The Wrong Everything

The fifth installment in this interminable series.

After a decent night’s sleep at the Stony-something Inn in Kansas City, and hearing my oldest son pronounce their preservative-laden, cellophane wrapped muffins ‘the best muffins I’ve ever had’, we cleaned and repacked the car again and got on our merry way. Via a slight detour for Krispy Kreme: attempt number two.

This time we struck gold. We practically ran inside only to find a rather lengthy line of Kansas City youth – undoubtedly part of a camp – waiting for their chance at sweet, hot grease. We waited patiently, formulating our orders while two teenaged girls stepped in front of us to access their iphones plugged into the wall. It struck me as one of those ‘signs of the times’ moments, this habit people have of commandeering any available electrical outlet, no matter its location, so they can charge their lifeline phone.

‘I don’t care what you’re getting, I’m getting a dozen plain,’ the professor decided, swayed from common sense by the sight of hot donuts transported on a conveyor belt. The inner workings of a Krispy Kreme really are mesmerizing.

‘Free sample?’ a store employee asked as she handed over hot donuts to happy customers. ‘This is the best donut I’ve ever had,’ the Gort insisted. Except this time he was kind of right. A hot Krispy Kreme is hard to beat.

We climbed in the car with a box of Krispy Kreme’s finest, along with a bag of ‘other’ donuts, a car full of gas and a standardized Starbucks coffee in the cup holder; basically living the roadtrip dream. On this, our last day of driving, we were headed to Indiana with a stop in St. Louis to spend some time at the City Museum.

Or so we thought.

Roughly three hours into our uneventful trip, perhaps shortly after I’d silently marvelled at how well it was all going, I noticed the car shaking and the professor sporting a weird look on his face. ‘What’s going on,’ I asked when I realized he wasn’t just being a terrible driver. ‘This light came on and the power steering quit,’ he might have said, as he began steering the car over to the side of the road. I had visions of us sitting on a very hot highway for hours on end and counselled him, loudly, to try and get to the next exit which was just a short distance ahead.

This resulted in some ‘differences of opinion’, but I felt confident I would be better placed to handle whatever was about to happen from the comfort of an air conditioned gas station slash McDonald’s in the metropolis of Wright City, Missouri.

An alternator, that’s what happened. But let’s not dwell on the horrendous exchange rate and the labor charge for car repairs on a holiday weekend. Let’s talk instead about how handy it was to weather this mechanical storm sitting at a McDonald’s while the boys watched the latest ‘A Night at the Museum’ procured from the Red Box conveniently located on the premises.

Say what you will about America, but it excels at convenience.

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Seeing as the laptop was occupied and the wifi was dodgy, I spent my three hours eating a McChicken sandwich, studying the convenience store’s inventory (Missouri wines, who knew?!) and wondering if we’d be better off buying the Toyota Sequoia at the used car dealer next door. Luckily the car-truck was white, so I didn’t have to seriously consider parting with thousands of dollars, getting rid of my Sienna or dealing with the hassle of importing a vehicle.

For some reason I can’t explain I don’t like white cars.

Three hours later we were back on the road, a mere 50 miles from our destination of fun. We arrived just in time for the City Museum and the awesome coffee shop my sister had told me about……to close. There was a momentary debate about whether or not we should bother trying to take the boys to see ‘The Arch’. I don’t even like the Arch, or care about it in any way, but for reasons I can’t explain – and especially since we’d missed both the Arch and the world famous barbeque in 2013 – I felt like it was our parental duty to show the boys this landmark.

Is now a good time to mention that the driver’s window in the car is also highly unreliable? And when it’s rolled down, say when the driver is paying for parking at a city lot, it will refuse to roll back up. (Is ‘roll’ the correct word when referring to the press of a button? Whatever, just add it to a growing list of small humiliations and sources of arguments.)

As ‘luck’ would have it, there is some extensive construction happening around the Arch and in order to see it up close, one has to walk about a mile from Google-suggested Laclede’s Landing. This doesn’t sound particularly challenging but when attempting it in the throes of marital discord, accompanied by three boys in various states of unhappiness, surrounded by midwestern humidity, I assure you it’s the equivalent of running a marathon. Especially when you’re not that jazzed about the thing you’re walking towards.

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‘Funny’ thing, the picture I like best from the whole experience is the one I took a few blocks from my car. 

We walked to the piece of bent metal. And we walked some more. And we endured bitter complaints and heat. I couldn’t help but notice that I was seeing a disproportionate number of people with abnormally low stature along the way. ‘Does St. Louis have a significant population of ‘little people’?’ I wondered.

And then I walked into a Starbucks inside a Hyatt hotel and saw the signs: ‘Welcome to the Little People of America Conference’. The entire hotel lobby was filled with little people. More than the Arch, I suspect this will be one of the memories the boys retain from the trip.

We walked on, snapping countless photos of the bent metal while the professor muttered things like ‘oh that Saarinen, he was just so good.’

And then we walked back to the car with the mostly rolled up window, but not before the professor encountered a reasonably well-dressed panhandler smelling of marijuana, and gave him $20 because he thought he was homeless.

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I hopped in the driver’s seat and texted my mom that we were leaving St. Louis; a mere 5 hours away from where she lives, most of it along I-70. On the road, we talked about dinner and what we might eat, praying for signs of a Chipotle Grill along the way. The sun was particularly beautiful and I found myself staring at it, urging the boys to do the same. We made offhanded remarks about the lack of signs, both speed limit and road identification, and at some point the professor concluded we were not actually on I-70 but traveling north on I-55 towards Chicago.

Areyoufreakingkiddingme.

It is a well-known fact – starting with that time, 15 or 16 years ago, we were about to return to Minneapolis from my mom’s house with one or two rottweilers and I locked the keys in the trunk and the professor calmly walked back into the house to lie down on the couch while we waited for a locksmith – that he is much nicer about stupid mistakes than I. To that end, he just sighed, pulled out the map and figured out where we needed to get off 55 so as to minimize the impact of my faux pas.

Sometime after dark, when the boys were asleep, we pulled off to stop for gas and saw a sign for Jimmy John’s – the sandwich shop with the soft french bread and the late hours – next to a gas station. (We never did find a Chipotle and I refused to eat at McDonald’s twice in one day.) We missed our turn and drove through some back alleys in order to get to the right spot. The professor filled up the car while I went inside to buy sandwiches. I sensed right away that something wasn’t quite right. The usual sandwich-making accoutrements were conspicuously absent and two employees wearing black shirts were closing down what appeared to be a mini liquor store. ‘Is Jimmy John’s closed?’ I asked hesitatingly. They gave me a weird look.

‘No, I think they’re still open over there,’ one of them finally spoke up, motioning with her hands to the place across the street. With all our back alley driving we’d stopped where we thought we needed to be without bothering to check we were at the right place.

There was a definite moment where I had to consider whether I had begun the descent into insanity. Fortunately it did not diminish the taste of my #6 Vegetarian in any way.

Courtesy of yet another time change and the slightly longer route, it was after 2am when we finally arrived at my mom’s house. A chocolate cake sat on the counter, and the boys nattered excitedly, despite the hour. The house was quiet and tidy without a trace of bad-hotel-smell and there were, quite literally, chocolates on our pillows.

It was like an oasis in the asphalt-desert.

And even better, we wouldn’t have to load our bleeping bags into the bleeping van six hours later.

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