Nils has a sausage, a fat two-foot-long link of marbled pork that he bought from a barbecue in Llano this morning while I was filling up the car. The place wasn’t even really open, but Nils knocked on the door and told the old man who answered that he wanted to buy some meat for the road, and the old man gave him a sausage in a white paper bag. Now, Nils sits in the passenger seat of my 1997 Ford Taurus and eats his sausage as I drive, chewing on thick hunks that he slices off with my hunting knife. It smells like chili oil and bacon grease, and it makes the vegetarian in me a little queasy.
We stop to eat just north of the Arkansas border, at a little roadhouse with a gravel parking lot. There’s nothing meatless on the menu, so I ask the waitress for the chicken burrito with extra beans, hold the chicken. It comes back to me smothered in bright yellow nacho cheese sauce, so much of it that I have trouble finding the burrito underneath. Our bill comes to 19.79. When I go to the counter to pay, the waitress scrunches her brow and stares at the check. Then she smiles.
I knew that number looked familiar. 1979 was the year my daughter was born.
We continue up into the mountains as the afternoon peters out. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the sunset as we round a bend or pass lookout points that open up into wide views of the Ozarks. Mostly, we’re buried in trees. Every couple hundred feet the road snakes into a series of curves or doubles back in a hairpin turn. I have trouble getting used to the sharp turns, and tense up every time its my turn to take the wheel.
Most of the motels we pass are owned by Christians. I know because they put it on their signs: HBO, Air Conditioned, Christian-owned. (I wonder what it means. Just that the owners are Christian, or that they only want Christian guests? Would they let us get a room there even though I’m a Jew and Nils is an atheist, or are we not welcome? Is that legal? If it isn’t, would the police stop them? Are they Christian-owned too?)
It’s too early to stop for the night anyway. By the time it gets dark, we haven’t passed a motel for almost an hour. We find one and stop, but when we knock on the office door, no one answers. I can see a faint light shining from behind the closed blinds.
We keep driving, along mountainside roads and dead empty stretches of truck stops and towns. I unbutton my shirt, crawl into the back seat, and lie there with my eyes closed. After a while, I feel the car lurch right and stop. Nils says he’s going to ask for directions and gets out. When I sit up, I see him talking to a police officer in a cruiser. He comes back shaking his head.
I think that cop thinks we’re gay.
He said there’s a motel a couple blocks from here, but they only give rooms to married couples with good Christian morals.
I lie back down. (I wonder if Nils told the policeman about his eight inches of Texan sausage.)
The policeman gave Nils directions to another motel a few miles down the road. We drive past where it should be, check the odometer, turn around and retrace our path. We still can’t find it. (Maybe we made a wrong turn somewhere, or messed up the directions.)
That fucking cop.
I hear Nils go WOAH.
An owl just flew right in front of the car. I thought it was an owl man.
An owl man? Like a man with owls?
No, a part-man, part-owl.
Nils, are you ok?
I will be as long as I don’t see an owl man. Then I’ll shit my heart out.
Nil’s eyes are wide, fixed into a static stare at some point far in front of us. They look bloodshot, and the skin beneath them has softened into dark crescents.
I think it’s my turn to drive.
I think that’s a good idea.
We resign ourselves to driving straight to Eureka Springs, sleeping in shifts in the back seat. I drive while Nils whittles at the sausage, shaving off flakes and curls of meat and tossing them back into his mouth.
Soon after, we pass an Econolodge in Rogers. The night clerk who shows up when we ring the bell has a heavy Indian accent. He asks us how many people are in our group, and whether or not we smoke. He doesn’t ask us if we have good morals, or if we’re Christian.
Nils wraps up the remainder of his sausage and brings it into the room to store it in the fridge. That sausage will last him through Arkansas, past Eureka Springs and across Missouri, all the way to our friend Nick’s house in St. Louis, where Nils will finish the last morsel and drop the grease-stained, crinkled paper bag in a garbage can in a Washington University parking garage.