I wrote this story years ago when I was living in Los Angeles. I’d taken a four-day writing seminar at UCLA. I’ve always wanted to write fiction and thought a class might be just the ticket to get me started. My instructor was Tod Goldberg who was part serious instructor and part stand-up comedian. I laughed for four solid days but learned a lot about how to tell a story, about structure, about backstory. The first afternoon of the seminar, Tod told us to go home and write a story. The first line was to read: They waited out the morning in a sad little coffee shop.
I worked on it for several hours and thought it was a pretty good little story when I was done. I based it on vacations we used to take as a child, stopping at Stuckeys along the highway. And it was also about me, about my loneliness while living in Los Angeles. It just never felt like home to me, and I was there for twenty-seven years. Moving back to the South is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.
The day after turning it in, I got to class early and asked Tod if he’d read my story. “You’ve wasted your money,” he told me. I was crushed. Then he said, “You already know how to do this. There’s nothing I can teach you.” After that, I was paralyzed. I couldn’t write anything else for fear of it not measuring up. So this story is the first and last story I’ve ever written.
- Elodie Pritchartt
They waited out the morning in a sad little coffee shop just off the interstate, one of those places two hundred miles from nowhere that claimed it was famous around the world for its special chili and pecan logs.
It had looked like an exciting place to wait for the weather to let up, but it was just another tired diner with dirty floors and bad coffee. Like motels, she thought. They seem so nice, but when you get there and check into your room, there’s always one pubic hair in the tub.
“I wonder if anybody famous ever stopped here,” she said, looking around at the rows of shelves with ceramic praying hands and little glass bells with gold lettering telling one and all that, Oklahoma is the OK state!
A metal stand offered personalized nameplates for children’s bicycles. Do kids even ride bikes anymore? She couldn’t remember—Jane, Matthew, Amanda, Johnny—not a Pilar among them. Her mother had wanted a special child with a special name.
“Those names are common,” she’d said. “We’re different.”
Pilar picked at her salad–iceberg lettuce with freezer burn, a mealy tomato, and a slice of hard-boiled egg.
“If you’re not gonna eat that, I’m getting a go box,” said Joe. He reached across the table. “Want that egg?”
“You know I don’t eat eggs,” she said, and sighed, her eyes on the door. “You know that.” After fifteen years of marriage, you’d think he’d know.
It was on a road trip to the coast the summer she was five. Her brother got carsick and threw up in the pail her mother had brought along for such emergencies. It was hot in the car. Sweat trickled down the back of her neck and a wet film on the backs of her legs made the plastic seat covers slippery as she tried to get purchase on the seatback in front of her, searching for fresh air that didn’t smell like bile and urine. Tried not to see it.
Her mouth full of rubbery egg, she suddenly couldn’t swallow.
“Spit it in the bucket,” Mother said.
But, she couldn’t lean into that bucket. She couldn’t spit it out and she couldn’t swallow, and she was trapped in the car and began to cry until they finally pulled over and she tumbled onto the macadam, where she spat and wretched, and pee ran down her legs and soaked her socks as an 18-wheeler blew past.
It blew its horn and rocked the car with a sudden blast of heat that felt like rage.
No more eggs. But that was a long time ago.
“You know,” said Pilar, “if it wasn’t for people needing to pee, this place probably wouldn’t even be here. Why can’t we ever stop someplace nice?”
“Get a job and we can stop someplace nice,” said Joe through a mouthful of Reuben on rye. A fat drop of greasy cheese dripped down his chin.
He watched as the rain mixed with sleet outside.
She looked at her husband.
“Can we go by that little town with the square on the way home?”
“We got to get back early,” said Joe. “I want to wash the salt off my truck.”
The truck. Joe spent every weekend on the truck—changing the oil, adding mud flaps, bug guards, trailer hitches. With the money spent on that truck, they could probably buy a house instead of renting the run-down little place by the railroad tracks in Burbank.
“Must be something bad wrong with that truck,” said Don the next-door neighbor. Standing in his own driveway, beer in his hand and Led Zeppelin playing on the radio, he watched the never-ending work.
“Never saw anything like it. What’s wrong with it this time?” A smirk teased the corners of his mouth.
“They missed a spot with the clear coat up here by the mirror,” said Joe, pointing to the door. “See?”
“Nope,” said Don.
“Look. Lemme pull it into the garage. If you lay down on the ground and look up the side of the door into the light, you can see a spot right there.”
“Nah. That’s okay,” said Don, shaking his head. “I’ve got stuff to do.”
“If they don’t fix it, it’ll rust out. Be a big problem down the road,” said Joe. Don waved him off and went back into his house.
“You pay $30 grand for a truck, they better make it right,” said Joe, shaking his head, his voice getting louder.
“Nothing’s ever perfect,” said Pilar. “Why does it have to be?”
There would be an argument at the dealership. It would turn ugly. Just like the time they painted the house. Like the time they ordered carpet. She’d come to dread the words, “I want to talk to your supervisor.”
“If they’d get it right the first time, it wouldn’t be a problem,” said Joe, like it’d teach them some lesson, like they’d change how they do things.
Joe pulled the ticket for the food from beneath the napkin box.
He examined each item. The leathery little woman who’d waited on them sat behind the register by the door.
Pilar wondered where she lived, where she went when they closed, way out here in the middle of nowhere. Pilar looked outside.
“I wonder who’s buried in that little graveyard over there. There’s not even a church out here. Why’s there a cemetery? Nothing around for miles except a place to pee and a place to die.”
“They probably died waiting to get some service in here,” said Joe, and glared at the waitress, who slammed the cash drawer and shoved his change at him. Pilar pretended not to notice.
On the way out, Pilar bought a souvenir, an ashtray with a little green snake coiled around it. Written in the base: A pot to hiss in.
Back on the entrance to the interstate, they edged forward behind a line of other cars.
“I wonder where all these people are going,” said Pilar. “Wouldn’t it be fun to pick a car and follow it, see where it goes?”
“I need you to follow me to the body shop in the morning,” said Joe. “I want them to check a valve.”
“When I was in high school, I used to fantasize about driving past school in the mornings and seeing where I ended up,” Pilar said. “Just keep on going until I found a place to stop and start over. Be someone else. You know?”
“Where’d you put my toothpicks?”
“You left them in the console.”
They pulled back onto the road, merging with traffic as the car found its speed and eased into a rhythm between the seams on the roadway ticking the miles like a second hand on a clock. Pilar thought about her best friend from school, wondered where she was and what she was doing. They’d been so close. And now? Just gone. The rhythm of the seams made her drowsy.
A teal-blue Honda crossed in front of them and took the next exit. Pilar watched as it rolled down the ramp and turned left onto the straightaway that stretched off into the distance, the landscape as alien as a distant planet. She hoped someday it would look like home. It must look like home to someone. But not to her.
Elodie Pritchartt is a native Natchezian, who returned home after living in Los Angeles for twenty-seven years. She enjoys photography, music, and writing, and writes a blog about Natchez, its history, and whatever might be on her mind at the time. The blog, called Shantybellum, can be found at shantybellum.blogspot.com. “Driving Home” is her first fiction short story.