St. Christopher on Pluto
The moment I steer Big Blue from Anthracite Expressway onto a dirt road, I regret following Colleen to the mechanic. She asked me for a ride so she can leave her Honda. The &;81 silver hatchback, dented like an old beer can, belches smoke and needs a head gasket. Colleen said the repairs cost more than blue book value. But what choice does she have? She can&;t get a loan for a new car due to a bad credit rating, the result of a marriage that ended way back. Why she keeps full insurance on the wreck is beyond me.
Her Honda slows, and I read her newest bumper sticker: The Suburbs&;Where They Chop Down Trees and Name Streets After Them. Doesn&;t Colleen realize farmers cut the trees a hundred years ago? Housing developments ravage corn fields, not forests. I&;ll have to mention that when she gets in Big Blue.
She sticks her hand out of her open window and gives a thumbs-up. Why? I wonder, trying to fathom our route. We&;re on a service access built by the railroad to transport crops that once grew along the Mighty Susquehanna. Nobody drives these unpaved tracks other than hunters. It&;s October, too early for deer season, so tires haven&;t deepened the ruts, but a rock jabs Big Blue. The shocks protest. Big Blue doesn&;t like rough conditions. Me neither. If the surface gets worse, I&;ll pull over and tell Colleen she needs to get a ride from a four-wheel drive. How can a mechanic operate a business this far from Wilkes-Barre?
We descend a switchback flanked by pin oak, their limbs gnarled and gray, warning of the river below. Deceivingly shallow, the water rarely rises, but when it floods, there&;s no stopping it. That&;s why industry hasn&;t built here. Homeowners won&;t take the risk either. Yet as Big Blue rounds a curve, I witness how civilization stakes its claim: tires, box springs, refrigerators, lots of cans and bottles heaped like ancient prayer mounds. Next thing, Colleen will lobby for trash removal. She&;s an activist for any cause that&;s happening, especially those with bragging rights. I couldn&;t shut her up after she organized the First Annual Mall Parking Lot Cleanup Day. &;See what one woman can accomplish. Me. Impressive, huh? Can&;t sit around doing nothing.&;
Her Honda stalls. Colleen waves, fingers waggling to communicate since our cell phones don&;t get coverage out here.
I blast my horn, &;What?&;
Her door opens, and Colleen heaves upright. She wears all black: tunic sweater, maxi skirt, and square toe flats with buckles like Pilgrim shoes. &;Black is slimming,&; she has assured me.
We&;re both sensitive about our weight, and during our breaks, we get low-fat items at the food court. That&;s where we reconnected. While standing in line at the Java Bean, we each called out the same order: &;Small coffee with Splenda.&; While waiting for my order, I turned to see a big, red-haired woman, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with fluorescent green&;SAVE PLUTO&;and below the words, not an image of the cartoon character or the underworld&;s mythic god, but a picture of the little planet. Pluto had been in the news ever since astronomers ousted it from the solar system, saying it was too small to be officially recognized. The demotion sparked protests around the globe. Who in their right mind rallies for a dwarf planet?
&;ME! Don&;t you recognize me?&; called the large woman.
My memory clicked: &;Colleen,&; I said. We had attended Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary School, but back then, she was lean, her hair pinned above her collar as required by the nuns. How different it looked, fanning out in a peculiar red, obviously bottle enhanced.
Colleen grinned and yammered like we still sat in the same row. No matter that we lost touch when we went off to different high schools&;Colleen to Vo Tech and me to St. Rose Prep. Life had put us into different orbits for decades. Then our jobs landed us at the mall. &;I work at the Hallmark store,&; announced Colleen.
&;I&;m at Waldenbooks,&; I added. That was before they got bought out by Borders.
She raised her eyebrows, tweezed with the curve of question marks, &;What would Thoreau say if he saw that name in neon at a Pennsylvania mall?&;
Her humor was a relief from my semiretired coworkers. Most brought bag lunches and thermoses supposedly filled with coffee. I pretended not to smell the difference. Nobody fell down drunk. They just sipped and smiled at customers who came in to buy self-help books.
Colleen steps away from her Honda and thrusts out her chest like a bow on a ship. Wind fills her skirt and she sails toward Big Blue. She pokes her head in my open window. &;The engine&;s overheating. I&;ve got to let it rest.&;
&;Where are we?&; I keep my voice level, so she can&;t tease me about my anxiety. &;How did you find this place?&;
She rounds her mouth. Her lipstick is the same mud color as the road. She leans in closer, and I sniff cucumber melon lotion. Her tone becomes confidential, &;I&;ve finished the next part of the novel.&;
Colleen claims I&;m her favorite editor. How she determines this is a mystery, for none of her book has made it onto the page. She writes in her head. Ten months ago, she took a one-night writing class at Boscov&;s department store, and ever since, she bubbles over with what she calls &;The Novel of the Century.&; She thinks my job at the bookstore will give her a connection to get it published, yet I&;ve reminded her, &;I work in the music section, selling the stuff people listen to on public radio.&;
She purses her lips, expecting me to ask about her material, but we don&;t have the right atmosphere. Typically, we go to the Riverbed Tavern for the Thursday special: two Yuengling drafts for the price of one, and until we counted calories, cheese filled potato skins. Colleen gabs about characters scraping by at a mall, not so different from us. The women, well-meaning and still sexy at midlife, try their best to help others, and along the way, they find love, too. I can&;t let Colleen start blathering out here. &;This place is creepy.&;
&;I figured you&;d say that, Mary Katherine.&;
I press my upper teeth to my lowers. Colleen knows I haven&;t used that name since I was a kid. What&;s she up to?
&;I mean MK,&; she corrects, kind of smarmy.
Maybe she&;s got a thing for the mechanic? Why else act so weird? A new man in her life might be good, yet I can&;t help thinking something is wrong. I hope this guy isn&;t a loser or that Colleen has made a deal she&;ll regret. Sun filters through the rear window, lowering on the back of my neck, a reminder of limited daylight. &;Let&;s go. Your engine should be cooled.&;
&;Got any food?&;
&;What about our diet?&;
Her nostrils quiver. &;I have to eat. For my low blood sugar. I can&;t help it if I inherited large genes.&;
Here she goes again.
&;My family&;s Irish. Everyone&;s large.&;
Colleen&;s declaration undoubtedly covers up Polish or German heritage from immigrants who settled long before the Irish, but her red hair, what she considers alluring, forges her link to the Emerald Isle. &;How could your relatives get big with a history of potato famine?&; I ask.
She shakes her red mane, just like she always does when I call her on a whopper. &;Celtic warriors,&; she rails and stomps off to her car. The Honda starts so suddenly, it lurches ahead, funneling dust.
I roll up my window. Big Blue wheezes, reminiscent of my grandmother who willed me this Buick. I can practically hear her warn how I&;ll need a tow truck if I&;m not careful. Most vehicles past the age of forty head for demolition derby, but Big Blue, pampered like a virgin queen, took few excursions beyond my grandmother&;s five-mile loop: Weis Markets, Golden Touch Beauty Shop, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church.
A pothole nips at Big Blue&;s rear tire, and we shake like we&;re on a roller coaster, causing the St. Christopher statue on the dash to list to one side. Originally put there by my grandmother, I press the figure&;s plastic base onto blue vinyl, making a mental note to glue it later.
The four-inch glow-in-the-dark statue, not much bigger than a clothespin, depicts a bearded man wearing a toga. He clutches a staff, and on his shoulder, sits the child Jesus. But the story goes that St. Christopher didn&;t know who the child was, heavy with the weight of the world, as he carried the boy across the swollen river. Not until they reached the opposite bank did he learn the child&;s identity and how Jesus was with him all the time. That&;s why St. Christopher gets championed for safeguarding drivers. Good thing, for this road has narrowed to one lane, and no one can pass. Perhaps I should try a three-point turn and head back to town, but I fear careening over the side. The shoulder has crumbly soil&;ideal cave-in conditions for Big Blue to drop with a deadly plunge.
Colleen speeds up, and smoke mushrooms from her tailpipe. Despite my closed windows, I cough from the exhaust and debate whether it&;s worse to inhale the noxious air through nose or mouth. We gravitate closer to the river. Sumac bushes scrape the hub caps. Could the mechanic operate a meth lab too? The Riverside Gazette has stories about drug dens: the further off the beaten track, the better. I should have asked Colleen for more details, but I&;m doing a good deed, and I thought it wouldn&;t be far.
Boulders, the height of kegs, create a horseshoe formation to block the road. Can&;t Colleen see the rocks ahead are a barrier? She weaves past them and disappears, emitting so much smoke the Environmental Protection Agency will marshal forces.
I press the brake, shift into park, and venture out. The exhaust mixes with the rotting leaves underfoot, making me gag. I consider the risks of trekking in after Colleen. There&;s no roar of her Honda, no seizing engine, just a bunch of angry jays.
Big Blue idles. The Buick Regal looks as stately as the first time I saw it, the summer of Granddad&;s funeral.
Sadness and uncertainty weighed on my brain, for I also heard my mother on the phone, scheduling her own doctor&;s appointment with a specialist at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville. When I asked her why, she got a pinched look on her face and stared across the kitchen. Then she straightened her shoulders and said what we needed was a day at Knoebels Amusement Park. We&;d bring my grandmother, too.
Eager for the flume ride, I trotted to the porch swing. When the phone rang, I didn&;t rush to answer, figuring it was Aunt Rosemary. My hunch was confirmed as my mother&;s voice carried outside. Yet again, she and Aunt Rosemary worried about my grandmother: Pop drove her everywhere. How will she get by?
I turned up the volume of my boom box. &;Let It Be&; filled the sticky air. Then, a big daddy car screamed into the driveway. The front end had a cross-hatched patterned grill and glistened as sunlight blazed over side-by-side round headlights. On the hood stood an ornament like a mini Academy Award. The driver&;s door opened, and out stepped my grandmother. I didn&;t even know she had a license, but there she stood, wearing a blue pants suit, the same color as the car, like she planned it.
I leapt from the stairs, waving my hands until she grabbed them for our promenade around the sky bright majesty. She whispered, &;Remember, Mary Katherine, when I&;m gone, Big Blue is yours.&; The car was named, and even better, promised to me.
How we grinned, but not my mother and Aunt Rosemary. They carried on like she got a new husband. She rushed into this. It&;s too soon. What was she thinking, paying that price for a used car?
But the deed was done, and I loved everything about Big Blue: shiny chrome trim, blue velour upholstery, radio with cassette player, and despite coming from the preowned lot, the smell of new.