I’m on vacation from Chicago and visiting my girlfriend in Louisiana. Kathy and I met in college where we played on the same basketball team. This is my first time visiting the South. The plan is to drive to New Orleans the next day for the Jazz Fest. “Hey, Bev. Can you take the car and pick up a case of water? We’ll need it. It’ll be steaming all the way down.”
“I know all about hot. Don’t forget I’m from Chicago.”
“Not this hot.”
Kathy is busy in the kitchen cooking up a pan of brownies and wipes her forehead with the back of her hand. Several beads of sweat drizzle down the side of her nose. She tells me to watch the speed limit because it’s easy to get a ticket. “I’ve already got way too many,” she says. “Traffic school’s expecting me to show up for the next hundred years.”
“Best place? Walmart?”
“Where else?” she says. “All roads lead to Walmart.” She laughs. Kathy is trying her best to educate me about the South, at least her South. Every time I open my mouth, I feel like my northern accent is giving me away as a damned Yankee.
“Don’t be silly. You’re neurotic,” she says.
“Consider the dudes with beards on Duck Dynasty and what they would say.” I’d watched a week’s worth of Dynasty episodes before leaving for Louisiana.
“Shit. There you go again. You can consider whatever you want.”
She gives me the keys to her car, a baby blue Mustang. The key ring is attached to a brass crawdad. “I’ll be your water girl. See you in a bit.”
I pull out of the driveway of her small cottage at the end of a cul-de-sac. She’s learning to fly drones over soybean fields to help regulate crop irrigation. Both of us are in our mid-twenties and single. I had a boyfriend in Chicago, but that’s been over since the beginning of summer; I’m hoping this visit will help heal the scars. So I start driving toward the main drag. I’m used to highways that are straight shots. You get on, cruise at a certain speed, and get off. Not like Hwy 165 where the speed limit keeps switching up as SUVs and gargantuan 18-wheelers speed past stuffed with skinny poles of pine trees that hang off the back of their flatbeds. The speed limit changes from 65 to 55 near the turn-off to Frenchmen’s Bend, a housing development and health club. From there, it remains constant past a wave of fields growing soy, corn, and rye, past the entrance to Black Bayou, a wildlife preserve and also the gateway to a small Sears store that sells parts. Here the speed changes once again to 50 miles per hour as Hwy. 165 passes North Monroe’s commercial strip, home to storage units, gas stations, pizza and chicken nugget outlets. Out of my rear view mirror, I spot a police car lurking in the median.
I mind my p’s and q’s and drive slowly. It’s not so much the change in the speed limit or even the bumps along Hwy.165 that annoy: it’s the road bullies. They hug my bumper, especially small trucks whose headlights tunnel through the back of my neck.
My choice is to stay in the “slow” lane where drivers are talking on cell phones. Or I can play the same asshole game, slow down and wave my bumper in a driver’s face until he gives up. Anyway you look at it, it’s a contentious ride. But today after I merged into the right lane to let some wild child pass, the same guy pulls back behind me. I merge right. He follows. The cat and mouse goes on for about two miles and I’m getting worried. So I pull into the nearest gas station. The guy drives by like he’s an extra from Thelma and Louise and waves. I don’t want to know what he’s selling. Instead, I go inside for a cup of coffee. Through the window, I watch him park. I’m in trouble now. I thought making this run would be no big thing.
“Pardon, M’am.” He’s wearing a t-shirt with one of those god-awful Smiley faces, a serial killer with a grin. I’m holding tight to my coffee, ready to fling it in his face. “Ever consider selling that ’65 Mustang?”
He’s around six feet with pointy cowboy boots, straw sandy hair, about my age. “You know we could’ve had an accident. Do you always force people off the road when you like a car?”
People are lined up to pay for stuff at the counter: sodas, aspirin, cigarettes. He answers with one of those bashful Gomer Pyle aw-shucks. “Sorry, M’am. I got carried away. I don’t see many of those on the road. I’ve been hunting around for a car like that, but not having much luck.”
“We could’ve had an accident,” I say.
“Sorry.” He shifts back and forth in his boots. “But do you mind if I have a look at her?”
“Actually yes, and it’s not my car.”
“Just a quick look?”
Why not? How could that hurt? “Go ahead,” I acquiesce. Knock yourself out.”
He bobs up and down and looks inside the Mustang, admires the leather, runs his hand along the hood, and whistles low and loud. The car was Kathy’s brother’s, but he’s stationed in the Middle East right now. He’s finished looking at the car, stroking its chrome. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“I guess you can tell by my accent.”
“No,” he smiles. It’s time to make a get-away and pick up a case of water. Through my rear view, I see him pull out of the parking lot He waves again and shouts out his window, “It’s the way you drive!”