Read The Leisure Seeker: A Novel Online

Authors: Michael Zadoorian

Tags: #fiction

The Leisure Seeker: A Novel (9 page)

They’re all covered with tattoos—arms and legs emblazoned with flames and hearts and naked ladies and skulls. Now that I focus on them a little more closely, I see that they are not really kids at all, but well into their thirties and standing there in the streetlight like walking, inky advertisements. I soon realize that they pose no threat to us. When they see me looking, a
couple of them wave timidly at us and smile. They’re also very fascinated with our slide show, so they can’t be all bad.

Up on the screen now is a shot from our trip to Montreal for the Expo 67, yet another vacation with the Jillettes. Behind us, the sight of the Geodesic Dome has them all oohing and aahing. They’re really enjoying themselves. I click to the next slide. It’s one of the exhibits, I can’t remember which, but the main reason John took the shot was because of the young woman in the foreground wearing a miniskirt. She has stopped to adjust something and John caught the shot as a little joke. All those mod styles had just come out and were causing quite the stir. The men certainly didn’t mind. John and Jim were just about getting whiplash that trip from all the short skirts flitting around. Dawn and I put up with a lot that week.

From the Peanut Gallery behind me, I hear hoots and hollers and wolf whistles from the boys at the sight of the Canadian girl. Which proves to me that nothing has really changed. I also hear one of the girls say “cute skirt.” I turn around and smile at them all.

One of the boys yells out, “Is that you, ma’am?”

“Hardly,” I say back to him.

Another one steps forward. He’s got the same getup on as the others, but he’s the only one with a jacket on. Even though it’s just a gas station grease monkey jacket, he’s obviously the only one with a lick of sense. It’s nippy out here tonight. He keeps walking toward us. John stands up. I look at him and shake my head.

“Everything’s fine, John,” I say.

“Howdy, ma’am. Hope you don’t mind us enjoying your slides.”

I smile. He seems very polite. I don’t care what you look like as long you can show some manners. “Not at all,” I say. “Enjoy yourselves. I’m Ella and that’s my husband, John.”

“Hello, sir,” he says to John as he walks over and shakes hands. John smiles. “We’re just here in town for a hot rod rally.”

“That sounds nice,” I say.

“Yeah, we’re driving the old Route 66.”

I brighten at the sound of this. “Well. That’s what we’re doing, too.”

His eyes widen at my comment. “Really?
Cool
.” He turns to the others and yells, “They’re driving 66, too!”

They laugh and nod their heads with approval. Now I know this whole thing hasn’t been such a crazy idea.

Little by little, the party moves up. They seem shy, like they don’t want to scare us. I can’t honestly say they wouldn’t have if I hadn’t gotten a chance to give them a good eyeballing first.

“I’m Big Ed,” says the first one.

I nod. “Yeah, I could tell by that patch over your pocket that says ‘Big Ed.’”

He grins at me, smirky but sweet. “Helpful, ain’t it?” Big Ed then points to the girl with the ink-black hair. “That’s my wife, Missy.” He then points out all the other young men and women in his group. They have names like “Gage,” “Dutch,” “Betty,” and “Charlotta.”

I say hello to them all. “You’re welcome to have a seat if you want.”

Big Ed looks at the others with raised brows. “Really? If you wouldn’t mind, that’d be swell.” Most of them park it right there on the ground. Big Ed is about to sit, then he thinks of something. “Would it be okay if I got us all some beers? We’re just up the way. I’ll be right back.”

“Knock yourself out, Big Ed,” I say.

“Care to join us?” he says, tipping an imaginary can up to his mouth.

“Sounds good.”

So Big Ed picks up and runs off down the road. We are all quiet while he’s gone, but within a minute I hear his boots on the asphalt again as he comes back dangling a couple of six-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He throws one six-pack to the group on the ground. From the other, he pulls one off for me, then John.

Big Ed makes a big show out of cleaning off the top with his sleeve, then pops it with a little flourish, as if it were a Zippo lighter.

“Madame,”
he says, handing me my beer.
“Sire,”
he says, handing John his. He’s a card, this one. He then raises his can to us. “Cheers, y’all. Thanks for your hospitality.”

“Thanks for yours,” I say.

We all take a drink.

The kids love the slides. We polish off both six-packs as we watch all of the Expo 67 slides and I give a little running commentary about each of the exhibits we see. Over here’s the
Japanese exhibit, look at that beautiful art; there’s the American exhibition, have you ever seen anything so big? More miniskirts, more hoots from the boys.

“Looks like John couldn’t keep his eyes off the sights,” says Dutch. We all laugh. I do believe that I’m having fun. Somehow this reminds me of old times, though I’ve never watched slides with tattooed strangers in a hotel yard in my whole life.

A slide of the four of us in front of the Main Exposition pops up. We are all standing, smiling, before an endless row of flags from every country in the world. I tell the kids about Jim and Dawn, how we used to pal around and travel with them all the time. “We four went on quite a few trips together,” I say. “Had a lot of fun.”

“That’s nice,” says Big Ed. “It’s good to go places with your friends.” He turns to his wife and friends and raises his beer again. They do the same, then they drink. He then turns back to me. “Hey, so do your friends still, uh…?”

He stops himself from finishing his sentence. The gang gets quiet all of a sudden.

I ignore his half question and just click to the next slide. It’s Jim by himself near the GM exhibit, in front of a futuristic sedan. That’s when, of course, John asks his question.

“There’s ol’ J.J.! How is he, Ella? I haven’t seen him in ages.”

I look over at him. “He’s doing great, John. Just great.”

The hot rod kids all smile. And so do I.

 

I don’t know if it was the beer or what, but that night, John and I both sleep like logs. There is no waking and wondering, no early morning clipping of the bread bag or filing of battery ends by John; no eyes snapping open, full of the horrors, for a 4:00
A.M
. crying jag by me. It’s a good night. We both wake refreshed and alert.

John turns to me, opens his eyes, his old self. “Hello, dear.”

“Good morning, John.” He’s back. “How are you?”

“I feel good,” he says, yawning.

I lay my hand on his cheek. Though the years have lightened and lowered his face, it retains a kind of strength, an angularity that I have always found attractive. “You’re not hungover?” I say, smiling.

He doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I’m joshing, anyway. Between the two of us, we barely had three cans of beer.

“No, I’m not hungover. Do you want some breakfast?” he says to me.

I keep my hand where it is. I don’t want to do anything to disturb him at this moment. “No, let’s just lie here for a little while, all right?”

“Have you talked to the kids lately?”

John often asks about the kids when he is in this lucid state, as if he’s been away, which he has, I suppose.

“Yes,” I say. “They’re doing fine. Kevin just got a promotion.” That’s not entirely true. They just gave him more work and a different title, but no more money.

“Good for him.”

“Cindy’s taking an adult education class. Basket-weaving. She’s very good at it.”

“That’s great,” he says, patting my hand, which is still resting on his cheek.

“John. Do you love me?”

He squints at me. “What the hell kind of question is that? Of course I love you.” He moves closer to me and kisses me. I can smell him. He doesn’t smell very good, but he still smells like my husband.

“I know,” I say. “I just wanted to hear it from you. You don’t say it very often anymore.”

“I forget, Ella.”

I forget Ella
. This is what I fear most.

“I know you do, John.” I lay my other hand on his face. I kiss my husband. I hold him close to me and I don’t say anything more. Minutes pass, and the half night returns to his eyes.

It’s time to get up.

 

We spend a short time on the interstate, and it’s full of semitrucks that roar past us at full speed. You can sense their annoyance. We aren’t going fast enough for them. As one passes us, the driver, a fat man with a camouflage hat, scowls and flips us the bird. I make a gun with my index finger and thumb and shoot it at him like Charles Bronson.

He stares at me as if I’m insane. Then he hits the gas like a bat out of hell.

We get back on 66. At Arcadia, we pass a well-known round barn, but the town itself is so drab and sad looking, we don’t bother to stop. We just keep going, slow but steady till we hit Edmond, a little college town. From there we meet back up with I-44, which allows us to bypass Oklahoma City.

On the freeway, the trucks are nastier than ever. One of them comes very close to cutting us off. John has to hit the brakes, and I feel my heart jump into my throat as the weight of the van shifts forward for a moment.

Nothing happens. We keep driving. We pass a sign in front of a Knights of Columbus Council that says:

HAPPY ANNIV. DAVIE & PUNKIN 23 YRS

Good for them, I say. At Bethany, after we rejoin 66, we cross Lake Overholser on an old steel bridge, then John pulls over.

“What’s wrong?” I say.

John looks at me like I’m the one losing my mind. “I have to pee.”

“Oh.”

He turns the engine off, then disappears into some bushes. Two minutes later, he returns to the driver’s seat.

I grab our little spray bottle of hand sanitizer. “Hold out your hands.”

John starts the van.

“John. You need to clean them after you pee.”

“Quit riding me, Ella. Get off my back.”

I spray the backs of his hands just to get his goat. He wipes them on his pants, puts it into gear, and we take off. He’s getting ornery again, I can tell. We drive a little farther and I start to feel hungry.

“Let’s stop for lunch, John.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Well, I am.” These days, I don’t usually have much of an appetite, so I’d like to take advantage of it. For the first time in over forty years, I’m losing weight. Sure, I still need to go to Omar the Tent-Maker for my clothes, but he’s definitely taken me down a yard or two. Too bad I had to get sick in order to lose weight. There’s a diet for you. I can see it really catching on. I’ll be reading all about it in the
Enquirer—
“Movie Stars Love New Cancer Diet!”

After El Reno, there’s an old 1932 alignment of 66 that we could hop on, but I direct John to stay on I-44. Later, I regret my decision. I scour the countryside for restaurant billboards, but for the first time, there are none. I feel antsy and discomfortable along with my phantom hunger. Maybe I’m just anxious to get to Disneyland. I guess once I know something’s going to happen, good or bad, I’ve never had much patience for waiting. But sometimes you just can’t rush things.

 

“Hey look, Coney Islands! Let’s stop,” says John, after seeing a sign along the road.

Though I was holding out for more Oklahoma barbecue, I’m happy to see something decent to eat. In Detroit, we
have Coney joints all over the city. (They’ve always been one of John’s favorite foods. When he had to work downtown, he would sometimes sneak over to Lafayette Coney Island for two with everything before he came home. I could always tell by the onions on his breath.) But once you leave the Detroit area, you won’t find them anywhere else. So it surprises me to see them here. Still, I guess the strangest thing is that both Michigan and Oklahoma have hot dogs named after a place in New York.

We down some Pepcid and head into this little shack in Hydro. It’s nothing to look at from the outside, and inside, it’s no better: dingy whitewashed walls, torn Naugahyde booths and chipped Formica tables. When we walk in, all the regulars turn to look at us. They scowl as if to say, “What are these rogue seniors doing in our greasy spoon?” I’d be worried if they weren’t all as ancient as us.

I have to say that the Okie Coney Island looks absolutely delicious. A plate with two passes by just as we sit down. The chili looks similar to Detroit’s, but they put a yellowish vinegar coleslaw on the top. We order two each, fries, and Dr Peppers (seems to be what they drink here) from a silent, burly waiter in a stained apron. Less than three minutes later, he slaps them on our table without a word.

I’m happy to report that Okie Coney dogs are indeed as delicious as they look. While we eat, an old black fellow, at least in his eighties, in a red-striped sport shirt buttoned to the top, toddles up and watches us eat for a moment. John and I exchange a glance. Not sure what to do, I smile at him and keep chewing.

“Good, ain’t they?” he finally says, sucking at his upper plate.

I have a little hard time understanding him, between drawl and stroke-slur, but I know what he’s saying. John and I both nod yes. Our mouths are full.

“Where you all from?”

I swallow my food and wipe my face, while John keeps eating. “Detroit, Michigan,” I say, with a little hesitance. No point in saying “Madison Heights, Michigan.” No one’s heard of it.

“Been there long?”

“All our lives.”

He paws an ashy cheek as he considers this. I can’t help but notice that his left eye is the color of condensed milk. “I had cousins up that way. Lived there myself for a year. Long time ago.”

I set down my Coney. “Really?”

“Worked in the Packard plant there. Beautiful town.”

Even though the Detroit that he’s referring to is probably sixty years old, I smile again at him, genuinely touched. “Really? Well, thank you. That’s so nice to hear. Usually we say we’re from Detroit and everyone looks at us like we’re crazy. They still call it Murder City.”

He shakes his head. “Aw, folks can be so wrong-hearted. Anyway, it don’t matter what they say, you stay just the same. Know what I’m talking about?”

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