Middle of Nowhere
by Carol D. O’Dell
The gas station door strains against my pull. Wafts of mildew and burnt coffee. Middle of nowhere.
“Welcome,” a woman says without looking up from her paper. She’s perched on a stool, a wall of cigarettes behind her. Her bleach-blonde hair spun like fiberglass.
Short shelves come into focus. Fluorescent lights flicker and dim. A dilapidated store with a flat red roof and cracked asphalt looks tired of holding itself up and reminds me of my grandparent’s country store in rural Indiana where I spent my summers until I was fifteen and got a job at the packing plant. Makes me want to fill a white paper bag with Brach’s nougats. The soft wood floor gives under my weight and creaks like an old rocker.
The woman puts down her paper. Her bent head spouts stubby black roots. She lifts her chin and looks at me with faded blue eyes and lined lips. She almost smiles. Behind her, someone hiding behind another newspaper.
“Need a phone?” The woman asks, clasping her fingers around one knee, diamonds catching the window light. She gives me a I’m-in-no-hurry look and then tilts her head to the side like we’ve met before.
“Phone, yes,” I come out of my trance. “How did —”
“That’s J.J,” the woman interrupts real fast and then twists around.
The paper slips down on queue. A face. A little round face framed in white fur. It’s a monkey. We’re in North Georgia, barely outside of Atlanta, less than a mile away from a huge housing development and there’s this monkey barely the size of a cat reading a newspaper. He leans around the woman, his sharp black eyes look me up, then down.
I see lines, no, they’re bars. He’s in a cage. Everything in me skews to match this place.
I need something to drink. I need to get out of here. I’ll go somewhere else.
Thanks, Jon. You get the promotion and I get to take care of the rest. Uproot our lives and plunk them down somewhere else and hope to take root.
“Don’t you need to make a call?” The woman asks.
“Uh, yes, I’ve —”
“Locked your keys in your car?” She finishes.
I look at the monkey again, study the scene. Something’s not right. The paper’s upside-down. I have to think. I’m thirsty. What did she ask?
“That’s all right, honey. I’ll get it for you.” She shimmies her hips around the counter, adjusting the waistband of her polyester brown pants and smoothing her smock. She heads to the back of the store.
I follow. My shoulders relax, and although they are nothing alike, I miss my mother.
She jams a plastic cup under the ice dispenser and fills it, then hits the Sprite.
“What you need is some refreshment.” She gives me a wink.
I take big gulps, two hands wrapped around the cup. A burp escapes. My fingers fumble with an ice cube resting on the wire rack, pick it up and run it along the base of my neck.
“Now, that call.” She walks back to the front counter, lifts a heavy black phone, heaves it on the ledge and hands me the receiver.
“Jon’s not here. Not in Atlanta, I mean. We just —” Why’d I say all that? Stop. Don’t say anything else. Dial 411. Call the rental car company. Ringing.
She waits, uses the straight end of a rattail comb to fluff her already fluffed hair. Still ringing. She scratches the end of her nose with the other end of the comb.
“Oh, come on,” I blurt after the eighth ring.
“Spunk, I like spunk.” She lifts a brow.
The monkey reaches over to a tray, takes a sunflower seed, opens it with his front teeth and then spits the hull onto the worn linoleum.
“Stop that, JJ.” She smacks the cage with the flat of her hand. The monkey lets another hull dribble from his mouth and drop to the floor.
I try to listen to the automated directions and her at the same time before I realize she’s talking to the monkey, not me. She hands me a pen and paper just when I need it. I jot the number down and they put me on hold again.
Oh great, there’s mud on the hem of my brand new khakis.
What is it with all this mud? You can’t get it out of anything. Blood comes out with alcohol. Evidence, injury, blood can’t stay. Bite your tongue, taste the salt, feel the weight of your own history. Mud refuses to leave.
Another hull flies out of the cage.
“He’s just started doing that.” She smacks the cage again. “That won’t come out easy.” She looks at the hem of my pants, and goes back to her stool. I remember I’m on the phone with an organ rendition of McCartney’s Yesterday playing in my ear.
“We should plant a dogwood in the front yard.” Jon said on the phone this morning. As if a dogwood could fix everything.
I plucked a dogwood petal off a tree at one of those model homes. I held a wide white petal between my thumb and first finger, smooth as baby powder, white as the afghan laid across my grandmother’s rocker. Waiting.
“Had him five years and he’s just now acting out.”
The monkey cackles, jerks side to side in the cage. “Vet said he’s hit adolescence.” She write the address of the gas station on a sticky note and hands it to me.
The rental car agent comes on the line, asks for the address. I read the sticky note, my hand cupped over the receiver to block the noise.
“They’ll be here in twenty minutes,” she says and I hand her the phone still not able to figure out how she knows all she knows. Her fingers fold over mine and linger, dry but warm. She glances at my middle.
“Hush now,” she says to me or the monkey, I’m not quite sure.
“Didn’t tell my husband for a good six months. Blind boob didn’t even notice.” Her breasts and belly jostle. “It all worked out.” She pats my hand and lets go.
The headline of the Enquirer reads something about Princess Diana isn’t really dead but chained in the basement of Buckingham Palace. Possible, I suppose.
“My Jared, that boy was quite a handful.” She straightens her legs and put both hands on her knees. “You want to see a trick?” She opens the cash register and gets out a half of a roll of Life Saver’s Wint O’Green mints.
J.J. leaps onto her knees, waiting, his little fingers toying with edge of her smock. She rips open the mints, takes one, holds the monkey’s chin still and then places it on his nose.
“Watch this.” Her hands poise in mid-air. The small white disk balances on the tip of his nose.
I hold my breath.
“One, two, three … go!”
She flicks her wrists.
The monkey flicks his head.
The mint twirls in the air.
J.J. flips; lands back on her knees, holds out his tongue and catches the mint.
“That’s so amazing!” I’m clapping, clapping like I’m a kid at the circus. She’s clapping too, and all the tired disappears from around her eyes and mouth.
J.J. lifts his shoulders to his ears and grins. He climbs onto her shoulder and plays with a strand of her hair. Things grow calm.
“Moved here in ’69. Joe loves to fish. Weren’t nothing here back then. We bought a trailer, fished day and night, and then decided to buy this store.” She shifts on the seat. The monkey’s small hand wraps tight around her neck.
“Then Jared come ‘long.” Her lips tighten. “Our tow-headed, blue eyed boy. I used to tell him he was like that golden haired boy who strapped on wings and flew to the sun—always too close to trouble.” She nods and keeps nodding.
“Made me gray ‘fore my time.” Her chest lifts and lungs fill. “Used to say, ‘you ain’t gray, Mama, them roots is black!” We smile.
J.J. crawls down her lap and snuggles next to her breast.
“Jared took up scuba diving.” She turns to look out the window. “Gave lessons when the lake got popular in the 80s.” Her hand runs down the fur of the monkey’s back. “Did real good,” she pauses.” Never married, though.”
I look inside my empty cup.
“Go and get you some more,” she points. I walk back to the soda fountain and let the Sprite fill and bubble over.
“Got tangled in some roots —” Her words hover, unfinished.
I turn. Lean back. The counter ledge presses into the small of my back.
“I was so angry with God.” Each word hard and broken. “Told him I didn’t believe in nothin’ no more.”
Sun-bleached hair swishes back and forth at the bottom of the muddy lake.
She clears her throat.
“Jared always wanted a monkey,” her words echo high between us.
“Jared begged and begged. Told him we ain’t living with no monkey.”
“I tell you what,” she places a seed between her front teeth, “Better than therapy.” She stands up and clicks her tongue. JJ leaps into his cage. “Or sleeping pills.” She latches the door.
“Don’t know why I waited so long. Stays in Jared’s old room and comes to work with me every day.” She hooks a finger around a cage bar and holds on.
A shiny reflection hits the moon-shaped mirror in the corner of the store. A tow truck pulls next to my rented Taurus.
She hurries back to her stool. J.J. scurries to his. They grab their papers.
The electricity surges and I see this aged place with caked mud on the wood floor and sagging shelves. I don’t know how to leave.
She settles in place, the newspaper making a tent in front of her. I turn to say good bye, her face hidden. No need. I’ll be back. It’s my corner store, the place I’ll run in to get milk.
The heavy gas station door gives easy in my hand. A breeze gives my hair a toss. A man in a navy blue uniform embroidered with Jose on the left pocket hands me my keys, and then holds the car door for me. A gust of wind. Hundreds and hundreds of leaves swirl around my feet and chase the curve of the road.
The flat red roof against a backdrop of green.
Carol D. O’Dell is a Jacksonville University graduate, a creative writing instructor at the University of North Florida and the founder of Chat Noir Writers Circle. She’s also the author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir, and her forthcoming novel, SAID CHILD, won the 2010 Literary Spa first place award for memoir. Her fiction and nonfiction has been featured in Redbook, Atlanta Magazine, Glossolalia, International Short Story and AIM, America’s Intercultural Magazine.