This story is by Stuart Lacey and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Alice Alter drove while Herbert Merton slept, snoring in the fully reclined seat next to her. He was, for want of a better word, her ‘beau’ (and Alice had groped and fumbled for one, gentleman friend being true in neither case, boyfriend though half right and despite the fact that Alice felt that she’d gotten over herself to a great degree, was just too undignified, and ‘significant other’ had always appalled her). Their destination was the Great Smokey Mountains State Park in east Tennessee, but they were still in Mississippi just south of Memphis.
They’d gotten a later start than Alice planned, as usual, as always, for left behind at home were numerous cats and one old dog that need specific tending. Jane, the old beagle, was particularly hard to leave behind. But no matter how many times and how thoroughly Alice washed her, Herbert maintained that the old dog stank “worse than a skunk”. He only agreed to travel in Alice’s old Lumina if the source of the funk did not join them. Bad enough, according to Herbert, to put up with the carrying whiff that hung on everything Alice owned.
Since their start was so late, it was dark by the time they reached the thumpy concrete stretch of road that ran through the Arkabutla slough. Alice noticed that oddly, there was not a single car in the southbound lanes.
“That is so strange,” she began to say, just before she had to slam on the brakes. Just ahead of her the northbound lanes had become a parking lot. A solid double row of tail lights stretched out of sight. Alice brought the car to a seatbelt winching halt.
Herbert made a strangling sound and struggled to sit up, cursing the straps of his seat belt.
“What in the hell?” he said in a gravelly voice, once he got his nose above the dash board. “Goddam. How long’s this gonna take? Jeezus,” and he waved his hand in front of his face. He cracked a window. “I told you we shoulda taken my car. Be a miracle this stinking piece of crap doesn’t stall.”
Alice didn’t remind him of her objection to taking Herbert’s far newer and nicer car, even as Herbert proved her point by taking an unsuccessfully concealed pull off the vodka bottle he had in his sock. That was in addition to the beer filled cooler in the back seat. With a lurch, Herbert swung over and fished out a dripping can. Alice was gnawing over a number of unwise comments when there was a sharp rap on her window.
A man, and Alice gulped to be so struck, a good-looking man, was outside her window. He motioned her to roll it down.
“Y’all OK back here?” he said. His voice was deep, his accent soft. “Highway patrol’s just sent word. Some kinda big secret oversized something came off a truck that jack knifed, got traffic stopped comin’ and goin’ for miles on either side. Looks like it’s gonna be a while before anything’s movin’ again.”
He smiled down at Alice. She involuntarily gleamed back at him before she realized what she was doing and pulled it back a shade.
Herbert leaned across Alice, squashing her back into her seat.
“You’re a real pal,” he said running the window back up. “Who appointed that guy deputy dog? All we need, vigilante traffic wardens.”
“I think it was nice of him. How else would we have found out what’s going on?” said Alice.
“I recall you are in possession of one of these,” Herbert brandished his phone at her. “See can you find out something more useful than ‘gonna be a while’. I gotta take a whizz.”
Alice finished a fruitless search on her phone and twirled up the AM and FM dials no more successfully. She began to wonder what had become of Herbert. Perhaps he’d stepped on a water moccasin.
She was rummaging in her glove compartment for the old flashlight she kept there when the door swung open.
“Alice, meet Mouse. She’s in a band. See that van back there — the Clay Pigeons,” said Herbert.
He hauled the cooler off the back seat, and with surprising deftness, tugged a gallon bottle of vodka from beneath the passenger seat. The odor of marijuana wafted in as Alice took a look at Mouse. Mouse appeared to be perhaps 18. Her eyes were dilated to the point that Alice couldn’t tell what color they were.
“What’s up, Alice?” said Mouse offhandedly, more intent on helping Herbert drag the cooler free of the car. She shouted, “Avon! Lester! Git yer asses over here – this thing is HEAVY.”
Two more youngsters materialized from the VW van. Across the windshield a professionally produced sign boasted “Deep Fried Ride”, and beneath it, a smaller handmade sign read “Clay Pidgins”.
Huh, thought Alice, funny, atop her mounting consternation at Herbert’s apparent intention to abandon her.
“Where – What— Hmm,” said Alice as the door slammed. She opened her own door. “What’s the plan, Herbert?” she called.
“C’mon n’ hang with us, you want to,” Mouse called back.
The cooler, Herbert and the two dreadlocked youths, along with Mouse, disappeared around the side of the van. A moment later its engine started. The VW pitched down the right of way and spun its wheels briefly in the muddy low spot before launching up the opposite bank, and sped off down the empty highway.
“How about that,” said Alice, somewhat stunned she wasn’t more stunned. She sat staring as the dwindling tail lights continued their southern retreat.
Another knock at her window jolted her. She opened it.
“Did I just see your husband run off with that van load of kids?” The nice-looking man from earlier had returned.
“He’s not my husband,” said Alice. “I didn’t see him get in. Maybe he just fell in a hole.”
“He didn’t fall in a hole,” said the man.
“No, it wouldn’t be like Herbert to donate his party supplies,” agreed Alice.
“So, let me guess — you’ve got an old sick beagle at home you’ve fed every premium ‘vet approved diet’ on the market,” he said.
“How can you tell that?” said Alice, appreciating the change of subject but uncertain she liked the direction he now pursued.
“Smell’s unmistakable,” said the man.
OOF, thought Alice before she said with a wince, “Really.”
“Oh, now, — I’m sorry,” amended the man, seeing the look on Alice’s face. “A major peeve of mine, pet food industry’s such a racket I’m ashamed of my profession. We ought at least be introduced before I subject you to my raw meat rant. I’m Jim, Jim Marsh. So pleased to meet you.” And Jim offered his hand.
Alice shook it. “I’m Alice.”
“Where’re you headed, Alice?” said Jim.
“We were supposed to be going to the Smokies, to see the colors,” said Alice. “And you?”
“Coming back to Nashville from Biloxi, saw my wife’s family down on the coast,” said Jim.
“How’s your wife feel about your highway roaming,” said Alice, surprised at how her heart sank.
“I’m a widower, but I’m still close to her parents, especially since mine passed,” said Jim.
“How long’s it been? My own husband died about five years ago,” said Alice. She felt strangely breathless.
“Almost as long,” he answered. “Kids?”
“No,” she said.
“Same here,” said Jim.
Simultaneously each of them saw the identical wistful look on the other’s face. They laughed.
As stunned as Alice wasn’t with Herbert’s abrupt departure, that was how astonished she was to find herself talking with Jim like she hadn’t talked to anyone since she was widowed. They sat and talked a while in her car, and when it began to overheat, the two of them moved over to Jim’s. They scarcely noticed that it took half the night for the road to clear.
Alice followed Jim into Memphis, and later the next day they drove in tandem to Nashville. Alice kept her reservation at the hotel in the Smokies, and Jim met her at the trail head where she’d told him she planned to hike. The fire of the fall foliage was no match for the one kindling between Alice and Jim.
That being the case, they agreed another trip was necessary. The following month found them travelling together to see the seasonal spectacular, with Jane happily along, completely recovered on the diet Jim recommended. As they walked the glowing mountain trails, Alice and Jim were in total accord that there existed no better mirror of their autumn glory.