Pushcart 2013: Shannon Cain, “Juniper Beach” from Colorado Review, Spring 2011

Charlie works as an auto travel counselor in the Cranston, Rhode Island, branch of the American Automobile Association. Mostly her job involves the assembly of TripTiks. Charlie’s parents are newly dead, their car having run off the road three weeks ago outside Tucson, Arizona. Upon her return to work after their funeral, she began creating TripTiks that send Triple A members to destinations different from those they’d asked for.

Remember TripTiks? I didn’t know Triple A still made them. TripTiks are an assemblage of maps held together by a spiral binding at the top, each of a small stretch of space that when collated by someone like Charlie, provide a single route of travel from Point A to Point B, complete with known construction delays, speed traps, and rush-hour re-routes. Pre-GPS GPS. And, as Charlie knows, “[a] good map tells you where you are, where you’re going, and where you’ve been.”

Over the course of this story, Charlie uses a TripTik to find out those exact things about herself.

In the wake of her family tragedy, she’s been having trouble in a number of areas. At work, for instance. When the Leaf Family requests a TripTik to Disney World, she sends them instead to Jupiter Beach:

If Ruth and Geoffrey Leaf carry out their plans, the Leaf children will not, during this vacation, run squealing into the waves of the great and friendly Atlantic. They will not bite into tuna sandwiches gritty with sand. They will not squint into the clear sky and engage in thrilling speculation about Gulf Coast hurricanes.

The details of how completely and ingeniously she plans this re-routing are completely captivating. Charlie’s one smart cookie. Though I suppose I should give full credit to Cain, who, in her interview with Colorado Review, admits she used to work for Triple A preparing TripTiks. I wonder if any of her customers ended up somewhere they didn’t expect.

Work isn’t the only area of Charlie’s life that’s in bad shape. Her six-year relationship with girlfriend Heather seems “headed for dissolution” though Heather’s unaware of it, or unwilling to face it. Since the tragedy, Heather’s been immensely supportive, in fact. And it’s driving Charlie crazy.

“You’re in shock,” Heather says. “Don’t make any big decisions right now.” She pushes Charlie’s bangs offer for head. Which is an annoyance, given that her four head is the area over which Charlie has configured her bangs to fall.

Whatever interesting edginess that existed in Heather’s personality has disappeared. She has become gentle and kind and philosophical. She offers resources.

That detail about the bangs made me smile; I felt a real bond with Charlie. So many people in my life have felt it was their duty to rearrange my hair, my clothing, my furniture, my life, to suit their tastes, unaware that things might not be the way they are by accident, that they might, in fact, be precisely as I wish them to be.

Charlie buys an RV and heads off to look for America. But it’s not about Heather; she’s just collateral damage. It’s about Dad.

Charlie’s got two images of her father. One is from childhood, and may have influenced her career choice:

Her father took them to every state in the Union connected by asphalt. He exceeded the speed limit, care not a whit about seatbelts, drove under the influence of fatigue and bickering children and sips of whiskey from a silver flask nestled between his legs. He showed the miracle after miracle.

Sounds pretty idyllic, except for the whiskey. Which is a big exception. Charlie has memories of the whiskey, too, from later in her childhood. And now, most recently, she has the image from the accident that took her parents’ lives when her father, drunk, on another road trip with Mom, ran off the road “into a two-hundred-year-old giant saguaro cactus, top-heavy with six tons of monsoon-season moisture. It collapsed onto their car, crushing it. It would be nice if the circumstances of her parents’ death didn’t remind her of a scene from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.”

Armed with her newly-purchased RV and a file of bizarre accident clippings – the Montana twins whose mother drove the ambulance that responded to their rollover; the family in Yellowstone wiped out by a bus of tourists; the bizarre coincidence of falling ice and a logging truck in Alaska – Charlie travels the country, trying to reconcile the divided images, the anger playing against the grief. Trying to forgive. To heal.

It’s powerful stuff, yet it’s told in such a restrained way, with such detail, there’s not an ounce of sappiness. The ending works perfectly, bringing her full circle, though perhaps not in the most obvious way.

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