Below is Part 4 of 16 monthly installments for Visitant.
Moister Oyster: Transport
In Florida, people call me Miss Dot or Miz Motley. In grade school, I longed for a shorter name than Dora Motley. I tried on Ot and Dot like mittens, even wore the reverse fit, Tod, like a ski mask. I didn’t mind the rhyme until I learned Tod was a boy name that meant he-vixen, fox. On the playground, kids tried to tag me Mot and Lee, but they didn’t nab me, push me over, make me It. Oh, no. Dot wasn’t an easy touch.
Run, I told myself, and dodged the madding crowd, mudding mockers.
The thud of heavy jump ropes gave me a way in and out. Plus enough skinned knees to empty a Band Aid box. The sting of iodine was the price paid for run, losing the Recess posse in dry gulch, deep canyon or quicksand of my imagination.
Maps were my passion. The straight lines and squiggles showed named dots, cities, large and small. Cities added up to states. Learning state names, I fooled with blended syllables—Dontana, Delorida, Doregon, Dohio. I loved writing these names in elaborate penmanship, but everybody hooted.
Why is Dohio weirder than Ohio? If Dora Jean, why not Doregon? Ditto with Delaska and Delorida. Why can’t kids choose the syllables of their own names? Discouraged by mores of parental privilege and roll call, I went back to Dot Motley. Been on that parrot perch ever since.
Recently, I have nixed abbreviation dots and barged through to DOT, all caps, upper case, as in the state’s Department of Transportation, so over-budget that shovel-ready projects pile up behind schedule. Who doesn’t long for transport—mid-morning lift-off in the gondola of a hot-air balloon, smooth evening cruise on a magic carpet, brisk moonlit ride astride a trusty corn broom. I settle in and wait in perpetual fret about decaying infrastructure—bridge collapse, wind shear, rising waters. Will the State of Florida become a shallow sea?
Roadwork is bad theatre. Like a play in which all the actors have forgot their lines. In line, we drivers become the prompters and stuntmen do the parts. DOT workers glue down diamond-hard rhombic cubes with flashy sequins worthy of Elvis. Multimillion-dollar vehicular robots execute the precise cuts for trimmed trees, soft shoulders, and medians. They belch fronds and sawdust like palm-eating dragons.
At rural work sites, prisoners in striped jumpsuits monitor the traffic to deflect road rage.
Waiting drivers sit in safety and stare at a male convict, also waiting. We study his eyes, lips, and nostrils and watch his hands holding the sign pole, twisting it like a long neck.
This gaze is a tedious two-way variation on the windows of the soul. Some young convicts respond to a pleasant smile, slight nod, or subtle wave. Others blink, bite one side of moist lips, shrug. On signal, they turn the two-sided sign from GO to STOP or CAUTION!—simple words that might have saved them prison time.
Almost noon. I fidget, turn my brain pole, and flash a two-sided thought. How easy to smash the fat foreman across the back with that long sign pole! And vault into plasmic blue skies for a mid-day getaway.
My mind dots regroup and focus on my tax dollar at work. Timed with local elections, road surfaces change from worn grey to new licorice black or spam pink, depending on the low-bid contractor. Florida lacks gravel to temper asphalt, and, in the earlier decades, DOT leveled archaeological shell mounds and pulverize them for fill.
Now, everybody drives across the history of the state’s First Peoples. They, too, valued shells of marine snails and oysters, but we will never know the full scale or significance of their raised earthworks. Mounds remaining at Hontoon Island have changed the course of Florida’s largest waterway, the St. Johns River. Talk about transport.
My stomach dots grumble like a cement grinder. High noon, and still stuck behind a huge dump truck. Always something between me and the way ahead. The monster vehicle is hauling top sand, off-white with broken oyster shells and ochre streaks of iron-stained clay. As the truck approaches two orange cones, clumps bounce down the sides into the high grass.
Waiting, I feel caged inside my car. The convict, too, is doing time, but he’s outside, controlling minutes like hands of a clock. How can the rest of us be prompt?
To reassert myself, I roll down the window. Just a crack. My turn to impinge. I beam my dots in telepathy. Fat chance. The sign pole turns to STOP.
I shift into park. Outside my car, an alarm bleeps and lights blink. The dump truck slowly backs, knocks one of the orange cones, comes to a stop.
A different alarm sounds. I startle. All heads turn and watch the mammoth truck bed rise to the height of a two-story building and dump tons of sand.
If the convict plans to bolt, this is the moment. He is a fit youth. The DOT supervisors are middle-aged slobs in construction helmets and unlaced boots. Two sit in a marked white pick-up truck, doors open. Two lean against the cab and snack, flipping wrappers and cans. One turns his back, takes a leak in the bush. His buddy, waiting for the dump, is ready to call it a day. Spraying his shoulders with insect repellent, he’s not moving anywhere fast.
I glance at the convict.
The good ole boys may be armed, but they won’t shoot into a herd of cattle. No surprise, this piece of road bisects the spread of a state rep. The kid could disappear among the five-foot-high dog fennel into the palmetto thicket. After an oncoming locomotive whistles two crossings north, he could race for the tracks, wait for a slowing box car, and jump aboard. He’s had all morning to listen for the trains, to gauge the sound and the distance.
These trains travel a line of small towns that have known better times. In broad daylight, he could hop off at a crossing, steal clothes drying on a fence, and walk away whistling Dixie in a clean tee-shirt and jeans warm from the sun.
I turn my head. The dump-truck levels the now empty bed. I look back. The sign says CAUTION! GO. The pole tilts in a pothole, but the convict is nowhere in sight.
Traffic behind me honks. Fat foreman flaps his arms. He’s forgot to zip his fly. I shift into drive. He slaps the sides of my sedan with the flat of his hands. I ignore him. I know he means STOP, bitch!
Go, I tell myself and floor the gas. Thank goodness my car doesn’t not stall with all this idling. The line of vehicles lurches forward. Orange cones flip, flatten. DOT crew has been too slow to block both lanes with the pick-up truck.
I’m gone, speeding along open road. In the fields, heifers graze head down. A trio of sandhill cranes lifts in flight. Cowbirds rise and settle in dark S-shaped flocks. Tall clouds gather for an afternoon thunderstorm. Everything sorts by kind. I merge left onto the larger highway that parallels the tracks. Cars zoom by piles of huge new culverts at DOT mile-markers. The convict can seek cover in them days and walk nights.
That is, if he’s run away.
On the lam,
no time to spar,
In his shoes, I’d dive into the nearest pond and bargain with the Almighty.
Hook Man, save my life.
Fancy flies, ties, and lies lured me
in disguise, undersized snagged fry
on a stringer. Throw me back,
bait for bigger catch.
That’s my shortcoming—swapping out the here and now for wait and see.
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