Authors: Donald S. Smurthwaite
Tags: #ride, #retirement home, #cross country, #North Dakota, #family, #car, #road trip, #bountiful, #Utah, #assisted living, #graduate, #Coming of age, #heritage, #loyal, #retirement, #uncle, #adventure, #money, #nephew, #trip, #kinship
The summer after our graduation, only weeks after our prom dates with the Hecht sisters, with a dark cloud over Europe and the black froth in the South Pacific, we enlisted in the navy, with high hopes for training together and ending up stationed together. It was not meant to be: I spent most of my tour on a minesweeper, while Glenn ended up on an Aleutian Island, as far away from the warm Pacific waters and tropical temperatures as he could get. The Hecht sisters, for whom our fancies flew, married while we were away, to light-headed local boys judged by the draft board unfit for war. We mourned separately, and we mourned together in our letters. If only they had waited. We offered prospects that the local war-less boys could not match.
After the war, we both went to school. Pharmacy for me, agriculture for Glenn. He used his little savings to buy a small farm in eastern Montana, while I settled in as the town druggist in the upper right-hand corner of North Dakota. But we never seemed far from one another, as is the case with true friends.
Yes, it would be good to again be in Glenn Leuthold’s presence. We survived a war together; we survived Mrs. Jansen’s English class together. The war was the tougher of the two, no doubt, but the gap between these two milestones in our lives is probably not as wide as one might first think.
Glenn’s friendship was patient, enduring, forgiving, and marked by sacrifice. There were times to be talked over with him once more. In my new Utah home, there will be few chances to visit him.
Levi interrupts my reverie about days gone by, older times, older ways.
“A map. Remember? When we get to the state line, we’ll need a map of Montana. I should’ve got a GPS for the car.”
“I think I can find my way there. Daisy and I visited Glenn and his wife often, until the last few years. It’s an interesting drive.”
“Whatever. I’d still like a map, though. This is all new country to me. One wrong turn and we could end up in Saskatchewan. I think that’s a place. In Canada. Two wrong turns, and we could end up in Nova Scotia, which is also a place. In Canada.”
“We’ll keep our eyes open for a rest area where we can get a map.”
We continue down the two-lane highway. It’s edging toward midnight. Levi’s face looks drawn in the glow of the dashboard lights. I feel sleepy but try to stay awake to keep him company. He had taken a nap, but this is a time of the night when even my young nephew is accustomed to sleeping.
We drive another twenty miles, rumbling past farms and fields, splitting the wide night in two with our headlights. Levi yawns once, then a second time. His head bobs up and down. He blinks hard. He shakes his head and yawns a third time. Ahead of us, off to the side of the highway, I see the bright lights of a truck stop tucked into a corner where our road intersects with another. As we near, I see a sign flashing, “Open 24 hours.” Behind the pumps and the restaurant, I see a small motel.
“I think it’s time that we get some rest, Levi. I’m feeling the effects of a long day. There’s a motel ahead, just beyond the truck stop. A few hours there and we’ll both feel like young pups. I’m sure you’re up to the drive, but I am most definitely sleepy. What do you think? Eh?”
He nods. He puts up no resistance. Without a word, he flips on his turn signal, and we hear the crunch of the pebbled parking lot underneath our tires. My window is down slightly, and the air smells of grease, oil, gasoline, and heavy food. Rumbling diesel engines idle. Bright light spills over our red car. I hear the deep voice of a man shouting across the din. And yet the garish lights and smell of fuel beckon to the weary travelers.
I sigh and think of the irony.
My first home away from home will be a truck stop.
I Am Inspired by Amazing Helmet Hair, the Likes of Which I Have Never Seen Before
Uncle Loyal was running out of steam, poor guy. I should have expected it. I peeked at him a few times, and his head was nodding and his eyes were closed. Sleepy time, sweet man. Me? I was fine. My nap gave me that second wind, and I felt like I could have driven all night long, down the dark highway, straight as a kite string, until we ended up in Podunk, Montana—or whatever it’s called—and I deposited Uncle Loyal on the doorstep of his friend Glenn.
I could tell that Uncle Loyal was tight with this fellow Glenn. He talked a little bit about them, what they did in school together, how they doubled to the prom (Prom? Did they have proms in North Dakota? In the 1930s? Must have. Loyal wouldn’t lie. Maybe they rode there on the back of a dinosaur.), and how they joined the Navy together, a couple of kids from the plains, neither of whom had even so much as seen the ocean, and then, there they were, floating on top of it.
And I liked the thought of Loyal and Glenn getting together, the handshake, the hug, the how-are-yous, you-look-greats, how-about-that-corn-crop-this-year. I could dig it. These two old guys, seeing each other for maybe the last time. I’d just sit back quietly and watch it happen, drink it in. If it meant staying the whole day and maybe even a night in Podunk, I was cool with it. Time. Remember, I am not counting time on this trip. The check will be there tomorrow for me, and it will be there next week. Doesn’t matter. Does it?
Slow down and gain. Isn’t that what Uncle Loyal told me?
We pull into the motel parking lot, which was covered in rock. The blazing, blinking red light over the office is missing a letter, so the sign reads, “Of ice.” Loyal and I get out of our car and wander into the “Of ice.” I fish out the credit card Aunt Barbara had given me from of my jeans’ pocket, a little bent but still plenty useful. The heavy hum of several big diesel engines fills the smelly, oily air.
We walk into the office, and there sits a woman, fiftyish, with blue cat-eye glasses and the largest beehive hairdo that has ever existed in, and I am certain of this, the entire history of the universe. It was lacquered in place with what must have been two cans of hair spray, every strand in its perfect position. Mechanical engineers could have had a field day just by studying her blue top. A Little League baseball team could have hidden in it. It might have been a silo for missiles. It should have been, at the very least, designated a national historical monument. She chews gum as she scans the lines of a paperback romance novel. I know her name. I absolutely know it.
I know her name is Evelyn. It had to be. Some things are just decreed by the universe, and this was one of them. Evelyn.
I stand there in dumb admiration and awe of her amazing hair. After we approached the desk, she looked up at the two of us. Her name tag said, “Welcome, I am Evelyn.” I feel at one with the universe. I check the calendar, which has a painting of a man in a plaid hunting jacket next to his retriever. The dog has big brown eyes, tail up, and a dead pheasant in its mouth. I check the calendar to make sure it doesn’t say 1956.
I half expect a slim, serious man to step out from the side somewhere and say, “Two men, traveling across the Dakotas. Little did they know they had traveled much farther than they thought, on a road that possibly had no end. Back through time. Back through the ages. Back into the Twilight Zone . . .”
Uncle Loyal just stands there pleasantly smiling, not realizing, or at least not showing it, that he is in the presence of greatness in the form of Evelyn’s two-story-tall pile of blue lacquered hair. I fight the urge to fall down on my knees and worship her.
“Well?” she says, between chomps on her gum, glancing up from the bodice-ripping romance novel.
“A room. Do you have a room for us, a couple of twin beds?” Uncle Loyal asks politely. “We’ve driven a long way. We’ve had quite the day, and a little rest would do the two of us good. Nonsmoking, please.”
She turns, looks at a Peg-Board behind her, and reaches for a key. “Room ten is available. Queen bed and a sleeper couch. Thirty-six dollars, plus tax. Interested?”
For a moment, neither of us answers. I can’t keep my eyes off her hair, her glasses, her orange nail polish, the bad makeup. Loyal clears his throat and tosses me a quick glance. I realize that he can’t answer because I have Aunt Barbara’s credit card. With what I’d like to think was great inner strength, I take my eyes off her blue honeycombed hair and say, “That’ll be fine.” I resist the urge to ask her how long it took her to fix up her hair, how many crates of hair spray she owns, and if she is busy after she gets off work.
I have to admit it. Evelyn intrigued me. I have never met anyone like her. Or at least anyone with that kind of hair.
She hands me the key, I scribble my name on the credit card slip, and after one long, respectful glance back at the Mount Everest of hair, Uncle Loyal and I are back in the car, reaching for our suitcases. We straggle into the room, which was everything you’d expect for a thirty-six-buck special after midnight in North Dakota—brown wood panels; the faint odor of smoke; a faded, bad painting on the wall of a lonesome calf looking for its mother; plaid, greasy sheets; and a window air conditioner that has a rattle loud enough to be heard across three states.
“It’s not a five-star, Uncle Loyal.”
“No, but it will do. A few hours of rest and we’ll be good to go.”
“Did you notice . . . the woman, and . . . her hair?”
“It would have been hard not to. It was rather impressive. My, but that hair was intriguing.”
“Rather impressive? You’re killing me, Uncle Loyal. It should be on the cover of
. A small country might be housed in there. I bet it could stand a nuclear bomb hit. I’ve never seen anything like it.” I pause. I decide to have a bit of fun with Uncle Loyal. I think of just how to say what I’m going to say next, the right words, the right feeling to express myself completely and eloquently. “It’s like this. Uncle Loyal, I think I’d like to date her.”
He tilts his head back and laughs softly. “I think you need someone more your own age. Your infatuation for her will pass, despite that magnificent hair. I’m certain of that.”
“I’d like to have the hair spray franchise for around here.”
“You’d make a good bit of money on just one customer.”
“Wonder why she fixes it up that way.”
“Her hair is very important to her. She must put in much time and effort to maintain it in the manner she does.”
“Could it be a wig?”
“Eh. No, it was hers. I’ve seen too many wigs in my years in the pharmacy. Cancer patients, chemotherapy. I can tell a wig, even a good one, from a ways off. Miss Evelyn does not wear a wig. I can tell. Her hair is her own. All of it, Levi, in its full glory.”
“I bet you
tell real hair from fake hair. You noticed her name. You find her attractive, Uncle Loyal. Admit it.”
“Attractive, yes. I believe all people are, often in different ways. What I see is a woman who is expressive. Her hair gives her expression. I am quite sure she is a most interesting young woman.”
“Expression or attention?”
“Expression. I believe it’s all about expression. We all need it in some way. For our friend the motel clerk, it comes in the form of that wonderful hair. I am sure she checks it often, takes great care in the way she fixes it. I think her hair is marvelous.”
I hadn’t quite thought of the clerk’s hair in terms of “marvelous,” but I guess it was. Expression, Uncle Loyal says. I decide to play along with him a little more. I had to admit it; I am having
clowning around with Uncle Loyal. Who would have guessed?
“I’m feeling as though something magical happened in the office tonight, Uncle Loyal.”
“In what way?”
“It was destiny that I met Evelyn, the motel clerk.”
“That is wonderful, Levi. Few things in life are pure coincidence. Perhaps you can express your thoughts to her when we check out in the morning. I imagine she has many admirers, particularly among those who drive trucks for a living.”
“It’s going to be a long night. Thinking of Evelyn and her hair, all piled up like that.”
“It will make for pleasant dreams, although you said you’re not tired. As for me, I’d like to turn in. I thought ahead enough to pack some pajamas. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go into the bathroom and change into them. I’m ready for a snooze.”
“Go ahead. I may just skip the formalities and head straight for the sleeper. Maybe I am a little zonked. Toss some
s up in the air before you can blink your eyes.”
Uncle Loyal changes his clothing and comes back toward the bed. He is wearing some plaid cotton pajamas and slippers. He gingerly sits on the edge of the bed.
“The bed or the sleeper sofa. I’ll flip a coin with you,” he says.
I take a quarter out of my pocket and flip it straight up in the air. Uncle Loyal calls out “Tails.”
I catch the coin and open my hand slowly. It was heads. “I lose, you win. You get the bed. I’ll curl up on the sleeper.”
“I must point out a technicality. I didn’t see the coin, Levi.”
“You accuse me of lyin’, stranger? Them’s fighting words in these here parts, wherever we are in these here parts.”
“Not lying. Just not telling the truth. There is a subtle but important difference.”
“Prove it. And smile when you say that, pardner. We don’t take to people not smilin’ when they’re callin’ a man a liar. In these parts. Wherever these parts are.”
“I can’t prove it.” Then he gives me a big, cheesy grin.
“I won’t. You have no money. And I don’t want any anyway.”
“Let’s arm wrestle for the bed.”
“Smile when you say that, my young, rambunctious friend.”
I walk over to him. We square our arms on the little nightstand and lock fingers.
“One, two . . .”
And before “three” is pronounced, I flip my arm backwards, in the direction
arm needed to go in order to win. Uncle Loyal is not fooled.
“You cheated. Not a fair match. Not very manly of you, Levi. And I shall not smile when I say that. You are a cheat and a liar.”
“I know. But I’m not very manly.”