THE LIGHT SIDE OF EIGHTY
As I took over the task of driving, my husband slumped down in the bucket seat next to mine. He would have seen the dirty look I gave him except he pulled his baseball cap down over his eyes for sleep. As I turned out from the rest area into the acceleration lane, we gained speed and merged with the oncoming traffic. I clicked on the cruise control.
“How fast are we goin’?” Mark’s voice was cold. Information-gathering cold.
“Light side of eighty,” I mumbled. I brushed my hair out of my eyes and rechecked the speedometer. The needle was precisely at 79. I heard once from a reliable source that if you kept your speed to just less than five miles over the speed limit, you wouldn’t get stopped. It must work because I hadn’t had a speeding ticket in fifteen years.
“Why don’t you just say ‘79’?” grumbled Mark. He shifted his weight so his back was to me, not expecting an answer.
I said nothing but let my gaze scan the bleak horizon. Nothing but barren desert as far as the eye could see. I turned the radio to soft music and let it soothe my frayed nerves. Why, indeed, did I use that expression? I thought back over the years. It was my old bathroom scales that were to blame. They were the kind that read a different weight each time you stepped on them—even if it was just ten seconds after you had just weighed. The dial only registered in five pound increments; so, if the needle was to the left of ‘145’, I told myself I weighed ‘on the light side of 145’. The habit carried over to other areas. And it obviously irritated Mark.
But, what didn’t irritate Mark for the past few months? He seemed dissatisfied with everything I did. His constant criticism had created a wall between us—a wall that was even hard for all 5’10’’ of me to see over.
A few gasping snores came from Mark’s side of the car. Honestly, how can he snore while lying on his side? He’s only been asleep for five minutes. Irritation pricked at me as if it were the tines of the sticky cactus that now appeared on the side of the freeway. Just drive, I thought and I picked up the warm soda that sat in the cup holder. The seemingly endless road stretched to the distant horizon, only a handful of vehicles sharing the freeway with us. The music eased my annoyance and my thoughts drifted to early that morning. Mark had been short with me; and, whenever I confronted him, accusing words came flooding out like a burst dam. The difficulties between us could be traced, as always, to trivial matters. I almost smiled as I tried in vain to recall what had brought on this newest conflict.
A big dual-wheeled pickup was bearing down from behind as I glanced into the rear-view mirror. It gradually moved into the left lane to pass, and I noticed it was pulling a large fifth-wheel horse trailer. I could feel its speeding mass rumbling beside me. As the cab came neck to neck with our car, I shot a fleeting look through the window at the driver. A middle-aged woman sat next to him, her head on his shoulder. My eyes flitted back to the road. When was the last time I put my head on Mark’s shoulder like that? Months? Years? Dismay entered my heart, but a surge of pride forced it out.
Mark snored again as he shifted his position. He now faced forward, his head back with a pillow under his neck. Black stubble covered his jaw line and his teeth showed as his mouth fell open. He had jumped out of bed early that morning, anxious to get on the road. He didn’t even bother to shave for me. It suddenly felt as if something was in my eyes, and I pulled down the visor mirror. Dark brown eyes fringed with black lashes stared back. Mark used to tell me I had pretty eyes. Lately, he seemed to bypass them altogether and look past me. Hurt, like a tiny sting, began in my heart, but I drowned it out by turning the volume up on the radio.
Gray storm clouds appeared in the distance and within minutes large raindrops splashed on the window. I turned the wipers on ‘intermittent’. Visibility got worse, and I upped the wipers’ speed by degrees, as the rain got heavier. The elevation of the desert floor began to rise and I could see a small mountain range ahead. Hovering over the range were some of the blackest clouds I had ever seen. The pavement became shiny and streaked with wet oil. Easing on the accelerator, I slowed to ‘70’. Mark didn’t even stir.
Several large trucks skirted around us, gathering momentum for the uphill grade. They better slow down. Wet oil is slicker than—my heart almost stopped as a pickup truck fishtailed in front of us. The driver regained control; and, backing off, I created a wide berth between us. The windshield wipers were running at top speed, never missing a beat.
Reaching the summit of the mountain range, a new vista opened up. The storm stretched to the bleak horizon, no end in sight. I resigned myself to driving in less than ideal conditions for the next several hours. Turning on my headlights, I slowed down even further, fearful of hydroplaning.
Mark slept on, and I busied my mind with thoughts of our destination. In twenty-three years of marriage, we had not seen some old friends who had been at our wedding. We had planned for months to drive over the Utah and Nevada deserts to renew this old acquaintance. Would they have as many wrinkles as we? Were their children raised? I glanced once more at my husband. Would they still be in love after all these years?
Red flashing lights far ahead made me jerk to attention. They were approaching fast and then I saw it. At least ten miles ahead in the oncoming lane was a concentration of headlights from backed-up traffic. A myriad of red, blue, and yellow emergency lights flashed like some kind of morbid carnival. The red flashing lights were now nearly upon us. It was an ambulance racing for the nearest hospital and I feared for its occupants. There wasn’t a town of any significant size within fifty miles. Mark perked up at the sound of sirens.
Our two lanes were not without their own problems. A semi had slid off the road, and police were directing us around it. I was now slowed to twenty-five miles an hour and Mark was rubbing his eyes awake. “Bad one,” he muttered. Really bad, I thought as we approached the catastrophe. We were not alone in our amazement at the severity of the mishap in the lanes on the other side of the freeway. Everyone was gawking and pointing. Slowing down to a crawl, we took in the misfortune of our fellow travelers. The closer we got, the more horrified we became. Several vehicles were crushed and burned beyond recognition. The mutilated carcasses of several cows testified of the contents of one of the big rigs. The pile up involved no less than fifteen vehicles.
People were sitting on the hillside adjacent to the wreckage, covered with coats and blankets. Stretchers lay on the pavement, some occupied and some just receiving the bodies of the dead. My hand went to cover my mouth at the ghastly sight. Our lane had slowed to a snail’s pace and I could not help but gape. Children sat on the wet pavement, crying for help. As more emergency vehicles arrived on the scene, EMT’s scattered over the crash site, giving aid to as many as possible.
And then, I saw a scene that entered my heart with full force. An elderly man was lying on a stretcher, an old woman leaning over him. She cradled his head in her arms and rocked back and forth. The man was not dead, for he reached tenderly and took the woman’s face in his hands. They seemed frozen in time, living each second as if it were an hour. Before I pulled away, the man fell back onto the stretcher and the woman collapsed, grieving, over his body.
Mark never saw the heart-wrenching scene, but I knew he felt the horror of the accident. He turned his ashen face away and looked out the window. We never spoke a word but sat in silence as we crept slowly through the congestion.
The traffic thinned and soon we were gathering speed, putting distance between ourselves and the grief and pain and anguish. A cheerful tune was playing on the radio and I switched it off. At the moment, it seemed inappropriate. The miles gradually drifted behind us but not the memory of that sad scene. Fifty miles came and went and still we pressed forward. In the distance, I could see a break in the clouds. A brilliant beam of sunshine pierced the heavens and struck the wet earth. I searched for a rainbow and found one to the north. It was full of color, vibrancy and promise.
Mark had once again settled into his seat and resumed his posture of sleep. I noticed his skin under the day’s growth of beard. It, too, was full of color, natural color that had always contrasted his dark blue eyes. His arms were slung over his chest and his muscular hands lay resting against his tan. His gold wedding band caught the gleam of the sun and I looked away.
The scene of the old woman bidding her final farewell to the man she loved pulled at my heart. He was probably her husband. How many years had they been married? I could only guess. She looked to be in her late seventies, maybe on the ‘light side of eighty’. She would live out the remainder of her life alone. What was she doing at this very moment? Still savoring her last seconds with the man she loved, no doubt. She would never have them again.
I looked at Mark. His face was towards me, and his baseball cap sat lopsided. How many years would we be together? Would we still have each other when we were old? The questions raced through my mind and made my stomach churn as I looked back at the highway. The rainbow was actually growing brighter as we sped through the desert, the storm behind us. I marveled at the contrast in the sky as the black clouds disappeared like bad dreams in the night. I looked at my own wedding ring. My hands weren’t young anymore. The years were ebbing on as they always had and always would. A glance in the rearview mirror brought the rainbow back in view. A twinge of hope flickered somewhere in my heart. I found my hand moving, reaching and then touching the hand of the man I loved. He stirred. My heart began to pound as I wondered at my foolishness. And then came a response. Mark’s fingers closed tenderly around my trembling ones, and he brought them to his lips.
Our car burst into the sunshine. I caught the glimmer of my own wedding ring and the diamond flashed. I reached and reset the cruise control.
“How fast are we goin’?” asked Mark. He still held my hand in his.
“Just set it at ‘79’”
“Don’t you mean the ‘light side of eighty’?”
“Yeah, I guess I do,” was my reply. I lifted my eyes to the rearview mirror. The rainbow was stretched from horizon to horizon, ablaze with color and hope.