“I don’t like it. Not one bit.”
Up until this point it had been an agreeable trip.
My dad, mom, brother, Chris, and I were following the contours of the Mississippi River from the Twin Cities in Minnesota to the gulf shores of Biloxi, Mississippi.
My sister, Sarah, was getting married and we were making our way to the celebration.
The first day with well-paved roads was pleasant. There was so little traffic in one portion of Iowa, we saw an Amish farmer take over the road with a wooden cart the size of a river barge.
Being pulled by two stout German workhorses, the farmer looked a tiny version of himself as he stood on the giant wooden planks, leather straps in hand, guiding the cart like it was floating between the wide banks of the Mississippi.
After spending the night in Mark Twain’s home town of Hannibal Missouri, we took a lazy drive through his National Forest just south of St. Louis.
After lunch in Poplar Bluff, we jumped onto I-55 just north of Memphis, Tennessee.
Transitioning from State Highway 67 in Missouri to I-55 in northeast Arkansas was like leaving the weightlessness of space and landing hard on the moon. The road was roughshod. Traffic was everywhere. It was loud.
My dad sitting in the front passenger’s seat looked up from his map.
I raised my index finger from the steering wheel and pointed straight ahead.
“Does that mattress look secure to you?”
I’ve always been leery of vehicles carrying open cargo on the interstate. City streets? Country highways? No problem. But seeing a truck hauling a wooden dresser at eighty miles an hour is like catching a glimpse of a mountain lion crossing your front lawn or watching your boss being hauled out of the office by security. Something isn’t quite right and all you feel is a nervous panic. Any household item can turn into an airborne projectile. It could happen. It does happen. It happened to my friend Ron on his way to the airport.
Ron had the first flight out of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida one Saturday morning. It was early, still dark. There wasn’t much traffic on I-595, but there was a car in front of him and it was carrying a ten-speed bike.
How quickly it happened.
Before Ron knew it, the bike vaulted from its rack and slammed into his car.
Ron’s car was badly damaged but drivable. The bike was destroyed and that was all the woman cared about when she pulled over; not that she forgot to strap in the bike; not that she wrecked Ron’s car; not that she could have created more havoc if it would have been earlier in the day. No, she complained that Ron ran over her bike and she would be unable to participate in a morning triathlon.
How can someone be that oblivious?
“Is everything all right?”
My mom stirred from a light sleep in the back seat.
It wasn’t all right. I was driving in the right lane with a semi trailer closing from behind. Cars streamed along the left. And in front was a truck hauling a mattress that seemed to inch closer and closer to our windshield.
“Is there only one strap holding that mattress,” I asked.
I could see the earlier purchase: The driver of the truck got a GREAT DEAL at some factory outlet in the middle of nowhere. Only one problem: How do you get it home when you’re ninety miles away?
“It will fit in the bed of your truck, not completely flat, but maybe we can mash it down a bit and string a rope,” said the teenager at the warehouse who was paid $7.00 an hour.
It wasn’t even a nylon strap you could ratchet down with a metal clamp. It wasn’t even a rope used to secure boats or lasso cattle. It was barely thicker than a laundry line. It had as much chance keeping the mattress in the bed of the truck as string of cooked linguini.
The mood in the car got quiet.
I really liked my car. I liked how it had used little gas. I like how it provided a semblance of comfort to our small group. What it didn’t provide: enough muscle too quickly get around this truck.
“I’m going to try it.”
There was enough of a gap in the left lane. So I punched the gas pedal and turned on my blinker.
As we slowly crept alongside the truck, we looked over to the cab.
Inside was a middle-aged woman with a bouffant of blond hair. She wasn’t paying much attention to the road for she was gabbing on her cell phone. A small dog the size of a Nerf Football bounced all over the cab. When it noticed us, it jumped over to the driver’s side window to bark at us. Its silent yelps were drowned out by the high-pitch whine of rubber wheels and rush of wind.
Eventually, there was enough room between my car and the truck. I wish there was more, but I had to get out of the passing lane before I was run over by the traffic piling up behind me. So I moved back. It wasn’t dangerous, but it was tight.
Jerk moves come in all shapes and sizes, but there is something visceral and inherently wrong when someone cuts in front of you. First, they are breaking protocol by not waiting their turn, but more importantly is the back. It’s a physical act that states the person behind not only doesn’t matter, he or she may not even exist.
Just the other day it happened to me at a coffee shop when a group of teenage girls stepped in front of me to be with their friend.
Even though I knew that they weren’t going to order anything, I still felt this affront. No glances back, no explanations, just a small mob globbed together; no one responsible; no one to blame. They gabbed, gawked and disbursed when their friend stepped to the cash register.
These girls may have not known what they were doing, but I knew that when it came to the rules of the road, I slid back into the right lane too soon. And if my reaction to my own move was disappointment, I knew the Southern Firecracker with the 5.7 liter engine behind me would be furious.
Before I could even turn off my blinker, the woman gunned her truck’s massive engine and whipped around me.
We were back to where we started except for one wrinkle. The woman stayed in the left lane to make sure I couldn’t pass her again.
In that instant I knew there was far a bigger jerk than the one who cuts in front of you. It’s the jerk that tries to deny you a place.
It happened to me once on the bike trail. I came upon a group of cyclist coming from the opposite direction. Most strung themselves along a long singular column, but one lady remained in the oncoming lane and made no attempt to pass or merge when she saw me coming from the opposite direction. Instead she gave me a look that could be best described as abhorrent. Her face told me that not only did I need to completely get off the path. I needed to be banned from her sight.
How could someone be filled with so much indignation while breaking so many rules?
I couldn’t answer the question for the queen-size mattress had leapt out of the truck and was sailing in the air.
When I volunteered to take my family to my sister’s wedding, I didn’t know how this multi-day road trip would go. Would there be constant complaints? Would one pit stop need to be followed by another? Would we come upon an accident? Would we be in an accident? Would we even make it to the Gulf Shore?
At that moment it didn’t matter how much I planned or how careful I was. Our fate hung in the air like a giant question mark as the airborne mattress drifted into our lane.
“Hold on,” I said.
But as quickly as it sailed, the mattress lost its will to fly and plopped onto the road like a wet sponge. It didn’t bounce and it didn’t budge and it gave me just enough room to slide around.
As I swung back onto the Interstate from the narrow shoulder, I looked into my rear-view mirror and saw the semi follow my lead.
I looked ahead and noticed the lady had slowed but did not stop. Minutes later a state trooper would come screaming from the opposite direction but still she would continue.
I punched the pedal one last time to pass her. She was still on the phone, but now in a complete panic, her dog bouncing all over the cab.
Her tit-for-tat move not only lost her a brand new mattress, it was wrecking havoc a few miles back. I wanted to say something, but there wasn’t anything to say at eighty miles an hour. It was best to get past and move onto Memphis.