Wednesday, November 29, 2000

Between Rest Stops

Assignment:  Sleep as Writing Inspiration 

She slipped off her shoes and stretched her legs as far in front of her as space on the passenger side permitted, then settled more comfortably against the seat back.  They had been on the road better than two hours and were approaching the Pennsylvania Turnpike on-ramp at Breezewood. 

“Want me to take over once we get to the next available rest stop?” she asked, knowing he would say no.  He always preferred to drive more than half the journey home from Washington before letting her take over while he in turn slept, usually snoring enough to wake, (or at least to shake)  the dead.  Certainly, she often imagined the car itself shook, but his snoring was a comforting sound – not at three o’clock in the morning in bed beside her perhaps, but she didn’t mind it in the car.  

He was fully awake now, though.  “No, thanks,” he said.  “Just relax and enjoy the scenery.”

Some scenery!  The day was winter-like and gray, although the outside temperature displayed just above the rear-view mirror registered forty-two degrees.  About normal for the end of November, she thought.

They didn’t talk much on their way home, and she appreciated this.  She allowed her mind to linger over one happy memory after another of the past weekend with their daughter.  She knew a smile played on her face, and glancing over to him, was pleased to see that he, too, was smiling to himself.  The tollbooths loomed, and he maneuvered the car toward the booth on the far left, anticipating the westerly direction they would take.  She heard a faint whir as the automatic window on his side slid down to open position, and out of the corner of her vision, saw him reach for the card the machine spit out at him, and remembered what their son Steve used to say when they were a young family traveling together.  

“Mum, that machine stuck its tongue out at me!”

The first few times Steve had pulled that joke, all six of them had laughed, and indeed she had continued to laugh politely for many more times, not wanting to hurt his feelings, but finally even she gave up and agreed with them when one or the other of his siblings would groan at him: 

“Shut up, Steve!”  

“Not funny anymore!”   

“Get a new line, that one’s old!”  

Now she and her husband were the ones who were old, and the family had scant  occasion to travel all together anymore.  The kids had their own families to travel with, and she was content to bask in memories of other times, which, from the distance of years, seemed to have been nothing other than fun times.

In the sparse woods that bordered the highway on either side, trees, bare of leaves, whizzed by her window, one after another at sixty-five miles per hour.  She yawned. Even in the gloom of dark November days, the Pennsylvania countryside was not unpleasant.  She loved it, and would never even consider retiring to warmer climes.  Neither would he.  After forty-seven years, they meshed very well together.  He was far-sighted, she, near-sighted.  Together, there was little need for glasses.  He could figure great sums in his head for her when, shopping in a foreign land, she would ask him, “How much is that in dollars?”  On her part, she could identify for him any number of songs when, hearing them over radio or television, he would ask her,  “What the hell is the name of that tune?  I know I know it, but I can’t remember.”   These golden years of theirs were, if not fourteen-carat, at least golden enough, and she wished that by some miracle, time for them could freeze here for about thirty years or so – here in this pleasant present, when all the worries and cares of their younger lives had narrowed down to just worrying and caring for each other.   But she knew, of course, their days were growing short.  She saw her face reflected in the car window and sighed and murmured half aloud, “the autumn of our lives.”   That was another area of balance between them -- he was right down the line, matter-of-fact, no bullshit; she tended toward the maudlin.

Something or someone moved between the trees far ahead to her right, but when she sat straighter and looked again, there was nothing.  Then again, a dark figure moved, 

wove in an out between tree trunks, seeming to float.  Then another, then another, and until soon there was a host of specters.  She discerned them more clearly now.  They were men – thin, almost shapeless men, wrapped in black capes that undulated around them as they skimmed the ground and kept pace with the car’s speed.  They turned their faces toward her and beckoned.  Their eyes were nothing but round black holes.  Unable to force a cry from her throat, she glanced quickly at her husband.  He turned toward her, and his eyes, too, were nothing but two black holes in his face.  Suddenly she was lifted from her seat and floated through the closed door.  The figures sailed to meet her, and in one brief moment before they gathered her in a huddle among them and enveloped her in their capes, she was able to look back and in horror see their car careen across the road, strike an on-coming bus, and pummel pell-mell down the opposite bank.

“The sign says the next rest-stop after the one coming up is twenty-six miles farther on.  Do you want to take over at this one or wait for the next?” she heard him ask. She rubbed her eyes, relieved that she and he were both still among the living. 

“This one coming up will be fine, dear,” she said.  “I’m well rested now.  I’ll take over.  God!  It’s great to be alive, isn’t it?”

He looked at her.  “You sure you’re awake enough?” he asked.

“I’m sure,” she said.  

She drove all the remainder of the way home, happy to let him sleep, slumped with his head at an awkward angle, snoring like a honking goose.  His neck’s going to be awful sore when he wakes up, she thought.