by Trent England
A family of displaced and sleepy Kansans pulls into the only gas station with its lights on.
Beverly stays with the girls because they aren’t old enough to be left alone, so she straightens up and turns on the radio, yawning.
A cricket pauses its chirping when Rick walks in and wakes up the attendant. He looks at a map under the glass counter, tracing his finger along the state highway, wondering aloud where they are. The attendant asks if he means literally or figuratively. Rick buys coffee, candy bars and a day-old newspaper. He asks the man how far until they get to Bismarck, and the man says maybe a couple of hours. The cricket resumes its chirping when he leaves.
He pulls the SUV around to the side of the gas station, and while the engine idles, he and Beverly warm up and make quiet talk. The heat from the coffee rises out of the foam cup, and she faces her window when she talks to him. She draws a circle on the foggy glass, two dots for eyes and a smiley face, then she wipes it away with her sleeve. Outside, it’s cold and visibility is low, and the February snow is still on the ground.
The car comes to a halt, enough to wake up Beverly and the girls. They ask what’s happening, and Rick holds a finger to his lips and points ahead.
The fog on the road swirls around the deer, partially hiding its figure. The animal, illuminated by headlights, blinks and looks at the windshield. The girls ask if it’s a deer.
“Yeah, it is,” he says. “Probably lives out in these woods.”
They want to know if it’s a girl deer or a boy deer.
“That’s a girl deer. She’s called a doe.”
They can see her breath as she returns to the woods. Behind them, a car’s tires screech, and the driver rolls down his window and throws an aluminum can at the doe.
When the sun comes out, the girls wake up and say they need to pee. A green and white highway sign says the next rest stop is in sixteen miles, and he asks them if they can hold it for ten minutes. He presses down on the gas and the car lunges past a sign that says Welcome to the West Region.
The rest stop is full of people darting between their cars and the restrooms, rubbing their hands together. Only the smokers remain stationary. The vending machine that spits out a paper cup of coffee or hot chocolate is broken, and Rick instead buys a bottle of Coke, twisting it open with a pair of red hands. He’s wrapped in a ski jacket that’s over ten years old, and there’s a square of duct tape that he replaces annually where it once caught the end of a ski pole and the nylon ripped.
He leans against the wall across from the bathrooms. Next to him, a display case of brochures for campgrounds and river rafting and trailer safety. A man from the parks department wearing a hunter green uniform and a hat that says Sparky Sent You stands and gives directions, telling people which exit to take for the Lewis and Clark museum.
Back on the highway, the girls look out the window and see plains and distant trees, and ask where they are. Rick says North Dakota, and they ask what’s in North Dakota. He tells them North Dakotans, and the girls don’t hear what their mother says under her breath.
A billboard for a sporting goods store shows a deer head surrounded by camouflage. They pass other billboards, for churches and retirement communities and fashion surplus warehouses. The oldest daughter sits forward and asks if he shoots deers.
“Sometimes. But not all of them.”
She wants to know which deers he shoots.
“Only the ones that have targets painted on them.” He lowers his voice, looking in the rearview mirror. His younger daughter is absorbed in a book that tells her when to turn the page. The computer voice sounds British, and she holds the thing to her ears, giggling. “A big, orange target. Looks like a circle with a cross painted over it.”
There are signs for the next exit promising restaurants and gas stations, and he drives the car through a parking lot shared by big box retailers and chain restaurants. People stand on a grassy median holding signs for a hobby and craft store that is going out of business, waving at drivers with thick gloved hands. Yellow and black neon signs that say Blowout Sale. Everything Seventy-Five Percent Off. Everything Must Go.
Rick and Beverly and the girls eat at a buffet that is meant to resemble home cooking. There is wainscoting on the walls and above it, almost covering the whole restaurant, are pictures of families. In the middle of the restaurant is a stone hearth, and a booth is set up where families can pay fifteen dollars to pose in front of the fire, their picture hung on the wall along with everyone else’s.
Rick gets up twice for a steak and baked potatoes. The girls dot their plates with samples of macaroni and cheese and fried chicken and gummy bears. And whenever the girls leave to refill their plates, Rick and Beverly discuss the terms of their separation.
The subject has to be broached carefully. After some time passes, he says into the rearview mirror, “You all going to miss me?”
The girls don’t hear him. One is reading a book, the other is asleep. Beverly reaches back and shakes her knee until she wakes up.
He asks again. “Are you all gonna miss me?”
They ask why he has to go.
“It’s a long story.” He coughs and pounds his chest. A throat congestion. “One day maybe we can-”
Beverly cuts him off and turns around. “You girls know what a wandering eye is?”
They say no.
“It means that your dad had his eye on something here.”
The oldest daughter understands this. She asks if he wanted a job here more than he did back home.
“I guess so.” His voice is weak and he takes a drink from the Coke bottle in the cup holder. By now it’s warm, and he spits out a little bug that had crawled into it. Reaches into the console for the plastic bag of cough drops and unwraps one.
She asks if he didn’t like his job back home.
“I guess not,” he says. He looks over at his wife who is flipping through a magazine so quickly the pages snap like periods at the ends of his sentences.
The distribution center is massive, with hundreds of trucks and loading docks and wide entrances and exits onto the main road. Men and women walking around with big cups of coffee and clipboards, some holding two-way radios to their ear.
“What do you think? Are you impressed?” he asks the girls.
They ask if those are the trucks he’ll be driving.
“Yeah. They’re called semis.”
They ask what he’ll be delivering.
“Same as I did back home. Frozen chicken and stuff.”
They ask if he can still come back home.
“I’m gonna drive that one right there.” He points to one emblazoned with a photo of fried chicken in a paper-lined basket surrounded by a bounty of mashed potatoes and gravy and dinner rolls. “I’m going to drive it straight up to the house and give you two a ride.”
He hugs the girls, kneeling down to their height. He smells like cough drops and his face is rough, and he says he wants them to eat their vegetables and drink their milk and brush their teeth every night. He tells them to be home when he calls every Tuesday and Thursday.
On the way back, the oldest daughter sits in the passenger seat and rocks her legs, singing along with the radio. Then she stops, turns around and climbs into the backseat. When her mother asks her what’s going on, she tells her that she saw a deer in the road. The daughter is on her knees looking through the back window.
“That wasn’t a deer,” her mother says. “It was just a big old blanket.”
Then something shiny and gold catches the daughter’s attention, and she crawls over the seat and sorts through a cardboard box. Sticking out of the box are trophies. Two of them are in the shape of gloves and one looks like a star. Etched into the plate on each of them is the name Richard Wheeler.
She pulls out a gold necklace with a cross on it and puts it around her neck and sorts through everything else. There is an autographed baseball, a shot glass that says Florida and a stack of photographs bound by a rubber band. Held between two of the trophies is an envelope that says 2006 Taxes.
Beverly swerves to miss a deer lying in the middle of the road, but her daughter doesn’t notice. She climbs back to the front seat and tells her mother that she thinks her dad left some things in the car. She shows her mother the necklace, and asks if she can have it.
This is a version of a story I wrote over five years ago, but was never published, called “Refractory Period.” It was about a man who drove a pickup through Kentucky and Tennessee, his kidnapped daughters in tow. He wanted but hadn’t been given full custody. When he stopped to fuel the tank and walk inside to pay for the gas, the girls disappeared, and for several days straight, he kept returning to the scene, looking for them in the woods and accusing people of having taken them. He was hot and angry and drunk, and when the police came for him, his truck was towed to the weeded yard behind the fuel station where it “resigned to its fate as a parts car.”
That last line was what I liked the most, and since it didn’t even make it to this final version, I thought I’d like it to be read here.
Trent England’s work has appeared in various literary journals, and he lives in Salem, Massachusetts, where he writes full-time. He can be found on the web at tengland.com.