High class of 2018. Even if the sun had known, it couldn’t do anything about it. Couldn’t angle itself to look at something just beyond and to the side, like someone trying to be polite while the Subway worker makes them a sandwich. The sun couldn’t pull up a book to bury its head in. Nope, the sun was here, and so was the sweat.

Oh fuck, the sweat. What if it pooled under her boobs? It’d be like that time she stood outside for hours get a selfie with Demi Lovato and felt Demi’s hand squish against her soggy shoulder and instantly peel off, sounding like a wet fart. A sound that Arielle may have imagined but that made her face bulge in an all too real way. Like she had accidentally swallowed a bug and was being told it would lay eggs inside her.

Obviously this would be worse, though. With Demi, no one there knew her, and no one who knew her needed to know about the picture. But if she got up on that stage with two dark stains on her maroon robe looking like oversized, oblong nipples — wait, they didn’t have to be nipples. They could be eyes! Yes, and she could tuck her robe into her belly and bend over, pressing her sweat into it, into a smile, a happy face. It’d be weird, sure, but at least it’d be on purpose then. And it’d make for a good picture, a picture she’d remember. All their faces. Then she could forget the rest of this, this…culmination? Coronation? Culmination.

Why do life’s milestones always have to involve walks down aisles? What was momentous about grocery shopping? Oh oh, getting to pick whatever cereal you want when you’re an adult on your own, that’ll be momentous. She’ll remember that for sure.