Keeping with the previous two posts, I thought I’d offer you a month of reading opportunities! This week I’m sharing a short story from Foe Be Us, a publication comprised of stories based on phobias released last year.
“Clancy,” my mother chuckled, “I went to school with a Clancy. He was my sister’s age, a grade ahead of me.”
We knew all about Clancy. This was a familiar vocal exercise for my mother. She detested driving on the interstate and distracted herself with monologue. She used the exit names as a guide on her miserable trek. Clancy Boulevard was only a few miles from our house. By the time we got to our turn off at Ulysses Avenue she would be babbling like a steep mountain brook.
“He was a very nice black boy,” she continued. Nerves rushed her words as she began recounting his math skills, basketball prowess, and eventually how she wondered whatever happened to him. The return trip she would ponder his current location and status and by the end she always hoped he did well for himself.
I gazed out the window at the passing traffic. Passing us. She drove fine in town and country, but not only did my mother hate to drive on busy roads, she had a treacherous fear of the exits. She stayed consistently in the left lane, furthest from any potential merge. At a steady seven miles an hour under the speed limit, she succeeded in pissing off every other driver. They honked and shouted and made unkind gestures. She sat stock straight, knuckles nearly blue from exertion. Loosening her grip on the wheel to use the turn signal, or god forbid, the wipers, was akin to letting go of a child over the edge of a cliff.
A weekly commute, we journeyed nineteen miles to a town called Thomasville, home of the Trojans. Did you know that the Trojan War began with the marriage of Peleus and Thetis? We learned it twice a week. We had to travel this route for my dad’s medical supplies. He’d do it himself, if his schedule allowed. Weekly my sister and I wished the store delivered.
We have asked her why she drives this way. Didn’t she realize she was more likely to cause a collision? What did she think was going to happen if she, you know, went the speed limit? She couldn’t answer when driving. She was incapable of discussion other than her road repetition.
Once at dinner, I asked her why she was afraid. She’d never been in an accident, never known anyone killed in a car crash. “What,” I begged, “is it about the highway that freaks you out?”
My mother settled into her chair, sighed, and over the comfort of mashed potatoes and meatloaf, she confided that her greatest phobia was Exit Monsters. My father gave a snort and shoved a forkful into his mouth. “I know,” she said, “Sounds crazy. But what can I say? If I could explain it, I could fix it.”
“I don’t get it,” said my sister, younger than me but ten times more obstinate.
“I don’t get it either,” mom offered. “I have this incredible fear of being sucked up the wrong ramp. That the Exit Monsters will lull me into the turn lane; force me up an incline, through an exit and…and I don’t know what else. I just know that’s enough to freak me out.”
She used my word to describe her condition and I appreciated that. It’s a word I used a lot at fifteen, and understood, even if my sister didn’t.
“But,” my sister continued, “if you take the wrong exit can’t you just turn around and get back on?” She ripped her bread and dipped the pieces into her gravy.
Again, my mom said, “I know. I’m crazy.”
Dad laughed out loud this time and I interjected with “No, mom. You’re not crazy.” I shot a look to my dad and asked him how the quarterback was doing; I’d heard he’d broken his arm.
Dad sat upright and told me to shut my mouth! If anything happened to that QB, the season would be doomed. I shelved an emerging smile. I knew it wasn’t the same, but I believed he’d just made my point.
When I started driving lessons, I promised my mom that soon I would be able to make the commute for dad’s equipment. She paled at the realization, smiling weakly.
I thought it was a good idea. With me in the driver’s seat, I’d be able to control our destination. And our speed. And if I should accidentally get caught up in the wrong lane and be directed to the off-ramp at Percy Road instead of Ulysses, well, I’d be able to control our turning around and correcting the path, too. I considered studying the maps as part of my driver education. I didn’t tell anyone of my plan to help my mom confront her fear; I didn’t think it was a big deal.
The day I drove to Thomasville for the first time, I followed my mother’s protocol and told the exit tales in an effort to comfort her. It didn’t work. I maintained the speed limit, in the center lane, and planned to ease to the right in time for the Percy exit. There was a toll there, followed by a mall. I had been a few times with friends and their families. My plan was to swing through the parking lot, maybe grab a coffee in a drive-thru, bribe my mother with steaming, liquid distraction, then circle back to the on-ramp and continue our journey. No big deal.
Caught in swift traffic and unable to change lanes, we were sucked up the Foley ramp.
“Your Uncle George was a Foley artist,” I mentioned anxiously. “He worked on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
My hands gripped the wheel at 9 and 3 as I accelerated for the merge. Just keep going, I consoled myself, the exchange must be ahead.
“He also worked on other Spielberg productions like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.,” my sister chimed dramatically from the back seat, her voice floating above the rising tide of tension filling the car.
Beside me, the seat belt strained tight as my mother lowered her head between her knees, gasping.
There is no sense of time here; it feels like we’ve been lapping the jagged lanes of Hell, dodging fiery mid-lane explosions, careening around smoldering piles of auto carnage, and tuning out the echoing screams of the insufferably lost through torturous days, weeks…years. I’ve spent most of it contemplating my decision. And the obvious bigness of the deal. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Exit Monsters are real.
Despite my sister’s cries, my mom and I take turns driving straight at them, hoping beyond hope that one of them will swallow us up in their craggy maw and spit us out on the road to home.