You want to the know the story behind the name tattooed on her fingers as she passes your change from her bulletproof barrier. Late night gas stations in the shadow of Indianapolis has a surface tension to it–like a bubbled curve to an overfilled tumbler. Except there’s no one for miles in any direction. It’s as if you, this Phillips 66, and the inked attendant were placed in cornfield diorama. There is something rustling in the garbage can two pumps over. You walk the long way around to your car, fill the tank, and pull away as an empty school bus pulls into the parking lot. Without fail, gas stations stops in Indiana are uncomfortably random.
Rotting bananas. Tucking a scar beneath her collar.
The Ohio Welcome Center off I-70 has nothing to offer you. Coin-op coffee in serving sizes made for children. You have a feverish delirium to your tired. You fill a bottle in the water fountain. There is a Toyota Tundra with Alabama plates and a young couple sleeping in the handicap parking spot. Is there whole life bound beneath that blue tarp bungeed over in the truck bed? You think about the countless summers moving friends in your dad’s Dodge Dakota. There was the all-nighter to South Carolina. You listened to Matt Dylan reading On The Road, like you were the sixteen you wanted to be at fifteen, just ten plus years too late. You and your friends, crossing into Waffle House country long after midnight, hoping the scald of fresh coffee would keep you up as much as the caffeine. You pulled off, somewhere in Virginia, slept for two or three hours, made it to Greenville, only to unload, eat, and drive straight back to Pennsylvania. Your buddy had work in the morning at a juvenile crisis center. He would sleep for most of Virginia, looking hungover as you pulled into the parking lot. Two years later, you would be making the same trip to retrieve your friend. “Southern girls will add miles to your heart and take years off your life.”
Count your life in cardboard boxes. Keys on a nightstand.
Columbus, Ohio means punk rock flophouses in blizzards. You walked in shin-deep snow to a grocery store, talked about Phil Ochs, and slept on Goodwill couches wrapped in overcoats. There was a mountain of broken bicycles and a communal pot of spaghetti. You were hungover from Vanderbilt and about to rejoin the workforce after an under-table-sabbatical working at a record store where you would play The Misfits, Jimmy Smith, and Journey. The basement shows were all-ages legendary. Years later, you stayed at a Super 8 motel on the outskirts of downtown and never once thought about hardcore or straight edge. By the time you checked in, the Wendy’s across the street was closed. You slept in your clothes, falling asleep to CNN and 18 wheelers idling in the parking lot.
Unstrung six-string. Hank Williams also died in the back seat.
The highway narrows its shoulders as you cross into the Keystone State. Your old man told you about the Turnpike’s immediate obsolescence upon its completion. The cattle shoot dividers funnel remainders of a morning rush hour forced free from a Pittsburgh bottleneck. Heading south, 76 is a faceless cutaway of mountain tunnels and bare trees. Against the gray, the limbs reach into the fog, pulling the skyline that much closer to your car. Taillights red–dull pulsing mechanical hearts pumping the breaks down untreated black-iced roadways. You think about the neon sign which invaded the Travelodge on the edge of Chinatown in Philly. The blinds didn’t shut all the way and there was a two-inch gap between the windowsill and September. Everyone at the Race Vine station seemed to know each other that night. There was a poem started inside a matchbook from a tattoo parlor near Fishtown. You left the Hot Water Music show early, and thought the closest you would ever get to an open sky was the cloud of steam leaving your gas station coffee. You folded yourself into the shoebox of a room. You woke up early to get stuck on the Northeast Extension, fresh with sleet.
Winding watch hands forward. Fresh razor on tile.
Your friends tell you about a rash of jumpers from Lancaster buildings. In a city of few tall buildings, you wonder if there is a difference between ending, interruption, and delay. Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life puts a thirteen hour car ride into perspective. You grip the wheel and pull out of town. Your knuckles split and crack with the change in the weather. Another two hours, maybe three. Another six hours and secondhand smoke. Another ninety minutes and no sleep. You put gloves on and take glasses off. All these others and anothers collect and subtract and add. Home collects your miles and draws light from the wingspan of open arms. Time is a day of shadows in a month of summers–at least they are here, for the next two weeks, and that’s more than some of those cars stuck in traffic with you right now can ever say.
Church Nativity behind chickenwire. A Christmas tree without decorations.
Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals including The North American Review, [PANK] Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and The Minnesota Review. He writes “Best Worst Year” weekly for Sundog Lit. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.