Authors: Chadwick Wall
Jim glanced at his rear view mirror. A green Subaru tailed him in eastern Massachusetts' fashion, perhaps eight feet from his rear bumper. He accelerated by instinct, if only for a second. He realized there was a car in the leftmost lane, just in front of him, perhaps fifteen feet from his bumper. He could move over to the next lane, but then some other car would, in a matter of seconds, accelerate to ride his rear bumper.
It wasn't officially even Boston traffic yet, and it was a no-win situation. Jim cursed once, twice, then three times. He felt a touch of guilt and humor, as he glanced at the rear view mirror. The cross dangled three inches below it, a gift from his brother, fashioned by two nails fused together.
His Blackberry rang in his truck console. Jim activated the speakerphone. Maureen's angry voice shouted that she could barely hear him.
"Wait, Maureen," Jim placed the phone in his lap. He gripped the wheel with his right as he rolled up the driver's window with his left, blocking the sound of the whipping wind.
"Guess you're on your way," she said.
"You got it, sweet thang," Jim said. "On my way to you now."
? I don't know if I've ever been called that before."
"You don't like it?" He feigned offense.
"Anyway, Jim," she sighed, "can you stop and grab me some hot cocoa on the way up?"
"Sure thing, baby," Jim said. "But you gotta—"
"I mean, my dear."
"Okay, so I'll see you up here then? At my place?"
"If these crass, miserable drivers don't kill me first."
"Well, gotta run."
Jim replaced the Blackberry in the console and rolled down the window.
As the truck sped northward, Jim pondered what lay ahead of him that evening. Maureen's state of mind really had deteriorated in the past few weeks. Good thing he was on his way.
Yet Jim intuited that if he wanted to keep her, he would have to make that bold and unexpected move back to the city. Even if he did, he wondered, would it prove too late to salvage the relationship? He could feel her waning passion for him. And he could feel his passion for her begin to ebb, ever so slightly. In a way, he felt at times foolish when he was with her. Perhaps they really were mismatched.
Jim felt cut adrift, without sail or rudder. Looking back at his life after the onslaught of that great storm, it was more that he had awoken to discover he was piloting a ship with no means of navigation: no satellite map, no marine logs, no sextant, no constellation. All he possessed was his own wanderlust—which had brought him to his current point—and his desire to begin anew and to rebuild his life, far away from the life and the city he had lost.
His mind leaped from Maureen to her parents to his friends in Boston and Louisiana, from the job he had left in Boston to the job he might have to leave on the Cape. Yet another car tailing him at a menacing distance jerked Jim into reality. It was an apparently brand-new five series BMW. Its front bumper seemed even closer to him than the Subaru had been minutes before.
Jim felt his breath quicken. If he accelerated, he would be within ten feet of the Saab in front of him. Jim thought to switch into the middle lane, but after turning and looking over his right shoulder, this option was impossible. Next to him was a white commercial van tailgated by an Audi, tailgated in turn by a black Mercedes Benz diesel sedan damaged from a frontal fender bender.
Sweat beads emerged on his brow, chest, and on the nape of his neck. A thought gnawed at him. What would be worse, to die there on that highway due to the callous recklessness of others, or to live and see his grandfather's revamped truck totaled before his very eyes? Jim kept the same distance behind the Saab.
In the rear view mirror, he spied the driver of the BMW, a redhead with a keen squint and a striking beak-like nose. She was dressed in a dark square-shouldered blazer. She flashed her brights once, then twice.
A wave of anger surged within him. He pumped the brake twice and let the truck coast for a few seconds. The woman laid on her horn and made foul facial and hand gestures.
Amused at first, Jim began to grow angry again, with more ferocity than before. This motorist, like so many others on this road, seemed to have little regard for his life or property. Most cared only for getting to their destinations on time, or as it appeared, ahead of time.
On the verge of returning the harshest of the woman's hand gestures, he let a dark thought enter his mind. A wreck could take out that cold witch, or at least her beautiful sedan. Then he noticed his brother's gift dangling from his rear view mirror, and he relented, smiling. Jim flipped on his right turning blinker. Seconds later, the woman behind him slowed. The lioness would at least allow him to move from her path.
Jim shot a series of feverish glances to his right. The white van slowed. The driver, a corpulent man in a v-neck t-shirt, waved impatiently for Jim to move in front of him. Jim eased his truck gradually into the middle lane. He waved to the man, who nodded ever so slightly.
Another minute passed. Jim again signaled and eventually turned his truck into an open space. He snickered. It was the rightmost lane in the highway, but he still was not free to drive at the speed limit.
His thoughts drifted from the tense drama of metro Boston's rush hour toward less stressful matters. Perhaps the old man was right. He did need to retrace his steps, to retreat to Boston, rejoin his old friends, his former life, and his enviable position at Henretty & Henretty. He would be with Maureen. He could then save the relationship.
The question presented itself:
It seemed as though he was losing her, yet it was due to something beyond his control. As trite as it sounded, she had almost morphed into a completely different person. Did she still love him? She, the very one who first declared her love for him, perhaps weeks before he would have admitted those same feelings for her? What had happened?
As the road curved leftward, Jim spotted an old rusty Ford LTD stalled on the median. The rear right tire was flat. An elderly black woman stood shaking her head at it, hands on her hips.
Jim put on his right blinker and turned back to the navy blue Beetle behind him. He made a hand signal that he was moving into the median, but the man did not readily slow. Jim gestured wildly with his right arm, pointing to the median, the right blinker still clicking away.
The man slowed ever so slightly. Jim impatiently tore out of the lane onto the median and made a gradual brake. He shoved his cell phone into his pocket, grabbed his lugwrench and jack, and sprang from the truck. He jogged the few hundred feet toward the woman.
She yelled at the tire, which looked like it had been seconds away from disintegrating completely. Her eyes had misted over. She was half dejected, half irate.
"Ma'am, I've got a lugwrench and a jack here. Any spare in there?"
Her face brightened. She spoke slowly, but with a building inflection that revealed a glimmer of hope. "I
, sir, as a matter of fact. God bless you! I'd be so grateful if you could help me out here. Just been years since I did this. My back would give out!"
"It ain't no thing, ma'am," Jim said, smiling. "It'll just take a few minutes."
"I got the spare in my trunk, here." She turned toward the driver's door.
"Ma'am, it's best to stand away from the car. My cousin was hit after he'd pulled over. Almost killed him."
"You from Mis'sippi, Luzianna, chile?" She stepped away from the road onto the grass.
"Right on the mark, ma'am! Louisiana," Jim said. "But my cousin I mentioned, he's from Mis'sippi. How'd you know?"
"I'm from 'Bama originally—Opelika—but I know all them accents," she said with a grin. "I live up in Savin Hill now wit' mah li'l girl."
"I've gotta get that trunk there open. Can I pop it from inside?"
"It don't work, chile. You gotta use that key. It's in the ignition there." She pointed a gnarled finger at the car.
Jim opened the passenger's door and slid into the car. His nose caught a faint scent of mildew. Wedged into the odometer was a prayer card that showed a bearded black Christ, smiling pleasantly in his white robes. Jim thought of Mount Zion and smiled. He pulled the keys from the ignition and leapt from the car. After shutting the passenger's door, he jogged over to the trunk. Inside were several old TV Guide magazines, various tools, and that mildew smell.
"You got a leak in here, ma'am," Jim said.
He found the tire jack and the lug wrench and placed them a few feet behind the car. He pulled the spare tire from the trunk bed and placed it on the ground. The trunk shut with a soft click. After he placed the jack under the right frame rail of the car, just in front of the rear right wheel, he loosened the lug nuts. Jim worked the lever until the tire was well off the pavement.
Extracting the tire was no chore. The hubcap was long gone, the rim beneath rusted. After a scant few minutes Jim had taken the tire clean off. He worked the spare into place and tightened the lugnuts with the wrench.
"I tell ya, been a long time since ah seen one o' them trucks, chile!" the old lady said.
"I restored it. It was my Granddaddy's." Jim said. "I can't believe I didn't introduce myself. Jim Scoresby."
"I'm Ms. Mae Pratt." She gave a brief wave as he worked the wrench. "You're quite a nice young man, gonna make some woman a fine husband. You have a real good mutha, ah can tell, an' she raised you right."
"That makes me feel very good. You've got a cell phone, ma'am? You might call your friends and family and tell 'em you got slowed down a bit 'cause of that tire."
"No, suh, it's fine. You helped me so fast, I'll be on the road in no time."
"A thought just occurred to me," Jim said as he lowered the tire completely back onto the pavement by working the jack. He tugged twice, hard, on the newly installed tire.
The old lady's face betrayed a slight unease.
He stood and opened the trunk again and placed the mutilated flat inside and gently shut the door. "Easy part's gettin' that tire off and on."
"Ahh. I getcho drift." She nodded. "Hard part's gettin' back on that road."
"Exactly! Those scoundrels'll run someone over just as soon as slow down for 'em!"
"Oh, this ol' Granny knows how ta hit that gas, you bess believe!" Ms. Pratt said.
Jim stamped his foot once in delight and laughed. "Just what I wanted to hear, ma'am! It's the only way. I mean, just look."
Jim gestured with an open hand, palm up, toward the slowest lane of traffic. Cars zoomed by in a whirlwind, just a mere fifteen feet from them.
"It's almost like," he yelled over the whirr and zoom of the traffic, "even that slow lane's trying to qualify for the Daytona 500!"
She reached out her hand. He shook it, and she held it for a few seconds. "Thanks again, Jim, for all ya hep," she said. "God bless ya, Jim. Have a blessed day."
He handed her the keys and smiled. "You, too, Ms. Pratt," Jim said. "Just please give me your word you're gonna hit that gas and join that 'slower' lane there, when you can get in! I'll gesture for the oncoming cars to slow once you swerve in."
"Oh, you'll see." She wagged a finger at him, eyeing him knowingly, then stepped quickly around the car, and entered the driver's side.
Jim followed and shut the door for her.
She rolled the window down manually. "You may wanna go step in nat grass yonduh, clean o' dis vehicle," she laughed.
"Watch them in your mirror. Don't trust 'em to slow much!" He jogged off behind the car and then hooked left into the grass.
Ms. Pratt started the ignition. She let the car idle there, her left blinker on. Jim looked back at her as the unending column of cars passed by.
During a strange, momentary reprieve in the traffic in the rightmost lane, Jim motioned to the old woman. The Ford LTD had already lurched forward, its tires churning, leaving a thick dark strip on the median and more than a few flying pebbles. The car tore diagonally onto the interstate, its old Detroit motor roaring. The LTD finally straightened, holding its course in the rightmost lane, as it accelerated down the interstate.
A red Geo Metro appeared around the bend, coming at a steady pace, perhaps seventy miles per hour, but there was no threat. Just as Ms. Pratt disappeared around the granite outcrop at the bend, she waved. It was for him.
Jim picked up the jack and lugwrench and strolled toward his truck. He shook his head, smiling. The moment had lifted him and hearkened back to his father's father and a land far away. His Granddaddy Scoresby had attended Auburn University, Class of 1927. It was called Alabama Polytechnic Institute at the time. The town of Auburn bordered Opelika, Ms. Pratt's hometown. Small world, indeed.
Jim laughed as he brought out his key and turned it in the ignition of his Granddaddy's engineer's truck. He laughed so hard that tears welled at the corners of his eyes.
The scene he had just witnessed ranked among the funniest occurrences of his life. Ms. Pratt must have been in her late seventies to early eighties. He loved the look in her eye when she assured him "this granny knows how ta hit tha gas" and then minutes later had torn onto the interstate like a stock car driver shooting from a pit stop onto the track. He could never forget the rusty LTD as it lurched diagonally onto the interstate and then corrected itself, wobbling as the engine roared louder and the tires shed smoke and black trails. Yes, even Maureen would smile and maybe even laugh at his new tale.
He stared back over his left shoulder at the oncoming cars. Minutes later, he swerved into the rightmost lane, accelerating. At sixty-five miles per hour, he held the gas steady. Soon the skyline of Boston rose in his sights. He only had to grab Maureen's Mass General parking card and leave the truck in the hospital parking garage on Cambridge Street. One stop for cocoa in the package store on the walk up to Louisburg Square, and he would be with her again.
Did she feel the same excitement and anticipation? Or did she feel any dread? Jim sighed, as he recognized the same conflicted jumble in his own heart.