When I was in the single digits, my big sisters and I would stay up all night. Or, more often, one of us would wake up before the sun and wake the others, and it would feel like we'd been up all night, sitting together in the dark, with no grown-ups, looking at old yearbooks or playing with the cat who wasn't supposed to be in the house, giggling like crazy and listening to the trucks on the highway.
I think they're called jake brakes? Those loud, machine-gun rattles on the distant highway? Always distant, back then. They were away across a meadow, behind a mountain, beyond the horizon.
I teach eight-year-olds, and sometimes I don't give them credit for being dreamy, distant souls. Then I see that look in their eyes. The one that reminds me of the sound of those trucks.
We talked about them a lot, back then -- where they were going, what they were hauling. What it must be like to be out on the highway at four a.m., nothing but the radio and maybe a dog for company. I thought there could be no better career than truck driver. I hatched a secret plan then and there to learn to drive just as soon as I could reach the pedals.
I didn't actually know then that the sound was made by brakes. By somebody stopping. My sisters had to explain to me that the noise even came from trucks. I only knew the sound was associated with travel, with the road, with green road signs and white numbers that meant we were getting closer -- closer -- closer to somewhere. Or, more often, further -- further -- further from the place we didn't want to be anymore.
We took a lot of trips back then, some of them church trips, some of them just because we were restless and there happened to be gas in the tank that week. There was always a point on those trips when we each thought of what it would be like, never to come back. We could sleep there -- work there -- eat there -- play there.
And then there would be brake lights and usually rain and sometimes tears and the numbers would reverse, drawing us nearer and nearer again to the thing we could never escape.
I wasn't sure what that thing was, then. Still not sure I know the name for it.
I think the carpet in that living room when I was eight was yellow-green and had dirt and hair ground down in it from all the years. In daylight, we listened to Don Henley on the record player and we danced, and the whole trailer shook. It seemed light and airy and full of possibility. I remember thinking we could move at any moment and I hoped we did, even though I liked the trailer, because moving was something fun to break the monotony of hateful neighbor kids and earwax-colored carpet and trucks on a highway I'd seen once or twice but never taken far enough to not turn around and come back.
I live in a small town, the smallest of small towns. There's a sign when you roll in that says "No Jake Brakes."
I find myself thinking, "That's not fair." I find myself thinking, "That's hateful, is what that is." Across a mountain somewhere, some kid might be sitting in her living room, needing to hear those highway sounds. Needing to think about numbers on signs, and how the roads that start in this town lead out.
The more time I spend in this town, the more listening I do for the highway. And this time my sisters aren't here to explain things. This one's gonna be all me.
I don't know what the signs are going to say, or where the numbers on them will lead me. I only know two things: that my goal is to sit in a living room someday and not strain my ears listening for someplace else.
And that this is not that time or place.