Authors: Michael Zadoorian
I wake up at 6:40 with a headache and a bladderful. After I visit the bathroom, I fill our electric kettle and plug it in. Outside, it’s just getting light. I hear chickadees chattering over the sound of car doors slamming shut. John, still in bed, is a little restless. When he opens his eyes, he turns to me and speaks in a surprisingly matter-of-fact voice, as if resuming a conversation we started last night. It is the old John, come to visit.
“Haven’t slept in the camper for a while, have we? Feels pretty good. How’d you sleep, hon?”
I walk over to the bed, sit on the ledge next to it. “Not great. But it is nice to be camping again, isn’t it?”
“Sure is. Where are we again?” He rubs his cheeks and pulls at his bottom lip.
He’s like this in the mornings sometimes, normal as can be. “We’re in Illinois,” I say. “About a hundred miles from the Missouri state line.”
“Wow. We’re making good time, aren’t we?”
“Boy, it feels good to be on the road again. Feels right.”
“Yes, it does.”
The ridges in his forehead ripple and furrow. “Have you talked to the kids?”
“I spoke to Cindy yesterday at lunch. She’s worried about us being on vacation.”
“Why’s she worried?” He gets up, arches his back to get the kinks out. “Uggh,” he groans. “Old man Mose.”
“Oh, you know Cindy. She’s a worrier.”
He smiles at me. “I wonder where she got that from.”
I smile back, wrangle myself off the ledge, and kiss him good morning. I touch the ruddy mottled skin of his head, smooth back the wisps of dampish gray hair on both sides of that endless forehead. On these days, morning is like a return, a meeting up again.
“Hey, is there water on for coffee?” I nod, then head back over to the counter and pour us both a cup of instant. I stir in a half packet of Sweet’n Low in his mug and take it over to him. He has lain down again, closed his eyes.
He opens them and looks at me. “Where are we?”
“I just told you, honey. We’re in Illinois.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did, John.”
“Is this home?”
And just like that, the old John is gone. This is how it happens. Sometimes I get him for a few minutes in the morning, wonderful moments when he actually acts like himself, as if his mind has forgotten to be forgetful. Then suddenly it’s like our whole conversation never happened. I should get used to this, but I just can’t.
“Why don’t you get dressed, John? And put some clean clothes on.”
I step outside and sit on a lawn chair to take my meds.
This morning, I seem to be in some “discomfort,” as my doctors love to call it, so I take one of my little blue oxycodone pills along with the fistful of meds I usually take. I don’t really want to cloud my judgment since I’m the commander of this ship of fools, but it’s quite a bit of discomfort, take my word for it.
I hear John inside the trailer, getting dressed. He could probably use some help, but I don’t want to talk to him for a while. I want to enjoy those few lucid minutes with him while they’re still fresh in my memory.
Soon, we’re as cleaned up as either of us are going to get. John is wearing a loud green plaid shirt and beige plaid pants. I almost tell him that it looks like he belongs at the Barnum & Bailey circus, but these days I’m just happy to get him into clean clothes. Who am I to talk, anyway? I’ve replaced my wig with Kevin’s old wool baseball cap, one that he used to wear constantly when he went camping with us. I almost put it on backward like I see the kids do, but then I change my mind. There are degrees of foolishness, after all. Maybe later I’ll make do with a babushka, but for now I love this old Detroit Tigers cap.
Back on 66, John is in good spirits, not like he was this morning, but cheery and driving well. As for me, I feel both the caffeine and the drugs work their magic on me. My fingertips tingle. My heart whirrs like a thrush. I am alert, euphoric
just to be traveling. The thrum of our tires on the pavement is joyous music to me, quelling my fears, transiting my discomfort to a place far up the road, a shuddering speck on the apparent horizon.
Here now, we have entered another state.
We pass a church with a massive blue neon cross, and I am spiritually lifted by feelings of great religiosity. No, I’m not, for crying out loud. Don’t be ridiculous. But what I do love about this road is how the gaudy becomes grand, how tastelessness is a way of everyday life. You have to admire how these people shamelessly try to get your attention as you drive by, whether they’re trying to feed you a hamburger or a savior.
We merge onto I-270, so to bypass St. Louis. We cross the Mississippi on a long, pocked suspension bridge that’s older than either of us. The dirty water roils beneath, licks up at us like liquid earth. I’m relieved when I see the sign:
WELCOME TO MISSOURI
Old as I am, I still get a thrill from that. Yet after this brief pleasure, some schnook in a big blue SUV, the kind everyone drives nowadays, cuts us off.
“John! Watch out!” I cry, sure that we’re going to smash into his rear end. I crush my foot to the floorboard, squeeze my eyes shut, and wait for the impact.
John slams on the brakes and veers right. I jerk forward; my seat belt locks tight against my chest. Sunglasses and guidebooks fly from the seats. I hear a cupboard snap open in the back and canned goods hammer the floor. I open my eyes to find John staring absently at the taillights of the oblivious driver ahead. “We’re all right,” he mutters.
I told you, John is an excellent driver.
A few miles later, we come up behind the big blue truck again when it has to slow for traffic. When he hits the brakes, I see that someone has written something in the dust on his back window, directly on the third taillight they put on the new cars. When he hits the brakes again, the words flash at us:
DRIVEN BY DICKHEAD
After we finish laughing, we make it back onto 66.
Every once in a while, I see something that looks like it’s from the old days of the highway—a sun-scorched streamline filling station or chalky ramshackle motor court with a half-lit
sign. More often than not, though, there are only ruins, or simply a faded and rusted sign off the road in front of an empty field. They conjure up strange, random memories for me—the few dusty, deafening, rattletrap journeys I took with my parents ages ago to leaden towns like Lansing, Michigan, or Cambridge, Ohio. (There were no vacations back then, only purposeful visits to sullen relatives, always for deaths or the unhappy work that followed them.)
The sad truth is, John and I and the kids only took Route 66 once on our trips to Disneyland. Our family, like the rest of America, succumbed to the lure of faster highways, more direct routes, higher speed limits. We forgot about taking the slow way. It makes you wonder if something inside us knows that our lives are going to pass faster than we could ever realize. So we run around like chickens about to lose our heads.
Which makes our little two- or three-week vacations with our families more important than ever. I remember so much about our trips together: the tap of moths around a Coleman lantern as we played cards at a picnic table; constructing olive loaf sandwiches on the top of a cooler while John drove us through a Colorado spring snowstorm; reading the Arizona newspapers by brilliant moonlight on the shores of Lake Powell; stashing comic books in the trunk of our old Pontiac for Kevin, doling them out one at a time to keep down the whining and boredom; the cool gray formations of the South Dakota Badlands, rising from the earth like stone mammoths; eating chuck wagon barbecue in a giant teepee in Jenny Lake, Wyoming; the chugging penny slots at the old
Vegas Stardust; and so many more I can’t even describe. As for the time that elapsed between those vacations, that’s another thing altogether. It seems to have all passed breathlessly, like some extended whisper of days, months, years, decades.
At Stanton, I direct John into the parking lot of Meramec Caverns. Ever since we started this trip, we’ve been seeing signs for the place everywhere—billboards, roofs, bumper stickers, on the sides of barns.
“Come on, John, you want to go see the caverns?”
“What for?” he says, in a tone that I don’t care for.
I forget that I can’t really ask his opinion anymore because if he’s in one of his contrary moods, he will argue with me about whether water is wet. I have to remember what the doctors have told me, to not ask him, but to tell him.
“Here we are,” I say, as we park near a statue of Frank and Jesse James. Apparently, those James boys hid out here for a while. As a fellow fugitive, I feel right at home. I grab my trusty cane and we head on in.
Yet as soon as we try to purchase our tickets, we have problems. The young man behind the ticket desk gives me the once-over. He’s a red-faced little turd with a fake ranger uniform that’s two sizes too big for him.
“Ma’am, the tour is kinda long. I think you’re gonna need, like, a wheelchair,” he says.
“I most certainly do not,” I say.
He makes a face like he just tasted something bad. “The
tour’s like about a mile and a half. Some of it’s uphill, and the walkways are wet a lot. We’ve had people, like, fall. It’s really, really hard to get a stretcher in there.”
I look over at John. He shrugs, no help at all.
“Fine,” I snap back, knowing that the little shit is probably right. A cavern is not the place for an old woman to keel over. (Or maybe it’s just the right place.) So, I climb into the wheelchair, which is so narrow that I can barely wedge my fat rump into it.
“I’ve got you, mumma,” says John as he latches on to the handle grips.
“Thank you, John,” I say, reaching back to touch his hand. Oh well, since he doesn’t mind, I might as well just enjoy the ride.
Before we head into the caverns, we visit the restrooms, and then stop at the snack bar where John hastily devours what I believe to be his first-ever subterranean hot dog. (See? Travel does expand your horizons!) A few minutes later, it is announced that the tour group is heading out.
As we enter, I realize that this will be nothing like my other cave experience. John and I and the kids once visited Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, where we waited hours for sunset at the mouth of the cave, when the bats would come out to gorge themselves on insects. (Only when you stop thinking about sunset, stop remembering to look, does it occur.) When the bats finally emerged, there were thousands and thousands of them, darkening, devouring the puce-purple sky. It was a terrifying and beautiful
sight. Kevin kept his head beneath a beach towel the entire time.
As I said, nothing like that’s going to happen here. What gives it away is the first cave, where the floor is actually covered with linoleum, like someone’s rumpus room. There are tables and chairs and a sparkly disco ball hanging from the ceiling. I cackle as John pushes me along.
“Some cave,” I say, loud enough for the other six or seven people on the tour to hear. They all look over at us. Yes, I’m being a pill, but I don’t care.
Our guide, a chubby young woman with stringy beige hair, deep circles under her eyes, and a bad cold, ignores me and begins her spiel in a nasal, singsongy voice. “In this cave here, which we call ‘the ballroom,’ we used to have dances back in the 1940s and ’50s. Can you imagine young men and women jitterbugging in a cave? Today, it is still available for rental.”
Wonderful. A commercial.
As we move deeper into the caverns, the linoleum eventually gives way to a lightly cobbled path that makes my wheelchair vibrate. There are long periods where our guide doesn’t say a word, she just croups in a loud, honking way that echoes around us. The caves get darker, and she casually flips light switches as she walks. We roll past long rooms of quivering underground pools, giant oozing stone formations, murky deep grottoes, all with lurid colors projected upon them—infectious reds, virulent ambers, bilious greens. These nasty shades disturb me, especially projected on the stalactites, suspended like daggers from the cavern ceilings, bleeding limestone. I
close my eyes, but it only makes me imagine my insides, as they are now, ugly and encrusted with matter. When I open them moments later, I immediately see an enormous shadow of two figures up on the wall of a cave. At first I think we’re the shadow, but then I see illuminated statues of Frank and Jesse James in their secret hideout below.
“Be careful, John,” I say, pointing out some wet patches on the path.
He says nothing, just pushes me along, nice as you please. Our guide leads us to a medium-sized cave with a lit stone bed. The sign on it says:
TV’S “PEOPLE ARE FUNNY” HONEYMOON ROOM
Our guide croups and gives us a big fake smile. “Art Linkletter, funnyman that he was, once made a newlywed couple sleep in this cave for nine nights so they could win a vacation in the Bahamas on his television show.”
“Are you kidding?” I say out loud. The people around me nod.
“No, it’s true. They stayed nine whole nights so they could win a beautiful honeymoon vacation.”
“That would be horrible,” says a tiny woman in her sixties, to my left.
“That’s not funny, that’s just plain old mean,” I say.
Everyone in the group murmurs in agreement. The crowd is on my side now. I hear someone say,
“That son of a bitch.”
The guide flashes an even broader fake smile and leads us away, before an anti–Art Linkletter revolt breaks out. As we roll forward, she keeps talking. Now we can’t shut her up.
“Lester Dill, the man who promoted the caverns for many years, was actually very kind to young couples. In fact, in 1961, he once offered a free wedding to any couples that would agree to get married in the caves. It was a huge success. Thirty-two couples signed up.”
She looks over at me, expecting me to spout off, but I’m bored with rabble-rousing and I just smile at her. Why anyone would want to get married in a cave is beyond me. When John and I got hitched, we just did it like everybody did back then. A simple ceremony at the church in my neighborhood, a little party at my aunt Carrie’s house, our parents, our friends, a cake my mother made, some sandwiches and coffee. Just a small celebration, not the kind of show-offy affairs they make of weddings these days with cathedrals and halls and limousines. Cindy’s wedding almost sent us to the poorhouse, and it didn’t even take. What’s the point of all that madness, I ask you? All the fancy weddings in the world don’t prepare you for where you end up—getting rolled around in a wheelchair through a garish tourist cave by the man who is the father of your children. But before you know it, there you are.