story time fun hour

this is a story I wrote for a creative writing seminar I had a year ago. I don’t think I’ve posted it before …

The Last Frontier (Midnight in Breezewood)
December 7, 2004

“Why are we stopping?”
Mark didn’t answer. He was focused on the car in front of him: a grandmother in an older model Ford. She was well under the off ramp speed limit, and unaware of the line of cars building behind her.
“Where are we?” His sister was more awake now, sitting up in her seat. She kicked her feet onto the dash and pressed her toes against the windshield, stretching. Mark saw this and scowled.
“Breezewood. We need gas, and I need to stretch.”
“You want me to drive?” He could still hear the sleep in her voice.
“Nah. I got it. You drive next tank.”
Emily thought about it, did the calculations, and then, “that’s another four hours.”
“I know.”
“You’ve already been driving for eight.”
“Yeah, well, no big deal. If I need to stop before then …” he paused a beat, swerving into the left hand lane to pass grandma, searching the approaching marquees for a bargain. “If I have to stop, or need to, or want to, you know? I’ll stop.”
“Okay.” Emily put her head against the window, and noticed some lint underneath the nail of her big toe and began to pick at it. And then, without looking away from her foot, she said, “what’s that smell?”
“Shut up. If you farted, you can’t pass it off on me. Think about it; you need three people at least.”
She gave him her you’re so dense look, and said, “no, stupid. Smells like burning, something burning.” She stopped digging for the lint.
But Mark wasn’t paying attention, because Texaco was an anemic 1.69 for reg. unleaded. He pulled into a self serve pump, killed the engine, and smelled the antifreeze for the first time. Steam began to creep from beneath the hood, and he sighed. Checked his watch.
11:30. Maybe a motel, but lets see how bad it is first. No need to panic.
Mark knew very little about engines, and his car’s wasn’t any different. But he knew what coolant was – it was pooling between the front tires. Which was bad. Midnight in Breezewood. “And miles to go before I sleep.” Fuck.
Emily stuck her head out of the passenger window, and the breeze pulled the matted hair away from her temples.
“What’s wrong with the car?”
“Fuckin’ radiator, I think. I don’t know.” Mark unhooked the support and let the hood fall. He could see her toe prints on the glass clearly now under the bright gas station lights.
“I’m not even filling it up. We’re not going anywhere for a while.” He jerked a thumb towards the Denny’s in the next lot. “Let’s call Mom and get some eats. I’m hungry.”
“But I don’t like Denny’s.”
“But I don’t like Denny’s.” She pulled the lint, pink like the socks she was wearing that day, from her toenail and flicked it into the thick air. Mark watched it float down to the oily concrete. Gross.
“Em, don’t be a pain. Just get coffee or fries or something.” But she didn’t say anything, and that meant that despite his arguing and posturing, Emily still wasn’t interested in Denny’s. Instead, they agreed she would buy all she wanted in the gas station’s convenience store and bring it with her while he got a table.
“I’ll call Mom,” he said, taking on the mantle of authority, “but not until we push the car into a parking space. Put your shoes on. The concrete is dirty.”
Mark stood at the payphone on the edge of the gas station lot, dialed collect and prayed his mother would accept the charges.
He imagined the rotary phone ringing on the kitchen counter a time zone away. His mother would be up, drinking tea. WGN would be on with news reports of west side shootings and missing children, human interest stories about VFW flag venerations for the looming national holiday. Mom never talked long distance. She might ask Mark for the payphone’s local number, which he’d have to scratch through layers of grime and stickers to retrieve. Then, she would call him back on the antiquated cell phone one of Mark’s older brothers or sisters had given her out of frustration. She didn’t have an answering machine, and they had figured that with a phone on her at all times, she would always be available. But she refused to use it except in the evenings. Long distance was free nationwide after nine pm.
None of that fear materialized. She accepted the charges, and Mark let out his breath.
Their conversation was brief. Mom said to get a motel or call your cousin in Harrisburg for a ride.
“Mom, that’s like two hours away.” And then, “we have a cousin in Harrisburg?”
Heck yes, they had a cousin there. She sent a Christmas card to him every year, even still sent one to his first wife who was a lovely woman. And as for two hours away, well, what was family for? That deadbeat didn’t work steadily, and she was sure he could find time for her two youngest.
In the end, they decided the best bet was to get a motel and see about a tow with Triple A or a bus ticket tomorrow. Or heck, Mom would be coming herself in the morning, if it came to that. She lamented allowing them to drive all that way by themselves. Emily was only two months past her learner’s permit, and he had never traveled so far alone, and now look where it had gotten them. Mark simply nodded his head as she continued, barking instructions about watching his sister, keeping an eye out for perverts and pederasts while they were there. Mom didn’t like Breezewood.
Breezewood, factually, was a sea of gift shops and all night cafeterias, gas stations and lots of sleeping semis, full at all hours of the day. A truck stop turned town turned truck stop that owed its entire existence to Interstate 70 and the Penn Turnpike, because it sat at their crossing. An entire community built on the idea of the open road. Mom, however, wasn’t interested in the open road, and had once described it more succinctly.
She had traced their route with her index finger as she and Mark stood over a road atlas on the kitchen table one week earlier: I-80 through Indiana and Ohio, to I-76 at Pittsburgh, to I-70 at Breezewood. “You go south there,” she said, and then paused. “Ugh. Breezewood. Too tacky for me,” and made a face like sour grapes.
At “tacky,” Mark had looked through the kitchen window at the army of lawn gnomes placed about their front yard and smirked, but Mom didn’t catch it.
The town, it seemed, was a linchpin for any traveling by car their family did. Grandparents resided in Philadelphia, an aunt or two in the Washington area. But Mom didn’t do much traveling anymore. If it was terribly necessary, she chose to fly. Mark and Emily, however, had pleaded (Mark much more quietly, not wanting to openly ally himself with his younger sister) that they be allowed to drive out east for a cousin’s graduation party. Emily saw it, she assumed, as a road trip. But for Mark, she understood it to be the pull of that freedom every teenager feels from their driver’s license – the want and need to drive anyplace, to distant places, test themselves on America’s highways and quietly say to themselves I’m an adult. I’m on my own, and so she agreed hesitantly.
Now, on the phone, she wished she had had the good judgment to keep them at home. She told Mark to get a motel room, and to call first thing in the morning. Then she hung up.

The Denny’s was mostly empty. The back half of the restaurant was dark, the chairs stacked up on tables. The staff numbered more than the patrons, who sat far apart from one another and only acknowledged each others’ presence by speaking in subdued tones to their companions.
Mark dabbed a steak fry in the pool of ketchup he had created and eyed Emily across the booth from him. She was staring at his plate.
“You gonna eat all of those?”
Mark allowed himself to grin. “I thought you ‘don’t like Denny’s.’”
“Don’t be a butt, Mark.”
He pushed his plate with the half eaten burger across the table to her, and she dug in. She had sucked down the Big Gulp full of pink lemonade and eaten the bag of Doritos she had bought at the gas station, but hadn’t planned on the draw of greasy food. Mark was always silently amazed she wasn’t heavy; she nearly ate her weight in candy weekly.
“What’d Mom say?” she asked through a mouthful of potato.
“Be careful. Get a motel.” He leaned back into the booth. “You know we have a cousin in Harrisburg?”
“We do?”
“Yup.” Mark took a drag on his strawberry milkshake and looked out the window past the parking lot, past the gas station and their crippled car. Along the interstate, which ran above Breezewood on a ridge, he could see the billboards, dozens of them overlapping. He focused on one, advertising cheap fireworks and commemorative 9/11 china.
Breezewood’s American Trading Post, 50% off all goods!
“Mom doesn’t like this place,” he breathed. “Says it’s tacky.”
Emily finished the fries and followed his gaze into the dark. “I like it.” Mark looked back at her, and she said, “Not the tackiness. I don’t care whether it is or not, but I like it here. I don’t mind being broken down right here.”
He turned back to the window, and when he didn’t speak she went on. “Doesn’t it seem like we’re miles away from anything? I mean, from the nearest town, and the rest of civilization? Isn’t that amazing?” She leaned across the table as she spoke, smiling as she talked. She looked excited, like the thought was giving her chills. “I wonder if the government exists out here. Does Pennsylvania even control this place?”
Mark listened, still gazing at the signs. As she spoke, a motorcycle pulled into the gas station in the foreground. Through the glass, its engine rumbled as if on mute, but for some reason Mark wondered if it made any such noise at all. On the bike rode an older man, at least in his sixties by the length of his face and the way his body sat. Despite the summer heat, he was clad in a leather jacket, worn jeans, scuffed boots. Most notably, on his head he wore what looked like a headdress. A goddamned Indian headdress.
It was a headdress, all beads and leather and eagle feathers. The kind the Indians whom John Wayne would fight in the painted valleys of “The Searchers” or “Stagecoach” would wear. It started at his forehead, hung down below his ears and trailed all the way down the small of his back. It was dingy; the wind from riding at interstate speeds had taken its toll. Feathers were bent and missing, lost somewhere back towards Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or Baltimore. The man parked his bike and went about his business filling up. Wherever he walked the headdress flowed behind him, trailed him like a cape.
Emily hadn’t noticed the chief and went on. “You ever get the feeling on a highway, especially at night, you could go for miles in any direction and it’d be like getting lost in space? The only way to go is to follow the road, or you’re lost.”
It was dark, and about 40 yards away, but Mark could swear the dude was wearing face paint. He wondered if he had noticed him, backlit in the restaurant window across the lot.
Emily pulled his milkshake across the table and started sipping on it. Between swallows, she said, “and these truck stops are like outposts. Stockades on the pony express.”
The chief filled his tank, and sauntered inside to pay. He walked slowly, like age was just beginning to take him.
She finished the shake, and said, “this is the last frontier, Mark.”
Mark turned back to her. He thought of idiot savants.
“I mean, it may be a fake one, cause there are houses and cul-de-sacs just a few miles up the road there, and we’re only two hours from Heinz Ketchup and the Steelers, but it’s the best we got.”
“What, were you just taken over by a foreign body or something?” He was taken aback. “Where the hell did that come from?”
“Well you weren’t drinking it anyway!” she cried, and wiped the last of the strawberry from her lips.
“No, goof. Look,” and he pointed to where the Indian was walking, returning his chain wallet to his jeans, straddling his bike, kick starting the engine, and gone. The last thing they saw before he faded from the dim road lights was the bright white of the feathers stretched out behind him.
Once he was gone, they were both quiet for a moment until Emily giggled. “Wow. It really is like the wild west out here.” Then she started to ape a Will Smith song.

If you have a riff with people wanna bust Break out before you get bum-rushed at the (Wild Wild West) When I roll into the (Wild Wild West) When I stroll into the (Wild Wild West) When I bounce into the (Wild Wild West)
– Will Smith featuring Dru Hill, “Wild Wild West”

They waited for a lull in the already sparse nighttime traffic, and crossed the road with suitcases and pillows under their arms. Emily sat on a bench just outside the front office, underneath the drive up overhang while Mark paid cash for a single double or a pair of singles. Whichever was cheapest.
The room smelled like cigarette smoke and only had one bath towel, but it had air conditioning and HBO and two beds. It would do. Emily called the bed farther into the room as always. She didn’t like sleeping close to the door in strange places.
“Conan’s on.” She had already found the remote. But Mark wasn’t interested. A day in the car had wore him out, and he wanted to sleep.
“Macaulay Culkin and Tom Sizemore are his guests.”
Almost asleep.
“I wonder what their conversation was like in the green room.”
Mark thought of the Indian. Thought of the endless roads, America’s amazing highway system and all other proud warriors on it that night. He felt safe in the quiet room with the thin pillows that smelled of cigarette smoke beneath his head, Emily laughing softly at the television banter. He thought of the broken down car, his mother’s worrying, and he didn’t mind any of it, because he was tired, it was dark, and it was quiet. He felt secure here, lost in the middle of America, the middle of nowhere.
“Did you know Sizemore was involved with Heidi Fleiss?”
The last thing he registered before falling asleep was a picture framed on the wood paneled wall. It was “American Gothic,” only the farmer was wearing a shirt with the Golden Arches, and his wife held a Big Mac in her raised hand. The motel owner’s idea of a joke.
How wonderfully tacky, he thought.


1 comment so far

  1. Anonymous on

    dude, i like that story. it’s well written. i like the way you described the price of gas as “an anemic 1.69 for reg. unleaded.” BUT, what i didn’t like was how i felt like i was emily, and you were mocking me the entire time. maybe i’m reading into things a bit much, but i don’t know…

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