It should have only taken 2 hours to get to Gainesville, but when I got out on to the open 2-lane road, I discovered the VW Bus didn’t like to go over 50mph. I felt a little like the Pied Piper, playing my music while being the accidental leader of a sorrowful trail of cars, minus the few maniacs who sped past, risking numerous head on collisions. I simply ignored the trail and listened happily to the cassette tape of Chet Baker’s Jazz until it was eaten in a spectacular ending to “Let’s Get Lost”. But after fumbling around in a large tin can that Bob had somehow gerry-rigged to the dash, I found yet more tapes. And without looking at any labels, since it was too dark to see them anyway, I tried to first pull out the old, now broken one to make way for the next. After yanking it out there was still a bit of tape left tangled in one of the turning things. Damn it.
I thought that maybe if I pulled over at this Jiffy Mart, I could park right in front of the lit store and try to fix the tape player. There were a few trucks in the parking lot. It looked pretty tame, I felt safe. In the dim glow from the store I couldn’t see well enough to un-jam the tape player. I sat there feeling defeated. So I simply gave up and rummaged around in the ash tray to find a $20 bill, leaving me as giddy as if I had discovered gold. I pocketed the money and hopped out of the van, slamming the door behind me with such unintentional vigor, that a couple of people coming out of the store looked over in surprise.
As I walked up to the double glass doors with ads plastered all over them, I past a hunched woman, sitting on the curb. She said, “Oh, you dropped something!”
I walked back to see what she was talking about and she had her hand cupped. I reached out to take whatever it was that she was holding and as she opened her empty hand into mine she said, “Here’s your smile”.
I laughed with surprise.
“There now you see,” she said, “I gave it back to you!”
“Thank you,” I said.
She pushed some wild hair behind her ear that had a large scar on it, like an earring had been ripped all the way out at one time in her past. I was frozen, staring horrified with the thought of how that must have felt. How old was she when that happened? She said, “Can you spare some change? I’m not gonna lie, I’m a jonsing for a cigarette. I’ll tell you your fortune in return.”
“You don’t need to do that,” I managed to say, looking at her teeth that were mostly missing. She seemed young in a way, her dark hair, thick and silky like she was my age. But her skin was brown and weathered like a sack, her lips cracked and her voice raspy. “I just need a ciggy” she said and grinned at me in an alarming way, thick eyebrows raised with expectancy. She had me. I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice but to do as she asked all curled over on the curb.
“I’ll buy you a pack” I said. “What kind do you want?”
“Virginia Slims Menthol lights 100’s.”
What? I got out my phone to type that into the notes because I knew I would forget that as soon as I got up to the counter. Inside I tossed a couple of Snickers bars onto the counter and asked for her cigarettes. Then I got a good idea, “Give me two packs” I said. Then I thought that menthol sounded gross so I said, “No, give me one pack of Marlboros”. I remembered seeing ads for Marlboros in LIFE magazine as a kid, the cowboy sitting by the golden bonfire with a cigarette dangling from his lips. That would be me in a few minutes, minus the bonfire.
I handed the Virginia Slims and a Snickers bar to my friend on the curb and she said, “sit down and I’ll tell you your fortune.”
“I don’t believe in that stuff” I said, sitting down next to her anyway, knowing I was going to get my skirt dirty on the curb.
“Nobody believes in the truth,” she said, “especially when it is staring them right smack in the face.” A little spit came out of her mouth when she said the word, “smack”. She leaned forward a little, prompting me to lean back so I wouldn’t ever have to know what her breath smelled like. She looked into me with her bright blue, piercing eyes and frightened me for a second. I looked away and opened up my own packet of cigarettes. She took out a lighter and was immediately puffing away, then she handed it to me and I tried to light mine. She looked at me in amazement as I puffed away, trying to make a few sparks, then handed her lighter back and blew the smoke out into the night so I could watch it swirl in the light of the street lamp.
“You didn’t even inhale, honey” she said.
“I didn’t really want to,” I said, watching the smoke wind magically into itself.
She smiled and shook her head. “You are like a little lamb” she said, “headed for a slaughter.”
“Is that my fortune?” I looked at her with alarm and she shook her head.
“No. I see you in blue. Blue will save you my child. Just remember, blue.”
I looked at my van. That was blue. “Save me from what?”
“I can’t tell you everything” she said, “or then I would be steeling your free will, and God won’t let me do that. But I can tell you, that you are like the moon, but the moon mustn’t stay out in the day time.”
That was enough for me. I stood up, “It was nice to meet you, thanks for the fortune” I said while brushing off my skirt.
“Remember, blue!” She said.
“Blue.” I got in my blue van which was difficult to do while holding a lit cigarette and then as I reached over to pull on my seatbelt I dropped it on my lap and screamed as it burnt a hole in my skirt. “Shit!!” I picked it up and stamped it out in the open ash tray. Blue, I thought to myself as I backed out then pulled forward on to the now barren road to Gainesville. The van was loud as ever and trees now engulfed the little road on either side. The moon shone above so brightly it drowned out all the stars. I pulled at the coiled tape again and to my delight it finally came free, so easily I was baffled that it had ever been a problem. I popped in a random tape. When the song, “Blue” by the Jayhawks began to play I gasped with amazement at the coincidence. So I just sang with the joy of a kid on a swing with her eyes closed, or like when I dance at a club when the music fills me up and the flashing lights are blinding…or when I am on a raft in a swimming pool and I am so relaxed that I think that if I give in completely to accepting the expansive joy of the gentle motion, the water lapping my feet and my skin soaking up the warm sunlight on my bare belly, that I will surely drown.
Then as I listened to each word I belted from my throat I realized what I was saying and I suddenly wondered if this was not a huge coincidence. Perhaps this was somehow Chris sending me a message, and that perhaps I should turn around and go home. I suddenly missed Chris really, really badly and felt awful for ditching him. I started to slow down, wondering if maybe I should just make a u-turn. I could turn around right here if I wanted to. I slowed right down to just 5mph, then changed my mind. I was going dancing damn-it. But right as I pushed down on the gas pedal, a young deer sprang out in front of the van like an angel. Her eyes sparkled in the headlights and as I skidded to a halt she leapt high out of harms way into the trees. The van utterly conked out in the road. It was suddenly deafeningly silent. I tried to start it back up again and the engine turned over and over like a coughing old man. I sat there again in the quiet, with the moon flashing from above, with the trees and all her deer friends staring at me with their glassy eyes from the blackness of the woods of endless, unanswered questions.
Chris told me this would happen. “Please start” I whispered. I imagined a car zooming up behind me at the speed limit which was 65. “Please start for me, blue…will that help if I say blue? Please, please.” I turned the key, but nothing.
I really didn’t want to get out of the car, but I wanted to sit there in the middle of the road waiting to be nailed by an oncoming car, even less. So I put the van in neutral and hopped out into the dark night. I left my door open and pushed as hard as I could. I heaved with my whole body and being, and cried out like a tennis player in the Wimbledon finals. The van finally began to roll slowly. I was terrified of everything around me, of criminals coming out of the woods to murder me, and my adrenaline made me stronger than I had ever been. My sweat was wet on my forehead and the van began to roll faster and faster. Soon I was running, almost gliding and leaping down the black road pushing the van along with me. And just when it seemed like it was going to race off away into the future without me, I hopped into the drivers seat, stomped on the clutch, shoved it into 2nd gear and popped the clutch. It started with such a roar that I screamed. I pressed my foot down on the gas, hung on to the steering wheel and leaned out of the van to grab and pull my door shut. Success. I couldn’t believe I was moving along down the road again like nothing ever happened. So I got the van going up to almost 55. It rattled like cattle stomping across a metal bridge, but I didn’t care. As long as it would hold together till Gainesville it could clang about as much as it wanted to. My heart was still racing and I was still heaving for breath after that insane sprint. But I let myself take in a large breath and relax a tiny little bit and I thought to myself that I really still did want to go dancing.