So, I was visiting Mom and Dad again recently. My little room at the end of the hall was there to greet me, as it always is. I turned on my Buddha lamp (no, I'm not Buddhist, but my girlfriend is) and enjoyed the blue glow. I had just come in after midnight, at least two hours late. My lateness was due to an incident on the highway, the stretch that sits like a winding, wavy ribbon above the desert.
As I was waved through the last Border Patrol checkpoint, the final obstacle in the way of the freedom of the flat and level road that would greet me after the last, descending section of freeway, I could feel the urge to hit the gas coming on strong. No more climbing, engine straining, car slowing to below the impossible to maintain uphill speed limit, a speed meant for vehicles with bigger engines and mightier horsepower.
As I came around a corner, the high winds pushing my small car to and fro, I was confronted with what appeared to be an accident. But the view before me departed from an accident scene in one obvious manner; there was no wreck anywhere. Four or five cars, the first in the queue a large SUV, lined up along the left-hand shoulder. There were maybe two or three other cars on the right shoulder and right in the middle, straddling the two travel lanes, was an 18-wheeler, stopped but running, its tractor and trailer lit like Christmas trees.
Beyond them all were the flashing lights of some official vehicle, though it was hard to tell just what it was. I slowed and then came to a stop. Soon, almost invisible in the darkness (it was nearly nine by this time) a man in a dark uniform began to walk in my direction. I rolled my window down. He might have been a Border Patrol agent, but it was too dark to make that confirmation.
"There's a fire down there," he said. "They're trying to get it under control. Can you pull your vehicle off to the side."
A fire! I thought, as I moved my car to the right shoulder, leaving it running and my lights on. Soon a large pick-up pulled up behind me, its headlights filling my interior with bright illumination. In just minutes the cars were backed up to I didn't know how far behind us. It became quickly apparent that none of us were going anywhere anytime soon, and one by one the lights went off and the cars went black.
My first thoughts were of a brush fire up ahead, something that might keep me in my car all night long, a possibility that certainly wasn't appealing. I was suddenly glad that I'd gone light on the consumption of liquids, though, in case of thirst, I did check for the presence of my bottle of water on the passenger seat. I also had a few mozzarella cheese sticks I'd gotten from my sister's refrigerator earlier in the evening. At least I wouldn't go hungry.
Soon the sirens came, their noise interrupting the eerie calm of the lonely curve of asphalt. When you're standing still, with your windows partly down, those sirens are incredibly loud as they pass. One, two, three Highway Patrol vehicles. Moments later, one, two, three, four large fire trucks. Soon, an ambulance as well.
As the last hold-out car on the shoulder turned its lights off, I prepared to get some sleep. I honestly felt I couldn't keep my eyes open much longer, and there was nothing to see but those still flashing lights from the vehicle out of which had emerged the man in the uniform. I turned on my radio, and the sounds of the Snuffed Candle Award deserving George Noory added the appropriate touch to a spooky evening.
After almost two hours had gone by, the man in the dark uniform returned from the shadows, and, stopping at each car window in turn, he finally arrived at mine.
"It's going to be just a little longer," he said this time. "There was a fatality up ahead."
About a half hour later, the signal was given, and the cars, one by one, came to life again. It reminded me of all those nights at the drive-in movies, after the last credits had rolled and the big screens were done with their presentations of cartoons, movies, and images of popcorn, candy, hot dogs, pizza (yes, pizza) and sodas that appealed to the audience in automobiles to visit the snack bar.
As I pulled away from the shoulder and took my place in the line of cars that now descended into the unknown, I wondered if I'd have the stamina to make it all the way to my destination without falling asleep. I wondered about the other drivers as well, how long they had been up so far that day, and where they were going, and how much longer would they be behind a steering wheel that night.
It was farther down the hill then I'd thought it would be. At first it seemed as though whatever it was that had caused the delay had been removed or extinguished completely, every trace of it erased. But then the cones appeared, still being placed by the Highway Patrolmen, and in moments the horrifying scene was upon me. Fireman still had hoses in their hands, water flowed across the road, and off the highway, great rocks enclosing it's hollow shell, was a semi, it's cab crushed and burned, its trailer burnt and still smoking.
Earlier in the evening, before I'd started my journey, I had thought of staying the night at my place and leaving in the morning. It is something I really should try sometime.
The next morning Mom was up early (she manages to get up early when she has plans, for herself and the rest of us) and made the announcement that we were going to have breakfast at the Cracker Barrel. I don't go to Cracker Barrel very often, but I like their breakfasts and the little store/gift shop up front. I was looking forward to this when Dad said something contrary. "No, why don't we go to that place, you know, The Mean Old Chef, where they have the really cheap two dollar breakfast." It was a place I'd never been to, but one that obviously my parents had dined at before.
My heart sank, to say the least, because Mom immediately agreed to this change of plans. My day was now ruined, I was sure of it. It doesn't take much to turn the mood of a poor, abused, struggling wage slave such as myself from barely bright to despairingly dark. At this point, though, I didn't have much choice but to go along, and besides, Mom said she was paying.
From the outside the place looked respectable, but after entering the picture was of a typical greasy spoon, with a weary-looking, stringy-haired, middle-aged waitress, and all the accompanying signs of a dilapidated restaurant in decline. There weren't even very many people at the tables, which I found odd at that time of the morning. It was a dining establishment that might not have the best atmosphere, but many such places have a loyal, local clientele attracted by good food and cheap prices. But as I glanced at the soiled menu, I quickly realized that even the Cracker Barrel had them beat when it came to value for the dollar.
Sure, there was, as Dad had emphasized, a cheapo breakfast option, but $2.99 (not two dollars, as Dad had proclaimed) for one egg, one piece of toast and one slice of bacon hardly seemed like a great bargain to me. My mood turned darker as visions of huge plates piled with pancakes, heaps of home fries and scrambled eggs, sugar-glazed ham, baked apples and biscuits and gravy danced in my head; my lost Cracker Barrel gastronomical experience.
Mom and Dad, however, seemed quite happy with the child-sized choice they'd made, but the menu didn't offer anything appetizing to my now disgusted and disappointed stomach. Mom didn't help much with her "Tell them you want an extra egg" suggestion. I finally just gave in to the inevitable and ordered the same thing that they did.
When the food arrived I was presented with a plate overflowing with hash browns, french toast, eggs (more than one), sausage, bacon and, yes, biscuits and gravy. This was the $2.99 breakfast special of the day and not the regular $2.99 offer, so when we ordered "the $2.99" the waitress put us down for the special. It was inexpensive (of course I wasn't paying for it anyway, but I was happy it would be easy on Mom's wallet) and also delicious. My complaining was over. Not only was the food just fine, but I'd experienced something different, a change of scene in another part of the town. I really do have to learn to be more willing to try new things.
Next: Mom, Dad, and the French and British movies I thought they'd never watch.