Three Weeks on Thingvalla Road

I often just drove past the sign and didn’t think very much about it. Strange name, but just a street sign, green and at my visual periphery. Months later, driving to work in a chilly snow-fall, I saw a bundled-up figure trudging down the center line of Huron Avenue towards the bus-stop. I pulled alongside and cranked down the window, my face absorbing fine pellets of coldness.

“Hop in.”

A hesitation. Wide blue eyes scanned from between wool cap and scarf.

“Come on, you look frozen. I’ll drive you to the Square. Or into the City if that’s where you’re going.”

A long few moments passed, moments of hesitation while my car, my suit, my aspect was scanned for, I imagined, warning signs of danger. Then: “Okay, thanks.” She slid onto the front seat, accompanied by an aura of cold air. “Thank you! Don’t usually do this, but it’s so darned cold.”

“Well, I don’t usually pick up people either. Funny how when there are extremes, like cold or snow or rain, or any emergency, people talk when normally they just ignore each other.”

She unwrapped her scarf, pulled off her cap, glanced over, half smiling. Fine red hair framed her face; a small brownish beauty mark set off the redness of her cheek. “Yeah, I noticed that, too,” she replied.

My car sloshed and slid down the street. “Where to?”

“Just the Square, okay?” A pause. “I work in the Bookstore.”

“Fine. Going right past it,” I lied.

An open space of time and words, each thinking for an impersonal remark.

“So where do you live? Where were you coming from?”

“Oh, I’m living with a friend temporarily. Down that side street, Thingvalla Road. You know it?”

“No, not really; just seen the sign. Funny name….”

I left her in front of the Bookstore that dominated the Square. The wind filled the car, swallowing her thank you. I did not ask her name, but remembered her eyes that shone from reddened skin and hair that reflected the sparkle of snow.

A few months later: the first really Spring-like day. The moisture and boggy smell of drying earth were tinged with heat and carried by a mild and constant Southern breeze. I was early and traffic was light. As a lark, really, nothing more, I turned right onto Thingvalla Road.

The entire street was only a few houses long, gray and brown triple-deckers typical of working-class New England neighborhoods, square porches in front, windows set back into the façade mindlessly reflected the dark blue sky and blocking out any glimpse of the interiors. I drove slowly to the dead end, marked by a small widening or turn-around, but saw no one. Ugly little front yards of beaten-down dirt, no more than brown plots waiting for the greening of Spring, running back from the side-walk to the low red-brick foundations and uneven wooden stairs. All the houses stared out quietly. A silent street, devoid of responses. I drove into the City, still too early for the start of the work-day.

In May, when my family was away visiting my in-laws, and I had stayed at home to work on a case, Sunday dawned gray, muggy and dull. I drifted around the house in sweater and jeans, unable to focus enough to drive into the office. After a while, I took my Chevy out for a drive, and found myself at the corner of Huron and Thingvalla Road. Turning right, I drove down Thingvalla. A few children in T-shirts rode rusty bicycles in slow circles. Two tossed a baseball in lazy arcs. Sure that I wasn’t conspicuous in my gray Chevy, I pulled to the curb near the end of the street and turned off the engine. The entire sweep of the street was shrunken into my rear-view mirror: children, muddy non-lawns, a pile of shrub cuttings near the end of one driveway, two teen-agers soaping a brown Plymouth, an old lady in a black dress walking bow-legged down the sidewalk . Two small maples with green-tipped boughs flanked the center of the block. I sat for about an hour, slumped down in the seat and staring through my mirror at the lethargy of the scene. The girl with red hair did not appear. I drove to the office and attacked the contents of my desk.

Next morning, it was pouring heavily and without hope of respite. I loaded my briefcase, umbrella, and raincoat into the car and pulled away from the driveway. At the first corner, I stopped to move everything from the seat beside me into the back, and then drove deliberately and a bit too quickly to Thingvalla Road. I paused at the corner, for how long I’m not sure, until the honking behind me pushed me ever so slowly around the corner. I drove down the street at low speed, peering left and right onto the porches for my red-headed acquaintance, or for anyone else who was bundled up against the rain. No one appeared except for a man in work-clothes who jumped into a pick-up and roared off without need of my assistance. I turned and sat, engine idling, for a few minutes, but the houses held their secrets. Through one window, I could see white gauzy curtains and a round pull-ring on an old roller-shade. Within this frame, a lamp on a table, its finial golden glass. Shapes moved in the room, unclear and unidentifiable. I drove into the City.

About a week later, I realized that I had become determined to learn more about who lived on this mundane street; I imagined it as a hobby of sorts, a sociological inquiry, the study of the microcosm the better to understand the whole. I learned that Town Hall sold a “police list” for five dollars, disclosing occupants of each street, house-by-house.

Thingvalla Road had fourteen house and 151 people. The oldest was 91, a retired hair dresser living at number eight. There were sixty-six children. I could not identify my red-haired friend, if indeed she had ever made the list. The workman with the pick-up truck was equally as elusive: perhaps Hurley at number fifteen, perhaps Johnstone at nineteen. The bow-legged old lady must have been Mrs. Antonelli, aged 78, “housewife.”

It was now light well into evening. On the way home, I drove slowly down Thingvalla Road, the police list opened on the seat next to me, imagining occupants, putting them onto the various floors, inventing appropriate dinners for them—starch for laborers, hot dogs for the junior high school students, a six-pack with a slug of beef jerky for John Hurley. I decided I didn’t much care for Hurley, with his over-hanging belly and common demeanor. I found myself looking forward to the weekend.

Next Saturday, I packed a thermos of coffee and two swiss cheese sandwiches (on white with lots of butter) and parked at the very end of Thingvalla Road, car sideways in the turn-around so I had a view of the entire street from the driver-side window. I was early, seven in the morning; no sense missing anything, you never know when something interesting is going to pop. I had torn out the page for Thingvalla from the police list, cut away the other streets and pasted Thingvalla onto a stiff card-board so that it would not get dog-eared.

A few people seemed to leave for work around 7:30, all turning toward the bus stop without backwards glance. The mailman came between eight and nine; earlier than to my house in my fancy suburb, I realized. His small bag emptied in fifteen minutes and he was gone. Children, all boys, drifting into the street and clustered to no purpose. Mothers in nondescript dresses or black stretch pants, some with small kids in tow, walked towards the store on Cross Street and returned with unbalanced brown paper bags. One child carried an enormous bag of potato chips clasped in front of his stomach, top open, pudgy hand stuffing gold clumps into his greasy maw.

A few cars came and went, cargo and occupants discharged into driveways hidden from my vantage point. A truck delivered oil just before noon. I sipped coffee and ate half a sandwich. After lunch, some residents brought out beach chairs, gaudy plastic webbing woven between rusty metal tubes, and planted them at the edges of the sidewalk. Two middle-aged men sat facing me, passing a large bottle of Coca Cola between them. The breeze carried voices to me in bits and shards. Red Sox. New bus schedules. Paint the porch green why dontcha? Jane Fond has no tits. The women sat with their backs to the sun; one knit. Their communication was lost in their jowls and house-dresses.

About 2:30 I needed to go to the bathroom. I hadn’t thought of that. As I sat uncomfortably, wishing I hadn’t drunk the coffee and considering my options, two men approached my car.

“What’s the story, sport?” The smaller spoke; the larger lurked for effect.

“Nothing much. Just sitting and enjoying the day.” No good. Makes no sense. “Actually, I’m – writing a book about the town and I’m trying to get a feel for it.”

“Didn’t I see this car parked here the other day?”

“Oh. Well.. I doubt it. Did drive by early in the week, and decided to come back and spend the day today. Maybe you saw me then. Monday or Tuesday, maybe….”

“Yeah, well, how about trying another street? You’re making my wife nervous.”

The bigger man moved alongside the car and rubbed his right fist into his left palm with a circular motion. I was about to ask him if he got that idea from a bad movie, but decided against it.

“Sure, sure, no problem.” I turned over the engine. “Have a good day,” I called, almost gaily. “No offense meant,” I suggested. I rolled slowly down the street and drove home, shaking.

When my family went to the beach house in mid-June, to get in some vacation before the summer rentals began, I went to the Ryder Truck outlet and rented a panel truck with dark frosted windows in the back doors and spent a frantic day buying equipment. I loaded into the back of the truck a portable toilet the size of a bucket, a can opener, a lot of food that didn’t require heating, a couple of huge water bottles sans cooler, a flashlight lantern, a portable phone with two power packs (they now have these phones where you don’t need a booth any more, they are huge and expensive but this one fit the bill), a portable radio with extra batteries, a few paperbacks, some toiletries and body wipes and a couple of sleeping bags from Sears.

I called the local police to tell them not to disturb the Monitoring Vehicle that the Air Pollution Commission was going to place on Thingvalla Road for a few weeks. I confirmed with my secretary that I was going camping but would call in; off with the guys, family down on the Cape. I called my wife and told her that I’d be with Johnny and Tyler up at Tyler’s cabin in New Hampshire as we had discussed tentatively the other evening, but would check in when I could get to a pay phone, and thanks for understanding as I had not gotten away for some fishing and hanging out for, God it must be four or five years.

That night I drove to the turn-around at the end of Thingvalla Road, orienting my truck between houses and with a view of the street from the rear windows. Quietly I unscrewed the license plates and put them inside the truck. I placed orange plastic cones in front and in back of my truck, propped a sign in the front window which read “Air Monitoring Study—in case of questions call 556-2020” and set about taping a dark summer-weight blanket behind the two front seats to block any view into the back of the van. By now exhausted, I checked the locked doors, dropped down the small curtain that covered the two small rear windows, and almost collapsed onto the bed rolls. My sweat soaked into the fabric, and I then realized that was not likely a good long-term choice in my enclosed space. I fought down the temptation to crack the rear door open for ventilation and then tried to fall asleep. It took a really long time.

I awoke with a start, stiff and strangely chilled, to a rhythmic thump on the side of the truck. I was afraid to move until I heard the voices of children nearby. I slowly straightened myself under the sleeping bag, crawled to the rear doors and pulled open a corner of the curtain. For a while, I heard only the periodic thump on the side of the truck and saw nothing but an empty street. Then, a thump, a cry of “Oh, shit!,” and a ball rolled rapidly away, down the sidewalk, followed by two boys running full tilt, their scabby legs pumping from dirty shorts.

I used the toilet, closing the cover quickly but not quickly enough; the space was more confining than I had anticipated and had no circulation. I ate a hard roll followed by a can of soda for breakfast. The sun was going to be hot. Even though I had selected a light tan truck and it was only June, the heat began to build. By mid-day, no one stirred on Thingvalla Road, and I sat in the back, afraid to open the doors, stripped to my shorts, with rivulets of sweat meandering down my face and chest and dripping and pooling on the rubber floor mats.

No air moved in the back of the truck. Enough light came through the dark glass in the rear doors, or leaked around the curtain barrier, so that I could read my paperbacks, but after ten minutes the sweat began to sting my eyes. I turned around and concentrated on the street instead. At four o’clock the men began to return home, the arm-pits of their green or gray work-shirts stained dark by perspiration. The smell of charcoal fires somehow penetrated the truck, sickening me. I couldn’t eat, but forced myself to drink a warm 7-Up. The sun finally sank, and children ran up and down the street, yelling, well into the night. The heat ascended from the street, but dallied in the torpid pockets of my truck. After midnight, unable to sleep, I opened the rear doors a few inches, feeling the heat and smells roll out into the darkness.

Days and nights became monotonous patterns. I would awake, eat lightly, observe the morning’s activity. By mid-day, the heat sometimes would drive even the children from the pavement. Nothing but heat and my own silent cursing would fill this time. Soon, persistent odor of urine and waste and sweat and old food filled my lungs and mind. All my clothes had been sweat-soaked, and those that had dried were stiff to the touch and sour to the nose. I began to remain naked, because it was easier.

Each week-night, the men would come home, change into shorts and sit on porches and smoke and drink soda and beer. Their conversations were lost to the darkness, but the hum of voices floated across my mind and taunted my awareness. The younger children played hide-and-seek while the older ones huddled behind my truck and smoked; mostly cigarettes, although the occasional sweet counterpoint of marijuana leaked through the seams of my capsule. The acrid smells lingered for me, long after the teenagers had gone.

One evening, someone pissed on the side of the truck; the metal rang with the force of his stream. Very late one night, a convertible pulled into the turn-around and its two occupants kissed and petted each other in silence of almost an hour. I sat, naked, staring at them but did not get aroused. When they pulled away, I thought I briefly glimpsed the faces of two boys in the yellow glow of the street-lights.

On Tuesday, June 28, my watch stopped, and I started to mark the days in small scratches on the inside wall of my truck. I had given up the idea of calling my family every third or fourth day. If they were looking for me now, that was all right – I knew they couldn’t find me. But, I still wanted to be home when they returned from vacation.

I hardly ate. I could feel myself getting thinner, sweat continually oozing from my body. I took to sleeping naked also, prone on the rubber floor of the truck to soak up its coolness. The odor inside soon turned rancid, but I dared open the back doors only very late at night, slightly and only for a few minutes. I gave up exercising; the heat and confined space made real effort impossible. Twice, late at night when I could not stand it, I slipped out of the truck and walked purposefully down the street to work out my stiffness. Once I pissed in the bushes, and one night even dumped my bucket into a nearby sewer.

Sometimes I read. I read something by Thomas Mann, something by Harold Robbins. I started and put down an anthology of poem. Mostly, I looked out of the truck onto Thingvalla Road. Its patterns soothed me – the boring sameness of its days and nights. The adults had no imagination, no texture to their hours – the same cigarettes burned the same holes into the night from the same chairs on the same porches. Even the children were boring – the same coarse language, the same games with the same playmates. One teen-aged boy from number twelve stood at his bedroom window late one night, the light to his back, and seemed to masturbate. I turned off my lantern and tried to do the same, but I rubbed myself raw in the heat and could not get anything to happen.

A couple of times, my attention snapped out of the window when I was sure I had glimpsed the red-haired girl, but my concentration was so poor, the light at night so unreliable, that I could not be certain. One evening, a girl with red hair climbed the porch steps of the nearest house, her tight slacks creeping into her body. I was so startled that I opened the rear doors of my truck without thinking; I quickly shut them again, but had the sense that I might have been observed. That night, I became unsure that it had been she.

My three weeks were coming to an end. I felt that I had, at last, unlocked the secret of that street: it was as prosaic and uninspired as it seemed. Ageless, shapeless people in work-shirts spawned crude and listless children destined to replace their parents on these same square porches, drinking beers and lighting Camels or Phillies while their own children hid in the same driveways and sneaked the same smokes and showed each other their genitals and were trained to walk to the buses and work in the same garages or factories. The symmetry made me confident. Here at last was a street that hid nothing. It was exactly what it had seemed that first Spring day that I had driven down it. I even ceased to care that I could not locate, isolate the girl with red hair.

On my last night, I packed the few things I had brought with me, cramming all the food and waste paper into a large green trash bag. The toilet was almost full again. I sat on the stink in an effort to top it off. Then I piled the books neatly in a corner and lay on the floor in the heat, trying to sleep.

The swelter that day had been particularly intense and a hazy inversion blanketed Thingvalla Road, suspending a corona around the street lamps. Finally, after midnight when all the porches and windows were dark, I opened the back of the truck. The night had cooled. I moved my face into the stream of air, my sweat drying into my beard almost immediately.

Evenly, deliberately, I filled my lungs with the breaths of summer, my body and mind cleansed and reassured by each intake. As I sucked the night into myself, I thought I heard a noise to my left, up on a porch. I froze, thought I sensed two figures returning my stare, felt a hint of red hair, then slowly backed into the truck and pulled the doors almost shut. I waited a long time, until I was sure nothing was moving and then snapped the lock on the doors as silently as I could. Exhaling in relief, I turned to see my reading lantern lighting the corner of the truck. Stupid of me, to have left the light on when the door was open, but it was my last night on Thingvalla Road and therefore it didn’t matter very much at all, not any more.

* * * * * * * *

“Jesus shit. Look at that!”

“Is that a person in there?”

“WAS that a person, don’t ya mean?”

“Christ, what a stink….”

“Not enough to identify him by.”

“The teeth. Forensics, they can always figure it out by the teeth.”

“Whattadaya think the poor motha was doin’ in a truck in the middle of the night, anyway?”

The Sergeant moved around the charred side of the van and saw the blackened rag on the ground, below the gas tank intake. The tank cap was on its side, a few yards away.

“Hey, Cap,” he yelled. Lookit this.”

In his bedroom, behind the dirty lace curtain, John Hurley belched loudly and backed one step away from the window frame.

“Come back to bed, John,” the girl whined. “It’s the middle of the night.” Her red hair covered the pillow, reflections from the street lamp dropping highlights here and there.

“Yeah, yeah, in a minute. I wanna see what’s happenin’ down on the street.”

He belched again, and he smiled.