This highway never fucking ends
American nightmare running scared…
Bobby Thibodaux was dead tired. And, except for the sixty bucks he had wadded up in a clump in the front pocket of his jeans, he was also flat broke. He was ready for shrimp season to open up in less than 48 hours and that’s what found him tooling along a lonely strip of U.S. Highway 90 just past midnight on a Saturday night.
Like his father before him and his father’s father before that…Hell, as far back as could even remember, the men of the Thibodaux family made their livelihood shrimping. It was seasonal work, it was grueling work with hours that were just plain irregular, but a good, prosperous season kept a roof over his family’s head and food on the table all year round – at least until Hurricane Isaac last fall.
The irony wasn’t lost on Bobby. In fact, since the Isaac wrecked all three of his shrimp boats last fall, Bobby had practically grown fond of telling people, “Shit, I made it through Katrina, Gustav and even the damned BP oil spill. But this damned little Cat 1 storm did me in.”
As luck had it, though, his cousin, Jeff, was a captain of a small fleet of six shrimp boats running out of Pensacola Beach, Florida. It took some haggling, but Jeff finally convinced Bobby to get his ass to Pensacola so he could earn a living. Bobby declined at first, actually the first dozen or so times his cousin asked him to join him.
“Look man, don’t be a fucktard over this shit,” Jeff finally told him last week when he’d come down to Venice to pick up parts for two of his shrimp boats. “You gonna wait around all season waiting on FEMA funds that might not even ever show up?”
“Never had to depend on them before, why should I start now, Jeff?” Bobby reasoned. “So some ass wipe up Chicago way can look down his nose at me and say ‘I’m sick of my hard earned taxes going to fund some ignorant-ass hick down in Louisiana that don’t have the sense to move out of a flood zone. Fuck that man.”
“They don’t say that,” Jeff replied.
“Like hell they don’t, you never listen to the radio or CNN or Fox News?” Bobby asked. “I’ve been working boats now since I was 14 and except for that one season back in 92, when my leg was broken, I never missed a day of work in my life. I make more money in four months than most people make in a year, but they’re gonna sit there and pass judgment on me, talkin’ bout how I’m a drain on society. I don’t think so, man.”
“Which is all the more reason you should come down and work for me this season,” Jeff said. “You said so yourself, you ain’t missed a day of work since you were 14. But now you’re just going to sit around and do nothing while your family starves?”
“I just don’t like taking no damned hand-outs,” Bobby finally said after a long pause while he sipped his beer.
“I’m offering you a job for one season,” Jeff said. “It’s not like I’m giving you anything, you’ll be working for the money. God, you always were a stubborn son of a bitch. Are you going to come down there and meet me or not? I ain’t gonna beg you. Besides, it’ll be fun. What do you say?”
“I’ll be there next Sunday,” Bobby finally replied. “I’ll be ready to go out Monday night.”
Bobby drummed his fingers on the steering wheel to Runaway, which was followed up by Tell Laura I love Her and then This Magic Moment.
Good tunes were important to any road trip, but his aged tape deck ate his even older copy of AC-DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap tape. His cell phone had crapped out not even 45 minutes out of Venice, Louisiana. That put the nix on listening to his iTunes library on the headphones. He was sure he had a full charge on it before he left the house, but apparently he didn’t.
When he plugged the car charger for the cell into the cigarette lighter port he ended up blowing the damned lighter fuse. It didn’t bother him though. He still had his trusty Timex watch on his wrist. Plus, Bobby wasn’t as attached to his cell phone like some people he knew were.
“Hell, it wasn’t really that long ago when there wasn’t any such thing as cell phones,” he muttered to himself.
Bobby cracked the top of another energy drink. They tasted like crap but they usually got the job done, especially on long night drives like this. Bobby chugged the drink down, crushed the can and then tossed it out of the window back into the bed of his old F-150.
It was a pretty night out, beautiful actually. It was the second week of April. The days were just starting to get warm, but the nights were still cool. Both the air conditioner and the heater in the F-150 had crapped out years ago, but that was fine by Bobby because he loved driving with the windows down. Especially on nights like these, when he was so drowsy but still had a hell of a trip ahead of him.
The trip would be especially long, because he decided to use old state highways, instead of Interstate 10. His brake tag was expired so he wanted to avoid cops. But he also enjoyed taking the old scenic routes when he traveled, even if there wasn’t much to see in the middle of the night.
Old Chef Highway, which turned into U.S. Highway 90, somewhere out near Irish Bayou, was pretty much deserted tonight. Most of the fishing camps on either side of the highway, were dark, and sat huddled and quiet. He could smell the scent of brine and cool salt water as he drove and continued to keep time to the oldies hits that the radio station kept playing.
“It is a fine night indeed,” he said aloud, yawning. “I guess if I had to go tonight, I couldn’t pick a nicer place or a more beautiful night to die on.”
This last thought, caught him off guard and gave him the chills even though he had his old gray zip-up sweatshirt on over his old Rolling Stones concert tee shirt.
His head felt heavy as he watched and counted the small, glow-in-the dark lane dividers, which had become a singular blur.
He absently reached out with his right hand, feeling the empty passenger seat beside him in search for his pack of smokes.
Just then, blinding light filled the cab of his truck followed by the bellowing sound of an 18-wheeler horn and screeching tires.
Bobby was instantly alert and jerked the F-150 steering wheel hard to the right. He swerved out of the way of the 18-wheeler, but had traveled off the right shoulder of the road. His tires hit loose graven and he slammed on his brakes. He felt the left rear end of his truck begin to slide into a 180-degree slide and he let his foot off both the brake and the accelerator.
His truck came to rest in a gravel parking lot and when he looked up he saw a green reflective sign that read Fort Pike.
He was involuntarily shaking all over and for a second he thought he was going to throw up. He killed the engine, put his keys in his pocket opened the door and climbed out of his truck.
His knees buckled but he caught his balance by placing a hand on the hood of his truck right over the front, driver side wheel well. He was still shaking badly and he watched the red tail and brake lights of the 18 wheeler fade off into the distance. The son of a bitch didn’t even stop, Bobby mused.
He got back into his truck and pulled his truck in and parked near the fort’s guest parking area. There were no other parked cars there and he killed his engine.
“Shit,” he said. “If I’m that tired maybe I should just park it here and rest for a little bit.”
He was going to do just that but after leaning his head back onto his seat, he realized his adrenalin was still pumping way too fast and that he couldn’t sleep now even if he tried to.
Bobby heard of Fort Pike before, but he had never visited it. Of course it wasn’t open now, in the middle of the night, but he grabbed his pack of smokes, got out of the truck and decided he would check it out from the parking lot.
He opened his cigarette pack and removed a thinly rolled joint and lit it. It was the only thing he could think to do to try to calm his frayed nerves some. He took four or five hits and then pinched the lit end between his thumb and forefinger, deciding to save it for later.
He put the joint back into the pack and then removed a cigarette and lit it. He looked at the dark brick work of the fort, which seemed to sit almost level with the water. He didn’t know much about the fort. He wasn’t sure if it had even seen combat, like the Chalmette battlefield had.
That battlefield was said to be extremely haunted, but Bobby didn’t know about Fort Pike. He really didn’t believe in ghosts that much anyway. All he heard, besides the still heavy and fast thump of his own heartbeat, and the songs of crickets and low bellow of bullfrogs coming from the swampy bogs on the side of the fort that faced the highway.
He took a last drag of his cigarette, tossed it to the ground and stubbed it out in the loose rocks and shells of the parking area. He made his way back to the truck. His feet crunched heavily on the shells, but he walked with an airy lightness in his step that almost made him feel like he was floating.
As he opened the door to his truck, he something wet and trickling on his forehead, wiped the back of his hand across it and realized it was blood. He grabbed an old shop rag which was discarded in the bed of his truck, and also wiped it across his forehead.
He did not remember hitting his head on anything either when he swerved out of the way of the 18-wheeler or when he came to a sliding halt in the shells on the shoulder of the road.
“Well, dumbass,” he told himself, with a laugh. “You must have hit it somewhere or you wouldn’t be bleeding.”
He got back into his truck and shut the door. He turned the key. It missed at first but he turned it back and then twisted it forward again and the Ford’s engine bellowed to life. He threw it into gear and got back on the highway.
He crossed the Rigolets bridge and had only gone about a mile when he saw a lit up diner off on the right. The last thing he’d eaten was an overcooked hot dog from a Circle K on the West Bank when he stopped to gas up.
“That’s what I really need is some food and some coffee,” he muttered. “That should do the trick. I’ll be good to go after that.”
He pulled the truck into the gravel parking lot, parked and got out. He didn’t even bother rolling up the window or locking the doors.
Two things struck Bobby the second he got out of his truck and walked across the parking lot. The first thing, besides the fact that he was still shaking slightly, was that he still felt that weird, floating sensation when he walked, almost like he wasn’t fully in control of his body, like his full weight was not pushing down as he stepped.
The second was that all the cars in the parking lot were vintage cars. There was an old VW Beetle, a Plymouth Fury, an old T-Bird and a Hudson Hornet and those were just the ones Bobby could identify on sight. His buddy Frank, back in Venice, was a complete car nut and he invariably dragged Bobby out to block party style antique car shows.
The only difference between these cars parked in the lot and the ones he saw when he was with Frank, was that the car show cars were always shined and waxed to the nines, whereas these were dirty and looked well used.
“So what,” he muttered to himself as he reached for the brass door knob of the café. “It’s a dusty parking lot, right? What are you trying to say?”
He laughed and shook his head and opened the door to the café and walked in.
The lighting was off, and somewhere between dim and strangely bright, but the first thing that assailed him was the heavy mixture of smells. Heavy grease, frying onions and cigarette smoke hung stale and heavy in the air.
The place had a decent crowd, considering it was the middle of the night, but there were still plenty tables available. A heavy set older guy dressed in khaki pants and a white tee shirt (who actually sort of resembled Mel from the old 70’s sitcom, Alice) hurried past Bobby, paused and blurted out abruptly, “Can’t you see we’re closed?”
Taken off guard by the sudden confrontation, Bobby shrugged, looked at the guy warily and began to ask, “What?”
But the guy suddenly burst out laughing and said, “Just joshing you, kid. Grab a seat anywhere; I’ll get a waitress to you pronto. I had you going though, didn’t I?”
“You did,” Bobby said.
“Sorry kid, it’s been a long night. I just harass folks just to pass the time.”
“Pretty busy for this late at night,” Bobby noted.
“Yeah, one of the high schools had senior prom tonight. That crowd’s just dying down, another hour or so it’ll be nothing but drunks and truckers. Speaking of which can I get you something to drink, a beer or a whiskey and Coke?”
This was the second thing that set off a strange kind of warning bell in the recesses of Bobby’s brain. First off was the smoke. Bobby didn’t know there were any restaurants left that still allowed smoking. But this joint was filled with smoke and the tables even had ash trays and books of matches on them.
The first thing was that he never been in a late night café that served booze.
It suddenly dawned on him that the guy was waiting for him to answer so Bobby nodded, “Sure, give me a whiskey and Coke, heavy on the whiskey.”
“I’m Sal by the way,” the guy said, extending his hand.
“Bobby,” he replied, shaking the guy’s hand.
Sal handed Bobby a menu and motioned over to the left and said, “Tables over there, just grab one.” A cute, willowy blonde walked past and Sal said, “Doll, do me a favor and bring Bobby to one of those tables over there. Get him a burger or something before he passes out on us. You allright Bob, you look like you’re going to fall out on me.”
‘I’m okay,” Bobby said, wondering what the guy was talking about. Bobby’s first thought was, “Shit am I bleeding again?” and he dabbed his fingers gently on his forehead gently but there was no blood.
“Nasty little gash you got there pal,” Sal said. “I’d get that checked out if I were you.”
Bobby nodded and then turned to the waitress, who was standing quietly but smiling. “Come on, don’t mind Sal. He just likes to give everyone a hard time. He’s really a great guy though, really swell.”
Bobby checked out the waitress’s ass as she led him to his table and at one point she glanced over her shoulder and caught him. She grinned shyly and politely gave him a way out by asking, “Did you drop something?”
“I thought my shoe was untied for a second,” Bobby said dumbly.
She knew and she knew that he knew she knew but she just laughed and shrugged her shoulders and said, “Untied shoe. I have to admit, that’s one I’ve never heard before.”
“I’m sorry,” Bobby said, feeling like a complete fool.
“Don’t be,” she said with a wistful smile and then she scrunched up her chin and arched her eyebrows quizzically. “Have we met before?”
“I don’t think so, unless you’ve been to Venice lately,” Bobby said.
“Italy?” she asked, her eyes growing wide.
“No, Venice, down near Grand Isle,” Bobby said.
“Nope,” she said. “The farthest I’ve ever been from here is Biloxi. My maw-maw and paw-paw have a beach house there and sometimes I spend summers with them.”
She said this in a sing-song tilt that sounded part country and part something else. Maybe music, but the sound and it almost made Bobby’s break with longing.
“I’m Sandy by the way,” she finally said abruptly, nervously and she extended her hand.
“Bobby,” he said, taking her hand gently into his own, hoping she couldn’t feel him tremble or his palms sweat, but if she did she didn’t say anything about it. What passed between them in that short handshake was deeply private and equally primitive, a slow undulation of throbbing low voltage.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Bobby added, unable to form any sort of sentence with more syllables.
Sandy smiled at him and furrowed her brow as she reached out and lightly traced her index finger along his forehead and said, “Sal’s right about one thing, that is a nasty little cut. After you order, if you want, I can get you some peroxide and a cotton-ball if you’d like to clean it up.”
This took Bobby aback. It was hard enough, in most places just to get a waitress to come take your order, much less this. “Maybe,” he said.
“Do you have any idea what you want to order?” she asked.
Just then a short skinny kid walked up to Bobby’s table and handed him a drink, the whiskey and Coke from Sal. Bobby thanked the kid and reached for his pocket, to tip the kid some change, but the kid shook his head and said, “No sir” and walked off.
Bobby gazed at the menu and Sandy said, “We got burgers, steaks, open faced roast beef, tonight’s special is liver and grits smothered in onions.”
“No kidding?” Bobby asked.
“I don’t kid,” she said, smiling.
“I’ll have the special,” he said. “I know not everybody likes liver and grits, but I do and I haven’t had it in ages.
“Allright then, that doesn’t surprise me,” she said with a coy grin.
“What doesn’t surprise you, that I like liver?” he asked.
“No silly,” she said. “It doesn’t surprise me that we have one of your favorites here. We have all the favorites here. It is the least we can do.”
She smiled, turned and headed back towards the kitchen area, leaving Bobby hanging, wondering what exactly she meant. Although he saw there were people smoking at their tables he was hesitant, at first to light a cigarette. Eventually, though, he lit a cigarette with the book of matches that read only White Kitchen on them.
He looked around after he lit it, half expecting some smoke Nazi to come shut him down, but none did, so he smoked in peace as he glanced around at the boisterous laughing faces in the room. He took a drag and flicked his ashes into the ash tray.
Groovin’ by The Young Rascals was playing on the juke box and was soon replaced by a Supremes song. It was just around that time that Bobby realized he had a small juke box selector at his own table. Again, this wasn’t something he’d seen since he was a kid eating with his parents or grandparents at truck stops while on vacation.
Seeking a quick escape from the Temptations, Bobby quickly and quietly flipped through the musical selections hoping to find something, but all the music was outdated. The best songs he could find were Light My Fire by the Doors, Ruby Tuesday and a few other tunes by the Rolling Stones and 96 tears by Question Mark and the Mysterians.
It wasn’t much, but it was better than the Motown wonders that seemed to be playing now. He fumbled in his pocket for some change as the skinny kid came to the table and asked if he needed another whiskey drink.
“Yeah,” Bobby said with a slight grimace as he turned and suddenly felt a funny jabbing feeling in his side and then a sharp shooting pain in his head. He handed the kid a dollar and asked him if he could get change for the juke box. For some reason, the juke box did not accept dollar bills like the CD player juke box did at Mr. D’s Pool Hall, a place down near Grande Isle where Bobby hung out with other shrimpers and drank after work.
The kid reached into a canvas pouch that hung from his waist and made change for him on the spot. The kid disappeared and then came back in a few seconds with a new drink. Bobby slipped the coins into the slot and selected several of the Rolling Stones songs. He sipped his drink as he kept time to the music and looked around at faces in the crowd, losing himself in the cacophony.
At the same time he continued to think of Sandy and he kept hearing her sweet yet concerned voice in his head.
The farthest I’ve ever been from here is Biloxi. My maw-maw and paw-paw have a beach house there and sometimes I spend summers with them.
He downed his whiskey drink maybe a little too quickly and flagged the drink boy down.
“Hey I need another one of these and I need to know where the bathroom is,” Bobby said, trying not to slur but feeling like he was, which was ridiculous after just one drink.
The kid took his glass and then nodded over his left shoulder.
“Down that hallway right past the kitchen,” the kid said.
Bobby rose and stepped away from the table, again feeling that weird weightless sensation as he stepped. As he rose, a barrage of cheers erupted from a large group of people sitting around a large table in the far corner of the restaurant. A group of men two, a couple ladies and two children all sat with their attention focused on a buxom platinum blonde lady wearing a silk, flowery scarf tied around her neck.
Bobby felt mildly nervous as he walked past their table to get to the bathroom. The blonde’s lipstick was so red and so glossy, like blood, that Bobby imagined he could practically see his reflection in them. Everyone around the table burst into laughter again and Bobby felt the lady’s gaze fall squarely upon him, but she only smiled and winked.
By the time Bobby got into the restroom and closed himself into a stall (he didn’t even bother with the urinal) his heart was pounding furiously in his chest. His fingers deftly fell to his zipper, but for a second he couldn’t feel his fingers. He couldn’t move his hands. All he could do was pant, raggedly like a dog in the hot summer sun. Eventually he unzipped his zipper and peed but the stream was slow and weak and he felt a strange cold creep over his extremities.
He ignored it and tried to get hold of himself but his heart was still pounding. It was that blonde and that god damned scarf that had set him off, but he didn’t know why.
“Get hold of yourself,” he muttered to himself as he zipped up and washed his hands in the sink. “It’s just a scarf, man, just a woman’s scarf. What the hell man?”
The farthest I’ve ever been from here is Biloxi. My maw-maw and paw-paw have a beach house there and sometimes I spend summers with them.
He exited the bathroom and almost ran into Sandy, who, as she had promised, was carrying a brown bottle of Hydrogen Peroxide and a handful of cotton balls.
“There you are,” she said. “I was just looking for you. Oh my goodness, what’s wrong?”
“What? Oh, nothing,” he said, his breath still labored.
“Nothing my foot,” she said eying him suspiciously. “You’re heart is racing like a horse and you’re white as a sheet. Here, be still.”
She opened the bottle of peroxide pressed the cotton ball against the opening of the bottle and turned it upside down until the cotton ball was saturated. She dabbed the cotton ball along the gash in his forehead.
“Now tell me what happened,” she said.
“It really was nothing,” he said, chuckling slightly as the reality of how absurd it really was began to set in. “There’s a lady, a blonde at that table over in the corner. This is going to sound ridiculous, but something about her scared the living shit out of me.”
“Now that is ridiculous,” Sandy said. “You probably just recognized her from the movies.”
“Movies?” Bobby asked, suddenly remembering that Louisiana had become known as Hollywood South in recent years.
“Yeah, Miss Jayne,” Sandy said. “She’s in here all the time. She performs over on the Gulf Coast a lot. I can’t think of her last name. She doesn’t do too many movies these days, but she used to be quite the star from what I hear. Sal is a gigantic fan. Honestly, I think he just wants to get in her pants. She’d probably like that. Just the impression I get. She’s always surrounded by men, most of them young enough to be her son. I’ve just heard things.”
Sandy led Bobby back to his table, walked off and then returned with his food. He dug in enthusiastically, barely taking time to breathe in between bites. He glanced up, noticed Sandy staring at him quizzically, almost as if she was studying him, and then he grinned sheepishly.
“Excuse me,” he said, his mouth still half full of liver.
“No it’s okay,” she said with a wary smile. “This is normal.”
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
The farthest I’ve ever been from here is Biloxi. My maw-maw and paw-paw have a beach house there and sometimes I spend summers with them.
Bobby smiled and continued to eat, as if he hadn’t eaten in years. And then suddenly, for no reason, he stopped. A slight queasy feeling gripped him and when he glimpsed down at his plate, he saw the pooling blood of the blonde’s lipstick and that damned scarf again.
He shook his head and then realized there was also an electrical outlet at his table. He pulled out his cell and his wall charger, hooked it up and then plugged it in.
Sharp, husky laughter filled the room and he knew without looking back that it was the blonde lady with the scarf. He caught himself glancing back over his shoulder at their table in spite of himself.
The blonde winked at him and then teasingly traced her fingers along her scarf.
“You want me to take it off?” asked a voice in Bobby’s head that almost made him leap out of his skin. Even though they were across the restaurant from each other it was as if she had just whispered in his ear.
The blonde still sat at her table laughing with her entourage, but never letting her gaze fall off Bobby.
“I’ll take it all the way off if you want me to,” the voice said again.
“No don’t,” Bobby yelled, in site of himself.
“Don’t what?” asked Sandy as she walked up to him.
“I thought I heard something,” Bobby said and then noticed Sandy’s face had grown somber and curious.
“What is that?” she asked, pointing at Bobby’s cell phone.
‘It’s my phone,” he replied.
“What?” she asked, a glimmer of fear now playing across her face.
“It’s a phone,” Bobby said, picking it up. “It’s my cell phone. It’s a camera too here let me show you, smile for me.”
Sandy’s arm shot out though and lowered his arms and his phone.
“You really need to put that away,” Sandy said.
Bobby stared at her waiting for the punch line or a smile but none came. In fact, the look of fear on Sandy’s face intensified.
“It’s not going to work anyway,” she said. “You don’t really understand yet do you baby?”
“Understand what?” he asked as he glimpsed just over her shoulder, as the blonde lady pulled the knot out of her flowered scarf. The scarf fell away to reveal a deep gash and she tossed her head back in a fit of laughter, as she did, Bobby could see the side of her face was completely missing and parts of her skull and brain were exposed under the glow of the restaurant lights.
Then it dawned on him. He’d heard the old story of the actress that died in a car wreck out on the Rigolets for years now, since he was a kid.
But how could it be? How was it even slightly possible?
His food began to rise in his throat, only it wasn’t food, just bitter tasting bile.
He stood up and grasped Sandy by her shoulders.
“Come on, let’s go. Just leave with me,” he pleaded.
“No, it doesn’t work like that we can’t just leave,” she said.
“Come on we have to,” he said.
The farthest I’ve ever been from here is Biloxi. My maw-maw and paw-paw have a beach house there and sometimes I spend summers with them…But I drowned out on the beach 30 years ago Bobby, right in front of their house.
Bobby stared at her trying to process what he was hearing. And then he ran. He ran quickly and suddenly, bumping into Sal on the way out. His legs pumped furiously, but he felt like the distance between himself and the door continued to widen, an endless chasm.
Finally, his hands touched the door and he pushed it open and stumbled out into the night, into the parking lot where the crickets chirped and the smell of brine and salt water filled his nostrils.
He got into his truck and sped away quickly. He had barely made it a mile, though when he turned back around and headed back to the White Kitchen. He drove and drove but there was nothing there.
“I passed it up,” was all he could say to himself hysterically. He drove back again and only saw an old shell parking lot that was completely grown over with tall grass, a few palms and cane stalks. Sitting rusted and covered completely with shrubbery was the restaurant sign that read Whiter Kitchen.
Bobby pulled back onto the highway and jammed his foot hard into his accelerator, his tires crunching as the flung loose gravel and shells.
The lights atop the police cruiser bathed the wrecked F-150 and the green reflective sign that read Fort Pike in an eerie blue glow.
“We got a DOA,” here said one deputy into his radio mic. “Hey, be careful touching the body, we’re not really supposed to move them.”
“I’m just checking for ID,” said the other deputy as he opened the wallet. “Thibodaux, Bobby Thibodaux, from Venice. Wonder what he’s doing way out here.”
“No telling,” replied the other deputy as he shined his flashlight into the driver’s side window, retrieving what looked like a folded piece of cardboard on the seat. “He had an expired break tag though.”
“What you got there?” asked the other deputy.
“A match book but get this, it says White Kitchen.”
“White Kitchen, that’s impossible that place has been closed for damn near 40 years now.”
“Must have gotten it from a novelty shop or something,” he said as he lit a smoke.
“Yeah, he must have,” said his partner as they waited in silence for the ambulance to come take the body away.