Monday, July 11, 2011

Safe Driving in Louisiana

The following is a story I wrote in 1986 or so for a short story contest run by Louisiana Life magazine. I didn't win anything. If I remember correctly, they chose 24 stories to run one each month for 2 years, but the magazine folded after 2 or 3 months. Since the story was written 25 years ago, there are some details that may be hard for people to relate to, but yes, people still had milkmen back then, Joy Browne had not been replaced by Dr. Laura on the radio, and Robin Leach had a television program called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Construction on the Interstate, alas, is with us always.

That was the name of the driver's manual I had to study  the first time I got a Louisiana license: Safe Driving in  Louisiana.  I thought it was named by somebody with a sense of  humor or either a basketball fan or possibly just somebody who had never been on I-10 at rush hour, but I passed my written test one point higher than my husband (now my ex-husband and I bet that was when the trouble began, with that test). I surrendered my New Jersey driver's license and joined the ranks of other Safe Drivers in Louisiana and if that makes you laugh, it should.
 Actually, having both family and friends scattered through at least six states I have had ample opportunity to notice that the two things everybody is convinced of are that (1) his state has the worst drivers in the country and (2) his state has the most crooked politicians in the country.  I mean there may be someplace (like preserved at the Smithsonian) a person who brags about how courteous the drivers of her state are or how  well governed the place is but I have never met this person and I don't expect to either unless it's as the result of a two car collision.  

What brings on these jaundiced thoughts is that I am once again stuck in traffic on the Interstate, the same Interstate they just spent four or five of the most productive years of my  life widening so that people would not get stuck in traffic on the Interstate.  If you live here in Baton Rouge you know what  I mean and if you don't you probably know what I mean anyway because the other thing no one ever says is how fast road construction projects are completed at home.  Of course, the nice thing about being stuck on the Interstate is that at least a deer is not going to attack my car, at least, not likely.  
Yes, I did say a deer and I know what you would be thinking if you saw me now, an ordinary middle-aged lady in an ordinary silver hatchback that there must be at least ten of within three miles of here, that I don't look like the kind of person odd things like that happen to but this did.  I was up on Highway 61 heading back from Wakefield on a job and not  expecting much in the way of trouble except the radio fading  out just as Joy Browne was getting ready to tell that woman with the two-timing husband what to do about it like it always does  although of course I knew what she was going to say, she was going to say "I know this is very painful for you but you can't change the past you just have to think about what you want out of this marriage for the future and be very specific about it", like she always does which is why I don't listen much to Joy Browne anymore but I did then and whenever I had to go up to  Wakefield WJBO would fade in and out like someone just learning  to play the accordion so that was the most trouble I was expecting.  

But I was on the Spillman road heading back to 61 when  this deer came running out of the woods and hurtled straight at  my car and of course I swerved to avoid him just as he leaped  to avoid me with the result that he landed right on the hood of my car and put a dent in it and I wound up in a ditch until two nice men in a pickup truck came by and pulled me out.  This was  not the car I have now but another one that I finally replaced with this one when the air-conditioner broke down in the hottest part of the summer which is the only time they ever do but it was time for a new car anyway what with the old one having 125,000 miles on it and the dent from the deer, and the air-conditioner would have taken more money to fix than I wanted to think about although of course so did the new car. I don't know what happened to the deer: he ran off somewhere and the two men couldn't find him.

Anyway, stuck here in traffic I don't expect another deer to come flying out of nowhere but the other drivers on the road worry me some and besides, I just want to get home.  Ever since I took this job as a representative for the PrettyGoods home decoration and gift supplies people I have just about lived in  this car and come the end of the day I've had enough of it.  If  you haven't heard of PrettyGoods you have probably heard of  something just like it: we pounce on some unsuspecting housewife or even working mom and convince her that she and her  buddies can have fun, do their Christmas shopping and beautify their homes simply by having a PrettyGoods party at her house with all of said buddies drooling over the merchandise and   whipping out their checkbooks eager to buy.  Of course I don't quite put it that way in talking to her because of course the PrettyGoods people have dreamed up some pretty little speeches  for us gift and purchase counselors (they really call us that,  they really do, gift and purchase counselors and the first time  I heard it I burst out laughing and it was almost the end of my career as a PrettyGoods gift and purchase counsellor before it had even begun, but I managed to convince the personnel lady I had asthma so that was all right.) Where was I? anyway, oh yes some pretty little speeches for us GPC's to memorize and they coach us on how to say them so it sounds like somebody just talking, almost.    

Anyway, I'm the only PrettyGoods GPC in a three parish  range (nobody else having the presence of mind to think up the asthma story, more than likely) so they keep me going. I'm hardly ever in an office except to drop off my order forms and pick up my commission checks and that suits me just fine as you may have gathered since obviously I am not working for the  PrettyGoods people because I like their pretty goods. Actually,  some of their goods are rather pretty and most aren't downright ugly but what use most people see in those things is  beyond me.  Like this one little item (and I am not making this up, honest I'm not, the asthma story about stretched the limits  of my imagination) is a ceramic container with little holes in the lid that you are supposed to use to keep baking soda in in your refrigerator.  You know how it is, you might even do this once every two years or so when you happen to think of it, you're supposed to put an open box of baking soda in the refrigerator to absorb odors and keep the onion smells from  kind of sticking to the corn on the cob or worse yet the apple pie and that seems like a good enough idea to me but what the  PrettyGoods people want you to think is that if folks see this  plain box of baking soda sitting there in your refrigerator they might think something awful.  The example they have us  memorize is if the milkman comes in to put the milk in your refrigerator but it seems to me that if a gal is on friendly enough terms with her milkman that he's going to march right  into her kitchen and put the milk up for her her neighbors are going to have a lot more to talk about than the insides of her refrigerator or at least they're going to think they do, which  is the same thing. But our baking soda holder is one of our best sellers and if that's not enough to convince you that the mind of America has turned to jelly, I don't know what is.  

 Actually, I suppose most people only buy it because they have to buy something so the hostess won't hold it against them that she didn't get the hostess prize of the month or to pay back their mothers-in-law for giving them a copy of Emily Post last year for Christmas or maybe just because they have an Aunt Nora who has just been going frantic because she can't find the proper container to put her baking soda in and her milkman does come in and put the milk right in her refrigerator not because there's anything funny going on but because Aunt Nora, bless her heart, is going on 85 and won't go to a home and everybody just thinks up ways to check up on her so she won't wind up as one of those headlines "Neighbors Find Woman's Body-Coroner Says She's Been Dead A Week". 
Well, that's about normal for here: that truck just about took my bumper off cutting in front of me and why he thinks he  will get where he's going any faster by being in front of me instead of behind I do not know because it's not like I'm the one holding up traffic; it's all just one long, slow procession like somebody's funeral if maybe not as cheerful. I think if somebody took a poll of vehicles on this Interstate they'd find the average one was a beat up white Ford pick-up truck about 6 years old with a baby standing on the front seat, a gun rack on the back window, a no-breed dog chained in the bed and an "Abortion Is Murder" bumper sticker stuck somewhere on the rear bumper by a driver who missed the chance to become one of those Kamikaze pilots and never got over it somehow.  

Well, I survived that one, and actually most of my travel  for PrettyGoods doesn't take me on the Interstate anyway, it takes me along those little country lanes with the "Substandard Road" signs parked every six yards or what seems like it along the non-existant shoulders and very little traffic but what there is of it, half is preceeded by a sign that says "Wide Load".  Never mind that by time you know this there is no place to put your car except in someone's driveway if one happens to come along handy but it won't; they warned you it was a wide load, didn't they and sorry about that ditch, Ma'am. But I like driving, it's calm and peaceful and gives me a chance to collect my thoughts which as you may have noticed tend to get scattered, especially when I'm tired and grouchy.  

Now another useless thing that PrettyGoods has that everyone raves over and again I am not making it up is a little ceramic jar, oh maybe three inches high with a blunted lip kind of like a no-handle creamer.  The idea is that when your husband empties his pockets at night he can put all his change and paperclips and hardware store receipts and like that in the little container and then the next morning he just picks up the little cup and pours that stuff right back in the pockets of his clean pants and off he goes and none of those paper clips and hardware store receipts are left on the dresser top to be fussed about by those who have nothing better to do with their time and not enough sense to sweep the whole mess in the trash and then say later "Receipt from the Ace Hardware? I don't think so, honey, I don't remember seeing anything of the sort" until her man gets the idea that if he doesn't keep track of his own belongings the shoemaker's elves sure aren't going  to sneak in and do it for him.  Anyway, as I said this little  item is a best seller and the men actually do use it for about  two weeks or so because the older ones think the little woman  is getting to that time of life or the younger ones think maybe she's pregnant and that it won't hurt to humor her for a week  or so and then let her down easy.  Eventually it winds up at a  garage sale or over at Aunt Nora's where she uses it to store  the bacon drippings from the frying pan because of course Aunt Nora stores bacon drippings (and one reason the milkman and the papergirl and darn near everyone else comes to check on her so much is that they are sure that one day her hand is going to slip when she's pouring those hot drippings and she'll have forgotten to turn off the stove and the whole place will go up.)  Aunt Nora will love it.
 Much as I fuss about the items I have to sell I do enjoy the work. There's always a new place to go and new people to meet and I never was one much for routine. The women I meet (it is mostly women who have these gatherings although  sometimes they involve the men and every now and again one  surprises me and hosts a party of his own-not often though) are all ages and most levels of society, naturally anybody Robin Leach is likely to take an interest in is not going to be booking one of my parties but just about anyone else. Like this morning my first party was at a big, beautiful house tucked away behind what looked like Evangeline's forest primeval and  we were all out on the deck around the pool which worried me a  little in case I dropped one of my little ceramic doo-dads because as you may not know I pay for all these samples, they don't just give them to me, but of course I didn't drop a thing so I needn't have worried.  Then the next party was at a trailer and it wasn't exactly tucked away but did have a front yard full of what the gentleman of the house called classic cars and what the lady of the house called "those old wrecks,  but what can you do, a man has to have his little hobbies and if I want to live with him I have to live with those old  things, I guess" which I could understand. I sold more at the trailer party than at the first party, which didn't surprise me any because I've seen it before.   

The last party was at your average subdivision house- no  swimming pool but the yard was kept nice and the furniture  looked more like Ethan Allen or at least Bassett than "our buyer overbought and now we are just giving the stuff away,  folks, you've never seen prices like this before and if you qualify for our easy credit plan you won't  pay a cent until after Christmas". You know the sort I mean. I sold mostly kitchen items: pie dishes with tops that look like apples or pumpkins, blue and white casseroles, no baking soda holders  though.  So as I say I meet a pretty good mix and it keeps me  moving and solvent and what more could I ask?  

Except for this traffic to ease up and me to get home,  that's what.  

 It's a funny thing though, wherever I set up my samples  and whatever age those faces peeking up at me over the order forms are, sometimes I think I'm selling them all the same thing, although I'm not quite sure what to call it-acceptance maybe, reassurance, just a feeling that they are doing all right and their baking soda is being properly displayed and their various Aunt Nora's are not being neglected. I mean, I'm a modern woman myself and I know how it is: you spend time with your kids and your mother complains you never call; you call your mama every night and pretty soon your husband has that look on his face like a dog you forgot to feed; you manage to keep the kids and mama and your husband happy and your boss starts asking if maybe your job is starting to bore you a little; you keep all of them happy and it suddenly occurs to you that you haven't slept in three days and you're starting to feel  a little woozy.  So you think well maybe if I could just get myself organized, the change in the right container and the baking soda looking pretty and, I don't know, just something straight . . . And I guess there's no harm in it really, if a PrettyGoods pie dish is going to help someone feel pretty good  about herself, well, that's what I'm here for isn't it? To sell  the stuff and I do a good job though you wouldn't think so to  hear me ramble on like this.  

 It's just that one day Aunt Nora is going to die, old as she is, even with the neighbors looking in on her, and there her kin will be, sorting out all her possessions to see what to  keep and what to give away, and there will be the change holder and the baking soda holder and someone will be saying "What on earth? Oh, I remember this. Nora really loved this, didn't she?" and not know whether to laugh or cry, because, Nora, whether she loved it or hated it but was just being polite, is gone taking all her eighty some years of memories and fussy ways and  humor with her and soon strangers will be picking over her things at a yard sale or the thrift store, just like someday each of us will be gone the same way and strangers will be . . .  

That's the part I don't like to think about, none of us does but fortunately here is my exit; it hasn't just disappeared off the face of the Earth and soon I will be Praise the Lord! home (one of those average subdivision houses in case you’re wondering, no pool or oak forest but pretty in its own way). And my bad mood is lifting, so I don’t want you to think I sell nothing but useless doodads, honest; we do have well made goods and at a better price than you’d find in department stores, plus you can put your feet up and visit with your friends while you buy.  So if you need some pretty casseroles or have an Aunt Nora or think something to put your baking soda in is the cleverest idea you ever heard of I’d be glad to set up a party for you.  I’m easy to find, being the only dealer around, all you do is look under PrettyGoods in the book.  Just give me a call; it’ll be real easy to catch me, now that I’m home.

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