I can’t hold it against Indiana, what happened that early summer night.
Not so long ago.
Ten years. The kid was still in his pumpkin chair, but facing forward in the back seat of our white rental car and paging through Dr. Seuss books while my wife, Gina, and I entertained him on the long road from South Carolina to Missouri with bad renditions of show tunes.
By eight-thirty, we’d all had enough.
We had reservations just across the Indiana border at a name-brand hotel that I don’t see many of these days. Back then, they were more-or-less reputable, if not exactly luxurious.
When we parked the car, I noticed we were one of only three cars in the lot. But it didn’t click that anything might be wrong. Like I suggested above, we all were tired.
Had I been more alert, I might’ve noticed that at least a third of the security lights were dark, while the ones that were lit flickered faster than the swarms of June bugs around them.
Thick with bugs, thick with humidity, the night was a sour kitchen sponge in need of a cleansing rain. I licked dust from my lips.
Inside the motel, the girl behind the counter stood beside a No Smoking sign with a butt dangling from her lower lip. She seemed a little drowsy while checking me in.
Weren’t we all?
The first real warning bells went off when I read the back of my key card.
A message like I’d never seen before, and have never seen since —red, rubber stamped on the white plastic in an empty white space.
“Management not responsible for theft. Not responsible for accidents. Not responsible for altercations. Suggested curfew: 10:00 p.m.”
Back at the car, I showed the key to Gina and told her the room number. “Let’s get something to eat first? The boy’s tired,” she said.
“We might end up out past curfew,” I said.
Navigating from the parking lot, I was too busy searching the horizon for glowing restaurant lights to notice the old blue Ford pickup that followed us out.
Deciding to fill the tank with gas before we ate, I drove past a sit-down chain restaurant toward a dimly lit station.
I parked beside an island of two old pumps and the blue pickup slipped in behind me.
Two young guys with ball caps and sleeveless T-shirts the pulp stories call wife-beaters. I wondered why they called them that.
Inside the car I could see my hungry, young son pull a crabby face as Gina tried to console him. We should’ve stopped earlier.
“Hey smart-ass,” said one of the guys from the pickup. The one behind the steering wheel. Backwards cap, gray Fred-Flintstone stubble field on his lower jaw. “What’chu say to me, smart ass?”
Talking to me, but I didn’t make eye contact. In fact, at just that moment, I became intensely interested in the nozzle of the pump, still connected to my car.
In bad movies, the tourist-victim is so stupid, he’d stand there and finish filling his tank.
Or worse, he’d start making conversation with the guys in the truck.
“Hey, I’m talking to you, white-Toyota man. I thought I heard you say something to me.”
This wasn’t a movie. This was real life, and I wasn’t stupid.
Or even the slightest bit drowsy.
Just like that, everything I did took on an odd clarity—almost like it was in slow motion.
I disconnected the hose, hung it up on the pump, turned, stepped into the car, and told Gina to look straight ahead.
I drove smoothly forward—not fast, not slow– and wheeled deliberately back to the street.
Once there, I sailed past the restaurant, ignored the turnoff to the motel, swung a left-turn onto the interstate and, once securely in my lane, punched it –putting as much distance between me and the blue pickup as I could.
“Hey, relax,” said Gina. “What was that all about, anyway?” We were two miles down the road before I realized the kid was crying.
I had lost sight of the Ford just after we passed the motel.
That didn’t stop me from moving on across the Indiana plains.
“How far to St. Louis?” I said. “Maybe call ahead and make a new hotel reservation?”
“We’re not going back?” said Gina.
I thought about the run-down status of the motel—the flickering lights, the warning message on the key card. The way the blue pickup purposely targeted us.
“No, we’re not.” I said. “You can call them later and check out officially. Tell them we had a family emergency and had to leave.”
Which was true.
“You didn’t say,” she said. “What exactly was that all about?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
But I had some ideas.
And even if the boy was crying. And even if we were tired.
I knew we were better off than if we had stayed in Indiana.
“How about a show tune?” I said, and Gina started to sing.
And it was one of the best renditions I’ve ever heard.