Tuesday, June 13, 2006

LOST in the Wide Open Prairie

One year, a few weeks before Christmas, things got tense around the house. I needed to get out before I lost control and bit someone, so I decided to follow through on a postcard I’d gotten from my Mary Kay lady and go shop at her in-home bonanza.

I asked my husband for directions to her house. I didn’t know my way around here very well, and he’d been working in the area for several years. He gave me guy directions, “head west on 80, take the Marshall exit, and it’s right there.” That sounded simple enough. I should have known better.

Off I headed, westward ho! Glad to be out of the house, the van radio cranked up good and loud, a half an hour later I saw the Marshall exit and took it. Then things started to go bad. At the top of the exit, I was confronted with a choice. The sign directly in front of me had an arrow pointing to the right, captioned “Hereford Cows”. A left-pointing arrow indicated, “Trailer Park”. Luckily, traffic was non-existent, so I pondered for a moment. In which direction was I more likely to find a Mary Kay lady – the Hereford Cow direction or the Trailer Park direction? I decided on Trailer Park.

I turned left. Now, I live in a state known for its phenomenal flatness. International writers have been known to refer to my state as proof that Columbus was wrong; that the world truly is flat. So, I was tooling along at my flatlander speed and WHOMP, my van leapt off a hill, landing awkwardly several yards ahead of where I expected to be. Damn! A hill! A real hill! Just like the kind I grew up with in Virginia! I pulled to the side of the road to get my bearings and calm down a little, then continued down a winding road, through dense brush and tree growth, hoping to at least spot that Trailer Park. There were no road signs, no signs of life whatsoever.

Twenty minutes later, I encountered my first signs of human habitation – rusted out refrigerators and Chevrolets in front of a ramshackle formerly white clapboard house. That seemed positive, so I kept driving. More hills, more heavy forest, more winding road. I emerged, quite suddenly, into an intersection with a bank on my left, a junkyard on my right, and across the street was a gas station.

“AHA!” I thought to myself, “Civilization! I’ll ask someone there how to get to the Mary Kay lady’s house.” I pulled in, parked, and walked into 1935. There was a little old man sitting in a plastic-covered diner chair, drinking coffee from a chipped white mug, another toothless old man in greasy overalls behind the counter, also drinking coffee from a chipped white mug, and they both looked at me like I was a circus freak. I smiled, determined to be nice and asked, “Do either of you gentlemen know how to get to 135 S. Marina Drive?”

The old guy in the chair wheezed in a breath, smacked his lips and announced, “Well, I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been able to find a damned thing since they named the streets around here.” His greasy cohort grunted in agreement. I was stunned into silence, pondering the idea that naming streets might cause them to disappear or move around when you weren’t looking, or wind up in different places once you went down them.

The fellow at the counter snorted a few times, blew his nose into his greasy shop rag and said, “Well, you could always ask at the police station.”

“Where is that?” I asked.

“You go back out to the intersection; mind the traffic, it gets heavy,” he said (I had yet to see another car capable of motion since I’d turned off towards the Trailer Park), “take yer first right, then turn left at the furniture store, and it’ll be on yer right. You can’t miss it.” I opened my mouth to ask for more specific information, then thought better of it when I noticed that the old fellow in the chair had a cobweb connecting his shoulder to the wall of the gas station. I figured I should get the hell out of there before I forgot how to find named places, too.

Back into the van I went. I took the first right and opened my eyes wide, looking for the furniture store. I didn’t see one, and wound up driving smack into a parking lot full of rusted pickup trucks outside of a bar. I turned around and drove back along all three blocks of the downtown area. The only thing I saw that resembled a furniture store was a big window, no name overhead, with a rocking chair on display. I figured that must be it, so I turned to the right (since I was heading the opposite direction now) and starting looking for a police station.

I saw a couple of warehouse type buildings and then a distinctly residential area ahead of me. I pulled into a warehouse parking lot and thought. I had grown up in a suburb of Washington, DC. My idea of a police station was a municipal looking building with the words “POLICE STATION” or “[city name] POLICE” clearly identifying it located ON the building somewhere. I figured that might be asking for too much in this particular small town, so I decided to creep back and forth through the non-residential areas looking for something else that might look police related.

Ten minutes later, I found a building with a cardboard sign, hand lettered, spelling out “Coroner”. I figured the police station couldn’t be far off, and a little more investigation proved me right. In front of a short strip mall kind of building was a parking space labeled, “Police Parking Only”. I parked next to it, got out of my car, and started looking for signs of life.

The cold winter wind blew fiercely behind me, chasing bits of cardboard, paper, and occasional bright colored strands of discarded plastic streamers down the street. I wandered back and forth, peering into windows, and finally I spotted a pamphlet rack through one of those windows. In front of the door was a homemade metal box with a single button and a speaker grid. I crossed my fingers, pressed the button, and yelled, “is this the police station?” into the box.

Much to my surprise, I head the rustling of paper coming through the speaker grid, and a female voice, muffled by sounds of sandwich-eating responded, “You need something?”

I yelled back into this box, “Yes, I’m looking for 135 S. Marina Drive. Can you tell me how to get there?”

The box answered, “Where is that?”

I felt my right eye developing a nervous tic. “Well,” I said, “I don’t know. That’s why I asked you.”

“Whachoo want there?” asked the box.

“I’m looking for my Mary Kay lady. She lives there. I want to buy some foot cream for my sister.” I replied.

“Mary Kay? What’s her name?” shrilled the box.

“Louise Turner,” I said, standing there in the frigid winter air, wondering how the hell I had gone from driving along an ordinary interstate highway to standing in front of a faceless metal box in Stephen King’s nightmare version of a hometown, “Can you tell me how to get to her house?”

“I think my sister knows her. Hang on, I’ll call her and find out,” said the box.

I waited. The box finally crackled to life. “My sister goes to church with her but don’t know where she lives. I’ll call the preacher and find out. Hang on another minute.”

I laid my head down on top of the box. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Not only was I completely lost, standing outside in the wind, screaming into a box with no name, but now the police were tracking down my Mary Kay lady through her minister. I wasn’t sure that if I did somehow manage to get to her house, that she’d be real pleased to see me, but I figured I’d better stick it out.

“Breathe, BoS, breathe,” I told myself. It seemed like another half an hour passed before my box rustled again. “OK, I found her,” it said, “do you want to go the scenic route or more directly.” I nearly screamed with frustration.

“Well, I’m kinda lost already, so I think the more direct route would be better,” I answered.

“You sure? The scenic route’s real purty this time of year,” said the box.

“I’m sure, but thanks, maybe next time,” I said.

Well, the box gave me a bunch of directions, none of which involved street names, but included looking for a shop with a “FRESH BAIT” sign, a witch ball in a front yard, and a bridge. I thanked the box and climbed back in my van and laid my head down on the steering wheel.

“Holy crap,” I said to myself, “oh, holy crap. Louise is going to be SO pissed when I do finally get there.”

Fortunately, the box’s directions were very good, and I arrived, with loins appropriately girded, at Louise’s house, which had neither a street sign nor a house number to identify it. As I approached her door, she opened it, her eyes as big as saucers, and said, “Jesus Christ, I’m glad you found me! The police AND my minister called me!” I apologized and wound up spending about twice as much time and money as I had intended out of guilt.

Before I left, I said, “Is there an easier way for me to get home? I’m not sure I can reverse my route and not get lost again.”

“Oh, sure,” she said, “just turn left out of the driveway and go straight until you get to route 47, then go north.”

“Are you kidding me?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she said, “That’s why I was so shocked that you had called the police to find me.”

“Well, thanks,” I said.

Sure enough, it was that easy getting home. I walked in the door, three hours after I had left, on a trip I expected to take no more than an hour, and fixed my husband in the eye with a masterful glare.

“YOU!” I said. “YOU gave me GUY directions!”

“Yeah,” he said, sitting there warm and comfy in his plaid flannel shirt, holding our youngest on his lap, in front of the TV, watching Nascar racing. “Was there a problem?”

“Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr. MEN! I need tea,” I said, “nice, hot, Constant Comment tea. By the quart. And a cookie. Maybe FIVE cookies.” And I glared at him some more because it seemed to be calming my nervous tic.

“OK. What’s for dinner?” he asked.

“A long, aggravating, dumb story,” I said, “and probably soup.”

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