You’ve Been Away For Far Too Long

Time seems to have slipped beyond your grasp. You could have sworn that it was only a week ago you left the campsite, leaving the bits of food you didn’t feel like taking home for the deer and raccoons. How is it that you wandered, unfocused for this long?

You remember bits and pieces. The truck stop, a fight in a diner where a man got body slammed through a table, soap carvings of Victorian’s dying from diseases. Surely you lost a page in the calendar.

You charge your phone for the first time in what has to be 3 weeks, you’re not a social person and the places you’ve been, the phone wasn’t getting a signal anyway.

A voicemail: the word’s “job abandonment” float around the car, hovering like a lead ghost.

Oh well, you hated that job anyway. You’ll just have to go back to Madame Zofia’s and help her carve soap tragedies.

Too bad you never got to tell Joan to fuck off.

Truck Stop Soup, A Trailer Hitch, and Bibles With Your Name On Them.

You pull into the gas station that also doubles as a rest area for truckers and are taken in by the weirdness of it all. You step out of the car in the middle of nowhere and are greeted by harsh lights and the sounds of Arrested Development’s “Tennessee” playing at full blast. It’s late, but you need to fuel up so you can go to another place, another land.

As you step inside, a wave of tacky washes over you as your eyes scan the shelves. Sure, there’s the usual gas station fare you’d expect to find, but among that you see shot glasses, personalized bibles, half birthday cakes, and a soup and salad bar. The beverage fountain flickers it’s light at you, beckoning you into 128 ounces of corn syrup-y refreshment. Further back in the store you find screwdrivers, trailer hitches, a hunting jacket, 3 rain ponchos and a poison sign for a hazmat truck. Something catches your eye and you double back to a strange little hallway.

There’s a slot machine at the end of the hallway. And an arcade cabinet of some fighting game, 3 tables, and a tv. There’s also a washing machine and a shower. It’s all a bit odd to you, having never been at a proper truck stop, but everything seems both out of place and right at home here.

You pay for your gas, your 128 ounces of soda, and a shot glass while the clerk sings “I challenge you to a game of horseshoes. A game of horseshoes!”

You decline her challenge, as you have to get to Holly Springs to meet with Eshe.

Breakfast In a Tchotchkesque Nightmare

A knock at the door and a few half hearted barks from Lucky Jim wake you up. Rusty leads you into the dining room, a place you would only feel comfortable calling knick-knack’s 7th level of hell.

Porcelain figures of children fishing or getting the mail or doing other precocious bullshit things clutter the shelves alongside snow globes, a framed picture of Jesus so old it’s only got one side, 3 urns, and other assorted odds and ends. The flowery wallpaper sags with age and probably also the weight of all those fucking snow globes.

Norma comes flitting into the room, all too happy to have a guest. Norma looks like everyone’s mother got together and had a sketch artist draw them as one person. Her hair is dark but giving way to gray (or is that just dust from all the tchotchkes?) Her smile is warm but her eyes have a distance to them, dreams she had to bury swam around behind that smile. She has on a yellow and pink apron that could make Easter wince. Her voice is sweet and oddly heavy, like old molasses being poured off a cliff.

“It’s so nice to have a guest around here! We don’t see quite as many visitors as we used to and Lucky Jim doesn’t care to hear my stories again.”

Norma fills you in on her and Rusty’s entire life over plate after plate of waffles and bacon. Every time you try to resist more food she simply piles your plate and keeps talking. Luckily her waffles taste like the kiss of 1000 angels after the bad diner food and questionable snacks you’ve endured thus far so you manage to make room.

She tells you about how the town had a boom period in the 40’s and how her and Rusty bought the property that is now the hotel waiting for the money to come rolling in, but the boom didn’t last long, and all the people had fled before they opened. Now they just waited for tired people to stop on their way to somewhere bigger and flashier.

Time seemed to stand still for Norma and Rusty, even though they and their businesses showed signs of age, they never moved on from the idea that the town could be a diamond in the rough.

Pretty soon you realize Norma has been talking for 4 hours. It’s nearly 3 now, and you really need to get going. You thank her for her food and hospitality and settle your tab. You head out to say farewell to Rusty, but not before Norma can shove a basket full of homemade goodies into your arms.

Her house turned hotel may have been where tacky goes to die, but God damn it that Norma is a sweetheart wrapped in the most gaudy apron you’ve ever laid eyes on.

As you pull out of the gas station you toss a muffin to Lucky Jim who gobbles it in the blink of an eye.

You chuckle to yourself as you wonder if there’s any Yelp reviews for Rusty and Norma’s.

A Home Never Gives Way To Rust

It’s late, the tank is almost empty, so you pull off to the only gas station this side of town. It’s a building that looks as though if it had ever had a good day, that day probably ended in 1953. There’s 5 pumps, 2 work. Rusty always would talk about getting the others fixed, but the money was never there and they got by just fine anyway.

You distract yourself with petting the 3 legged dog sprawled out by the front door. You can smell the faint hint of oil and old tobacco clinging to the cobwebs that blow in the breeze like streamers on a fan.

You step inside the gas station, it’s 15 degrees warmer than it is outside, which is odd since it’s a warm August night. The posters on the wall are nearly transparent, having not been updated in 30+ years. There’s a shelf of home baked goods, they look fresh and are well wrapped, so you pick up a blueberry muffin, if you die now, at least you died from a muffin.

You ask for $10 for pump 4, a scratch off, and recommendations for a hotel. The clerk mentions he and his wife Norma own the hotel in town, naturally. He offers you a room that comes with a home cooked breakfast and if you choose, the dog can even stay the night with you.

Tired and looking to avoid more driving or sleeping in the car, you thank him and accept his invitation. When’s the last time someone named Norma killed anyone? He asks you to stick around for 15 more minutes so he can close up the store, you step outside, sit on the curb and split your muffin with the dog.

“Name’s Joe by the way, but people call me Rusty.” He says. “Figure you might want to know a man’s name before ya sleep in his house.”

You offer a smile and a “nice to meet you.”

“Dog’s name is Lucky Jim.”

Of course.

Joe points to the hotel situated just behind the gas station. You opt to leave your car at the gas station and walk over with him, room 7 is your home for the night. Lucky Jim jumps on the bed and is asleep before you have a chance to step in the room. You’ve shared a bed with worse guests.

You turn to thank Joe but he’s already gone, you shrug and climb into bed.

 

The Road Sprawls Into Empty Nothing

You pull into the parking lot of the town’s only store and restaurant, Clem’s Bait and Tackle, General Goods and Diner. You find it slightly odd there is a bait and tackle shop here as there isn’t a lake or even so much as a pond for at least 100 miles in any direction. A sign, yellowed and peeling with age implores you to try the meatloaf. You settle for a ham on rye and a Coke served in a chipped glass. The sandwich is passable, save for the roughly quarter gallon of mustard slathered on like tar, and you tend to like any amount of ice in your pop. The waitress, Bobbi-Judy grimaces from the counter. You head over to the Jukebox and flip through the pages, the machine clunks lazily. After 6 or 7 pages you realize the only song in the Jukebox is “The Happiest Girl In The Whole USA” by Donna Fargo.

You select track B7, it calls to you for some reason. the song skips and begins to repeat the line “It’s a skippidity do da day” over and over. You leave the waitress $3 in quarters because you had just cleaned out the center console and they don’t accept credit cards here.

You head over to the general goods side of the building to wander among the pork cracklings and taxidermy beavers and to clear your head. You’d always thought road trips were an adventure as a kid, but that’s because you slept through most of the sprawl. You never noticed that the highway yawned forward for hours, the same scenery almost mocking you as you chug along, hoping for something worth doing, something worth seeing. You chuckle to yourself as you think about how much you want to shove the entire Grand Canyon up Joan from accounts receivables smug ass as you blindly grab at a display of corn nuts.

It’s not until you’ve been on the road for 2 hours that you realize you bought the Jalapeno flavor, you toss them out the window and hope the deer and raccoons that will surely eat them don’t get the shits.

Fuck jalapenos. You find yourself singing “it’s a skippidity do da day” tunelessly, aimlessly.

God damn you, Donna Fargo.

 

The Journey Begins

Your stomach rumbles, it’s been a while since you left the house and you didn’t pack a cooler because it’s in the 90’s and your A/C is broke and fuck driving around with a box of hot water in your backseat. You hit the next exit and pull into the gravel parking lot. The bell chimes listlessly as you open the door. Everything is covered in a fine layer of dust and you’ll probably die from eating that jerky, but it’s $3 a pound and you’re at least 4 hours from the nearest Hardee’s. You search the cooler for a drink. Among the dusty glass bottles of Coke and Peach Fanta you find the original run of Crystal Pepsi.

You opt for a can of Dr. Pepper that is most certainly from 1988.

As you walk to the counter you notice the coffee pot is half full, yet the coffee has a film on it. You scan the magazines on the rack, unsure of who anyone on the cover is. The magazines seem to be the only new thing in the building. A second glance tells you they are all gossip magazines from Fiji. The clerk eyes you with indifference, His cigarette dangles idly in his mouth, the ashes beg to be flicked, but he won’t. He never does. The music tinkles faintly over the stereo speaker stapled to the wall. You’d swear it was a Tammy Wynette song, but sung in an empty pool entirely through the medium of sobs.

It feels like you’ve been in the store for hours, days, years. The clock, it’s glass frosted with a miasma of dirt and neglect does not yield the time.
You get back in the car and look at the clock on the radio, you were in there for 3 minutes. You open the Dr. Pepper to find it’s surprisingly still fresh tasting. Your favorite Golden Earring song comes on the radio as you continue your drive to see the largest rubber band ball in America.