Highway driving used to be like playing Pac-Man. I’d catch up to a car and gobble it up, or at least put it in my rear view. When did I get so timid? Fearful, even?
Bill had already packed the car. We left at St. Louis at 8:15, only fifteen minutes late. For once, we would beat rush hour in Louisville.
The day was gray and drizzly. Bill was at the wheel, negotiating the maze of highways leading to, and then away from, the Poplar Street Bridge over the Mississippi River. We had crossed from Missouri to Illinois.
As it turned out, I only drove three hundred miles out of the fifteen-hundred-mile round trip to Charlottesville, Virginia. Bill knew I wasn’t confident driving in cities, over mountains, through construction, and in bad weather. Every time he refused my offer to drive, I felt guilty and relieved at the same time.
The colors along the highway were stunning. Foliage of yellow, orange and red popped against rain-darkened trunks and branches. I tried to imprint the beauty onto my brain, as I knew how transient beauty was. Or, I could just take photos on the phone.
“Want to listen to a tape?” (I still said “tape” even though it was Audible.) “Sure,” he said.
I turned on the radio – I mean the Media Device – and got tango music. It had captured Bill’s phone. After poking some more at the screen, I got The Thursday Murder Club, a novel by Richard Osman, to come over the speakers. Osman is a British TV personality and quiz-show presenter.
The members of the Thursday Murder Club live at Coopers Chase, billed as “Britain’s first luxury retirement village.” Elizabeth, retired from MI 5, is uber-competent. Rules and regs are optional. Ibrahim, a psychiatrist, is brain-smart but cautious. Ron had been a labor activist and loves to mix it up. Joyce, the newest member and a retired nurse, keeps a diary.
These people are our age. Like us, their decades of memories, secrets, and regrets pop up and tumble over each other at random, like balls in a lottery-drawing bin. Like us, in their minds, they haven’t given up on striving to be better people: smarter, kinder, more useful. And like us, they love a good mystery.
First, a caveat. I might have missed a story point here or there. I am listening to the story while riding in the car. Urgent interruptions were inevitable. (“That guy came up on us fast!” “Cop car!” “Left lane ends – merge!”) To quote Joyce’s diary: “I won’t always remember everything exactly.” Yeah.
The Club investigates unsolved cases from files that belong to Elizabeth’s friend Penny, a rare woman on the police force way back when. Penny lies in a vegetative state at the nursing home section of Coopers Chase. Soon, however, fresh corpses closer to home, including the owner of Coopers Chase, pique the club’s interest.
Speaking of death, it’s weird that the closer we are to dying – statistically, at least – the more cautious we become. Shouldn’t we be more worried when we are young and have more years to lose?
So, about my driving. It’s partly Bill’s fault. He’s the ultimate defensive driver. About five years ago, I realized that I had adsorbed decades’ worth of his verbal admonishments to all those bad, dangerous drivers out there. No wonder I am fearful.
I am also ultra-careful because of my height, or lack thereof. For my feet to reach the pedals, my knees bump up against the bottom of the dashboard. One rear-ender and I have broken kneecaps. Perhaps I needn’t worry, as the airbag, which is inches from my face, will kill me first.
Somewhere in Indiana, I asked Bill if he identified with a particular Murder Club member. I have him pegged for Ibrahim, the stickler, the guy who gets to sleep by ticking off the countries of the world in alphabetical order. Bill shrugged.
I think I am like Joyce. Joyce thinks of herself as practical … but logistics get in her way. Like, what is the proper way to treat Tupperware after you’ve used it to scoop cremains?
By coincidence, we talked about cremains with my son and daughter-in-law in Charlottesville. Our cremains. Bill insisted they toss his ashes into the lake on the 5th hole of our golf club, where he has dunked so many golf balls. I added he should have a plaque that read: Play Through.
If possible, I’d like my ashes to have a permanent home. It feels historically responsible, in case someone in the future wants to find me. I’ve always been curious about the whereabouts of my Chinese ancestors.
The story’s plot twisted and turned, as did the mighty rivers we crossed. The Kaskaskia, the Wabash, the Ohio, the Kentucky. Their majesty and beauty stir my soul.
We’d take a break sometimes, listening to Bill’s tangoes. One of them was Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Cohen’s deep, subterranean voice and the dramatic tango rhythm evoked boundless sensuality. The words didn’t even make sense. Inexplicably, I felt an urge to write poetry.
Over time, I noticed how the club members generously accepted each other’s habits, idiosyncrasies, and sensitivities. More than that, they appreciated each other’s strengths. “Elizabeth will know,” one would say. Or, “I’ll ask Ibrahim.” Or, “This is a job for Ron.” Each is better for being in the group.
I think some of their traits were rubbing off on us!
We were driving to meet my son and his family at a farm on the outskirts of Charlottesville. The roads were narrow and winding, the turnoffs poorly marked. The line of impatient cars snaked behind us.
Bill overshot our turnoff. About 200 yards further on, he snapped a quick right turn onto a dirt road bordered by dense shrubbery. “No!” I protested. I figured Bill hadn’t seen the sign that said, “Exit only.” What if someone came at us? We’d have to back up all the way to the highway. WE WERE DRIVING THE WRONG WAY, FOR CHRISSAKE!
Bill stayed calm but kept on. After a bit, we arrived intact at our destination. “I knew what I was doing,” was all he said.
I was shocked, not just by potential physical harm, but that it was so uncharacteristic of Bill. Then I thought, this was just what rule-bending, problem-solving Elizabeth would have done. Bravo!
For myself, I am going to accept that I don’t have to go 50-50 on driving duties. I am all the more grateful that Bill figured this before I even knew.
Tell me: Any interesting road trips?