Fiction

Off-ramp Tent

S. Craig Renfroe Jr.

There’s a clump of trees in the middle of the exit from the highway that leads to the interstate. And one day, a tent appeared in that bit of marooned forest. Who’s camping in the off-ramp, we wanted to know. A teacher. The high school chemistry teacher. We had her back in the day. Is she still teaching? Did she lose her job? Did she get divorced? What happened? We asked around.

 

She’s still there, still fussing with beakers and equations. Was she married? Was there a daughter who moved away? She seems happy, someone said. No, she seems like she might as well be dead, someone offered.

The tent remained. At night, there was a little light, even in deep dark hours, drivers noting it leaving their night shifts or their poor decisions.

 

Someone saw her doing tai chi in the shoulder grass, feet from the traffic.

 

You just can’t camp off the off-ramp. Someone should do something. Someone should say something. Where are the cops?

 

A group of us went out there, must have been twenty, ten, at least five. She came out of the tent, workout clothes on, like she’d do tai chi at us. What are you doing out here, we asked her. You can’t just camp out here. You think because you work for the public you can just use public land? You can’t teach our children and live by an off-ramp.

She didn’t say anything, which was infuriating.

But we were nice. We had crowdsourced her some money, enough to get her on her feet. We helped her pack up, though she didn’t thank us. The tent was a real bitch to take down. We took her to her new apartment. And granted it wasn’t the best, the carpet stained, the faucet leaking, the toilet running, a vet-waiting-room smell. But how was she in any position to complain?

She must have really not liked it because in less than a week the tent popped up in the off-ramp circled grove, like a neon mushroom.

We went out there and told her she had better go or we’d come back. She didn’t. So we did, during the day. We cut into the tent and shredded its sides. There was a sleeping bag and a rucksack, and we cut those up too. We wrote on stacks of papers and exams for fun. Left it a mess.

 

She didn’t set up a new tent. So if she stayed, she didn’t have a good time of it. But with summer almost here anyway, she’d be off doing whatever she pleased. As the months went by, that tent decayed more and papers blew out into the grass. A real eyesore. And who was going to clean that up? We’d already done our part.

*

S. Craig Renfroe Jr. is the author of the short story collection You Should Get That Looked At. Currently, he is the chair of the English department at Queens University of Charlotte. Also, his work has appeared in Wigleaf, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, PANK, Hobart, New South, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere.

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