The car cannonballed down the highway at speeds that transformed the surrounding cornfields into a gigantic Impressionist exhibit. Jackie played her guitar in the back seat. I still don’t know how the girls were comfortable back there, but they seemed to enjoy it. There was just enough room for Ellie, Jackie, and that guitar, the item that never seemed to leave Jackie’s hands since she returned from Memphis a year ago. She wouldn’t play anything longer than a few bars, but no one cared. It was a refreshing change from the religious radio and bleating country tunes that dominated the airwaves as we passed through the Midwest.
“Jackie, one of these days I’d love for you to actually play a whole song,” Justin needled her as he turned in his seat and looked back, smiling. Justin loved to take digs at her and that guitar. She’d oblige him, playing a riff that everyone knew from whatever classic rock song was floating around in her head, but then stop. Either she didn’t know the rest or she was just teasing us. No one knew, really. No one really cared.
A sign ahead advertised gasoline, food, and cattle feed, so I thought it would be smart to refuel while we had the opportunity. The last gas station was just outside of Sioux Falls, and we’d been driving west for hours without passing another.
“Guys, I’m going to stop to get gas. Be cool in the station.”
“Get me some beef jerky, man.” Justin had been trying to eat beef jerky from every state we’d stopped in.
The exit ramp approached and I put the turn signal on. The unending repetition of the cornfields had distracted me from the speedometer, and upon entering the rest stop, slamming on the brakes and pulling the e-brake was the only way to prevent us from crashing into the first row of pumps.
“One hundred to zero in six seconds flat!” Ellie drawled in her pseudo-intoxicated voice. Jackie lowered her guitar enough so the two could high five each other, and her jerking motion bopped Justin in the back of the skull with the top end of the instrument.
“Ow.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “No beef jerky for you.”
“I got your beef jerky right here!” she pumped a closed fist in the air.
I pulled into a dock and turned the car off. Justin opened the door and stepped out of the car quickly. We’d been going nonstop for four hours, and he needed to stretch his legs. I tried to feel bad for him, being 6′6″ and stuck in the car for so long. But he knew what he was getting into when he signed up for this road trip, so I couldn’t think about it too much. Driving three thousand miles in a four-seat coupe wasn’t going to be easy.
I opened my door and turned to step out, pausing to ask the girls if they needed anything.
“Tampons.” I cringed.
“Roasted almonds. Make sure they’re not salted.”
I looked at them both, and they giggled. The door slammed closed and knocked them back into their seat.
“Justin, your turn for gas, man. Fill it up.”
“Cool, no worries. Don’t forget the jerky.”
He put his card into the machine as I went into the convenience store. I did my usual pat down of my pockets as I took my steps into the small glass-encased quickie mart. The doors were heavy, and I pulled hard to get them open. Stepping in, I was greeted with a blast of cold air. The hairs on my neck stood straight up. The car air conditioner had stopped working somewhere outside of Gary, Indiana, and the store’s AC was a welcomed luxury. I looked to the clerk, who sat behind the counter in a winter coat.
“Howdy.” His voice had the typical drawl we kept getting in the area – Midwestern with a hint of Redneck.
I made my way to the refrigerated case. I grabbed a two-liter of store-brand grape soda, a few large bottles of water, and a refrigerated Milky Way bar before turning back toward the counter. Using my hip, I checked the door closed; the slam behind me made an unexpected pop.
The sound startled me, distracting me so that I didn’t notice the buckled floor mat. I tripped, causing an Olympic dive to the floor. I caught myself on a freezer, but the bottles fell, slipping through my hands. The grape soda struck the ground and exploded, sizzling loudly and spraying the entire front side of the pristine white freezer. The soda gushed and splashed, soaking the rug and glazing the stand of assorted potato-based snacks.
“Orville, we need a cleanup in the store when you’re free,” the voice sounded through the speaker.
I picked myself up and dusted my pants. Somehow not a drop of soda got on anything other than my hands. I walked over to the counter and set down the remaining items.
“Sorry about that.”
“You’ll have to pay for the soda, sir.”
“Not a problem. I want to grab a few things before I walk out. Can I use the restroom to wash my hands first?”
He didn’t bother to move or look up from his book on animal husbandry. Instead, he slid a long plank of unfinished wood over the counter, a small key attached to it. The word “Bathroom” was carved into the wood.
“Behind the freezer to your left. Try not to fall on your way.”
I picked up the wood and turned to go to the bathroom, looking down to make sure there were no more pitfalls.
The bathroom was small and filthy. The walls were made of some kind of faded-yellow laminate that had an assortment of stains. A number of people had written messages in pen and marker along the walls. I now knew whom to call if I needed a good time in Wall, South Dakota. I went to the sink, which was the only thing I was willing to touch. The paper towel dispenser was full, and I removed a few sheets and used them to turn the water on. I washed my hands with a gritty lava-soap product that removed the first layer of skin from my palms and fingers. Two more sheets of paper towel to turn off the water, and one final sheet to open the door. Back in the store, I found the cheese spread and tampons. After detonating a two-liter of artificially colored acid all over the far aisle, I wasn’t embarrassed to buy feminine hygiene products.
I made my way to the cooler to grab another bottle of grape soda for the girls before heading to the beef jerky display. Justin never told me what he actually wanted, and there were so many choices, but I knew he wanted a packet of local product. I chose a package with a big bison on the front. The cellophane was thick and the packaging was nothing special, but the jerky looked peppery and rich, and I knew it would be what I’d want in a few hours, when I was ready to ask him for a piece.
Back to the counter I went, placing my last items next to the register, along with the wood bathroom plank. The clerk closed his book and put it down before standing to greet me officially.
“Is there anything else I can get for you, sir?” His voice was monotone and the drawl seemed comedic.
“Yes, two packs of menthol cigarettes, one pack of unfiltered smokes, and a package of those E-Z cigarette papers.” His hands moved across the display. “Double wides.”
He grabbed the cigarettes with no problem but it took a minute of finger wagging and direction for him to find the small brown package of cigarette papers that were hidden in clear sight among the random items.
“No. That’ll do.”
“Are you sure? Would you like some allergy medication? Your eyes are very red and it’s allergy season ’round here.”
“No, I’ll be fine.” My eyelid twitched.
He lowered his head to use the register, and I turned away to smile without him seeing me, but when I turned back to face him, the smirk on my lips had not faded.
I handed him two twenty-dollar bills and he returned the change, which I stuffed in my pocket. He placed all of the items into two plastic bags and handed them to me. I took them and he sat back down and picked up his book. “Have a nice day,” he muttered from behind the pages.
The transition from air-conditioned convenience to Midwestern summer made me break into a quick sweat. I walked over to the car and was greeted by the two girls, who were having a small jam session in the back seat. Jackie played something on her guitar I’d never heard before while Ellie struggled to keep any kind of rhythm on the bottom of a Pringles can. I smiled and swung the two bags onto the driver-side seat. Justin was still standing next to the gas pump, staring out towards the highway or the cornfields beyond it.
“Never started actually. You can go for it, though.”
I took the nozzle off the pump and began filling the tank. The smell of the gasoline was inviting.
“Yanno, I wonder about people out here,” Justin said. “You’re surrounded by nothing. I guess it could be kinda liberating.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well.” He cleared his throat. “You look at us, living in a city where we have everything, and we’re desperate to hit the road and come out here. Makes you wonder if we really have everything we really need.”
“Need is different than want.”
He continued. “Yeah, I hear that, but I guess in the thick of all that noise and all those bodies, need and want seem to get blurred together.”
“Yeah, but Justin, people out here try to move to where we’re escaping from. Maybe they see this place like we see home.”
He brought his hand to his chin and rubbed it, pretending there was some kind of scruff or beard.
“Well. What is home really?”
“Home is where you hang your hat,” I snapped, trying to be witty.
“Maybe home is just the place people try to run away from. We just call it home because there’s no other word to call it.”
“Well I don’t know.” My tone shifted to something more serious. “I’m not trying to run away from anything. I’m trying to see the places and things we only read about and see on television. I want to experience the world.”
“There’s more to life than just seeing things.”
He was about to continue with another deep thought when the gas pump popped, signaling that the tank was full. I pulled the nozzle out and returned it to the pump, sealed the gas tank and closed the flap.
“Have you ever thought about what we’re really doing out here?” he asked.
I was opening my mouth to respond to him when Jackie’s voice yelled out from the car, “Guys! Can we get going already?”
Her outburst made him return to a reality that didn’t include philosophy. He straightened up and turned to the car.
“You driving still, or me?”
“It’s technically one of the girls’ turn.”
“I’ll drive; they seem like they’re enjoying themselves.”
I tossed him the keys and he walked around the front of the car. I entered on the passenger side and sat down, removing the bags from his seat so he could get in. I opened the bags, let out a “Ho ho ho!” and gave out the items.
“Where’s the almonds?” Ellie’s voice sounded like a sad little girl who didn’t get the puppy she was begging her parents for.
“Oh, they were all salted. Sorry, Ellie.” I didn’t want to admit that I’d forgotten.
The menthol cigarettes went into the back for the girls, and the others stayed in the center console for Justin and me. When I handed the jerky to Justin, he smiled with approval before ripping the top of the package and inhaling deeply.
“Did you get a good whiff, J?” Jackie said with a snarky tone.
“Yeah I did. Fucking delish, man.”
Justin turned on the engine, which gave a low roar. He put the car in drive and pulled out of the station, past a lot full of truckers and their tractors, and back onto the highway.
Jackie leaned forward, and placed her hands on the back of our heads.
“I fuckin’ love you guys.”
The cornfields resumed their green and yellow blur. The girls picked up their instruments and resumed whatever song they were creating. I slumped into my chair and thought that life, in this moment, couldn’t get any better.