This the third installment of a much longer story. You can find Part One and Part Two here. Enjoy! -CJS
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In America, the road to anywhere is paved with Waffle Houses and the occasional sensory overload of roadkilled skunk.
“What is that?” I gagged, breathing in the aromatic warning of fresh North American skunk for the first time in my life.
“What?” Ali asked.
“That smell. What is that?” I suspected Ali, and she lifted her arms and shrugged. I rolled up the window and put on the air conditioner, facing all the vents so they were blowing in my face.
We stopped at a gas station near Nashville. Ali ran inside for cigarettes while I filled up the car. A man sauntered up to me while I watched the gas counter roll like a slot machine. I was used to the New York City panhandlers, so I wondered what his pitch would be. Another dollar for a Big Mac? Recent job loss? Open admittance of a crack problem?
“Hi,” he said, gazing at me. He was in his late thirties, sporting a baseball cap proclaiming “Life Is Good.”
“Hi,” I said, giving the gas pump a little shake.
“I saw your New York plates and I figured I’d come on over.”
It seemed like a weird thing to say. I let a few awkward seconds pass before nodding.
“So, y’all are from New York?”
“Uh, sure are,” I said, trying to peer into the mart portion of the gas station to see how far along Ali was with her transaction.
“Well, I think that’s just great.” He flashed a smile. His teeth were the yellowed aftermath of unfluoridated water.
There was a pause. An eighteen wheeler rumbled by. A bird squawked. Still no sign of Ali.
“Well, I saw your plates, and I was just wondering if y’all know about Jesus.”
Those who know me know that there is no greater joy for me than befriending a religious zealot. Jehovah’s witnesses still come to my mother’s house and ask for me by name. I love talking about the end of the world, and I love all of the doomsday Armageddon conspiracies that the Lord inspires. My eyes lit up. “Do I ever!”
“Really?” he said, making sure I was not trying to pull a fast one on him.
“Y’all have churches in New York?” he asked, wavering somewhere between curious and sheepish.
“Of course! Did you think we didn’t?”
“Well, I dunno. I just figured after September 11th and all, I didn’t know if there was much left. Well, anyways, that warms my heart to hear.” He paused to chuckle. “To think, I was comin’ over here because y’all looked like you needed saving, but it turns out you was already saved!”
“Imagine that!” I said, kicking at the dirt in an aw-shucks sort of way. Or maybe I was kicking the demon trying to pull me into the Earth’s core. One or the other.
“Well, let me just go ahead and give you a tract, and you can remember me.”
“I will probably never forget you.”
“I’m Orville,” he said, handing me a pamphlet and shaking my hand.
“I’m Cassie. Great to meet you, Orville. Thanks for the literature.”
“No problem. Have yourselves a great trip. Imagine that. Churches in New York!” He shook his head as he got into his station wagon and slammed the door, disbelieving that New York had not dissolved into a black hole of sin and fornication after the towers fell. I hardly believed it myself.
Ali came out, holding a sweaty cup of soda in one hand.
“Whatcha got there?”
“A gift from God.”
“Cool,” Ali said. “Eighteen-hundred miles to Vegas.”
I watched the station wagon pull away. “Yep.”