Excerpt from The Quilt: A Woman's Journey to Power



CHAPTER 4

 

            The gently winding mountain road spun past Alex as she drove, her head leaning wearily on her hand, her arm crooked on the open window of her late model, green Acura sedan.  She was relieved to be free of what she saw as paranoia in her office. They can just cool their heels for a while. Without me around they'll see how invaluable I am. She laughed ironically to herself. 

            She had phoned her former husband, David, who told her their daughter Rosie was having a wonderful time at day camp so she probably wouldn't miss her mother's nightly calls for a while.  She didn't know whether to feel reassured by that or not. She worried about Rosie whenever she was away.  David was a good father but his ideas about child raising were too permissive for her liking. She was relieved he hadn't pressed her for details about why she was taking an unplanned vacation.

            She was in a hurry to leave the bustle of the city but had no particular destination.  Early morning mountain smells of pine and the sweet calls of birds soothed her senses like a balm before she became aware that she had begun to relax. She decreased her speed and felt hopeful that the day would erase the lunacy of her last day at work. She shifted her position in the tan leather seat, appreciating its softness as she pushed her back tightly up against it, while expanding her chest and taking a deep, refreshing breath.  Surprised, she heard her throat expel a sigh of relief and then a giggle.  She drove on with new determination to enjoy the next few days as a holiday.

            Feeling hungry, she pulled into a dusty parking lot at an old truck stop cafe, and chuckled to herself that she would be considering eating at such a place. But she emerged from her car, strode confidently toward the diner, and made plans to order something light. 

            Can't ever be too careful about food in these places. That must have been the message of that awful nightmare. I need to start taking better care of myself. Even though weeks had passed since she had the dream, she was still trying to avoid its irksome residue.

            Alex entered the dimly lit diner and sat down at the counter on a swivel chair that that had several poorly repaired tears in its red Naugahyde seat.  She pulled a paper napkin out of its holder and wiped down the counter before her, then warily picked up a greasy menu and looked at the selections. She opted for a cup of chicken noodle soup and a side of dry rye toast. As the man behind the counter appeared, she spoke her order aloud without looking up.

            "Got traveler's stomach?" asked the tall man, who wore a cook's cap that looked as though it had survived too many ineffective attempts at washing. He was chewing gum loudly and looked bored. His face was heavily pockmarked and bore a day-old smattering of beard.

            She looked up, startled out of her reveries, and muttered, "Oh, uh, no.  The soup and toast will be fine." She perceived the man as being far too personal and was annoyed by his impertinence.

            She adjusted her tailored grey jacket and defensively straightened her posture on the seat. The man gave her a look that revealed his feelings about uppity women and returned to the kitchen to prepare the food, popping his gum as he disappeared behind the squeaky swinging door.

            As she waited, she looked about the place.  She was the only customer and it was comforting not to be bothered by others. The cafe looked like it was built around 1930 with not much improvement made since then. Alex noticed some peeling paint over the entrance and guessed any remodeling efforts had involved merely painting over grease-stained walls.

            In her peripheral vision, Alex saw movement outside the window and pivoted the swivel seat for a better view. An older model car had stopped in front of the cafe, its engine still running. There was nothing remarkable about the scene so she began to turn her seat around again but halted when she noticed a man, whose long dark hair was tied back in a ponytail, emerge from the rust-flecked car.  There was something about him that riveted her attention.  Alex continued watching as he leaned in to say something to the woman in the driver's seat, whose mass of hair was long, dark and wavy. Alex saw what she thought was a younger, brown-haired woman in the back seat but she couldn't get a good view to be sure.

            The man walked away with long strides and she assumed the woman would drive off. But the engine continued to idle and the driver made no move.  Alex had a strange feeling that time was expanding and slowing at the same time, as if minutes were hours. Suddenly, the dark-haired man appeared again and began to open the passenger door. With his hand resting on the doorframe, he turned his face slowly toward the cafe window and looked piercingly into Alex's eyes. She was shocked and her body jolted. Although she didn't see his lips moving, she swore she heard a powerful voice in her ear asking, "Are you paying attention?"

            At that, the man stepped into the car and the woman accelerated, leaving a cloud of dust and pebbles as the tires scrambled for traction. Alex strained to see the passenger in the back seat but she seemed to have disappeared.

            Shocked to her core, Alex continued to stare out of the grime-streaked window. She felt as rattled as if she had been physically struck.  The dust from the car cleared and everything became eerily still.  She was vaguely aware that even the sounds from the kitchen had diminished. 

            Suddenly, she felt herself expanding into a kind of hyper-awareness where she felt herself in two realities at once. Part of her was sitting in the diner but another part was clearly somewhere else. Giddiness overtook her even while her mind fought for a logical explanation.  Curiously, she was not afraid and even yielded to her new state of mind with its strange perceptions.  Her body felt different, lighter, yet more connected to the ground. She slid off her stool and made her way over to the window, pressing her fingertips gently against the cool glass, now unconcerned with its oily surface. She strained to see down the road in the direction the rusty car had gone.

            Suddenly, she felt an exhilarating feeling of expansion rising in her chest, followed by a laugh that bubbled forth from deep within her.

            Startled by her outburst, Alex dropped back abruptly into her ordinary reality. Knees shaking, she sank weakly into a wooden chair by the window and attempted to gather her thoughts. She looked down at her clothes and touched her face lightly. She flinched when the gum-popping cook appeared.

            "D'ya want yer soup here or t'the counter?" He was balancing a cracked bowl of chicken noodle soup and a plate of toast in one hand.

            "Who were those people?" she asked, ignoring his question.

            "What?" The gum popped again.

            "The ones in that car. That man and woman."

            Squinting his eyes, the cook looked at her suspiciously, sizing her up.

            "Look, Lady, there ain't been nobody past here since you drove up.  I know, cuz I can see out t'the lot even when I'm doin' the cookin' in the kitchen. See?" He motioned with his arm toward the large window that opened from the kitchen to the dining room.

            Alex, sensing his distrust, decided against arguing her point.  He's obviously lying.  But his motivation for doing so eluded her.  As the man shifted his weight, waiting for an answer to his question about the food, she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror on the wall behind him.  Behind her left shoulder was a hazy image of the couple in the car. They were standing there smiling at her.

            "My god!" she exclaimed aloud, startling the cook as well as herself.  She saw his increasing agitation, so she rose from her chair, grabbed a couple of bills from her black leather purse and pushed them into his large, beefy hand.

            Stumbling out of the cafe, Alex leaned on the side of her car for several moments, taking in large gulps of the crisp mountain air to clear her now throbbing head.

            She opened the driver side door and sat down on the soft seat, fumbling with the keys. She selected one and poked it into the ignition slot but when she tried to start the engine, the key would not turn.  She tried forcing it, but it stubbornly refused to engage.  She yanked the key out and realized that it was the key to the trunk.  She made another selection and this time the engine started with a loud roar as she gunned the accelerator pedal.

            The cook, who was still holding her bowl of soup and plate of toast, just stared after her.

            "City folks. They're all nuts!" He returned to the kitchen, shaking his head, stuffing the money into his pocket, and popping his gum two times in succession.