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Authors: Michael Zadoorian

The Leisure Seeker

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The Leisure Seeker
Michael Zadoorian

For Norm and Rose

Which is more fair,

The star of morning or the evening star?

The sunrise or the sunset of the heart?

The hour when we look forth to the unknown,

And the advancing day consumes the shadows,

Or that when all the landscape of our lives

Lies stretched behind us, and familiar places

Gleam in the distance, and sweet memories

Rise like a tender haze, and magnify

The objects we behold, that soon must vanish?


HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

The world is full of places to which I want to return.


FORD MADOX FORD

Contents

Epigraph

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Other Books by Michael Zadoorian

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

One
MICHIGAN

We are tourists.

I have recently come to terms with this. My husband and I were never the kind who traveled to expand our minds. We traveled to have fun—Weeki Wachee, Gatlinburg, South of the Border, Lake George, Rock City, Wall Drug. We have seen swimming pigs and horses, a Russian palace covered with corn, young girls underwater drinking Pepsi-Cola from the seven-ounce bottle, London Bridge in the middle of a desert, a cycling cockatoo riding a tightrope.

I guess we always knew.

This, our last trip, was appropriately planned at the last minute, the luxury of the retiree. It is one that I’m glad I decided we take, although everybody (doctors, children) forbade us to go. “I strongly, strongly advise against any type of travel,
Ella,” said Dr. Tomaszewski, one of the seemingly hundreds of physicians currently attending to me, when I hinted that my husband and I might take a trip. When I casually mentioned the idea of even a weekend getaway to my daughter, she used a tone that one would normally reserve for a disobedient puppy. (
“No!”
)

But John and I needed a vacation, more than we’ve ever needed one before. Besides, the doctors only want me to stay around so they can run their tests on me, poke me with their icy instruments, spot shadows inside of me. They’ve already done plenty of that. And while the children are only concerned with our well-being, it’s still really none of their business. Durable power of attorney doesn’t mean you get to run the whole show.

You yourself might ask: Is this the best idea? Two down-on-their-luck geezers, one with more health problems than a third world country, the other so senile that he doesn’t even know what day it is—taking a cross-country road trip?

Don’t be stupid. Of course it’s not a good idea.

There’s a story about how Mr. Ambrose Bierce, whose scary tales I enjoyed as a young girl, decided when he got to his seventies that he would simply shove off to Mexico. He wrote, “Naturally, it is possible, even probable, that I shall not return. These being strange countries, in which things happen.” He also wrote: “It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs.” Speaking as someone who is acquainted with all three of those, I heartily agree with old Ambrose.

Put simply, we had nothing to lose. So I decided to take action. Our little Leisure Seeker camper van was packed and ready. We have kept it that way ever since retirement. So after assuring my children that a vacation was indeed out of the question, I kidnapped my husband, John, and we stole off, headed for Disneyland. That’s where we took the kids, so we like it better than the other one. After all, at this point in our lives, we are more like children than ever. Especially John.

From the Detroit area, where we’ve lived all our lives, we make our way west across the state. It’s a lovely trip so far, peaceful and steady. The air stream at my vent window creates a satin whoosh of white noise as the miles tug us from our old selves. Minds clear, aches diminish, worries evaporate, at least for a few hours. John doesn’t speak at all but seems very content to drive. He’s having one of his quiet days.

After about three hours, we stop for our first night in a small resort town that fancies itself an “artists’ colony.” As you enter the town proper, you pass, shrouded among the evergreens, a painter’s palette the size of a children’s wading pool, each daub of paint neatly dotted with a colored electric bulb that illuminates its corresponding hue. Next to it, a sign:

SAUGATUCK

This is where we spent our honeymoon almost sixty years ago (Mrs. Miller’s Boarding House, long since burned down). We rode the Greyhound bus. That was our honeymoon: taking
the dog to western Michigan. It was all we could afford, but it was exciting enough for us. (Ah, the advantages of being easily amused.)

After checking in at the trailer court, we two walk around town a bit, as much as I’m able, to enjoy what’s left of the afternoon. I’m very pleased to be here again with my husband so many years later. It’s been at least thirty years since we last visited. I’m surprised to find the town has not changed much—lots of confectioners, art galleries, ice cream parlors, and old-time shops. The park is where I remember it. Many of the early buildings are still standing and in good shape. I’m surprised that the town’s fathers didn’t feel the need to tear everything down and make it new. They must understand that when people are on vacation, they just want to return to a place that feels familiar, that still feels like it’s theirs, even if just for a short time.

John and I sit on a bench on Main Street where the autumn air is heavy with the scent of warm fudge. We watch families pass by, wearing shorts and sweatshirts, eating ice cream cones, chattering away, their laughter low-pitched and lackadaisical, the unwound voices of people on vacation.

“This is nice,” says John, his first words since we got here. “Is this home?”

“No, but it is nice,” I say.

John is always asking if somewhere is home. Especially in the last year or so, when things started getting worse. The memory problems started about four years back, though there
were signs of it earlier. It’s been a gradual process with him. (My problems arose much more recently.) I’ve been told that we’re lucky, yet it doesn’t feel that way. With his mind, first the corners of the blackboard were slowly erased, then the edges, and the edges of edges, creating a circle that grew smaller and smaller, before finally disappearing into itself. What is left are only smudges of recollection here and there, places where the eraser did not completely do its job, reminiscences that I hear again and again. Every once in a while, he knows enough to realize that he has forgotten much of our life together, but these moments happen less and less these days. It cheers me on the rare occasion when he is angered by his forgetfulness because it means he’s still on this side, here with me. Most of the time, he’s not. It’s all right. I am the keeper of the memories.

 

During the night, John sleeps surprisingly well, but I hardly close my eyes. Instead, I stay up reading and watching some late-night talk-show nonsense on our tiny battery-powered TV. My only company is my wig up on its Styrofoam perch. We two sit here in the blue dim, listening to Jay Leno under the roar of John and his adenoids. It doesn’t matter. I can’t doze for more than a couple of hours, anyway, and it rarely affects me. These days, sleep feels like a luxury that I can scarcely afford.

John has left his wallet, coins, and keys on the table like he does at home. I pick up his massive sweat-cured leather brick
of a billfold and open it. It gives off a mossy smell and makes a sticky noise as I flip through it. The wallet is a mess, the way I imagine his mind, things all mixed up and gummed together, tangled in the way I’ve seen in the brochures at the doctors’ offices. In there, I find scraps of paper stained with illegible scrawl, calling cards from people long dead, an extra key for a car sold years ago, expired Aetna and Medicare cards next to new ones. I bet he hasn’t cleaned it out in about a decade. I’m not sure how he manages to sit on the thing. No wonder his back always hurts.

I shove my fingers into one of the compartments and find a piece of paper folded twice over. Unlike everything else, it doesn’t look like it’s been there forever. I unfold it and see that it’s a picture ripped from somewhere. At first glance, it seems to be a family photograph—people gathered together in front of a building, but none of the people in the photo are familiar to me. When I unfold the tattered fringe at the bottom, I see a caption:

 

F
ROM
Y
OUR
F
RIENDS AT
P
UBLISHERS
C
LEARING
H
OUSE!

 

I should explain that we receive a ridiculous amount of mail from this company. At some point early in his illness, John fixated on the Publishers Clearing House company. He was always entering their sweepstakes, accidentally subscribing us to magazines that we didn’t need—
Teen People, Off-Roader
,
Modern Ferret.
Pretty soon, those SOBs were sending us three letters every week. Later, it just got harder and harder for John
to figure out the entry instructions, so the letters, opened and half-explored, started to pile up.

It takes me a moment, but I finally figure out why John has this picture in his wallet. He thinks it’s a photo of his own family! I start laughing. I laugh so loud that I’m afraid that I’ll wake him up. I laugh until tears come. Then I rip that photograph into a hundred tiny pieces.

Two
INDIANA

An early start through the gloom of interstate Indiana toward Chicago, where we will pick up Route 66 at its official starting point. Normally, we wouldn’t go anywhere near a big city. They are dangerous places if you’re old. You simply can’t keep up and will be promptly ground into the pavement. (Remember that.) But it’s Sunday morning and traffic is about as light as it gets. Even still, giant loud semitrucks grind and huff past us going 75, 80 mph and faster. Yet John is unshakable.

Though his mind is fading, he’s still an excellent driver. I’m put in mind of Dustin Hoffman in that
Rain Man
movie. Maybe it’s because of all our car trips in the past, or the fact that he’s been driving since he was thirteen, but I don’t think he’ll ever forget how. Anyway, once you get into the rhythm of long-distance driving, it’s only a matter of direction (my
job—mistress of the maps), avoiding those sudden, unexpected exits, and looking out for the danger that comes up fast in your mirror.

Without notice, the air goes gray and flat. Foundries and factories shimmer in the distance, under a shroud of grimy haze.

John frowns, turns to me, and says, “Did you fart?”

“No,” I say. “We’re just going through Gary.”

Three
ILLINOIS

Outside Chicago, the Dan Ryan Expressway isn’t crowded, but everyone drives too damn fast. John tries to stay in the right lane, but lanes are continually added on or taken away. I’m sorry now we didn’t just catch Route 66 out by Joliet, as I had originally planned. It’s just that part of me needed to do this trip from the very beginning to the very, very end.

Unofficially, Route 66 starts right at Lake Michigan, at Jackson and Lake Shore Drive, which we find without much trouble. It’s more difficult locating the official Route 66 starting point at Adams and Michigan. When we finally find the sign, I have John pull the van over. We could never do this on a workday, but this street is deserted today.

BEGIN HISTORIC
ILLINOIS U.S. 66 ROUTE

I lean out the window to take a closer look, but I don’t get out of the van. My wig could not survive this wind. It would be rolling down Adams like tumbleweed in a matter of seconds.

“This is it,” I say to John.

“Yes sir,” he says, with great enthusiasm. I’m not sure he understands what we’re doing.

I direct us down Adams. We drive between buildings so tall that the sunlight can’t reach us. This skyscraper twilight makes me feel strangely safe. Once we get onto Ogden Avenue, I start to see Route 66 signs.

In Berwyn, there are Route 66 banners hanging from the lampposts. I spot a place called Route 66 Realty. When we get to Cicero, Al Capone’s old stomping grounds, everyone just seems to be waking up. Folks are out driving around, but in no hurry, taking their Sunday morning time.

I realize that if John and I want to survive this trip, we must behave the same way. No rushing, no pressure, no four-lane superhighways if we can help it. There were too many vacations like that with the kids. Two days to get to Florida, three to California—
we’ve only got two weeks
—rush, rush, rush. Now there’s all the time in the world. Except I’m falling apart and John can barely remember his name. But that’s all right. I remember it. Between the two of us, we are one whole person.

Along the side of the road, two small children fresh from church wave to us. John honks the horn. I hold my hand up and wave at the wrist like I’m Queen Elizabeth.

We pass a statue of an enormous white chicken.

 

Did you know that there are parts of Route 66 that are buried directly beneath the freeway? It’s true. They paved right over it, the heartless bastards. That’s why Route 66 is a dead road today, decommissioned, emblems torn off its shoulders like a disgraced soldier.

When we reach one of these freeway stretches, John naturally accelerates, an instinct bred in the lead foot of a Detroit boy.

“Goose it, John!” I say, feeling freer than I have in years.

From our lofty vantage in the Leisure Seeker, the entombed Route 66 flies beneath us with a billowy roar. Suddenly sleepy, I crack the window, releasing a vacuum rush of balmy air, a sound like the flick of a newly laundered top sheet. I want the wind in my face. In the glove box, I find a fold-up plastic babushka, an ancient giveaway from a dry cleaner in our old neighborhood in Detroit. I wrap it around my wig, tie it under my chin, then roll down the window. The bonnet bellows out like it’s going to launch off my head, wig and all. I roll the window back up most of the way.

Morning is well established now, the weather quite perfect. A brilliant September day, that gaudy Crayola Yellow sunny, like you find at the uppermost corner of a child’s drawing. Yet
I can still detect the breath of fall in the air, damp-dry and musky. It’s the kind of autumn day that used to make me feel as if anything was possible. I remember a road trip years back, when the kids were still with us, looking out over the plains of Missouri on a day like this and feeling for a moment that life could continue indefinitely, that it would never end.

Strange what a little sunshine can make you believe.

These days, autumn is no longer my favorite season. Dead, shriveled leaves don’t hold quite the appeal they used to. I can’t imagine why.

The layer-cake freeway ends and we’re back on Route 66. I can tell by the giant green-suited spaceman standing alongside the road.

“John, look!” I say, as we approach the emerald colossus, his massive noggin in a fishbowl helmet.

“How about that?” says John, eyes barely straying from the road. He couldn’t care less.

As we pass the Launching Pad Drive-In, again I want to crank down the window all the way. Then I realize that if I want to feel the wind and sun on my face, there is no reason why I can’t. I rip off my babushka, then unclasp my helmet of synthetic lifelike fiber (the Eva Gabor Milady II Evening Shade—75% white/25% black) at the back where it is tentatively tethered to my last remaining hair of any thickness. I reach underneath, then pull back and up to unsheathe my head.

I roll down the window and throw that goddamned thing out where it tumbles and flops along the side of the road like a just-hit animal. Such blessed relief. I can’t remember the last
time my scalp saw direct sunlight. What little hair I have on top is thin and delicate like the first frail wisps of an infant. In the delicious wind, the long strands twist and dance around my scalp, a sad swirled turban, but I don’t care today. It had bothered me so much when my hair thinned out after menopause. I was ashamed like I had done something wrong, afraid of what everyone would say. You spend your life so worried about what others think, when in reality, people mostly don’t think. On the few occasions when they do, true, it is often something bad, but one has to at least admire the fact that they’re thinking at all.

I look back at my Styrofoam wig stand. The head is still taped to the counter, no longer my companion, but now staring at me, judging, wondering “What the hell did you just do?” I don’t look at myself in the mirror. I know I look like death warmed over. It doesn’t matter. I feel lighter already.

 

Up ahead, I spot a building that looks somehow familiar. Low slung and sprawling, its peaked turquoise roof is blanched from decades of sun. There’s a faded horse and carriage on the side of the building. Finally, I notice the sign.

STUCKEY’S

On our vacations with the kids, Kevin and Cindy, we’d often stop at those places with their pecan logs and acrid coffee. Sometimes the signs would start a hundred miles away.
There’d be a new one every ten, fifteen miles. The kids would get all worked up and want to stop and John would say no, we had to get some miles under our belt. They’d beg and finally when we were a half mile away, he’d give in. The kids would scream
yay,
and John and I would smile at each other like parents who knew how to spoil their children just enough.

A semitruck roars past us. In a moment, it’s silent again, except for the wind. “I haven’t seen one of those places in years,” I say. “Do you remember Stuckey’s, John?”

“Oh yeah,” he says, in a tone that almost makes me believe him.

“Come on,” I say. “Let’s go. We need gas anyway.”

Nodding, John pulls up to the pumps. No sooner do I get out of the van than a man, neatly dressed in a beige sport shirt and copper-colored slacks, approaches us.

“We don’t have gas anymore, but there’s a BP up the road,” he says, his voice raspy, but not unpleasant. He tips his puffy white cap back on his head with his thumb.

“It’s okay,” I say. “We really just wanted a pecan log.”

He shakes his head. “We don’t have those anymore, either. We’re just gone out of business.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I say, clutching my armrest. “We used to like Stuckey’s. We came with our kids.”

He shrugs forlornly. “Everyone did.”

As he walks away, I wrestle myself back into the van. By the time I’m buckled up and ready to give John the go-ahead, the man is back at my door.

“I found one,” he says, handing me a pecan log.

He’s gone before I can even thank him.

 

I find out now that Route 66 was already starting to fall apart the time we traveled on it in the ’60s. Much of the old road is closed now, buried or bulldozed, long ago replaced by Highways 55 and 44 and 40. In some places, the original pink Portland concrete is so decrepit you can’t even drive on it. Yet there are maps and books available now that show the old route, turn-by-turn directions, guides to the trailer parks. It’s true. I found it all on the World Wide Web in the library. Turns out people didn’t want to let go of the old road, that a lot of the kids who were born after the war, who traveled it with their parents, want to retrace their steps. Apparently, everything old is new again.

Except us.

 

“I’m hungry,” says John. “Let’s go to McDonald’s.”

“You always want to go to McDonald’s,” I say, poking his arm with the pecan log. “Here. Eat this.”

He looks at it with suspicion. “I want a hamburger.”

I stash the pecan log in our snack bag. “We’ll find you a hamburger somewhere else for a change.”

John loves McDonald’s. I’m not that crazy about it, but he could eat it every day. He did for quite some time. McDonald’s
was his hangout for a number of years after he retired. Every day, Monday through Friday, right around midmorning. After a while, I started to wonder what the big attraction was, so I went with him. It was just a bunch of old farts sitting around, chewing the fat, drinking Senior Discount coffees, reading the paper and bitching about the state of the world. Then they’d get a free refill and start all over again when new old farts arrived. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I never went with him again, which I think was what he wanted. Frankly, I think John just needed somewhere to go to get away from me after he retired. Truth be told, I was happy to have him out of my hair, synthetic or otherwise.

Yet once we both settled into the rhythm of retirement, we had a good time. We were both in pretty decent shape then, so we did a lot. After John would return from McDonald’s, we’d take care of things around the house, run errands, chase down the sales at the supermarkets or Big Lots, catch a matinee, have an early dinner. We’d gas up the Leisure Seeker and take off for weekends with friends or take the long trek to the outlet mall at Birch Run. It was a good period, one that didn’t last long enough. Soon, we started spending our days going from doctor’s office to doctor’s office, our weeks worrying about tests, our months recovering from procedures. After a while, just staying alive becomes a full-time job. No wonder we need a vacation.

We manage to avoid McDonald’s long enough to stop for lunch somewhere outside Normal, Illinois. I grab my four-
pronged cane and lower myself from the van. John, still pretty spry, has already gotten out on his side to help me. “I got you,” he says.

“Thanks, honey.”

Between the two of us, we do all right.

Inside, the diner is meant to look like the 1950s, but it doesn’t look anything like how I remember them. Somewhere along the line, people became convinced that that decade was all about sock hops, poodle skirts, rock and roll, shiny red T-birds, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe. and Elvis. It’s funny how a whole decade gets reduced into a few seemingly random pictures. For me, that decade was about diapers and training wheels and miscarriages and trying to house and feed three people on $47 a week.

After John and I sit down at a table, a girl dressed as a carhop walks up. (Why a carhop? We’re
inside,
for Christ’s sake.) She has long bottle-blond hair, bow lips, and eyes like a kewpie doll.

“Welcome to the Route 66 Diner,” she says, in a whispery voice. “I’m Chantal. I’ll be your server.”

I don’t know what to say to this, so I just say something. “Hello, Chantal. I’m Ella and this is my husband, John. I guess we’ll be your customers.”

“I want a hamburger,” says John, abruptly. He’s lost a few of his social skills along with the memory.

I try to laugh it off. “We’ll both have plain hamburgers and coffee,” I say.

Chantal looks disappointed. Maybe she works on commission. “How about some Fabian Fries? A Pelvis Shake?”

“What is
that
?”

“A chocolate milk shake.” She gives me a little nod. “They’re good.”

“All right. You don’t have to twist my arm.”

“Pelvis Shake, coming right up,” she says, pleased to have made a sale.

After our new friend Chantal leaves, I excuse myself to make a phone call.

“Mom, where the fuck are you?” screams my daughter over the phone, right there in the lobby of the diner.

I look around, almost embarrassed to be listening to her. I don’t know where she got this mouth, but it wasn’t from me, I assure you.

“Cindy honey, don’t use that language. Your father and I are fine. We’re just taking a little trip.”

“I can’t believe you went through with this. We all discussed this and decided that you and Dad taking any kind of a trip was out of the question.”

I can hear the exasperation in her voice. I don’t like it when Cindy gets all worked up. She’s been having blood pressure problems lately, and getting all frantic certainly doesn’t help.

“Cindy.
Calm down
. Your father and I didn’t decide anything. You and Kevin and the doctors decided for us. Then, Dad and I decided that we should go anyway.”

“Mom. You’re sick.”

“Sick is relative, dear. I’m way past sick.”

“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” she says, indignantly. “You can’t just stop going to the doctor.”

I look around the restaurant to make sure no one is listening. I lower my voice. “Cynthia, I am not going to let them do their treatments on me.”

“They just want to try to make you better.”

“How? By killing me? I’d rather go on vacation with your father.”

“Damn it, Mom!”

“I
don’t
like being yelled at, young lady.”

There is a long pause while Cindy gives herself a time-out. She used to do this when she was frustrated with her kids, now she does it with John and I.

“Mother,” she says, newly composed. “You know Dad shouldn’t even be driving in his condition.”

“Your father still drives just fine. I wouldn’t go with him if I didn’t think that.”

“What if you guys get in an accident because of him? What if he hurts someone?”

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