By Eric Suhem

I was in my car on the freeway, stuck in traffic. As I stared at the jackhammers, steamrollers, and drying cement of the nearby paving project, I thought about the dreams that had transformed my world into a dark labyrinth from which there was no escape. In every dream, there was Thelma, wearing black, at the wheel of her dark coupe, headlights speeding toward me, the nightmare always ending with the crash of jagged metal.

The scorpions were crawling over the roadmaps in my Toyota Camry when the cell phone rang. It was Thelma, whose voice I hadn’t heard in years, except in my dreams. “It’s my husband…he’s vanished…he fell down a manhole and nobody can find him in the sewers… I didn’t know where else to turn…” I was about to hang up when I realized that dealing with Thelma head-on might be the only way to end the shattering nocturnal visions. “Meet me at the Empty Spoon Cafe in an hour,” I said.

Due to roadwork delays, we met three hours later at the grimy downtown cafe. She still looked the same in her black pantsuit, though with a few more miles on the odometer. “I never thought I’d see you again,” she murmured, referring obliquely to our troubled past as co-workers in the city’s sewer department. As we talked, I stared into her eyes, seeing nothing but black obsidian and traffic hazards. Against my better judgment, I agreed to help her. She gave me the location of the manhole, and then drove off, her black coupe careening down the road and veering toward pedestrians, the street’s seediness igniting a gleam in her eyes.

Thinking about our past in the sewers, I arrived at the manhole in question and found the lid tightly shut. While attempting to pry it open, a street sweeper turned a corner and headed toward me, its headlights shining. I dove onto the sidewalk, evading the sweeper’s brushes by inches. As it started to turn around, I dashed to my car, got in, and sped off.

Following a detour sign down a side street, I noticed a number of orange-vested workers starting to fill the road. Soon they were holding up ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ signs to each other as they moved around on the pavement, surrounding my car. More of them appeared, quickly covering the entire block, bumping into each other, waving flags, and hitting my car with orange plastic red cones. When they started to attack my car with the ‘Go’ signs, I decided I could wait no longer, and slowly plowed my car through the threatening sea of orange, flipping them onto the hood of my car, their leering grins pressed up against the windshield.

The mysterious street sweeper lurked nearby as I turned a corner at another detour sign and suddenly saw Thelma, standing in the street in her black pantsuit. I stopped the car and got out, walking toward her, then halting when I saw the business end of the .38. “You had to pass me up for that promotion at the sewer department years ago, well you’ve reached a dead end,” she said brusquely, pointing the gun.

“Now I know why you always wear black, because the colors tremble and fall off of you,” I said in a measured tone, eyeing the oncoming street sweeper over Thelma’s shoulder. As she cocked the trigger, the omnipresent cleaning vehicle was suddenly upon her, pulling her into its efficient maw and brushes as it moved quickly along the dark pavement, before disappearing around the corner.

I got back into my Toyota Camry and took a deep breath. It had been a day of desolation, doom, hazards, and orange vests. Thelma was gone, but she would be back in my dreams that night, and the next….

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Eric Suhem lives in California and enjoys the qualities of his vegetable juicer.
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