Happy birthday, Grace Campbell! Read this Campbell nonfiction we published last year!
Windows lap up the rust belt, entire counties at a time. Gram’s in the seat next to me, working her way through Matthew and Mark and their two brothers. Crossing the New York-Pennsylvania border, Gram tells me mom got married again. “She said to wait till we were at least six hours outside Buffalo,” Gram says, “in case you wanted to jump ship,” nudging me with the knuckle doubling as a bookmark between gospels. “You know how much she loves you,” Gram adds, me not quite overboard but queasy over what I’d thought would be easy sailing.
The bus dumps us into a parking lot somewhere in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where the night sky is billboards and fast-food signs and every slogan and jingle you’ve ever heard. “Get in,” my mom says from an idling car.
“You got married,” I say, the timbre somewhere between hello and huh, my mom glancing at Gram, who shrugs, saying, “I waited till past Erie.”
“We’re going to my reception,” my mom says.
“Wait!” I blurt. “We’re going right now?” My mom winces and flips her keys around in her hand. “Right from here?” I tell her we’ve been on a bus for two days. I tell her I need a shower. I tell her I want to “fully appreciate the big event.”
“You smell fine,” she says, snorting and hoisting my luggage into the trunk beside crushed Solo cups and two-liter soda bottles. “Besides, this’ll be pretty quick.” And I see the sheet cake on the backseat, “Congratulations, Constance and Morris!” in fat curlicues across its flawless surface.
The reception’s on the second floor of a country western bar, where a life-sized cardboard cutout of Dale Earnhardt presides. And there’s a neon BINGO sign partially obscured by a paper placemat with the sheet cake message on it.
Clapping his arm around my shoulders, Morris hands me a shot of whiskey and calls me “kid.” Everyone asks if I’m the award-winning journalist, the one who works on a survival ranch, the one who’ll soon be awarded a doctorate. I look over at my mom, who pinches my arm and says, “Don’t be so humble!” And a lady wearing a bolo tie says, “I could never dangle from the side of a mountain on a skinny rope,” and I say, “Me, neither,” and my mom slaps me and I say something, but my mom talks over me, loudly, says that I’m also an artist, and brags about my cathedral frescoes, finally adding she’s the source of my creativity, that it “runs in the family”—wink, pinch, nudge, whiskey.
A woman offers me a Dixie plate of Doritos and the road’s still spitting long yellow hyphens from under my feet. Someone pops the cake out from within its plastic coffin and a dozen disposable cameras start clicking. Gram leads everyone in prayer and Morris smears frosting on mom’s face and a kid behind me gulps Diet Dr. Pepper right from the bottle.
A hirsute version of Morris stands in front of the “I” in BINGO and sermonizes about the “rare diamond of true love” and “keeping the flame alive” and “putting your faith in the Man Upstairs.” Everyone nods and lifts their Solo cup for toast after toast, the speeches getting longer then shorter then longer, the love more urgent, more bedazzled, God going from Chicken Soup for the Soul to Kill Bill.
The road finally slows and we all get out. Maybe we speed. Maybe we forget which direction we’re going and then just watch the counties macerate into the word “meaningful.” Maybe we become our own gospel. All of us: the rancher, the writer, the medic, the whiskey-breathed one they call “Little Michelangelo.”
Away from the slurry of cardboard cutouts, we say “Fuck it!” each of us knowing that everyone, everywhere, becomes someone else when drinks are on the house and love is what the hirsute version of Morris says it is.
My mom appears and I agree with her about whatever, folding everything within a blanket of good intentions. We all sing our congratulations, even Little Michelangelo, whose face is a neon sign. Then we all look up and wait for light to turn the night off and the jingles to sound like something brand new, something we can love.
Grace Campbell is the author of the chapbook Girlie Shorts. Her work has also appeared in Gravel, New Flash Fiction Review, Jellyfish, and elsewhere. Co-founder of Black River Press, she is the fiction editor at 5x5. She was a 2018 June Dodge Fellow at the Mineral School. She lives in Olympia, Washington.