While I am not completely certain that this life is the one I want to live, I do know for sure that I can’t keep eating at truck stop diners if I have any intention of making this a potential life long career choice. The driving is good, but the gas is expensive and I’m sick of soggy burger buns. Which is why, today, I was glad to see that in the middle of nowhere there wasn’t a single diner, but just a lone gas station slash pizza parlor slash county bottle redemption center. The only food for an hour in any way was something different. I wouldn’t be able to sit in the comfort of reoccurring disappointing meals anymore.
Unless, of course, I decided to wrangle some of those loose chickens from the farm six minutes back. I smiled to myself as I pulled into the two-space parking lot.
Me, wrangle a chicken? My best chance of capturing such athletic birds is plowing through the gate and picking what remains out of the grill.
To my side I saw my truck’s neighbor, an antique milk truck I assumed. Its shape and massive tank gave it away, not much else would. All identifying markings had been crudely covered with poorly applied chrome paint. The only bit peeking through was an “O” in the name on the side, just barely visible through a thinner section of the coated portion of the logo.
Ding. Ding. Ding. I walk through the front door. An empty shelf is ahead of me and the attendant gives me a quarter of a half-hearted glance while hammering his thumbs across his phone. I take a seat at the nearest booth. I’m pretty surprised. The springs are good and the napkin dispenser isn’t rusted.
There’s no ketchup, but there are salt and black pepper shakers, and one of those wire cages full of creamers and sugar packets. I pull out my phone and try to catch up with the world. It’s been a couple hours since I checked, but as is what sometimes is, I have no signal here. So, I snap a picture of the table and its neatly arranged “accoutrements” for later. The cross-country group will be impressed by the tidiness of this place.
The floors are spotless, the only smudges are the black marks where I scuffed the tile with my sleepy legs while on my way to my seat. I wonder where the waitress is, it’s been a couple minutes.
“Sir?” I said to the attendant. His tag said, Sleeve, no, Jacobson.
“Jacob, uh, is the server around?”
Without speaking or allowing the blue glow to leave his face, he picked up some utensils, then a menu and walked over slowly, about as slow as you’d expect someone who was distracted to walk. It was obvious in the past he’d stumbled and tripped around the cluttered room while performing the exact same task with the exact same distraction.
“Ah, thanks. So, is it just you here? Could I have some coffee please? Black preferred but I won’t ignore decaf.” I chuckle, something of a classic ground breaker for a more casual waiter to diner experience.
“All out.” He mumbles. Not to me, of course, but down to his hands.
“Ah, uh, well what do you have to drink?”
Jacob looks up for a moment, taking a look at the counter he had just come from and then finally looks at me.
“We have what’s in the coolers sir,” he says.
I look around and see a small cooler just under the empty scratcher boxes. I can make out the logo on the side. Not really a soda fan.
“Ah, I don’t really drink soda though. What do you have available?”
Jacob, who’s looking at his phone again speaks as he pushes his finger up the screen slowly.
“I’m not sure, but I know we have orange juice. Feel free to take a look and call me over when you are ready to order.”
In the cooler there is less than half a glass of orange juice left in a jug, three glass bottles of milk, a cola with a faded label, and what looks like dust in a beer bottle. Even at home I am uncomfortable with finishing off a jug of anything, so milk it is.
Returning to my seat I open the bottle and then the menu to see what I might have. The advertisements stand out a bit with their wild colors, which are uncomfortably bright as the sun spills through the shades and across the plastic cover. I spend a minute looking over the options. There are some clear and obvious typos, and at least three items which are the same thing described with different words and punctuation. The stuffed mushrooms seem like something I would not trust from a gas station or a bottle redemption center, so a big bowl of spaghetti with a white sauce sounds pretty good. I call Jacob over.
“Yes, I would like the, uh…” I flip open the menu again to make sure I say exactly what I want in the exact manner it is written.
“Yes, the thin spaghetti with white garlic sauce and for bread… the peasant bread. Is it quite hearty… or?”
“We actually sold the last of our spaghetti just before you got here…” Jacob then goes on to explain that a very midwestern family in a very 1980’s midwestern car, had, like any good American family, numerous kids who were young and picky eaters and so the pizza parlor has everything but the small amount of spaghetti that it stocked. Looking back down at the menu I order a medium vegetarian pizza, what I don’t eat can be “on-the-road-food” till I get to Oklahoma.
The broccoli will counteract the extra cheese, so I should be fine. I go to take a sip from the milk and pause with it just below my chin. I talk across the room.
“Hey, Jacob, this milk is fresh right? I hope its nothing like that cola in the back? Heh?”
Jacob looks up from the pile of dough he is rolling out on the counter and confirms that the milk is good. I take a sip and it is, quite good. Pretty heavy, but certainly fresh. No label on any of the milk bottles though, so definitely local and not full of any crap, except for what was on the farmer’s hand. But, in all honesty, it’s refreshing. This is exactly why I wanted to try somewhere new. The change of pace feels good.
It’s also nice to see your food get made to some degree, as long as it is a process which is easy on the eyes and not incredibly gory or so technically challenging that a layman might not understand. It gives you confidence in the quality of the food, a certainty that if you become bound up for a couple days it was an ingredient and not the method of preparation.
As Jacob sprinkles the toppings on and throws the pie under the counter into what I assume is an oven, I choose to partake in the provided reading materials. Looking to Jacob, I see that he has put on thick up to the elbow in length yellow gloves and is cleaning the countertop. I guess he’s the reason it’s so neat around here. I look down at the menu, holding it like a newspaper.
This establishment’s plastic protected “E-Z Menu Publication Advertising Group” brand menu is being sponsored by Sandra the Horse Training and Hutchinson’s Lawyer Sourcing Services with a page advertisement each. Another picture for the group, this one is sure to elicit a chuckle online.
Hmm, halfway down the left side is a daycare with a mascot, a costume which looks like a color edited and non-athletic wear version of the Highwayville school’s sports mascot pictured on the right, just above the hot wing stuffed Stromboli. The page opposite of the school’s flexing mascot features the same costume, but instead of a full getup, it’s just a person wearing the head part it seems. Its wire mesh eyes are pretty well detailed for a fuzzy photo print menu.
Then on the right…
Oh, I’m out of milk. My eyes slowly walk across the room and to the counter. Jacob is back at it again, pounding away at the screen.
“Is it okay if I have another milk?”
He nods. I walk over and pull another milk from the fridge and clearly, to all who may be watching, examine the bottle closely.
“So, whose milk is this anyways? Is it from the same place that truck in the parking lot is from? Smolleys? Or maybe, Smothers? Something with an O close to the middle?”
Jacob looks out of the glass wall that is the store front and then back to his phone.
“No.” Then he adds, “Milk and mail come in on Sundays. I only work Tuesdays. Hmm, yeah, and Wednesday, and today. The person who would know is my boss, Jamie. She works the days I don’t”
“I hope you don’t text and drive in that milk truck. It’d be a pretty dangerous load to even risk wobbling as far as the bulk of that tank is concerned.” He looks up and at me. No, he looks at the timer on the counter in front of me.
“I get a ride to work from my brother, so I don’t have to worry about texting and driving that much.”
Looking around the room and past the empty off-white colored shelving I see two doors, one with a small round window in the top center and a second with a small pale buttock exposed in an illustration of someone hanging a leak with their pants rolled and then scrunched up resting just above the laces of their shit covered boots. The heels dug into the dirt, more like mud, sinking. I’ve been sitting around here for a solid fifteen minutes now, so where is the driver for the antique truck?
“So, is there a bathroom… or…?” I ask.
“Yes, we have a public restroom, but it is currently in use. The guy who drove the tank truck outside had to use it after he tried the mini mushroom cap cheese-y bites, since we were out of spaghetti.”
Well, that makes sense but I didn’t think spaghetti would be this popular at a bottle redemption center slash gas station. First guess having been confirmed, I raise my bottle up and return to my seat.
Just above my table hangs, from a frayed loop of twine, a chalkboard sign. In playful scribbles it says ‘The getti was gr8!’. That must be the oldest of the youngest of the American family! I consider writing ‘I wish I knew! Coulda tried it!’ underneath but looking at the chalk is about as far as I go beyond imagining where’d I squeeze in the words before I hear a loud buzzing noise break across the room. A waft of steam comes up from behind the counter, a smell spreads and it’s pretty good.
It looks good too! Jacob brings over the pizza and places it on some oven mitts and then goes back to his “work”. It’s pretty gooey — a plus — but I decide I should probably let it settle rather than allow it to burn my tongue. I take out my phone.
Ah, yes, no signal or data, but there is a public wi-fi available so I just hop on that. And, it’s a wi-fi that doesn’t have internet. Crap. My hopes crushed in the hunt for a distraction. I should probably fold up the menu.
Carefully lifting the dish as not to burn myself, I fold the menu shut. The left first, not sure why they have a bruised teen watching kids, but who knows. It doesn’t make a good daycare advertisement, and at the very least it seems like a bad way to present a business. Probably good though for understanding why people get angry at kids I suppose. Then on the right, with their sports mascot-
Is that a sport? That’s…
“Jacob, what sport ish — ” As I speak I bring my eyes up from the menu and see that the lights are off. All that is in the air is the sunlight which has pushed through the blinds and careened off the falling dust. Each particle hangs in the air, surrounding me. In my breath they ripple slightly but remain in place. The shelving units are all pushed together and arranged behind the counter, packed up against the wall and each other so that they take up as little floor space as possible. The cooler hums. A soda, a milk, and a grimy jug of orange juice sit there in the cold white light.
Getting up from my seat, I walk toward the counter. No Jacob, no register, just the holes in the wood where the cabling would be strung. Feeling this area I pull back my hand and examine my fingertips. A light grey slime that is warm to the touch. Yes, speckles. Looking down the hole I see just shadows and what my mind assumes is the shape of a trash bin.
The room turns dark immediately. From some sunlight poking into the shadows to a deep black. I see a spasm in the sheet of darkness.
I feel a sense of satisfaction, my mouth waters as I chew. I open my eyes, the lights are on again, the room is clean, the specks are gone and at the counter there’s Jacob. My hands are coated in pizza grease and the pie tastes fantastic. It’s quite well cooked, not a single burn at all. Five out of five if I had the wi-fi to report back on my profile.
“Jacob, this pizza is great. What sport is thi-“
Wait, no that’s not right.
“Sorry, what I meant to ask was where did you learn how to make pizza? Just here or?” Jacob lets out a deep breath before answering.
“It was part of orientation.”
“Oh, that’s good it’s a thing you might use someday.” Turning my head away from him, I’m back at the table, back among the specks. The dust has been disturbed where my hand had reached out, grabbing at the air for a second slice. Each dot slowly moving outward from where I had clutched at it, at nothing.
Getting up, I move with some speed. I am unable to control my movements as I dart to the back of the store. The bottle return machines are exposed, their mechanical guts spilled out and onto the floor, and glass cracks under my heel.
The bathroom is vacant. I touch the handle and it changes to occupied in big red block letters, it spins and the handle twists until it is red hot. I pull my hand back as the metal rolls into itself and into the door as the paint bubbles then settles, but not before a slight ripple goes across the door, across the tile on the walls adjacent, and across the specks in the air. But they aren’t really specks.
I fall back and my forearm slaps into the shards across the floor, with complete control regained for a moment, I let out a sharp yelp.
A thick white fluid drips out of each cut.
Uh, this food is making me parched, and ouch! My hand hurts! I’m out of milk again, weird, I could of swore I just got this bottle.
I did just get this bottle though. I better ask Jacob for some water.
“I’ll be right back,” I say as I stand up. I need a drink is what I tried to say. I felt my mouth move with different words than what I heard. I push myself to try to say something, anything, I get nothing.
I walk to the bathroom. It seems the guy’s gone. It’s empty so I reluctantly grab at the door handle. It’s still a gas station bathroom after all. I don’t want to trust a population in which most likely less than 10% of its members actually wash their hands after wiping their own ass.
Cupping at the hot water.
“Ack! SHIT!” My hand is beat red. The water must be too hot. I turn off the hot and leave the cold on.
Cupping at the water, I bring it up to my face and let it run down over my cheeks and then flow onto and past my lips. I gargle what remains. Reaching for a paper towel, I return to the mirror to wipe off the excess water, but in it I see my face. It’s filthy.
Small droplets of sand cling on. Trying to wipe it away is of no use. The more I pull off, the more sand is visible on my face. I cup the water again and try to soak it. Then I vigorously claw at my skin hoping to peel off the surface, and along with it the sand that must have become attached. I need to try again.
I scream, and in the process kick the cleaning supplies across the bathroom and as soon as my foot makes contact…
Darkness again. Now it’s the quietest and stillest silence I have ever heard, twisting and cascading into my head, rolling into my ears like a mudslide. This silence would have terrified me if not for the interruption of a small silver garbage can connecting with the wall.
It is deafening in contrast. Disoriented, I spin backwards and reach for a hold. I get a grip with my upper teeth on the rim of the sink.
My body whips against the door to the bathroom. Stumbling with blood in my mouth I reach for a handle. I have to get out of here. I have to get out of here. I can’t stay any longer.
But there’s no handle.
My hands slap across the door. Dull thuds at first, then a wet smacking, then a small crunching comes with each consecutive hit.
Clack. Clack. Increasingly louder, and more painful. CLACK! CLACK!
I have to get help.
“Jah-cusb! JAH CLUBS!” I call out desperately, as the knives in my mouth scrape across my tongue on the back of each word.
Reaching at my face, I feel a loose sand roll down the outside of my hand. I can feel the pile growing between my knees. My posture breaks from panicked to every muscle in my entire body being wound up and tightened beyond possibility. I hear it so clearly, the sand pouring. I can hear it through my jaw, the vibrations adding an umphf to a sound I wish I could ignore. My hand is buried! I can’t move my hand. It’s trapped under the weight of the sand.
I CAN’T FEEL MY FACE ANYMORE!
A low grumble and then a bounce up, then down. The roads are terrible here. And the sun!
I pull down the visor, dust scatters across the air of the small cabin. I crank down the window and the wave of particles rush past me and blow out behind me as I go driving by. I have to watch that I don’t lose balance. I can’t spill the product.
“Let’s see what’s on the radio…” I reach out to the dial and turn through the channels. The remainders of the echo of a slow sob immediately drown in the static. I turn up the volume.
I’m nearly back to Streetwalk Township in Oklahoma, driving my truck to make some deliveries and having recently received instructions from dispatch that the company just got a new contract. It seems we’re taking over the delivery of fresh milk from Family Dairy (an out of state supplier).
Hurrah! A big win for local, Highwayville distribution co., and a good sign that I landed in the right career.