Two decades ago, I worked in Indiana, part of America’s almost mythical Midwest. Bloomington, a college town and home of the Hoosiers was little more than a small dab of green paint on a huge agricultural canvas. It was high summer and rain hadn’t fallen in nearly six months. Fields, normally, shoulder-high and plump with corn, were dry, bleached flats that stretched out to infinity. When the tractors weren’t shimmering in the heat on the open plains, they raised dusty swirls, twists and eddies that glided silently like spectral figures over the distant horizon. Television talked of The Dust Bowl, and those who lived through the 1930s spoke of the similarities and drew anxious parallels. This was the land of Steinbeck, of Tom Joad and the Grapes of Wrath.
Along with friends, I was invited to speak at a conference in Kansas, 500 miles away. We could have flown but chose to drive, in a rattling hired sedan without air conditioning, hour after soporific hour, on arrow-straight undulating roads strung with telegraph poles, the monotony broken only by occasional animal carcasses or rusted flatbeds, abandoned where they had fallen. “Welcome to nowhere” read the faded graffiti on one decaying Chevy. Through Vincennes, St Louis, Columbia and Independence, and on towards Lawrence on Interstate 70, we played away the hours with tapes of Tom Waits, as we gradually assumed the manners and personae of Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg. We left the interstate, with its honking horns, and set off on a two-lane blacktop. Apart from occasional trucks, we had the road to ourselves
Night fell swiftly in August on the summer plains and, as the stars filled that ink-black prairie sky, the fuel gauge gradually slipped into the red, and we thumbed the map for our location. Nowhere – just as the graffiti had said. As Joe tapped the fuel gauge, we reached another brow in the road. A flickering sign in the distance read “Food. Gas” with that laconic precision so prevalent throughout the plains states. As the car coughed, we pulled in to a tiny one-pump gas station. It felt like a step back in time. On the far side of the road was a chalk-white steer skull on a pole. While Joe fuelled the car, Lesley and I stretched our legs, the air still hot from the day. A man in faded overalls and a grease-stained baseball cap emerged from a tiny shack-shop of breeze blocks with a tin roof, kicking the dust as he walked. “Do you have food?” I asked. There was the long pause of a man used to spending his words carefully. “Got all you need there” he said, nodding to the shop “Annie Mae’ll help you”
A moth fluttered behind a dirty cracked window next to an antique Coke machine that groaned and burped as its refrigerator fought hopelessly against the heat. A small bell tinkled as I opened the door. Somewhere in the distance the long prairie wail of a goods train pierced the night’s silence. I picked Monterey Jack cheese, ham, sesame rolls and rootbeer and placed them on the cracked red Formica counter next to a small tarnished brass bell. As I reached for the bell, there was a rustle of the fly curtain at the back of the shop. “Hello” I called. “Be with you” said a girl’s voice. “Annie Mae?” I asked and she smiled, all freckles and dimples, as she totted up the groceries on the corner of a newspaper in her childish hand. She licked the pencil tip then pronounced “That be five dollars and forty three cents”. She held up her open hand to signal ‘five’ and giggled. I saw she was missing a thumb. “Funny girl” I said. She laughed.
I realised my wallet was missing the moment I reached into my trousers and slapped my pockets in the reflex movements of a man unexpectedly penniless. “Vincennes” I said to myself, as I remembered leaving it on the counter of the Dairy Queen, where we had stopped for cones in the late afternoon. Five hours earlier and two hundred miles back on the Interstate. “I have money in the car” I said in explanation. “Back in a minute”.
“Well we need to find a bank in the morning” said Lesley “cos I’ve just spent our last fifteen bucks on gas”. Like royalty, Joe never carried money, always relying on Lesley. I explained about the ice cream parlour in Vincennes.
“Annie Mae, I have no money. I’m really sorry” I stuttered and began to put the groceries back. Even in the half light of the shop, my beetroot red face must have been obvious. “It’s okay” she said “take the food. You can pay on your way back”.
I protested. But Annie Mae would have none of it. “Just don’t tell my pop” she winked. And giggled.
As we spluttered out onto the highway again and gathered speed, I told Joe and Lesley about Annie Mae and the food. “Real cute” said Lesley. “Real dumb” said Joe, sparking a row between the two.
We were in Lawrence for two days. Two days hot enough to fry eggs on the bonnet of the car. I did the lecture, with voice barely audible over the air conditioning, my slides buckling in the heat from the projector. I told the listeners of dopamine receptors and the nigrostriatal pathway, of dysregulation and dopamine transporters. Everything I knew about Parkinson’s (I used to be a neuroscientist, remember). There were questions too, mostly interested in why an Englishman was in Kansas. “Just following the Yellow Brick Road” I said until it wasn’t funny any more. I was shown around the labs, invited to dinner with the faculty members, and guest of honour at a lake party on a bright yellow pontoon boat where we ate slices of watermelon washed down with Coors from the cooler.
Thursday came, muffins and ham for breakfast and then on the road to Nowhere. Or wherever it was that we had stopped for gas and food on Monday night. On a two to one majority, we persuaded Joe to drive back to the garage and give Annie Mae her five dollars and forty three cents, all in shiny new coins. As Joe grumbled and muttered, we looked out for the garage. Mile after mile of dusty emptiness.
Then I saw the cattle skull. We pulled over and I picked up the envelope with the money. The garage looked different. They must have replaced the aged single pump. Two fancy new Texaco pumps stood there.
I looked around. Where was the shop? The breezeblock hut was nowhere. Instead a small glass fronted shop with plastic fittings occupied the space. A middle-aged man emerged. “Need gas?” he asked. “No” I said “I need to give some money to the girl”.
He screwed up his eyes. “What girl? Ain’t no girl here”.
“Annie Mae” I said “Freckles? Missing a thumb”.
He looked down and flicked some cigarette ash off his overalls. “She’s not here” he said quietly. A long pause. ”She’ll come around sometimes. When there are strangers mostly”.
I waited a moment, but no further explanation was forthcoming. “So where is she now?” I asked.
He nodded in the direction of the corn field opposite. “She bin in the field some twenty years now”. His voice faltered. “Buried her there the night her pop brought her in, knocked down by a truck. Folks left their food behind so she ran across the road after them. She was kind like that. Always looking to help. Buried her pop a week later. Wouldn’t eat or drink. His little angel she was. Called her Angel Annie somedays”.
My mouth was dry and, although he kept talking, I heard nothing else he said as I crossed the road into the field, the corn rustling in the dusty breeze. I reached into my envelope for the five dollars and forty three cents. Shiny new coins glinting in the sun. With a bellow that echoed off the distant grain elevators, I hurled them as far as I could and stood for a moment listening to their pitter patter as they fell among the corn. I turned back towards the car.
From somewhere I heard a giggle.