I’d been through there once before with a couple of girls. That time we had stopped at McDonalds to use the bathroom, and even though I’d initially asked for the pit stop, I opted to hold it until we reached a more sympathetic bathroom at a tourist trap bookstore thirty miles farther down the highway. We joked about being in such a hole, and Lucy, the girl I was friends with the least, made a big show of buying us all rings from a toy machine. I remember how impressed she was that the rings still cost twenty-five cents. I also remember Anna, the driver, sniping that she would have preferred gas money instead. I still had my ring: a metal claw holding a ball of glow-in-the-dark plastic. I found it at the bottom of my jewelry box the other day while I was looking for a safety pin.
Dave and I came up from the south. When our route ended in a neat pile of concrete pipes ringed by a jagged mouth of safety barrels, the series of orange detour signs harkening to the right was at first a reassuring trail of breadcrumbs, but as the road wound along, lined with deeply set ranch homes sided in permutations of beige, the signs dropped off, and the trust we had placed in the department of transportation’s follow-through was somewhat shaken. Finally we broke upon a four way stop with a flashing red light, flanked by a chamber of commerce sign and an old roadside motel, the Peter Pan lodge; ten little A frames surrounding a slumped shack painted to look like a log cabin. I made an enthusiastic cooing noise at signs of life and a dented fiberglass Indian. “You could probably get Herpes Simplex 1000 there,” Dave sniffed.
At least there were signs of civilization now, in the form of a row of duplexes, each ringed by a fence, each fence containing its own collection of plastic toddler toys: popcorn poppers, cosy coupes, rocking giraffes and teeter horses sunbleached to the pastels of a colorized photograph. Up ahead was a Cape Cod that was well tended, if a bit shabby, with white-painted cobblestones and a wishing well planted with striped petunias and some mangy impatiens. I had us stop. I could see a woman on the porch sitting on a folding chair, smoking a cigarette and reading a Jude Deveraux.
“Excuse me, do you know how we pick up the detour from here? It looks like there’s a bridge out on the main road.”
I could barely hear her, and she didn’t look up from her book. “Dunno. Don’t drive.”
I put my nice lady voice on. “Okay, sorry to bother you.”
I could tell Dave was pissed, and I regretted suggesting this journey in the first place. “We should have skipped this leaf peeping bullshit and just gone apple picking.”
I kept my nice lady voice on.
“At least I didn’t book us into the Peter Pan lodge?”
“No shit. I could use a hot tub right about now.”
We pedaled in silence, coming to a one of those veering intersections this state is so fond of, and I took a chance.
“Let’s go left.”
Dave’s voice got high and syrupy, the way it always does when he thinks I’m wrong and he can’t wait to prove it.
“Sure honey, that makes the most sense.”
A left at the saltine box church, next to the firehouse, the one with the truck with the monster tires parked outside. And finally on the right, brown cinder blocks trimmed in yellow, an embassy in the wilderness.
We asked for directions at the McDonalds. Dave was excited because they had out of season Shamrock Shakes, until I pointed out that the syrup was probably expired. The girl behind the counter was named Alexa, and she looked simultaneously 16 and 48, her ponytail pulled tight, and streaked with ecto green.
“Ya, this fuckin detour has everybody confused. I heard that a couple boys on the hockey team got wasted and pulled down half the signs.” She tapped her French tips against the register and I felt bad asking questions and ordered a diet coke I didn’t want as penance.
I pulled out a pen and she drew me a little map on a napkin. I found it crushed in my purse a couple of days later. I also realized that she had kept my pen. On our way out the door, Dave bought us toys out of the machine, but only because I loudly hinted that I wanted one. He got a ring, a skull wearing a jester hat. He wore it on his pinky until it broke about a week later. I got a strawberry scented eraser shaped like a cat.
About a week after that, Dave and I showed up at the monthly pizza and cocktails party our friend Von throws at his condo. A few Negronis in, I was talking to a girl who makes an artist’s art for her, a girl with a boy’s name. Bruno, I think, and I told her about the detour.
“Yeah, have you ever heard of this place? The town’s name sounds just like asshole!”
Somebody’s girlfriend chimed in. “Oh, you mean that town that’s right on the border? Yeah, you know that’s like, the poorest town in the state, right?”
I snorted. “And it’s called asshole? That’s kinda poetic. Or pathetic. One of those.”
“Yeah, I heard that there’s more foster kids in that town than any other one in the state.”
Bruno let out a long aww, and I smelled the maple bourbon on her breath. I wondered if there was any left.
“Actually, it’s kinda fucked up. I guess the people there don’t actually want the foster kids–they just do it for the money.”
Dave walked up, and handed me the Suffering Bastard I had asked for twenty minutes before.
“Sounds like a bunch of assholes to me.”