The Vast Nothing… A Life Nowhere.
Somewhere in Middle America it’s an odd experience as a visitor. He’s an American, but how large is this country? He’s driven for weeks, and seen both coasts and the vast expanse of land the lies in the miles between. With all of it’s flaws and pride wrestling to be noticed.
Like a scene in an old Western when a wary gunslinger enters an unknown tavern… The local’s look up from their crosswords and sad, dead, condensation soaked coasters. It’s hot outside, the wind is resting and the plains are still. The stares follow the man until he passes through the empty south end of the bar. He settles into a seat about halfway, maybe more, not wanting to draw any more attention to the fact he’s the only patron bellied up. Families in booths, small circles of young women, tirelessly dressed for a Tuesday, and a pool table full of men in the comfort of their own living room flank all sides of the new stranger at the bar. The room is full, but the bar is empty. It’s a twelve seat oasis for the lost, perhaps the unwelcome. Some see a threat. Others opportunity, but undeniably the entire room projects a curiosity. He’s all too familiar with his disposition, this isn’t his first rodeo on the road.
The sole man at the bar, a visitor, a wanderer, his presence means many things to different people. Diversity becomes an un-welcomed and uncomfortable reality as the lone ‘gunslinger’ pulls his bar stool tight to the rail. He feels the stares placing lighting bolts into his back, the electricity charging his awareness.
He’s always been fascinated with the contradictions that lie in America’s vast nowhere. A bizarre cocktail of pride and desperation… Anti abortion billboards at Mile Marker 378, with an adult XXX billboard at Mile Marker 382. Straight bourbon and water, fire and ice. Passing farms growing produce for America’s healthiest restaurants, while selling an acre of the farm to a McDonalds along the freeway. The freeway never really ends… But, choose an exit and follow the trail a few miles and you’re going to find that rickety old saloon. There’s one in every town, and within each one’s doors surely a tired waitressgripping an old lottery ticket…. Jackpot an escape. Or perhaps she’s waiting for some lone traveler to scoop her up, and bring her to the life she was meant to live. Why she waits, no one know’s. Certainly not her, she wants more but remains paralyzed at the thought of leaving on her own. The edge of town just too great an unknown.
For him that saloon appeared somewhere near the center of Oklahoma. Long gone the watering holes of the Old West, but how nature ages slowly. Middle America, the kind of place you pay attention to your gas gauge based on what town you’re in. He was far removed from his own life, a comfort zone he liked being in. Lost, but with purpose. The saloon was a steakhouse, white paint on chipped old wooden siding. The frame, a structure that could have been a farm house 90 years ago. Faded red paint, the simple word “STEAK” was sun baked into the exterior. He was drawn in. There were no windows. Gravel parking. Two barrels of grease left to decompose out back, with a bus boy sitting atop one of the barrels smoking a cigarette.
The bartender was a young women, maybe 25, low cut jeans and pink tube top. A dark complexion and eyelashes that seemed purchased. She had a natural beauty, but she hid it behind a veil of self consciousness. When she looked up to see the man at the bar, she seemed to grow nervous, anxious even, like she had been caught in an embarrassing dance the she didn’t know anyone could see. Her nervousness quickly took on excitement at the prospect of someone new to tell her story to. She liked him, he could tell because of the way she suddenly seemed far busier then she was when he sat down. She had a sudden air of leadership as she yelled at the dishwasher for a clean rack of pints. She checked herself in the mirror, trying to be discreet, before she asked him what he’s having.
He order a beer. He looked at the menu. He felt the daggers of eyes piercing the back of his neck.
The bartender saw her opportunity in the lost man that stumbled into a long forgotten steakhouse in Oklahoma. She started to talk. She told him her life story. She told him about her sister’s recent move to Florida to work at club as a dancer. She was making good money and wanted her to move there to strip too. She had two kids. She’d worked the bar at the steakhouse since was 18. She never met her father, and her mom lived in the living room of the 1 bedroom house they rented in town. She was setting the scene, she wanted him to be her ticket. She put on lipstick in the mirror as he read the menu.
She asks the inevitable, what brings you here?
Sometimes his truth was just too unbelievable. Sometimes his reality played defense against the simple pleasures of normality. He felt her eagerness, and knew the disappointment she would face. So he lied. It was often easier to be something different, so that day he became an insurance adjuster for the railroads. He knew her questions would stop there, and he was right.
A sense of guilt lingered in the last few sips of his beer. She went on anyway, telling her story. She felt him slipping away and she desperately wanted him to stay, “One more?”, she asked. “This ones on me.”
His tab was $2.75.
He left $50.00 and slipped out while she was in the kitchen.
Not long down the road he found that familiar McDonalds on a corner of farmland. He sat alone in his car and wondered what her life would become. As the miles added up, the hope of the lonely girl grew distant. She was beautiful, and strong, she raised two kids, and supported her family. She was the hopeful captain of a life raft in the middle of America. Drifting amongst the fields, watching the ships pass by along the side of an endless freeway. Waiting for the day when another captain sees her hands waving for help.
And he was gone. Once again, the road pulled him from her.
The Vast Nothing