This will be the first in a series of vignettes from our recent vacation. For those coming in late, we just spent a week on the Cumberland Plateau, in and around Monteagle and Sewanee, Tennessee. This particular event occurred on Saturday, on the drive back home, as we were crossing ::melodramatic shudder:: Arkansas...
The parking lot was in poor shape: worn, patched, then eroded further. Its pitted, uneven surface jounced the car as we rolled across it, and puddles from the recent rain splashed as we drove through them. The gas pumps were deserted, and the only vehicles in sight were a tractor-trailer rig parked way off at one edge of the lot, and two or three smaller vehicles around the back. The sign in the window said "OPEN", but there was nobody in sight. If it hadn't been an emergency, we would never have stopped here; it looked like the opening scene to every horror movie ever made.
Unfortunately, when you get on the highway and your eight-year-old says, "I know my timing is really bad..." Well, you stop at the next available toilet, no matter how it looks. It had taken six miles -- six full minutes -- to get here. I didn't know how much time we had left.
So my beautiful wife edged the car into one of the spaces beside the door, and Firstborn and I got out. We made for the nearest door, which had a sign on it: "This is a SMOKING FACILITY. No one under age 21 is allowed inside." I opened the door and motioned for Firstborn to follow me in.
It wasn't a gas station; it was a dive bar that shared the same building, and it was dark, smoky, and warm. The sign wasn't kidding; the air inside was positively soaked in cigarette smoke. The only occupants were a couple sitting at a table in the back, smoking. If they were the sole source of the smoke in the room, they must have been at it for hours -- or possibly days. I said, "Y'all got a restroom we could use?"
The man nodded towards the door which connected the bar to the gas station store. "In there. It's kinda dark, though. We're having trouble with the power."
"Dark, we can handle," I said. "Thanks."
Me and my big mouth.
So we crossed into the store, and obviously they were having power trouble. The overhead fluorescents were on... but only barely. They were faint glowing beams on the ceiling; most of the light came from the windows. I wondered about the drinks in the refrigerated cases, but I didn't stop to look. We crossed to the hallway that led back to the restrooms; it was darker than the main area, but we could still see well enough to pick out the door for the men's room.
It was almost completely dark inside. There was somebody coming out just as we came in; he'd been using the screen of his phone as flashlight. I decided to follow his example, and we stepped inside. Firstborn wasn't visibly perturbed by the idea of stepping into very-nearly-pitch blackness; possibly he was too desperate for a toilet to care. We let the door swing shut behind us.
The only light was the overhead fluorescents, and they were just faint glowing streaks on the ceiling. If we stood there long enough, our eyes would probably adjust enough to see by their light, but for the moment they were essentially the only things visible. I couldn't even tell what size of room we were in. I raised the lighted screen, and Firstborn said: "That looks like a potty."
We opened the stall door, and I took a moment to make sure that the seat was clean and the dispenser had toilet paper in it. Then I let the door swing mostly shut, and stood outside it with my arm stuck through the opening so Firstborn could see. He went about his business, and I waited. After a moment, something rattled, and Firstborn said: "The toilet paper isn't attached too well."
This didn't surprise me at all. "It's okay," I told him. "Just finish up." I still couldn't see anything around me, and I was having flashes of both the Silent Hill bathroom scene and the elevator ghost prank video.
Finally, he comes back out of the stall... but, just as we've taught him, he has to wash his hands. Our eyes have kind of adjusted (though not nearly enough, yet) and we can see the sinks. I take a moment to wave the screen around the room: two stalls, two urinals, some sad-looking walls, the two sinks, and a pair of mirrors with indecipherable script written along the bottom edges. It looks like the stuff that taggers leave behind.
So we step back out into the hallway, and find the paper towel dispenser on the far wall. Once his hands are dry, we head for the car... only there are probably three guys standing in the store, and even out here it's dark enough that I can't really make out their features. They're all smoking, of course; I speculate that probably do it just for the momentary relief provided by their lighters against the darkness, but I don't say anything out loud. Firstborn navigates between them fearlessly, heading back the way we came in: through the bar. "This way, Firstborn," I tell him. I indicate the door that leads directly outside. "Go towards the light."
One of the guys chuckles. "Go towards the light," he repeats -- not mockingly, but like it struck him funny. Probably just a bunch of perfectly ordinary guys... you know, the kind who enjoy hanging around in extremely dark and smoky buildings in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the day. I grin at him, radiating friendliness like it was some sort of social armor.
Firstborn and I go outside, and get in the car.
"So, how was it?" asks my wife.
I make a little comme ci comme ça gesture. "Eh."
She puts a hand on her seatbelt. "Can I go in now?" she asks.
"No," say Firstborn and I, in concert.