by Nola Killpack
It’s 11:28 on December 31st, 1979. I’m standing in a gas station off the interstate somewhere near the border of two states I always forget exist. It’s the kind of dark where you can still see just about everything, but the shadows are elongated and opaque, thinning out into a filmy mist where yellow lights illuminate two pumps and a sign for half off Tang. I’m leaning against my rusty Vista Cruiser, shivering in the empty middle-America cold, wearing nothing but an old tan corduroy jacket I bought for $3 in a town whose name even its inhabitants forget. The tank is filling up painfully slow. I tap my foot against the asphalt. I just need enough gas to make it to the next motel, ten miles down the interstate, where I’ll lay awake for hours, trying too hard not to think in order to fall asleep.
It’s New Year’s Eve and, while I’m not one for tradition or sentimentality, even I recognize how pathetic I must seem, standing in the cold in a too-thin jacket, running from a feeling I can’t explain, chasing something I can’t put into words. It’s the start of a new decade, but to me that marks nothing but another ten years of driving through every nowhere place in America, slowly eating away at my savings account with the hope that when I no longer have enough cash for gas or questionable omelets, I’ll have to stop this aimless wandering. I’ll settle down and become a resident of one of the thousand no-name towns in nowhere county and take orders at a drive-through exactly like every other drive-through in this godforsaken country. Shoot, I’m thinking again. Stop it. Remember the gas. Yes, that should be enough.
I step inside the convenience store to pay and somehow it’s colder inside these frosted glass windows, so dirty they make every bag of chips and every can of soda in these four walls feel tainted with their grime. I examine each candy bar, reading the names off in my head, focusing on the way the syllables feel on a quiet tongue, trying not to think. Twix. Snickers. Baby Ruth. Milky Way. 100 Grand. Heath. 100 grand is a stupid name for a candy bar. Doesn’t it just remind people how much mediocre milk chocolate surrounded by some generic filling sucks compared to $100,000? Good, I congratulate myself. Candy bars. That’s a safe thing to think about. So, I take slow steps to the cash register, across vinyl tiles, past pretzels and beer and Cheez Whiz, and I wonder if Mars realized that by calling their candy Snickers, they were insinuating that their bar is so embarrassing you can’t help laughing at it. See, I tell myself, this is the kind of stuff you should overthink.
It’s 11:35 now. Twenty-five minutes until everything stays exactly the same. There’s a woman behind the cash register with short dyed brown hair and blue eyeshadow. I say hello, but I don’t smile because some silly part of me hopes that, like me, the start of a new decade makes her feel trapped inside the walls of her life, just like she’s trapped inside the four walls of this store, just like I’m trapped in this gas station until I can muster up enough quarters to pay, just like I’m trapped on the road until… forever, I guess. She doesn’t smile either. Twenty-four minutes until 1980, and I’ve finally found someone who’s as stuck in life as I am, who understands that smiling is the last thing a guy with ghosts of crows’ feet and a thin, beige corduroy jacket needs on a New Year’s Eve spent off the side of a highway, his departure long forgotten, his destination nowhere. And as I look down at my palms slowly stacking quarters between the lines that wander aimlessly across ashy, forgettable skin, no beginning and no end, I feel something quiet between me and this woman who doesn’t mind being alone on New Year’s Eve, manning a convenience store whose only customer is another forgettable man with muddy eyes and a scruffy beard. I can tell without looking that her head is tilted to the side, eyes staring out of greyish windows at the flat horizon. Maybe she’s trying to pick out shapes in the stars, like I do when I’m trying not to think (it never works though, the shapes always turn into memories and then I can’t stop thinking.) My quarters are stacked now. She puts them in the register without counting them. Her eyes drift back to the window. I put my hands in my pockets, slipping fingers through holes in beige corduroy. She’s wearing a yellow cardigan. It’s the kind of yellow that makes me wonder why anyone thought it would be a good idea to make anything in that color yellow.
“Have a good night,” I say, hesitant. I don’t want to go back outside. It’s so much easier to slip back into thinking when I’m alone, staring at the way my brights burrow into the dark or curled up deep between sheets that I’m sure have seen too much. Maybe this woman reminds me of someone who was once hard to leave, but is now too easy to never come back too.
“You too,” she responds. We don’t smile. Her eyes are sad under blue eyeshadow. They’re the kind of empty color that doesn’t really have a name. Her eyes drift back to the window. I pick up a 100 Grand, pretending I might buy it, wishing it really did have a hundred grand inside, hating capitalism for deceiving us so.
It’s 11:45. I pick up the Milky Way, because we’re in the kind of nowhere where the stars are so thick you can see the outline of the galaxy. I hand the woman a quarter and unwrap the candy bar. I don’t pay attention to the taste, just the crinkle of the plastic wrapper on ashen hands, just the way the caramel sticks in my teeth. I stare at the woman’s yellow cardigan and don’t think.
It’s 11:47 and I’m never going to see this woman again, so I ask her if she ever tries too hard to not think. If she ever can’t stop not thinking. She tilts her head at me, and I guess it’s an odd question so I tell her to forget it.
“Have a good night,” I say again, because I don’t really want to walk away.
“You too,” she whispers from a mouth that must feel trapped, never getting to decide what it says, perpetually stuck under the shadow of a nose and two colorless eyes, scanning stars for epic stories in the sky, watching the road for someone else left alone on New Year’s Eve.
I stuff the Milky Way wrapper in my pocket and walk down the center aisle, squinting my eyes as I try so hard not to remember another woman with dyed brown hair and blue eyeshadow. A woman with sad eyes that stared off into the distance, shielding themselves from the emptiness surrounding them. There’s an ad for Marlboro’s, and I don’t think about the smell of smoke on sheets. Smoke at the breakfast table. I don’t think…
It’s 11:55 and the car’s still on. I get in and close my eyes against the warmth. I switch on the radio…
“It’s almost time for the ball drop here in New York City, are all you folks at home ready to ring in–”
I change the station. I’m not a folk at home and I’m not ready to ring in anything. Then I pull out of the gas station parking lot, accelerating quickly onto the interstate, where I’m the only person empty enough, lost enough to drive this stretch of nowhere.
Somewhere between a gas station and crappy motel, 1979 switches to 1980 and I sit in my Cruiser, blasting Led Zeppelin with the windows down at 20 degrees, not thinking. And nothing changes.