Waiting for the Light to Change
by Linda Purdy
Lois was lost in the beauty of the sunlight on the waxen magnolia leaves as she waited in a left turn pocket for the light to turn green. Her 1990 smoke-blue Mercury diesel was the only car waiting on this Mayspring day in Tustin, where the man-made world of her nondescript Southern California neighborhood seemed oblivious to the larger universe it inhabited. Her neighborhood was a grid of streets named for the wives of developers. Charlene Circle to the north, Priscilla Drive to the east, Nadine Loop to the south, and Judy Way to the west were the
boundaries of her tract, Deer Run, where the only deer were the lighted deer that decorated the lawns at Christmas, plugged into a generator so their heads could bob up and down, imitating the pastoral grazing of
Lois was enthralled by the flickering light on the big, shiny magnolia leaves of the trees that rose from a backyard enclosed by a cinder block fence, built to drown out the noise of the four lanes of Red Hill Avenue, which ran north and south, as an alternative to the 55 freeway. Lois marveled how light from a star ninety-four million miles from Earth could send sunbeams across the heavens, land on the waxen magnolia leaves in Tustin, California, and make the trees grow, through photosynthesis. “Natural law is all we need,” thought Lois as she waited for the light to change, one eye on the traffic signal, the other on the glory of the sunlit leaves. Red Hill Avenue was named for a real local landmark in Tustin, a small hill, probably with a deposit of iron in the soil, which marked the divide between the higher elevations of Tustin and the flatlands, where Lois lived. A center divider on Red Hill Avenue,
planted with low-maintenance greenery, separated its four lanes. The divider jogged inward at the intersection of Red Hill Avenue and Walnut Avenue, where there were no walnut trees, creating a pocket for those turning left. Lois’s diesel Mercury was the only car waiting in the left turn pocket, waiting for the signal to go through its long cycle. The two north-moving lanes to her right were bumper to bumper with traffic, also waiting at the red light. The Toyotas, the Nissans, even the BMWs all looked alike, as if inspired by the shape of a potato. That monotony
made the magnolia leaves and the sun even more spectacular.
Lost in reverie, when Lois heard the wail of sirens, she took a few seconds to realize that she was a sitting duck in the left turn pocket. The screaming sirens sounded mean and fierce, as if they were after the Crook of the Century. The wail was coming from the south behind her, and the congested lanes of northbound cars to her right had no
room to yield. Lois knew that her car was not visible to the oncoming posse, and that to the galloping suspect in a tan panel truck and to the police cars in pursuit, the left turn lane would seem like clear passage to continue their good-against-evil high-speed chase. To be caught in a police chase after contemplating the miracle of
photosynthesis seemed like a non sequitur, but life can be very rude. Lois prepared to die as the image of the tan panel truck got bigger and bigger in her rearview mirror.
The left turn pocket was now a pocket of time and space where the impossible of impossibles happened, a miracle as improbable as photosynthesis. When the clumsy panel truck saw her, the driver turned sharply to avoid her and his truck leapt the center divider into the lanes of oncoming southbound traffic, and then all three of the
pursuing police cars did the same. Like a nightmare, each screeching police car, with its jukebox of flashing lights, loomed in Lois’s rearview mirror, and then, as if by cue, each leapt the center divider, becoming airborne, like horses leaping a hurdle in an equestrian show, landing on two wheels, righting themselves, and then speeding into oncoming traffic in pursuit of their prey. One thought went through Lois’s head during these few seconds: “I have a full tank of gas.” This called her back to Earth.
As the fourth wailing police car approached in her rearview mirror, Lois finally broke the law and got out of the way, as necessity trumped her rule-bound mind; she was the obstacle here. She swung a wide right turn from the left turn lane onto Walnut, and then right on Charlene Circle, left on Priscilla, another left on Judy, then a right into her home at 1492 Nadine Loop. She parked in the driveway, still not sure why she had escaped a rear-end collision four times in a row, with her full tank of gas. She was glad to be alive, but even in her dazed state of mind, she knew the real criminals were the police, who were probably bored of writing parking tickets and tired of stopping drivers for seat belt violations, and were swept into this cowboy-and-Indian mentality by a hunger for some real police action. She didn’t feel like falling to the ground in thanksgiving for escaping such foolishness.
Lois shakily unlocked the side door to her tract home, poured herself a glass of wine, sat down at the kitchen table, and wondered what to do. Such a moment required some kind of response, something more than a prayer of gratitude or some platitude like, “It wasn’t my time to go.” She decided to write a letter to the Traffic Division of the Tustin Police, whose chief officer she found on the Tustin city website. She opened her desk, pulled out the yellow legal pad, which she usually used for composing letters she never sent, and began to write:
Dear Sergeant Gray,
I think I may have accidently wandered onto a movie set today. I was
caught in a high-speed police chase in downtown Tustin, with police
cars flying over the center divider on Red Hill Avenue in pursuit of a tan
panel truck. I’d like to know if your officers moonlight as stunt car
drivers. If you were shooting a movie, don’t you think it would have
been smart to give us some warning, or if this was reality TV, don’t I get
a check? What crime could justify such risk, such recklessness, on a city
street? Were they chasing a murderer? I thought the law was written to
protect the innocent.
She read her letter. It was too confrontational, too smart-ass. Sergeant Gray would throw it in the trash as a personal affront. There would be no response. She would write a letter that he would never expect, something so la-la land that even though he threw it away, the subliminal message might linger. Reading a letter from a kook, he might even drop his defenses long enough to hear her plea.
Dear Sergeant Gray,
Today as I waited for the light to change at Red Hill and Walnut Avenue,
my mind left my body and flew into the magnolia trees in a backyard in
the Deer Run tract adjacent to Red Hill. I was amazed that a star ninety-
four million miles from Earth was helping the trees grow through
photosynthesis as the sunlight shimmered on the waxen, shiny leaves. I
had the thought that natural law is far superior to civil law. Has it ever
occurred to you that catching a petty thief is as simple as taking down
his license number and finding his residence through the DMV, as simple
as the sunlight finding the leaves of a magnolia tree in faraway Tustin,
California? The power of sunlight might easily incinerate a magnolia
tree, but the sun wisely keeps a far distance and still gets the job done.
Before she could change her mind, Lois addressed an envelope to Sergeant Gray, pulled a Liberty Bell stamp off a sheet of stamps and walked her letter to the mailbox.
Linda Purdy was born in 1943 and earned a BA in English from Whittier College and a Master of Library and Information Science from CSU Fullerton. Her poetry and prose appeared in Irvine Valley College's The Ear, Faultline, International Harvest, and the Santa Monica Review, and at the Smithsonian Photography Initiative. She died in October. A commemorative collection of her work, including short fiction and poems, is being published by a group of her fellow workshop participants, teachers and editors, all champions of her work.