Tom was on glory hole duty and Ericka was doing the dog shit, so when Crystal went on break, she went out back by herself and lay in the lettuce bags with one of the pamphlets from the Info Kiosk, a pamphlet for the Akron Zoo, a place with things like tigers and fruit bats and penguins that were sort of like dogs and the deer they sometimes saw, but not like dogs and deer at all. Soon her shift would be over and she’d use the time allotted for art-making to work on her sock puppets, and then she’d meet up with Tom and Ericka for dinner and hear all about their day, and if she was lucky, after Ericka had fallen asleep, she and Tom would take a long walk around the perimeter fence and make out behind the dumpsters.
She fell asleep in the lettuce and dreamt first of a crisp and refreshing forest of iceberg shreds before dreaming of the highway and all the places it might lead. She dreamt of tigers at the Akron Zoo and the gift shop there, which was like the Service Area gift shop, only they didn’t sell condoms or motor oil. She met a fruit bat as big as the Area Father who told her he would fly her away to anywhere she wanted to go, that there were a lot of places in the world that weren’t Ohio and even though she would miss her family, she could find a life of her own. And then, as if the fruit bat could see into the deepest region of her mind, he picked her up with his claws and flew her through the roof, which had transformed miraculously into the sky.
When she awoke, she felt as if she were floating in space. She could hear the Shift Mother calling her name. There had been a run on fish filets for some reason and Chip was doing double duty on the line while Gwen covered the cash register. The Shift Mother pulled her by the hand toward the register, where she took her spot behind the counter and faced the long dinner rush in their denim shorts and visors.
“Where are you headed?” she asked. The man had ordered two fish filets, no sauce, and was weighing whether he wanted a shake or not.
“Cleveland. I guess I’ll do vanilla.” She wondered why they said it that way, they would do vanilla. It was just a shake. One day last week, she’d done three.
“I’ve heard of that,” she said, handing him his change and a receipt with his order number printed at the top. She had heard of Cleveland, heard of all the places they were going, and often wondered what those places were like.
The customers, all neon and fanny packs, wound all the way to the ketchup station. The dining room was blindingly bright and clean and the hungry travelers trusted them to provide a reliable, consistent dining experience, and Crystal took pride in that. Even though the summer customers were the worst, always impatient on their way west to the places of her dreams, she envied them. Cleveland, Toledo, Gary. They sounded amazing to her, and though she knew she would never visit, she imagined that one day she would.
Crystal and Tom had an hour to kill before Ericka would be done and they’d all have to go make art, so they went to where the truckers parked their rigs and walked among the humming tractor-trailers. Tom’s origin story was different from everybody else’s origin story because he was born of a woman’s body via Unholy Union with a truck driver. He’d been delivered into a bucket of tomato sauce and that’s how he’d gotten his name. As a toddler, he’d been brought to them from another Service Area down the highway to replace Old Bert, who’d hanged himself from the play gym with his belt after the breakfast rush.
Sometimes Crystal thought the reason Tom so often wanted to walk among the trucks was because it reminded him of some home he had never known. Maybe his father was there among the truckers, dreaming of Tom from his bunk in a big rig. Crystal wondered if Tom’s father ever visited the glory hole while Tom was on duty and shuddered to think it.
Tom said that one day he might just jump into one of the trucks and ride away to Cleveland or whatever was beyond Cleveland. He bragged a lot about escaping—they all talked about it—but Tom was somebody who might just do it. The Shift Mother called Tom a wild one and said she worried about him; she said he’d been born with gumption and gumption got a person in trouble. When she said it she closed her one real eye and looked at him sideways before slapping him on the ass and telling him to get back to work. Crystal knew gumption was no good, but she wished she’d been born with some nonetheless.
Crystal’s origin story was that they’d found her in the dumpster out back under the light of a special star that announced a new child had been delivered unto them. Whenever they saw the light from the special star, they knew to check the dumpsters carefully because the star was an omen and more often than not it meant there was a new baby for them to welcome into their family. Luckily they hadn’t seen the special star in a long time, because there were a lot of them now.
“Enough to love,” the Area Father told them. “But we’ve got more than enough to watch the fryers and empty the trash.”
Once Crystal asked the Shift Mother who were the first people, since somebody must have been there to raise the first dumpster babies. The first people couldn’t have come from the dumpster. At first the Shift Mother didn’t want to answer, but she reluctantly told Crystal that some of the first people had come in a van from another Service Area. A few had come across the highway from the westbound Service Area, their rivals now, but it hadn’t always been that way.
When Crystal told her there must have been adults at those Service Areas to raise the first babies, and she wanted to know where they came from, the Shift Mother told her that’s just how it was. When Crystal asked her what was beyond Cleveland, the Shift Mother told her there was nothing beyond Cleveland and that anybody stupid enough to keep driving once they got there would fall off the edge of the earth and die. She told Crystal it was time to go empty the quarters out of the Mr. Do machine and that if she had any more questions she might as well sign up for an extra glory hole shift because she was just about fed up with her.
Most of them hated glory hole duty, but Tom especially, so Crystal didn’t ask him too much about how his day went. He was in a good mood, which meant it had been a slow day, but a slow day was still three or four blowjobs. While they had lots of slow days, there were never any dead days because after the restrooms and the Cheeseburger Stand, the hole was their most popular feature.
Tom told her about a great new pamphlet at the Info Kiosk about something called a waterslide that was like a giant pipe lubricated with water that you could slide down in your underwear. In another pamphlet, he learned about a field where there was a battle of some kind that you could visit and learn all about war and how people used to make butter and their own clothes. He’d read, too, about a thing called a farm where vegetables came from and you could learn about what it was like to live in olden times before there were highways. She’d read all the pamphlets, too, but it was okay, because sometimes they didn’t have much to talk about.
She told him about how when nobody was looking she dropped a dead chipmunk in the fryer and served it beneath a layer of cheese to some idiot wearing a jumper, even though it was a lie, and how she’d fallen asleep in the lettuce again and dreamt of a fruit bat and how she felt bad because her sloth had caused her coworkers so much stress. She told him about how one customer paid in pennies and how another was angry because she wouldn’t let him order a Deluxe with a fish filet instead of a hamburger patty, even though they could have totally done that.
The smell of diesel fuel was barely intoxicating, but it was enough that they both felt lightheaded and carefree in the evening sun, so they slid their hands together, walked in the twilight to the dumpsters, and when they were sure nobody could see them, she kissed his salty lips.
Ericka was writing a play during the time allotted to art making and Crystal was crafting sock puppets based on her characters. When they finished, they would get the puppet theater out of storage and perform for the others in the Community Room late at night when most of them could step away from their shift.
Ericka’s play was about a boy who wrote poems, the best any of them had ever heard, but who, because it had been years since a baby had been delivered unto them, was forced to work triple shifts seven days a week. He’d start at the glory hole, then he’d do dog shit, air out the Trucker Lounge, run the waxer in the lobby, and scrape the backs of the toilet bowls before he’d take his late shift at the Pizza Kiosk or the Coffee Bar making mochas for all the tired drivers. In between shifts, he’d sit in a stall in the men’s room and write his poetry in a little notebook he’d bought at the Convenience Area and late at night when things were slow he’d stand on a case of cheese slices and recite his work to anybody who would listen.
And then one day, Bard—that’s what Ericka named him, Bard—fell in love with a girl who stopped at the Service Area every Friday on her way to see her sick family in Toledo. Patty would find him wherever he was working—the Cheeseburger Stand, the Salad Hut—and be sure to wait until he had a moment to take her order. Once, she saw him in the Trucker Lounge, a lounge reserved for truckers only. She knew the rules of the Service Area; she was forbidden from entering the lounge, but that’s where she found him. The lounge was empty and Bard was spraying Lysol onto the seat cushions, when he turned and saw her with her face pressed against the glass door. He was annoyed because he’d just cleaned the door, but also intrigued.
Ericka had noted in the manuscript, that here, Bard felt himself on the precipice of danger. Would he cross the line drawn by the Shift Mother and the Area Father, who enforced the rules they all followed, generation after generation? Or would he go on living this life, always wondering what could have been?
Bard stood and wiped the haze of freshener from his glasses with the edge of his shirt. Certainly she was beautiful, like a girl in a pamphlet, he thought, her hair like strands of flaxen twine, her lips like seat cushions. He was a poet, after all, so he sang to her a song of beauty and lust. He imagined her waiting for him on the other side of the glory hole, and put that in the song too.
Patty was entranced.
She looked at him standing there on the edge of danger and wondered, would he cross it? She knew he could never leave, knew he had been born at the Service Area and thus was doomed to live his life there, but she felt something for him, felt something like giving up the life she had built for herself back in Pittsburgh where she’d apprenticed herself to a master mobile dog groomer who was allowing her to build her own clientele so that one day she would have her own mobile dog grooming business, too. She’d even met a boy there, but he was only a normal boy, not Bard, not a poet, and certainly he did not have Bard’s smooth, hard body, like a mannequin, or Bard’s grey eyes, the whites blood-red from so little sleep and so much Lysol.
Patty could smell the musky sweat of his body, the musty odor of his unclean hair cutting through the fog of sanitizer. He hadn’t bathed in weeks, but it made her want him, and the cloud made her feel like a radio station going in and out of tune somewhere on the dark highway. She opened the door and took two steps forward and waited for him to make his move.
When she stepped forward, he knew she was his. He knew what he risked, but he did not care. He took her hand and together they locked themselves in one of the shower stalls.
She stayed, some nights sleeping on the couch in the trucker lounge, but mostly sleeping in her car. She ate cheeseburgers and fish filets and bags of Party Mix, drank gallons of Dr. Pepper, and sometimes vomited in the dog area. When Bard was working, for fun she would read pamphlets or play Mr. Do or hang out in the Community Room and listen to the various church groups who came in long white vans to rent the room to discuss their disputes on neutral ground.
She called home and told her parents she’d met somebody and despite their sickness, they were happy for her and said they understood. On the third day, her parents stopped answering their phone, but she didn’t care. She was in love.
She tried to convince Bard to leave the Service Area, to go with her to meet her parents, if they were still alive, and then go back with her to Pittsburgh where he could work at a fast food restaurant there. He looked at her strangely; he didn’t understand what she meant by fast food, or mobile pet grooming, or even what a city looked like. He told her he wasn’t allowed to leave, but that maybe once they were married, he could ask the Shift Mother and Area Father if they thought there’d be a baby soon for them to take care of, or a transfer from another Service Area.
He’d been neglecting his duties hard since she’d arrived, trying to lay low, meeting her late at night in the lounge shower. Sometimes she would sneak into the glory hole with him and watch him work. Sometimes she’d put a paper bag over her head with a hole cut out and she’d pretend like Bard was visiting her in the glory hole, and while he was working a customer, she’d work him, and even though Ericka knew she’d have to cut out that part of the play, she left it in because it made her feel warm and anxious in a way that was not unpleasant.
After two weeks, Bard awoke alone in the stall of the trucker shower. Patty was gone. He searched for her all around the Service Area; when he found her car, he knew something had gone wrong. He searched the Trucker Lounge, the restrooms, and the glory hole. He searched as best he could in the cars parked in the lot, and the trucks, too, and finally, when he was about to search the walk-in, he found the Area Father and Shift Mother guarding the door with their arms crossed.
He begged them to release her, but they told him he had crossed a line. He had sinned, and would be punished. Her body had been in the freezer for hours and soon she would be dead and there was nothing he could do about it.
But he knew there was something he could do.
He was the greatest poet the Service Area had ever known, so with his siren-voice he improvised a poem so great, so beautiful, that Ericka could never commit it to paper.
“The audience will have to use their imaginations,” she said. “But they should know that the poem evoked a kind of love none of them had ever known and included imagery of the sky, raging bodily fires, and things like flowers and forbidden fruit.”
So impressed were the Area Father and Shift Mother that they agreed to release her alive, but only if Bard never gazed upon her again. He could lead her to her car without looking at her, where she would continue westward on the highway, but they were never to see each other.
So she closed her eyes, and Bard guided her to her car. They dared share a final kiss with closed eyes through the open window of her Corolla while the Shift Mother and Area Father watched from inside the Service Area dining room. Bard ran after her car as fast as he could and she drove as slowly as she could, and though she didn’t look at him, she could feel him open his eyes as he followed her down the on-ramp. She couldn’t bear it and turned to have one more look, but careened into oncoming traffic where a triple-rig plowed into her and blew up her car. Bard could see her body burning in the flames and did the only thing he could do—leap into the conflagration.
“Conflagration is such a great word. You’re a really good writer,” Crystal said, and she meant it. “Probably the best writer in the whole Service Area.” It was true.
“It’s a morality play,” Ericka said. “About dangers and stuff.”
Crystal spent the rest of the time allotted to art making trying to think of how she would do the raging inferno with sock puppets, frustrated by the pile of old socks, construction paper, and craft eyes in front of her on the table. She wasn’t as good at making puppets as Ericka was at writing plays and it felt unfair, that as much as she could recognize great art when she saw it, she was herself helpless to make it. The Shift Mother announced that time was up, so it was time to get back to work.
In an orange vest and regulation hard hat, Crystal went out to the dog area and used the shit claw to pick up stones of dog shit and deposit them in an enormous black plastic trash bag that she dragged around behind her.
The night was warm and the sky was clear with a sliver moon above them all. She gazed across the highway at the eastbound Service Area, their rivals, and wondered if their numbers were better than theirs this month and if they lost if they would be punished again. When they lost, the eastbound Area used homemade catapults to launch shit and trash at them and once, when they’d made a bet, they had to rush across the highway to do shifts in their glory hole.
Sometimes she asked Tom what it felt like to be on the highway. He was from another Service Area and so he knew. He told her he couldn’t remember exactly, but that it was like he imagined the waterslides in the pamphlet to be—a kind of rush, like blood flowing through an artery. The highway had given him a sense of hope and wonder about the rest of the world. But he’d only been on the highway for forty-three miles—enough to get from one Area to the other. He remembered farms like the ones he’d read about in the pamphlets that probably grew lettuce and tomatoes and the corn that all the other food was made from. The forty-three miles felt like an eternity and he could have stayed on the road forever—instead of watching cars fade in the distance, he was fading into the distance. It all felt like possibility, he said, like anything could happen. He’d seen billboards for restaurants he’d never heard of, ones they didn’t have at Service Areas like “Denny’s” and something called a “Holiday Inn” that he guessed was like Denny’s but better. Crystal wondered how he remembered all of this from when he was a toddler, but she liked his stories too much to question them.
Ericka had told her she’d been on the highway, too, and that she’d even been to a Holiday Inn, but Crystal didn’t believe her. Ericka had a boyfriend, a trucker she’d been flirting with she sometimes visited in the Trucker Lounge or by his rig. Lots of them did this—it wasn’t that big of a deal, sort of like the glory hole, but sometimes with better tips. Ericka told Crystal she’d gotten into a rig once at night when the Shift Mother and Area Father were asleep, when the Service Area was so dead only a few of them were awake holding down the Cheeseburger Stand. The trucker took her to a Holiday Inn a few exits west and in the parking lot he pulled out his penis and showed her his gun and she got so scared she jumped out of the rig and ran into the Holiday Inn where she hid next to an ice machine until morning when she found a ride back from a family she met at the breakfast buffet.
The breakfast buffet had a machine that spat pancakes, an orange juice fountain, and an enormous bowl full of hard, green apples. The Holiday Inn was like the hotels in a pamphlet, but real. She tried to describe the smell of the place, which she couldn’t quite do except to say that it was miraculous, like the freshest carpet in the world.
On her way back to clean up and get ready for the late shift riding the waxer around the Grand Foyer, Crystal walked along the thick strip of grass beyond the dog area, then cut across the road leading to the on-ramp to walk through the Gas Island before winding her way among the rigs parked for the night.
At the Gas Island, she saw a group of teenagers her age about to fill up their van. She stood behind one of the pumps and watched them light cigarettes and open beers. She couldn’t believe they would risk self-immolation, but they were so carefree, the girls’ ponytails flopping back and forth and the boys’ neckerchiefs blowing in the wind. When she saw two of the girls go into the Gas Kiosk, she followed.
Inside the kiosk, she waited behind the girls while they bought more cigarettes and Red Vines and Diet Cokes and Crystal grabbed a Diet Coke too, smiling sheepishly at the girls looking her up and down. Crystal took off her hard hat and began to remove her orange vest, even though she should have waited until she was safely in the main building.
“Hi,” she said. When the girls smiled and nodded to her, she took a risk. “You know you’re not supposed to smoke near the pumps. The whole place could go up.”
It’s not what she’d meant to say.
“Excuse me?” The tallest girl, clearly their leader, looked at her incredulously.
“Sorry, I was just wondering where you were going. You look like you’re having a lot of fun.”
Dan was working the Gas Kiosk and gave her a look.
Crystal followed them outside where they stood and lit new cigarettes. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere like most of the others who stopped there. She wanted to show them the puppet theater and tell them about Ericka’s play.
“Do you work here?”
“Yeah, inside mostly. I’m on break. I live here, too.”
“You live here? Like all the time?”
“Yeah, for as long as I can remember. Where else do you think Service Area workers come from?”
“I guess that makes sense. I hadn’t thought about it.”
“So where are you going? Akron?”
“We’re going to California.”
“California?” She’d once heard somebody say the word, but not for a long time. California sounded so much better than Cleveland. Their van was old and blue and the back was decorated with stickers that said stuff like “My Other Car is a Broom” and “COEXIST” in mystical lettering. On the dashboard were stuffed animals, roadmaps, crushed cigarette cartons, and empty fast food bags. The back of the van was packed to the roof with guitar cases and trash bags full of clothes. One of the girls twirled around in front of the van. The leader’s jeans were tight and the deepest blue and her hair was silken—flaxen, like Patty in Ericka’s story—and they all wore sunglasses even though it was dark. One of the boys had a beat up black leather vest without a shirt on underneath.
The shortest girl had sweatpants that said PINK across the bottom. Though she’d seen those plenty of times, she’d never seen anybody wear them so well. They smelled like smoke and gasoline and pine needles.
“There’s no such thing as California,” Crystal said, matter-of-factly.
“No such thing? I can show you right on a map. California is where dreams come true!”
The other girls had gathered behind their leader, laughing, but also looking at Crystal in a way that made Crystal feel small, as if she was about to be humiliated in some surprising way.
“What are you going to do there?”
The tallest one threw her hair back and looked up at the sky, stretching her arms out with her palms up as if summoning something. She paused for a moment and breathed the summer air and was the most beautiful thing Crystal had ever seen.
“We’re going to Hollywood,” she said. Crystal noticed a long mustard stain on the front of her blouse. “We’re going to be stars.”
Crystal was intoxicated. She counted the teenagers and looked in the van and there were plenty of seats for all of them. She looked back at the Service Area and then into the kiosk to see if Dan was watching, but Dan’s nose was deep in a pamphlet.
“Will you take me with you? I have money. I can pay for gas.”
The girls looked at one another, considering her question.
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “Why not?”
One of the boys was leaning on the hood of the van, picking at his fingernails with a pocketknife. “Seriously?” he asked.
“Yeah, seriously. It’s my van. My dream.”
Crystal couldn’t believe it was that easy. She looked at the on-ramp and the stream of taillights fading away and imagined what it would be like to be in the van, following the taillights instead of watching them disappear.
“Really?” Crystal asked.
“Yeah, of course,” their leader replied. “Where do you think I found these guys?”
She pointed to her friends and they nodded. “They were all lost, but then I found them.”
“They were delivered unto you,” Crystal said.
“Sure, something like that.”
“I just need a minute to grab my stuff.”
Their leader looked at her friends and laughed.
“Sure,” she said. “Go grab your stuff. We’ll wait right here. We still have to fill up.” She took a drag from her cigarette and pointed to the gas pump.
Crystal ran across the parking lot into the Service Area where she saw the Shift Mother with her clipboard standing in the lobby, looking at her watch. Sometimes the Shift Mother looked like a giant to her, like an enormous monster. This was one of those times.
“It’s about time,” she said to Crystal, but Crystal ran right by, ran across the lobby, behind the counter of the Cheeseburger Stand to the back room where she kept her backpack in a locker with her most prized possessions—a book about sock puppets somebody had left in the dining room, almost five thousand dollars in cash she’d collected in coins from the Mr. Do machine over the years and converted to fifties at the registers and then hidden inside a stuffed dinosaur, her notebook, and her lucky pen. She had one outfit that wasn’t a uniform she’d found in the parking lot, so she threw that in too.
She knew the Shift Mother would soon come after her, demanding she get back to work, so instead of going across the lobby, she ran out the back door and snuck past the dumpsters when she was hailed by the light of a special star shining down upon her. She squinted into the light, held her hand up to block it. The special star was as bright as a miracle.
“Fuck me,” she said. A baby had been delivered unto them.
She looked through the side door of the dumpster and inside she saw a nice baby, swaddled and bluish, whimpering softly as if on the verge of death. She knew that death would not take the baby, not yet; as long as the light of the special star shone to lead one of them to the newborn infant born on this very special night, it would be safely delivered unto them. She locked eyes with the baby, but she knew if she didn’t touch it, her scent would not imprint on the thing. A baby in the dumpster was not yet a real baby until it had been delivered. In the dumpster, the baby was still in transit. She knew the rules.
She looked back toward the Gas Island and saw the girls, still pumping, giggling and snorting, about to be on their way to where dreams come true. She waved her arms around to get their attention. If they had looked, they would have seen her bathed in the glorious light of a magical star.
“Fuck me,” Crystal said.
The baby began to whine, and then cry. It was hard to ignore, screeching like a trapped raccoon. She thought of Tom and the baby in the dumpster and how the special star had shone just for her and if she would just take the baby, its scent would imprint on her, and she on it, and she and Tom could raise it like she’d been raised, teaching the baby all about truck drivers, waxers, deep fryers, and the glory hole.
She heard the Shift Mother calling her name from the door of the main building and saw her new friends finish at the gas pumps. They began to climb into their van. Despite Crystal’s fear, they had not ignited a fire with their lit cigarettes and burned up in a tremendous conflagration despite what the Area Father assured them would happen if they smoked near gas pumps. She wondered what else she’d been lied to about.
She ran across the parking lot toward the van, calling out to them. She paused and looked back at the dumpster and could still see the light of the special star shining down on the dumpster.
Somebody else could bathe in its light.
“Hey,” she yelled to the van. “I’m coming.”
Her new friend revved the engine as if to taunt her.
“Wait for me,” she yelled. She wanted to be a star, too. She hadn’t even learned their names. The van peeled out from the Gas Island and raced to the on-ramp faster than she’d ever seen before.
“Fuck me,” she said. She dropped her backpack onto the ground and watched the van merge with all the other cars on their way to Cleveland, Toledo, and beyond.
The Shift Mother called her name and Crystal turned to see her across the parking lot with Tom holding the baby aloft for all to see.
“A miracle!” Tom shouted. “Look what has been delivered unto us!”
The light of the special star formed an aura around Tom, the Shift Mother, and the baby like a grand halo. Crystal, though she knew she would not get very far, slung her backpack over her shoulders and ran onto the on-ramp and toward the highway, toward the fading taillights of what was certainly the van, quickly becoming indistinct.
Rumpus original art by Trisha Previte.