We’d packed up our vacation in Nashville a few hours ago and been seeing trees and hills since before our hunger began, crossing towards Tennessee’s eastern border, yes, Tennessee, the home of country music, fine stallions, and potato rifles. The charcoal grey Nissan Sentra was packed to the gills. The dulcimer I’d bought at Opryland rested in a case in the rear window and looked like a harbored tommy-gun.
“Do you think there is any place out here to eat?” my girlfriend asked, as we stared at the multitude of evergreens, ash, and black oak amongst countless others along every side of the road. They were sheer beautiful portraits of fortitude, each last one of them … but none spoke of food.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Maybe we should take the next exit and see if there’s a small diner or something.”
“Okay,” she agreed.
“Where was a firecracker when you needed one?” I thought. If you’ve ever driven across Tennessee, you’d know what I meant. Any proprietor of any good or any service commonly paired up his or her specialty with bangers, except maybe for those, but I won’t swear, labeled “XXX Videos,” and there were quite a few of those, but I gather their industry never fell hard on dry times to need another means of funding. But in the other stores the signs read, “We sell souvenirs and fireworks.” Still others reported, “All natural produce … home grown tomatoes and fireworks,” or “Get the best in furniture … and fireworks.” And how about this? “Gas $1.20 a gallon … and don’t ya’ll forget to get ya some rockets and sparklers while you’re here.” This last one I was more inclined to keep a wider berth than the others. Lost? Don’t check your position by the North Star, just smell for gunpowder and you’ll find civilization.
You know, I wondered what a shrink would do if he ever had a Tennessean in his office?
“Tell me the first word that comes to your mind when I say, ‘Food.’”
“I see … relationship?”
“Urinary tract infection with a coronary bypass?”
“Why yes, you’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re absolutely normal.”
Of course when the psychiatrist said “absolutely,” it was in the context of believing, with 100% proof, that his client was closely bonded in a relationship with ole Jack Daniels. But if it had ever been divulged that the patient was from dry Moore County, however, the doctor would surely have shrunk-wrapped and stamped that client for admission at the psychiatric hospital where a general store there could be found selling hairbrushes and crayons and Styrofoam hand-puppets … and if located in Tennessee … fireworks as well.
So that’s why I was sure there had to be a down-home-cooking restaurant and explosives under one roof somewhere.
“There’s an exit coming up,” I said, believing what the road sign was telling me. “But what’s up there?”
Ahead, just beyond the descending road that exited from the main drive, was a few automobiles stopped, sandwiched between some state trooper cars with their lights turning like misplaced lighthouses in search of a beach. An officer in a beige uniform flapped his fingers, directing the first in a short line of waiting vehicles to move over to a pillar-like officer in shades. Others of the force were already peeking in front and back windows of preceding cars. “Looks like they’re searching for something,” I said, but it seemed odd in the middle of nowhere, and then enlightenment, maybe their being here was a sign that good digs to eat were just down the exit, hidden behind those lofty sugar maples. “Could be something here,” I said, as I took the departure and watched the drive and the commotion ahead, of state troopers, ascend above me and out of sight. We came around the bend, still only seeing trees, and then the hint of another road that this one would probably hook up with, which appeared to go nowhere other than to a lumberjack’s day labor. “I don’t think there’s anything here,” I said just as a second squad of troopers and their cars appeared on my new horizon, between me and that other road to nowhere. “O-okay.”
“We can ask them if there’s any place around here to eat,” my girlfriend suggested, as I pulled in slowly to a stop at the kneecaps of the officer before me. There was a small crowd of them, all behind dark, reflective sunglasses and neutral expressions, which perhaps if they favored anything, were the captions: “You’re going down,” or “I eat crowbars.”
I rolled down the window. “Uh … hello,” I said. “Is there something wrong?”
The trooper answered my question with another question. “Did you see that inspection up on the highway?”
“Uh … yes I did,” I answered.
“Is there a reason why you exited the road before it … sir?” he asked.
I almost wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it, but at the same time wished I could see a sign somewhere stating fireworks for sale to substantiate the next thing I was about to say. “We were looking for a place to eat,” I answered.
The trooper raised his head to peer around at the lack of anything other than pine needles, bark, and foliage, as if to put an exclamation point on his visual response, which I’d read clearly, but with his eyes hidden behind two mirrors, I wasn’t sure if he’d actually looked away from me. Maybe he hadn’t. Maybe he was hoping that he’d fool me into making a move or into giving him any excuse to drop me then and there. My peripheral vision out of the back of my head told me there was another officer peering in through the passenger side window. Still a third hovered outside, over what occupied my rear window and looked so much like a machine gun case from an old gangster movie. If I had anything to hide, I would have been scared, but honestly I was finding this all too amusing. I mean these troopers really believed they’d caught a dirt bag … and what a laugh … I was the dirt bag. But I thought it in my best interest not to laugh. I didn’t know the fine line I might be walking on … fifty years in some boondock prison for having chuckled at a trooper, and why not? They could have treated it like foreign contraband, because I was sure none of them even knew what humor was. The lot of them was Vulcan cyborgs minus the ear tips.
“We’re not from here,” I said, and I was sure one of the officers at that had checked my Vermont license plate.
I was right.
“You on vacation?” the first officer asked. Our car was brimming with luggage and numerous picked-up-along-the-way articles.
“Yes … that’s a dulcimer,” I said, and thumbed at the leather case. I didn’t want to get shot for that misunderstanding. It wasn’t even tuned, regardless of it not being loaded. “Are you looking for something?”
“Did you know this is major drug trafficking route?” the officer asked.
Was I going to be stupid enough to say, “Oh sure … sure, sure.”? No, I refrained from that.
“Right up to Vermont,” he added.
“Are you freakin’ kidding me?” I thought to myself, because I didn’t dare say that out loud.
“Do you mind if we check your car?” he asked, with his buddies appearing to have narrowed the perimeter around us.
“Hell no I don’t want you looking in my car. It took forever to pack it. Well, goodbye and thank you … and oh yeah, where can you get a bite?” If only it could be that easy. My mother didn’t raise an imbecile. I knew the question was answered parallel to it being asked. If I said no, I realized I could very easily be face-down in the dirt with a knee in my back, a gun at my head, and me eating dirt. Well … I was hungry … but no I didn’t do that. I said, “Sure … uh … go ahead.”
“Could you please step out of the car?” He was polite enough if he wasn’t friendly. I have to say that about him. The others? I don’t know. They didn’t speak. Maybe they couldn’t. Maybe all they knew how to do was pummel … pummel till the person was unrecognizable. I mean who knows? I’m sure on a hunting day that’s a good way to get rid of the paperwork … get yourself a shovel … dig yourself a ditch … and fill.
My girlfriend and I got out and went over and sat on the guard rail, the only sign of humanity unrelated to law enforcement … and our car, which was presently being violated. Sorry, Nissan. I hoped they didn’t open my dirty laundry. Who knew what crime could come out of that? The trunk was open, zippers were being unzipped and I felt like the wizard on the mountain top that knows everything, or at least knows that they aren’t going to find anything that will draw a conviction. Then I thought, “This is too much. No one is ever going to believe this.”
“Ivonne, do you have my camera?” I asked my girlfriend. “I want to take a picture.” She was looking at me as if I had two heads, and shoulders not big enough to hold a Ping-Pong ball.
“What?” she said, “Do you think that’s okay?”
“What, do you think they’ll think this is a gun and shoot me?” I said. I didn’t think they were stupid, though everything they were doing was a mistake. She handed me my camera, and eventually surrendered some poignant grins when I asked her to smile, capturing her and the interrogation of my car in the background. At this point I think I might have been quietly laughing out loud. I really thought it all very funny. The faces of the troopers remained neutral, but no more “You’re going down” or “I eat crowbars” than before.
Not believing for a moment that the officers had had a change of heart due to my photo shoot, they must have concluded only by having searched and found nothing that we’d been telling the truth about our initial hunt for food all along. To firmly install that outcome, once back, seated in my car, I asked if they knew of a place we could eat. The officer appeared kinder, and his shaded glasses a little lower under his eyes, and he gave us directions to a diner, a truck stop he knew of, which wasn’t half bad. We thanked him and waved goodbye, and he almost inconspicuously raised a finger in a reciprocated response.
Well, we found the eatery that had been suggested, and sat down at a small wooden table, and if it wasn’t a few minutes later, that same trooper came walking into the place. We caught his attention, though I think we had it before we tried, and waved. This time he actually smiled and added four more fingers to his response.
I leaned over the table to my girlfriend. “I think he was checking up on us,” I said.
“You think?” she replied.
“Oh yeah … and I think he’s happy to have found us here too,” I said … and so … even if it was for just the smallest amount of time … I’d been considered an outlaw … not something for the resume, but definitely a tale to be told and retold.
Real: What happened and …
Not Real: I actually realized we’d come out of Tennessee and were actually in North Carolina at this point.