Near Winona, Mississippi, the road trip laughs and stories turned sour. Mini complained of nausea and asked to pull over at the nearest rest stop, but Johnny refused. They had made good time so far and were only an hour and a half outside Memphis. Mini needed to buck up. A couple minutes later, however, her stomach – against her wishes – gurgled. Mini tried to explain, but before her plea was stated, Johnny stifled her again:
“You have to stop whining. You know, sickness is 95% psychosomatic.”
“You’re a jerk.”
“It’s a known fact.”
“Ooooooh. I feel queasy.”
“There you go whining again.”
Mini’s stomach obstinately grew worse. Minutes later, an irrepressible green sludge rode a potent wave of nausea from the pit of her stomach. Somehow, Mini subdued most of it, minus a small shot that whizzed across the cabin and landed half on the dash and half on Johnny’s steering hand. This small glob was enough to cause a chain reaction in which Johnny, horrified, swerved from the right hand lane into the left, which then caused an approaching blood red Chevy pickup to swerve into the grassy median. Fortunately, nobody died in the exchange. No damage, either. The Chevy pickup’s horn did blare, though, while the driver – a sunburned monster of a man – hurled a barrage of muffled curses and middle fingers. Mini whimpered, and Johnny quickly sped off from the scene before the Chevy driver could reorient his vehicle.
A few miles down the road, Mini started in again.
“Johnny, I’m not kidding. You have to stop. It’s getting worse.”
“Can’t. Not after we almost killed that guy.”
“I think I’m having morning sickness.”
“It’s three in the afternoon.”
“Johnny, now!” The creature within erupted. “I’M PREGNANT!”
A dozen miles down the road, Johnny grudgingly pulled off at an exit in Oakland, Mississippi, a town with a population of 536, according to the sign. Sliding into a McDonalds’ parking lot, Mini rushed inside, while Johnny stayed out in the car.
As Johnny sat brooding, an unexpected pain stabbed at his stomach. His head dizzied and panic engulfed him. Johnny’s life had been a whirlwind since receiving news of Mini’s pregnancy. Now, in this moment alone, a cascade of thoughts concerning the baby gushed for the first time. The sacrifices were already starting. Today, he waited in a fast food parking lot. In no time, he’d be waiting at a baby shower. Then in a hospital. A year down the line, he’d be at the tail end of a grocery line holding a jar of baby slop. He was turning into a domestic field hand. It had taken him years just to resemble a boyfriend, loving and monogamous. Now, a father? A husband?
Johnny reached into the backseat inside his travel bag and rummaged for his prescription bottle. Eventually, he snagged it and shook it furiously when he saw that no pills remained.
Johnny rolled down both windows for air. He leaned back in his seat and looked out over the landscape in hopes that the heavenly countryside might offer some redress. Mostly, the area was dense forest. Autumn winds, carrying whispers of winter, had created a leafy kaleidoscope of oranges, yellows, and purples. A nearby creek burbled as misty water rippled overtop its gravel belly. Johnny closed his eyes. His surroundings conjured up a vision in which he was an adult Huck Finn, venturing up the Mississippi through the beautiful southern sticks. In this fantasy, he had no worries. No obligations. He simply lived peacefully inside of fleeting moments and humorous happenings.
Johnny opened his eyes again, his pulse lightened. He looked around.
There were only two other vehicles in the McDonalds’ parking lot, presumably belonging to a couple of the worker folk. Other than that, the only signs of civilization at the exit were an old HEIFERS filling station with a few pumps (but no customers) and a corroded Model T sitting off the side of the road about a hundred yards down. The historical remnant intrigued Johnny. He imagined an old carpenter, maybe even his own grandpappy, hauling lumber in the wagon. A simpler, better time. He romanticized that maybe now a sleuth (?) of little black bears were using the old vehicle as a home. Johnny needed to stretch his legs, so he got out of the hatchback and walked up behind the rusty rig to study it further.
However, with each step that drew him closer to the back bumper, the vehicle grew more ghoulish. There was a gaping hole in the cabin roof. Punched out were the side windows, and cinder blocks – rather than wheels – propped up the back axle. Chips in the black paint job made the vehicle look diseased with leprosy. Inside, somebody had draped a mangy blanket over the front row seat.
Johnny was upset the truck corrupted his romantic mood. He circled the wagon and stopped at the vehicle’s rear-end, outside the view of the McDonalds and filling station. He then unzipped and started to relieve himself on the old hunk of steel. In the midst of his urinary daze, Johnny suddenly saw a furtive head peep up and then go back down inside the cabin. Johnny ignored it thinking it was simply an illusion. He turned his head in the opposite direction and stared down the long stretch of pavement. A gust of wind shuddered the thick autumn leaves on the highway’s edge. Under the sun’s midday glaze, the scene bled together like watercolors on canvas.
Heyy. Pssst. A fink voice whispered.
Johnny then heard a small rustling inside the cabin. He turned his head back and saw the mangy blanket shift.
“Hell, come on now. Who’s the peeping pervert?”
Johnny staggered and pissed on his shoe.
Why do you do such things-s-s-s?
Johnny hopped back and zipped himself in a single defensive motion.
The voice was hypnotizing. Unreal even. Johnny knew not to answer, for what good could come from it? Still, he felt compelled.
“You mean Mini?”
Yeessss. The voice grew pleased, which encouraged Johnny.
“She’s a good woman,” he continued unsure initially but gaining momentum. “A little nuts, but I’m going to follow through.”
The voice said nothing.
“What would you know about it? A man has to make a decision at some point. Settle down. Even if the heart’s not all the way in it, he has to pretend. The heart will eventually follow.”
Listen to the big man. He pours out his soul.
Silence lingered. Johnny felt offended.
Why do you berate her?
Why did you not pull over the car? Why have no s-s-sympathy?
“Who the hell is this?”
She trusts-s-s you. Looks-s-s to you.
“What do you want?”
Your soul. The laugh was fiendish.
“I don’t think I can give that away.”
Maybe you already have.
“What are we really talking about here?”
From here on out, I want you to remember how weak and pathetic you actually are. I want you to know that I could’ve destroyed you.
But only through my mercy do you live. That makes you a slave. And for the rest of your life, you’ll always be that. Nothing more. An inferior being that only through mercy still walks the earth.
“You’re a piece of shit. You know that? Nobody’s taking my fucking soul.”
Johnny leaned up to the door and took a full look inside the cabin. Sitting there, jaw open, teeth glistening, was a grubby little red fox. Spittle and hisses spewed from his yap. His fur was patchy.
With a bound, the red fox positioned himself at the window opening, only a foot and a half away from Johnny and his sweating torso. The fox’s eyes were a sleazy emerald green. He seemed to smile knowingly. Was this the source of the voice? It couldn’t have been. It must have been.
Johnny dared not move for fear of the fox pouncing. Any sudden movement might lead to punishment. Johnny stared into the fox’s eyes. Deep inside there seemed to be a twinkle. Maybe it was the devil himself.
Johnny slowly crept his hand into his jeans in search of a peace offering. As he fingered the lint in his pocket, he came across a pack of Bubblicious. Watermelon flavored. Johnny snagged a chunk of the gum and displayed it to the fox. The fox’s head tilted sideways. Johnny, slowly, raised his arm, made the sign of the cross, and tossed the gum up into the air. The fox snatched the chunk in its mouth. The gum seemed to slide down immediately, and the fox’s sneer dissipated. His tail wagged, stupidly. The devil gone. Johnny crept away from the rig and staggered across the old highway.
Reaching the hatchback, Johnny flopped down in the driver’s seat and closed his eyes. He rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and drifted into nothingness.
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
The explosive pounding nearly shattered the passenger’s side window and almost caused Johnny to soil his pants. Outside the glass was Mini. Her face had a scowl etched in it. Her hair was disheveled and greasy. Sweat coated her pasty skin. Her breasts, though, seemed plumper than ever.
“Open this door. You’re not funny.”
Johnny pressed the unlock button. The door snapped open, and Mini awkwardly plunked down. Johnny’s eyes deglazed as his spirit returned from its unnerving twilight zone.
“You feeling better?”
“What do you have there?”
“I got us some combo meals.”
“Shut up. I’m not giving you any if you keep being a jerk.”
“I’m sorry for getting crazy.” He genuinely was. Johnny had no plans to mention or credit the fox for his apologetic turn around. Rather, he buried the patchy skank six feet deep in his subconscious.
“There was no need for it.”
“I just wanted to make good time, I guess.”
“What’s the rush?” Mini shifted around trying to get comfortable, and Johnny for the first time noticed her belly’s bulge. The vision was sobering.
“I guess there’s not,” Johnny said, although he thought being in the car for unnecessary periods was excruciating.
“You have to be a little patient, especially with me being pregnant, especially when the baby gets here.”
“Mmmhmm.” Johnny said, bothered she would play those cards.
“You have to mature a little bit. You can’t keep acting like a child.”
Johnny nodded along and managed to muzzle himself for the sake of peace. To keep the fox at bay.
Mini, meanwhile, looked pleased with her airing of grievances. She seemed happy that Johnny kept relatively quiet through it, too. She smiled at Johnny. Johnny smiled right back. Could this be what women wanted, a nodding imbecile? Johnny wondered. Probably. He supposed men desired the same. The dynamic created a war of emotional attrition for which women – the more complex emotional beings – were better equipped. In this battle of wills, women came prepared as emotional tanks, whereas men arrived with emotional six shooters.
photo: Wikimedia Commons