far too much writing, far too many photos

Excerpt #3 from a novel in progress (© 2002, 2006 by runswithscissors):

Evening fell slow and soft, the twilight stretching on, the clouds clearing away as we headed west. The terrain changed from the grand, wide expanses of valleys and mountains to tighter, more condensed ranges, covered with trees, evergreens and bare deciduous softening the outline of rises and crests against the last light of the day. Later on, the ridges spread out, flattening into low, rolling land. Farm country.

Somewhere in there Colin conked out again. I’d been wrestling with a couple of maps to see how we were doing — always a good idea when driving at high speeds in dim light — and was surprised to discover how much ground we’d covered. It looked like it might be possible to make it all the way to Oberlin that night. Assuming Colin would stand for that kind of torture. And if he wouldn’t, if we slept over in a motel somewhere, Oberlin would be an easy hike from there.

If someone had told me a week earlier that I would soon be fleeing to Ohio in a rented car with my son to pump an elderly woman I’d never met for details re: my long-absent father, I would have advised them to seek drug counseling. Just goes to show. Life has fiction beat hands-down.

The light thinned enough that I had to turn on the Swift’s headlights, which spotlit a roadside sign advertising a truck stop. It read (I swear this is real) “Emlenton Truck Stop — Home of America’s Worst Apple Pie.” What the hell is up with that? Are people so bored that the prospect of a genuinely wretched slab of pie is something to look forward to? And what do they do to make it so rank?

Sometime after the last daylight had faded, Colin came to. I heard the faint sound of body movement and glanced in the mirror to find him sitting straight up, watching the dark world outside sweep by.

“Hi, buddy,” I said.

“Hi,” he mumbled.

“How’re you doing?”

He raised a hand and rubbed his face. “I have to pee,” he said. A tired, unhappy voice.

“Me, too. We’ll pull off at the next exit and find somewhere to stop. How’s that?”

“Okay.” Mumbled, so it came out “Mmkuh.”

A few miles up the road, we caught an exit ramp that brought us to a two-lane. A gas station lay a good stone’s throw off to our right, the building behind the pumps long and low, the windows empty of signs or products. The pumps were lit up enough to indicate being open for business, but only about half the lights inside the office seemed to be on. A house sat off the near end of the building, one or two windows there illuminated warmly from within. No other dwellings or structures could be seen in any direction.

No brand name on the pumps, no signs of any sort on the canopy overhead. Nothing to indicate amenities, nothing to entice a lingering visit. Just the necessary facilities to vend petrol and take your money. I assumed that last part, since it’s the usual arrangement.

I filled the tank, standing out in piercingly clean air, a light breeze clearing away the faint odor of gasoline. Opening my mouth to breathe, a bracing sensation of cold extended most of the way down my windpipe. Winter seemed to have arrived in this part of the country. I had a feeling that if there were sunlight I’d see rows of cornstalk stubble stretching away in the surrounding fields.

When I’d finished with the pump, I went around to Colin’s door and waited while he got out and tried to shut the door. A buzzer in the car quietly asked him to try again. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “We’ll be right out.” He ignored me, opening the door then closing it with all his 46 pounds behind it.

I took his hand, we crossed the short stretch of blacktop to the building, stepping into a small foyer. The place looked like it might have once been an old-style service station. The original garage area had become the convenience shop where a young 20ish woman slouched behind the register talking on a phone. The foyer must have once been the office, but apart from the remaining architectural basics, no tokens of the earlier gas station remained. Just a white wall to the rear with restroom doors. Near-featureless austerity, like a petrol-pumping monastery.

Stepping into the lavatory, on the other hand, was a return to an earlier time, from the tiles on the floor and walls to the urinal, sink and fixtures. All the way to the condom dispensers mounted on the toilet partition. Two of them, looking to be classics from the 50’s or early 60’s, with what appeared to be the original text and illustrations. It was the pictures that caught Colin’s eye. The first: a man and woman in coital embrace, sitting up, the woman facing us voyeuristic pigdogs, clearly experiencing intense, almost painful transports of sexual whoopa-whoopa. “New and exciting!” the text read. “Arouse her animal passion with Savage Ecstasy Textured Condoms! Raised ridges!” The neighboring dispenser sported a lurid illustration of what appeared to be a giant, pink blimp fitted out with two alarming sets of long, stiff whisker-like protrusions angled dangerously forward like pink lances. “Original French Tickler!” the text read in large, overexcited letters. “You’ve heard about them! Here they are! The real thing — not a gimmick!”

“Dad, what’s that?” Colin asked, staring in rapt, startled concentration.

“What’s what, Col?” Me pretending to be preoccupied at the urinal, hoping my boy’s attention would move to his own bodily functions.

“That up there. What is that? Is that man and woman having sex?”
“‘Are’ they, Colin. When it’s more than one person, you say ‘are’, not ‘is.’”

He refused to be diverted. “Is that what they’re doing? Having sex?” So much for the modesty and propriety of the heartland. Sex education never sleeps in western Pennsylvania.

“Yes, Col, that’s what they’re doing.”

“Why is that up there? Do women use this room, too?”

“No, this is just for guys. The women’s room is next door.”

“Are they making a baby?”

That stopped me. In part because I’d never heard him ask that question before, but also because he’d belonged to the realm of babydom not so long ago. “Well, no,” I answered after gathering what wits were on hand, “not if they’re using a condom. That’s what that machine is selling.”

His turn to pause. He stared at the machine, then spoke in a different tone, working hard to put concepts together. “What’s a connom?”

I remembered right then that we’d come into the men’s wankhole without paying for the fill-up. Whoops. “Col,” I said, finishing at the urinal, “I have to go pay for the gas. Go to the toilet, okay?”

“Okay.” Still staring, frowning slightly as he tried to make sense of this unexpected batch of input.

“Col,” I said, pushing him gently into the toilet stall, “let’s go.” He closed the door without saying anything, I hurried out to the main room of the store.

The young woman behind the counter still had the phone plugged into her ear, a half-smile on her face. “Yeah,” she murmured, “but he don’t give a damn about her. He just wants to….” Her eyes fastened on me as I pulled up. “Hold on,” she told whoever and set the phone down, looking at a pump read-out. “$9.50,” she said. I handed over a ten. She diddled the register, the cash drawer opened, she slipped the bill in, gave me two quarters in change. I said, “Thanks,” she said, “You’re welcome,” then picked up the phone. “You there?” she asked. “Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yeah.”

Colin hadn’t emerged from the men’s funworld yet. I paced a small, leisurely circle, scanning the store area. A couple of shelves held loaves of bread (white), a few boxes of breakfast cereal (corn flakes, sugar frosted flakes, chocolate sugar bombs), ketchup, mustard, Karo syrup, a pile of snack cakes. The cooler had some milk, some soda, a container of so-orange-it-must-be-radioactive juice drink. Someone’s idea of the basics, I guess. All other surfaces lay stark and empty. No car-care accessories, no papers or magazines.

Colin appeared, blinking into the light of the store as if he’d just woken up. I went to him, taking his hand. “Let’s go, buddy,” I said, gently moving him with me toward the door.

“Excuse me,” the young woman called from behind us. We turned. “A couple of our kittens are under your car.” I stared, uncomprehending, then looked out at the Swift. Sure enough, a kitten sat crouched in front of the near rear wheel, another little head poking out from behind the first, both of them maybe four, five months old. I looked back at the woman. “Just be careful is all,” the woman said.

“Okay,” I said, turning Colin around and heading back out into the brisk Pennsylvania night.

“Look, Dad,” Colin said, pointing at the kittens, who stared at us from under the car. I released his hand, he moved quickly toward them. They immediately disappeared under the car, reappearing a second later from beneath the rear as if shot by a tiny cannon. Clearly wanting nothing to do with us. They stopped a short distance away, one staring back at father and son, the other sniffing around in another direction for a moment, then turning and jumping on its companion. A moment of hyperactive roughhousing, then they burst apart, running a few steps in different directions before stopping to watch me and my boy. I went to the car, opened Colin’s door.

“Let’s go, buddy,” I told him. He reluctantly got into the Swift, peering back around toward the kittens after I’d closed the door. I glanced over at the teeny felines as I went around the car, found them still observing me. They watched my feet move, their heads bobbing slightly as I walked. Not very smart, kittens, but they pack a lot of entertainment value.

Back in the car, I pulled out maps and opened them to read by the lights above the pumps. Time to figure out how much more roadwork Colin would put up with and make a plan.

“Okay,” I said, turning back toward Colin, holding a map so he could see the layout, “here’s the poop.” He gave a glance of disapproval at my descent into scatology, then looked down where I pointed. “We’re here, I think. Pretty much out in the middle of nowhere.” My finger circled around the exit on the interstate we’d gotten off at. “It’ll probably take two more hours to get to Ohio, then another two to three hours to get to Oberlin.”

“Why are we going there again?”

“To talk with that woman I told you about at lunch. Remember?”

A mumbled “Uh-huh.”

“What do you think? You probably don’t want to go all the way there tonight, do you?” He shook his head. “How hungry are you?”

“I don’t know.”

I retrieved one of the water bottles from the floor. “Want some of this?” He nodded, I handed it off, he tipped it up to his lips and drank. When he’d finished and had the bottle positioned on the seat between his knees, I said, “How about this: we’ll go for a while more, then we’ll find a place to stay for the night and track down a meal somewhere. That sound all right to you?” He nodded, stretching around to try and spot the cats. They weren’t in sight, I got out to make sure they weren’t under the car again. They were, and flew out from under the rear bumper when my feet hit the ground, streaking off together to disappear into the darkness around the corner of the house. I got back into the car to find Colin’s face pressed against the passenger’s side window, staring after the kittens. “They’re gone,” I said.

“I know,” he responded, belting himself in. A minute later, we were rolling back onto the interstate, headlights extending out ahead to create a pool of illumination that slid along the road before us, diffusing up into the dark air. Cars went by in the left-hand lane, all with Pennsylvania plates, probably on the way home from work.

Life in the Swift quieted down again. Colin sat silently in the back seat, looking off into the dark countryside, lights from the occasional house sliding by. Thinking about god knows what — family weirdness, couples coupling, kittens he could be petting.

My thoughts returned to Sheila.


[See entries of 5/24/02, 6/15/02, 8/22/02 and 12/28/02 for further excerpts, or use the links in this page's right-hand column.]

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