Lucy had kept a close watch on the gas gauge and promised herself she’d pull off the highway at an eighth tank, which was just about where the needle was now, maybe a skosh over. She was not far from the next town, only a couple of miles, where there’d be a gas station and possibly food. This long journey insisted on back roads, the proverbial scenic route, thought Lucy: it was her preferred way to travel. Only the back roads, she reasoned, revealed the true grit of the country. When you traveled the Interstate—a marvel of engineering to be sure—you got only the sanitized version of it, businesses at one exit identical to the ones at the next, just like the inside of a shopping mall. One could go to Wendy’s or Taco Bell any day of the week, if one were so inclined, and Lucy was not. It would be like all those silly tourists in the city, she mused, who spent their travel money at some GAP flagship store instead of sniffing out the local flavor. Where was the fun—the adventure—in that?
Up ahead on the highway Lucy could see a gas station, and directly across from it, a friendly enough looking little eatery, kempt if a bit time-worn. Pickup trucks lined the parking lot—work trucks with rusted out panels, dented all to hell, besmeared with bumper stickers: God Bless America, declared one in a pillowy dated typeface superimposed on Old Glory. These weren’t the shiny new behemoth pickups city slickers drove. She whipped her VW into a space and glanced at her hair and face in the rear view; not bad after so many hours on the road, she concluded. Inside the diner she could see a pair of older men talking to a waitress at the counter register. Both men were in coveralls with work boots and camo jackets, one wearing a trucker cap in blaze orange; they and the waitress were laughing in a way that suggested they’d known each other for a long time.
People seemed to grow softer and gentler with every mile you traveled beyond the city limits. Lucy considered this notion for a moment and visualized a schematic showing a town epicenter with lines radiating outward and little emoji dotting each of them—the city emoji had orange faces and angry eyes, but their little emoji complexions grew rosier the farther away they fell from the center, and their expressions more pleasant: smiley faces, ‘lol’-ing faces, silly faces—soft and gentle dispositions, emoji style, she imagined.
She reached for the diner door at the precise moment one of the older men pushed it open. He quickly stepped back, but held it for her from inside. “Mornin’,” he quipped through clenched teeth. Lucy could see he held a toothpick between them. She thanked him and stepped inside; the other man touched the bill of his hat as he shuffled past her. Lucy could feel all her senses engage at once: she had stepped through a steamy wall of warmth, taking in the heady aroma of bacon grease and coffee, and the cheerful din of pressed stainless flatware clinking against thick stoneware, familiar sounding banter all around. Old Coca-Cola adverts and framed black and white photos, images of short-order cooks and counter staff in starched white uniforms, dotted the wall above the kitchen service window, and over by the register, there it sat—the little toothpick dispenser, the kind you pressed down to make a toothpick roll out of its bottom. When she was a child her daddy had scolded her on one occasion when he found her pressing an identical dispenser again and again while he settled the tab; so beguiling was little device, she couldn’t stop herself. She remembered her embarrassment and how she’d gathered up all the toothpicks and offered them to the waitress. “Naw, honey—you keep ’em,” said the woman while her daddy apologized.
“Sit anywhere you like, darlin’—I’ll be right with you. Sit at the counter if you wont, or they’s a booth in the front.” This waitress was now stirring Lucy from her reverie. Feeling suddenly trapped in a time warp, she imagined she could be happy in this place forever.