Authors: Michael Zadoorian
Unofficially, Route 66 starts right at Lake Michigan, at Jackson and Lake Shore Drive, which we find without much trouble. It’s more difficult locating the official Route 66 starting point at Adams and Michigan. When we finally find the sign, I have John pull the van over. We could never do this on a workday, but this street is deserted today.
ILLINOIS U.S. 66 ROUTE
I lean out the window to take a closer look, but I don’t get out of the van. My wig could not survive this wind. It would be rolling down Adams like tumbleweed in a matter of seconds.
“This is it,” I say to John.
“Yes sir,” he says, with great enthusiasm. I’m not sure he understands what we’re doing.
I direct us down Adams. We drive between buildings so tall that the sunlight can’t reach us. This skyscraper twilight makes me feel strangely safe. Once we get onto Ogden Avenue, I start to see Route 66 signs.
In Berwyn, there are Route 66 banners hanging from the lampposts. I spot a place called Route 66 Realty. When we get to Cicero, Al Capone’s old stomping grounds, everyone just seems to be waking up. Folks are out driving around, but in no hurry, taking their Sunday morning time.
I realize that if John and I want to survive this trip, we must behave the same way. No rushing, no pressure, no four-lane superhighways if we can help it. There were too many vacations like that with the kids. Two days to get to Florida, three to California—
we’ve only got two weeks
—rush, rush, rush. Now there’s all the time in the world. Except I’m falling apart and John can barely remember his name. But that’s all right. I remember it. Between the two of us, we are one whole person.
Along the side of the road, two small children fresh from church wave to us. John honks the horn. I hold my hand up and wave at the wrist like I’m Queen Elizabeth.
We pass a statue of an enormous white chicken.
Did you know that there are parts of Route 66 that are buried directly beneath the freeway? It’s true. They paved right over it, the heartless bastards. That’s why Route 66 is a dead road today, decommissioned, emblems torn off its shoulders like a disgraced soldier.
When we reach one of these freeway stretches, John naturally accelerates, an instinct bred in the lead foot of a Detroit boy.
“Goose it, John!” I say, feeling freer than I have in years.
From our lofty vantage in the Leisure Seeker, the entombed Route 66 flies beneath us with a billowy roar. Suddenly sleepy, I crack the window, releasing a vacuum rush of balmy air, a sound like the flick of a newly laundered top sheet. I want the wind in my face. In the glove box, I find a fold-up plastic babushka, an ancient giveaway from a dry cleaner in our old neighborhood in Detroit. I wrap it around my wig, tie it under my chin, then roll down the window. The bonnet bellows out like it’s going to launch off my head, wig and all. I roll the window back up most of the way.
Morning is well established now, the weather quite perfect. A brilliant September day, that gaudy Crayola Yellow sunny, like you find at the uppermost corner of a child’s drawing. Yet
I can still detect the breath of fall in the air, damp-dry and musky. It’s the kind of autumn day that used to make me feel as if anything was possible. I remember a road trip years back, when the kids were still with us, looking out over the plains of Missouri on a day like this and feeling for a moment that life could continue indefinitely, that it would never end.
Strange what a little sunshine can make you believe.
These days, autumn is no longer my favorite season. Dead, shriveled leaves don’t hold quite the appeal they used to. I can’t imagine why.
The layer-cake freeway ends and we’re back on Route 66. I can tell by the giant green-suited spaceman standing alongside the road.
“John, look!” I say, as we approach the emerald colossus, his massive noggin in a fishbowl helmet.
“How about that?” says John, eyes barely straying from the road. He couldn’t care less.
As we pass the Launching Pad Drive-In, again I want to crank down the window all the way. Then I realize that if I want to feel the wind and sun on my face, there is no reason why I can’t. I rip off my babushka, then unclasp my helmet of synthetic lifelike fiber (the Eva Gabor Milady II Evening Shade—75% white/25% black) at the back where it is tentatively tethered to my last remaining hair of any thickness. I reach underneath, then pull back and up to unsheathe my head.
I roll down the window and throw that goddamned thing out where it tumbles and flops along the side of the road like a just-hit animal. Such blessed relief. I can’t remember the last
time my scalp saw direct sunlight. What little hair I have on top is thin and delicate like the first frail wisps of an infant. In the delicious wind, the long strands twist and dance around my scalp, a sad swirled turban, but I don’t care today. It had bothered me so much when my hair thinned out after menopause. I was ashamed like I had done something wrong, afraid of what everyone would say. You spend your life so worried about what others think, when in reality, people mostly don’t think. On the few occasions when they do, true, it is often something bad, but one has to at least admire the fact that they’re thinking at all.
I look back at my Styrofoam wig stand. The head is still taped to the counter, no longer my companion, but now staring at me, judging, wondering “What the hell did you just do?” I don’t look at myself in the mirror. I know I look like death warmed over. It doesn’t matter. I feel lighter already.
Up ahead, I spot a building that looks somehow familiar. Low slung and sprawling, its peaked turquoise roof is blanched from decades of sun. There’s a faded horse and carriage on the side of the building. Finally, I notice the sign.
On our vacations with the kids, Kevin and Cindy, we’d often stop at those places with their pecan logs and acrid coffee. Sometimes the signs would start a hundred miles away.
There’d be a new one every ten, fifteen miles. The kids would get all worked up and want to stop and John would say no, we had to get some miles under our belt. They’d beg and finally when we were a half mile away, he’d give in. The kids would scream
and John and I would smile at each other like parents who knew how to spoil their children just enough.
A semitruck roars past us. In a moment, it’s silent again, except for the wind. “I haven’t seen one of those places in years,” I say. “Do you remember Stuckey’s, John?”
“Oh yeah,” he says, in a tone that almost makes me believe him.
“Come on,” I say. “Let’s go. We need gas anyway.”
Nodding, John pulls up to the pumps. No sooner do I get out of the van than a man, neatly dressed in a beige sport shirt and copper-colored slacks, approaches us.
“We don’t have gas anymore, but there’s a BP up the road,” he says, his voice raspy, but not unpleasant. He tips his puffy white cap back on his head with his thumb.
“It’s okay,” I say. “We really just wanted a pecan log.”
He shakes his head. “We don’t have those anymore, either. We’re just gone out of business.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I say, clutching my armrest. “We used to like Stuckey’s. We came with our kids.”
He shrugs forlornly. “Everyone did.”
As he walks away, I wrestle myself back into the van. By the time I’m buckled up and ready to give John the go-ahead, the man is back at my door.
“I found one,” he says, handing me a pecan log.
He’s gone before I can even thank him.
I find out now that Route 66 was already starting to fall apart the time we traveled on it in the ’60s. Much of the old road is closed now, buried or bulldozed, long ago replaced by Highways 55 and 44 and 40. In some places, the original pink Portland concrete is so decrepit you can’t even drive on it. Yet there are maps and books available now that show the old route, turn-by-turn directions, guides to the trailer parks. It’s true. I found it all on the World Wide Web in the library. Turns out people didn’t want to let go of the old road, that a lot of the kids who were born after the war, who traveled it with their parents, want to retrace their steps. Apparently, everything old is new again.
“I’m hungry,” says John. “Let’s go to McDonald’s.”
“You always want to go to McDonald’s,” I say, poking his arm with the pecan log. “Here. Eat this.”
He looks at it with suspicion. “I want a hamburger.”
I stash the pecan log in our snack bag. “We’ll find you a hamburger somewhere else for a change.”
John loves McDonald’s. I’m not that crazy about it, but he could eat it every day. He did for quite some time. McDonald’s
was his hangout for a number of years after he retired. Every day, Monday through Friday, right around midmorning. After a while, I started to wonder what the big attraction was, so I went with him. It was just a bunch of old farts sitting around, chewing the fat, drinking Senior Discount coffees, reading the paper and bitching about the state of the world. Then they’d get a free refill and start all over again when new old farts arrived. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I never went with him again, which I think was what he wanted. Frankly, I think John just needed somewhere to go to get away from me after he retired. Truth be told, I was happy to have him out of my hair, synthetic or otherwise.
Yet once we both settled into the rhythm of retirement, we had a good time. We were both in pretty decent shape then, so we did a lot. After John would return from McDonald’s, we’d take care of things around the house, run errands, chase down the sales at the supermarkets or Big Lots, catch a matinee, have an early dinner. We’d gas up the Leisure Seeker and take off for weekends with friends or take the long trek to the outlet mall at Birch Run. It was a good period, one that didn’t last long enough. Soon, we started spending our days going from doctor’s office to doctor’s office, our weeks worrying about tests, our months recovering from procedures. After a while, just staying alive becomes a full-time job. No wonder we need a vacation.
We manage to avoid McDonald’s long enough to stop for lunch somewhere outside Normal, Illinois. I grab my four-
pronged cane and lower myself from the van. John, still pretty spry, has already gotten out on his side to help me. “I got you,” he says.
Between the two of us, we do all right.
Inside, the diner is meant to look like the 1950s, but it doesn’t look anything like how I remember them. Somewhere along the line, people became convinced that that decade was all about sock hops, poodle skirts, rock and roll, shiny red T-birds, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe. and Elvis. It’s funny how a whole decade gets reduced into a few seemingly random pictures. For me, that decade was about diapers and training wheels and miscarriages and trying to house and feed three people on $47 a week.
After John and I sit down at a table, a girl dressed as a carhop walks up. (Why a carhop? We’re
for Christ’s sake.) She has long bottle-blond hair, bow lips, and eyes like a kewpie doll.
“Welcome to the Route 66 Diner,” she says, in a whispery voice. “I’m Chantal. I’ll be your server.”
I don’t know what to say to this, so I just say something. “Hello, Chantal. I’m Ella and this is my husband, John. I guess we’ll be your customers.”
“I want a hamburger,” says John, abruptly. He’s lost a few of his social skills along with the memory.
I try to laugh it off. “We’ll both have plain hamburgers and coffee,” I say.
Chantal looks disappointed. Maybe she works on commission. “How about some Fabian Fries? A Pelvis Shake?”
“A chocolate milk shake.” She gives me a little nod. “They’re good.”
“All right. You don’t have to twist my arm.”
“Pelvis Shake, coming right up,” she says, pleased to have made a sale.
After our new friend Chantal leaves, I excuse myself to make a phone call.
“Mom, where the fuck are you?” screams my daughter over the phone, right there in the lobby of the diner.
I look around, almost embarrassed to be listening to her. I don’t know where she got this mouth, but it wasn’t from me, I assure you.
“Cindy honey, don’t use that language. Your father and I are fine. We’re just taking a little trip.”
“I can’t believe you went through with this. We all discussed this and decided that you and Dad taking any kind of a trip was out of the question.”
I can hear the exasperation in her voice. I don’t like it when Cindy gets all worked up. She’s been having blood pressure problems lately, and getting all frantic certainly doesn’t help.
. Your father and I didn’t decide anything. You and Kevin and the doctors decided for us. Then, Dad and I decided that we should go anyway.”
“Mom. You’re sick.”
“Sick is relative, dear. I’m way past sick.”
“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” she says, indignantly. “You can’t just stop going to the doctor.”
I look around the restaurant to make sure no one is listening. I lower my voice. “Cynthia, I am not going to let them do their treatments on me.”
“They just want to try to make you better.”
“How? By killing me? I’d rather go on vacation with your father.”
“Damn it, Mom!”
like being yelled at, young lady.”
There is a long pause while Cindy gives herself a time-out. She used to do this when she was frustrated with her kids, now she does it with John and I.
“Mother,” she says, newly composed. “You know Dad shouldn’t even be driving in his condition.”
“Your father still drives just fine. I wouldn’t go with him if I didn’t think that.”
“What if you guys get in an accident because of him? What if he hurts someone?”
I know she has a point, but I also know John. “He’s not going to hurt anyone. If they let sixteen-year-olds on the road to run wild, then your father, who has an excellent driving record, should be able to do the same.”
” she says, her voice rising, signaling surrender, “where are you?”