Monday, December 29, 2008

Highway 95

One of the better remembered of Mother's short stories is Highway 95. It just so happens that there is a real Highway 95 that runs through the hometown of her youth. She told me once that she was not thinking of it when she named the story, and since she didn't learn to drive until late in life and did not pay attention to such things until then, it probably was a subconscious thing on her part.

Mr. Carlson chewed savagely on his battered cigar, and fumed at the driver of the gray coupe ahead of him. The car had been creeping along in front of him for at least ten miles. He could not see the driver from his high position behind the wheel of the huge van, and he wondered if it wasn't a woman. Mr. Carlson hated female drivers. During twelve years of driving for Davis & Ross, he had been involved in only three traffic accidents, and every one of them had been the fault of some addle-brained woman.

Nice dairy farm there. Looked like fifty cows around the trough. Maybe he'd retire in a few more years, and he and Lucy could buy a farm. Lucy probably wouldn't like a farm though. Too far from her women friends.

The car ahead slowed to a creeping 30 m.p.h., and Mr. Carlson's eyebrows met in a straight dark line. Why in Jupiter hadn't the guy stayed home if he hadn't intended to go anywhere? Mr. Carlson wanted to get back to Edinborough within the hour. Anne would be home at four. He relaxed temporarily as he thought of his beloved daughter. The boys were good kids, and he loved them, too, but Anne had always been something special to him. Her tousled dark head bobbed up in the middle of all his most cherished memories. He remembered so well her first day at school, a little gray-eyed pixie, so full of life and confidence, so quick to make friends. When at sixteen she had been elected as the most popular girl in school and crowned queen of Edinborough High, her father's pride had known no bounds.

The gray couple gradually picked up speed, and Mr. Carlson followed suit. Why couldn't he find an open stretch of highway, and get ahead of that fool? If only the traffic would thin out a little, he could whip around him, and make good time the rest of the way. Now he was slowing down again. Mr. Carlson cursed softly. If he could only make that idiot hear him, he'd tell him a thing or two. He glanced again at his watch, and eased the big van up until it almost rubbed the back end of the coupe. Couldn't the guy take a hint and move on? He slammed his foot on the brake. Evidently he couldn't. Okay, okay! If that's what he wanted, they'd crawl into town at twelve o'clock. What else was there to do?

Anne coming down the stairway the night of her first big date, a vision in misty blue. With clear gray eyes, wide with suppressed excitement, and dark curls inky against white shoulders, she had come down the stairs slowly, shyly aware of the picture she made. Mr. Carlson had realized then for the first time how quickly his little girl was growing up. The thought had brought an empty sinking feeling to his heart. Sensing something amiss, Anne had come to his chair and, perched on the arm as always, teased him into a good humor, promising to be home before twelve.

He remembered how it had sometimes bothered him to have her anticipate his wishes that way and obey them without being asked. Anne had always understood her father better than anyone, even Lucy. He supposed that explained the comradeship between them. He smiled to himself, remembering how the tiny dark-haired girl had listened gravely to his plans and dreams. He talked to her of things he never mentioned to his wife. Lucy was too practical to dream.

Mr. Carlson edged to the left of the coupe, and his palm moved toward the horn, but another line of heavy traffic topped the rise ahead. He dropped back resignedly. It was three-fifteen, and Edinborough lay many miles away.

Why hadn't he taken the day off, anyway? Old man Davis would have been glad to let him off if he'd asked.

"Meet me at the gate, Dad," Anne had written. Three years was a long time to be separated from someone who meant so much. Too long for Mr. Carlson. Didn't see why she had to pick a college so far away, anyhow. Plenty of good schools right here in the state, and she didn't need to go to summer school either. Just twenty, with her whole life to get an education, but Anne had never taken things slowly.

Mr. Carlson raged silently at the slow moving gray coupe. What was the guy doing anyway? Inspecting the whole countryside? No good reason for anyone to crawl like that. He glanced at his watch. Three forty-five! And home still fifteen miles away. Mr. Carlson's mouth tightened in exasperation as he thought of Anne's being disappointed to find him gone. He could almost see her slipping gracefully from the car, and running to meet him. Three long years! Would she still look the same?

The needle of the speedometer hovered between 40 and 45. Mr. Parker looked up as the big van rumbled past his service station, and waved a friendly greeting, but Mr. Carlson did not see. He was watching tensely for a chance to make one more effort to get ahead of that infernal car.

The highway rose and curved gently to the left just ahead, dipping abruptly on the other side of the hill. Mr. Carlson ignored the warning yellow stripes, and cut swiftly to the left. He was too pressed for time to drive carefully now. The cab of the van drew even with the gray car. A loaded milk truck whipped around the curve a scant hundred and fifty feet ahead. As he wrenched the van to the right, Mr. Carlson caught one glimpse of the driver's horrified expression. The gray coupe scraped a screaming path along the side of the van a bare second before the milk truck rammed its way, with grinding impact, into the other side, hurling the three vehicles off the highway, and piling them into a twisted heap at the bottom of the slope.

Mr. Carlson climbed groggily from the cab, and leaned against the upturned milk truck. The coupe was lying on its side, almost flattened by the heavy tail of the van lying across it. He rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes, trying to dispel the red haze blurring his vision. His sleeve came away warm and sticky.

He pulled at the door of the milk truck, and turned away. Maybe the driver of the car hadn't been hurt. He stumbled around to the coupe, but as he caught sight of the driver he swayed dizzily, and caught at the upended car for support. Her slender body was caught half under the coupe, and he could see that any help would come too late for her. Her wide-spaced gray eyes were beginning to dull, as Mr. Carlson dropped to his knees beside her and smoothed the tumbled dark curls from her face.

I believe it was after this story was published that Mother was called in by one of her teachers for a consultation. The teacher was worried at the dark theme and wanted to make sure she was okay.

I now drive Highway 95 every day on my commute. In the days that Mother wrote this story, it was a two lane highway with no shoulder and it remained that way until the last few years. Many a wreck occurred on that road because of the long stretches where passing was not possible. Even with the widening of the road to include two roomy shoulders and the cooperation of those of us who travel it regularly to move over and allow the impatient ones to go ahead, there are still deadly wrecks on a regular basis. Most recently was just a week or so ago when a car went out of control and two young men were killed.

I first read this story many years before I learned to drive. I think it is one reason why I am always overly cautious about passing other cars. Better late than dead.

Highway 95 appeared in the Fall 1950 issue of the Baylorian. Mother was Associate Editor at the time, a lowly sophomore who had already made her mark on the English department.


1 comment:

  1. This is the story I was waiting for. I read it many years ago and never forgot it. I am amazed anew with her talent.