by Rachel Tanner
Mary was a nice woman—a kind, older lady who formerly worked in sales and had eyes that told a lifetime of stories I was interested in hearing. I wanted to know her stories. That’s all it was, I swear. I grew up in a bad family and I had no one around to look up to, so I looked up to her with the adoration of a lonesome girl who needed guidance. When she ended up in the hospital, it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to everyone else and my story isn’t going to change no matter how many times I tell it. My involvement was purely coincidental. You have to believe me. I need you to believe me.
Something that endeared me to Mary was her ability to drive well under the speed limit. I’m fascinated by slow drivers. People don’t really care about slow drivers except to complain about them, right? And, see, that made me really uncomfortable and sad because someone’s life shouldn’t be boiled down to a few measly miles driving thirty in a forty-five. Know what I mean? Just because the green Jeep in front of you is gumming the asphalt doesn’t mean that the man driving it is a terrible person. You don’t even know him. You don’t give a damn about him at all. Do you? Because I do. You don’t even know anything about him. What sucks the most about you is that you don’t WANT to know anything about him. Does he have kids? Did he grow up without his dad around? You know absolutely nothing about his life, so who the fuck are you to judge anything about him based solely on the speed he’s driving? Calm down, pass him, and move along. He’s in the right lane anyway. Leave him the hell alone. You’re pathetic for judging someone you’ve never met.
It was everyone else’s deep hatred of these people that made me take notice of them. I had no choice. You can’t tell me that you wouldn’t have done the same thing. Any caring person would have done the same thing. I didn’t grow up thinking that I was going to build my young adult life around seemingly random people. It was a role I was forced into by the circumstances. The terrible environments that the rest of you created forced me into this situation. It’s your fault, not mine. So stop blaming me. If you could think about someone else every once in a while, maybe I wouldn’t be in this mess. I had no choice. I still have no choice.
No one else loved them. Someone had to. Don’t you get it? I was that someone. I was chosen by some higher power to be their guardian. At least…I was for some of them. I saw people honk at them. Make rude gestures. Yell. Curse. Scream. Some of the slow drivers would yell back or cry from inside their glass squares. They’d be visibly upset. Those were the weak ones, the ones I shamefully donated my time to. They reminded me of useless drunks, crawling home to their spouses and children to beat the shit out of them for no reason other than the good whiskey was on sale again. It seemed to me that they had no real purpose in the world. No real willpower for anything. What was the point? People showed their true colors when faced with cussers and screamers. The ones that cried were stupid. They weren’t strong. Not like me, anyway. Not like me and Mary. We were made of the same thick fabric. Nothing could break us.
Mary was one of the other types of slow drivers—one of the ones who seem unfazed by the taunting and the jeering. She’d stare straight ahead as if nothing was happening. They were my biggest heroes—the drivers who paid no mind to the negativity. They internalized it. They sat in peace among the honks and screeching tires. They were beautiful. I always drove with a tape full of classical music so that I could push play whenever I’d encounter a slow driver who was gracefully ignoring jerks on the road. They were lovely people who deserved a lovely soundtrack. The ones who were visibly upset didn’t deserve soundtracks. They deserved to be kicked in the face. You seem like you know what that’s like. Don’t you?
The strong ones more than made up for the weak ones. It was a gorgeous dance between self-esteem and pride, all set to my classical music track listing. Since this is a small town and I generally stuck around the same stretches of the same roads, I mostly saw the same people. Humans are creatures of habit and routine, which worked out for me because I got to know specific people really well. Certain people had certain songs. Mary’s song, for example, was Debussy’s “Clair de lune.” I know what you’re thinking. You’re probably familiar with all of Debussy’s works and with all the intricacies of classical music. I can already tell exactly what you’re thinking: Didn’t Mary deserve Debussy’s entire Suite bergamasque? Yeah, she did. I’ve gone over every single piece of our relationship in my head a million times and I can’t rationalize why I only chose one movement from the Suite to encapsulate her. Because, to me, she was the entire Suite. She was everything.
But I can’t change the past and that one movement, for whatever reason, is what I’d chosen as her song. I try not to worry about it too much because I know that in the future, we’ll talk about it and she’ll be able to tell me what song she prefers to be her own. We’ll make big decisions like that together from now on. See, I make huge mistakes when I’m alone—like choosing one movement of a suite instead of the whole thing. But that’s part of why she exists, to keep me from loneliness and bad decisions.
I know what it’s like to be reviled. I know what it’s like to have the whole world against you. So when I saw people hate those drivers, I felt an instant connection. These people were my friends, my cousins, my brothers, my sisters. No one knew me like they did and no one knew them like I did. I’d watch closely as people would tail them and pass, tail them and pass, tail them and pass. But I chose to do the opposite. I followed them—slowly and from far away.
I found out very quickly just how much I could learn from a single car. Make, model, color. I learned to pick out details and specifics. I would study these things at the local library every afternoon in hopes that I would get better at identifying them. Bumper stickers were a special treat for me and told special stories—Coexist, Teach For America, Capitalists 4 Christ. The little morsels of extra knowledge made me feel as giddy as I imagined kids must feel on Christmas morning when they get presents from parents or Santa or Jesus or whoever. I wasn’t privileged enough for holidays as a child, but having Mary around made up for all of that. (We’ll celebrate next Christmas together. I’m sure of it. I’ve been looking up holiday traditions we could start, actually. I read that families like to have traditions.)
I started making up stories about these people but quickly realized that I was always 100% correct. They’re not just guesses and stories anymore: they’re facts. For example: this one guy had a pink car seat in his car so I correctly guessed that he had a daughter that was younger than five-years-old. From that experience, I learned that pretty much everything I guessed was factual. The little girl’s name was Tina and her favorite animal was a giraffe. Don’t ask me how I knew—it’s just a feeling. (And my feelings about these things were NEVER wrong.) I knew these people’s lives better than my own and I could precisely predict every single thing about them. Let’s just say I have some divine type of knowledge. Sometimes I just know things. I can’t describe it very well—sometimes knowledge just pours into my brain, unfiltered, and it’s always correct. It’s a gift.
Sometimes the drivers would simply go to their own houses or some other place where I’d have to drive away and leave them alone. They were tired and didn’t want to be bothered. I never took it personally. We all need alone time, right? Sometimes I felt ignored, but I worked hard to understand it. Working all day is rough. Getting yelled at for driving twenty miles under the speed limit had to be exhausting for them. I tried to sympathize. I didn’t know a lot, but I knew that family members sympathized with each other as much as possible and I didn’t want to be a bad sister or daughter, did I? I didn’t want to cause issues at the family dinner table or at holidays. No matter how angry we got at each other or how much they went into their houses and I wasn’t allowed in, we still loved each other. Because that’s what family is all about.
The best times would be when people would go to public places. Local grocery stores, boutiques, libraries, restaurants. Anywhere that other people went, too, and where I was also welcome. The warm embrace of the public where I could get to know my family better. It was those times that I would really learn about them. Just like when driving, I’d follow them. Not too closely, but close enough that I could see and hear what was going on.
I loved our outings. Other people might tag along but sometimes it would just be the two of us. Me and whoever had decided to drive slowly that day. I could learn so much about them by what they might buy, who they might call, and how they might interact with strangers. I’d laugh at the strangers sometimes, wondering what it was like to be on the outside looking in like that. I pitied the strangers, really, because they probably had terrible lives. Not as great as mine was shaping up to be, anyway.
Sometimes we’d go on shopping trips together. Groceries were my favorite. One time—this is so hilarious, you’re going to love it—one time Mary forgot her wallet in her car. Like, she was already in the check-out line and everything. The only reason she didn’t ask me to go out to her red ’95 Honda Accord and get her green patchwork pocketbook was because she’d forgotten I was there with her. Sometimes she does that. Normally that’d make me angry but I had different rules for someone as special as Mary. People make concessions for the ones who hold special places in their hearts.
Like I said, this one night she forgot her wallet. Her total was $128.91—I remember it because I was totaling up the price of everything she bought as she tossed the items in her shopping cart. It was this fun little game we played. (Sometimes daughters and mothers play games together, you know. Kind of like how fathers and sons go outside and play catch. This was basically the exact same thing.) She was a little careless about her money in her older age so I’d go behind her and write down the prices of everything she bought. Then I’d add it all up, just to make sure the check-out clerks were giving her the proper price at the end. She wasn’t going to get ripped off on my watch.
She asked this particular cashier to please excuse her while she ran out to get her wallet. This teenager couldn’t have been older than seventeen and he was being the biggest jackass I’d seen outside of a car’s driver’s seat in months. After Mary left for the parking lot, he rolled his eyes and started complaining loudly to a nearby cashier about “that old bitch” who “just left to retrieve her memory from her car.”
What would YOU have done? Loyalty is a huge deal to me. Family protects family. Blood is thicker than pride or embarrassment. Or jackass seventeen-year-olds.
I marched right up to that kid and said, “First of all, Mary said ‘please.’ You have no idea who you’re dealing with.” He stared back at me, stunned.
“Who is Mar—”
“SECOND of all, you shut the hell up and be polite when she gets back in here. That’s my MOTHER. She means the world to me. I’ll be in the back after she returns, watching every goddamn move you make, you little twerp. And don’t you dare tell her I was here, or I’ll come back over here and choke you out before I leave.”
He tried to get some words out, verbally stumbling for a few good seconds before I smacked him on the hand, demanded he give her a stack of free coupons, and walked away before Mary came back. I hid behind a display of soup cans and watched the rest of the transaction. The cashier almost blew my cover because he kept nervously glancing at the display I was hiding behind.
Mary wasn’t stupid. She was the smartest woman I’d ever known. As a matter of fact, I was 100% positive that she could tell a huge difference between the cashier’s behavior before she went outside and the cashier’s behavior afterwards. She probably figured it was me who went and talked to him and straightened things out. I’m kind of her guardian angel that way. She appreciates me. I still didn’t want her to know I was there, though. But the cashier wouldn’t stop looking over at me. Why are teenagers so painfully stupid? So, as slowly as I could manage, I raised my hand with my middle finger stretched towards the sky, over the five-and-a-half foot tall red soup display where he could see it. It was like the glorious sun rising, except with a profane hand gesture. He got my message and finally stopped looking at me. I left soon after Mary did to make sure she got back to her house safely because the cashier was giving her a mean look and I was afraid he might try to follow her home and hurt her.
Only a few of the slow drivers had notable houses. Tim, the guy with the daughter, lived in this green clapboard bungalow-inspired house that reminded me of a dragon. It was really new and soundproofed so I could never hear anything that was going on. Mary, however, lived in a house that was really old. I could hear everything. Phone calls, television shows, conversations, laughter. God, she had the best laugh. Nothing felt as fulfilling as making that woman laugh. I’d tell a joke from my driver’s seat and I’d hear her laugh from across the street. She was the first and only person to ever think that my jokes were funny. I’d even go so far as to say that she was proud of how clever I was. I really came into my own thanks to her. I was lucky to have her around, and she was even luckier to have me.
Her yard was amazing. I grew up bouncing from house to house so yards were a pretty foreign concept to me. The fact that she put so much time into her yard just for my benefit meant the world to me. It warmed my heart every single time I saw it. She had three main gardens—one full of vegetables, one full of flowers, and one full of pinwheels. Pinwheels! She was always coming up with creative things like that. It’s why our relationship worked so well. I’d never even heard of a pinwheel garden before that.
I still remember the first night that I got out of my car to see her yard, her house, her real life. We watched an episode of some courtroom drama together, she from her living room and I from the window. She got a phone call from her sister that put her in a really bad mood. Our family isn’t the worst, but it certainly isn’t the best. You can relate to that, right? No family is perfect. So then we sat on the couch together and had some wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is her favorite because she’s really classy. She taught me a lot about stuff like different kinds of wine. I opted not to have any because I had to drive home later, after all, and I didn’t want Mary to worry about me driving after having a drink. I’m very thoughtful about things like that—about not wanting her to worry about me. Mothers worry about their daughters in movies and books. But I’m a good daughter, so she doesn’t worry about me at all. Ever.
I realized that night that I’d never again be able to watch her from just my car. We’d made a connection that night, unspoken and infinite. I’d broken a barrier and needed to be as close to her as possible, which meant getting out of the car as much as possible. I knew that soon, I’d need to make my presence in her life more known. That was the night I basically stopped paying attention to other slow drivers and set my sights almost exclusively on Mary. She was worth it, though. I never felt weird about how much time we spent together. She’d invested so much in me, like with the pinwheel garden, and I thought that it was only fair that I invested more time in her than I did into any of the other drivers. When someone means that much to you, it’s only natural that she becomes your whole world.
Maybe some of you can understand the connection that we had. Maybe some of you can’t. I don’t know how to talk to those of you who can’t, because you’re obviously heartless assholes who don’t understand love or family. Family sticks together. Family goes to the grocery store together. Family watches courtroom dramas together. If you don’t understand the connection that we share, then you don’t understand family. We’re better than you.
The things that a mentor teaches you are really amazing if you just open yourself up to those experiences. Remember that game Mary and I played at the grocery store? Where I’d add up how much she’d spend? I kept all those papers in a well-organized binder in my closet. I had documentation of all her groceries and their costs. Did you know that the price of saltine crackers went up fifty cents since last year? I wouldn’t have known that if it hadn’t been for Mary! I’m so glad that I had someone to teach me things and show me the way.
But the world is trying to make sure that I don’t have anyone to show me the way anymore. I don’t get it. I finally have someone to guide me through the hell that is life, and you want to take that person away from me?! It honestly doesn’t make any sense.
One night, we went to the grocery store again. She was getting her purse out of the backseat of her car. We’d grown closer over the past few weeks since the night we watched the courtroom drama so I decided to take a chance—to park right next to her instead of a few spaces away. The parking lot was pretty empty, but I decided to park close anyway. There were some cars scattered about but only about three other people in the actual parking lot at the time. I remember exactly what all three people looked like because I take mental inventory of everyone around Mary at all times, just in case anyone tries to hurt her. Police appreciate detailed testimony and I always want to be ready to be her hero.
My hands were shaking and I was sweating so heavily, trying to keep it together. This was my chance. We’d spent so much time together, but now was really our moment. She’d finally realize what I’d known all along. She’d have to. My entire life was merely preparation for this moment. She’d invite me into her life to stay forever. We’d make an unstoppable and hilarious team, playing out episodes as mother and daughter. She’d teach me the ins and outs of life. I’d take care of her as she aged. And it was all about to start. Finally. I’d been preparing for this moment for so long. I was going to understand what it felt like to have someone truly be proud of me, love me, and want what’s best for me. The promise of an entire life and future was wrapped up in Mary, and it was all happening then and there. I could barely breathe.
I turned up “Clair de lune” as loud as my sound system would play it. Surely she’d know it was her song right away. I’d definitely played it enough for her in the past. Shakily, I turned the wheel and screeched into the parking spot beside Mary, who was still retrieving her purse. My eyes weren’t on the asphalt or the parking lot, but on my future.
Before I knew what was happening, the few people in the parking lot were running towards my mom and me. I had no idea what was going on—I just knew that it was bad. I’ve never experienced something so quickly yet so slowly at the same time.
So I did what anyone would do in a situation where there’s a lot of noise and not a lot of mental clarity. I slammed my car in reverse and I left. Isn’t that what you would’ve done? There I was, about to have THE moment that was going to define my entire universe, and something went wrong. Everything bad always happens to me. I finally had a future and it was ruined.
The world’s hatred brought us together originally and it’s trying to break us apart now. I don’t understand it. It happened the day she was released from the hospital. The people in the parking lot apparently got my license plate number and they told the police that I was the one who hurt Mary. But I would never hurt Mary. You believe me, right? I even stood up for her at the grocery store. I need you to trust me. Someone has to. I don’t have anyone anymore. Even if my car is the thing that hit her, I would never hurt her.
She doesn’t believe in me anymore like she used to. She was lying when she told police she doesn’t know me. When she told them that she’d noticed me following her for a few months, she said it with a tone of admiration, not fear. Fear was the wrong word and the police were idiotic jackasses for using it. Fear is what I protect her from, okay? So I don’t understand any of this at all. Why would I hurt someone I love so much? We spent long drives together getting to know each other. I protected her. I saved her and she saved me. It’s not her fault that she’s having her doubts, though. I blame the rest of you for that. You all brainwashed her. You brainwashed her with your damn lies. She loves red wine and she loves me. Family always comes back around to family and Mary will come back around to me when she’s ready.
The judge said I have to stay five hundred feet away from her from now on.
I can work with that.
Rachel Tanner is a writer from Alabama who can be found on Twitter at @rickit. She’s a sometimes-graduate-student who will be an English and writing professor someday. She has been published in various literature magazines including The Intima, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Dead Snakes, Transition, Cheap Pop, and The Atticus Review. Slow Drivers is her favorite story that she’s ever written.