the paumanok review yellow background background image
Skip navigation
Stephen F. Anderson decorative flourish Caving

This has got to be the most crowded rest area ever. In the blue dawn fog it’s like a seedy carnival. Red, yellow and white lights flash—SUVs, motorhomes, buses and semitrailers. I steer between the rows of vehicles, slowing way down. People walk with jumbo mugs, they tread in circles talking on mobile phones, they smoke and laugh and chat. Could they all know each other? I wonder. What else does this dreary fog hold? I imagine biker gangs brawling, soft- and hard-core restroom trysts, truck-driver couples square dancing on the dewy grass.

I steer on, peering for a way through. People line up along the sidewalk, as if hailing the first of many taxis. But I’m no taxi and I don’t pick up strangers. I never even talk to them.

I stare straight ahead. Keep it steady. Don’t make eye contact.

Someone breaks from the pack. She lunges for my passenger door. She lands on the front seat.

“What are you doing?” My hands flap as if my wrists don’t work. “Don’t hurt me, what are you doing?”

“Just looking for a ride.” She shows me a toothy smile. “Sorry, you all right?”

“All right, all right,” I mumble. How could I forget to lock the door? “Yes, okay, but—you just don’t jump in people’s cars like that—especially when they haven’t locked them.”

She laughs, holding up a hand. “Never do it again, okay? Ever.”

I take a deep breath; I’m getting ahold of myself now. Got to figure this out. She has a large mouth. She has a petite frame. She has on brand-new hiking boots, a Gore-Tex Thinsulate anorak and she’s still smiling—a sure sign of a perky demeanor. Really not my deal at all.

She slaps her thighs. “So. Heading to Portland?”

A semi is behind us; its horn blares. We start. “That’ll wake you up,” she says.

“Yeah it will,” I say, releasing a nervous chuckle. When did I last chat with a woman like this—or any woman? As I drive on, my heart thumps higher. It wants up my throat.

She’s looking around the car. I forgot to Armor All the shifter. I wonder if she notices. “Your door,” I say, “it’s not shut all the way.”

“So you’re taking me? Primo.” She pulls the door shut. She has smooth skin and manicured nails. That surprises me. She smiles again.

I try a smile, too; it feels slow and heavy on my face, like goo. I peak in the rearview mirror: my forehead is pasty in the blue light, I have dark rings under my eyes and a bed head—my thinning hair has fuzzed up like a senile poodle’s. Still, I’m not looking too bad. We plod along. I brake, we coast, brake. Pass more people smoking. She waves at them; they wave cigarettes. “All that cigarette smoke,” I mutter, “I can smell it even in here.” She keeps smiling and waving.

Then it hits me. “I don’t see it,” I blurt, my head jerking around. “Don’t see it anywhere.” My palms warm with sweat and my voice warbles. “The little coffee trailer with the fading red stripe—you haven’t seen it?”

She stops smiling. “Excuse me?”

“The free coffee. Rest area sign said, ‘Free Coffee,’ I always stop for it. Why else you think I’d come in here?”

“Oh, that trailer. They were here but they left. Rotary Club, I think. With the bus breaking down and all they must have run out.”

“Run out? What bus?”

“My bus. Why do you think we’re all hitching rides? You don’t think I’m going to wait for another Greyhound, do you?”

“No. No, you’re right.” Cars pull out ahead, slowing us again. I sigh.

“Nice folks in the coffee trailer,” she says. “Chatty. One of those cute old guys was a child actor, Little Rascals, I think—but you already know that.”

“No. I’ve never really talked to them.”

“Oh.” Silence finds us. She pushes at her black hair, damp and stringy from the fog.

“There’s a towel if you want. It’s in the glove box.”

“Thanks.” She pops open the glove box. Atop my antibacterial handy wipes, first aid kit, owner’s manual, envelope of repair receipts, paint brush, prescription sunglasses and no-fog cloth is a hand towel, neatly folded. She spits a laugh. “Wow, okay if I touch any of this?”

“Of course. Just, you know—”

“What? Don’t mess it up? You like things this way, don’t you? Orderly.”

“Is that bad?”

“No, no. Not in itself … The glove box hangs open. Her eyes are lowered. “Look,” she says, “I’m sorry to burst in on you, you’re obviously not used to distractions like this.”

“It’s okay; I’m okay.” Yet I slow, in case she wants out.

“Thanks for stopping for me.”

“Sure. But I didn’t really stop.”

“I know,” she says.

She hasn’t moved to get out. I do the gooey smile again. “Tell you what: I’ll reset the trip odometer—get the exact cost per gallon for when I drop you off.”

“Fine. All right.”

I fight the urge to shut the glove box. We clear the parking lot and approach the on-ramp. No cars follow us, as if everyone except us is trapped in the rest area forever—eternally parking, stretching their legs, getting fresh air, walking the dog, using the toilet without touching a thing. It could have been me in there. Things could always be worse.

Grinning, she holds up the paint brush with two fingers. “What’s this for?”

“Use it to dust off my dash. Works great.”

She brushes the dash to and fro, and she smiles, as if the vinyl is her skin and she feels it tingle. “Nice,” she says. She sets the brush back in its place, whips open the towel and rubs her hair. Her hair is a deep, rich black. I recall my Lewis and Clark: she, my Sacajawea in scant togs of suede, turquoise choker and feather headband, guiding me to unknown bays and buffalo herds.

On the freeway now. I speed up. She chuckles as she rubs. “Hey, how about we turn on the radio?”

“It doesn’t work. It’s the original—I, uh, wanted to keep everything vintage.”

“It’s a Volvo.”

“Yes. ’75 144.”

“Nice. Most of these are trashed. Skiers have them, windboarders, more outdoorsy types.”

“But they don’t take care of theirs,” I say. “They don’t take the time.”

“No, I guess they don’t.”

Up to speed. We have the whole freeway before us—four lanes. Here we are in the heart of the Willamette Valley. Vast green fields flank us—the most fertile farmland on earth. I can breathe again. The sun illuminates the lifting fog, shining through, and her olive-brown cheeks glow. She lays the moist towel on the back seat to dry. I let her. I hum and tap at the steering wheel.

“So what’s your name?” she says.

“Mine? Gordon. Gordy Holman.”

“Mine’s Maisie. Maisie Piccolo.”

“Nice name. It’s different.” Silence again.

“I work for the Forest Service,” she adds. “I’m an interpreter—a guide. Caves, mostly.”

“Really? You’re a spelunker?” Again, not what I expected at all.

“By default. I’m an expert on caves and cave habitats. But I don’t get up early or whatever and go caving for the hell of it.” She chuckles. “I mean, not unless there’s a spider colony—”

“What? No way.”

She turns to me grinning. “You don’t like spiders? Then you really wouldn’t like these. Most people don’t know there are whole categories of insects indigenous to caves.”

“Categories?”

“Sure, countless breeds—there in the darkness, crawling along the stalagmites, the allophane—”

“Stalagmites point up; stalactites hang from the ceiling,” I blurt. Why am I telling her what she already knows? Why did she have to tell me about all the insects? This is what I get for chatting.

“That’s ver-y goood,” Maisie sings—her guide voice, I suspect. “Are you into caves too?”

“Oh, no. No. That would be way too confined.”

“You should go. Most all of them are white—the cave insects, I mean. I love bats the best though. They’re really harmless; they just grub on bugs. Hey, can I turn up the heat?”

“It’s up all the way. Wait: you say they’re white?” Now I see Armageddon: me against the untold, underearth legions of albino insects. Have only I considered such a monstrous, sneaking menace?

Maisie stares, studying me. “Of course, if you’re one of these cave insects, and you don’t know about that big, other world out there, then you’re not going to miss that big other world, or even know what you’re missing.”

“That’s possible, too. Which leads me to another thought—maybe they don’t want to know.”

“Yeah, I’m sure that’s it,” she says.

I steal a glance at her. Both hands on the steering wheel. I say: “Did you, you know, learn all this cave stuff because you’re a … did you learn it when you were growing up?”

She glares at me. She sighs. “Yes, I am Native American. No, I did not learn this growing up—though I did live on a reservation, if you want to know.” She looks out her window, away from me. “Worked my butt off for it, too.”

“No, I didn’t think you didn’t. I just meant … I let the words trail off. That’s what I get.

We pass an exit. Cars merge. Some race past us.

“Look, it’s fine,” she says. “Don’t worry about it. Sometimes I’m a little sensitive.”

“Okay—”

“And what do you do?” she says. She’s grinning. “I’ll bet you’re a … you look like you own a record store—a hobby shop maybe. That’s it—a hobby shop!”

“No, wrong.” We pass a controlled crop fire. A monster spiral of muddy smoke reaches high above us. I lunge for the air vents, shutting them tight. “I have allergies,” I say.

Maisie helps me on her side. “Oh, man, so do I.”

I should ask which allergies, but I don’t. I drive a while, trying not to look at her.

She cocks her head at me. “What? What is it?”

“Nothing.” I drive some more. “How do you, just, do that? What you did back there?”

“Do what, Gordy?”

“Just jump in someone’s car. In my car. Be so, you know, outgoing?”

She smiles, but then her chin turns hard, and the smile straightens. “Here’s the deal: when you get knocked down, you either stay down or you get up again—”

“Shit! What’s that?”

A woman has run out into the freeway ahead, lugging a gym bag. I change lanes but she zigzags to anticipate me. I slow down; I have no choice. She’s slender. She wears high heels. She sprints straight for us, waving an arm and dragging the bag.

“What’s she doing now?” I let off the gas, slowing to a halt along the shoulder.

“No way!” Maisie tugs at my arm. “Stop, Gordy, stop, she was on the bus with me!”

The woman has a long mess of dark hair. She wears a red wraparound dress that looks like a vintage von Furstenburg, stretch pants underneath and a pink purse that reads, in sequins, “90% Sweet.” She marches over to my side.

Cars are flying by us now. This is not happening, I think, not on I-5 twenty miles south of Portland. Maisie pushes at my shoulder.

“This is not happening,” I say.

Maisie shouts: “Girl, you are crazy! Good for you!” The woman’s eyes bulge; she gasps and grasps her cheeks. “It’s you!” she screams, “Darling, it’s you!” By now her charade is obvious: she has a large nose and Adam’s apple, and hair on her upper arms. Her voice is deeper than she’d probably like; and she has an accent, something Mediterranean. Maisie reaches back between the front seats.

“Wait, no. We’re not giving her a ride too—”

Maisie glares. “What do you care? Just charge her.” She pops open the rear door. The woman drops in the back seat and twists her rear end into place—grinding the damp towel into my original felt seats. Perfumes and powders sting in my nose.

“Could you, uh, watch the towel—”

The woman’s hard black eyes find me. “Could you have some fucking courtesy,” she huffs in her gruffest she-voice. Maisie glares along with her.

“Please,” I say.

The woman clears her throat and hocks one out the window. “That’s better,” she says.

I drive a while. They whisper between the seats. I hear my name more than once.

The woman kicks at my seat. She barks: “You’re fucking charging me?”

“I don’t normally pick up hitchhikers.”

“Hey, if I was a hitchhiker, I sure as hell would not ride with a nutjob like you.”

I shrug. They whisper again. We pass a sign: “Next Rest Area, 11 Miles.”

The woman says: “Can I smoke in here?”

“I prefer you didn’t.”

“Whatever you say, Gordy. That is your name, is it not? Lordy.”

A couple miles pass. Still the perfumes and powders. My nostrils will seal shut in protest. The two of them whisper and giggle. The woman pats the seat and says to Maisie in a flimsy southern accent: “Honey, if you can’t have something nice to say, come sit here next to me.”

Maisie, being petite, wriggles between the seats and climbs in back, and they start talking away, mostly about people on their bus. All the while the woman holds up a hand, as if she was allowed to smoke after all. For once I wish I had a radio. “Going to a party,” I hear the woman say. “Bunch a hairdressers and flight attendants I know, it’s all paid for. Basically, girl, I’m just a party hag—hell, I should rent myself out.”

Maisie laughs and slaps the woman on the wrist. It wasn’t that funny. I don’t like Maisie like this. Besides, somewhere beneath that vintage von Furstenburg resides a man.

Maisie catches me watching her in the rearview mirror. The woman catches Maisie catching me. A brand-new Porsche passes us going twice as fast — a yellow, purring blur. I switch lanes, pretend I’m busy with the road.

A booming voice fills my ears—the woman’s real voice: “My name is DQ,” she says.

“Oh,” I say. DQ? All I can think of is: Dairy Queen.

She and Maisie giggle. “Drag Queen,” the woman says. “I know, couldn’t I be more imaginative? At least be tacky.” She shrugs. “What can I say? There weren’t a lot of us back home. It sounded exotic at the time.”

“Show him the clipping,” Maisie says. “Come on.”

DQ releases a long sigh. She fishes around in her bag. She produces a newspaper clipping in a plastic sleeve.

Maisie leans forward between the seats and holds the sleeve before me. There’s gold dust sprinkled inside, but the clipping is legible. It’s a wire service story ten years old. Maisie, close to me, reads so I can watch the road. Her voice tickles and caresses my ear.

Iranian Transsexual Unhappy With Experience As Woman

TEHRAN—An Iranian man who recently had a sex change to become a woman finds life as a woman insufferable in Iran, a newspaper said Friday.

The 26-year-old DQ (former name withheld) underwent a sex change last year despite strong parental opposition.

Soon she found it difficult to cope with the “restrictions” surrounding a woman’s life in the conservative Islamic society.

“I can’t go on living here, not after years of living as a man with no restrictions,” she told the daily Iran Mirror.

I can smell Maisie’s hair. Blackberries. I want to pick them. I can’t believe I just thought that.

Sex change operations are legal in Iran, but women struggle under the burdens of a legal code and a value system that severely limit their freedom of action …

Iran has a mandatory dress code for women. They must cover their hair and body. Men get on public transport through the front door, while women must use the back door.… Official statistics show suicide rates among women far outstrip those of men, which is the opposite of Western societies …

As Maisie’s sweet voice fills my ear, I wonder at the guts these two women have. The balls. Meanwhile, I’ve faced life my way. Sure I have. I stick to a highly developed network of rest areas offering free coffee. I speak to no one if I can help it. I Armor All my shifter.

“You just winged it?” I say to DQ. “You just came over here?”

“Of course,” DQ says. Maisie sits back down; she and DQ share a knowing glance. “What matters,” DQ adds, wagging a finger, “is not that you get knocked down. Oh, no. It’s getting up again. For one day you must risk something that matters.”

Maisie nods along, gazing out the window. We are passing a field of sheep.

I feel an emptiness in my stomach, as if I’m hungry though the thought of food makes me nauseous. Some might say I’ve never even let myself get in a position to be knocked down. Never risked a hair. Screw them, I say.

As I drive and think, I feel DQ’s dark eyes on me.

“Tell me,” she says. “What do you do?”

“Guess—no don’t. I’m a courier.”

“Ah. You mean, like one of these bike messengers?”

Maisie watches now.

“No, that’s too dangerous. I drive a little delivery car. Kind of like a taxi driver but without the passengers.”

DQ looks to Maisie. They neither smile nor frown.

“And you have been doing this for some time, have you not?”

I nod. The traffic is denser now—cars travel all four lanes.

DQ taps a finger to her chin. “By the looks of you, Lordy, I dare say you made yourself an outsider. Yes. That black t-shirt. The pale skin. You could have a wonderful tan if you wanted—”

“Tell me one thing,” Maisie blurts. “If you could know all you know now, say, when you were fifteen and listening to obscure new-wave bands or whatever you do in the suburbs, daydreaming about hanging yourself, would you have, I don’t know, gone out for sports instead? Dropped out, traveled? Started your own business maybe. Whatever. Whatever got you out in the world.”

“Huh? No, I … “ Heat fills my head. My heart moves all cool and squishy in my chest.

I could drop them off right there, I remind myself. I have the power. I do.

“Well?”

“Maybe,” I hear myself say. “Maybe I would have. I don’t know. How can you know?”

Maisie looks to DQ, who says: “By not making choices in life, by not taking chances, you are still making choices. Avoidance is a choice in itself.”

“It’s worse,” Maisie adds. “It’s missing out.”

I wave hands; I yell: “Wait wait wait. I made a choice here—I picked you two up.”

“Sort of,” Maisie says.

“Fine. Good. Then how’s this for a choice—how about I drop you off right now?”

“Well, that would be your choice,” says DQ.

Next exit, Wilsonville. Portland’s outermost suburb. Wilsonville has connections to city buses. It would take a while, but they could get downtown with no problem. I speed up.

What does Maisie see in me? I wonder.

The traffic is so dense now you have to look, signal and look again to change lanes. None of us speak as we approach the Wilsonville exit. I look for an opening, signal, look again. I steer into the right lane.

Yet I speed on past the exit.

Miraculously, the heat leaves me. We near a blue sign. It reads, “Rest Area,” and below that, “Free Coffee.”

I pass that, too. Now the squishiness fades.

In the rearview mirror, I see Maisie and DQ share a smile.

“Your name,” I say to Maisie, finding her in the mirror, “it’s from Greek, right?”

Maisie beams. “How did you know?”

“I just know.”

Maisie blushes. “It means precious pearl.”

“Pretty,” DQ says. She adds a merry shake of her head.

I’m on a roll now. I smile, letting the sun hit my teeth.

Cars, exits and strip malls everywhere. Connecting highways loom and merge. Portland has swallowed us fast. We drop DQ off first, at the Target store downtown. We stand on the busy sidewalk, and I glare at the people giving us the eye. DQ and Maisie exchange phone numbers. They hug.

DQ turns her broad shoulders to me. She reaches in her pink sequined purse.

I wave a hand. “No, no charge.”

“All right.” DQ smiles. She shakes my hand so tightly that my fingers stick together. “Good luck, Lordy,” she says. And she winks.

“You, too. Thank you.”

Back in the car. Maisie is in the front seat. We sit through stoplight after stop light. She’s grown quiet. Another stoplight. My hands tighten around the steering wheel. I sit up straight.

I say, “Hey, what kind of allergies do you have?”

“Huh? Oh, dust mites, some grasses. Cat dander, I think.”

“You’ve been checked. That’s good. ’Cause I was just thinking, I’ve heard about people who are allergic to each other, actually physically allergic, and I wouldn’t want that to happen.” The words tumble out so fast I can’t stop them, as if the things I say are forming my thoughts. I say: “So what would you think about, you know, going to see a movie or something sometime. Dinner maybe. I’m buyin’.”

She sits up straight. Her eyebrows have lowered; she’s smirking at me.

I clear my throat. “I would like it if you did. Because, well, we really need to talk about those white insects of yours. We can outwit them, I think, me and you. I already have some ideas.”

<$author?> <$author?>

Stephen F. Anderson has written everything from radio ads to breaking news for the Associated Press, but his true love is writing fiction and lots of it. His stories have appeared in Exquisite Corpse, 3AM Magazine, Fiction Warehouse, the 12-Gauge Review, and Elimae. Other credits include Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. He was a Fulbright Fellow in Munich, Germany, and has a master’s in history. He lives with his wife René in Portland, Oregon, where he’s working on a new novel.