the man on the side of the freeway

a oneshot

It's just that every time I see that man on the side of the freeway—yes, him, the one with the threadbare blanket and the eyes that are blue and broken and altogether hopeful—I want to cry and cry and maybe make him smile some time.

It's just that there are so many people and all the people I know are growing up, up, and away and will I ever have another chance to build a lemonade stand right there so I can feel tangy and refreshed and sticky like before when the only sounds were quarters and the ice cream man? Can I build one out of sun and leafy breeze and memories right here on the summer sidewalk? Will those golden rays still warm my bare feet and that part of my heart?

It's just that whenever I see that man on the side of the freeway, I feel like crying.

The ride home is a long one and the first thing I see when I get there is Mason seated on the couch—my couch—and apparently he's invited his friend over, too. I can never remember this friend's name because, frankly, I don't care.

"Hi, Mason," I greet tiredly, noticing with a twinge of annoyance that his eyes are fixated on my bag of Chinese food and that his friend stares at me as if he is trying to remember my name.

"Hi," Mason greets the lo mein and Mongolian beef.

"I think I should cut my hair." I don't know why I say this—probably because Mason's hair is approaching neck-length and I figure that at least one of us should get a haircut. Or maybe it was the man on the side of the freeway that did it. His hair is gray and thinning and even messier than Mason's. I could cut my hair for the three of us.

"You should," Mason agrees.

"I wish you wouldn't agree with me so much," I say grumpily.

"Seriously," he agrees with a laugh.

"Can you guys leave now?"

"Sure," Mason agrees, and his friend gives me one last glance as he tries to remember my name.

The man who lives on the side of the freeway—how did he get that grocery cart there, anyway?—has lived on the side of the freeway for as long as I can remember. But I'm sure he hasn't always been there. I wonder, sometimes—I wonder where he was before.

The friend whose name I can never remember is seated close to the register where I just got my peppermint mocha. I try to exit the coffee shop before he sees me, but his words are quicker than my tired feet.

"You broke his heart, Autumn," he says, and I am so surprised he knows my name that I turn around. His eyebrows are raised and his arms are crossed and I rather want to punch him in the face. It was none of his business, after all.

"I'm pretty sure I didn't," I say mildly, but with an undertone that hopefully conveys the message that I want to punch him in the face.

"Yeah, you're right, he never did like you much anyway," he agrees after a pause, but not in the way that Mason agrees ("Do you want to break up?" "Sure, why not?"). This guy agrees because he has an opinion, not because he doesn't. The temerity in his gaze unnerves me. I grin at him anyway, because I am more amused than I am unnerved. I know he didn't mean any harm by the comment. I like him.

He grins right back, and his eyes are bright and he is looking at me as if he is trying to remember my name. He knows my name, though, so maybe he is just trying to figure me out. Maybe that is what he'd been doing all along. "Autumn," he starts, and there is something mischievous in his voice, "What's my name?"

I am so shocked that I almost drop my coffee, and I realize with a start that I'd been standing awkwardly in front of his table for far too long. "Uh, gotta go!" I call over my shoulder as I skip away from him in a funny sort of embarrassment.

I hear his laugh as I exit the shop; I hear his name over the sound of the bell above the doors.

Nice to meet you, Jacob.

He nearly kills me.

Or I nearly kill him, but I like to argue that he nearly kills me. But for now we head over to the burger stand just over a mile away, him on his bike, me running beside him.

We both get fries and a smoothie because this particular burger stand's burgers aren't so wonderful. Jacob smirks at me approvingly when I tell him my order and I let him pay because I happen to like free things sometimes.

We are sweaty and the sun is beating down on our backs and we sit at a little table with an umbrella growing in the center of it that provides little shade, and this is summer. I smile at him brightly when he hands me my tray, feeling excited as a little girl building her very first lemonade stand. So I breathe deeply and close my eyes as the familiarity of ketchup and sunscreen and blue skies and grease brings me back to those days.

But Jacob brings me back to today. "So," he says, eyes glittering and calculating all at once, "remember when you almost killed me half an hour ago?"

I laugh before I can stop myself. Then I clear my throat, roll my eyes, and take a cold and lingering sip of the smoothie that reminds me of the Orange Bang that I bought the other day at the little Chinese restaurant. "No," I respond flatly.

"Really?" his eyebrow quirks in amusement. "Because I seem to remember that I almost died about thirty minutes ago and I'm pretty sure you were the near-murderer."

"Do you always treat your near-murderers to fries and a smoothie?"

"Only the cute ones," he responds with a shrug.

A flush warms my cheeks and his grin is impish. I take another sip. He keeps looking at me. I can't take it anymore, so I start talking, "You can't just say, 'Your left' and expect me to like understand you. I've been running on that bike path for quite some time now and usually bikers coming up from behind me have the good sense to say 'I'm on your left,' meaning I move right, or like 'Move to your left,' meaning I move, well, left. You were extremely vague. How was I supposed to know whether to move left or right? I mean—"

"So you move both directions?" he interrupts. "You move left one second and right the other? Now that's confusing. You could've gotten killed!"

I close my mouth and the rebuttal dies on my tongue. I raise my eyebrows at him, trying not to smile.

"I mean, I could've gotten killed," Jacob amends hastily, and the grin breaks out across my face. He blinks at me and looks away, and I marvel and laugh at the redness of his ears. I laugh again when he glares. "Autumn . . ." he warns through clenched teeth. So I stuff my mouth with fries to muffle the laughter, and a breeze ruffles the green leaves and my sweaty hair with a summery tenderness.

We drink our smoothies in companiable silence, until Jacob remarks suddenly, "I'm glad you let me pay for you."

I blink at him, scratching my cheek. "Uh. . . yeah. Me, too."

He runs a hand through his sun-streaked blond hair. "No, it's just that—well, my last girlfriend never let me pay for anything. It was pretty annoying."

I chew on a soggy fry thoughtfully. "Ah, the chauvinist and the feminazi. That's cute. Why'd you break up?"

"She disagreed with everything I said."

I snicker into my Orange Bang-type drink. "That's funny, because Mason—"

"Yeah, I know," he says with a grin that is relaxed and wistful and lovely. "We need to find a good balance." Jacob's eyes are earnest but there is something else.

"Yeah," I reply quietly.

Jacob is my best friend.

I reach for my wallet almost instinctively the next time I see that man on the side of the freeway. That's odd; I never thought to give him a dime before. But I'm still looking for a dollar or five to hand to him before the light turns green and I leave him penniless again.

I find two dollars in the cupholder. But as I snatch the bills up, I think about how Mom would say that this man would just use my hard-earned money to buy himself some drugs.

The light turns green and the money drops into my lap, but it's hard to breathe because I know that Mom's words aren't stopping me from giving this guy a few dollars—I'm just scared that after I give him the money, I'll still want to cry. And then I won't have any solution to fall back on because then I will know that money didn't work at all and what else will?

Oh, but now I want to cry more than ever.

We are in my apartment and my head is in Jacob's lap and we are both full and drowsy.

That is when I tell him about the man on the side of the freeway. Jacob strokes my hair and tells me to go on. So I tell him about the man's eyes. I tell him that I'd only ever seen them once because they made my heart so cold and sad that I was sure I'd cry if I ever saw them again. I tell him—I say, this guy must've had his own lemonade stand once, right? Jacob nods. He listens. He understands.

We fall asleep.

Another day of work and another day to see that tired old man.

I still don't know what to do. I avoid his eyes as always and I leave him on that lonely corner ramp where the freeway meets the streets full of people that avoid his eyes.

I'm sick of it.

"What does he want from me?" I wail, and Jacob jumps up from his spot on the couch. I am tired and frustrated and where are all the answers?

Jacob rushes over to my side, concern etched into his aristocratic features. "Who? What does who want from you?" and when I fail to answer because he cares so much and it's a little overwhelming, "Autumn!"

"You know," I say, collapsing onto the carpet with my back against the couch that he loves so much. He sits beside me. "That homeless guy."

His face clears but he is silent. I am silent. We sit together in heavy silence and think. But Jacob keeps shifting like a restless little boy, and—"God, could you just sit still for a—"

"Maybe," he interrupts quietly, "maybe he just wants you to—look at him."

I feel a little choked up for some reason, but I glance up at Jacob anyway. No, I look at him. His blond hair tickles his eyelashes and his eyes are green and honest in a way that makes me want to be honest, too. And when I look at him, it feels like I fall a little bit in love. I swallow and Jacob swallows and oh, I want to kiss him!

Jacob's hand is trembling just barely when it follows the curve of my cheek and his lips smile when I touch mine to his.

I roll down my window and hand the man ten dollars, a bag of Doritos, and a note that says, "Sorry for all the other times."

I look him right in the eye, too. Those eyes are blue and sad and full of gratitude, and mine are burning and welling up in tears when he whispers a dusty, "God bless you."

I can't drive like this so I pull over right when the light turns green. I take off my seatbelt and I bring my knees to my chest and I cry and cry but my heart is floaty and full of relief.

So I phone Jacob. "I did it," I say, sounding a little nasally. "I looked him right in the eye and I gave him some stuff and I feel so, so good—"

"Are you crying? Why are you crying?" Jacob frets and I laugh.

"It's fine, I'm fine, I'm wonderful. You're wonderful. I—I looked at him, see?" I say timidly.

"Oh, well—good job. I'm proud of you. I—" He clears his throat. "I love you," he breathes finally and I'm so surprised that I flip my phone shut.

He whats me?

He loves me. He loves me! He loves me and I just hung up on him!

I grab the phone from the back seat where I'd thrown it in my shock and press redial frantically. He picks up after five rings. "Hello?" he says carefully.

"Oh—yes, it's just that—I love you, too!" I exclaim loudly and I'm crossing my fingers but I don't know what for. "Yes. That is all," I chirp awkwardly when he fails to respond.

"God, I freaking love you," Jacob groans and my heart is warm like bare feet on the summer sidewalk.

I feel wonderful and tingly and I can't stop swallowing—I want to squeal! I do, and he laughs, and we laugh together and the sky is orange and pink outside my car window.

"He smiled at me today!" I gush as I open the door to our apartment, grinning from ear to ear.

Jacob stands up from his seat on the couch and crosses his arms over his chest. His eyes are hard and his jaw is set. "Who? Who smiled at you?"

I smile impishly, moving around him to drape myself across the couch. My voice is dreamy. "Oh, you know, some guy." I giggle. "His eyes are so blue! Oh, Jacob, I wish you could've seen the way—"

Jacob yanks me from my seat and brings me flush against his chest. He places his forehead against mine and whispers hoarsely, "What are you doing, young lady?"

"Teasing you," I admit with a laugh. "I was talking about the guy on the side of the freeway."

Jacob's cheeks are pink and he falls back on the couch with his hands covering his eyes. "I hate you."

He makes me so happy.

I plop down on the couch next to him and he looks over at me. "You sure talk about that old man a lot. Plan on ditching me for him?" he says, still grumpy.

I love this guy.

"Oh, yeah, there's something almost poetic about the crookedness of his teeth—I don't know, Jacob, but it just does things to me. And that grocery cart! I feel like he can just take me places . . ."

A corner of Jacob's mouth quirks up and I lean back in my seat, accomplished.

The grass is very green and very itchy. Jacob keeps digging up rolly-pollies and putting them on my leg. Summer is almost over, but one day we'll build a home out of sunshine and memories and smiles and one day that man on the side of the freeway will get his turn, too.

a/n! jeez something about summer just makes me want to write. but i've been totally shifty-eyes typing away at this and my stomach feels all weirdo like i'm doing something bad because i'm writing on my brother's laptop and he can pop up at any moment! AHH!


p.s. reviews would be appreciated - all that stealth and guilt, you know, it deserves something i think

p.p.s. spelling and grammar errors? i know they're out there dang it!