You leave quickly. Faster than you planned. Pull the bandage off quick. She helps you pack the car, is why. You didn’t expect it and she didn’t either but found herself doing it and so sooner than planned, unshowered, possessions piled in the unoccupied seats, bike strapped to the trunk, the day’s heat absorbed and sweated back out and dried all over you, you give a brief hug and a kiss and roll out. It’s for the best. Everything is for the best.
Two exits down the road you pull off for fuel and to deposit the check from your roommate before there are no more of your particular brand of banks, ever. She calls. You forgot something, in her car. Stupid, but you were only looking everywhere else. Mail it? Yeah mail it. Okay then. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.
Westward. To Dayton, stopping once for a beverage at a rest stop, looking for Gatorade to rehydrate as you’ve been drinking up your fond farewell for the better part of a week, they don’t have Gatorade, how do they not have Gatorade or even a reasonable facsimile, everything non-water is laden with sugar or more precisely high-fructose corn syrup and so water it is. Dayton disappears behind you before you notice it. Soon upon exit 10, you used to take south to Oxford six no five yes five years ago when you first started graduate school, the last exit before Indiana, one of the five states or so that share a border with Ohio and one of the four that is somehow poorer. Indianapolis where your brother-in-law is from, where you’ve only been for that wedding, has the largest football building you’ve ever seen. Lucas Oil Stadium, like Great American Ballpark, named by a company you’ve never heard mention of in any other context besides their name being on a stadium.
The poorer a population the more they swell. You’re still not feeling healthy enough so the Panera sign in Terre Haute beckons with ideas of fruits and crisp greens and whole grains and shit. At last check you are six foot, one-seventy, and every other patron in the place of adult age – and some not – seems to have you by fifty pounds or more, most by a hundred. Hoarders of calories, unconsciously, should the food supply suddenly cease at least then the poor will inherit the earth. For a couple more days. The cashier is young and attractive, yet, and a liar, it turns out. The tuna salad sandwich is served cold after all. As is your wont, you do not complain. To St. Louis, by dark or be damned. Ambitiously you book a room in Springfield before getting back in the car, still six hours away.
Podcasts grow old and you approach St. Louis with music playing – read all the pamphlets, and watch the tapes! – and light fading, but there is enough to snap an iPhone picture of the arch, which surprises you with its size like the first time you saw the girth at the base of the Washington monument. Well done sir. The photo attempt causes you to miss an exit, and unintentionally you drive by Busch Stadium, within a few yards actually, so close it is to the highway, and you without your Molotov. Because fuck the Cardinals. Seriously.
Springfield is under cover of dark when you arrive. The motel is of the expected level of shady but a different variety. Fewer stains, more abandoned cars with flat tires in the parking lot. You arrive just after a young black couple emerges from their car, but they parked by the rooms and you parked by the lobby doors, so you’re there first. Still you intend to hold the door for them, but the one is locked and the other swings open right in front of him, leaving him only option of holding the door for you. You silently hope he doesn’t read any racism into the maneuver as you approach the counter first. The desk lady is in her fifties and looks at you with something like fear and surprise and says Can I help you? with an inflection of What the hell are you doing here? which doesn’t disappear from her face until she actually finds your reservation. Here’s your key. Here’s a map of the property, the nearest ice machine, the pool, which will open around six-thirty or seven, somewhere around there. Make a joke that you won’t need it? No, move on, other people need to check in.
The room is ground floor, which is good because you untie your bicycle and wheel it inside. Exhausted but you can’t sleep, though the bed seems comfortable enough. A couple hours later you’re awake again with numb arms, shoulder to tip, certain beds do this to you sometimes, including the bed you shared in Virginia and took back with you to Ohio, until your body got used to it. But this one is unrelenting. No sooner to you shift positions and get feeling back do you grow uncomfortable again and return supine or prone, either way, either way somehow numbs your arms out once again. The alarm set for eight, you’re wide awake at seven. The continental breakfast includes waffle batter pre-dipped into disposable cups, and sausage gravy and biscuits. Not bad. Take an apple for the road.
There are no signs marking the end of Missouri or the beginning of Oklahoma. Tulsa is in your face like a shovel to a zombie, and you’re out of it again before you remember to notice anything. This is the land of nothing and casinos. Native Americans label each one with their specific tribal name and official seal, which makes sense in retrospect but you always expected them to just say Indian Casino or the like. At a massive Choctaw casino near the Texas border you stop for gas at a mini-complex just across the road, because it doesn’t feel like a road trip without one Burger King double cheeseburger, and between the convenience store and the fast food, inside the same building, is a room with a darkened entrance brandishing the official seal of the Choctaw nation. Gas station gambling, why not.
Your sister calls. No news yet. Because The Matrix never fails to make you feel like a kung-fu master, between bites you tell her to see if Nine Months is on Netflix. She laughs the way people do when they haven’t talked to you for a while and forget you’re funny.
And then Texas. Time is growing thin for finding a place to sleep this night, no friends have gotten back to you yet in response to your passive announcement on Facebook you’d need a night of housing. Still you procrastinate, waiting to make an actual call until Dallas has come and gone. You hit city limits at five-fifteen and don’t emerge from that worm-orgy of off ramps and overpasses until almost six, which isn’t bad time, actually. But Texas is a rich state. Everyone is thin and has a car. A nice car. You forget until it’s too late to look for Cowboy Stadium, the only sports complex in the country with a similar price tag to the new Yankee Standium, and perhaps the only other one as well to wear the name of the team it houses. You were hoping to compare its size to Lucas Oil, but alas, alas. Come to think of it, it’s out towards Fort Worth anyway, if memory serves, which it often doesn’t.
Just before Waco there’s the Czech outpost, probably settled by a stray cadre of actual Czechs and Slovaks back in the oughts, but now mostly survived by a bakery and a collections of puns. Come stay a night at Czech Inn. Need some aspirin, probably find it at the Czech Out. Antiques? Plenty of those at the Czech Point. Also there is something called Slovak Realty, which isn’t as funny. There is one sign in Czech:
Jak Se Matě
Vitame Vas Na
KVĚTY A OZDOBY
How are you
FLOWERS AND DECORATIONS
You only recognize the first line. Everything of interest seems closed anyway. One restaurant is open, the first sign frescoed in the plaster to the left of the door labeling it as a Slovak restaurant establish in 1923, and the one to the right as a cafe established in 1957, but the big sign over the door says it’s a Mexican restaurant, so you don’t even bother. A bar around the corner raises hopes of getting an authentic Czech beer on draft, but it takes some nerve to walk into what is clearly a town bar – with no windows – as clearly an outsider. Still, you’re waiting on a call back anyway, so after a couple passes you open up the door.
The smell that hits reminds you again that indoor smoking is still allowed in Texas, because this is still a rich state and they’ve felt no need to change their recipe. A giant projection TV in the near right corner sits opposite the bar to your left playing country music television at a high volume with little bass to speak of. The bar is densely populated compared the ghost town that is the rest of West, Texas, a table full of sleeveless arms in rear by the sectioned-off pool table room, at least five people in conversation at the bar with two bartenders, both ladies, one probably the owner. You’re in that place less than fifteen steps, less than a minute total, because as soon as your eyes adjust you realize the entirety of the drink menu is displayed in the line of beer bottles on the narrow shelf beneath the faded poster-papered mirror behind the two purveyors of drunkery. Back to the car. Then J calls back, thank god.
J is in good spirits when you get to San Marcos, and you are stiff but otherwise likewise. It’s good to see him. Like, reflex-smile good, like a light hammer to the knee. Everything you recognize around town, making you feel good and right and justified, and kind of tender in the belly.
Now it’s nigh on two and you’ve been writing for two hours with barely a blink but for the waitress who will soon know your name, and every girl you make eye contact with seems interested and interesting, and the college is just up the hill, beyond the eyesore of the new parking garage they’re building, when used to be you could see the round eye of a window in Flowers Hall from this seat at Cedar’s, the things that are different making you feel as good and right as the things that are the same, like there is still a goddamn bike permalocked to the bike rack outside the door here but the waitress is new and attractive in an Ellen Paige, small-mouthed sort of way, but for the heaving rack. This is your mind at play. This is my mind, freed. This is my home again. This is still home. This is me writing again. This is me, a writer.
This is me breathing.