Somewhere in Steinbeck Country

Rebecca and I were in a rental car heading north on 101 through the Salinas Valley Sunday before last. We had gone down to San Luis Obispo the day before to have a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving with my brother and his wife Mona. Mom was there too, at least as far as her current presence of mind would allow.

Rebecca was driving. She was a little rusty, having not driven a car for over three years, but she did fine. I would not have done fine. It had been 12 years since I had driven and I was never a good driver to begin with. My ego is fine with Rebecca being the better driver. I’m sure I’m better at something else, possibly a guy thing like pissing on a wall.

I used to travel this road fairly often back when my dad still lived in Paso Robles and back when my dad still lived. He died in 2000. I was married at the time and my then wife did most of the driving when his condition became terminal and I became a nervous wreck. She’s gone now too, not dead, just gone.

Rebecca fiddled with the radio dial. She was doing the driving so she got to pick the music. It made sense. This was not an agreement we negotiated, but rather one that occurred naturally because neither of us are total selfish assholes.

Satellite radio is largely alien to me. I did a fair amount of road trips in the 80s and 90s, and back then your options were limited to what was available on the local FM dial. I listened to a lot of country on those trips. The songs about drinking, adultery, and murder were pretty enjoyable, but the easy-listening-with-a-twang stuff bored me.

With satellite radio, you are less restricted by your current location. Having programing beamed down from Earth’s orbit does not ensure quality and this is not merely the opinion of a grumpy old man. Rebecca is a grumpy young woman and judging by the way she stayed tuned to a station for half a song on average, it was a reasonable guess that she agreed with me. We continued north with musical accompaniment a peppering of pop, hip hop, modern R&B, and an assortment of golden oldies.

Up ahead lay King City, known for being a speed trap as much as anything else. It’s a modern speed trap though with the CHP writing the tickets. If you’re looking to get pulled over by Buford T. Justice or his ilk, you’re in for a disappointment. It was our plan to stop there, preferably without the urging of law enforcement. King City had gasoline and caffeine. We had cash and urine. It was time to make a trade.

We exited the freeway at the south edge of town.  There was a Chevron station and food mart right when we got on 1st Street, but we decided to continue our search for more amenities. An In-N-Out Burger would be ideal. Rebecca had never been to one. While there are many of them in the Bay Area, the only one in SF proper is at Fisherman’s Wharf, a place to be avoided unless you enjoy being around tourists, yacht snobs, and frat douches.

We found no In-N-Out in King City. A later Google search would show there are none between San Luis Obispo and Salinas, which came as a surprise. I didn’t notice an In-N-Out when we stopped for coffee in Gonzales on the way, but we weren’t looking for one at the time. We planned to gorge ourselves on turkey later that day. With a Starbucks, a donut shop, a McDonald’s, and a Denny’s all within view, I just figured one would be lurking somewhere.

And if there wasn’t one in Gonzales, I had assumed there had to be one in Soledad. There’s a big truck stop there with parking spaces big enough for 18 wheelers. I ate at a McDonald’s there decades ago. It’s a relaxing place to eat knowing that the nonstop shankings and ass rapes at the nearby correctional facility was kept contained by armed guards and barbed wire.

The good news for Rebecca and me was that neither of us had our heart set on In-N-Out Burger. The bad news was that King City had very little else to offer. Flat, dusty, and low rent, it’s not the sort of place you move to if you have a whole lot of options. I’m sure the residents are decent, rural folk, neighborly to a fault. Rebecca is from a town in Georgia that’s much like King City though more humid. She knows what places like this are like, which made her adamant that we gas up the car and get back on the freeway as quickly as possible. It was the one time on our trip that what  was playing on the radio didn’t matter at all.

We pulled into a Shell station, which had neither more or less going for it than the Chevron station we saw earlier. I got out of the car and right before feeding my debit card into the pump, a wave of paranoia hit me.

What if it had one of those skimmers I’d heard about? Someone could steal my information then drain my checking account to buy whatever people shop for in King City. Huffable chemical solvents and Slim Jims was my guess. There was a green plastic thing in front of the slot you put your card in. Maybe that’s what a skimmer looked like. I batted at it with my hand, trying to knock it loose.

“What are you doing?” Rebecca asked.

“Making sure it isn’t a thing,” I said, blanking on the word “skimmer.” Brain farts like this usually hit me when I’m drunk and I usually laugh them off.

They’re less funny when I’m sober. A lot of things are, but this was particularly disconcerting because it reminded me of my mother’s confusion over lasagna the night before. She said it was Mexican food.

“I think it’s Italian,” Mona said, trying to be helpful.

“It’s certainly something Hispanic,” Mom said, doubling down. She certainly should have known the difference, having both made lasagna and traveled extensively in Italy. On the other hand, old age has a way of scrambling your type.

Maybe I was experiencing the beginning of my own decline at that gas pump, helpless against an imagined menace I had forgotten the name of. This didn’t seem all that far fetched considering I didn’t even trust myself to drive.

We were back on the road for a while when the Police song “Message in a Bottle” came on the radio. Rebecca was about to change the station, but I asked her not to. I don’t even like the song that much, but it was familiar to me. That was good enough.