Authors: Michael Zadoorian
“It doesn’t matter. We just stopped for lunch.”
“Where are you going?”
I don’t appreciate the “20 Questions” from my daughter.
I’m not even sure I should tell her, but I do anyway. “We’re going to go to Disneyland.”
In California? You cannot be serious.” This is where I realize that my daughter still has the flair for the dramatic that she developed when she was a snotty teenager.
“Oh, we’re serious.” I think I’m going to end this call soon. Who knows? They could be putting a tracer on the call, like on the television.
“Oh God. I can’t believe this. Do you at least have the cell phone we bought you?”
“I do, but I don’t like that thing, honey. But I’ve got it in case of an emergency.”
“Would you please at least turn it on,” she says, pleading, “so I can keep in touch with you?”
“I don’t think so. Don’t worry so much. Your father and I will be fine. It’s just a little vacation.”
“Love you, honey.” It’s time to hang up, so I do. She’ll be fine, but she’s crazy if she thinks I’m going to turn on that cellular telephone. I’ve got more than enough cancer, thank you.
Back at the table, John and I eat our Route 66 burgers. My chocolate Pelvis Shake is not half bad.
Back on the road, the fatigue comes on hard and sudden. I want to tell John to call it a day, but we’ve only been driving for about four hours. I try to ignore it. After the phone
call with Cindy, I want to put more distance between us and home. Yesterday I was afraid to leave home for all the obvious reasons, but now that we are gone, I want us to be
John turns to me, looking concerned. “Are you all right, miss?”
“Yes, I am, John.” He is having one of his moments where he knows I am someone dear to him, but he’s not entirely sure who I am.
“John. Do you know who I am?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then who am I?”
“Oh, knock it off.”
I put my hand on his arm. “John. Tell me who I am.”
He stares at the road, looking annoyed, but worried. “You’re my wife.”
“Good. What’s my name?”
“For Christ’s sake,” he says, but he’s thinking. “It’s Ella,” he says, after a moment.
He smiles at me. I put my hand on his knee, give it a squeeze. “Keep your eyes on the road,” I say.
As far as what John does and does not remember, I cannot say. He does know who I am most of the time, but then we have been together so long that even if he is slowly working his way back in time, forgetting as he goes, I’m still there with him. I wonder: are the eyes deceived along with the mind? If it is, say, 1973 to him, do I look as I did back then? And if I
don’t (which I most certainly don’t), how does he know it’s me? Does that make sense?
Route 66 is the frontage road of I-55 for this stretch. To the left of us, telephone poles, blackened with age and exhaust and crowned with blue-green glass insulators (the kind you sometimes see in antique shops), run parallel to the highway. Some of the poles are broken and splintered, toppled or teetering over in some places, the lines long snapped and dangling; yet many still retain their wires, and they somehow connect us to the road like an old streetcar, as if we are tethered to the air.
On the other side: the freeway and the railroad tracks that will follow the road pretty much all the way to California. Between our road and the freeway, I see barricaded patches of what must be a very old alignment of 66, a narrow pinkish path that barely looks wide enough for one car. Nature is slowly reclaiming it. Vegetation creeps in from the edges, narrowing it like an artery. Weeds grow in the crevices roughly every six feet or so, where the slabs were poured. In a few more years, you won’t even be able to see this old highway.
When we’re not on the frontage road, we pass through tiny, desperate towns. Once everyone stopped taking Route 66, there was no reason for anyone to stop and spend money in these places, so they just languished. In one burg called Atlanta, we pass another fiberglass giant (as they refer to them in my guidebook). This one is Paul Bunyan holding a gigantic frankfurter.
“Well, look at that,” says John. It’s the first one he’s shown any interest in.
“They just moved it here from Chicago.”
“What for?” he says.
I look around this street, all boarded up and joyless. “That, my dear, is the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.”
We pull over, roll down our windows to look up at the giant’s bulging forearms. According to my guidebook, he was originally holding a muffler, so now the wiener sits on the top of a clawed left hand withered shut. It looks like Bob Dole holding a jumbo hot dog. It makes me sad to think of these people pinning all their hopes on this thing to bring their little ghost town back to life.
Outside Springfield, we stop for the night. The park is not so much a campground, but a trailer village, with a few extra spaces that they rent out to folks with campers. Basically, it’s like camping in the middle of someone’s crummy neighborhood. But we were tired and it was available.
We settle in, hook up our electricity, water, and septic lines. (Between what John remembers and what I remember him teaching me, we muddle through the various plugs and connections.) We have sandwiches and take our meds, then John lies down for a snooze. I let him sleep because it feels good to be by myself sitting at the picnic table.
Next door, our neighbors arrive home for the night. First
the man of the house arrives in a beat-up Olds, the hood and roof covered with a vast landscape of rust, a corroded map of the world. When I wave hello, he stares right through me and heads inside the trailer. Minutes later, the woman shows up on foot. Still in her Wal-Mart smock, she’s tanned and rail thin—that kind of beef jerky look that I associate with either two-pack-a-day smokers or those people who run long-distance races. When I wave to her, she marches right over.
I smile at her. “Just for the evening, I’m afraid.”
“I’m Sandy,” she says, holding out her hand.
“Ella,” I say, shaking it.
She lights a butt, then launches right into it. “Lord, what a day I’ve had. My manager was on my ass from the moment I punched in till the moment I walked out of there. He searched me out while I was eating my lunch, I swear it! I was sitting there, nice as you please, eating my Salisbury steak when he comes up to me and starts giving me grief about the inventory we’ve got coming up. He’s screaming at me during lunch! Can you imagine? I just sat there and shoveled food into my mouth right in front of him. And I didn’t close it, either. I just left it wide open and chewed while he bitched away. I even let a little fall from my mouth onto my plate. He didn’t even notice. I figured, hell, I’m on my lunch hour and I’m gonna eat my lunch whether he likes it or not…”
This goes on for quite some time. Smoking and talking. Talking and smoking. She just lights one off the other. I feel sorry for her at first, that she needs to do this with complete
strangers, but after about twenty minutes, I was afraid that I was going to be out there all night. Poor thing, I know she just wanted to make a noise, have someone to pay attention to her, know she was there. She didn’t understand that it didn’t matter that I knew she was there. I would be gone tomorrow. You need to have it matter to people who count.
“My first husband, he gave me gonorrhea for our fourth anniversary. He was a sonofabitch, that one. He about wore me out with his hijinks—”
Right then, her husband comes out, and without a word, grabs her arm and starts pulling her back to their little place.
“Ow! Donald! What are you doing?”
He didn’t say a word, but she chattered and smoked all the way there. After the door shut, I could still hear her talking.
Twilight slips in like a timid creature. Lights tick on around the trailer village. The air grows cooler. I grab one of John’s old jackets and throw it over my shoulders. In a storage bin, I find an old gray wool winter cap to put on my head, which is freezing, unaccustomed to being without its hat of hair. The cold and the musky smell of John’s jacket make me think of a night after we were first married in the winter of 1950. We were living on Twelfth Street just off West Grand Boulevard. It had rained all night as the temperature plummeted. At about midnight, it stopped, and John and I, for some reason, decided to take a walk.
It was frigid, but so beautiful. Everything was coated with
a thick layer of brilliant clear ice, as if the world were preserved under glass. We had to take tiny hesitant steps, so as not to slip. Above us, power lines crackled and tore from their poles; a streetlight globe, laden with ice, dropped and shattered in the street with a muffled
. We walked and walked under a brittle black sky, jagged with stars, moon shining hard and bright on the crystal buildings that lined the boulevard. The world looked fragile, but we were young and invulnerable. We kept walking, at least a mile, toward the golden tower of the Fisher Building, not knowing why, knowing only that we needed to get there. We returned to our flat that night excited, our hair glistening with shiny flecks of ice, full of a deep thirst for each other. That was the night that Cindy was conceived.
Right now, I hear the loudening trill of crickets and the sizzle of gravel as cars slowly pass. I can smell microwave popcorn coming from somewhere. There is no reason to, but I feel safe with all these people around us. John is awake now and I can hear him talking under his breath. He is telling someone off. I hear him whispering obscenities, threats to enemies, accusations. All our lives together, John was a passive, quiet man. But now, since he started to lose his mind, he says the things that he always wanted to say to people. He is forever reading his personal riot act to someone. It often happens this time of the day. When the sun sets, the anger rises in him.
He appears at the doorway of the van. “Where are we?” he says loud, voice full of fight.
“We’re in Illinois,” I say, ready for it.
“Is that home?”
“No. Home is Michigan.”
“What are we doing here?” he barks.
“We’re on vacation.”
“Yes. And we’re having a great time.”
He crosses his arms. “No, I’m not. I want a cup of tea.”
“I’ll make one in a little while. I’m resting.”
He joins me at the table. It’s quiet for about a minute, then he speaks again. “How about a cup of tea?”
“We’re going to wait a little while for a cup of tea.”
“Because you’ll be up all night peeing.”
“Goddamn it, I want a cup of tea!”
Finally, I give him a look and talk to him in that same hushed, threatening voice he was using a minute ago. “Keep your voice down. People live around here. Why don’t you get up and make it yourself? You’re not crippled.”
“Maybe I will.”
He won’t. I don’t think he really knows where anything is in the camper anymore. He just sits there stewing. This is the price I pay for him being sweet as pie all day long. Maybe it was just that he had something to do. We never usually drive this much. It seems to help when he has something to occupy him.
“How about a cup of tea?” John says, like it’s a new idea that came to him just this second.
“All right,” I say.
I get up and make us both a cup of tea.
It’s night and John is miraculously sleeping again. I, of course, can’t doze off to save my life. I’m not used to the camper yet, how closed in it is, like some rolling tan-and-brown striped recreational sarcophagus. The Leisure Seeker really is quite small. At the moment, I’m just across from the side rear door, sitting in our social area. It’s a little Formica table with a plaid cushioned bench on either side. This is where we eat or play cards (or sometimes sleep if you’re me). Across from here is my kitchen with a three-burner stove (which I never use), a tiny radar range, a sink about the size of a dishpan, and a little fridge. The bed where John is sleeping is at the very back just under the rear window. It’s a couch that folds out to a double bed. The world’s smallest bathroom is right nearby, which is helpful when you get up as much as we do in the middle of the night. There’s another sleeping space above the driver’s compartment that hasn’t been used in years, as well as various closets, storage spaces, and cubbyholes. At the very front are the captain’s chairs, big overstuffed adjustable seats for the driver and the passenger. They’re by far the most comfortable seats in the house.
We got the Leisure Seeker a long time ago, so while the decor isn’t exactly current, it’s still pretty. It’s done in earth tones—wood-grain paneling; harvest gold and avocado green curtains; nubby gold, green, and brown plaid upholstery, all still in beautiful Scotchgarded condition. We take care of our things.
I know some people don’t consider what we do to be camping, and I suppose it’s not particularly rustic, but I’ve always found it to be a happy medium between hotels and really roughing it. The only reason we ever really started was to save money. We had a little Apache pop-up camper that we hauled around for quite a few years. We could camp for about two dollars a night. It was cheap and fun and I always thought that the kids loved it. But neither Kevin nor Cindy camp now. They tell me now that when they were kids, they would have much preferred to stay in motels with pools and TV and restaurants. Oh well, tough titty.
I pull myself up from the table, open the side door, step outside, and listen to the night. It’s quiet now and I can hear the semitrucks highballing down the freeway in the distance. That sound makes me yearn for something, but I don’t exactly know what. I used to find it soothing back when we had a camperful and would pull over to some trailer park next to a freeway, bone tired, but pleased over how much distance we’d covered.
I decide that maybe a drink would help me get to sleep. I drag out the bottle of Canadian Club that I made sure we packed, and I mix myself a little highball with some 7UP. It goes without saying that I’m not supposed to drink, but hell, I’m on vacation. I settle back down at the table with my drink, listen to the faraway grind of the trucks, and start to feel more comfortable right away.