Authors: Michael Zadoorian
Surprise! There’s another depressing little hellhole on Route 66—Cuba, Missouri. In my guidebooks, I read about the past glories of these sad hamlets. In Cuba, there was a place called
“The Midway,” a giant complex with a hotel, a car dealership, and a twenty-four-hour restaurant that fed up to six hundred people a day. Now, there’s a one-person fruit stand. Go figure.
“John, stop at this stand. I want to buy some grapes.”
John pulls the van up to a small clapboard stand where they are selling fresh grapes and grape juice. Apparently, this is wine country and we are here during the harvest.
“Why don’t you just stay in the car, John?”
“All right, Ella. Is there anything to drink there?”
“I’ll get us some grape juice, okay?”
John nods at me. “Sounds good.”
“Don’t take off without me,” I say as a little joke, but I kind of really mean it. Either way, John is mostly resistant to humor now. He can still make me laugh, whether he knows it or not, but my jokes, such as they are, miss him completely.
I pick out a small bag of grapes and a quart of grape juice, dark as blood. The woman at the stand puts them both in a paper bag for me. “Here you go, darlin’,” she says, with the kind of sugar smile that I’m sure is only reserved for adorable old women like myself, eccentrics who wear baseball caps as they waddle charmingly over with their canes from their heavily decaled recreational vehicles. (John always had a weakness for those stickers with the state name in bold letters and “Land of Wonder” or some such motto beneath it. The rear end of the Leisure Seeker is barnacled with them.)
Not that I doubt her sincerity. I don’t. I’m always pleased to
see a kind face these days, and especially attached to someone bearing food.
“Thank you, miss,” I say, as I hand over the dollar bills, unable to conjure up the same regional graciousness.
“You have a good day, ma’am.”
There is a burr in her voice, a midwestern flatness that I did not expect here in the middle of the Ozarks, but find quite comforting. We midwesterners, I think, sometimes notice other folks’ accents more readily, because ours is, in many ways, so nondescript. But when I hear the variants of our hard
’s and nasally twang, it makes me appreciate our native tongue, the planklike dialect that matches our terrain.
We sit for a while in the van and sip juice, eat grapes, along with some Chicken in a Biskit crackers. It’s an odd combination, one that I’m not sure I approve of, but I didn’t feel like rooting around in the back for anything more substantial. Anyway, I’m just happy to have an appetite. The grapes are luscious, dark and juicy, so I tuck a napkin under my collar as I eat. Neither of us says anything. John occasionally makes a small approving grunt, but that’s it. It’s good this way, good that we’re not speaking. Speaking would only ruin it. For a moment, I am so happy I could cry. This is exactly the sort of thing that makes traveling wonderful for me, the reason I defied everyone. The two of us together like we have always been, not saying anything, not doing anything special, just
. I know nothing lasts, but even when you know that things are just about over, sometimes you can run back and take a little bit more and no one will notice.
We drive an old, old stretch of 66—curbed, pinkish, and veined with tar—until it turns into Teardrop Road, which takes us to the Devil’s Elbow, a twisty route over a rusted iron suspension bridge across the Big Piney River. Names like “Big Piney River” make me smile, remind me that I am nowhere near my birthplace, where the rivers have names like Rouge and St. Clair. (It occurs to me how French and fancy these names sound. Let me assure you that Detroit is neither. Even in the ’50s, when it was booming, it was a tough industrial town, fat with swagger and edged with grime. Yet I can’t imagine my life occurring anywhere else but where it did.)
After a bathroom and gas stop in Arlington, Route 66 disappears and we are forced back on I-44. Though the books tell us how to get back onto the old road after a short distance, we cheat a little and stay on the interstate. At yet another Springfield, I direct us back onto the old road.
“How are you feeling, John? You doing all right?”
John nods, runs a hand over his head, then wipes his hand on his sleeve. “I’m all right.”
“You tired? Want to find a place to stop for the night?” I’m asking him, but I suspect it’s me that really wants to call it a day. I feel sore and shaky. I am experiencing
Of course, once we decide to stop, we can’t find a place to stay to save our lives. We meander through a braid of towns with curious names: Plew, Rescue, and Albatross; old places of log
and stone. In a town called Carthage, we find a campground that will do. We pay our money and set up shop for the night.
The late afternoon sun is too intense, so we sit at our table inside the Leisure Seeker. I turn on a little fan, take my afternoon meds, and settle in to read an old
Detroit Free Press
. After a while, John goes to the back of the van to lie down. The van shifts slightly with his movement. Something creaks in the undercarriage.
“Ella, where are the kids?”
“They’re at home.”
John sits up in bed, stares wide-eyed at the seam where the paneling meets the ceiling. “We left them there?”
“Uh-huh.” I know what’s coming.
He twists his head now, searching for me, eyes frantic with fear. “For Christ’s sake, we left the kids alone?”
I slap down the paper, in no mood for this. “John, the kids are adults. They’ve got families of their own now. They have their own houses. They’re fine.”
“They are?” he says, not quite believing.
“Yes. Don’t you remember? Kevin and Cindy both got married. Kevin and Arlene have got two boys, Peter and Steven. And Cindy has a boy and a girl.”
“Yes, John. Don’t you remember? Their names are Lydia and Joey.”
“Oh yeah. They’re little kids.”
“Joey’s eighteen. Lydia’s in college. Remember going to her high school graduation?”
Sometimes it feels like all I ever say is “Don’t you remember?” to John. I know that somewhere inside of his head, floating around, are all these memories of our life together. I refuse to believe that they are gone. They just need to be coaxed out. And if they need to be nagged out, then so be it.
“Lydia gave a little speech at graduation, about knowing where you’re heading, finding your own way into the future? Everyone applauded? Joey played in the band at the ceremony?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“Well, good. You should remember. Keep remembering it because I’m goddamn sick and tired of remembering everything for you.”
“I’m sorry, Ella,” he says, shamed.
Sometimes I just want to smack myself. “Oh, shit. I’m sorry, too, honey. I didn’t mean to get mad.”
“It’s this memory of mine.”
“I know, dear.”
I turn the page and decide to tackle the Jumble. I look around for a pencil.
“Ella, where are the kids?”
Deep breath. “They’re fine, John. Why don’t you take a nap?”
So, I tell him to take a nap and what happens? I fall asleep
at the table. Involuntary catnaps: it’s another reason why getting old is for the birds. You don’t mean to fall asleep, but then suddenly you wake up and hours have passed. It’s an entirely different time of day. There’s a gap, an in-between period you just can’t account for.
It’s pitch-black in the van now and it scares me. John and I have not let it get completely dark in our house for years. These days, it disorients him and it just plain spooks me. When we go to bed, we always leave lights on all over the house. We sleep in half-dark rooms, doze in shadows. We live there, in the half night, especially John.
“John!” I yell, trying not to panic. He’s snoring to beat the band. Finally, I remember that there’s a lamp right over the table. Jesus. I reach up and fumble around till I find the switch. The light makes me safe again.
“John, get up.” I look at my watch.
“What is it?” he says, voice sticky with sleep.
“We’ve been snoozing for almost three hours. It’s dark outside.” I try to get up, but my legs are asleep. I wiggle my feet to get the circulation started. “Could you help me?”
“Just a second,” he says. In a moment, he’s at the table, his hands outstretched to pull me.
“Ow, ow, ow.” The edge of the table scrapes my belly. “Old Two-Ton Tessie here.” Then I’m back on my feet, knees discomforting like crazy.
“Hush,” John says, smoothing back my hair. His hands smell vinegary, but I welcome his touch.
“I’m okay. You hungry?”
John brightens at the mention of food. He’s in good post-nap spirits. Sometimes he wakes up mean as the devil. It can go either way.
“Why don’t I make us some eggs and bacon?” I say.
I shuffle to the kitchenette, all of three steps. (This is why RVs are the cat’s ass. When you get old, everything gets farther away. But here in the Leisure Seeker, everything’s right there where you need it.)
I fire up the electric frying pan, pull bacon and eggs out of the icebox, and lay six strips in the pan. After I hound him into washing his hands, John is on toast detail. He stands at the counter, a stack of Wonder bread in front of him.
“Don’t put it in the toaster yet,” I say.
I watch as he closes up the bag with a twist tie and starts rummaging in our junk drawer till he finds the scissors. He then snips the excess plastic bag just above the twist tie. John has done this for the last couple years. It’s the sickness. At home, he was always stacking, straightening, fiddling with something. He’d trim the bag, leave the room, then come back in and do it again. Sometimes before we even use any of the bread, the bag is trimmed down to a nub. Despite this, he’s more lucid than usual and all this feels pretty normal.
“Hey, how about a cocktail?” I say.
I know you’re probably thinking, she’s grateful for a pre
cious few moments of clearheadedness with her husband and what does she do? Make him dull with booze. You would have a point, but I really don’t care. I reach up into a cupboard and pull out bottles of Canadian Club and sweet vermouth.
“We haven’t had a cocktail hour in a long time,” I say as I turn the bacon on low. “Get some ice out of the cooler.”
John surprises me by turning on the tape player to some music. The van is suddenly filled with the sounds of lush strings and a mellow baritone sax. Years ago, he taped a lot of our favorite albums for us to listen to on vacations. All kinds of good stuff—Arthur Lyman, Tony Mottola, Herb Alpert, Jackie Gleason.
“Is that ‘Midnight Sun’?” I ask.
“I guess,” he says, coming back with a tray of ice cubes.
“I think it is.” I mix us manhattans, extra sweet. After the kids left home, John and I started having a little drink before dinner. We would sit downstairs at our rumpus room bar where we used to entertain, light a candle, put on some music, and just chat. John was just finishing up as an engineer at GM then and he would tell me about what was going on over at the Tech Center, who was stabbing who in the back, who was getting laid off, and so on. He didn’t care anymore since he was retiring. (Thank God for “Thirty and Out.” It was the mid-’80s, just as the Detroit auto industry was going to hell in a handbasket.) I would tell him who I had talked to that day, what was going on in the kids’ lives, sales at the grocery store—nothing earthshaking. But we got things out there, shared information.
Now we sit around our table staring at our drinks without a word. I’m thankful for Andy Williams singing “Moon River.” At least someone’s saying something. I give my drink a swirl, watch the cherry drop to the bottom. I lift my glass. “Well, here’s mud in your eye.”
John raises his glass and smiles, like he always has. Is there such a thing as cocktail muscle memory? I take a sip. It’s cold, sweet, and strong, and I remember that there is nothing like that first sip of a cocktail. Ah! The pleasure of forgetting, then finding again. This gives me renewed hope for the idea of this trip. John sips his drink and squeezes his eyes shut. I worry for a moment, then he sighs contentedly. “God damn, that’s good.”
“We’re making progress, don’t you think?”
John nods. “Sure are.”
“I think we did maybe about three hundred miles today.”
John takes a second sip and frowns. “Doesn’t seem like very much.”
“We’re doing fine. It’s just slower taking the old road. Don’t you worry.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” he says.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I repeat, raising my glass. And never have two words seemed so true.
After our dinner, I decide that we need something else to do. I give John a Pepsi and make myself another drink. “Time for the evening’s entertainment.”
“It is?” says John, rolling a toothpick in his mouth.
John didn’t know that I packed the projector and a big box of slides. At home, in our basement, there’s a cabinet stacked with trays of slides—vacations, family reunions, weekend outings, birthday parties, weddings, new babies, everything that’s ever happened to us. At one time, John was quite the shutterbug. He was our official family photographer.
It’s a balmy night, and I like the idea of watching slides outdoors like at a drive-in. A floodlight has just ticked on nearby, so it’s not so dangerously dark. I leave the lights on in the van, which spreads a warm glow over our campsite yet is still dim enough to use the projector that I have John lug to the picnic table.
“How you doing out there, John?” I yell out to him.
“Where’s the screen?”
“Uh-oh. I forgot to bring one. I’ll get a sheet.”
I rummage around in our little cardboard storage chest and find a bunch of them, orphans left over from sets that wore out long ago. I’m not prepared for how they make me feel. Seeing these old sheets right now, rubbed so smooth, washed hundreds of times over the years, I can’t help but think of my life, or at least my married life, in terms of linens: the spotted stiff white wedding gift linens of our first hungry years together; those same sheets yellow with urine from Cindy climbing into bed with us; the pastel sheets I picked out after eighteen or nineteen years of marriage (that time where early components of a union need replacing—mattresses, radios, towels, all falling apart at the same time—reminding you of just how long
it’s been); those same replacement sheets following us into middle age; then newer striped cotton-blend linens from the outlet malls we would encounter on the road (the luxury of three or four sets to choose from), taking us into deep middle age, then agedness, these last linens now softened to silk by constant scrubbing, lately soiled by John’s gradual lack of hygiene, the smell of an unwashed body preparing itself for a long slumber.