Mary was driving down the freeway in the slow lane. She didn’t like to speed, even on a big, straight, empty freeway, which this one wasn’t. Speeding was a good way to get yourself killed. Mary kept to the slow lane with her speedometer at a steady fifty. If there was rain, or wind gusts, or traffic, or if she was feeling anxious, she lowered that number to forty-five.
Her insurance rates had gone through the roof because she was cited for driving too slowly every couple of months. In some states she would have lost her license long since.
Mary didn’t change speeds; that way lay chaos. Also, she did not like to change lanes. She wouldn’t even consider it. Glancing at the rear-view or side-view mirror? Too risky.
Thus, as she passed freeway entrance ramps, any cars on them seeking to merge onto the freeway and into the slow lane had to get there ahead of her or wait for her to pass. An entering driver could not expect her to speed up or change lanes to get out of the way, or to slow down and allow entry. Not going to happen.
Mary thus occasionally found herself running parallel to another car, which was trying to occupy the same lane as her, with a driver in it unwilling to hit the brakes until she passed. When this happened, she sailed on in a straight line. She did not otherwise react. Perhaps, in fact, she remained perfectly unaware of the dueling automobile, which invariably ended up driving along on the shoulder next to her, spewing gravel and grazing side rails until the driver sped up enough to pass her or gave up and slowed down, usually cursing foully while doing so.
A number of times when this happened, one or another of Mary’s children, who were adults, because Mary was no longer young, would be in the car, looking out the passenger’s window at the opposing vehicle, as if the two cars were engaged in some wild and peculiar chariot race. After the crisis had passed, they would speak, shaken.
“Ma, are you nuts? When a car is coming up the ramp like that, you can’t just act like you’re going to collide with it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have the right of way.”
“That doesn’t matter if you have an accident. Someone could be killed. And you’re on the left, by the way, not the right.”
“As long as I stay steady, it will come out all right. It’s when you vary that the situation becomes unpredictable.”
“What just happened,” said her daughter, “that was unpredictable. I could see the other guy thinking about moving over and pushing you right out of the lane.”
“Let him try,” Mary said with a grim note in her voice.
This attitude of Mary’s, this way of driving straight down the freeway at a constant, unvarying rate of speed, could be taken as a template for her way of “driving down the freeway of Life.” In spite of the imprecations and threats and entreatments and beseechments and downright pleading and begging of her children, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren, she resisted any change.
So it was that on a cold day in November, with a stiff cross-wind blowing a leafy detritus of fall color across the New England freeway, amidst heavy traffic, Mary’s appointment in Samarra came due. A Mary-like driver proceeded up the on-ramp from Chelmsford on her right as she drove along.
Neither slowed. Neither increased speed.
The other driver’s left front fender met Mary’s right front fender at an angle, pushing the nose of her car to the left and sending it, and her, into a spin, even as her fender exploded in a cloud of plastic chips. As her car spun, it moved into the adjoining lane to the left, pinwheeling forward at more than forty miles an hour. A car in that lane caught her right rear fender as it spun past, hitting, detaching, and demolishing bodywork at sixty miles an hour and increasing the rate of Mary’s spin two-fold.
As she twirled into the third lane, an oncoming car hit its brakes while taking a lick across its grill and front bumper from her swinging rear, such that the car stood on its nose and then did a forward roll three times before skidding along the pavement on its roof in a shower of sparks and auto body parts.
A bevy of cars then plowed into Mary’s wreck, the upside-down car, the car that had tried to enter the freeway, and each other, resulting in four lanes and fifty-one automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles damaged or totaled. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured.
Mary was extricated from the remains of her car. She walked, with help, shakily, to the side of the road, where EMT and Highway Patrol officers waited to interview her.
“Hear me well,” she said without preamble. “It’s New Years Day and I hearby resolve to go out tomorrow and buy the biggest, baddest Hummer I can find.”