Roadtrip Gwendolyn Collier
“Mark, we need these,” I announce in my most grave tone, holding out an entire box of beef jerky. Mark stares at my find. The yellow fluorescence is adding a bit of character to his deadpan expression. Come to think of it, this entire grimy gas station is doing wonders for him. It makes his “dear-god-why-me” attitude seem justified.
“Allie,” he replies calmly. “You hate Slim Jims.”
“Not the point,” I insist. “You gotta have beef jerky for a road trip.Otherwise it doesn’t count.”
Mark furrows his brow. “Doesn’t count as what?”
“Allie, put it back and get something you’ll eat.”
I stand my ground, jaw set, Slim Jims outstretched to him. Mark blinks at me. I almost have him. “It won’t count without the jerky, man.”
With a sigh, Mark takes the box. He probably has a lot of questions for me, like “How did you talk me into driving you to Kentucky at two in the morning?” or “How are we going explain this to our professors?” But he settles with a “Happy?”
I hate how flat his voice is. I was hoping that being stuck in a car with me this long would get some sort of response out of him, but no, he’s
sticking to his stoic little frown like a lifeline. I’m not going to give up this easily. That’s part of what makes me such a great friend. Scanning the aisle,
I choose my next weapon. “I could use some gum.”
“Then get gum.”
I rub my chin and squint discontentedly. “I don’t know. I’ve been goin’ through a lot of it recently.”
“Then don’t get it,” he hurriedly advises, eyes darting to the stained checkout counter that is tantalizingly close but still beyond his reach.
“But I really want it.
“Then get it.”
“It’s probably rotting out my teeth.”
“Allie, make up your mind,” Mark groans, pinching the bridge of his nose. His voice is starting to tremble with some emotion. It’s my policy to
always assume that emotion is joy, even when he tells me it’s something else. That’s another part of what makes me such a great friend.
“If I get the gum, will you chew some of it?” I ask, running my fingers across the dangling packages, knocking several of them off their hooks. “I don’t want to be the only one chewing gum.”
“I don’t want any gum, Allie.”
“If you want it, get it.”
“No, no I can’t. It just wouldn’t feel right.” I poke at the few packages I haven’t knocked down, “I really did want some gum though. I never get to chew gum when I really want to.”
Mark clenches his jaw. “I don’t want to hear you whining for the next three hours about how much you wish you had gum.”
“I can’t help it. I really like gum.”
“Then get it.”
“Fine!” Mark snaps, grabbing the closest pack. “I will chew gum. Okay?”
“I don’t like that flavor,” I state, eying the package he’s grabbed.
“Well, then get what you want,” Mark nearly sobs, throwing his head back, face turned up to the slimy ceiling. He hadn’t asked for this, not the shady gas station or this spontaneous road trip, or even my friendship. All he ever wanted was a quiet little life out in the suburbs, broken only by a stint in college where he’d get some boring degree and meet the his future
housewife. Thank God he ran into me first. “I don’t want to get a flavor you don’t like,” I inform him.
With an unsteady voice he whimpers, “I’ll like whatever you get, just pick something.” With the sickly yellow light welling in his wrinkled brow and dripping down over his slumped shoulders, he is the very picture of defeat. Not a pleasant picture, but at least it shows something.
“No,” I pout, “I’m not going to make you chew gum you hate. What flavor do you like? They have original, peppermint, spearmint, watermelon, green apple . . .”
Mark keeps his head turned up, seemingly captivated by the dead bugs in the light fixture, perhaps empathizing with their predicament. Then slowly it dawns on him that we aren’t leaving until he makes a decision. His closes his eyes for a moment recalling his options. Finally he answers in a hoarse whisper, “Watermelon.”
“Damn it, Allie!”
“That’s my favorite too! Up top!” I laugh, reaching out for a high five.
Mark stares at my hand, blinking hard as if he can make it disappear. I don’t move. “Come on, bro! Don’t leave me hangin’.” Mark feebly pats his hand against mine. “BOOYAH! We gonna get our melon ON! Hey! Melon,
Mel-ON. Get it, Mark?”
Mark doesn’t say a word. He just picks a dusty packet of watermelon gum off the floor and heads for the checkout. I give him a moment of
reprieve. There will be plenty of time to work on him in the car. Before we cross the next state border, he will be yelling at me to stop smacking my gum or sobbing into the steering wheel too quietly to be heard over my
rant against beef jerky, both clear signs of joy in my book. One day, when he’s a somber old man with only a staff of stoic nurses and his memories for company, he’s going to be glad I put him through all this.