Mr. Marley's Escape (short story)
Mr. Marley was a lovable lummox. He didn’t contribute much during his life, but he caused no harm. He wasn’t a pillar of the community, but he was always available to help save the world from the horror of unempty kegs.
Mr. Marley drove Mercurys since he got out of the army after WWII. They were mostly ordinary and boring but he loved each one. Then, in 1969, the dealer gave him a deal on a brand new Mercury Cyclone, a street-legal NACSAR racer. Marley hit the road and his family never saw him again.
His family didn’t really miss him. His kids were grown and his wife quickly found a much less ordinary life of her very own. It took Mr. Marley’s workplace three months to notice his absence and kept mailing his paycheck. When they noticed they were too embarrassed to ask Mrs. Marley for the money back.
The road proved to be Mr. Marley’s soul mate. Not the interstates, they were boring. He fell in love with the roads built before Eisenhower carved up the country. Roads that went places rather than through places. The roads guarded by giants with mufflers for swords. Pink motels that looked like a scattering on Monopoly houses. The good stuff of America.
At a New Jersey yard sale he bought a pile of text books. All kinds of subjects. He never went to college, thinking he wasn’t smart enough. He wasn’t the only one with that opinion. In his family, college was just for exceptional students or rich kids trying to avoid the draft. He was shocked at how much he understood for those text books.
One day Mr. Marley pulled up to a pick your own Strawberry stand. He’d never been to one before. He took a basket and for 15 minutes tried in vain to find a single pickable strawberry. He returned his empty basket and commented to the clerk on the illusion of free choice. The clerk said, “What?” Mr. Marley didn’t feel like explaining.
He wasn’t a food snob though. Mr. Marley never had any interest in fine dining. He looked upon such events as plays where the diners were the actors and the audience. A contest with rules set by Emily Post rather than Edmond Hoyle. He preferred heartier fare. Eating for the purpose of eating.
One night he was driving late, having given up trying to find a motel. He toyed with the idea of driving all night till the sunrise blinded him in the rear view mirror. He liked the idea when he came across a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. It was surrounded by pickup trucks. Just like in the movies. He decided to go in and get drunk enough to sleep in the car.
The bartender was beautiful, but old enough to be his mother. When asked what he wanted, he said, “Surprise me.” The liquid she poured into the glass smelled of cinnamon and rotten eggs. She warned him to take it slow, but he’s too much a man, and too much a Marley to heed such a warning. He later told the emergency room nurse that he felt his liver shiver. She understood.
At some point he fell asleep. It was slow in the E.R. so the nurses let him be till morning. He tried to order a ride share, but nobody would come. A seven mile walk under the southern side goes a long way to sobering you up. His car was still in the parking lot, along with several of the pickup trucks. There was a cop there who gave him a breathalyzer test before he let Mr. Marley drive.
For the first time on his journey he felt the loneliness of the highway. He looked for a long time at the empty passenger seat. Missing the woman who used to sit there. He pulled over to call her, but the number was disconnected. He tried several friends and family back home, but nobody would talk to him. He climbed into the back seat of the car and cried himself to sleep.