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The weather will be mostly cloudy today with scattered thundershowers in the afternoon. Drivers, proceed with caution. Pay attention, now! I know what I'm talking about.
— Joseph "Rainman" Jones, WTUP-FM Radio
I'mdriving along in a fog, which is my life in a nutshell.
A year ago when I divorced Stanley, I expected heroes to line up outside my door to worship at the shrine of my pot roast and my crotchless panties. What I got was one hot hunk who loved shrines but hated commitment and one geriatric who drooled his soup and peed on the toilet seat.
After I finally fled a marriage I couldn't fix, I saw my future self as happily re-wed, gainfully employed and skinny. I'm none of the above. What I am is forty-one and lost — in more ways than one — and even if I had a map, I couldn't see the road. Fog shrouds everything, including my Jeep, as I inch down what I hope is Highway 371 to rescue Mama.
That's me. Maggie Dufrane. Rescuer of stray cats, wounded dogs, latchkey kids, lonely old farts, sick neighbors and a seventy-five-year-old mama.
There ought to be a law against emergency phone calls at five o'clock in the morning, especially from my sister, Jean, who equates hangnails and bad haircuts with floods and tornadoes andwho feels compelled to ask my opinion about all of them.
Her alarmist viewpoint explains why I didn't bolt out of bed this morning when she wailed, "Maggie, you've got to come."
"Jean, do you know what time it is? This had better be good."
"It's Mama. She fell and banged her head. She called me a little while ago, crying."
Her words jolted me awake. Granted, Mama is feisty and dramatic. Once an actress, she's partial to histrionics that involve wild gestures, contorted features and a raised voice. But tears? Never!
I leaped from the covers, got tangled in the phone cord and fell in a heap with yesterday's sweatpants.
"What are we going to do, Maggie?" Jean blubbered.
Although she's two years older than I, she has been asking me that question all my life. She asked it thirty years ago when our Persian cat got stuck in a tree and wouldn't come down. She asked it when she leaned too close to the candles at her wedding rehearsal and her hair caught fire. She asked it when Daddy's pickup truck fell through the bridge and he floated to Glory Land on the Tombigbee River.
"Just hang on, Jean," I told her, as I have a thousand times. "I'll think of something."
And I will the minute I assess the situation. I always do.
Right now, though, I'm concentrating on driving. Today is Saturday, April fifteenth, my birthday. I hadn't planned to be a one-man cavalry. What I'd meant to do was ease out of bed around nine o'clock, indulge in a long bubble bath, then pamper myself with a leisurely breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice and croissants with strawberry jam, alfresco. That means "on the fire escape" because my downtown Tupelo apartment building was once a department store whose owners had no need for balconies — and the current management considers adding them frivolous.
What I'm doing, instead, is charging forth in my ex-husband's once-white dress shirt, gray sweatpants cast off from yesterday's workout at Curves and redsequined flip-flops, the only evidence of my plans for decadence and celebration.
As the clock inches toward six, the scattered patches of fog begin to lift and I can see the lake that borders Mama's north pasture. What if she's badly hurt? What will I do?
Though I pretend otherwise, I don't have all the answers. If I did, I'd have a house, a mortgage and a sex life. I'm not even close to having any of those things, which explains why I can be thrilled by the thought of a birthday celebration on a fire escape.
Alone, on the fire escape.
Now I've cracked open the door, and Depression pokes his giant foot through. The next thing I know he'll have his big hairy self sitting on the front seat, and then who will rescue Mama? Who will play taxicab driver for Jean, who backed Daddy's car over a hydrangea bush when she was fifteen and never saw the need to master reverse? Or forward, either, for that matter, especially after Mama said, "Let Maggie try it. She's efficient."
I switch away from the patter of Tupelo's most popular DJ, Joseph "Rainman" Jones, to a station that plays music, hoping to boost my spirits by warbling along to "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" with Willie Nelson. That's me, Miss Efficient and Cheerful.
Reliable, too, the one you want to call when something goes wrong.
I peer into the lingering mists for any lurking hydrangea bushes or stray cattle that might waylay me. I'm in rural Mississippi now, the farm country of my childhood where haylofts know how to become castles and tree branches know how to become race-horses worthy of the Kentucky Derby.
Jean is waiting for me on Mama's front porch, her pink slacks inside out and her matching pink tennis shoes dew-soaked from the grassy pasture that separates her house from Mama's. Her blond hair sticks up like the feathers of baby birds as she rushes toward me.
"Mama's got the dead bolts on. I can't get in."
"Where is she? Can you see her?"
"No, but I can hear her moaning."
I rattle the front door and yell, "Mama! Mama, can you hear me?"
"Ohhh. Ohhhh." Mama is either gasping her last breath or auditioning to be a ghost for Halloween. With her, it's hard to tell. Once, when she was recovering from the flu, she telephoned at 6:00 a.m. to say I had to hurry right over, it was an emergency. On the drive I imagined finding her relapsed and half-dead. She was dying, all right, she said, from starvation, but didn't feel like frying the bacon herself.
Now panicked, Jean races around the house to scope the south side while I jerk screens off the front porch windows and shove against casements to see if one of them can be opened without breaking the glass.
"Maggie, around here. Quick."
"What?" To save time I jump off the side of the porch, but the dew-slick grass outsmarts me and I meet the damp ground with a thud. Jean grabs my arm and hauls me up.
"Hurry. You've got to climb through that window." She points to a south-facing window with a narrow slit at the bottom where it's not quite connected to the sill.
"You're shorter, Jean. I'll hoist you up."
"If you think I can get my forty-five-inch butt through that thirty-six-inch opening, you're crazy."
I'm not about to admit the size of my hips, so I step into Jean's cupped hands, grab hold of the window-sill and then nothing.
"You can do it, Maggie. Come on. Heave-ho!"
"I'm heaving, I'm heaving."
Inside, Mama's still moaning. And now, so is Jefferson, the ten-year-old golden retriever who is her companion, her watchdog and her best friend. If this were the movies, he'd be trained to open the door with his mouth and swab her forehead with a wet washcloth clutched in his paw.
Who am I kidding? If this were the movies, I'd rewrite the ending. Heck, I'd rewrite the middle, too. Instead of teetering on the windowsill over a thorny lantana with rescue on my mind, I'd be on a yacht in the Mediterranean with my rich husband, the Duke of Somewhere Important, with something else entirely on my mind. Food, if you want to know the truth, which just goes to show the alarming shifts that come with a certain age. What I'm thinking about is having a personal chef who hand-feeds me squab and pears glazed with honey.
"She's dying in there." Jean destroys my honey-glazed vision. "You've got to climb in and get her."
"Where's Walter when we need him?" Jean's husband, who works for an international environmental company, puts together deals to convert garbage to usable goods. His sumo-wrestler looks and teddy-bear personality make him hugely popular and successful.
"He had to fly to Japan yesterday. Hurry, Maggie." Jean puts her weight behind me and I catapult sideways into the lantana.
"Oh, lord, you're going to end up in the hospital with Mama."
"I am not. If you'll just stop wringing your hands and give me another boost, I'm going through that window."
Jean starts praying, and this time I get through, thanks to guts and grace.
Mama is stretched out on the floor with Jefferson lying beside her, his big head pillowed on her chest. They both raise their heads at the same time.
"What took you so long?" Mama says. The skin on her forehead is peeled back to the bone and blood is caked around the gaping wound. My knees feel wobbly and my stomach churns. The only thing that saves me is Mama.
Excerpted from Driving Me Crazy by Peggy Webb Copyright © 2006 by Peggy Webb. Excerpted by permission.
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