We stopped at a dilapidated gas station, somewhere on the backroads between Tampa and Orlando after a Sunday afternoon with my in-laws. Nothing seemed like Florida. There was hardly a tree in sight. Everything was brown. The wind danced with translucent ghosts of dust in a way that suggested tumbleweed would roll by any minute.
Our five-year-old had to pee and this place, which probably handed out bathroom keys tied to cinder blocks, would have to do for a pitstop. These days, dad isn’t much help in a public bathroom. I’m not about to go in the women’s room and she's at the age where the men's room might create the kind of flash-frame memory that stays for life. So, i waited in the car.
I glanced across the lot, looking for any kind of stranger for whom I could make up a backstory to pass the time. That’s when I saw her.
She looked like she was ready to be uploaded into The Matrix, dressed from head to toe in skin tight black clothes that hugged her curves in a way that seemed out of place for someone who had to pump her own gas. Something about her was working class. Maybe it was the aviator sunglasses. She leaned against a white van that was far too clinical to be personal. She wasn’t from around here, though I wasn’t sure where here was.
The locals pulled up to the pump behind her in a beat up Honda whose Japanese creators could never have imagined even Americans would be so cruel to an auto. They were a trio. All three were young, under twenty, and looked like they'd been raised on a diet of Mountain Dew and Hot Pockets. Two were a couple who entwined their plump bodies at the rear of the car and made out like high school kids with an audience.
The third was smoking a cigarette. He had the wild eyes of a glue sniffer and approached the women in black with a grin that was inappropriately giddy for a gas station introduction. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but could tell from body language that his local charms didn’t impress.
The guy had established his position at the rear of the van, leaning his body against its frame, cigarette in hand. He was close to her. Too close for strangers. The woman held her ground like a gunslinger in the town square at high noon. She pumped her gas and mounted the nozzle in its holster when she was done. There was a parting exchange I couldn’t hear, but imagined went something like the woman saying, “They got Tic-Tacs inside for 99 cents.” Then she climbed in the cab and drove off, stirring a cloud of dust in her wake that covered the kid.
His friends laughed. So did he as he lit another cigarette. My wife and daughter climbed back in the car, mid-argument over something the five-year-old wanted and mom didn’t.
We pulled back onto the road. I glanced at the sidewalk, where a young mother was pushing a stroller. She had a stripper’s body, complete with sprawling tattoos that covered her exposed back. The stroller was also covered. Maybe to protect the baby from the sun. Maybe to hide what the woman might really be pushing. I was still inventing backstories, and this one seemed to fit as the perfect cover. Who would question a mother and her child?
A minute later I saw a mangy Rottweiler chained to a tree in a yard next to a beat up doublewide. The dog’s name was “Hitler”. At least that’s what was spray-painted in black across the top of the dog house.
“Where the hell are we?” I let the question slip my internal monologue. My wife, still in a squabble with the kid, answered like she’d known all along.