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.