Twenty Miles South of Macon
One night Mabel kept driving.
Her arms hung heavy on the wheel. Her mind was blank. The fork in the road passed, and with it the turnoff to Harveys Supermarket where she would buy three cans of boiled chicken, a bag of reduced-fat Wheat Thins, a loaf of bread, and a pound of tomato-shaped objects to last her the week. Tillary called them tomato-shaped objects because she used to work at the Macon farmers market and felt the new job was beneath her. A tomato, she said, should taste like something. Trailing vines. Summer rain. These things taste like the tears of the Mexican kid that picked them, and life is not worth living when you’ve reached the point of eating like this.
Mabel went to Harveys Supermarket on Sundays because that is when normal people shop to prepare for their week, and Mabel liked to pretend she was one of them. It was also when Tillary worked, and the time she spent in the produce department reminded her that she hadn’t forgotten how to talk. Squinting flash-blind under fluorescent lights, Mabel mulled Tillary’s name tag. It could be a surname. Or the T could be a hastily drawn H. She didn’t ask. It took prizefighter strength to pull the parentheses around Mabel’s mouth upward into the lead of her cheeks, and when she returned to her car with her tote bag of groceries, she let her face go, returned to silence, and drove home. The brass clock in her kitchen, her grandfather’s, tapped its infantry march to next Sunday.
But one night Mabel kept driving. It had been years since she had ventured this far. The four-lane road blossomed into a highway as it approached the city, then shrunk again on the other side. Thirty minutes later, Mabel’s courage wore thin and when the beacon of a Super 8 motel rose like a neon sun on the horizon, she took the exit.
Just me, she told the clerk cutting lines of powdered creamer with a business card on the other side of the plexiglass. Her voice was raspy, out of practice, a long-distance call on a tin can telephone.
She fumbled with the lock of her room and set the chain on the other side. She turned on the TV and turned it off again. For a moment she buried her face in the tissue-thin bedspread, inhaling bleach and cigarette smoke, and then she sat up, stared at her reflection in the window, and for the first time wondered what the hell she was doing.
She wasn’t on the run. To be on the run, a person had to have something to run from. Mabel Schwartz had a small house in the suburbs with a rosebush out front, a set of nice serving spoons she never used, and a job annotating legal briefs from her living room that entailed her interaction with no one. She wasn’t traveling, because traveling would suggest a destination and someone to call when she got there. Mabel was here, and tomorrow she would be somewhere else. She would be a customer at the diner and then a woman buying chewing gum at the gas station and then a driver who breaks a twenty at the tollbooth. She would pass briefly into people’s lives and exit, instantly forgotten.
No one tells you that these things happen. Sometimes your skis get tangled up and you miss the tow from childhood to the real world, and while everyone else rises through the blue bright air with their arms around each other comforted and close, you’re at the bottom of the mountain, trying in vain to trudge up alone.
Two more hours before it was late enough to go to bed.
Mabel scrolled through her call log. She listened to her saved voicemails. We’re trying to reach you, said a pleasant automated voice, about an opportunity to refinance your mortgage at a low fixed rate. What would you do with an extra three hundred dollars a month? She listened to the message again.
Back in college, Mabel used to entertain a fantasy of being a truck stop escort. She would cross the manicured quad and eye the engineering majors sprawled on picnic blankets in the sun, and in her mind she would be wearing red stilettos and a wife beater with no bra and now, thirty years later, she closed her eyes and tried to remember what it felt like to be young and powerful. Outside, men drowned the evening in three-dollar whiskey. The traffic light that dictates the flow of life in this exit oasis danced its three-toned reflection in puddles to mark the passage of time, green light shimmering on asphalt like psychedelic emeralds. Trucks made their labored rumble from fuel stop to highway. The twenty-four hour restaurant sold its waffles and black bitter coffee. This could be anywhere, Mabel thought. It would be at least a month before anyone noticed I’m missing.
There was nothing of her life to wrap up except for a fertilizer order she needed to cancel. Mabel picked up the phone.
You grow things? the woman on the other end of the line asked when they finished the transaction. I can’t keep anything alive. Plants, pets, marriages.
I think my rosebush has already moved on, Mabel said.
I make roses, the woman replied. I try to. Out of paper and fabric. I have a book, but it’s all in Japanese. I do what I can, follow the pictures. I think sometimes it’s better to make your own flowers instead of counting on real ones that die.
Ikebana, Mabel said. It means the art of making flowers come alive. You do grow things.
The woman laughed. By some stretch of the imagination.
Kaizen, Mabel said. A little better every day.
If you lived near Seattle, the woman said, I’d split a bottle of wine with you.
Mabel paused. She pictured the map.
I’ll be there on Sunday, she said. She hung up, walked down to the front desk for a toothbrush. The next morning, she bought a tube of mascara and a spare set of clothes.