“Another damn Stuckey’s. That kid’s pissed at every one of ‘em from Indianapolis to Chattanooga,” Blackie says. “If she was a dog, she’d be marking her territory.”
He is talking about me! I keep my eyes closed and lay perfectly still.
“Watch your mouth,” Mama demands. “You’ll wake her up.” Mama doesn’t hide her distaste for Eli Black, a tall, white-haired, down-on-his-luck alcoholic, who works with my dad in a smelly, old machine shop. Blackie wears his worn out gray work uniform even on weekends and he smells like chewing tobacco. The only thing good about him is when I ask for candy, he magically pulls a Clark bar out of his pocket. He’s lived with us for five months and my parents jumped for joy when he asked them drive to Miami and leave him there.
“Sorry ma’am. How much longer d’ya figure it’ll take till we get there, Bud?” Blackie asks my dad, who is behind the wheel. (Geez! I’m not even allowed to say, “Are we there yet?”)
“Depends on how many Stuckey’s there are between here and there,” Daddy says. “I guarantee she’ll want to stop at most of them.”
“Good thing you and Louise got the new Ford wagon. If we’re lucky, she’ll sleep the rest of the night in the back and we’ll pass a few of ‘em up.”
“Don’t count on it,” Daddy says with a chuckle.
“She watches those billboards like a hawk,” Mama explains. “Counts the miles ahead till the next one, then figures what time we’ll get there. She’s pretty good at math for a child her age. Right about the time we’re close, she claims she has to pee. What can you do?”
I squint with one eye and see the moonlight reflecting a self-satisfied expression off Mama’s face. I’m curled up in the back seat under a quilt; my arms wrapped around Bella, who is soft and stuffed, and my head is on Mama’s lap. The trip seems interminable to me. I’ve listened to their boring jabber for eight hours and napped briefly to escape. What else can I do? The only relief I get is when we stop for breaks, and Stuckey’s is the only fun place to stretch my legs.
We have traveled the Dixie Highway all the way from Indiana through Kentucky and into Tennessee. When we stop for gas, three cute guys in coffee-colored uniforms fill the tank, squeegee our windshield, smile and say, “Y’all come back!”
Up front, Daddy and Blackie take turns driving, while Mama and I sit in the back of our new, white Ford station wagon with no air conditioning or seatbelts. My sweaty legs stick to the red vinyl seats. Sometimes we lower the back seat and stretch out a little, but you have to be a contortionist to get comfortable, what with the green Coleman cooler and matching set of brown Samsonite, packed for the two-week trip.
Blackie loves country music, and the further south we travel that’s all I hear on the radio. Hank Williams’ song, Your Cheatin’ Heart, is forever embossed in my brain. I brought along my transistor radio with an earphone for one ear, but the southern radio stations don’t play rock and roll. I am ten years old and picky about my music.
I always feel a thrill when we pull up to a Stuckey’s; each time is like the first! The windows are large, and, if I stand on my tiptoes, I can peer in from the outside and see through the whole store. Through the door, Mama and I always head straight for the ladies room, especially since I’d insisted I had to go. I love to read the stall door messages. Tracey Was Here 1-30-58 and Alice +Jim= 4-Ever.
Then, on my own for a while, I traverse the aisles, pick up trinkets, check prices, then put them down again. I’ve never seen such really neat stuff.
“Hey Mama, look at this!” I call from two aisles over. It’s a four-inch tall Hawaiian beauty with a green fringe skirt and lei, doing the hula wiggle when I touch her. One of my favorites is the buttocks-shaped ashtray with instructions to ‘put your butts here’ painted on it. I always feel a little naughty for looking at that display. Ah, then there are the spoon rests and plaques for a woman’s kitchen: “No Matter Where I Serve My Guests, They Always Like My Kitchen Best.” Kitchens belong to women, and men dare not enter, nor should women stray far. I beg Mama to buy one of those plaques, but she won’t hear of it. Our kitchen is too small for the three of us, let alone any guests we might have over for dinner.
Two entire shelves are devoted to salt and pepper sets. I stand there, mesmerized by the matching outhouses, pigs, cows, half nude women, Florida oranges . . . “one hole on top for pepper and three for salt,” my mother instructs, preparing her daughter for when she will have a kitchen of her own. Such a variety of junk, a whole new world opens up to me at Stuckey’s.
I never fail to find something I want, but I can’t always have it. Like that little prancing dog, doing circles, yapping incessantly until his batteries go dead. Daddy rarely says “No” but the yapping dog is where he draws the line. One thing I always count on—he says yes to candy. It’s difficult to decide between the pecan log with its soft nougat center and crunchy pecan cover, or the maple pecan pralines that melt in my mouth like a spoon full of refined sugar. I select a box of salt-water taffy, and Mama and I chomp on pastel treats for a couple hundred miles down the road, while I stuff both backseat ashtrays full of waxed-paper wrappers.
We never leave the place empty-handed. There is always some little treasure I end up getting. A little plastic box with Mexican jumping beans (I take them apart to see how they work), a Georgia key chain, and don’t ask me why I want that, or a plastic ice cube with a fly in it.
I don’t know exactly how many stops we make on that trip, but we drive down the Atlantic coastline to Miami, drop Blackie off in a greasy fried chicken café and head home up the Gulf Coast. This is our first family vacation to Florida, and I guess there are at least a dozen Stuckey’s we grace with our presence. Every time we stop to eat, I drop that plastic ice cube into Daddy’s water and he always pretends to be horrified.
Most of my travel souvenirs come from Stuckey’s, with the exception of a small stuffed alligator and an Indian doll from the Seminole Reservation in the Everglades. Then there is the jar of red dirt, Georgia clay, which I bring home because I’ve never seen red dirt before. I insisted my parents pull off to the side of the road and collect some for me. They really seem to find it difficult to say no to my little dimpled
I grow up, marry and have a family; my kids grow up and move away. Both parents pass away. I get a divorce and am on my own. Time passes. We know it does. We know it will. We don’t usually measure it without a reminder. Recently, on a road trip to Florida alone, I listen to a book on tape, then some Barry Manilow, and I even carry on a conversation with myself in an attempt to escape boredom. When I cross the Kentucky-Tennessee border, I stop for gas. I use a self-serve pump since there are no attendants in uniform rushing to care for my every need. In my own defense, I think my mind is already in Florida even though my body is in Tennessee, and I forget to replace the gas cap. A mile or so down the road I notice the opened gas door in my side-view mirror, so I return to the station but can’t find the cap. Back on the road, irritated with my carelessness, I smile at the pleasant memory of my childhood. I had been surrounded then by people who did nearly everything for me, and I hadn’t the need to be responsible at all.
Up ahead a billboard catches my eye; there is a Stuckey’s five miles down the road! My inner child claims she has to pee. I don’t believe her, but what can I do? It may be the aqua roofs that cause the feeling. Aqua represents water, and water . . . well I’ll leave it at that.
I pull into the parking lot and up to the curb. I can easily see through the large windows to the inside, don’t have to tiptoe anymore. I open the door and go in. It looks the same as I remember; it could have been one of the same stores from years ago for all I know. I visit the ladies room, and while the graffiti hasn’t changed much, it isn’t as clean as before.
I walk up and down the aisles, picking up trinkets, checking prices, putting them down again. I look at T-shirts and fireworks, all kinds of cheap souvenirs. Stuckey’s is not a place known for its art and beauty, yet I allow my eyes to absorb the wonderful interior of the place as, at that moment, the aesthetic value of my childhood returns.
I close my eyes. I smell disinfectant. Modern day, sterile smells. The sounds, however, are those from the past. Children select their candy treats; mothers slide metal hangers over circular rods, searching for the T-shirt value of their vacation. “Get over here, Jimmy, and stand still while I hold this up to you. I can’t bring it back to Tennessee if it doesn’t fit you when we get to the beach.” When the family checks out, I expect a “Have a nice day” from the sales clerk who was all of twenty years old. But he surprises me with “Y’all come back!” Now that’s a sound from the past.
“Do you have any Mexican jumping beans?” I inquire of him.
He looks puzzled. “No, ma’am.”
Why does he call me ma’am? “I guess they’re outlawed now due to cruelty to bugs or something,” I joke.
Puzzled again, he smiles politely. Poor kid, he was born thirty years too late.
I study the candy selection. Pecan logs are only three for a dollar, but I don’t buy anything. I have learned to say no to myself even though my parents never figured out how to do it. My adventure back in time takes no more than fifteen minutes, but it will be enough to calm me and keep me smiling for days. As I head back toward my car, I stop halfway there and think, oh, why not? and hurry back inside to buy a set of pink flamingo salt and peppers. I never leave a Stuckey’s empty-handed.