WHAT FOLLOWS IS AN EXCERPT FROM A LONGER PIECE I’M WORKING ON. JUST TO BREAK UP THE MUSINGS-GRIND, as ya do, it’s called “The Grudge”:
They stop at a truck-stop off the turnpike, Betty says to buy toothpaste. It’s been two hours chasing Car Talk on the XM radio, and Paul keeps falling asleep in slow jerks. The sound his head makes smacking against the window, a dull swallow of a noise, keeps Betty awake at the wheel.
“The way to drive is with the wind behind you. Like a Western. Like a bandit.” She presses a polka-dotted pump against the accelerator, grits her teeth, scrunches her forehead. Paul wakes once more, and a long train of drool becomes cold against his lips, drips into his Levi’s. “Guh,” he says.
Their fourth or fifth snack stop in New Jersey alone – Betty insists, each – is allegedly to check out “the weird noise on the right side,” but she doesn’t even swoop past the auto shop. She ducks into the 7/11 for Cooler Ranch Doritos, instead. Paul looks at light through the purple blemish of an un-opened roof window. New Jersey trees. New Jersey allergies.
“I picked up this DID YOU KNOW book in the bathroom,” she says, in again like a tornado. “Virginia comes from a European queen. Did you know?” Paul didn’t. Betty blows a raspberry against her arm, whistles a few bars of the Bonanza theme songs. Looks pointedly at co-captain.
“I can go for a while, if you want.”
“Oh, I want. Baby, do I want.”
As they’re Chinese fire-drilling around the Volvo, a charter bus across the lot begins to spew its cargo: a cluster of uniformed Girl Scouts, all pink, pasty, God-lovin’, chatter and giggle their way out into the bright, sparse New Jersey air.
“Hold up,” Betty says, and she puts a hand o Paul’s squinting face and then she aims a recognizable, reliably devious grin his way. It’s Paul’s job to prevent Betty from realizing whatever mission this face portends, but she’s already bending over like an old crone, shaking her hair to and fro like a shaggy dog, working up some foamy spit in her mouth. She does this…thing. She calls it Subway Crazy Lady. Before he can decide what to do about it, Betty’s hobbling over to the Girl Scouts, arms akimbo, muttering to herself in a wretched monotone: “Hello there, ladies, mmmmmm YOU SELLING COOKIES THIS YEAR OR WHAT? MMM I LOVE ME SOME COOKIE-WOOKIES FROM A GIRLY-WIRL SCOUT MMMMM!” She leers like a maniac. Her eye is twitching. Yet none of the assembled blondies (Brownies? Greenies?) so much as tremble in their size fives. An acknowledged leader speaks from the center of the hive in the clear, awful soprano of a well-adjusted thirteen year old girl.
“Not to weirdoes, we’re not!” Then they titter. The tittering becomes full on, tripping mirth. It’s then that a frantic troop mother emerges from what looks to be a serious debate with the bus driver.
“Girls! Girls? Who are YOU? Who ARE you?” Troop mother narrows her eyes Betty’s way. “You leave the girls alone, okay? Who are you?”
In a tizzy, Terri! (a Sharpie nametag reveals) gets all the way off the bus and starts making “shooing” motions with her hands. Paul, out of shot, stares intently at the gas prices today, at the black numbers against a crummy, yellowing plastic. He peels a strip of skin off the inner corner of his thumb nail. He whistles some more of the Bonanza theme song and looks at the sky.
Now Betty is cowering away from the manic lioness that is the troop mother, having grossly misstepped with the phrase, ‘just a joke.’ The angry woman’s voice sounds hollow across flat distance, but these words can be caught and captured: “WHAT KIND OF PERSON” “SHOULD CALL THE POLICE” and the trailing end of “…REALLY NOT FUNNY.”
Betty’s never done well with able-bodied teenagers, the pink kind, the kind with dates for prom. It’s because the chip on her shoulder is eclipsing, irrational, vast. Betty will look at a ninth grade cheerleader and begrudge them even damages: smoking, having sex, getting piercings, having pain is all so completely HER CONTINENT that the very beautiful and very young could not and should not be allowed access. She just doesn’t think they’re human. She hates the pretty girls who made her childhood hellish (at least in the rearview mirror, it looks that way in the rearview mirror) and she hates anyone with the particular chutzpah that comes with sex appeal, or the inkling of a future sex appeal. Hell hath no fury like B. Bromine – and no empathy for, no giggles on the turnpike.
There are a number of ways she could re-arrive in the car, Paul figures: 1) quickly, like a real-live fugitive, at his elbow, giggling. 2) Chastised, wounded, tail between the fans of her smudged white cotton skirt. 3) Livid, chewing furiously on the insides of her lips in the maddening way she can, fuming his way, expecting encouragement. But what is there to say? It’s odd, to feel too old for this kind of fun and games, but it’s too true, they are too old. He has wrinkles forming on the back of his hands, for godsakes, and here they are at truck stops, freaking out little girls. Paul punches the horn. He looks at his hands. He looks at the sky some more.
When she really is at his elbow (suddenly, serenely) he’s surprised to find it takes a massive force of will not to guffaw right in her face. He pinches the skin between thumb and forefinger until it ruptures, because they’ve never had the kind of friendship where to laugh AT is acceptable; theirs is the culture and habit of licking wounds, lending ears, burning enemies in fiery effigies.
So Betty is opting for coolness. She shrugs her shoulders at the Girl Scouts, who are now moving around in strands towards the bathroom. To Paul she says, “So weird, huh? Grover Cleveland is a freaky-deeky spot.” Paul pictures burning buildings, wailing abandoned children, golden retrievers in pain. It’s still not quite enough. He is erupting, it’s all so stupid. In minutes he will boil over and become all kinds of liquid. So as Betty struggles with the Cooler Ranch dorito crumbs and slides bottom first into the passenger seat, Paul covers his mouth like he’s got to throw up and sprints towards the rest stop. As soon as he’s out of earshot, eye-shot, Paul crumples like day old newspaper and sobs, literally sobs with laughter. It shakes him like a storm. An old woman deliberately peering over a pair of drugstore reading glasses pauses, shoots him a horrified look, then mouths “IS THAT MAN OK?” to the bored chappy working the register. He can barely push away their concern, it’s still coming, and now he’s peeing, slightly, and the bathroom is too far away…
A few Girl Scouts, puzzling over a single Teen Vogue magazine, ease away from the register. Their eyes are big and frightened. God, Paul thinks, this will never not be funny.
“Great. You’re alright.” It’s Betty Bromine knocking out an exit-line like a one-two punch, and her eyes are improbable pools of hurt. And he gets mad at her for being this hurt over small encounters, this the most timid, tepid of all betrayals. The uni-fuming furrow of her joined eyebrows, joined in hunched sadness and shock, they stomp all the light from the room, and it isn’t so funny, and somehow he’s to blame now for trembling Girl Scouts on the verge of tears and a best friend who’s pursed lips are also starting to quaver.
“Whatever,” Betty says angrily, and again let’s remember they are both IN THEIR THIRTIES. People don’t behave like this anymore, not at rest stops. Little girls shouldn’t be able to mean so much. Looking at them now, Jesus, he’s old enough to be their –
A tub of a security guard is ambling their way with the obvious blessing of Terri! –he’s clearing his throat with each step, hands securely grasping for tools: walkie-talkie, nightstick, gun…
“It’s alright, we’re leaving!” Betty Bromine says, with a little affected ‘sheesh’ on the end. And he follows her heels turning (like a dog, he thinks) and they do. They leave this place quickly, and cross the state line into Delaware with an exhale, and it’s a while before Betty says, “Mmm, cowpie. We must be getting close.” He knows she’s full of it and can’t smell anything, he also knows he’s forgiven.