The Kind of Person You’d Meet at a SuperAmerica was written by AzraelBrown and published at Backwash on April 11, 2004.
The insides of Curt’s eyelids glowed brighter the tighter he squeezed them. The stall walls grew warmer under the touch of his outstretched hands. The world twisted and swirled for a moment, and Curt opened his eyes.
The tiles beneath his feet seemed a bit brighter than before, the walls seemed less decorated by graffiti. The toilet seemed cleaner, too. Curt had no reason to flush; he had just needed a solitary place to sit and collect his mind. With a twist of his thumb he unlatched the bathroom stall door and stepped out.
Curt spun a full circle, getting his bearings. He had long ago gotten used to the moments of disorientation. He no longer felt the confusion, though. It’d been so long, he was immune to the lost vertigo feeling. Curt knew where he was; he was in a SuperAmerica. The sinks had moved, there was an extra urinal, and he thinks the door opened the other direction before, but he was certain it was a SuperAmerica bathroom.
The water tingled as it flowed through his fingers. Curt ran his wet hands over his face and through his hair. The damp smell, sweet and a little sterile, coated his nostrils.
The bustling noise of the gas station snuck though the doorway as a young boy struggled to push his way past the restroom door. He stopped and stared at Curt a moment, studying Curt’s demeanor, before barricading himself in a stall. Curt grabbed the door before it had closed completely and excused himself.
Curt shielded his eyes from the sunlight flowing in through the wall of windows. He checked his watch, and noted the direction of the setting sun. North, south, east, west; Curt had his bearings now.
He walked over to the west end of the store, turned away from the sunlight, and let his eyes open and relax. Curt’s breathing slowed as he let the world fall out of focus. The soda coolers melted into a wall of polkadot colors, the shelves of candy bars became a smear of brown and pink. People became streaks, humanoid forms leaving trails of light behind them. To Curt, everything felt like it was both moving too fast to see and in slow motion all at once. His eyes crossed slightly, not quite enough to see double. His eyelids felt like they were about to close, he thought he might fall asleep if they did droop too far. Curt resisted the urge, and panned his head around to scan every part of the convenience store.
The world remained blurry until his eyes pointed towards the cash registers. Of the three workers, the older gentleman seemed to be in sharp focus. It seemed to Curt that he could see every detail of each hair on the man’s head, balding as he may be. People walked past, interfering with Curt’s gaze, causing it to fall back into blurriness. Once they passed, however, the man crystallized back into sharp contrast.
A slight movement to his left made Curt swing his head quickly, making himself a little dizzy. A fuzzy family finished their respite from the road and were vacating their booth by the microwave pizza machine. They stood as a boy emerged from the bathroom, handed the child a jacket, and headed towards the door. Their absence exposed the back of a person’s head in the booth behind. Each of the dark brown strands of hair seemed as thick as a man’s arm, clear and detailed in Curt’s mind. The woman turned her head, eyes following a passerby. Every wrinkle on her face, each line of her iris, each muscle twitch in her lips was magnified in Curt’s blurry eye.
Nancy looked back down at her Styrofoam cup of coffee, only to see her cup be joined by it’s sibling.
“Hi, how’ya doing?” Curt asked as he set down his coffee.
Nancy looked to her left and right, not really trying to see anything, but just to express her confusion at Curt’s self-invitation.
“I’m alright,” she said.
“Just driving through?” Curt asked. “Yeah,” Nancy replied. “On business,” she said after a confused pause.
“I’m just riding the bus,” he said. “Got no car, but everybody’s gotta see the world, right? I ride the bus, stop wherever I stop, then get back on. It’s not too bad, if you don’t mind a bus.”
Nancy started emptily at Curt’s cup.
“And I don’t mind busses,” Curt added after a time.
Curt turned and looked out the window at the flow of traffic. In the parking lot, all the pumps were attended by a jellybean assortment of colored cars and trucks. Some nose-to-nose, some end-to-end, depending on which sides the gas caps were on. Beyond that, the interstate roared by. Headlights were on about half the vehicles, despite the fading sun.
Nancy studied Curt, looking for any signs of a sociopath. He seemed calm, very relaxed for the kind of person who’d impose themselves on a stranger at a gas station. Let alone a man introducing himself to a strange woman – it invited condemnation, the assumption that he were a rapist or worse. To Nancy, Curt just looked like a clean, average young man, like all the ones she’s ever seen at a gas station. Usually they’re the kind behind the counter, or stocking the chips. For a brief instant she told herself she should talk to men like this more often, but decided against it, figuring it’d only invite trouble.
“So, what sort of business you in?” Curt asked, still gazing out the window at nothing in particular.
“Just…” She paused, then took a sip of coffee. “Just work,” she added.
“Work? Like…” Curt trailed off, meeting her eyes.
She stared back, not answering.
“Where you on your way to? What town?”
Nancy’s eyebrows frowned slightly, but she made no move to answer.
“Not sure, are you?”
Nancy stood, leaving her coffee behind, and walked quickly to the restroom.
Only one of the stalls was available. The occupied stalls held a woman talking loudly on a cellular phone, and in the other a young girl whose feet couldn’t touch the floor. Nancy closed the stall door and leaned against it, holding it shut.
Her hand felt cold against her forehead, and she ran it across her head, flattening her hair. When it reached the nape of her neck, she grabbed her hair into a ponytail, on the slight suspicion she might throw up.
Nancy became dizzy, but she didn’t fall. The world became quiet, and the voice on the phone only inches from her disappeared.
She let her hair go, and rubbed her eyes back into focus. The door squeaked loudly as she swung it open. The stall next to hers was hanging open and empty. The cellphone woman had disappeared – and wasn’t there another stall? Nancy remembered seeing a child’s shoes under a door, but there were only two stalls in the bathroom. It must’ve been another bathroom, the one she stopped at for lunch.
She had been on the road since four in the morning, and according to her watch it was 2:00pm, so Nancy decided she was just over-tired. She told herself to stop for a rest more often next time. She’d said that to herself before, but she hadn’t listened. This time, she promised, she would listen. Driving while so worn out could be a danger, she reminded herself.
Nancy flushed the toilet out of habit, then washed her hands for the same reason. She exited the bathroom, and stared at the children in the school playground across the street.
“Here you go,” a voice said, very close behind her. An arm reached around in front of her, holding out a cup of coffee. The brim had a scalloped crease of fingernail marks around the circumference, just as Nancy does to all of her cups. She turned to see Curt, Still holding out her cup as he drank from his own coffee.
“Oh,” she said, pretending she’d asked him to hold it for her. “Thanks.”
“What time do you have to be to your work-thing?” Curt asked. “You don’t want to be late.”
“I’ve got time,” she said.
“How far do you have to go? Speed limit’s only 50 here.”
“Not far, next town over.”
“Well, then, why don’t we sit back down,” Curt offered. Nancy smiled and turned towards the booth she’d left only minutes ago. Then she spun around twice more, unable to see booths of any kind.
“Is there a problem?” Curt asked with a smirk.
“I…I know you had sat down with me, then I went to the bathroom, but…”
“We’ve got to talk….what’s your name?”
“I’m Curt. You’ve gotta get over the confusion, now, otherwise people will think you’re crazy.”
Curt started walking, and Nancy followed. He led her to a bench outside, cement and wood, a seat designed to withstand the elements. For mid-afternoon it seemed chilly, and Nancy was glad to have hot coffee in her hands.
“How long have you been driving?” Curt asked.
“Just this morning,” she said.
“No, where’d you stay last night?”
“Hotel, in Devils Lake. Drove all day yesterday, too.”
“And before that?”
Nancy opened her mouth to answer, then stopped. Her mind was counting back the days, the places she’d stayed. She was unsure, now, of when the last time she had been anyplace she’d call home, anyplace she’d had to be. Where did I live, she wondered to herself, and where was I going? How could this happen? Nancy started to panic.
“How can I not know?” she blurted out.
“Stop, now, relax. Look at your driver’s license.”
Nancy looked around her feet, and did not see her purse. “Hold on, it’s in my car.”
As she walked away she glanced over her shoulder at Curt. He reclined lazily, as comfortable as he could get on the cement bench. Nancy grabbed her purse and carried it back to Curt.
“See, this is me.”
“Good, good. Don’t lose this, Nancy. I lost mine long ago, stolen. It doesn’t pose a big problem, but you’ll forget what’s on it.”
“You’re not in the linear, real-world real stuff anymore, Nance. Can I call you Nance? I think I new a Nance once, long time ago.”
“My brother calls me Nance. My brother! I remember him…”
“It’ll be spotty, you’ll remember and forget, depending on where you’re at. Just relax in it, you’ll be fine.”
“In what? What’s the it?”
Curt had never heard a name for It, it’d just always been the way things were.
“You ever see that show Quantum Leap? That’s the only way I know to explain it, and everybody’s seen that sometime. They remember it, seems to stick with them.”
“I’m somebody else now?”
“No, you’re always you, it’s just the place. Your car is always here,” Curt pointed over at the Greyhound bus parked at the diner, “my bus is always waiting, but you won’t need it. It’ll make things worse, driving around.”
Nancy stared, clearly not understanding. Curt paused patiently, accustomed to the reaction. He sipped his coffee and watched the playground empty. Children screamed and pushed and laughed as they poured back into the school halls, completely unreceptive for any more learning in the day.
“I’m stuck at SuperAmerica, and you are too now. We might not ever see each other again, but we might.”
“Stuck? Why not get back on the bus?”
“I’ll always end up back at a SuperAmerica. Never the same one, then I go to another. You get dizzy in the bathroom?”
She sat still, like a statue, to express an affirmative.
“You can move, now. Best to do it in the bathroom, they’re the most similar between stores, but you can do it in the eating booths, or by the pumps – ever start to fill up your car, then notice you haven’t even opened your gas cap, or go in to pay and have them tell you that you haven’t started the pump? Same thing. You let your mind wander, and your body wanders. One crazy guy I knew had theories on dimensions and space and stuff…things about flattening the skin on an orange, and drawing lines between the tips….There’s spots where everything’s exactly the same everywhere, and you can go there. Anywhere. Anyplace that things are the same.”
“You’re fucking crazy.”
“But I’m right, and you’ll see it. Go drive, go somewhere.”
Nancy grabbed up her purse and stomped to her car. She knew she hadn’t paid, but the pump was reset to zero already. When she turned the key, the gas gage slid up to “F”. Another click further, and the car roared to life.
Nancy drove through the afternoon and into the night, avoiding any SuperAmericas. She filled up once at a Conoco, but paid at the pump and didn’t go inside.
She crossed a state line without paying attention to which one it was. The highway signs changed slightly, and the highway patrol cars looked a little different, but the road remained the same. Nancy passed three or four SuperAmericas before the glow of her ‘Low Fuel’ light threatened the choking death of her vehicle. She relented and pulled into the SuperAmerica fuel island. A Greyhound bus idled across the street.
A figure on a bench near the air hose stood and sauntered over to Nancy’s car. Curt held out the distinctive cup of coffee, fingernail-gouged around the rim. Steam rose from the cup, only half full.
“Why…you only refilled it halfway?” she asked.
“Same cup, same coffee, time didn’t pass for me. I’ve been doing this long enough, I can go wherever I want.”
Nancy shivered in the cold night wind. She jumped when the pump clicked off, indicating a full tank.
“Let’s sit in the car,” Curt offered.
Before Nancy could ask anything, as they settled into the seats of her Celica, Curt began to rattle off a list of his knowns. Credit cards always work, ATMs always work. Time moves funny; you won’t have to sleep unless you want to. Hunger, too: If you want to eat, you can, but if you don’t, it’s not necessary.
Nancy’s car will always be there, the way she left it. If she sets anything down other than in the car, it’ll be gone. Sometimes. Sometimes, if it’s in the ‘universal place,’ it’ll follow too, but don’t count on it. Nancy will learn how to tell others like her, if she only wants to see them.
Above all, she needed to relax. She now had no place to be, nothing she had to do. A place was given to her, and that was her only limitation.
“But, what do I DO?” she demanded.
“Whatever. Doesn’t matter. You get to decide. Lots of times we get jobs at the stations, just to keep from getting bored.”
“What do YOU do?”
“Just this,” Curt said.
Nancy stared at him, waiting for elaboration, then rolled her eyes in exasperation.
“This, I find new people, and teach them. Keep you from going crazy. You almost went whacko, you kept driving from place to place, made you hard to track down. Don’t feel so crazy anymore, do you?”
“No….maybe crazier, I don’t know. You found me?”
“It’s the one thing you got, the magic thing,” Curt said, feeling philosophical. “Like, you decide you want a job, you find one of the spots. You sit there, and you pray to go to a store that’ll hire you. You open your eyes and you’re there. Wherever that is, but it’ll be one for you.”
“Just like that?”
“That’s it. I don’t need nothing, have no place to go, so I sit on the can and think, ‘where’s a lost person?’ When I show up, I look around, and I find them sooner or later. Can’t go too far, they’re a regular now.”
“A regular what?”
“The kind of people that seem to belong in a gas station. You’ve seen them, right? You’re one of them now, a kind of person you always run into around here. If you get out for a while, go to McDonald’s, go to Denny’s, go to the laundromat, some of us are stuck there, too. You’ll see them, and they’re always around. Seems somebody’s always stuck somewhere.”
Nancy sat quietly, digesting her new learning.
Curt continued, “If you’re stuck here, just relax. Get a cup of coffee, start talking to someone. Sit and read the paper. Stare at the cars going by. World’s a relaxing place, if you don’t have anyplace to be or anything to do.”
“I can pick anywhere I want to go,” Nancy said.
“Long as they’ve got a SuperAmerica by. What do you want to go?”
“I’ve never been to an ocean, what with the mountains and the plane ticket cost.”
“Let’s go, then.”
“Just like that?”
Nancy looked around, to be sure nobody was watching. She wasn’t sure what they’d even see, if they WERE watching, but she didn’t want to look crazy anyway. Her eyes drooped shut, and she felt herself start to slip into dreaming. Sparkly lights flashed in the darkness of her eyelids, and all she could feel is the faux-leather grip of her steering wheel. Her head felt like she was walking with her eyes closed, even though she knew she was seated. The flowing motion inside her head stopped, and she opened her eyes to a sunlit day.
Nancy opened the door and stepped out of the car, but then quickly stuck her head back inside. The passenger seat was empty, but there was a cup of coffee in each of the front-seat cupholders. One with fingernails around the rim, the other clean and empty.
She reached between the seats and retrieved her sunglasses. Nancy put them on, removed them, then bent them back into wearable form before reapplying them to her nose.
The horizon was a dark blue line, stretching from the north to the south. Between the trees, she saw whitecaps breaking on the rocks. Her watch read 7:30am, and the sun was behind her, so Nancy deduced that she was looking at the Pacific. Somewhere in northern California, maybe Oregon. Lots of trees on the hills. As the pump gushed fuel into her car, Nancy turned to the person refueling across from her.
“Hi,” she said. “Where you going to?”
A Greyhound bus was driving off from the post office a block away.
“Family reunion,” the fellow fuel pumper replied, “first time the kids get to see grandma and grandpa since they were really little.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“You from around here?” he asked.
“Kinda, but not really,” Nancy said, staring at the sailboats along the coastline.