As I approached mile marker 43 in Missouri I subconsciously curled my foot around the top of the pedal. My 2012 Honda Accord sunk towards the ground and purred in a struggle to match my desired pace. The car ripped by the exit too fast to read the signage. Suddenly I blinked a few times and noticed my white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel. I moved my right hand down to the 3 o’clock position, revealing the dial gradually descending from 110. I shook my head and let go of my bottled-up breath. It was then I remembered.
I’ve repressed this story until just that day, and perhaps for good reason. I was on my way to my home state of Kansas to visit family. It was a long trek from Chicago, but one I had grown accustomed to over the years. I’ve had mostly fond memories along Route 66. I’ve given the famous lengthy highway a couple cars, an incalculable amount of gas, and probably a month’s worth of hours at this point. But in return it has gifted me some of what I’d say are Earth’s greatest sights, time to think, solitude, and an expansive list of states to add to my map of visited American states. But as I said – mostly fond. Despite all these great memories and familial visits, it only takes one horrid experience to stain it all.
In the summer of 1986 I was only 23 years-old. I had just graduated from Illinois State and landed my first consulting job in Chicago. As anyone might be, I was ecstatic to leave my home in Poughkeepsie, Kansas to explore one of the great American cities. I was going to move in with college friends, live away from family, and begin my life as a self-sustaining adult. But also, like many, I missed my family dearly and would take as many trips as I could to see them. I packed a week’s worth of clothes and filled my car to get on Route 66 for the fourth time within a year of graduating.
I made sure not to have too much coffee before I left to avoid rest stops as much as possible. I wanted to make the trip in relative lightning speed since the journey was already totaled at around ten hours. But despite all my efforts, my gas tank would usually need servicing before my bladder and I couldn’t fill the tank with the remaining coffee. The gauge dipped too low for comfort and the blaring yellow light came on. I sighed and began watching the right side of the road for the next rest stop. I saw a stop coming up that advertised gas, but I realized I just as much could use something to eat for lunch. However, given the little gas I had left I hadn’t much choice than to take that next exit at mile marker 43 in Missouri. I flicked my blinker and checked my mirror before slowing towards the exit. Sometimes I wish I had just run out of gas in the middle of the road – gotten pulverized by an oncoming vehicle. It would have proved a kinder fate.
As I removed the gas cap I felt my stomach violently roar. Food was suddenly not as much an option as I thought. While my car helped itself to a fine serving of gasoline I went inside the station to find the clerk and ask for a recommendation. If only we had Yelp in 1986. The clerk was nowhere to be found, but there was a man scratching his long gray beard squinting at the cigarettes behind the counter. I cleared my throat, but failed to gather his attention. His eyes remained fixed on the Camels. “Excuse me, sir,” I said.
The man’s fingernails paused, then slowly dropped to his side. His head swiveled towards me. “Me?”
I laughed nervously. “Yeah, sorry. I don’t mean to bother you.”
“Not at all,” he said.
“Great. Well I’m from out of town and I was wondering where I could get a bite to eat around here.”
“To eat,” he repeated, beginning to ponder. “Hmm, well – oh you know there’s a great place right up the road from here. Nelly’s or Suzie’s or – hell I can’t remember. But it’s a great diner, open 24/7.”
I wasn’t sure why it mattered what the diner’s hours were since it was just past noon, but I nodded and smiled. “Thank you, sir. I really appreciate it.”
“You just make a left and then go straight for around seven miles and you should see it on your left – or no right.”
“I appreciate it sir,” I said again, attempting to leave.
The man grunted and returned his gaze to the cigarettes. I left, removed the fuel pump from my car, and closed the cap. My stomach grumbled again. My head felt slightly weak, but I was probably being dramatic.
I took a left out of the gas station and drove straight as the man had instructed. Along the road was a mechanic, an old rusted Ford and a few trailers where people moseyed around outside. As I exited the lot I began to question whether the man at the gas station had half a clue what he was talking about. He couldn’t remember the name of a single restaurant nearby and couldn’t be sure of the direction or side of the road it was on. The only thing he seemed to know for sure were its hours of operation – 24/7.
I wasn’t fully aware of how far I had gone down that road, but it seemed to be at least 5 miles – maybe 10. However far I had gone, I wasn’t getting any less hungry. The next restaurant I see is where I’ll eat, I told myself.
Like a mirage of a lake in a desert, a restaurant finally appeared – Frank’s Route 66 Diner. It wasn’t even a female’s name like the man had suggested. I pulled into the lot on my right, shaking my head. To my surprise the lot was near full – probably the heaviest concentration of cars I had seen all day. Though his description and directions were poor, it seemed I’d stumbled upon the correct diner. How many could there have been in such a small town anyway?
I managed to find a spot near the back of the lot and ventured inside. To an even greater surprise the diner was nearly empty. The only other customer in the establishment was a young man, maybe 30 years-old, sitting quietly with a newspaper and a coffee at the corner booth. I didn’t immediately see any waitstaff, so I sat myself at a table near the center of the restaurant. I was most likely in more of a rush than the man in the corner, casually sipping his chilling coffee. He peered up from over his newspaper, but dipped below it once more when we made eye contact.
Eventually the kitchen doors burst open and a large woman waddled through. She had a hooked nose with large nostrils and short curly red hair beneath a hair net. The faded-chromatic doors swung back and forth behind her. “Hi honey, can I help you?”
“Yes,” I replied anxiously and with a forced smile.
“I do apologize sir, I hope you weren’t waiting too long.”
“Don’t worry ma’am, I just arrived.”
She whipped a pad from her apron and unclipped a pen with her sausage fingers. “Well my name is Susan and I’ll be serving you today. Can I get you started on something to drink?”
I noticed her long chipped finger nails stained red at the tips. I assumed it was the remnants of nail polish. Susan sniffled harshly as she awaited my response. “Just a water please,” I said. I craved a coffee, but I did not want to stop for the bathroom six more times before Kansas.
“Great, I’ll be right back,” she said. Susan glanced towards the man in the corner as she shuffled towards the kitchen.
He put his hand up and let the newspaper sag to the table. “Excuse me,” he said meekly. She didn’t hear, so he said it a little louder. Susan then snapped out of whatever world she had gone off to and turned towards him. “How much longer on that cheesesteak?”
“Should be out in the next ten minutes,” she replied with a snarky smile. He widened his eyes on his shaking head before dipping back into the newspaper. The doors swung again as Susan barreled through them.
For a few moments I debated internally whether I should talk to the man in the corner. I didn’t have a newspaper like him, so I concluded I had nothing better to do. “How long have you been waiting?”
He dropped the newspaper in a hurry and glanced at his wrist. “At least thirty minutes, but it could be an hour. I’m starving, how long does it take to serve their only customer?” I could quickly tell he was dying to vent his frustrations.
“You know I thought there would be more people here because of all those cars in the lot,” I replied.
“Yeah, me too. It must be some car show they’re hosting. Quite the turnout though, huh?” he snickered.
I heaved a forced laugh with him and nodded. “Say, what’s your name?”
“Ron,” he said. “You?”
“James. James Harris,” I replied.
“Where are you rolling in from James? You don’t look like the typical resident of a town like this.”
“I used to be from Kansas, so not too different. But this time I’m from Chicago.”
“That toddling town,” Ron cracked.
I managed a genuine laugh this time. “Yes, I suppose.”
“What, you never hear Sinatra? Come on I’m not that old.”
Just then, I remembered the song, but it felt too late to believably tell him I’ve heard it. “Anything interesting in the world today, Ron?” I said with a nod towards the newspaper.
“Other than the wait time at this place – let’s see…” he glanced at the paper again for a refresher. “Did you see they found that Picasso that was stolen a couple weeks ago?”
“I didn’t know one was missing,” I confessed. I was briefly envious of him for reading about such a classic heist.
“The Weeping Woman,” Ron said. “That’s the name of that – I’ll tell ya what – I’m going to be the weeping man if I don’t get this cheesesteak soon.” He stood from the table, palms flat against it in support. “I’m going to go back there myself – you think I should?”
I was almost afraid to disagree. I hadn’t known Ron long enough to implore patience. And anyway, I wanted fast service almost as much as he did. “Sure, if it’s been as long as you say.” He slid out from the booth and stormed through the swinging chromatic doors to the kitchen – that was the last I saw of Ron.
And then – I was alone. I sat in the diner, twiddling my thumbs, watching the smoking trucks passing by the window. Minute after minute slugged by in pure silence. I looked down at my own watch and noticed it was ticking about a 4th its regular speed – I had no metric for what time it was any more. At around what I thought to be minute ten, I wondered where Ron was. Had he stopped at the bathroom on the way back to his seat? Had he just become fed up enough with the wait and left? That’s the conclusion I wanted to settle on.
And so longer, I sat. I sat and I squirmed and I itched and I twiddled. Eventually panic set in. Where was he really? I hadn’t seen anything except trucks and beat up Chevys pass by the diner’s front window, and Ron drove none of them. My heart leaped and churned. My watch ticked ever so slowly, my flinching fingers began to sweat. All I had asked for was a water – how long should that take? An urgency overcame me, a certain duty to the man I had just met.
I stood from my table and traced his footsteps towards the swinging silver doors. It was then, I finally sympathized with his quest for answers from Susan and whoever else was in the back.
Carefully, I placed my fingers one-by-one on the door. It was surprisingly cold to the touch – the window fogged from the other side. I couldn’t immediately see through. I was scared to push it open, scared for what I might see. Rubbing my sleeve against the square window, I tried to wipe the condensation for a clearer view, but to no avail – it was on the other side. I pressed my nose up against the window anyway, peering through the hazy –
Suddenly I was in a daze, pushed back against the black and white tiled floor. I felt I had lost a couple seconds when I fell to the ground, but I couldn’t be sure. Looking up, I searched for my assailant. The chromatic door swung to a close behind her. It was Susan, the waitress. “Oh heavens, I didn’t see you there!” she exclaimed. Her hands fretted along with her, looking as though they were arguing over what exactly to do. It resulted in a jazzy twist.
I stood on my own and rubbed my forehead. “It’s nothing, really.”
“I have your glass of water,” she stated – holding it out before me. The sides were wet from the collision and only two-thirds of the glass was still full.
I feebly reached for it. “Thanks,” I began. “Where is Ron? Is he still back there?”
“Who?” she questioned. Her eyes told me she was genuinely puzzled.
“That man – the one with the paper in the corner. He said he was going to come back there and I haven’t seen him since.”
Susan pondered for a moment, her big red-shining lips pushed up together. She then gasped and smiled. “Ron, that’s what his name was? He just left not 5 minutes ago, said he was in a bit of a hurry.” I hadn’t known Ron long, or known him much at all, but I had thought he was the type of man to at least tip his hat to a friendly stranger on the way out. It slightly offended me, but perhaps I mistook him for a more outgoing fellow. “I was going to come to your table, but I suppose I can take you here,” Susan cackled. “Are you ready to order, dear?”
I scratched the back of my neck and thought, humming involuntarily as I tried to remember my decision. I couldn’t specifically remember it as my mind was still dazed. Instead I said, “I’ll just take a cheeseburger and some fries.” Susan vigorously jotted down my order, jabbing her pen into the pad. Her green eyes nearly lit the page on fire. Her motions seemed as if she were attempting to stab the pad to death. “Thank you,” I said.
“Coming right up.” she turned back towards those chromatic doors.
I ventured back towards my table and took a peek at the parking lot outside, remembering Ron’s comment. “Are y’all having a car show this weekend?”
Susan graciously spun her head around towards me with a tilt and a wry smile and said, “No, dear.” And with that, she disappeared into the kitchen once more.
No? She must have misheard me. Maybe she didn’t know. Or worse – maybe she heard me perfectly fine. And so, I sat alone again, waiting for what felt like years for my food. After a tough first year transitioning to city life, I didn’t much mind the empty restaurant. I somehow felt less alone than I did around nearly 3 million people.
Paying more attention to the detail of each car, I saw they were varying from 30 years old models to ones that rolled out last year. There were a couple Plymouth Reliants, a lone Toyota Cresta, a Chevy Blazer or three, and so on. Some of the older ones looked in poor condition, and not just a couple dings and torn leather seats: the oldest few cars had weeds growing around their tires which had sprouted out from underneath the cars through the cracked pavement. A large number of them rusted around the rims and hoods of the car. If this was a car show, it was for the least maintained cars I’d ever seen. I couldn’t help but wonder – where were their owners?
But the one that concerned me the most was the Volkswagen Type 4. That car was at least 14 years-old and one of the least reliable vehicles I’d ever heard of, yet it sat in perfect condition in the diner’s parking lot. Besides a little dirt on the windshield and a few twigs on the roof, it was brand new – it didn’t even have a license plate fitted.
I spun around towards the table in the corner to tell Ron about – right, he was gone. His newspaper rested open upon the table, as alone as I was. I needed something to do, and by all evidence, he wasn’t coming back. I stood again and approached his table for the newspaper. I wanted to read more about this Weeping Woman he spoke of. I gently folded the newspaper shut and picked it off the table. What I saw next made my stomach lurch – his keys. His car keys were still on the table underneath the newspaper.
I dropped the paper back down on the table, covering the keys again. I considered running, but I needed answers. Those chromatic, steamed doors ominously hung on their hinges ahead. Each step I took was deliberate, cautious. I was ready to turn and run the second I saw Susan approach. I’d forgotten all about my hunger – my stomach was too full of fear to care.
Only about a foot and a half from the door, I rested my fingers upon the center of the right-hand door once more. This time I didn’t bother pressing my nose against the glass – I knew I’d see nothing. I breathed in, then thrusted my arm into the door, swinging it open before me. Something dripped loudly on the other side. I entered the kitchen and the doors swung behind in me. Susan was nowhere to be seen. I took a left turn and –
Rusted meat hooks swung from the ceiling, chained in a line for as far as I could see. And upon most – a plastic covering wrapped around each body at least one thousand times. I couldn’t immediately make out each shape due to the copious amounts of plastic, but assumed they were cows or pigs – I hoped. I pushed one bag aside as I navigated through the white-tiled room, I couldn’t pinpoint the direction of the dripping.
The next bagged meat sack hung before me. This time the plastic was wrapped around it more crudely. I reached for the top of the wrapping and pulled on it. The bag squealed and screeched as I pulled down. It finally began to tear, so I pulled harder. Then I felt something like rough fur against the back of my hand as I tugged. The plastic continued to crinkle and tear.
I flinched and yanked my hand out from the plastic. Was that a –
“Heavens, you scared me,” Susan cackled from behind me.
I could hear the dripping now, the loudest I ever had. I whipped around to face her. Her red lips curled in a devilish smile beneath her large panting nostrils. I looked down at her apron to see it saturated in blood, dripping, thwacking the floor between her thick legs. Susan’s green eyes twinkled with satisfaction as she held the neatly stacked burger before me, her bloody handprint on its side. “Your burger is ready.”