Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 7)

Part 7


            Tonight, I wake up with a start.  We are in an antiseptic Motel 6 outside Barkeyville.  I remember vaguely the movie I fell asleep to:  Adam Sandler and Kevin James are pretending to be gay so that they can sidestep civic red tape that prevents the James character from naming his own two kids as his life insurance beneficiaries.  This was how the wheel of fortune decided to send me to slumberland.  But that is not why I wake up.  I awake in a cold sweat with the sudden realization of just how long we have to go.  How big the country is.
            Driving around in our hybrid Ford Escort in Salt Lake City, it was easy to think of the whole nation circumscribed by…what?  National Public Radio?  A twenty minute drive across town to Morning Edition and All Things Considered on the way home, and I had this sense that I had grappled with America, toured its sites, plumbed its depths.  But now.  Lying in bed with the too-hot/too-cold unit grinding away, Cheryl’s soft snoring to my side, the TV blank, I realize, “My God.  We’re still in Pennsylvania!”
            This isn’t just a mental acknowledgement, but a fear-based one.  It is winter.  It is icy cold.  It is Pennsylvania and we have miles to go before we sleep. It is a sentiment I once wrote about for a newspaper, this airline age where we have forgotten that the distance is the same going from point A to point B.  But we have forgotten.  We have believed that we could scoot up from Dallas to Jackson Hole, WY for a skiing trip over a weekend and back to Dallas without a hitch.  Fresh cut limes in the Bloody Marys.  But the wild cards are still there. Weather hasn’t changed, just our ability to believe it isn’t a variable to what we have to do.  Where we have to go.  Mechanical malfunction?  Vulcanized rubber and its progenitors of Michelin and Firestone have “solved” that.  The FAA mandates certain foolproof measures so that at that critical point of nose up at 180+ mph our stomachs don’t turn over anymore, only the pages of our Wall Street Journals.
            Not so, I posited.  The distance is the same.  ATC delays are the Indian attacks of my pioneer ancestors.  The dried up watering holes they relied on for their oxen and horses are now weight and balances during a snowstorm at high-elevation Jackson and a short runway and too many fat Americans toting ski boots so that we have to take everyone’s luggage off and bus it to Idaho Falls for a flight out.  To be fair, in my rant, I also indicted the airline industry.  In their attempt to win customers, they make it sound like getting to Tampa from New York is as easy as crossing the street while watching a movie.  But the fact is that we fellow travelers, fat or not, are still reliant on space and time, energy and…luck to get where we’re going alive.  Or at least with the fresh limes in our Bloody Marys.
            Why is it that I forgot my own brilliant thesis when I stormed out of Logan International the night before last and into the freezing rain with little more than a credit card?
            This Pennsylvania night is scaring the shit out of me, and the debilitating enormity of our task ticks away in my head like a metronome.
In the morning, at breakfast, again at a truck stop that is starting to look like the DNA of America, the man-boy orders coffee.  This has never happened before.  He asks for honey.  I know for a fact that his father drinks his coffee with honey.  We sit at a table watered and fed by a solicitous young waitress who even styrofoams coffee for us to go.  (What would the country do without Styrofoam?)  When the waitress, juggling plates of foot, forgets to come back with the honey, he resigns himself to drinking it black, as I do.
The walls of the place are covered with letters and photos– memorabilia of local men and women who have served our country in Afghanistan and Iraq.  There is more than one poster signed by café regulars, offering condolences to families, to wives who have lost loved ones.  In one photo a helmeted soldier hardly older than our Joe, from the waist up, is grinning wildly, an ethereal landscape behind him.  Another, in full profile and stiffly shouldering his standard issue rifle, stands looking through wrap around sunglasses at the impenetrable blue sky,
            Across from us, in a booth, a couple sit facing each other over their table with coffee and the ruins of a half-eaten breakfast.  Leaning in, his soiled down vest over a flannel shirt bulges into the table edge, he is speaking to her in tones that I can’t hear.  Short, penetrating words that are making her turn away from the room, toward the wall.  She fingers a cell phone, her own bulky coat like armor, her liquid brown hair curling over the collar.  Both are in jeans, boots with laces hastily and half-tied and the air seems thick between them.  He lazers in.  She dips her head more, and runs a finger along the white edge of a plate.  The end of each of his syllables drives home with the lift of his chin.  He takes her hand.  She pulls in more, but in that way that indicates she is also drawn to him, unsure of what to do with what she thinks she desires.  Hopeless to help herself resist. It is seven in the morning during Christmas break.  A Friday.  And I can only imagine the back story.  Their separate cars outside, hers with an empty child’s car seat.  A receipt for one night in his jeans pocket, snug against his thigh.  The buttons on the phone she fingers thread immediately to her other life.  That that life is just one press-of-a-button away makes the sweet whisperings of this man through morning whiskers all the more thrilling.  Behind them on the wall is posted letterhead from the Department of Defense addressed to someone from Clinton, Pennsylvania.
            Dear Mr. and Mrs. Butler…
I carry the Styrofoam cups which our eager waitress has insured are pint-sized through the gift shop and out to the car, while Cheryl pays the bill and Joe looks at a Rolling Stone magazine.  Outside a thin skiff of snow has covered everything and the islands of gas pumps steam in the morning light.  It is taking both of my traveling partners longer than I expected.  Plus I have to pee.  I place the coffees on the trunk of the car, turning them into the snow, and head back in.  When we return, we see that they have melted through the snow and fallen to the ground, lids and cups forlornly lying in the chocolate covered snow behind the car.
“Shit,” I say.
“What were you thinking?” says Cheryl with an edge compounded by two days on the road.  Yes, she is the coffee queen—so much so that when we started dating two decades ago, I called the perpetual mug in her hand her “prop.”
            “She went to a lot of trouble for us.  What a waste!”
            I decide to remain silent this time, smart ass defensive verbal back though I am.  Admittedly.
            This time Joe, looking thoughtfully over the scene, comes to my rescue.
”It was an honest mistake, Nana.”  He pats her shoulder consolingly.  Sometimes he can seem so mature to me, this boy who has sat behind my seat in the car for the past two days and never complained.  But always, always he is kind.  Even when I took him, at age 11, three times a week to Muoy Thjai Boxing, he would sit with Dallas, a six year old terror and patiently play with  him and his Matchbox cars.  Building him up while his mother screamed at the trainer who had effectively dis-invited him from class because of Dallas’ acting out.  This boy of mine seems to know what it means to be treated unfairly.
            I scoop up the mess.  Return to the eternal truck stop where we can’t seem to escape this morning, for two more cups of java for the road.  Joe goes with me.  The fact is, my grandson does not believe at any moment of his life that he deserves anything.  Days after the fact, we will realize that he hasn’t had lunch money, that he’s just gone hungry.  Only when we find his converse top-siders torn through, tread-less on the bottom do we ask why he hasn’t told us he needed new shoes.
            “I don’t need new shoes,” he says.  And then when we press him, “They’re expensive.  I just didn’t think we could do it.”  They are expensive.  Kids are expensive.  But, in typical Dave fashion, I am first angry at him when this happens, then the Inquisitor, then sullen.  It is only in moments like this, outside Barkeyville, PA under a gunmetal sky, that I am heartsick, reminded of Exhibit A through C; F through N; X through Y.  Little stories about when he was with his mother and his father—first together then after they separated and we were still in New York.  He doesn’t feel he deserves better than whatever he’s got at that moment.  No one even has to tell him that now.  He calculates it out on his own.  Instantaneously.
“Where’s your I-pod?” I say.  Nana is driving, leaning forward and reading all the signs again out loud.  I’ve noticed in the rear-view mirror that Joe is wireless.
            “In my pocket.”  I conjecture that he forgot to re-charge it at the motel last night.  He isn’t going to volunteer that information.  Sometimes, especially with me (chronically with me), to admit a minor oversight to his Papa is to admit being flawed.  It pains me to think that this is our dynamic:  a teenager who has somehow picked up from the alpha male that he can’t even forget to do something as minor as charge his i-pod without having it reflect badly on his character.  I do the conjecturing after all (see above).  Then again, he is seventeen.  Maybe it just goes with the territory.
            I flip on the radio.  I fiddle with the knobs.  Not really sure anymore what the knobs and buttons are for on this factory-issue item.
            “You have the bass up kinda high,” he says, and I tweak it lower.  “That’s okay, “he continues.  The music has its own bass.”
            We listen to the music in our separate zones.  Then Aerosmith’s re-make of the Beatles’ “Come Together” arrives.  I had forgotten that they did that for the 1978 film “Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band.”  Ironic that the film was my first real introduction to the oeuvre of the Fab Four—and it was all remakes of their songs, from Billy Preston to Elton John, designed, I suspect now, to get the disco-fed babies back up-to-speed with the “real rock and roll to me.”
            I decide to play the provocateur.
            “What the hell does any of this mean, anyway?” I ask.  I strike gold.  He leans forward, his left arm on the back of his Nana’s seat, and gives me a running exegesis on Ringo’s blues roots (“Here come ol’ flat-top”) to Lennon’s increasing drug use “bad production” and “You can feel his disease.”)
            The toe-jam football, Joe explains, has to do with barefoot soccer playing, which followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with whom George had become enamored, played while  worshipping at the yogi’s temple.
            Impressive!  Not the yogi, but the man-boy’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things Beatles, through the portal of the most heady of the them, John Lennon.
            “How do you know all this stuff?” I say, turning around to look at him in astonishment.
            “He’s reading that book,” offers Cheryl.  “He’s got a good memory, just like his folks.” She glances back at him in the mirror.  God bless her, she’s campaigning still to make sure there are admirable things about his absent parents that he can love.
            “Actually,” he confesses.  “I read it on the internet.  It’s amazing the number of acolytes the Beatles still have on there.”
            Acolytes?  Do I even know what that means?  And this is a kid whose GPA, though I admit is on the rise, hovers in the 2.5 range.
            On the radio it’s now time for more year-end review, a curious national pastime that, this year, promises to make me develop acid-reflux.  There’s mention of the Ground Zero Mosque mixed with the popularity of the TV show “Glee” and the BF Oil Spill playing off Lebron James’ insanely protracted decision to move from Cleveland to the Miami Heat, stretching his 15 minutes of fame to weeks.  (More evidence from Uncle Pete that the NBA has become a league of street thugs?)  Speaking of thugs, there’s also the riveting reminder of how Jay Leno gave up his late-night gig to Conan O’Brien only to renege when in his own new show Leno started looking like he was chasing his own tail, poor bastard (he’ll never recover).  They play a clip from Conan’s gracious farewell show in which he thanks NBC, the network that in true American fashion can spin a rationale for its greed over ethics faster than you can say “Enron” or more to the point of our most recent descent into The Great Recession, “Goldman Sachs.”
“Every comedian dreams of hosting The Tonight Show,” reported Conan “…and, for seven months, I got to do it!  I did it my way, with people I love. I do not regret one second. … I’ve had more good fortune than anyone I know and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-11 parking lot, we’ll find a way to make it fun.”  Even the Will Ferrell-led Lynyrd Skynyrd song Free Bird  couldn’t eclipse the sincerity of the lanky guy with the mop hair.  But do good guys ever really win in this world, or at best do they just get told, “hey, you played hard, but you didn’t play it right, dude?”
“If I leave here tomorrow…” the dudes sang in their crackpot way, and…I remembered that as I lay in bed next Cheryl, the glow of the screen filling the room on that late February night, they really did look like they were having a good time.  To me anyway, God bless ‘em.

One Comment

  1. I really enjoyed this piece. I was especialy drawn to your honest portrayal of raising a chid, even if he is a "man-boy." It is true that we very qucikly establish patterns with those we love, and this is nowhere more apparent than with our children. I sometimes worry that my own children and I are bound by our patterns of interaction, and we are, but these patterns can be revised and perhaps even replaced. This piece seems to suggest as much in its way. If Joe hasn't read this, I think he should. It would show him another side of the relationship, which in turn may help him to know the complexity of your feelings about him. The writing itself is pointed and thoughtful. There were a couple of places where I wondered what you thoughts about what you were describing, e.g., the couple seated across from you, but then I realized that your description, subtle though it may be, is all we need to draw conclusions about your frame of mind. Thanks for the read. M.

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