“Illinois sucks.” declared Nancy. “Almost everything sucks until we reach Oregon,” she pouted. “Last time I went by here I almost got in a wreck from being so bored. Only thing that’s worse than the cornfields is Chicago. I hate that place. It’s just a big mumbo-jumbo of traffic and crazy drivers. Uggh. Good thing we’re finally passing it.”
Outside the car, the skyline of the Windy City was calmly retreating into the distance. This was the Gateway to the West, and it felt subtle but obvious at the same time. Anything before Illinois was not truly Western, not even Indiana.
“I miss Ray. It’s too bad the acting job never turned out. I got so close…” complained Nancy, pounding the steering wheel.
“But he was just a flake,” replied Alex defensively. “How do you know Ray even liked you to begin with?”
“He did; it was obvious. Men are different when they’re just messing with you or swindling you. He was the real deal…”
His mother’s nostalgic rambling upset Alex. He already had enough to deal with between starting eleventh grade, dealing with other kids, and making a few bucks. His mom’s regrets and delusions were not improving his life.
“I could have been in Broadway…”
“Just please…” pleaded Alex. “Cut it out for a second. I’ve heard it all before.” He covered his ears and tried to distract himself.
They were silent for a long time. The highway pressed on, passing the city and its bland suburbs. A mixture of houses and occasional cornfields replaced it. A lighter energy started to infuse the air, like the sunlight was slowly returning to the day.
They passed by Morris, a rather normal-feeling small town, not especially different than the suburbs of Chicago.
“I’ve already had enough of the Midwest,” said Nancy. “Portland, here we come. Slowly but surely.”
Alex huffed. Portland was not his cup of tea. It was all show and taxes and fake fancy people. He liked the thought of clean air and knowing who his neighbors were. Although he had spent most of his life in New York City, Alex found that he had been quite happy with Indiana and its quaint, honest people when they’d drove through the state.
“Thanks for visiting Morris,” read a passing sign.
We didn’t thought Alex. More and more towns passed by until they were finally at the western corner of the state, hours later. The noon sun shone happily upon them as Nancy stopped the car for a rest break.
Alex was impressed by the free feeling and grandiose skies that abounded all around him. The small town they were stopped in felt friendly, interesting, and nearly mystical. Alex could not think of the main reason why Illinois felt so fascinating to him, but something about it was simply better than Indiana, and a lot better than New York City. There, he wasn’t friends with more than five people, and even those people were not very good quality. They were like Ray.
“Do you want to drive for a while?” Nancy asked, tired out from the ordeal of Chicago.
“Sure,” replied her son. He took the drivers seat and leisurely traveled down the highway.
“Why don’t you speed up? It’s not like there’s anything here worth looking at,” jabbed Nancy. When Alex didn’t respond, she looked at her phone and texted someone.
Some old-style red barns came into sight, and Alex studied the paintings on the front of them for as long as he could afford. There was history, right in front of you. His heart started to stir as he grew more attached to the area. He pictured himself in a straw hat and overalls, friends with everyone in the whole area.
“We need some gas,” noted Nancy. Just out of town was a gas station with the old freestanding pumps. Alex stopped the car and pulled in. The gas was a dollar cheaper than it was in New York. Alex’s jaw dropped.
“Whoa, that’s cheap,” he remarked when he started to drive again. “It was sixty to fill it up back there, here it’s only forty-five!”
“Maybe, but that sure doesn’t make living here worth a crap,” Nancy replied.
A fire started to rage inside Alex. He’d had enough of being a submissive victim. He spoke slowly and sternly.
“You know what? I’ve had enough of your complaining about this place. You say it’s full of crap and nothing goes on here, but I like it. Just look outside, it’s a simple life. Not full of crap and people everywhere like Portland-”
“What do you even know about here? You haven’t been here for more than four hours!” she shouted, cutting him off. After a moment of silence, she continued. “And Portland is nice. It’s the San Francisco of the North.”
Alex slowed the car down as they entered into the next farm town. It had such interesting, funny establishments with strange names. Alex almost laughed when he saw them.
“Why don’t you go faster? We have to get back to Oregon by Sunday.”
Defiantly, Alex slowed down to the speed of an Amish buggy. Every foot traversed in this manner felt like nails on a chalkboard to Alex’s mom.
“Stop! Let me drive,” she said, turning red with anxiety and rage. Alex begrudgingly pulled over and got out of the car.
“I like your shirt,” said a smiling stranger as he passed by Alex. He had a country-style toughness and muddy clothes. The teenager walked around to the passenger’s seat.
Nancy immediately broke the speed limit and starting texting voraciously on top of that.
“Good lord. No, I don’t want to be friends with you,” she mumbled to herself, fooling around on the phone buttons.
The anger and resentment inside Alex’s heart grew even stronger, but he cooled them down and solidified them by making a decision. It was not a light decision, and it would have consequences that would ripple for a long time.
They drove by a wheatfield and another bright, tall cornfield.
“Wait. Can you find somewhere to stop? I want to take a piece of corn out of the field,” said Alex, grinning. After she had sent another message, Nancy replied.
“I don’t know. Decoration,” answered Alex.
“Do you think you’re some sort of… country bumpkin?” she said, repulsed. “You’re not.”
“Come on…” pleaded Alex.
“We’re not stopping again until we get to Portland.”
Alex thought of ways to get out of his predicament. Finally, a light clicked on in his head.
“Just stop for a second and I’ll put more work into my math when I get back in school. Really.”
Nancy considered his bargain and finally accepted it. She stopped the car and texted on her phone while Alex opened the door, walked over to the first tall corn plant, and vanished from sight.
Thirty seconds later, Nancy put her phone down and looked out the window.
“That’s strange,” she said to herself. “Where is he?” She stood on the side of the road, perplexed.
Alex had already broken through the other side of the field by the time she started calling for him. Soon, he was on the banks of a wooded creek heading even further away. A mile later, the creek turned sharply and Alex decided to take a shortcut through an overgrown field. Dozens of plant varieties bees populated the area. On the creekbank were many bushes and unusual berries. The stout trees of the area had become less common and had a more upright character than those in Indiana. Alex lay down in the grass and enjoyed the solitude until a farmer appeared out of the woods up ahead. He spotted him and walked closer.
“Who are you?” the man asked.
“Alex,” replied the teenager, unsurely. There was an awkward pause, typical in conversations with people without much conversation in their lives.
“Do you have any family?” the farmer inquired, confused and sure he had never seen Alex before.
“Nope,” replied Alex, grinning.
– – – – – – – – –
Two years later, the farmer, his wife, and two hired hands sat on the porch and drank iced tea.
“Did you like that movie?” asked Herman, the newest farm hand.
“Never saw it,” said the farmer.
“Thought it was pretty good,” added Herman. The other worker butted in.
“I liked it a lot,” said Alex.