Authors: Michael Zadoorian
I nod. “Yes, I do. You stay ’cause it’s home.”
He grins widely enough to display the pink rims of his dentures, pleased that time has taught us both the same lesson.
“That’s right. Don’t matter where you are, if that’s where
is”—he splays his hand over his chest—“that’s home. Sometimes you don’t know why you stay, you just stay. That’s
“I couldn’t agree with you more.”
“Uh-huh.” Both eyes close for a moment as he tips his head. “I got to go. You folks have a blessed day.”
“Thank you,” I say. “You take care.”
He shakes both our hands and chugs slowly out the door. John looks at me, shrugs, then starts in on the remaining hot dog on my plate.
I don’t know what that was all about, but it sure put me in a good mood. Back in the van, I’m not in discomfort, I’m not nauseous, my knees don’t ache, I’ve got my wits about me, all of it. John even puts on some music—Harry James, good, jivey stuff from the ’40s. For this moment, I am so happy I could cry. Granted, it has never taken much to please me, but these days, it’s been a little tougher.
I think about what the man at the Coney joint said. He was right. We are the people who stay. We stay in our homes and pay them off. We stay at our jobs. We do our thirty and come home to stay even more. We stay until we are no longer able to mow our lawns and our gutters sag with saplings, until our houses look haunted to the neighborhood children. We like it where we are. I guess then the other question is: Why do we even travel?
There can be only one answer to that: we travel to appreciate home.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re working or taking care of children and a house, your days can’t help but take on a certain sameness. As you grow older, you want that sameness, you crave it. Your kids don’t understand. They’re always trying to change everything, replace the very things that you find comforting and familiar, like your nicely broken-in car or the kettle that rattles when it boils. Yet the sameness is also a trap. It’s part of the narrowing of your world, the tunnel vision of age. When something different happens to you, it’s hard to see it as a good thing. Which means you can’t always recognize a perfect moment or get yourself to a place where one can happen. Or sometimes perfect moments happen and you don’t even realize it.
That is why you need to travel.
About fourteen years ago, John and I went camping at Higgins Lake. The Jillettes had planned to join us but had to cancel at the last minute, so we were on our own. It was an uneventful weekend. I woke up early Sunday morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. Or maybe I had been worrying about something. (I could go on about all the time I’ve spent worrying in my life, but that’s for another reverie, thank you.) I was sitting on a camp chair, having a cup of coffee, watching the gold light bleed upward from the earth, gradually illuminating the branches of the evergreens. I could hear the fading final stridulation of a cricket, the muffled hum of a car on a faraway road, and someone pumping water on the other side of the campground.
You’re probably waiting for me to say that I saw something
miraculous, a white wolf, or some other exquisite sight that I would have never seen had I not been up so early, but I saw nothing unusual. I just sat there in front of the Leisure Seeker, knowing that this, right here, was my life. I was Ella Robina, wife of John, mother of Cindy and Kevin, grandmother of Lydia and Joseph, resident of Madison Heights, Michigan. I thought that nothing enormously bad or good had happened to me during my life. All the normal things had occurred. I had lived a completely unremarkable life. I wanted only my home, and the love and safety of those around me, nothing else. I knew there was no particular reason why I was put on this earth, but here I was and I was glad to be here, awed by the beauty of it. It was a perfect moment.
At that moment, I knew my life. Soon, I will know my death. Who knows? That could be perfect, too. But I doubt it.
“I think I’d like to take a nap,” says John, some miles down the road.
“I’ll get you a Pepsi, John,” I say. “Let’s see if we can get a few miles in before we stop for the day.” Swell. Now I’m sounding like him. Truly though, we have not gone very far. Maybe one hundred and thirty miles from where we started. I would like to make it to Texas by the end of our day.
I reach back to open the old metal Coleman cooler that we keep behind our captain’s chairs to fetch John a Pepsi. The
sour smell reminds me that I put a small block of Pinconning cheese in there before we left home. It’s floating in water now. I dry the bottle with an old rag from under the seat. The Pepsi is warm, but that’s all right. Neither of us enjoys things that are very cold or very hot. I hand it to him. He places it between his legs and tries to open it. The van swerves to one side of the road, then the other.
I grab the steering wheel. “Good Christ, John. Just a second. I’ll open it.”
I let go of the wheel and reach between his legs.
“Hey, watch what you’re grabbing there, young lady.”
I have to laugh. I smack John on the arm, twist the top off the bottle, and hand it to him.
“Lecher,” I say, as he takes a big swig.
As if answering, John lets out a big belch and smiles.
“That’s lovely. I hope you’re proud of yourself,” I say, snatching the bottle from him and taking a short sip. The pop is warm and syrupy and too fizzy, but helps my dry mouth and it settles my stomach, which is understandably starting to grumble about lunch. I hand the bottle back to John, and he takes another long pull.
It’s then when I notice the flashing lights in John’s side-view mirror.
“I think the police are behind us.”
He looks in the mirror, frowns. I can’t tell if he’s annoyed or confused.
“John, I think you should pull over.”
John checks the mirror again, then his eyes return to the road. “He doesn’t want us.”
“I think he does, John. Pull over.”
“Damn it, John!
“Son of a bitch,” he says as he reluctantly eases the van to the shoulder of the road. The police car does not pass us. I feel a tightness in my throat. I pray that the kids did not call the cops on us. Looking into John’s mirror from my side, I see the officer walk toward us.
“John, just do what the man says.” I don’t need him to get in one of his contrary moods with a policeman. I want to make it to California.
“License and registration, please,” says the officer, who looks about thirteen. There’s a nick on his chin from shaving, which he probably does about twice a month.
“Oh, that’s in my purse. Just a second,” I say. He turns and peers at me.
This is unfortunate since my purse happens to be where John’s gun is hidden. I grin toothily at the cop as I fumble around in my massive handbag, looking for the wallet while trying to keep a firearm out of view. The officer shifts his glance back over to John. (The advantage of being an old woman: no one expects you to be packing heat.) Finally, I find the wallet, pull out the license and registration, and hand them to the officer. All the time, John says nothing. That’s good.
“Mr. Robina, the reason I stopped you was I noticed your vehicle weaving between lanes a few miles back.”
I hold up the Pepsi. “Officer, that was my fault. I had given John this bottle of pop and he couldn’t open it. I should have opened it before I handed it to him.”
The cop gives me a pointed stare. “Ma’am, if you don’t mind, I’d like Mr. Robina to answer the question.”
Uh-oh. If John says something crazy, we’re going to both wind up in the calaboose. Or worse, back to Detroit.
“I just was saying—”
“Ma’am, please? Mr. Robina, is that what happened?” His eyes narrow as he scans John’s face.
John looks at the cop, then nods. “Yes sir, I was trying to open the thing.”
“The thing?” The cop looks at him.
John clears his throat. “The thing, the, the bottle.”
There is a terribly long silence as the officer scrutinizes us both. John lets out a medium loud belch, then sighs. I scowl at him. The officer leaves with John’s license and registration. There is only the faint smell of Aqua Velva left in the air. From the driver’s-side mirror, I can see him step into his squad car.
“What are you, nuts? You don’t burp at a police officer.”
John smirks at me and belches again.
It worries me what’s going on in that squad car. I’m wondering if Kevin and Cindy have indeed reported us. Both had decided a few months back (at one of their “What are we going to do about Mom and Dad?” meetings, no doubt) that John should no longer own a valid driver’s license. Kevin
had already tried to disable our old Impala, but he underestimated us. John opened the hood, I spotted the distributor wire that Kevin had yanked, and we had the car running again in nothing flat. Even beyond the teen years, parents still have to prove to their children that they are not as stupid as they think. After that, Kevin and Cindy both shut up for a while, until a few weeks ago. That’s when the “Dad shouldn’t be driving” talks started anew. Except this time, we took it on the lam.
Right about now, John starts up the Leisure Seeker again. He is about to put it into gear when I reach over and turn the key off. I pull it out of the ignition.
I hiss at him. “Are you off your rocker?”
“Give me those fucking keys,” he says.
“What do you think? You’re going to lose him in this monster? We’re going to have a high-speed chase like they do on the news in Detroit?”
John looks at me with such hatred that it breaks my heart. I think,
He’s finally going to belt me after all these years
. Then I’m going to have to kill him. The old John knows that I would do that, but maybe not this one. I ball up the keys in my fist, ready for anything. Then I look in the side mirror again.
“Shut up, he’s coming back,” I say, watching the cop get larger in the mirror. He steps up to the side of the van.
“Thought you were going to take off on me for a minute,” he says, smiling. He hands John back his license and registration. “You’re all set. Please be more careful. Stay in your lane and proceed at the posted limits, all right?”
I smile again at the officer, playing up the
sweet old dear
routine for all it’s worth. “We certainly will, Officer. Thanks so much. Have a nice day!”
I watch him get back in his squad car and drive away. I’m cold and my body feels absolutely limp. I’m so relieved that there wasn’t an APB out on us, or whatever they used to do on
“Where are the keys?” says John, checking all the cup holders and niches on the dash. He could be looking for quite some time. He has the inside of this van so glopped up with gadgets and magnetic contraptions and compasses and dispensers, it’s amazing that we can even move in here.
I drop the keys firmly in his lap.
“Ow!” yelps John, cupping his crotch.
“Let’s go, Barney Oldfield.”
No sooner do we get going than we decide to stop again. I see a sign for the Route 66 Museum in Clinton. I am torn between wanting to get to Texas and seeing this museum. As we approach it, I decide that we need a rest after our little run-in with the fuzz.
“We’re going to have a look at this museum,” I say to John, wondering if he’s going to give me any lip.
“Oh. Okay. Looks good.”
It does look good. It’s modern and sleek, with lots of glass block, right in the middle of all this flatness. There’s a bright red convertible in the front display window.
We park the van and John helps me get out. I bring my cane. I’m not feeling tip-top, but decide to ignore it. I haven’t taken my meds this afternoon. Too busy gobbling down Coneys and harassing the authorities, I guess.
On our way in, we pass a monument to the lassoin’ buffoon, Will Rogers. I’ve already had a bellyful of that knucklehead and we’re not even halfway to California.
I’ll give them this. There’s a lot of stuff at this museum.
much. Every square inch of the place is filled. Antique cars, motorcycles, a dust bowl jalopy with water bags slung over the bumpers, giant photographs, rusty license plates, old billboards, not to mention dinging gas pumps, blinking traffic lights, buzzing neon hotel signs; as well as a Volkswagen hippie van spray-painted in all kinds of crazy colors that hurt my eyes to even look at.
Before long, we’re both walking around in a daze, overstimulated by all the noise and colors and lights.
“I don’t feel so good,” says John.
“Me, neither. Let’s get out of here.”
This is the first museum to ever give us a headache.
Once we’re back on the road, I start to feel better. I do, however, notice what must be the sixth half-filled plastic bottle of pee that I’ve seen along the side of the road. I swear they’re all over the place in Oklahoma. What is wrong with these people? It alarms me to think about all these Okies urinating while they drive. Keep your hands on the wheel, I say!
Before Erick, we pass a sign:
ROGER MILLER MEMORIAL HIGHWAY
“That can’t be the guy who sang ‘King of the Road,’ can it?” I say.
John starts crooning to me. “
-lers for sale…” He taps his fingers on the steering wheel as he sings.
He can’t remember my goddamn name, but he can remember a stupid song from forty years ago. When I see the sign for the Roger Miller Museum, sure enough there’s a big “King of the Road” banner. He must be from around here. Good Lord. Oh well, at least it’s not Will Rogers.
I pull down the visor and examine myself in the mirror. There are long strands of hair—dirty hair, I’m ashamed to admit—all blown and scattered about my head. As much as I gripe about John’s hygiene, you think I’d be more conscious of my own. I pull the elastic band from my hair and attempt to gather the strands back into the pigtail. I extend my neck, try to get a glimpse of the woman I once was, but she is nowhere to be found. I take off my glasses, hoping the blur will help, but I only end up examining the circles beneath my eyes that have grown darker and deeper over the past days. How can someone manage to look gaunt while maintaining a double chin, I ask you?