Roadside Attractions

Submitted into Contest #99 in response to: Write a story about characters going on a summer road trip.... view prompt

38 comments

Friendship Contemporary Funny

In the rearview mirror the one called Astrid, a freckled strawberry slip of a woman, lifts the lid off a bronze funeral urn and squeezes a small hand through its narrow neck. She roots around inside for a moment, before retracting her hand and popping something into her mouth. I’m about to ask what she’s eating when Bobby, the young black man in the passenger seat, says, “Deer.”


About thirty feet ahead, a doe stands on the road, so close I can see its velvet ears twitching. It’s too late to stop. I got less than a second to decide--stay on course or swerve into the other lane. I hold my breath and turn the steering wheel sharply to the left. The doe swivels her head, watching us hurtle past, then leaps back into the woods. I pump the brakes lightly as we return to the right lane, watching the needle of the speedometer slide from 65 to 55 miles per hour. 


“Auto insurance policies cover collision with a deer but not hitting something else if you swerve to avoid the deer,” Bobby says, rubbing his large hands up and down his jean-clad thighs.


“Good to know,” I say, breathing out slowly.


“What happened?” asks Luca, the third member of this motley crew, from the backseat of the station wagon. He yawns and leans over to retrieve the top hat that slid from his lap toward Astrid during the doe-avoidance manoeuvre.


“Eloise nearly hit a deer,” Astrid says.


“There were 57 collisions with deer on Route 62 from January to December of 2020,” Bobby says.


“A blind ballerina carrying a mangy dog,” Astrid says.


It took me awhile to figure out that Astrid has some form of synesthesia. Luca, or 'Mister Esposito' as he introduced himself, told me she’s a poet, that the funeral home hired her to write eulogies for the indigent and the uncreative. Whenever she hears numbers and dates she says what she sees in her mind, usually crippled people or animals doing something weird. And she can’t keep quiet about what she sees, she’s gotta blurt it out, so I wonder whether she might have Tourette’s, like my grandson does, but she don’t swear like him.


Bobby has an encyclopaedic memory for odd-ball statistics, and can guess people’s birthdays just by asking a few random questions. When he guessed mine, I told him he didn’t get the year right, no way was I sixty-two! But I am, whether I want to believe it not. When I said he was wrong, he started rocking back and forth and hitting the sides of his head with his palms until Luca sang ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, with Astrid narrating each new verse with an image…a seven-legged spider, a deaf mermaid.


That all happened twenty minutes into the three-hour road trip. We still have nearly an hour to go, and we’ve already made three rest stops so Bobby could pee because he sucks down soda pop like it’s going outta style.


I suppose it’s too late to regret pushing the pin into the ride-share notice I’d tacked to the community board outside the church a week ago, offering to take passengers as far as Wolfs Corner, Pennsylvania. Too late to reconsider taking the three of them to Tionesta, for $10 each, to cover gas money. I shoulda known they'd be handful when I saw the raggle-taggle of them in the funeral parlour's parking lot this morning, but I figured strange company is better than no company when you're on a road trip. Though I'm seriously considering whether it's too late to leave them at the next rest stop.


“Do you like country music?” Bobby asks.


“Yes,” I say, “I like John Denver. And Tammy Wynette.” 


"I hear her voice in the mornin' hour she calls me. The radio reminds me of my home far away," Astrid sings in a clear lilting soprano.


Luca's alto joins as they harmonize, "Drivin' down the road, I get a feelin' that I should've been home yesterday.....yesterday."


And before I know it, I'm joining in on the chorus,


"Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong. West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, down country roads."


“I need to pee,” Bobby says, before we can launch into the next verse.


“Okay, we can stop at the Kwik Fill in East Hickory. That’s about 5 minutes away, okay?”


He nods and looks out the passenger side window.


I pull up next to the front door of the convenience store and turn off the engine. “I’ll wait here for ya,” I say.


Bobby and Astrid and get out and head into the shop, the bells jangling on the door as they enter.


Luca’s hazel eyes meet mine in the rearview. I haven't puzzled him out yet. He dresses and speaks like he’s some fancy man from the nineteenth century, with his three-piece suit, bowtie, and top hat. But at twenty-something, he’s too young to be that odd. You have to earn eccentricity, like I did mine after six decades on this earth, five (ex) husbands, three years’ probation for arson, and one tattoo of Elvis.


“You goin’ in?” I ask.


“I shall keep you company, Mrs. Mackowski.”


Damn it. Maybe he suspects I was thinking of leaving 'em all here.


“Call me Eloise, or Mack,” I remind him, for the third time. “What’s waitin’ for you in Tionesta?”


“We’re the entertainment for the Summer Solstice festival. The esteemed Hallers estate has invited us.”


“Hallers? You mean Hallers General Store?” I can feel my eyebrows rising to my hairline and try to calm them down.


“I believe they run a general store, yes.”


“Huh, you snake-handling the rattler they got cooped up, or talking in tongues or…”


“Certainly not, Mrs…Mack. We are high-brow entertainment. Astrid is the Roadside Poet, Bobby is the Mathematical Magician, and I,” he says waving his hands in front of his face like the those jazz dancers I saw in Cabaret once, “am the Amazing Luca!” A tattered bouquet of paper tulips appears in his right hand, the crinkled stems gradually wilting to one side.


I wonder, not for the first time on this trip, if that boy is rowing with one oar.


The jangling draws my attention to the store in time to see Bobby and Astrid coming back to the car. I turn the key and the engine revs to life. As Bobby buckles up, Astrid asks if I want any gummi bears. I turn towards the back seat. She's dumping the packet of sweets into the urn.


“No thanks, hon, chewy stuff don’t get along with dentures,” I say, twisting to face front again.


I pull onto the road in a cloud of dust, it’s been a dry summer punctuated by the rare electric storm.


“What happened there?” Luca asks.


I check to see what he’s looking at. We’re at the edge of the Allegheny Mountains, the river on one side, the pine-topped mountains on the other. He’s gawking at the mountain side, at a zigzagging swath of bare tree trunks scattered like matchsticks.


“The drunken barber laughed as he dragged the monstrous razor over the pines. Shaving a sinuous path, leaving a stubble of destruction," Astrid says.


“That was a tornado,” I say, “from three summers ago.”


What I don’t say, is that’s the same twister that gulped up the house I grew up in, the one on Yellowhammer road, and spat it back out like a mouthful of spoilt milk. Mind you, it’d been derelict for years. Hell, it was nearly falling down around me when I lived there, before Ma shipped me out to live with some nuns in Erie because she couldn’t afford to feed all five kids. I remember waving to my sister Lillian, from the backseat of the nun-mobile, as they drove me away.


“Do you like marshmallows?” Bobby asks.


“Yeah,” I smile. That was Lillian’s favourite, though we could hardly ever afford store-bought food.


After a few minutes, Hallers General Store appears. I put the blinker on and turn into the parking lot, driving past a few white tents set up for the Summer Solstice Festival and a sign that promises fortune tellers, magicians, real Indian jewellery, and bear jerky.


Hallers has been around as long I can remember, a small store packed with fishing gear, sunglasses, and bug spray, watched over by the glassy-eyed moose and deer heads hanging from the wood-panelled walls. I park in front of the ‘live bait’ sign, away from the rattlesnake enclosure. I’m not sure how Bobby would react to a slithering snake.


“Okay, this your stop,” I say.


They get out and I pop the trunk so they can get their suitcases.


“Many thanks, madam,” Luca says, tipping his top hat in my direction. “Please do stop by for a delightful diversion, once we’ve set up shop.”


“Will do,” I say, and I might even mean it.


June 19, 2021 14:56

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

38 comments

Tom D
15:59 Jun 30, 2021

This was a lot of fun! I felt like I was in the car riding alongside the characters, who certainly made an impression! Look forward to reading more.

Reply

H L McQuaid
12:25 Jul 01, 2021

Thanks, Tom! I enjoyed writing about them. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
21:14 Jun 28, 2021

I'm really intrigued by this trio of characters as well as the driver. Their stories are so fascinating, and there's so much I know about them now without you giving too many details away.

Reply

H L McQuaid
13:58 Jun 29, 2021

Thanks, Sabrina! I was working on characterisation for this story, so glad that you got a picture of who they are, even though there's not loads of backstory.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Nikki Hertzler
00:29 Jun 28, 2021

Creative!

Reply

H L McQuaid
12:25 Jul 01, 2021

thanks!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Kristin Neubauer
18:21 Jun 24, 2021

I haven't been able to keep up with Reedsy reading lately and I'm sorry I've missed so many of yours....but I am glad I read this one. What bunch of fun and fascinating characters! It reminds me a little of Cukoo's Nest when they all go out in the boat. Your writing, as always, was so clear, so vibrant....and you picked such distinctive quirks for each person. Lots of fun! I hear you about character development - I am more of a plot-based writer too and haven't really grasped the idea of getting into a character's head. I asked Anne ho...

Reply

H L McQuaid
08:32 Jun 28, 2021

Hi Kristin, thanks for sharing the advice from Anne, I'll see if I can apply it in future stories. :) And Massachusetts, mountain momma ? no! a thousand times no! Thanks for reading and commenting, glad you liked the characters.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Shirley Medhurst
13:24 Jun 24, 2021

Great story - I love the way you build up the different characters so quickly - each one quirky & all so very diverse. "a freckled strawberry slip of a woman" - wonderful line

Reply

H L McQuaid
14:05 Jun 24, 2021

Thanks, Shirley. I was trying my hand at character development. One day I hope to do both plot and character development in under 2000 words. ;)

Reply

Shirley Medhurst
14:27 Jun 24, 2021

You’re certainly well on the way to success 👍

Reply

Show 0 replies
Shirley Medhurst
14:27 Jun 24, 2021

You’re certainly well on the way to success 👍

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 2 replies
Show 1 reply
Cathryn V
02:34 Jun 24, 2021

Hi there, unlike others, I wasn’t familiar with these characters but certainly found them an interesting and odd bunch. my first clue was the top hat. I’m intrigued by the driver’s age and history. she sounds like an intriguing character. oh, and thanks for the PA references: deer on the road, Tionesta, etc. lovely story! i’m anxious to read the revised version if there is one! :)

Reply

H L McQuaid
12:53 Jun 24, 2021

Cathryn, thanks for the read and the comment. Thought I'd throw in some PA references (as I kid I was in Tionesta a lot on the weekends, with my family), with frequent visits to Hallers General Store (which did have a rattlesnake in a glassed-in enclosure next to the ice machine). These characters (including Mack) might appear in the future, but I probably won't radically revise this story. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Shea West
18:32 Jun 23, 2021

I'm so excited that this trio made a comeback! They are incredible and distinct. I hope we get to read more!

Reply

H L McQuaid
12:49 Jun 24, 2021

Thanks, Shea. I'm still working on what the longer piece could be, so you might see them again. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
David G.
16:48 Jun 23, 2021

Great first line! And great characters! I can see them in that car, barreling down the road, chattering away, each in his or her distinctive voice. What's next in the adventure? Do we follow Mack or do we stay with the three mysterious performers? Maybe they reconnect down the road, so to speak, their adventures intertwining? I guess what I'm asking is: what's the story?

Reply

H L McQuaid
17:18 Jun 23, 2021

As always, an excellent question. 😂 I'm working on ideas for a longer piece...I think Mack will intersect with them again, after they've had some trials and tribulations. I'm mulling over possible obstacles and overarching themes (spinning my wheels), but hope that inspiration will strike soon.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Ash Jarvis
00:30 Jun 23, 2021

It was so great to see these guys again, and to find out a little bit of what they’ve been up to since their escape! I think this narrator is a better choice, because her viewpoint gives us a clearer picture of what this trio looks and acts like. Plus, she’s a wonderful character on her own—three years for arson and five ex-husbands?! More, please! One thing that might be a mistake: “Too late to agree taking the three of them to Tionesta…” I’m wondering if you meant “Too late to regret agreeing…” or “Too late to stop myself from agreeing…”...

Reply

H L McQuaid
07:59 Jun 23, 2021

Hi Ash, Yeah, you're right, there was something hinky about the "agree to" phrase. I've attempted to fix it. Mack was fun to write, she's got low tolerance for foolery, but also prefers company on longer drives, and I imagined she led a fascinating life. Glad you liked it. And if I'm able to tell a longer story with this gang, them getting a home would be key goal. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Beth Connor
22:31 Jun 21, 2021

I am so excited to hear more about his trio, and it makes me crave a good road trip! There is a much stronger picture of Luca in this one, and Mack seems like she has some tales of her own!

Reply

H L McQuaid
12:04 Jun 22, 2021

Thanks Beth. I've been pulling my hair out trying to think of what the plot/story arc could be for a longer story, but I can't seem to make much progress. That's why I've probably never written anything longer than 2500 words...I can only think in short stories. :0

Reply

Beth Connor
15:12 Jun 22, 2021

I have no doubt that if you keep at it something will come. (or not- and that's okay too!) Perhaps you need Melinoe to come and inspire your dreams!

Reply

H L McQuaid
15:21 Jun 22, 2021

Ha, I have thought about writing a longer piece with Melinoe (she's been with me longer, so I feel I know her a bit better), so perhaps I should let that percolate and see if inspiration hits. thanks. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Claire Lindsey
19:11 Jun 20, 2021

Heather, I’m in love with these characters!! And what an opener haha This whole story seems to toe the line between reality and fantasy, similarly to how I would imagine these performers do. Simply outstanding character work that had me grinning the whole way through. And some really funny moments, too. A couple small critiques: Generally, you might consider going through and edit for your narrator’s voice. There were just a couple spots that felt a bit too formal for her dialect. For example: “I’ve not figured him out yet” sounds a littl...

Reply

H L McQuaid
19:24 Jun 20, 2021

thanks, Claire! I've made the changes you suggested, and will have another go through Mack's dialogue (her character developed more clearly as I was writing, so the earlier stuff may need some re-working). glad you like them, they're growing on me, too. ;)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Rayhan Hidayat
13:37 Jun 20, 2021

I can’t decide whether those three are in character as they prepare for the magic show or they really are that way. I’ll even go so far as to say they are iconic enough to be the main characters of the strangest coming of age/comedy film in existence. In any case, this was a very, very fun read. My one critque is that the closing line. The narrator was considering ditching them just a bit before, and I don’t think enough happened in between to justify her change in attitude. But then again, the story element here is very subtle as A.G. men...

Reply

H L McQuaid
14:09 Jun 20, 2021

thanks Ray! the closing line...yeah. Maybe i can add a bit more interaction before that. I had Mack getting nostalgic about her childhood home, and her sister, and marshmallows, but it's probably not enough to justify her change in attitude. So glad you think these characters would make for an entertaining comedy... if I can think of plot that would tie their lives (and adventures) together, I'd like to use them in a screenplay. The Marshmallow Gang, or the Broken Branches...or something much better than that. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Nina Chyll
20:03 Jun 19, 2021

Ha! And what an unexpected, amazing comeback. I was picturing teenagers in the previous story. Little do you know, huh?

Reply

H L McQuaid
20:08 Jun 19, 2021

yes, I could have definitely done a better job of hinting at their ages in the previous story. Hopefully this one rounds out their story a bit more, and we also meet Mack.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
16:24 Jun 19, 2021

What a collection of well-fleshed out characters!! I definitely wanted this ride to go on and on and on. Loved the bits about synasthesia and overall kinesthetic vibe. I had to laugh at this line: “Good to know” It's my person snarkiest retort. hahahah

Reply

H L McQuaid
19:22 Jun 19, 2021

Thanks, Deidra! I've been trying my hand at character development for the last two stories, as I usually focus on plot more. and yeah, a little snark is a good thing. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Ashe Creed
04:05 Jul 11, 2021

This trio was delightful to read! I rather enjoyed how there were details scattered-about, rather than feeing weighed down with backstory. It was a fun read, and didn't feel as if there was too much going on. (It is a great short story!)

Reply

H L McQuaid
12:09 Jul 11, 2021

Thanks, Ashe! Glad you liked it. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Ramona Taylor
22:49 Jul 04, 2021

Fun to read, the setting evoked memories for me as I grew up in the foothills of the Allegheny mountains, having been to Tionesta and everywhere between Clarion and Letchworth, NY. I like all the characters, would like to know more about Mack.

Reply

H L McQuaid
12:10 Jul 11, 2021

Thanks, Ramona. I didn't expect many folks on here to know about Tionesta, so it's nice to meet ya. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Unknown User
17:50 Jun 19, 2021

<removed by user>

Reply

H L McQuaid
19:19 Jun 19, 2021

thanks for reading, and I agree there's not much plot to speak of here. The vast majority of my stories focus more on plot, but every now and again, I try my hand at character development. Rarely have I been able to do both in story under 2000 words, but I hope I'm building up to that. Glad that you picked up on the theme (lesson?), that often it's the unexpected things (and people) in life that make it more interesting, even if they are challenging. ;) Many thanks for the read. I also read yours and liked it very much (tho I wasn't sure...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply