The very best songs had turned into white noise. Because we’d been eating fast food off and on for 10 hours, we’d lost the joy of our favorite road trip game, “What will we eat next?”
Then someone — for the life of me I can’t remember who, and everyone would take credit now — looked ahead on the dark highway and asked, “What’s with that creepy gas station?”
For a moment we were rejuvenated by the idea that something in the world was creepier than our slightly swollen, salty fingers and the hamburger smell lingering in the stale air between us. The gas station was in the middle of nowhere with a trailer parked to the side that had a hand-painted welcome sign. All the lights shined so bright in the main building you could see through the windows, but the place looked empty. Not just of people, but of things on the shelves, too. I’m not one to get the shivers, especially not on a Texas highway in July, but as we all stared at the building standing alone in the cornfields, it happened.
“We need gas,” I said, wanting to see the place up close.
My husband just snickered. While anyone else might have thought he was amused, as his spouse I knew better. That snicker was code for “We’re on the last leg of the journey, and if we pull over now it’s over my dead body.”
Which, I decided not to point out, might have been made possible at the creepy gas station.
Long after that trip was finished, the creepy gas station still lived on. We passed it every time we drove toward Dallas, and without fail one of the boys would point out the window at the creepy gas station. We never thought about stopping, but we did think about what might happen there. Did people, under the influence of the creepiness, stick their arms through the rollers of the hot dog warmer? Did some just sit at the tables, watching while people walked the aisles shopping for nothing? Would someone ever, feeling sorry for the empty shelves, leave their own stuffed animal on one of them? And would that stuffed animal ever be a platypus?
In all those trips, I don’t remember anyone ever wanting to stop at the creepy gas station again. The story took on a life of its own, becoming richer with all the miles we laid under it.
Not long ago I was driving home from the Big D when I realized I was almost to the creepy gas station. Without thinking twice I switched lanes, exited the highway and pulled into the parking lot. Right away, I knew the decision was wrong.
For starters, there were chips on the shelves just like every other gas station in America, and a very normal-looking woman was walking out of the station. From the parking lot I could not see or sense any of the creepiness we had felt on that first, forever-ago night. Instead of ruining the memory more, I kept the car rolling back to the highway.
That night, hours after I had arrived home, I finally told my husband that up close the creepy gas station wasn’t so creepy. But this time he didn’t snicker, he just smiled. Probably he was already well aware of what I was saying in code: I like stories when they are just a little bigger than they need be.
Good thing I live in Texas.