Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Late Arrival

By John McDonnell

She’d never driven a car before, but somehow Alice figured she’d be all right.
Except that she was driving in a blizzard.
The snow was coming down so hard she could hardly see the road anymore. It was like she was going through a long tunnel, white on all sides, with nothing ahead of her but a circle of black and the driving snow. She’d already slid three times when she put her foot on the brake, once almost skidding into a tree. Luckily, there were no cars on the road in this weather.
What was I thinking, going out in a blizzard?
She couldn’t stand it anymore -- she had to get away from that nursing home. When the weatherman on TV predicted a big storm, it was her chance. Everyone except a skeleton crew of staffers had left early. She’d gone to the nursing station when nobody was around and rifled through a few purses till she found car keys. She meandered down the hallway with her walker, trying to act normal, then slipped out a side door and went down to the parking lot. She pressed the unlock button on the key remote till the lights went on in a black Ford Explorer. She ditched the walker and got in.
David, her deceased husband, had always been the driver in their family. Alice sat next to him for so long that she thought she could figure out this driving business.
Getting out of the parking lot had been easy. Now that she was on the road, however, she was feeling weaker.

What have I done? Where am I going to go? I’m just an old lady who has no place in this world.

She’d been alone for ten years after David died, and her only daughter had put her in that home. She felt like she’d been around too long, lived past her time. She didn’t understand modern life. All these gadgets and gizmos, everybody rushing so fast they didn’t have time to sit and have a cup of coffee with you. She liked to talk, but nobody listened anymore.
Alice shivered as the wind buffeted the car. She was wearing pajamas, a bathrobe and slippers. I sure hope this car has enough gas, she thought, then looked at the gas gauge for the first time and saw it was on Empty.

Well, that’s it for me. I’m done for.

Just then she saw a light. At first it was only a small glow on her windshield, but she turned  the car toward it and it got bigger. It was a diner, one of those old-fashioned ones that looked like a railroad car. Its windows threw out a warm, bright light, and Alice could see people inside.

She pulled the car into the parking lot, although -- funny thing -- it was empty. Where did all the people inside come from? No matter, she felt safer now. The diner reminded her of the Coffee Break Diner in her hometown -- Alice smiled at the memory of that friendly, happy place.
She got out of the car and almost fell on the ice, realizing she shouldn’t have left the walker behind. She made her way carefully, holding on to the car till she could grab the railing leading up the steps to the diner.
Her feet and hands were cold, and she had snow in her eyes. She pulled herself up the steps, then swung open the door and she was in the warm glow, smelling the coffee and hearing the play of many voices.
It was exactly like the Coffee Break Diner. There was the broken clock on the wall, its hands stopped at midnight. There was the long counter trimmed in chrome, with the red stools next to it. There was the jukebox, all silver and red, and the song it was playing, what was that? “It’s My Party”, the Leslie Gore hit. Alice hadn’t heard that song in years. 
She shuffled over to the counter and sat down at a stool, rubbing her hands to warm them up. A beehive-haired waitress came up with a steaming mug of coffee, and put it in front of her.
“I figured you’d want this,” she said.
“You read my mind,” Alice said, taking the mug in both hands, and letting it warm her.  She took a big drink of the hot coffee, and it tasted better than anything she’d had in the nursing home.
“A slice of apple pie would go well with that,” the waitress said.
“That sounds wonderful.”
The waitress went off to the kitchen and came back with a large piece of apple pie. Something about her looked familiar, but the smell of hot apple pie distracted Alice. She ate a forkful and closed her eyes in ecstasy. It was the best apple pie she’d had since she was a girl.
“Good pie, isn’t it?”
Alice turned to see who had spoken to her, and got the shock of her life. It was Fred McLoon, the bank manager in Alice’s hometown. It couldn’t be him, but yet -- he had the same three-piece brown suit, the watch fob, the jowly face, the white hair. It was uncanny.
“What’s the matter, Honey?” the man said. “You look a bit pale.”
“I just. . . uh. . . could you tell me your name?” Alice asked.
“Why, you know my name. I’m Fred McLoon.”
“You remember me?” Alice said.
Mr. McLoon let out a guffaw, and slapped his hand on the counter. “Why, if that isn’t the funniest thing I ever heard! Why wouldn’t I know the girl who’s sweet on my son?”
Alice gulped. She looked at the other patrons, and got another shock. There was Joel Weatherby, the mailman, talking to Jim Hall, who owned the gas station in town. Over at another table were the Barrett twins, all talking excitedly about something. There were four women in one of the booths, and Alice recognized them as Muriel Wilson, the librarian, her sister Beatrice, and two other women who looked like Edna Sims and Mimsy Hathaway, who lived on Alice’s street.
It must be a dream, Alice thought.  A crazy dream, that’s what it is.
“Something wrong with you, dear?” Mr. McLoon asked.
“Do you know what time it is?” Alice said. Somewhere she had read that if you ask a character in a dream what time it is, their answer will tell you if you’re really dreaming.
“Time?” Mr. McLoon said. He opened his pocket watch and frowned at it. “Darn thing is broken again,” he said. “Why do you need to know the time, anyway?”
“No reason I guess,” Alice said. She didn’t know what was going on, but she felt so warm and secure here that she didn’t want to question it. She didn’t want to wake up.
Then she heard it. There was a group of teenage boys at the far end of the diner, in a booth. Alice could hear them chattering away, but she couldn’t get a good look at them. Was it possible that he heard David’s voice?
“Is David here?” she asked Mr. McLoon.
“Why, of course, Alice. You know he comes here every day after school with his friends.”
David. What she would have given to see him one more time! She felt her heart racing, and she broke out in a sweat. She’d met him 50 years ago in high school, and it was love at first sight. To see him again the way he looked back then! It would almost be too much to bear, but yet. . .
Alice swallowed hard and got up from the stool. This was crazy, but she was going to see David again. She shuffled along, her legs shaking, her breath coming in gasps. She got closer to the group of boys, and then, as if on cue, one of them turned. He had beautiful red curly hair, a sprinkle of freckles across his button nose, and that madcap light in his green eyes. . .

The police found the Ford Explorer ten miles from the interstate, parked next to an abandoned railroad car. The engine was off, and the old woman inside the car was wearing a robe and slippers.
“What a shame,” the tall cop said to his partner. “Crazy old lady, stealing a car and driving around in a blizzard. What was she thinking?”
“I don’t know, Joe,” the other cop said. “But at least she died happy. Look at that smile on her face.”