At the Travel Oasis off I-80, Jesus washes Peter’s feet in the bed of a rust-eaten Chevy. They are carved together. The cab is empty. A mile off, near Elkhart, Indiana, a storm huffs upward like a wave, ready to spit lightning, rain, and wind. Ready to beat cars below, scatter travelers inside.
The outside wall of the Travel Oasis is swirl brick, the pattern of sandstone or port wine cheese spread, with tall mirror windows. An American flag, ripped long between the middle stripes, flaps on a pole along the front walk. A high school dance team in matching charcoal sweatshirts and mismatched neon hair, yawn and amble toward a minivan wordless, carrying Chex Mix and Monster energy drinks. A trio of Greek women in yoga pants, beaded shirts, all dark eyed and long curled hair, talk with their hands and perfectly done nails. Travelers cross the lot. Some stop to observe Jesus and Peter in the Chevy, to admire their dark grace. Most do not.
A Mennonite elder leans on the wall besides the entrance. A black stallion horse hair hat rests on his head. His beard grows down from his chin, orange and white like a falling fire. His pants are short, pulled tight around his waist. He stands next to an ashtray, a squeaky metal trapdoor on a pedestal made of small smooth stones. He looks out. The statue is big, he notes, they are just bigger than normal people. A yellow strap is pulled across Jesus’ back and around Peter’s waist. They aren't going anywhere but it feels like rain.
The reflective green sign on the highway advertises Burger King and Pizza Hut Express, which is only part true. The Burger King is open for business but the Pizza Hut is just a dead hole, a blighted-out space, filled with metal chairs and dusty restaurant equipment. The food court is clean enough but smells like ancient gasoline and the blood under fingernails. Local news plays on a muted television mounted high. Some crane their heads with mild interest. Pixelated masses of orange and red move across the weather map. Some kid, just out of college, walks back and forth, as the masses slide and twist behind him.
The screen cuts to an anchor, wearing a pink blazer, brown skin and straight hair. Her mouth moves, eyes locked to the camera. Closed Captioning, disrupted by the storm, rolls out chunky, white text within black boxes: NEWS TODAY INNN DECADE OLD**-LD CASE KHEART CNTY DETECTIVES EXHUME REMAINS JANE DOE, DSCOVERD HUNTRS 1996 - DETECTVES NEW EVDNE%% DNA BRING CLOSER TO FINDING VCTMS IDENTITYY. The camera cuts to archival VHS footage: a field in winter. Men in navy blue windbreakers inside a grove of trees wrapped on all sides with flapping yellow police tape.
Few watch the screen. The janitor, white hair and grey skin scuffs his work boots across the floor. All day, all week, all year he moves through bodies. Legs and shoulders, glossy driving eyes and open silent mouths, slumping toward the bathroom, sitting in the stalls, washing their hands, buying burgers and Gummy Bears. Eating, excreting and returning to their cars. He has smiled at folks in the past, spoken niceties, is not afraid to making himself known. Though he is sometimes embarrassed how his jaw waggles, skinny on the side where the tumor was. But he has his own friends. This is just his job after all, and these people won’t be staying long. However, he thinks, leaning on his broom, watching from the food court: that man just outside the bathroom hallway has been here for some time.
Excuse me? The man says as people enter and exit the bathroom. He bloats in the middle and has stickly limbs. A diabetic turnip. He sometimes leans on an aluminum metal cane, its foam handle brown and cracked from use. Thick glasses slide down his nose.
Excuse me, can I ask you for help?
A biker wearing a shaved head, wraparound sunglasses, a motorcycle t-shirt cut free of sleeves and open almost to his waist, scoffs. A young father in sweatpants and an AC/DC t-shirt carries his yapping toddler, a boy with long blonde hair and shiny eyes, quickly past to avoid the interaction all together. A large Asian family sharing food from Styrofoam containers, taking up four tables in the dining area, disregards him when he walks over. Excuse me, can I ask you for help? They don’t allow the question. The man keeps smiling and asking. His combover coming undone as he shakes with each gesture of helplessness, his clothes loosen, his teeth loosen, his eyes grow wilder in his head. He’s in and out like static and barely exists.
The janitor walks outside to get away from him, bringing his broom, though he doesn’t intend to use it. He slides atop a picnic bench in an enclave to the side of the building, where wind and trash get trapped and swirl lazily together. The air is thick. He takes off his glasses and polishes the cracked lenses on the bottom of his shirt. On the highway, cars, trucks and motorcycles fling around a big corner, fresh off the Chicago Tollway Bridge. Before that they came through Gary. Where wires hang like a network of scars, where the carcasses of steel mills and stacks blooming smoke like true death line the road.
The janitor watches blurry vehicles race into the storm, then looks back at the lot. He gasps. Who are these giants in the bed of that pickup? He puts his glasses back on. No. His mind clicks back into place. He cranes his head. Even from that distance, he can see the swirl in the woodgrain on Peter’s shoulder, he can see the streak and shine in the varnish of Jesus’ hair. It could rain any minute. He looks back inside the building where the shadows of travelers mix, morph and move behind the mirror glass. Stats, the ones and twos from the days baseball games dissolve and are replaced on the screen in the food court. He does not see the man who was coming undone and asking for help. The janitor touches the dip in his jaw.
Behind him now, facing a brick pillar, a woman rocks and prays clutching a black book, no bigger than a cassette tape. Sleeves and a knit cap cover her. Her dress is striped, bright pink, blue, and purple. The pillar is pocked with ash where cigarettes have been put out against it. A few feet away the young father in the AC/CD t-shirt scolds his son for grabbing cigarette butts spilled out of an ashtray tower. The praying woman does not open her eyes. Her lips move and offer only a hum. Roots of words, but not words.
The son yaps and yaps, wearing a pair of his father’s boxer shorts, cinched with a hair tie, (because he peed his pants in the car) and golden sparkly shoes. He laughs as cigarette butts, some smeared with dark red lipstick, are pried from his fingers. The father shushes the ash off his child’s hands and they stroll up next to the picnic table where the janitor is sitting. The son starts to jump off the curb into the lot. The father snatches him under the armpit—Seriously?! You do not walk into the parking lot alone!
The father smiles embarrassed at the janitor, rolls his eyes and picks up his son. Lightning flashes across the sky, like a god ripping the page. The father winces, a horror dream playing in his head. On the road, rain covering the windshield faster than wipers can push it away. Hydroplaning, being sucked under the sharp middle of a semi-trailer. The father imagines their life inside a twisted wreck, like a beer can stomped off center.
Across the highway, where an identical structure once stood there is nothing, just leveled ground and sleeping dozers. Are they remodeling this place too? The father gestures to the oasis.
It won’t be here much longer, the janitor says between drags, a taste of rotten fruit welling in his mouth. All these on I-80 are being remodeled. Some big corporation, bought up the contracts, gonna be arcades and showers and computer rooms, all sorts of stuff.
Huh. The father looks at the sky. Looks like it’s going to piss down.
The storm grows higher, black, green and grey, murky like lake water.
Is it goooinnngg to storm? The son asks.
Nah, the janitor says, we never get it that bad here.
The father and son walk toward the front of the building. The janitor drops his cigarette on the ground and crushes it out with his boot. Across the highway the lone Caterpillar pushes dirt across the lot. The janitor imagines the new place: Starbucks and little churches, floors so clean you can see the bottom of your shoes as you cross them. Instead of Pizza Hut voids they will have Sbarro’s and vegetarian salad bar buffets.
The Mennonite elder climbs into the driver’s side of a fifteen-passenger van. It rocks some. He settles. The van was painted beige originally, or its original color had worn off over the years. The advertisement of its previous purpose was scrubbed poorly from the van’s side, block letters picked and scraped until they were unrecognizable, the ruins of words. The elder cranks down the window and takes off his hat, his beard ripples in the wind.
The woman with the colorful dress clenches the book in her hand so tight her knuckles grow light at their points. She passes the janitor and the father, who has set down his yapping boy and is lecturing about parking lot safety. Her eyes are not closed but her mouth still moves in small ways, the reverberation of prayer. She comes to the passenger door and the elder reaches across and pushes it open. They share a smile. She settles. They pull away.
Suddenly a Bronco with a loose muffler cuts them off speeding across the lot. The man coming undone, asking for help, cries wildly with a long open mouth behind the wheel. The windows are closed. No one can hear him. The father nabs his son up, who is walking at his side. The Bronco, the man inside still crying, slams on its brakes and swerves, barely missing them.
Are you fucking crazy?! The father yells as the Bronco squeals away, toward I-80. The father is angry and unsurprised, knowing something like that would happen, something like that is always happening. See?! What’d I say?!
He’s naughty, the son says.
The janitor walks over from the picnic table holding his unused broom, the Mennonites roll out of their spot and idle past the father, who is shaken and cussing. The Bronco muffler blares as it accelerates onto the highway into the storm. They all watch him speed away. They wonder what he needed so badly and where he was going to find it. The ripped American flag flaps faster and faster on a pole in front of the building. Nervous birds laugh and swirl West, away from danger. The janitor scuffs inside. The van creaks away. The father holds his son, swearing as they walk toward their car.
Jesus and Peter are still strapped in the bed of the truck. Jesus is shirtless. His hair falls over his face, falls like a canopy over Peter’s feet, like a dead willow, to be cut down. Peter’s leg is exposed, his right hand holding his knee, the other clamped to his thigh. The look on his face is pained, he winces as if Jesus is pulling a shard of glass from between his toes.
The storm inhales in the sky.
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