Nerve Classics

Rural Route

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In Taylor, Mississippi (population 200) car tires on driveway gravel can become the same kind of white noise as crickets, especially if you’re a single woman of marginal looks and make eye contact with anyone on a regular basis.

I left Austin, Texas, for cotton country a little more than a month ago, shortly after Señor Revelation dunked my almost-thirty-year-old ass into an ice-cold stream of Haves and Have Nots: I had a mortgage, no children, no husband, no prospects, a profit-sharing pension plan suctioned to a job that included taking my employer’s poodle to the vet, and I had been living in the same city as my parents for all but four of my twenty-eight years. Call it what you will: rude awakening, mental breakdown, mental illness, early midlife, whatever. All I know is this: I woke up one day feeling a little too close to the coffin, and decided to take a year off life in search of a new one.

Gotta get naked before you can get dressed. At least that’s what I told myself as I packed my boxes, rented out my house, put most of my earthly belongings (including the urn holding my late Great-Uncle Meyer) in storage, and headed east with not much more than my dogs and my computer. At the suggestion of a friend, I was moving to Taylor (seven miles south of Oxford, a small university town) to live cheap, focus on my writing and possibly steal a few hairs off the over-talented, whisky-drenched souls of the Southern literati whose books line my shelves.

“What’s your story?” the gas station attendant asked while checking the air in my tires. I had just crossed the Mississippi state line.

“Well,” I said, “I guess if I had a story worth telling, I wouldn’t have come here in the first
place.”

The man wiped his greasy hands and cocked his head. “You married, you have kids?” he asked.

“No!” I shot back with the immediacy of acid reflux. “I’m taking a breather from the other gender; I moved here to find myself, not a man.”

“Um, okay,” he said, “Whatever.” A little frightened by the tone of my defense, I jumped back into the driver’s seat. The attendant, now cleaning the windshield, wiped the squeegee with the tail of his shirt.

“Few words of advice?” he asked, inching his way up toward my open window. “Never trust a woman you can’t inflate, and never keep a dog that done shit on your carpet.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Dunno,” he said, “but I’ve had two wives and ten dogs and every one of ’em done shit on my carpet. You say you want one thing; you get somethin’ different ’round here. That’s my point. You’re moving to a small town. You’re new. The men, they’ll sniff you out.”

Two months settled in now, I’m afraid the gas station attendant may have been a soothsayer in bad clothing. Despite all of my efforts to focus my attentions on the pen and not the penis, it’s become all too clear that the tiny pool of single Taylor males will drive the chapters of my new life like the plagues in the story of Moses. Except in my version of Exodus — working title: Sexodus — I replace frogs, hail and locusts with Alex, Scott and a Crush Who Does Not Know I Exist. And after a few very strange late-night incidents, I think I’m about two days shy of smearing blood on my doorpost and running, stark mad, out into the desert.

Alex imports Vespas for a living. A single dad with a seven-year-old son, he introduced himself while I was picking up a to-go order my third week in town. (His brother is part owner of the only sushi bar within a ninety-mile radius. Need I further explain the significance of this?) Closer to forty than thirty, Alex’s smallish frame supports an attractive face, even though his features border on nondescript. His uniform suggests a man who knows his way around farm equipment and old cars: straw hat, cowboy boots, jeans, an open work shirt with “Earl,” “John” or “Mike” monogrammed on the breast pocket.

The day after we met, I took Alex up on his offer of a Vespa ride out in the country. Two beers and one uninspiring stretch of gravel road later, I passed my helmet back to Alex along with a slightly presumptuous, “I just got out of a long, long relationship (small lie) and can’t see myself being interested in anyone for a very long time.”

“Oh. Well, that’s cool,” Alex said as he followed me to my car. “Guess I’ll just see you around then.”

One week later my phone rang at 11:45 p.m. It was Alex. He wanted to swing by my house and drop something off. “Um, I really don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. “I’m in bed, need to get up early…”

“Oh, come on, it’ll just take a second. You can meet me outside.” Fifteen minutes later, his truck rolled into my drive, pulling a huge trailer of Vespas. He’s giving me a scooter, I thought. I had images of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, only it was me, not Audrey, on Old Taylor Road, looking for Gregory Peck.

I stepped off my front porch, scanned for nosy neighbors. Alex rolled down his window and held out not keys but twelve dozen roses. Soon I was cradling the flowers like the baby I’ll never have.

“I mean, I don’t want you to think I’m this crazy stalker guy or something,” he said. “I don’t want to freak you out.” I just stared at him, brows furrowed, thinking restraining order, shotgun, police response time. To make matters worse, I caught sight of Alex’s seven-year-old son, Ben, sitting in the passenger seat. I could all but hear him say, “Good night, Ma. See ya in the mornin’, Ma. Don’t forget to pack my lunch for school, Ma!” as Alex backed out of the drive.

Why would this not freak me out?

Even in the big city, I wasn’t good at dealing with situations like this. So I burned my free-standing rose bush, made a note to purchase Caller ID first thing in the morning, then ran to my neighbor’s, seeking a better understanding of mating and dating in Mississippi.

“Linda,” I said, bursting through her front door unannounced, “I think I just got a wedding proposal, only without the ring. Does that qualify as a normal second date around here?”

Linda, who at forty has been with the same man for over twenty years, laughed and said, “You’re the most eligible woman around here; you shouldn’t be all that surprised.”

“What!” I shrieked. “That can’t be right. I moved to Mississippi, not Alaska.”

“That’s true,” she said, “but your only competition in Taylor is a twenty-seven-year-old waitress. And when Sascha’s not slinging plates at the catfish restaurant, she’s making a pretty penny writing term papers for the kids up at the university. No one sees much of her until the end of the spring semester.”

“So what are you telling me?” I asked.

“You’re it,” she exclaimed, as if I’d won the lottery. “Kind of like Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick. Around here the show is yours, if you want it.”

“No thanks,” I said, heading for the door. “Think I’ll just hang in Oxford for a bit.”

On my way home, I thought about Linda’s Witches of Eastwick analogy. It wasn’t that far off, though I was pretty sure Linda had somehow missed the movie’s ending: Nicholson, the town’s most eligible bachelor was tortured with a Voodoo doll and run out of town. She’d proven my point exactly.

Scott manages one of my favorite local restaurants in Oxford. When he’s not checking in on the kitchen staff or working the dining room crowd, he’s playing musical chairs up at the bar, stopping at tables long enough for one smoke and a quick hello. Scott’s nice, though quite possibly a little manic. Dating profile should read: twice divorced, no kids, great dog, can cook, cool house (with pool), and total gentleman. He even has a box of Regular tampons purposely displayed in his master bathroom. (And, no, they don’t look like a box of ex-girlfriend tampons, but rather a box that made Scott’s grocery list and were thrown into the cart right after the toilet paper and paper towels.) His ex-wives would probably add “not bad on the eyes when he’s wearing a hat or sweating profusely.” They’d also probably throw in a line or two about Scott being forty and still having no idea what he wants from a woman, much less a wife.

I’ve gone out with Scott a few times. The last time resulted in a little impromptu sleepover. The night started with a call on my cellphone as I was driving back from the Memphis airport. “I’m just about to throw some ribs on the grill,” he said. “Come on over.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m tired, have been traveling all day, am not really all that hungry…”

“Oh, come on,” he pleaded. “One glass of wine, it’s on your way home.” Next thing I knew, it was six o’clock the next morning and I was staring up at unfamiliar rafters, watching the ceiling fan cut through the What the hell is he/she thinking about? silence that mottled the air.

Scott and I didn’t have sex, didn’t even come close. I vaguely remember two or three bottles of wine, an invitation to spend the night, Scott pulling back the sheets in the guest bedroom, a little spit swapping, relocation to his room, and then sleep. I recall the drunk kissing as above average, but I didn’t feel a sense of urgency (for lack of a better word) on his part. And all I could figure as he hugged me goodbye was that maybe, just maybe, men moved a little bit slower in the state of Mississippi.

Two things I hold for truths about small-town living: digging up dirt on a potential lover is about as easy as finding the local Wal-Mart, and the only sure way to avoid someone is to move. Scott hasn’t called since our lackluster night together.

I’ve decided to write Scott’s little hit-and-run off as part of the “driving experience.” Besides, even though Scott’s King of the Bar to my Queen of Avoidance, I’m not up for another move across country.

Not yet, anyway. I knew this two days after Scott’s slumber party, watching the Crush Who Does Not Know I Exist part the red-headed seas as he passed through Scott’s bar in a pair of ass-friendly blue jeans.

My female competition in Oxford is a slightly different kind of bar food than I’m used to: overdressed sorority girls, underdressed graduate students (usually huddled together by gender), and Viagra-pushing pharmaceutical reps who gravitate towards all things pleated, plaid or married.

Crush Who Does Not Know I Exist is a university professor. According to Google, he has no kids and is thirty-five. He played college football, writes crime fiction, is taller than me with can-fix-anything arms, and his first name can be found in a full deck of cards (I’m trying to be discreet here. This is a small town, after all). In truth, I’ve never actually looked Crush-Who-Does-Not-Know-I-Exist in the eyes. I’m too afraid he’ll see straight through me — see me naming our children — and run away. I’m also afraid of his on again/off again girlfriend. I’ve met her. She belongs in a snow globe with seven dwarves and a poison apple.

Alex still calls and leaves messages incessantly, usually something about a midnight scooter ride and am I up for one. And I always think Would rather carry dead Sherpa up Everest, before pressing delete on my phone. Now, his name hasn’t appeared on my Caller ID for quite some time.

I’ve floundered within a similar triangle of men for most of my adult life: one corner likes me too much, one likes me too little, while the one I like most doesn’t like me at all. It’s strange to see what parts of your old life follow you into the new. In truth, it makes me want to pack up and move again. Only now I know that wherever I go, there’ll be a new pool of Alexes, Scotts and Crushes who don’t know I exist. So despite my best instincts, I’m going to plant my stake here for a bit. And while I still can’t predict what my next suitor will leave on my porch, I am certain of this: the next time I hear car tires on gravel in my driveway, I’ll check through the peephole before opening the door.