About 30 miles south of Birmingham, my 12-year-old son sounds an alert from the back of the van.
“I’ve really got to go.”
We exit in Calera, Alabama, to a gas station and truck stop. He scurries to the bathroom, and I wander around.
I consider coffee, but the two open carafes seem too, well, open for my newly developed Covid cleanliness standards. Near the coffee, a small TV is tuned to a live press conference from the White House. President Biden is taking questions about the military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
We’ve been on the Gulf Coast for the week, and I’ve tried to bury my head in the sand. But here in the gas station, the state of the world is coming into clear focus.
I grab a bag of Peanut M&Ms. It’s my leg of the 12-hour trip to drive. I deserve a treat.
The customer in front of me is probably about 30 years old, short blond hair, work boots and jeans, tanned arms in a sleeveless shirt.
“Know any bricklayers?” he asks the tall man behind the counter. “You know, people who can lay brick?”
“I can,” the cashier says. “I have done it before.”
“I might need you. Four Mexicans on my crew all got Covid. Their boss died.”
“The Mexicans, they’re afraid to get the shot,” the cashier says. “Afraid because they aren’t legal.”
The cashier doesn’t indicate how he knows — or thinks he knows — the citizenship status of the crew members.
“They’ll give it to anybody, ” the customer says. “They let anybody in, they’ll give them the shot.”
“But they are afraid,” the cashier reiterates.
“So you can lay brick? I’ve got all the brick and mud, and I need someone to do the work.”
“If she gives me the day off, I can do it,” the cashier points to a woman behind the counter.
“Come down and give me a quote,” the customer says, heading out the door.
I put my M&Ms on the counter. Smile.
“I can’t lay brick!” the cashier erupts with laughter. “I’ve never laid brick!”
“He is crazy,” the woman, who I now realize is probably his wife, says to me.
I laugh with them. President Biden is still talking on the TV. My son emerges from the bathroom. I notice he didn’t wear his mask inside. Newly 12, he is scheduled to get his first dose of the vaccine the next day. I push him toward the door.
“Terrible about his crew,” I say. “Covid is really bad right now, I had a breakthrough case myself a few weeks ago.”
They stop laughing.
“We are sick right now,” the woman says.
“Body aches, pain,” the man says, running his hand around his neck.
I quickly rattle off my well wishes. They tell me they are vaccinated. “You should be OK, then!” I try to be optimistic. It’s true; they should be OK. I look at their unmasked smiles, jam my debit card back into my purse.
“I can’t eat these,” I announce back in the van, dropping the candy bag like poison. “They just told me they might have Covid.”
Maybe it’s not true, I reason. He lied to the other guy, maybe me too. Just another customer to fool to pass the time.
We merge back onto Interstate 65, through Alabama to Tennessee and Kentucky, back to Ohio by midnight. My phone is buzzing with texts and news about mask mandates, babies in Kabul, overrun ICUs.
I keep thinking of our Calera pitstop, wishing it was all just a joke. I double check my son’s vaccine appointment time. His first dose at noon the next day. His second? September 11, 2021.
I pull up a photo of the beach where I watched the waves and tried to pause the world.
There’s not enough sand.
Tracy Staley is a writer and communications professional in Dayton, Ohio, by way of Hazard, Kentucky. She clings to her roots through writing, reading, and music. She spends her days as a digital marketer at a Lexington, Kentucky-based marketing agency. She also writes for the Rural Assembly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.