This is a short story about the road.
Every time I drive through the endless acres of the Midwest, I always find myself stopping at some random gas station in some obscure small town.
Sometimes it’s Colby, Kan., an outpost in the middle of the Great Plains, one of the final stops of civilization before the Rocky Mountains take over the exterior.
Sometimes it’s Osceola, Iowa, a little patch of land on I-35 about 35 miles north of the Missouri border.
But most of the time, it’s a town I’ve never heard of — or at least, a name that I once heard, or once saw on a road sign, but long ago forgot.
And on Monday, I stopped in a little town called Lamar, Mo.
Maybe I should have heard of Lamar. Harry S. Truman was born there. Wyatt Earp once lived there.
But this story is not about Lamar.
No, it’s really about the same feeling I have whenever I stop at some random gas station, off some double-digit exit, in some obscure small American town.
The signs always advertise gas and food and lodging — a Super 8? — and there’s always one less building than the signs listed, the shell of some former filling station always sitting on a nondescript corner, its real estate abandoned and left with overgrown weeds and rusting signage.
And so on Monday, as I pulled my car up to the highway stop right on the edge of town, I looked at the faded green sign that read:
I had been driving for nearly 2 hours, and I had to use the restroom, and I wanted to buy something.
I always have to buy something. It really is a disorder. Whenever I stop at a gas station, I become some sort of fiend, the Charlie Sheen of convenience stores, maybe, and all I want to do is win.
Am I thirsty? No. Am I hungry? No. Do I need coffee at 4 p.m. in the afternoon? Hmm…
So, unwittingly, I began to concoct some sugary coffee concoction — gutrot in a small Styrofoam cup.
And when I was done, I walked up to the counter.
The kid at the register was probably around 14 years old, maybe younger, maybe older. (I’ve become quite lousy about guessing ages.)
He looked at my drink, pressed the button on the register pad, and asked for $0.81.
For a moment, as I reached into my wallet, I began to think about this kid behind the register, at some random gas station, off some double-digit exit, in some obscure small American town.
Why is he here? Why did he choose to work here?
Does he enjoy ringing up $0.81 purchases at the register for some out-of-towner who is just passing though?
What is life like in Lamar?
We don’t spend much time thinking about the convenience store clerk in Lamar… or the baker in Boston… or the barista in San Francisco… or the turnpike attendant in Topeka.
We all go about our lives, stretches of highway keeping us isolated from our friends and neighbors… and the guy behind the counter.
Maybe next time I’ll ask his name. But I probably won’t.