On the opposite side of the road passed the third pickup he’d seen that afternoon donning an oversized American flag waving in the blackened air behind the cab’s smokestack exhaust pipes. Patriotism, he thought as stomach acid warmed his chest, muddied and misled. The giant flag, strung from a 4’’X4’’ wooden post, flapped in animated homage to masculinity more so than as a nod to the celebratory spirit that was supposed to linger in the air all week. The showy nature of love of country touted from a vehicle that simultaneously choked her air with black exhaust. The driver’s enthusiasm was not lost on Derek, but it had faded significantly since he’d seen the first two mobile flagpoles and heard the ego-enhancing horn honking from fraternal motorists eager to share in the this breed of patriotism.
He put his eyes back to the road ahead, reminding himself what part of country he was in and at what time of year. He had passed a produce stand advertising fresh fruit on signs painted with the country’s three trademark colors. Tents popped up in parking lots and roadsides to peddle cheap, barely-legal pyrotechnics. Streaks of green caught in the corner of his periphery as he accelerated. The corn harvest would be hearty, Derek thought, as the budding stalks in most of the fields he passed were probably already up to his waist. “Knee-high by the Fourth of July,” the saying went. It was the old indicator as to how sweet those kernels would be come August, and it rang in his head. It rang and rang, right there next to freedom.
He pulled into a truck stop diner where the interstate cuts under a back road that leads into town. The gas station next door was the only place open around the clock when he’d been growing up, which meant it had been the late-night destination for many a teenage drive. When the two a.m. taunt of fresh donuts tempted the taste buds of him and his friends, his car practically drove itself to the dusty lot. On occasion, their ears would bend to an insomniac truck driver leaning over the counter, spitting into his Styrofoam cup when one of the boys asked him a question or laughed at an anecdote. Their laugher at these encounters would crackle over the stereo as Derek drove back to whomevers house they happened to be staying that night.
Walking into the diner, he staved off a yawn. The mornings had been early this week and he was adjusting to the changing sleep pattern. He needed a pick-me-up and knew he’d find it at the bottom of a cup of coffee. The girl who took his order looked familiar. By the time she came back with the steaming mug, he had placed her. Kelly Decker. She’d been three years ahead of him in school. They had homeroom together. She was three months pregnant when she graduated. Derek thanked her for the coffee, immediately sensing the same pang of guilt he got the day she caught him staring at her torso from across the classroom. Although their eyes clicked for a moment, she didn’t seem to recognize him.
“You sure you don’t want a piece of pie or something?” There were hints of a twang in her voice. Life had taken a coarse sheet of sandpaper to the velvety ping he’d remembered hearing when she spoke. Like her voice, she seemed to have gotten rougher.
“What you got?”
She swung around and pointed at the case with the end of a pen she’d pulled from her hair. “The cherry and apple tart are fresh. Lemon meringue’s a few days old. Oh, and of course we have the red, white, and blueberry.”
“Yeah give me that one. America, right?”
She rolled her eyes. Derek could not determine whether or not the gesture was meant to be sarcastic. That she still didn’t seem to recognize him made him wonder at the significance of his homecoming. He wondered if he was still relevant, if he was supposed to be here. If he just going to be a stranger here, why not move to another place and take up being a stranger there? The notion left his head as soon as the plate of pie fell into his periphery.
“Don’t make junk like this a habit,” Kelly said as furnished a roll of silverware and placed it next to the plate. “I’ve been eyeing that waistline and it seems you like to keep skinny, frosh.” She winked she turned from the counter, her smile showing even from the back of her head.
That settled that, he thought as he unrolled the napkin. Derek Jordan was no stranger here.
The coffee and pie diminished. Parting words were exchanged with Kelly as he rose from the swiveling stool and wiped his hands on the front of his shorts. And so he drove. With senses on high alert thanks to the sugar and caffeine buzz he had on, he popped into second gear and pulled onto the interstate in search of another town he knew less well where he might find some roads to wheel around on for the rest of the afternoon. It had been years since he drove a car out here. He hadn’t realized before now, but driving was one of the most exciting pastimes in these parts. And it was necessary. He had become accustomed to stepping outside and just plain walking to wherever he needed to be. This luxury had its downside, of course, as the lack of privacy, silence, nature, and serenity were at times taxing on his reclusive mind. He had stretched himself to live in a place where commutes were not measured in miles, where he’d been forced to travel publically, to notice and to be notice. The contrast of moving back to where seclusion is the norm, both in housing and in transportation, was a sensation Derek welcomed but not without suspicion. He could not outline it in detail, but he had changed significantly since he last lived in these parts. This was a maturation of sorts, a shift in ideals or morals, which he was not aware of until he returned to the land from whence he came.
Though he had moved a couple of weeks prior, Derek was just now realizing these changes. It’s the driving, he reckoned, that brought on the contemplation. Not only had he not driven in many years, he had not driven these roads. Like a favorite movie re-visited years later, the dialogue returning in the mind before the actors even speak it, so the curves and turns unrolled themselves before him in a red-carpeted homecoming. The roads screened memories of past girlfriends, depending on where they lived and how often he’d driven to their houses. So did the music he played from the discs in the CD book that had remained unopened for half a decade. He caught his gaze in the rearview mirror and for a moment he saw himself as he had seen Kelly Decker when he first sat down at the diner, unsure of just who it was and where he had seen them before. His past was fired at him like buckshot from a 12-guage. The sting of unfocused memory peppered him with heartache and comfort.
“Get out of your head, Jordan,” he said aloud, forcing the audibility of his voice to jolt him from a meditative stasis.
He was off the main highway by now and onto one of less importance. Toggling the stereo from the mix CD he had made in high school to his old favorite FM station, he looked up and saw a large traffic sign that rested in a grassy area encroaching on the woods. Programmed on the sign was the message, “429 DUI-RELATED DEATHS REPORTED IN THE STATE LAST YEAR”. Derek slowly nodded at the message, the afternoon’s second pang of guilt poking hard into his gut. He may not have ever killed anyone, but his conscious was tarnished from a reckless past behind the wheel. There had been many close calls and for some reason none of them had ever been severe enough to wake him up. The immediate guilt he felt, however, lingered for only a little while. In a clearing just beyond the traffic sign was another message. It was a billboard advertising the region’s favorite local beer by way of an oversized bottle and glass, which both shot beyond the top edge of the rectangle’s border, next to a tagline that defied one to find a better tasting brew.
In the short distance between those signs, not more than 25 yards, lay a chasm of un-mowed, ironic hypocrisy. For the rest of his drive that on that July afternoon, his contemplations were focused there.