And the Frog

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6

She pressed her palms into her eyes to wipe away the grog, and said, “Mmmhm.”

“You musta’ been dog tired, ‘cause I just about broke my foot on the brakes tryin’ not to smash up this egghead in front of us.” John Bain had two hands on the wheel, and his knuckles were good and white. He had also changed his shirt, she noticed. “Damn near launched you out of the throne. Apologies.”

“No problem,” said Emmaline.

John Bain muttered something to himself in a tone of frustration, then said, “C’mere. Come take a look at this monkey.” She pulled herself out of the recliner and propped herself on a knee between and just behind the front seats so that she could see out of the windshield. She gripped each seat with an arm, and took only a momentary glance at the frog. “Lookit that,” said John Bain, pointing with his whole hand at the car in front of them. It was an early 2000’s Infiniti, black, and it had far too many bumper stickers.

You Shall Not Pass” read John Bain. “As if Gandalf the god damned White was written up to excuse pork chops like this for going 45 in a 65.”

Emmaline couldn’t help but giggle. “Pork chops?”

John Bain chuckled too, then returned his hand to the steering wheel and his knuckles to white and said, “I do not like pork chops.” Emmaline laughed again, to be courteous, then made to move back to the throne. “Hey, I parked for a bit to brew some coffee if you want any.” She did, so she diverted herself toward the Mr. Coffee. “And you’re probably hungry again too. There are some cans a soup in the cabinet above the table. Microwave in the kitchen. Oh, and I also picked up some Pizza in a Bag.”

She reached the Mr. Coffee and said, “What’s Pizza in a Bag?” looking over at John Bain, who turned his head and said,

“Delicious. It’s on the table.”

She made to pour herself a cup of coffee, but as she reached for one of the cups hooked above the little table she realized she hadn’t peed in far too long. “Mind if I pee?” she said.

“Not sure why I would,” said John Bain, snorting.

She pulled, or slid (slunk?) the bathroom door open. Inside was a ledge that featured a hole and a toilet seat. There was also the tiniest of showers, and an embroidered picture of a revolver, under which were sewn the words You feelin’ lucky? A Glade air freshener sat on a little shelf, and it smelled like peaches. She did her business, then returned to the RV proper.

“That Glade still up?” said John Bain. “Those things fall off every now and again, sometimes right into the toilet.”

“It’s still up,” said Emmaline. “Smells nice.”

“Mhm, peaches.”

She snatched a cup. It was dark orange and said #1 Angel on it.

“Oh’p,” said John Bain. “That one’s mine.” He didn’t seem to even be looking.

She hung it back on the hook, and took the one next to it, which was white and had a Far Side cartoon on it. Emmaline smiled, because she was a sucker for Far Side. The panel featured an angel sitting on a cloud, with a thought bubble that said . . . Wish I’d brought a magazine. “Reverent mugs,” said Emmaline.

“That one was a gift.”

She poured the coffee, set the pot back in its place, and slid into the booth. The Pizza in a Bag, which was actually very red jerky in a triangle-shaped yellow bag, sat in front of her. It had already been opened. She unsealed the top and took a sniff. It was pungent, and her eyes closed in response. Then she jerked forward, table jutting into her stomach, and John Bain said to the Infiniti outside,

“Why in the hell are you stopping, woman? One of those stickers should be a damned target.” She looked to the cab and saw that John Bain had put his arm across the frog, like he was trying to keep it from slamming forward. This was also the first moment she noticed that the frog waswearing a seatbelt. “You alright, Emmaline? Sorry ’bout that.”

Emmaline. This was only the third time she’d heard it out loud. It sounded a bit laborious, if she was being honest. “I’m good,” she said, “and you can just call me Emma.”

“Emma, got it,” said John Bain. “You’re just called Emma, I’m just called John, and this woman is just called Eggbrain, Queen of the Brakes.” And then under his breath he said, “Goood night.”

Emma resealed the Pizza in a Bag, because she knew she should’ve been but she wasn’t all too hungry.

“We’re uh,” said John as he removed his arm from the frog, “we’re just about crossin’ into Nebraska. Any stops you’d like to make? Anything you’d like to see?”

“In Nebraska.”

John snorted. “I’m headed toward Vegas. Got a . . . got a job there.”

Emma nodded. Suddenly a graveness was creeping over the mood, she noticed. She took a sip of coffee. There was a time when she avoided confrontation, and touchy subjects. She hadn’t wanted to get tangled up in this or that situation. But now it seemed to her that time moved very slow that way. She’d left home to move more, or something.

“Someone to kill?” she said.

John cleared his throat. “Somethin’ like that. I’ll drop you anywhere you want, if you want. Or . . .”

“If I go with you,” said Emma, “all the way to Vegas, will . . .” She thought somewhat carefully about her next words. “Will I get in the way?”

John didn’t answer for a second. “I suppose that’ll be up to you.”

She took another sip of coffee. It wasn’t very good, but that may have been because she didn’t much like coffee. Because of a joke her father had once made when she was very little, she grew into adolescence believing that coffee was a frighteningly effective laxative. Even as she reached young adulthood the notion stuck hard somewhere in the recesses of her mind, almost like a superstition. Her housemates always knew the score and never offered her a drink, though her father, grandmother, Saphal, all three of them loved the stuff. But whenever she was a guest in someone else’s home and was offered a cup, she immediately imagined a troubling scenario in which she damaged their plumbing or ruined one of her more favorable pairs of jeans. It didn’t always stop her from politely accepting, and in truth she’d built a small appreciation for the effects of caffeine, but the irrational fear was always there. Except for now. Now, for some reason, the only thing she disliked about her coffee was not that it would make her poo, but that it tasted like poo. Not that she knew what poo tasted like. Nevertheless, she sipped.

“How’s the coffee?” said John.

“It’s not bad.”

“We’re comin’ up on a Walmart. I forgot a few things when I picked up that jerky. You wanna come in or should I leave some tunes on in here?”

A Walmart. She started to wonder if the world was really just the spaces between a vast array of Walmarts. “What kind of tunes?” she said.

“Well I’m glad you asked.” John popped open the compartment between the seats in the cab, revealing a rack of cd’s. “I’ve got . . . Beastie Boys, Motley Cru, Pink, Chris Christofferson, Abba, and Weird Al’s polka album.”

She took another sip of her poo coffee. “Wow.”

“No?”

“No thanks.”

“Then I’ll enjoy your company,” he said as he made to take an exit off the interstate. Then, “Oh, hell.” Emma waited for a bit, and he said, “And here goes Eggbrain, takin’ our exit. Pleasedontgotowalmart pleasedontgotowalmart pleasedontDAMMIT.” Evidently Eggbrain was going to Walmart, which was conveniently located right off the interstate. John turned into the lot and said, “Alright, if we’re fast enough we can leave first and get out ahead of her.” He parked, unbuckled, and slid out. She slunked from the tiny booth – easier planned than done – and made her way out the side door. Light from a very bright day poured in as she opened it.

Almost involuntarily she stretched her legs as soon as her feet touched the asphalt, the way just about anyone does after they’ve been long on a road trip. John was already marching toward the store, and it seemed odd to her that he’d parked so far away if speed was such a priority. This was the way her father parked his Ford Explorer, as far from any other car in the lot as possible, because he didn’t trust that none of the owners of those cars weren’t thieves, maniacs, or terrible drivers.

She noticed that she wasn’t nearly as wobbly as the first time she’d departed Ferrule. Perhaps the caffeine was helping. She began to follow John, trying to keep her pace up because he was already halfway down the lot.

When she entered, she was greeted with the almost ironic blast of cool, refreshing air of a Walmart. And as she felt her shirt ruffle slightly in the industrial breeze, she realized that she hadn’t changed her clothes, or showered for that matter, or combed her hair or brushed her teeth in what had to have been over 24 hours. She was usually quite regular about these things, and took a moment to inwardly scoff at herself, then made for the woman’s clothing section, having lost track of John entirely.

She had learned in her adult life to make at least meager attempts of smiling politely at strangers in public places, but that was before, in a different life, so now she settled on just ignoring them altogether. She started with underwear, as really anyone should. She didn’t need anything fancy, so she just snatched a pack of the simple stuff. Next, socks.

There was a couple in the sock aisle, and a middle-aged woman. The couple seemed to be arguing about snow.

“Good to play in, shit to drive in, that’s all I’m saying,” said the woman.

“Please, your commute would be like 20 minutes. You don’t think playing in the snow with our kid trumps your 20 minute drive?”

“Babe, I don’t want to take the job, okay? I don’t want to move.”

“It’s not like it’s the North Pole. It only snows in the winter.”

“But it’s not like snow in Kansas, Rick. This is real snow.”

“What? We have real snow in Kansas.”

“Not Minnesota snow.”

“Oh, my god.”

“Rick, I don’t want to move.”

“Oh my GOD, Stacy.”

“I don’t want to move!”

“Oh, my –”

“I would like you to move,” said the middle-aged woman. “Is this why you came to Walmart today, to debate snow? Or were you actually going to buy some socks?”

The couple looked at the woman, who was between them and Emma so she could see their faces. They looked less appalled at the interruption and more surprised to find that their entire conversation had actually been audible to the people around them. For a moment it did seem that the younger woman would retaliate, but her partner grabbed her arm, nodded, and yanked her off to fuss in a different part of the store.

The woman turned to Emma and rolled her eyes. “Some people get bored bitching in the confines of their own homes.” Emma offered a courteous nose-breath laugh and began surveying her sock options. “I supposed it’s hard to blame them for being irritable, though. Being that they’re from Kansas, in Nebraska.” Emma actually liked Kansas, though she couldn’t remember why. She had family there, maybe. She didn’t like Nebraska, but she realized just now that that was only because everyone around her had insulted the state for her entire life, so it was only natural that she regarded rather lowly as well.

“You’re not from Kansas or Nebraska, are you?” said the woman.

“No,” said Emma as she squeezed a pack of socks, which was disappointingly unsquishy.

“Good for you.” The woman didn’t actually seem to be making any clear attempts at selecting socks.

“I have family down there, though,” Emma said. “In Kansas. She still wasn’t sure if that was true but she felt she had to make some kind of defense for the state.

“Mm,” said the woman, “that’s rough.” Emma moved few steps down the aisle, trying to signify that she was perfectly fine being done with this conversation, but the woman followed. “Where are you from?”

“A ways,” said Emma, now facing entirely away from the woman and deciding that really socks weren’t all that important. She could see where, across a walkway, the floor opened up into a shirt section.

She began shifting through the on-sale shirts, mostly bland stuff but there was one that said You’re killing me smalls and had a picture of Ham from The Sandlot, which she appreciated. It also seemed to be misplaced, as it was a men’s shirt, but she snatched it up anyway. It was one of those circular shirt racks, so she moved slowly around it, and made it maybe a quarter of the way around before she ran into the woman again.

“The clearance rack, huh?”

Emma reversed her direction. She suddenly very much wished that John hadn’t left her. “I like my money more than I like my shirts,” she said, still trying to do her best impression of a comfortable person. The woman laughed.

“Good answer.” She did her best to laugh in agreement, accruing shirts at a much quicker and more wonton pace. When she had an armful, it was indubitably time for pants. When she reached the pants racks, the woman was already there. “I’m Marigold, by the way.”

“Hi,” said Emma, trying to locate the cheapest brand of jeans. The woman leaned against one of the shelves, clearly awaiting a returned name offering. “I’m,” Emma said, “Joulene.”

The woman smiled. “Joulene is a nice name.” Emma tried to put a unit of shelving between herself and “Marigold,” and settling for two pairs of jeans from the shelf in front of her. The woman appeared from around the unit, smiling a little wryly. “Joulene is a nice name,” she said again, “but it isn’t yours, Emmaline.”

Emma only looked at her. She’d wanted to be sure she got a jacket, but now she just wanted to leave. She wanted to go back to Ferrule and listen to John’s odd assortment of tunes. The woman put a hand on Emma’s, which was on a pair of pants, and said, too quietly not to be unsettling, “Your grandmother told me.”

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