Yesterday, touring Alabama after a morning well-spent writing, we had to stop for gas. I didn’t notice until the needle was in the red, and we were rocketing down a kudzu soaked two lane highway. My windshield was painted yellow from driving through so many plants in full-on orgy mode. A gratuitous number of plants, already, making more more more more more.
Lydia: Look! A gas station!
Me: Yes, but it is Tiger Themed. Creeps me out. I read Prince of Tides too many times. I look at that and I think, Callanwolde! Callanwolde! even though I know it’s because the owners are Auburn fans.
I hold down my iPhone button to get Siri to tell me if there is another gas option close, but Siri tells me she is not available. Siri doesn’t even exist yet, I realize as we exit. We have driven into 1982. If there is a grocery store here, it will be The Pig. If we turn on the radio, we will hear Cyndi Lauper.
We pull off onto a narrow, crumbling road into a piece of Alabama that is still inside my childhood, the asphalt so old it is a soft, chalky-pale grey.
The tiger place has a threatening, stripey awning and smells strongly of diesel outside and boiled peanuts inside. They carry RC Cola. They carry Moon Pies, and not with the kind of Hipster Irony of the Ace store near my house or the nostalgic Old Timey fond remembrance of the Cracker Barrel we passed earlier.
These Moon Pies sit in dusty glory next to other old and dusty snack cakes, with no subtext at all. They are as sincere a product as the motor oil or the Snickers.
We wait by the single locked unisex bathroom for a worryingly long time. We hope no one is pooping in there, especially since we have each separately tried to enter, rattling at the door. I always feel so sorry for anyone who has to poop in a gas station toilet and comes out to find a line. Pooping in a gas station toilet implies some kind of extremis. Perhaps the person does not have a home. Perhaps they are very very sick from eating wrongful meats. It is somehow a shameful thing, I feel bad when the person has to exit and walk past me, as if I am witnessing a human downfall.
More time passes. Now we hope no one has died in there. It finally occurs to me: We need a key.
A woman with bangs pulled directly from 100 photos in my high school yearbook chews a cud-sized gum wad and regards us phlegmatically.
Me: Is there a key to the bathroom?
Her: Yuh-haw. S’ryechere.
I take the key and walk off and Lydia, who was raised in Detroit and who now lives in Virginia, says in earnesty, “What language was that?”
I say, “Alabanglish.”
I speak Alabanglish. Fluently. Yaw-huh is yes, the natural opposite of Nuh-uh. S’ryechere lands cleanly in my ears as, “It is right here.”
The bathroom is all brown and khaki and browned-out orange: Lino from the seventies, a khaki-colored toilet and a sink stand in harvest gold and brown. There is a condom machine on the wall with three varieties. The first boasts that is has “Hundreds of rubber stubs, for her pleasure!” The second promises to “surprise her” with one of four exotic flavors. Including Blue Raspberry. I do not know a woman who thrills to the idea of hundreds of “rubber studs.” I know no woman who wants to be surprised by a Blue Raspberry penis. The third has some sort of terrible attachment that looks in the illustration like a foamy hedgehog or some other rounded, odd, headless animal. It’s like a wad of spongy spikes near the open end. I do not see how this would be effective at making sex more pleasant OR contraception.
They all cost 75 cents. With a CENTS sign, you know? The c with the line it in it. In 2015, nothing costs cents. Even if they do, they are marked with a dollar sign and a decimal, like $.75. Right now, for example, I cannot find a cents sign on my 2015 keyboard to show you.
A printed sign on the wall says: Please wash hands after using the bathroom or any other probable contamination.
I do not want to think of what the other probable contaminations are, but it is hard not to, what with the sign right by the condom machine.
Not four miles later, the kudzu and the trees abate, and all at once we are in the Alabama of The American Now.
There is a Shell station, a Krystal Burger, a Kroger store, even a Home Depot.
Two middle school-aged teenagers sit on the bench outside the grocery, peering deep into their phones, waiting for a mother. One is wearing Chucks. They have choppy layered haircuts, definitively un-Mulleted and current. They are probably texting each other or settling some argument via Google.
It is disorienting. Here we are, and yet old Alabama is alive in shady hollows, secreted in pockets all around us.