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Meet Me At The Corner

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“Maps are living, breathing organisms that change on a daily basis: You see it in new roads, bridge closures, and demolitions.”  -Noam Bardin

 

The Winchester railroad line runs diagonally across a small Kansas town, from the northwest corner to the southeast.  This naturally disrupts the neat grid pattern of the surrounding streets.  The lucky streets run across the tracks, while others are truncated before their time.

Two such streets are Dean Drive and Castiel Lane.  These parallel roads run up to the tracks on the west side of town, each ending in a neat asphalt circle, allowing unwitting travelers to turn around and retreat whence they came.  Just north of Dean Dr is Samuel Avenue, which has managed to avoid the indignity of ending in a cul-de-sac by neatly terminating at his intersection with Bobby Boulevard, just before the latter road runs south to cross Dean Dr and Castiel Ln.

It is really all Dean Dr has ever wanted: to run parallel between his brother and his best friend.  He’s never gotten it into his streetlamp-lit mind to consider anything else.

One day a man stands on a street corner and speaks nonsense.  It is August, and heat is radiating from Dean Dr’s baked asphalt surface.  The people who live along his banks have fled inside, seeking air-conditioned shelter.  A short man with wild hair and grubby clothes had driven up and parked his ten-year-old Ford sedan along the curb before walking purposefully down the middle of the road toward Dean Dr’s cul-de-sac.

He’s now standing on the concrete curb at the far end of the turnaround, staring at the chain link fence and twenty feet of grass that separate him from the train tracks, and muttering to himself.  Dean Dr doesn’t pay him much attention at first.  It’s sweltering in the Kansas heat and sometimes a road just doesn’t have enough energy left to pay any real attention to the going’s on above his tar.

It is only after the man waves his arms and turns around – peering down the length of Dean Dr, then glancing up and down the grassy strip by the railroad, contemplating the end of Castiel Ln and the neat corner of Samuel Ave and Bobby Blvd in turn – that Dean Dr begins to pay attention.  Hey, it’s not like there’s anything else of note happening in the stifling heat.

The man hasn’t stopped mumbling to himself, but now he’s turned toward Castiel Ln.  “Really, the traffic flow between here and there might—  Right.”  He gives a short, sharp nod, and marches through the minimally-maintained grass between Dean Dr’s cul-de-sac and Castiel Ln’s.  Dean Dr lazily watches him go.

Dean Dr doesn’t spend any more time thinking about the hobo with the Ford.  A summer thunderstorm breaks the most recent heat wave, running dusty water along Dean Dr’s curbs into his gutters, leaving his pavement…well, not quite clean, but certainly less dirty than before.  This has the added bonus of enticing a few enterprising souls outside with their grills, which is always a nice change of pace.

It’s the beginning of September, yellow school buses beginning their daily rounds, when the man in the Ford appears again.  This time he’s accompanied by a much nicer-dressed man in a new, yet dusty, Chevy truck.

The newer man sighs and gestures tiredly with his clipboard.  “Alright, Metatron.  What do you have in mind for this section of town?”

The shabby hobo – Metatron – doesn’t seem to notice the man’s exasperation, leading him down into the center of the cul-de-sac.  “Well, Chuck, I was considering the traffic flow along Bobby, and how Dean really is a major street up by Mary—”  Dean Dr preens a little at this.  “—before we get down here.  Gabriel crosses the tracks, but Dean and Castiel don’t, so it might help reroute traffic if we extended Dean along here, parallel to the tracks, and connected it to Castiel and then down to—”

The hobo keeps talking, but Dean Dr isn’t listening anymore.  They…they want to turn him?  Could they do that?  He hadn’t heard of anything like that before, but he does keep to his side of the tracks, and most of the side streets aren’t much for gossip.  That would mean…he would intersect Castiel Ln.  Castiel Ln.  This revelation opens up a whole world to Dean Dr, new and exciting with myriad possibilities.

He considers Castiel Ln to be one of his closest friends, but they hadn’t really seen much of each other since they were first laid down.  The houses had sprung up between them and now they just occasionally exchanged bittersweet acknowledgements down side streets.  But to be connected to Castiel Ln…  Dean Dr suddenly wants nothing more in the world.

He can’t seem to focus enough to make out what the men are talking about, but Chuck doesn’t look as fed up as he had earlier, and he seems to be nodding, so…it might happen.

Dean Dr is still stunned by the possibility and all the implications therein when Chuck returns two weeks later, leading a gaggle of florescent-clad men and women with clipboards and tape measures.  They swarm all over the ground near the railroad tracks, flitting between cul-de-sacs and stretching their tape measures along grass, concrete, and asphalt.  They consider the space between the last houses and the fence, unearthing lines of string and suspending them between pairs of hands, marking out lines and boundaries and borders.  All the while, they keep up an endless stream of chatter, clear measurements and serious discussions sharing air with good-natured ribbing and teasing jokes.  Chuck smiles indulgently, directing personnel and tossing back dry one-liners.

Dean Dr learns that Chuck is the Town Engineer, responsible for the town’s roads, sewers, water, and bridges.  He remembers the last Town Engineer, a sharp woman named Amara who had supervised his creation.  Dean Dr learns that this project isn’t a foregone conclusion.  The city’s budget isn’t infinite and the intersection between Gordon Boulevard and Hunter Avenue needs to be completely torn up and redone.  He learns that four blocks of Ellen Avenue need to be resurfaced.  He learns that there are eight streetlights out on Kevin Street.

He learns that he is the lowest priority on that list.

After a few hours, the group meanders back to their fleet of vehicles, parked haphazardly along Dean Dr.  They vanish, and Dean Dr waits hopefully for the next phase in his construction.

No one comes.  He doesn’t see Metatron or Chuck.  Not even one of the young men and women in bright orange vests who had tromped up and down his curbs.  He waits, hopes deflating as surely as a tire with a nail.

It’s October, and groups of small children swinging brightly colored pumpkins march dutifully from door to door.  No one comes.  It’s November, and many cars leave, just as many more arrive.  No one comes.  It’s December, and the first snowflakes slicken his surface.  No one comes.  It’s January, and ice has melted and refrozen deep in the cracks in his pavement.  No one comes.  It’s February and couples go out to see movies, reveling in each other’s company.  Again, no one comes.

Dean Dr thinks that if he has to keep marking time like this forever, he might just go mad.  He knows that roads do not get repaired in winter.  He knows that the yellow construction equipment is slumbering in a maintenance shed for the season.  He knows there is no reason to think that he has been overlooked.

But if they were planning to extend him, wouldn’t someone have come?  Wouldn’t someone have stopped by to remeasure distances, pound stakes, and stretch string?  Wouldn’t someone have come to survey the land the city budget was going to pay to make passable?  …Wouldn’t they have remembered him?

Dean Dr dwells and worries and frets his way through March and April, the days skipping by and the sparse snow evaporating from his surface.  As always, the freezing and thawing of ice has deepened some cracks and widened some crevices, but he doesn’t think it’s much worse than usual, and he had been resealed the year before, so there’s no reason for Engineers to come poking around.  He still doesn’t see anyone.

He wonders bitterly if he will ever meet Castiel Ln.

Two weeks after the last of the snow vanishes for good, Lisa Lane mentions that the streetlights have been replaced on Kevin St.  In May, Benny Parkway tells him that they’ve begun construction on Ellen Ave.  At the beginning of July, traffic starts getting heavier on the west side of Dean Dr.  Mary St mentions that it’s because part of Gordon Blvd is closed for construction.

No one comes to see Dean Dr.  He tells himself that there will be time next summer.

It’s the second week of August, almost a year to the day since the hobo stood muttering in his cul-de-sac, when a battered truck rolls down Dean Dr.  Had he possessed eyes, Dean Dr would have wept as he watches a rough man step down out of the truck and pull scuffed-up orange signs out of the bed.  ROAD CONSTRUCTION AHEAD has never been more beautiful.

Everything moves quickly after that.  Wooden barriers with florescent tape block off the cul-de-sac.  Well-worn boots bring rough hands carrying long-hoped-for stakes and string.  The heavy yellow machinery that had lain idle as the snow flew rolls down his length as Dean Dr lies steeped in anticipation.

The first touch of the milling machine is startling, a brief brush that falls somewhere between abrasive and ticklish.  The second shoots straight into agony.

When roads are formed, they are laid down gently.  The repetitive motion of graders and rollers is a soothing lullaby that gradually pulls a road into consciousness.  Dean Dr had thought this would be similar, that his eagerness to adjoin Castiel Ln would override any brief discomfort along the way.

Dean Dr had been wrong.

This isn’t discomfort; this is unmaking.  The spiked drum of the milling machine tears into the soft asphalt, pulling up and shredding the skin that had protected Dean Dr from truck tires and sneakers, snow and sleet, pounding rain and howling winds.  The thin layer of tar that is left to protect his packed aggregate is raw, unaccustomed to the harsh press of feet and machinery on its surface.  Dean Dr is dizzy with the pain, each rhythmic boot print on his surface a harsh, throbbing chord that leaves him reeling, punctuating his torment with casual cruelty.  He barely notices when they take jackhammers to his curb.

The next weeks pass in a haze, Dean Dr vaguely aware of the passage of graders, rollers, and trucks of sand and stone somewhere to the southeast.  The milling machine only makes that one brief appearance, thank the streets of heaven, but the constant traffic on the inside of his skin does not.  The brief respite of night is barely enough to stave off his complete mental structural collapse.

In the cool hours just before dawn, when Dean Dr is able to convince himself that this time, today, won’t be so bad, he wonders hollowly if this is what it always feels like.  If repairing Kevin St’s streetlights had felt like hot needles through cement.  If Ellen Ave’s resurfacing had felt like being flayed endlessly.  If Gordon Blvd and Hunter Ave both felt like a vital, central part of themselves had been amputated mercilessly.

Eight days after the milling machine, Dean Dr becomes abruptly, horrifyingly aware that the same thing had happened to Castiel Ln.  That the same thing is still happening to Castiel Ln.  Suddenly the hushed morning doesn’t seem as much of a restful lull as it does a harrowing pause, the brief moment before the yellow machinery prowls down his pavement once more.

Two days after that, dawn breaks and no one arrives.  Dean Dr had been braced for another long day of pounding feet and unending treads, but now he wonders if this is perhaps something worse.

The project isn’t over.  His asphalt is still bare and the missing section of curb is still gaping.  The land along the railroad to his southeast that had been unmowed grass is now packed earth and stone, the ghost of a road.  Dean Dr is wrapped in steadily mounting panic, visions filling his mind of uncovered base layers blanketed with snow and coated in ice, the raw edges of unfinished curbs worn smooth by the unyielding abrasion of time.

Perhaps it is the weekend.  But Dean Dr had seen businesswomen and nurses, mothers and fathers get into their cars this morning and leave.  Perhaps they are needed to finish work at other sites.  But Ellen Ave’s resurfacing had finished four weeks ago and the Gordon Blvd-Hunter Ave intersection had opened three weeks after that.  Perhaps they have finished for the season and he will only be left to languish for a few months.  But the days are still full of August heat and Dean Dr knows the yellow machinery doesn’t hibernate until at least October.  Perhaps he is the least and the last of their projects and they have run out of budget.  But…

Dean Dr doesn’t have any logic to calm him this time.

He had known his extension was the least of their priorities.  He had known the city budget for road repair was set.  He had known that sometimes projects gobble up their entire allotment and someone else’s besides.  Nevertheless, he hadn’t expected this.

It takes him several minutes to realize the percussive steps of a lone pair of work boots aren’t his imagination.

It’s Chuck, the Town Engineer with the dusty Chevy.  His clothes are as nice as they usually are – a smooth button-down paired with clean jeans – but Dean Dr hasn’t seen that expression on his face yet.  His eyebrows are drawn tightly together in frustration and thought, the faint impression of a half frown lurking around his mouth.  His steps are crisp, but slow.  Dean Dr follows the even footfalls as Chuck walks into the middle of what used to be Dean Dr’s neat, clean cul-de-sac.  He looks out over the churned earth and flat gravel where grass used to grow to the mess that was Castiel Ln’s cul-de-sac and beyond to Gabriel Avenue.

He stands there for a long time and then leaves.

Construction resumes two days later.  Dean Dr almost welcomes the torture.

The workers return, their boots stomping across his thin surface.  The machines move once more, their heavy tires an inexorable, squeezing pressure on the asphalt membrane.  Dean Dr vanishes once more amid a cloud of suffering, broken only by the cool press of night.

Days pass.  The trucks have ceased to rumble over his pavement.  The roller machines have slid their heavy steel over the compacted dirt and rock.  Dean Dr has all but forgotten the next step in the endless parade of yellow iron and rubber wheels.  Then the paver arrives.

On the hottest days of summer, when the black tar that coats a road feels like it might boil, the first touch of a raindrop is the most wondrous feeling in the world.  It’s a cold shock to the system, sinking into overheated asphalt and rehardening softened pavement.  It’s glorious and refreshing.

The first clumps of melted asphalt feel like that, like salvation.  The superheated rock hits the raw layer that had been scraped bare by the milling machine.  It is a searing balm that cauterizes the open wound.  It hurts, but all Dean Dr can think about is how good it’s going to feel afterward, once the new blacktop has cooled and hidden the pieces of himself that were never meant to see sunlight.  The paver finishes coating the remains of the cul-de-sac and rolls into the yawning gap where his curb used to be, spreading its bounty over hardened dirt.  The roller machine that Dean Dr had cursed before now rolls over him once more, flattening the hot tar and tucking it into place between newly laid concrete curbs.  The lack of pain is almost ecstasy.

In Dean Dr’s delight over his new, unmarked skin, he barely notices it at first.  When Dean Dr had woken up eight years ago, he had been instantly aware of every inch of his surface, from Mary St to the curve at the end of his cul-de-sac.  Now, there’s a growing presence in his mind, a burgeoning realization that he extends further now than he had before.  The feeling is strange.  As Dean Dr watches the paver meander along the flat gravel, he can sense the hot asphalt and the sharp stones, just as he does the rest of his length.  There are new imperfections in the smooth surface to memorize, a new seam to watch for cracks, and feet and yards and inches of flat, freshly poured pavement to enjoy.

Dean Dr’s awareness spreads gradually in the wake of the paver, the roller gently soothing any lingering aches with firm pressure.  He’s so focused on the steady expansion of his senses that the first hint of another consciousness startles him before he can remember the point of the entire, torturous endeavor.  It is Castiel Ln.

For his entire existence, Dean Dr has known all his neighbors, all his cross-streets.  There is a new one now, and Dean Dr has to immediately reorient his worldview, because he never thought intersections could feel like this.  Castiel Ln had been at his side for the better part of a decade, his companion from Mary St to the railroad, a block away from end to end.  They had never spoken, their only communication brief messages passed through side streets.

The first impression Dean Dr gets from Castiel Ln is sheer relief as the paver crosses his cul-de-sac and trundles past.  He had known that Castiel Ln was also experiencing the same crisp agony, but Dean Dr is surprised by the magnitude of the other road’s relief.  He is belatedly slammed with the realization that Castiel Ln had experienced far worse than he.  Castiel Ln had lost his entire curb and the whole cul-de-sac had been ground down nearly to aggregate, creating a flat thoroughfare for trucks and rollers determined to craft a new road out of grass and dirt.  His road, Dean Dr realizes, suddenly ashamed of his earlier naïve excitement and horrified at his current giddiness.

Castiel Ln is quick to reassure him.  He firmly asserts that it was worth it to finally, properly meet Dean Dr.  Dean Dr isn’t quite sure what he’s done to earn such affection so quickly, but admits that it was worth it for him as well.  There is a pause, a moment, as it begins to sink in that they are finally pavement to pavement after so long, their blacktop brushing and mingling at the end of Castiel Ln.  There are quiet, unnecessary introductions, and shy, tentative greetings.

The paver has reached the end of Dean Dr’s extension and has begun to double back on the other side of the new road, the roller following doggedly in its path.  The two streets begin to talk.

A week later, the new asphalt has cooled and hardened.  Bright yellow dashes divide Dean Dr, and he and Castiel Ln have each gained a new stop sign.  Sharp, clean white curbs edge the unmarked black pavement.  Dean Dr extends from Mary St past Hunter Ave, Lisa Ln, Benny Pkwy, and Anna Trail.  He slides past Bobby Blvd to the corner, bends southward, and intersects Castiel Ln before terminating at Gabriel Ave.  It’s all Dean Dr ever wanted.  His road is not straight, but it is smooth and well-travelled.

On the day they open the new road, after the rough man has driven by again and carted away the road construction signs, Chuck comes back and stands in the middle of the virgin asphalt that connects what used to be the cul-de-sacs at the ends of Dean Dr and Castiel Ln.  He looks toward Dean Dr’s corner, then Castiel Ln.  He nods.  “This is good.”