The woman was angry when she got to Ray’s register, and Ray was already thinking of all the things that weren’t his fault: the food, the traffic, how the McDonald’s sat in the turnpike service island like a pimple, flat-faced Oklahoma stretching clear-skinned around it. She held her daughter’s hand, the girl so small and uncurious she didn’t bother to look up at Ray, just held her eyes smack ahead into the edge of the counter.
“The bathrooms are roped off,” the mother said.
“I’m sorry. Plumbing issue.” Don’t get into details with the guests, Ray’s supervisor had told him. Just keep it closed till a crew
“They’re closed at the gas station, too,” she said, which Ray’s supervisor hadn’t mentioned. “My little girl needs to go.”
Ray shrugged, even though he knew it would just piss the woman off, the way it pissed off Susanna every time she asked what he wanted for dinner, what movie to see, whether it was worth driving the thirty minutes to a theater at all. He meant them, the shrugs, honest appraisals of his own uncertainty. He didn’t know what this woman should do, any more than he knew what to tell Susanna about her plan: the cousin in Arizona, the place to crash while they looked for work. He just didn’t know, and pretending like he did seemed to add more bullshit to the already fragrant world.
“The next service area’s forty miles from here,” the woman prodded, and Ray nodded sympathetically. The turnpike had been built miles from everything, the towns hidden to the north and south. A driver could cross half the state without seeing a sign of human habitation. Ray thought about telling the woman to take the exit—his town was just four miles away. There was a café on the main drag still, with bad coffee but decent burgers. Susanna would steer them straight, tell them what to order. He could tell the woman to tell Susanna that Ray sent his love.
“What good is that?” Ray imagined Susanna asking. “You send me love and a shitty tipper. That’s not what this place needs.” Ray wondered what exactly their place did need. How could you lure travelers off the road when they couldn’t see what was waiting for them? Last summer he and Susanna had taken a road trip. In southern Arizona there were 300 miles of signs for The Thing. THE THING? WHAT IS IT? the billboards shrieked, as if the owner himself weren’t sure.
“It’s just a mummy,” Susanna had said, looking it up with some trucker’s smart phone when they stopped for gas. When they passed the exit, she wouldn’t let Ray stop. “You’ve got no sense of mystery,” Ray had said, when what he really meant was no sense of loyalty, no feeling for the Thing ticket takers, the Thing postcard sellers, all those souls clinging to the highway.
“I’m no sucker,” Susanna had said, and Ray shrugged.
“You unlock it or I take her out behind your dumpster,” the woman said. “The girl’s gotta go.”
Ray thought about his town. He thought about Susanna. What could keep people anywhere when all they really wanted was to keep moving?
Ray shrugged and reached under the counter for a bathroom key. “If the girl’s gotta go, she’s gotta go.”