Inspired by true events. An account of four weary travelers on their journey from Southern to Northern California up the I-5 corridor and their stop at a diner somewhere along the Grapevine.
“I’m going to check out that gift shop,” he said, rising from the table.
“Finished?” I asked. He had only eaten half of his hamburger.
“Yeah.” I wanted to join him.
My mother read my mind. “Maybe we should all leave,” she pleaded. “Let’s get the hell out of here. We can pick up food in a drive thru. Get back on the road.”
“You want to?” I said, eyeing my mother.
As soon as we rose to our feet, the wait staff was pushing their way toward us. Jessica, Paul, and the old woman, all carried a plate for our table.
“Here you are, ” Jessica gently set the plate down before my mother, “Chicken, no onions.” A then a nod from Paul. Now to my sister, “Pizza with tomato sauce, no garlic. And for you, ham and cheese, no mayonnaise.” A nod now in unison from our delightful wait staff.
“Enjoy,” Paul said, in groveling, muted voice. He lives, I thought.
Looking down on my sandwich, I see an indentation in the shape of a fingernail. “I can’t do this.” I imagined my sandwich dissected and manhandled, the white cheese swapped out for yellow, still coated with some thick, white glue sauce. “I don’t want this.”
“Excuse me?” Jessica says, tilting her head.
“I don’t want this,” I whispered to myself. “How hard is it, for Christ’s sake?”
“What honey? I can’t hear you.”
Maybe it was her feigned, childlike innocence, but I wanted to blame her. I wanted to break her.
I lashed out at her, “How hard is it to make a sandwich? You have enough time to do your little dance. Can’t you make a simple sandwich? Is it really that hard? How hard is it?”
Anger engulfed me and I seized the plate and dropped it, smashing it into a thousand tiny shards. The sandwich lay on its side, unwanted and speckled with dirt. All eyes in the diner fixed on me in stony silence.
Jessica gasped, cocked her head. She was tugging at her hair, smiling slightly. She couldn’t hide that from me. With calculated force, I swept my arm across the table, sending the I.Q. game and its contents crashing to the floor. Yellow pegs rolled in every direction.
Trying to regain her composure, Jessica spatted, “Was that really necessary?”
Several employees flooded the area, scurrying on their knees trying to undo the damage.
I heard a thin wail from across the diner. Recognizing Alex’s voice, I rushed over to the gift shop with my family trailing behind.
Various trinkets and souvenirs lay strewn across the concrete floor. Magnets, hats, glass figurines, bumper stickers, snow globes, stuffed animals, picture frames, all touting a different location and theme. A few were labeled with the Road House, but there was also the Cliff House, Lake Forest Cafe, and Rosie’s Steakhouse.
Alex stared wide-eyed out the window, his body tense and shaking. “Where is it?” he yelled. “Look, look, look,” he pointed and stammered.
We stood by his side, transfixed and motionless. Staring out the window, we saw nothing but a barren wasteland. A howling wind erupted, blowing tumbleweeds, rocks, and sand. There were no cars. No fast food restaurants. No freeway. Everything, gone.
Stunned into a speechless stupor, we watched the vision in horror. Choking for breath, I could not form any words. We began to cry, tears streaming down our face.
Jessica and her crew caught up with us, and waited in the gift shop entrance. Slowly, Jessica inched her way closer to our line at the window.
She peeked over our heads and said, “Uh huh. Looks like you’re staying with us for a while.”
“What? No way. We’re out of here,” I said.
“You can leave, but you’ll be back. You won’t get very far. They never do. They always come back,” she reasoned.
“We’re stuck here forever?” Alex asked.
“Not necessarily,” the old woman piped up. “Some of us are here longer than others.”
“Sometimes people, they go back. They’re only missing you see. Your best bet is try to work really hard here. Food can be quite good. Sorry, today some of the food you got was old. Our cook was sleeping today.” Jessica was rambling now. Paul looked to her to stop.
This was just a normal turn of events for them. “Maybe with you guys on board, Jessica can start doing the cooking.”
All I wanted was to be on a freeway, full of cars.
“Here you go,” they supplied us with white and green uniforms. “Let’s show you around.”