By Mario Mastroeli
So I’m driving Corey to his elementary school when Sandra calls. Much as I’d like to talk to my son who I won’t see for seven hours, Sandra’s befriended this neighbor whose retro disco party ended in a shoving match.
“So this Scott Baio look-alike called his Kristy-McNichol girlfriend a four-on-the-floor ho bag, and—what?—your Greg-Evigan guy shoves Chachi? That is so, so raw, Sandie,” I say.
It’s an eleven-minute drive, and I pull into the school parking lot with free minutes to spare. I lean right for a kiss but catch a clout of tingly air from the passenger door’s opening and shutting. Corey trudges past my windshield through a misty drizzle, stomping oily rainbow puddles, and forgets to hold the door for two larger first-graders. It’s Halloween morning and luckily none of the ghosts or ghouls are out yet.
Sandra looks like Minnie Driver but has Kathleen Turner’s nose. She used to drive a school bus until the school board made her surrender her cell phone. You would think she’d sideswiped the superintendent’s Afghan hound, the send-off the board gave her. The homeowners “harmed” didn’t really want for Sandie to lose her job, not at first. Unfortunately, Sandie’s Girl-Scout-dainty voice packs the vocabulary and velocity of a long-haul trucker’s, riding a protruding hemorrhoid.
We were fine, really, until the superintendent touched Sandie’s arm: “News Flash, Mr. Superintendent: mailboxes do grow back.”
“You got a talent for spelling things out loud, Caroler,” Sandie says. Sandie likes to word-play on my name, though my driver’s license, recently reinstated, identifies me as Caroline Marrs.
The Vice Principal in front of me rotates her handheld Stop sign to Slow, and I’m motoring away from the curbside drop-off, sandwiched in between a Subaru and an SUV whose driver I flipped the bird to yesterday. The SUV driver’s spawn-in-pigtails kept jabbing her finger toward their windshield like I was blind to the VP’s Stop sign. Like I don’t do this every day, Prissy Butt! At least I had the courtesy to apologize to Sandie for interrupting her.
Today, the SUV witch at left throws me a stormy look. I’ve got divorce papers drying out in my trunk and a stomach staple a few porkers I’ll see again at Christmas deserve to wear. I ignore Prissy Butt’s mother. Just rise above it, Caroline. People can be so rude behind the wheel sometimes.
Prissy’s mom brakes. Only two lanes empty out to the main road this morning and I gladly hog her right-of-way. I don’t have a free hand to wave her another fuck-you-how-are-you, not without being rude to Sandie again, so I beam into my rear-view mirror and flash my hope-you-have-a-superific-day-on-the-corporate-chain-gang smile, and gun it.
Crisscross, applesauce. My right hand flips a right-turn signal at the intersection, but I burn some rubber going left, just to mess with my new worst friend in the SUV behind.
“Do you still have that pal of a pal who likes to paintball SUVs?” I ask Sandie, seeing Prissy Butt’s mother coast a slow right turn onto Lakeshore Drive.
But Sandie isn’t stopping for breath.
“Never mind—no, honestly. She shouldn’t apologize. I probably would’ve smacked Chachi, too.”
I take the corner at Patterson matching the speed and tight cornering of my hubby Doug’s new joyride, a compact model half my age and IQ, when my bumper, front right side, clips someone’s roll-out trash can. The brown container pirouettes, slinging a flannel shirt, yellow veggies, and a red ball cap. I glimpse a tattered old Halloween costume rolling away with the shiny brown plastic can. I need to trade in my vehicle for a phone booth look-alike with one of those smart bumpers like my mechanic Darnell says. Maybe a Volvo.
Sandie keeps talking and it’s impossible to hear myself think about how bad the bumper must look. Shinola. Doug’s gonna freak if the body work’s over three G’s like before.
I shrink into the seat from a weird feeling of being watched.
News Flash, to whoever stole my license plate on Monday: Thanks.
Sandra’s venting in my ear. “And so I screamed at him, ‘You think Megan Fox doesn’t fart? Why don’t you go sniff your mother’s sofa cushions? Better yet, transform into a man, you perv!’”
“That’s telling him, Sandie.”
My stomach is cruising on empty. But if I stop for breakfast I’ll have to disconnect with Doreen. What the frug did I hit back on Patterson? The lower third of my passenger window is smudged with something disgusting. Tobacco juice? Used motor oil? Some people will put anything inside their garbage receptacles.
Doreen has a theory. Doreen was a wrong number I punched in when I first started on my post-separation road to recovery. We’ve never met in person, but I sense this is important to her. “It isn’t the people who know they do evil,” this bird in my ear pontificates, “or those convinced they do right, who’ll destroy this planet. It’s those who can be convinced that what they’re doing is just and good.”
Doreen elaborates that it’s the well-intentioned—minions, she calls them; “Sheeple,” I add, to convince her I’m all ear—who comprise movements. “We’re that army, Doreen,” I say, and we laugh until she announces she’s pulling into the drop-in daycare parking lot. Her twins Stevie and Rory, I’m recalling from past calls, will take their morning Ritalin before being entrusted to a strip-mall worker. Doreen loves her Package “C” rate of $5 per hour—or 80 hours of kid care for $400. “It’s a real bargain,” she says.
“You’ve got to shop around,” I tell her. “You can’t be too cautious or picky when it comes to your kids.”
“Hooray. I’m off to my quiet time,” Doreen says, like she does every day.
Janice is sobbing so I tell her I’ll call her back. When your best friend sounds less than chummy it’s time to voice-dial one of your other best friends: “Sandie!”
Sandra grumbles that she’s still on the pooper. “Itchy owie,” she says. “It’s like a bedsore.”
Becca, our phone circle’s newest recruit, heavy breathes on her end and says, “My ‘star quarterback’ wasn’t such a team leader on the field last night. My bellybutton caught an interception.”
“Some redneck in a farm pickup just tossed a cigarette at my grill,” I say, and Becca replies, “Rude. Rude. Rude!”
We share our sins until my new best friend has to don her smock and go narrate and expedite a root canal.
Red light, hold tight. The motorcyclist at right raises his hands at me palms-out to make a point, two points actually, and I offer him a tip and another for the horse he rode up on. He’s a nervous-looking black guy with a mall-cop stare. I’m a looking-nervous blonde with a cylinder of eight-year-old mace swinging from her keychain. The last altercation I had with a dick-between-two-wheels involved the tough guy shouting: “It’s because of people like you that people like you die every day.” I’d read it as a threat.
Black Chopper Guy sweeps his hand over my passenger door. The look on his face says “Whatzis?!”
The light drops to green. “Nappy Halloween,” I say, hoping Black Chopper Guy can read lips. Motorcyclists, with all that puttering and posturing, deserve a good end-over-end for all the courtesy they show other drivers. And don’t even get me started on bicyclists, what Sandie and I call “unarmored geek squads.”
Hunching down, I race off and voice-dial Veronica, telling her “My body’s falling apart and I need a new one. But my soon-to-be-ex-hubby Doug won’t pay for the tit job.”
Veronica cackles, I cackle, and life feels a few degrees warmer.
I need to get cash and gas before work, but everything here along Bank Avenue is self-service. Between calls, my stomach gurgles and my mouth tastes that hungry-stinky breath you get. Thank Oprah the restaurant’s drive-through isn’t clogged like on Wednesday. A creep on a sidewalk bus bench is snapping photographs of the passenger side of my vehicle while I wait. He’s an old man wearing an old man’s hat. Pedestrians can be so weird if you don’t just ignore them.
Margo tells me how her Chihuahua just laid a turd down a floor heating vent. I don’t ask how her nose job turned out. I don’t really care for Margo, but she has a sweet voice. Like a harp. “I’ll call you back,” her voice strums.
The cashier, Mister No-Life, stares at me like he’s received carte blanche to machine-gun me and the entire parking lot from the roof of the building if I don’t tender exact change and pronto. I tell him “Give me a sec. I need to hear this.” He gazes at me like I’m a zombie.
When did this world start rolling off its assembly line vulgar young men and women? When did disrespect become so posh?
I burp a smell of pickled eggs and Barbara and I giggle as I pull away with my food. Dammit if my crotch doesn’t itch. Rug burn. I negotiate out of the Burger Queen parking lot, rolling by where three or four truckers sleep inside their missiles-on-wheels. A wide-eyed Korean woman in a cut-rate Hyundai almost collides with my driver’s side door. It’s that close. My phone displays “call was lost.” “Bitch,” I scream, and accidentally voice-dial Doug’s new girlfriend—I hang up before Miss Slut Librarian can pick up, a favorite time-filler of late. Whatever I hit back on Patterson is steering my attention more toward the road. I’m pressing religion to my ear, praying for a call, any call, when Sandie phones me back.
“Told ya I’d holla back, Caroler,” Sandie says.
I don’t understand a word of Korean and have no intention of taking a crash course just now. I hold up my cell phone, hoping she—Ms. Korean Lady—will get the message that I’m on the phone.
Imported drivers can be the rudest.
One to two inches of snow called for in the mountains, Sandie says. “Window-dressing,” I say. We’re in the foothills where the climate takes zero getting used to. Sandra groans that she misses driving her school bus. I tell her the disco party would’ve gone KY-smooth if I had been invited.
“Carolcakes, think I can sue the school district for the bedsore-like welts on my ass?” Sandie says.
“Think Joanie Cunningham,” I say. “I’ve got that look.”
Sandie voices, “She and Chachi married in the Happy Days series finale, do you remember?” and immediately adds, “That’d make me Jenny Piccolo, wouldn’t it?” whereupon I reply, “You don’t have enough spunk. Corey has a friend of a friend, though, who kind of resembles a young Potsie Weber,” and Sandie shrieks: “Waitaminute! Happy Days wasn’t disco, you slowpoke. It was set during the 1950s.
“Hey, did you catch on the radio?” Sandie says. “Some old black man on Patterson fell gut-ugly from a hit-and-run.”
My happy morning just hit a pothole. I was just there, I might have seen something. Only it’s hard to think and drive. “What color vehicle was it, did they say?”
“No one saw Mr. Murder-on-Wheels except for a neighbor. The neighbor reported spying a glint of blue and orange.”
“That would’ve been me going by,” I say. I’m worrying now that the garbage I strew might have started something terrible. “It must have only just happened. But I wasn’t looking at my rear-view mirror.”
“Who does anymore?”
“We can sleuth this out together,” I say. “Phone power!” We’ll build our army. We’re already a carpool via cell phone: where I go, my girls travel with me. “Line up Doreen, Barbara, and the rest of the troops. It’s pretty well-documented that the perpetrator always returns to the scene of the crime. I’m going back there now.” Glimpsing that I’ve crossed the double yellow line, I overcorrect right. Some Persnickety Butt in a hearse behind me honks his horn. He has his headlights on and the car in front of me has its lights burning. Can’t these people tell day from night? “We’ll do a stakeout along Patterson!”
I forget all about the cash and gas, and ignore the gross sausage oil that dots my slacks from the uneaten biscuit in my lap. It’s never safe to eat and drive. The morning drizzle has zero staying power, like my hubby Doug. I’ll probably have to work late again and be late in picking Corey up.
“You drive that route every day,” Sandie says. “Rummage your brain for every detail. I’ll link up with the others. We’ll speed over there and join you.”
I’ll make it to the funeral home by ten o’clock, I predict, with plenty of time to do Mrs. Burns’s makeup before she goes on display. Corey can reuse his pirate costume from last Halloween. I gun it toward Patterson. I’m going to monopolize the first cop I find.
“Boy, is he going to get an earful,” I tell Sandie, before panicking that my best friend has disconnected or switched to tweeting or text-messaging. I’ll take my bumper to a different mechanic this weekend so Darnell doesn’t spill the beans to Doug again.
“We’ll talk later,” Sandra says. “And tonight, ad nauseam. We’ve all got a dog in this fight, Doreen.”
“Hello? You’re talking to Caroline...Carol.” I forgot to call Janice back, and I’m feeling something-awful about that.
“How are our kids supposed to go trick-or-treating with a menace on the roads?” Sandie says, not stopping for breath.