It's Obviously Europe
Even watching for the turnoff, he almost missed it, the unmarked tar county road, still, after all these years, without a centerline. His headlights cut a furrow. The dark reclaimed the road in the truck's wake. The road ran south between fields where he labored every summer since he was nine, haying for old man Simmons, the money taken by his father, at the end of each day, as "keep". He was a tight bastard, but not unfair. The two lanes climbed a ridge, the lights of the town spread out below like cooling embers of faded hopes.
Fast-food litter on the floor marked his progress to this moment: breakfast burrito wrappers under lunchtime Wham-O Burger boxes and, crowning the pile, the heart-burn special Double Cheese-Dog tray, all ringed with paper coffee cups. The food had been shoved out drive-thru windows by bored kids, all of whom believed they were at a temporary weigh station to a better future. How many like that have I seen end up as expendable, permanently stationed in an indifferent world?
Out at 42, everything he owned was in the used black Ford 150 with a camper shell. And in a storage unit that, according to an attorney, held his parents' "personal effects" and the debris of his brief marriage. His stuff, picked over by his ex while he was in Afghanistan, had been shoved in their garage, his mother had written in her cramped style, adding "plus some things that might help you." He imagined cardboard boxes with a collection of mismatched pots, a yellowed pyrex baking dish, and maybe her collection of cups from places they'd never been.
On the perimeter of town, a large sign offered parking directions for the Indian Creek Mall. A large box store sat surrounded by smaller stores and reminded him of a sow in its crib, with piglets hanging on her teats to catch the next drop of retail milk.
He descended into town, a dark patch lit sporadically by yellow sodium vapor lights, in contrast to the over-bright strip mall parking above the town. The Angel's Motel, with its claim to having the Softest Beds in the County!, was gone, along with the adolescent throbbing desires that swirled around it, and in its place stood an 'American Owned' Your Express Inn.
He dropped his pack on the Queen-Sized bed and watched it roll to the center on its own. No matter -- he's put his head down in far worse places, beginning in 'Nam. At the end.
Toweling off with the thin towel emblazoned with Your Express Inn's logo was a challenge but he managed, rubbing his close-cropped gray-flecked hair last. A wrinkled, out-of-order sign on the ice maker, told him he'd be drinking his Black Bush neat, Dublin style. God, Dublin, sweet assignment at the Embassy. The Irish, an educated people with a sense of the world and their place in it. Great history, great food, great drink. And no one shooting at you.
He had a farmer's breakfast at Nell's Diner, owned, or managed anyway, by a Pakistani who looked perplexed at how he got from Karachi to here. The meal was served by a well-upholstered woman-of-a-certain age who favored him with "Mornin', Hon" when she handed him the worn menu.
Later, peering in one empty storefront after another, he could see what was no longer there --Woolworth's 5 & 10, Tom McCann's Shoes, Farmer's Bank, Rexall Pharmacy. They lined Main Street, those stripped carcasses that once were robust centers of news, commerce, and gossip. Last night's dark had been kind to them, compared to the morning light hitting the boarded-up storefronts and failed hopes of good people, unprepared for the tsunami of economic change that left the residents wondering what the hell had happened, as they aimlessly wandered the mall, looking for sales on items they didn't want and couldn't afford. Jesus, he needed to put this place behind him.
He wound up, as he knew he would, at the DQ. He pried up a corner of weathered plywood that had replaced the plate glass windows and, ignoring the spray-painted warning to Keep Out -- This Means You! squeezed inside. In the vacant, littered rectangle, his boots stirring the crud that covered the floor, bits of memories flashed in his mind like a night firefight: the burgers, the pounding rhythm of the Isley Brothers.
The kitchen, long ago stripped. Counters gone. Shards of sunlight slipped through the cracks in the peeling plywood. Booths gone, only striped cuts in the curled linoleum marked their former presence, vivid as yellow police tape at a crime scene.
And the picture, gone. The cheap cardboard on which nothing was printed but a bunch of leaves which she had insisted reminded her of a map.
"It's obviously Europe. There's England! Don't you see Spain?"
"How can anybody look at a bunch of leaves and see a continent? Ever since you went on that two-week study tour, you see Europe in everything...and anything Europe is always better than anything here. What's wrong with here -- this is where you were born -- this is your home."
"Nothing's wrong with here -- it's just not all there is, believe me."
"There you go again" he said, "with your so-worldly crap. I'm so damned tired of this!" His hand fell hard on the stained Formica tabletop, causing their cokes to dance. The "OPEN LATE" neon sign flashed, tinting their faces by turn puke-green and violent red.
"If we were in France right now we would be drinking wine and eating escargot instead of juvenile cokes and greasy fries!"
"Yeah, sure. I'll bet you drank your share, and probably more, with some guy who didn't care anything for you -- just wanted to score with an American."
At least that was how he remembered it, all this time later.