They are slightly lost. Pleasantly lost. Intriguingly lost. When they decided to spend their honeymoon wandering the “blue routes,” that was the whole idea. No itinerary, no schedule, no chain hotels or plastic fast food restaurants, and especially no long, colorless ribbons of interstate. On the morning after the wedding, they’d tossed a suitcase in the trunk of the Camry and headed out of Cambridge. The only plan was to wander west for two weeks, turn around and wander back, searching for a glimpse of yesterday.
They’ve been meandering for a week now and they are somewhere in Indiana, six miles east of Wilkerson, according to the small weathered sign across the street.
The past hour has been a little dicey. They went through the worst storm Jill’s ever seen. The sky turned black as night and the rain came down in torrents, so hard they had to pull over. They sat in the rocking car and waited until it let up. When the sky brightened and they hit the road again, they were both ready for a stop.
“Whaddya say we get an early lunch?” Mike asks.
Jill gives a little laugh as she answers, “Sounds good to me. I’d welcome a side of terra firma with my sandwich.”
A few miles up the road, Mike turns into Red’s Gas ‘n’ Eat and they both gratefully climb out of the car. How strange, Jill thinks as she glances around. It doesn't look like it rained here at all.
The place looks like it belongs in one of those tattered old vacation photo albums her parents have. When she was a child, she spent many hours exploring the world between the cracked brown covers of those albums. She’s always wished she could have traveled with her parents in that old Nash Rambler, wandering the country like vagabonds.
At this moment, she feels like she has fallen down the rabbit hole and joined Mom and Dad on one of their adventures. Thanks to many faded photographs held in place by little black triangular corners glued to the album page, this gas station-cum-diner is as familiar to her as if she had been here herself back in the day. There is none of the shiny enamel gleaming over a dozen or so gas pumps that she’s accustomed to finding at the corner Mobil station back home. For that matter, there are very few pumps. Beneath a weather-beaten portico out front bearing the faded sign that says “Red's” are two gas pumps with big round heads watching over the few motorists who might still bring their business here.
Inside, just to the right of the squeaky screen door, a Walter Brennan lookalike stands behind the scarred wooden counter, ready to punch up a sale on a huge old cash register. A whirly metal stand on the counter offers bags of chips and fried pork rinds to take on the road.
To the left beyond a swinging café door is a small restaurant, where Jill sits in one of the six booths along the side wall. She glances across the room. A round, brilliantly red-haired woman in an unfortunate lavender and white uniform stands behind the counter making the pimento cheese sandwich Jill ordered for lunch. Mike’s tuna fish on toasted wheat waits nearby. The name tag pinned just above the white lace handkerchief peeking from a little scalloped pocket on her ample bosom reads "Blanche."
“But you can call me Red,” Blanche had told Jill as licked the tip of her stubby pencil and prepared to write the lunch order onto a little pad. “Everybody does. This here's my place.”
Instead of coming into the diner with her, Mike had headed for the Men’s Room behind the station, saying “Get me a tuna on wheat toast, OK? I’ll be right in.” While she waits for Mike to return, Jill spreads the road map open on the table.
Where is he, she wonders. Shrugging, she turns her attention to the map.
While they’d been sitting in the car waiting out the storm, she’d looked at the map, trying to get an idea of just where they were, with no luck. Running her finger over the map now, she mutters “Hmmm, Wilkerson, Wilkerson…”
She looks up as Mike slides onto the red leather seat across from her. "About time. Lunch will be here in a minute."
“Um, is it just me or is there something a little, I don't know, odd about this place?” Mike asks.
“Yes, I know. Isn’t it great?” To Jill, this is a dream come true. “I wish I could figure out where we are, though."
"I know where we are," Mike smirks. "We're in 1957. Just look at that car out there." He nods toward the window. A salmon-colored Chevy Bel Air has pulled up to one of the pumps.
'Very funny. Here, take a look at the map and see if you can find Wilkerson.” Jill spins the map around so Mike can look at it.
After a moment of studying the map, Mike says, “Nope. I think the scale might be too big. Hang on a minute. I’ll go ask ‘Walter’ when he comes back from pumping the gas. Maybe he has a local map.” Mike grins as he gets up.
"Grab this morning's paper too if they have one," Jill calls as Mike pushes through the doors.
Blanche appears, carrying their sandwiches which are held together by toothpicks sporting little colored tufts, and two frosty bottles of Cokes. Jill is delighted to see that the bottles are the old-timey hour-glass shape. As Blanche unloads her tray, setting the sandwiches and Cokes down on the Formica tabletop, Jill asks, “Blanche… uh, sorry, Red, can you give me an idea of just where Wilkerson is?”
“Sure, Darlin’. We’re just a spit and a holler from the Michigan state line. Where’s that map you got? I’ll show you.”
“Oh, Mike took it out to ask the man at the register.”
“That’s my Fred. Your hubby’s in good hands then. Freddie’ll show ‘im, sure as Bob’s your uncle.” Blanche gives Jill a wink, and walks back to her spot behind the counter.
As Jill takes a bite of her pimento cheese sandwich – oh, my gawd, this is so good; there are olives in it, she thinks – Mike comes through the swinging doors looking as white as a sheet. In his hand, he holds a map and a newspaper.
“What’s wrong, Honey? You look like you’ve seen a ghost. What’s the map say?”
“Forget the freaking map, Jill. Look at the newspaper."
He drops the newspaper down in front of her, and Jill stares at the front page.