The eight-year-old 1958 Chevy was purring along through rural Kansas with ease. Don smiled with pride. When it hit 180,000 miles he planned to celebrate with a smoke and an ice-cold Mountain Dew from the cooler. It was a beautiful late April day with the sunny skies and temperatures in the seventies.
“How much longer, Don?”
“Dammit, Gladys,” said Don shaking his head, “it’s a seven-hour trip to Colorado Springs, and we’ve only been on the road for half an hour.”
“It’s not that far,” whined Gladys.
“It is that far,” he said doing his best imitation of Gladys’ bleat. “We just left Nekoma, we’re still on Route 96 and won’t even get to Route 70 for three more hours. We’ve got to go through damn near the entire state of Kansas. If you hadn’t insisted on going by Monument Rocks, we would have saved two hours. Asking me how much further every damn half hour will not get us to your mother’s house any faster.” he replied. He hated road trips with Gladys and the annual pilgrimage to her cranky mother’s.
“Stop your swearing, Don! Monument Rocks is on the way. You know the children, and I love it.”
“It’s not on the way, Hon. I have to turn on 23, then…… Forget it!” At least the kids are behaving, he reflected.
Don rolled the window down to relieve the stuffiness of the old car and to catch a refreshing breeze.
“Don, roll up the window!”
“Gimme a break, Honey. It’s a gorgeous day.” Not on your life, not this time, he resolved. “Grab the blanket from the back seat.”
Gladys, frowning, reached for the blanket from the back seat.
“No, Mama!” screamed seven-year-old Jimmy clutching the blanket. “It’s cold.”
“Yeah, it’s cold!” yelled Freddy, Jimmy’s younger brother by two years.
Gladys jerked the blanket away from the boys, and they cried.
Damn, thought Don. This is going be a nightmare just like the last time.
Don turned in his seat to face the boys. “Shut up boys, or you’ll be walking to your Granny’s.”
“Don. Don’t yell at the boys.” The boys kept crying.
Don tried to focus on the road and turned on the radio. He spun the dial trying to find a Country station.
“Don, I hate listening to that Country stuff!” warned Gladys. Don ignored her and the screaming kids. He found a station he enjoyed and turned up the volume. Marty Robbins was singing ‘The Story of My Life,’ one of Don’s favorites.
Gladys, growing angry, folded her fleshy arms and flattened her face against the window. Don grinned. The boys returned to their comic books. Peace, at last, Peace, at last, thank god almighty I have Peace, at last, thought Don. He chuckled at his variant of Dr. King’s famous speech. He didn’t admire the man much. Troublemaker---but he sure knew how to preach.
The Chevy cruised Route 96 West towards Colorado Springs for a time. Just before the turn onto Route 23, Don noticed that the speedometer has turned over to 180,000 miles. He smiled, made the turn and headed north for Monument Rocks. He would celebrate with a smoke and Mountain Dew when he reached the rocks.
The boys had been quiet, coloring in their superhero coloring books and sharing crayons from the No. 96 box of Crayolas on the seat between them. Without warning, all of that changed instantly.
“Jimmy, gimme the black,” asked Freddy. “You been using it too long.”
“Use somethin’ else, rat face!” Jimmy snapped from the opposite end of the back seat.
“I ain’t no rat face. I can’t. I gotta have black. Batman’s cape is black, dummy.” Freddy yelled, firing a purple crayon at his brother.
Gladys turned and slapped at Freddy striking the crayon box instead, scattering them around the back seat. “Boys, stop it now!” she bellowed.
Jimmy grabbed a handful of crayons and threw them at Freddy. Freddy did likewise, striking Jimmy and his mother. Crayons were flying everywhere, and mother and sons were all yelling at each other.
Don, who was trying to ignore the crayon fight, was growing angrier by the second and, after being struck by several crayons, pulled off the Interstate and slammed on the brakes. The sudden stop threw the boys on the floor and Gladys into the dashboard. Gladys and the boys, stunned by the sudden stop, were silent at first. The boys started to cry again, and Gladys screamed obscenities at Don.
“Stop it, stop it, stop it!” shouted Don. There was silence. Don turned in his seat to face Gladys and the boys.
“I will not tolerate this for one more second,” he said in a calm voice. “Boys, if you do not behave, I will have to spank you right here on the side of the road. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Dad,” mumbled Jimmy. Freddy nodded.
“Don, you have no right to threaten…” she began. Don put up his open hand to stop her.
“Gladys, this is not up for negotiation. I cannot drive to Colorado Springs if this is what I have to put up with for the next several hours. We will just turn around and go home. Clear?”
She protested, but the look in Don’s eyes convinced her. “Clear,” she mumbled.
Don looked at her for a moment, shook his head, put the car in Drive and got back on the Interstate.
He admitted to himself that the first time he saw the Rocks, many years ago, it was exciting. It was an unusual, substantial chalk formation standing alone on the vast Kansas prairie. Don and his family had seen it many times, but it was not worth two more hours on the road to see it again. This is the last damn time, he thought.
Two hours later he turned onto the dirt road to his destination. After 10 miles of rocks, gopher holes and blinding dust devils, endless bitching from Gladys and screaming from the kids, they drove into the Monuments Rocks area. Don pulled to the right side of the dirt road, and they all got out of the car. He sighed. “Thank you, Jesus,” he said to himself looking skyward.
Gladys and the kids joined the throng of half a dozen people snapping pictures of the rocks. Don pulled the Mountain Dew out of the cooler in the trunk, leaned back on the fender and took a long pull on the bottle of liquid sunshine and felt the “tickle in his innards” just like the commercial said. He pulled the new pack of Camels from his short-sleeved shirt pocket, tore open the wrapper, tapped one out, lit up and inhaled deeply.
“Lord that’s good,” he said to the wind. At this moment in Don’s mind, everything was right with the world–at least for a few more minutes. Gladys didn’t approve of his smoking and doing so in the house, or the car unleashed five kinds of hell from her, so he had stopped that years ago. He took another long drag, inhaled and enjoyed the rush. Ten minutes later Gladys and the boys arrived back at the car.
“You’ve been smoking, Don, I can smell it. When are you going to stop that nasty habit?”
“Never, Gladys, so get used to it.” He flicked the butt at her. She screamed as she ducked. “Everybody back in the car,” said Don, smiling. Gladys gave him “the look.”
They made a U-turn and headed back down the dusty track toward the main highway and resumed their trip. Don watched the monument disappear in his rear-view mirror.
Fifteen minutes ticked by, and Don saw in the distance the outline of a sandstone formation. They were a few miles away, but they looked very much like the Monument Rocks. As he got closer, he realized it was the Monument Rocks formation. What the hell, he thought.
“Don, why are you coming back here? We need to get to Granny’s.”
“Gladys, I must have gotten confused and made a wrong turn somewhere.” He knew there were no turns, but somehow, he must have turned. Gotta stop daydreaming, he thought.
Patsy Cline, not one of his favorites, was singing, “Crazy,” and as he slowed down to turn around, he reached down to turn off the radio, so he could concentrate. The radio continued playing Patsy Cline. Looking down, he turned the knob hard left to the stop. Patsy was still singing. He tried again. “Crazy” would not stop. The car veered off the dirt road.
“What the fuck!!?” Don yelled.
Gladys screamed, “Don! Children cover your ears.” They slapped their hands over their ears.
“Daddy said the bad word again!” screamed Freddy.
“Daddy said F-U-C-K,” Jimmy yelled.
“Boys! Stop that talk,” bellowed Gladys.
“Everybody shut the fuck up…. now!!” screamed Don as he slammed on the brakes.
Don sat still saying nothing for a long time, enjoying the silence. He needed the quiet to think. Gladys was silent. He tried to turn off radio again. He tried several times to get rid of Patsy Cline, with no success.
“Don, shut off that radio. Why do they keep playing the same song over and over?” Gladys whined.
Exasperated, he whispered, “Gladys, I have no fucking idea why this radio will not shut off. I am trying!”
Gladys winced at the profanity
Don pulled back on the road and continued to drive towards the monument. As he passed the stones on his right, he thought, No, that’s not right. It should be on my left if I am headed away. He stopped, turned the car around and headed back the way he came. He reached for the radio and again tried to turn it off. No luck and Patsy was still singing
“Crazy.” Don ignored her and drove on.
“Don, why are you turning around again?”
“Quiet, Gladys!” he yelled and kept driving. Gladys glared at him but was still. “Crazy” was still on the radio.
Twenty minutes passed. Gladys and the kids had dozed off, but Don was wide awake and still trying to understand what had happened. The radio was broken and would not turn off, but why was Patsy Cline still singing “Crazy” over and over? He could not explain that, and he did not remember making a turn after he left the monument. He glanced at the odometer, and it was still registering 180,000 miles; it hadn’t moved. That isn't right. He decided that some things just had no explanation and refocused his mind to getting back on a paved road.
A few minutes later, he saw an outline of the Monuments Rocks ahead on his right. Don slammed on the brakes, waking Gladys for a moment, but she returned to her nap and started to snore like a thunderstorm. He opened the door and got out of the car. He closed the door gently, so he would not wake Gladys or the kids. Don walked to the front of the Chevy and leaned back on the hood, removed the pack from his pocket and tapped the pack on his hand to get a cigarette; nothing came out. He looked at the pack, and the seal was intact. He dropped the cigarette pack in the dirt and jumped to his right as if they were on fire.
Don, confused, bent over and recovered the pack, examined it and through it in the sagebrush. He sat down on the front fender, put his head in his hands and shook. My God, what is happening here? he repeated to himself over and over. I know I opened that pack an hour ago.
After what seemed like hours, but was only minutes he stood up straight, slapped himself hard on the left cheek and said out loud, “OK, Don. Snap out of this. Get back in the car, get your shit together and get out of here. Get back on the road to Colorado Springs.”
Don got back in the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut, waking Gladys. He started the car and turned around.
“Don, why are you turning around?”
“Damn it, Gladys, quiet,” he yelled again and kept driving, faster this time putting Monument Rocks further in his rearview mirror. Gladys glared at him but was silent. “Crazy” was still on the radio.
Don continued to drive long past the time he had expected to reach the paved road. Ahead in the fading light, he could make out the outline of the Monument Rocks facing him on his right. He slammed on his brakes waking Gladys for a moment, but she again returned to her nap. Don got out of the driver’s seat, closed the door gently, moved to the front of the car, leaned back on the hood and took the unopened cigarette pack from his shirt pocket. Without thinking, he opened the new package of cigarettes tapped one out and lit up.
After finishing the tab, he got back in the car and started to turn around.
“Don, why are you turning around?”
“Quiet, Gladys,” he yelled through clenched teeth and kept driving. Gladys glared at him but was silent. “Crazy” was still on the radio.
The pattern repeated itself several more times. Ten miles of rough dirt road, the Monument Rocks, a new pack of cigarettes, Gladys bitching, the boys screaming, 180,000 miles on the odometer and, Patsy “Fucking” Cline still singing the same pathetic song over and over.
Don was growing desperate and was past understanding of what was going on. He had checked the fuel gauge, and despite the repeated turns and the miles he was driving, the gauge was holding steady. Like the radio and the landscape and the cacophony coming from Gladys and the boys, it was not changing. He felt caught in a whirlpool of pointlessness. If he had to listen to Gladys say, ‘Why are you turning around?,’ one more goddamn time, he would have to smack her or perhaps just throw her fat ass out of the car…... with the boys.
He pulled over and got out of the car again. After finishing another smoke, he stood up straight grabbed the unopened pack and tapped out another butt. “Crazy” was still playing on the radio.
“Don, get back in the car. We need to get to Mother’s!”
He remembered a line from a joke he had heard recently. ‘What you mean we, Kemosabe?’ Don grinned as the image of the Lone Ranger and his trusty sidekick Tonto came to mind.
‘I hate fucking Patsy Cline.’ he said to himself.
Don turned to look at Gladys and the boys, flicked the cigarette butt at Gladys’ flabby face smeared on the window, tapped out another joint from the fresh pack, turned and walked into the fading light of the prairie whistling “Wichita Lineman” to himself.
David is an aspiring writer. Retired, after a long career in Management, this West Point and Cornell alum has written two short stories and is writing a novel about the intersection of the Peace Movement and the Vietnam War and how the conflict changed the lives of both sides.