The gas station looks and feels like the only building and source of light in hundreds of miles. Consequently, every bug, roach and other creepy crawly also within a hundred miles has descended upon its glorious beacon in the darkness. Remember that scene in the Temple of Doom with all the bugs in the hidden chamber? Well this is the gas station equivalent. It is disgusting but better than the rest-stop infested with tiny frogs we had experienced hours earlier. Jeff offers to pump the gas I offer to pay the cashier. As I carefully crunch my way across the carpet of cockroaches to the store I yell back to Jeff:
‘What state are we in anyway?’
‘Arkansas I think.’
comes the reply. We had been driving for a long time.
I enter the store and take a quick look around while I wait for Jeff to finish pumping the fuel. We were definitely in the South. In a very non-ironic and unintentionally kitsch way, the store offered all manner of t-shirts, baseball caps and mock military style caps emblazoned with the confederate flag. I am tempted to buy a ‘Southern By The Grace of God’ T-shirt for the hell of it, but realise the connotations of wearing it back in Chicago, or indeed back in the North East of England would limit its use to less than its $10 price tag. I see Jeff wave that he has filled the tank, I approach the cash desk.
I don’t think it would be unkind to say the woman behind the counter probably experienced mobility issues due to her enormous girth. I suspect when she went out to eat she would simply ask for ‘everything. Deep friend ‘everything.’ She was also sporting a five o clock shadow I would have been proud of.
‘Pump number one please.’
Why I stated this I do not know, we were the only customers on the forecourt. She looked at me confused, I was used to this by now, especially in your less touristy areas where a northern English accent probably sounded as foreign as French.
’Fifty four dollars and twenty nine cents hun.’
She spoke with a slow and deliberate drawl, as if each word required extra time to come out while she thought about the next one. I fished out my wallet and foolishly asked:
‘Do you accept traveller’s cheques?’
‘Travellers cheques, you know American Express ones?’
Further confused look with a hint of suspicion.
‘Ameri-can Express Trav-lurs checks?’
‘Yes, you know, travellers cheques.’
I take one out to show her, it clearly blows her mind. The tension in the air increases.
‘Where you from? You Canadian?’
she asks accusingly, sliding the travellers cheque slowly back across the cash desk. I briefly consider explaining the concept of travellers cheques to her but it seems like a futile effort. I get the feeling she suspects I am somehow trying to rob or con her, her accusing look is both sinister and terrifying. Fortunately I have sufficient cash in my wallet to cover the fuel.
‘I’m from the north of England. Is cash okay?’
offering three $20 notes her way. She looks at me suspiciously for a while before taking the money and ringing the sale through the register. As her grubby hand counts my change out she looks at me again like she is trying to solve a puzzle.
‘Are you sure, because you sound awful Canadian?’
I’m a little un-nerved by this point and just want to leave as soon as possible.
‘Err, yes, on second thoughts I am Canadian, her on holiday, sorry I mean vacation. Anyway, thanks for your time, goodbye!’
I turn on my heels and exit the shop and briskly pace back to the car, paying little regard to dodging cockroaches this time. Across the tannoy I hear the terrifying;
‘Hun, y’all forgot your change!’
I didn’t even look back, I just got in the car and pushed the lock down. Jeff looked at me perplexed.
‘We’re definitely in Arkansas, just drive, I want to be somewhere else.’
We eventually reach a Motel 6, so called because it costs $6 a night. Jeff has been driving for about 8 hours so we decided to stop for the night. The beds have no sheets and we are apparently sharing the room with more cockroaches. $6 suddenly feels like a rip-off.
I am a stranger in a strange land.