by Inga Oliveira
In the Meijer parking lot Brad’s dog, Moz, pressed her front paws into Clara’s left thigh as Clara punched the 1-800-Triple-A number into her phone. The dog shifted her 12 pounds of weight, her nails passively assaulting a slightly different part of Clara’s thigh. Throughout Clara’s visit to Michigan, she’d seen the dog chewing at its nails to the quick. And, like with any DIY project, the dog’s manicure was never done well or to completion. But it didn’t matter. Both the trimmed and longer nails left pink scratch marks that were rendered invisible by Clara’s sunburn.
This was the second powerless gas station the couple had been to. When Brad noticed the fuel gauge light had lit up, he’d pulled off on Exit 67 to go to the Pilot station. There, they found signs taped over the gas pumps: the rain storm had obliterated their electricity. Not all the gas stations in this town were suffering power outages—the Meijer station, surely, would have a generator. It was the same storm that made Clara suggest that the two end their trip to Saugatuck early. Brad was hesitant and even a bit pissed at her suggestion, despite knowing she was right. Even if the rain let up, it would be hard to find dry outdoor seating for Moz and traffic back would almost definitely be slower. Clara didn’t think she could spend any more time than necessary on the I-96, looking at “cash 4 houses” signs next to casino billboards. Initially, she’d been fascinated by such exotic scenes, but after a week she found that paying attention to your surroundings in Michigan was a good way to feel shitty. The entire state was an interminable panorama of deciduous trees against a perma-dark grey sky. No lights from buildings to interrupt the dull monochrome of the midwest, no lights to hint at a population, only lit-up Bible billboards: Every saint has a past... every sinner has a future. Her mood was better if she just focused on Brad and little Moz.
Clara felt the sunscreen on her cheekbone melting with the heat of the phone and realized that the Triple A Roadside Assistance membership was Brad’s. She thrust the phone out to Brad with the urgency of someone afraid of being put back on hold. “Take it.”
The phone wasn’t on speaker, but in the silent car in the silent Meijer parking lot in the grey pit that is rural Michigan, Clara could hear every word meant for Brad coming out of the phone.
“We typically don’t dispatch our gas trucks to gas stations,” Tara explained, slowly, annoyed, from a location surely less pathetic. Maybe she was somewhere with an international airport that flew beyond Canada. But Michigan car insurance policies were absolutely wack, probably because of the drivers’ suicidal tendencies—always changing lanes twenty miles above the speed limit and without turn signals—so Tara was likely local.
Two holds and several minutes later, Triple A concluded that Brad and Clara could get fucked. The regional dispatcher was also out of gas, so they’d have to send someone from a different zone.
“They can’t send anyone. Well, they can, maybe. But in two hours. She didn’t give me a particularly clear answer.”
“Yeah, I heard.”
“Oh, right, okay.” Brad rolled down the windows before turning the car off.
It became obvious to Clara that her only option was to unironically kill herself. She didn’t need a painless death, just a quick one. Tragically, Brad wouldn’t be much help. He wasn’t going to kill his girlfriend so it’s not like she could ask him to run her over with the car. Maybe she could slip the teen cart guy a $20 to “accidentally” let go of the string of carts he was hauling across the parking lot. Crushed to death by 200 tiny red wheels. Or she could kill herself inside the store. She could stick her arm inside the reverse vending machine and wiggle it around until it tore her arm off and she bled out.
It was impossible to accept being stuck in Ionia, a place that made Clara understand Metro Detroit as a bastion of culture. Just because Dearborn was home to some Middle Eastern food and a couple reality TV stars didn’t make it the cradle of civilization.
“So what do we do?” Clara refused to believe Brad, now resting his elbow on the windowsill, was willing to settle into their fate.
“We could call an Uber.”
“What are we going to do with that?”
Brad ignored Clara and opened Uber. She continued talking at him. “You think there’s an Uber in ‘Ionia, Michigan’? Someone’s gonna Uber their five dollar HOT-N-READY to the farm?”
Even if they did find an uber, what would they do with it? Lansing was too far, Grand Rapids was too far, and if they went, how would they get back? The Uber probably wouldn’t let the dog in, and Clara would not be left in the car with Moz for an indefinite amount of time. Brad closed the app and then his eyes. Clara would ride off in an Uber, day would turn to night and night into day, and Brad would be stuck in the cornfield of Ionia, Clara and electricity never returning.
“I was right, wasn’t I?” Clara lifted the dog and dropped it in Brad’s lap. “We’re stuck. I’m going to die here.”
“We’re not stuck, but yeah there aren’t any Ubers.”
“Right, these people don’t even have phones.”
Clara didn’t reject moving to Detroit for Brad outright. She felt that she was in love with Brad. They saw each other frequently, once or twice a month—fabricating long weekends out of sick days and Brad’s remote-work-day here and there, and always in Chicago. It wasn’t that Clara
refused to visit Brad in Detroit, it’s just, as she put it, why go to Detroit when you can go to Chicago? Regardless, the two agreed that their relationship would never move forward if they didn’t move in together. But their plan devised over the past several months was that Brad would join Clara in Chicago. Clara had a specific vision for Brad: he could aim for a job at a boutique press, or settle for another university press, and eventually she could insist that the two begin all over again in a “city-city,” like New York. To Clara, a West Coaster by birth and East Coaster by aspiration, the midwest was nothing but a metaphorical and literal pitstop. Not immediately rejecting Detroit was about as much enthusiasm as Clara could muster.
“What’s even in Detroit, uh art museum?” she said, dragging the “an” out into “uh” as in “duh” and “poduhnk.” Her intentional affectation emphasized the singleness of the DIA; it was like she thought having one art museum, even a well regarded one, was in some way more gauche and cultureless than having none at all.
“You’ll be in Eastern Time, that’s cultured.”
“Being in the same time zone as New York doesn’t make me coastal elite, Brad.”
If he put in at least another year and a half as an Associate Editor at Wayne State, he’d have a much better shot at Associate Editor positions at bigger university presses like Routledge. It wasn’t what he’d planned, but after one internship at Poetry, Brad learned that there was no such thing as an editorial position at a literary magazine. It wasn’t a bad point, and Clara did like that Brad was thinking of a long term with her, elsewhere. She agreed to try Detroit for a week, following Brad’s meticulously planned itinerary for her first visit in over a year. There’d been a trip to Dearborn for baklava, brunch at the MoCAD because there was more than “uh” art museum in Detroit, an experimental noise and art show in an old, converted bathhouse. Basically, the kind of bullshit Clara enjoyed in Chicago, but in Detroit, instead.
Brad’s final Hail Mary was taking Clara to Saugatuck for a day. It didn’t feel like the midwest there. It felt coastal, or at least, how Brad imagined a “coastal” vacation might feel. He wasn’t too far off, even Clara would admit. In fact, she was kind of planning on saying yes to Michigan. As long as you weren’t in the middle of it, it was passable.
“There’s even dumbass paper straws for me to hate here, it’s almost like I’m in A Place,” Clara had observed at one of the three weiner coffee shops in Detroit. It was smaller and undoubtedly shittier than a real city, but maybe Michigan was OK—for a year.
Though the gas station had no power, the Meijer superstore itself was functional. Clara glared at the midwesterners coming in and out of the store, pushing the non-operational automatic doors.
How dare they use the generator to partially illuminate the superstore and not the gas station. It’s like they thought people wanted to be here, as though it was impossible to imagine someone coming to Ionia for more than just gas to get the hell out. Brad got out of the car with Moz and told Clara he was going to go inside and see if anyone could help and that she could stay in the car or come with him, it was really up to her.
Inside the Meijer, Moz struggled to walk on the linoleum floor. Her already freaky Chihuahua eyes bugged out of her tiny Chihuahua head as she slid around feeling, Clara imagined, but not understanding the horrible place she was in. Clara stood with the struggling dog and watched Brad wander around looking for an employee. He was only two inches taller than her and she liked that he got stressed when she wore heeled boots. He also did make life less annoying for Clara. Like driving her places when they were together or ordering her take-out as a surprise when they were apart. And, in this case, finding an employee in the Meijer.
Intellectually she knew that because of this drive of his, this need and desire to shield Clara from being annoyed, being stuck in Ionia was worse for him than it was for her. She began walking. Several steps behind Brad and further slowed by the skating dog, Clara wondered how long it would take for someone to tell her and Moz to go back outside. She started fantasizing about a confrontation. A lumpy middle-aged midwesterner with a straw-colored bob would approach her and Moz. “You can’t hee-avh dogs in here” the woman would say, nasally.
“Yeah? What’re you gonna do?” Clara would fire back. “Eat her?”
“I’m going to call the myeeah-nuh-jurh.”
At this point, Clara would slink towards the woman, trying to trap her between the Oreo display and the José Cuervo Margarita mix display. She’d pick the dog up and hold it like a corn-on-the-cob and make slurping sounds while moving in on her. Finally, the single fluorescent light from the generator as her spotlight, Clara would screech, “Hungry? Hungry? Do you want me to drop the chalupa?” and then calmly lower the dog and walk out of the Meijer, unscathed.
Brad interrupted Clara’s reverie. “The cashier said there’s a Mobil a couple miles further into town that has power.”
“Oh, shit, yeah okay,” she said, picking Moz up to more quickly follow Brad out of the Meijer, precluding her chance to yell at her imaginary Michigander.
As they traversed the damp asphalt, Clara spoke. “I can’t live here.”
“In Ionia? Yeah, neither can I.”
Wasn’t it obvious that Clara was talking about Michigan, any of it? She couldn’t believe she’d been considering this move. Sure, she’d rather be stuck in Ionia with Brad than with anyone else, but why open potential for being stuck in Ionia at all? That was the thing about Chicago—there was no reason to drive anywhere else from it. She wouldn’t need to escape to Saugatuck if she were just in Chicago.
“If you moved to Chicago we could still drive to Saugatuck, Brad. It’s closer. It’s literally closer to Chicago than to Detroit.”
Brad reminded her of his job, his promotion.
“First of all, I have a job, too. Second, you can get a job in Chicago in, like, actual publishing. You work on social science textbooks or whatever and you want me to give up my job and move to Detroit? I work in fashion. Nobody has fashion here because the only people with money are Oakland County moms, you said so yourself.”
“You’re a visual merchandising manager,” said Brad, opening the door to the car. “No offense, but making window displays at Anthropologie hardly constitutes working in fashion. You work retail. You can literally just get transferred over to the Anthropologie at Somerset Mall.”
The dog hopped onto Clara’s lap and wiped bits of gravel on her. “I have a college degree.” She flicked a piece of gravel off. “I have a college degree in fiber arts.”
“Oh, you have a college degree so you can’t work at the mall? Is that what you’re gonna say? Work a job, rent a studio. You could actually afford that here and you could actually use your degree.”
Clara thought about Somerset. She thought about the fluorescent mall lights that would seep in through the continuously open mall doors. Those lights were so harsh on the displays, washing out the fabrics and accentuating their ultimate cheapness. All of Clara’s guidelines from corporate were designed for natural lighting, for a space with control over doors and windows. She thought about taking lunch in the food court, unable to escape the clammy mall air. On her
left, a group of teen boys squirted mayo into a 44oz plastic tankard of Dr. Pepper and dared each
other to drink it. On her right, some zitty (somehow zittier than the teens) burn-out Zumiez employee accompanied by his underage girlfriend, there for a lunch break dry hump. She thought
about driving up and down Woodward from home to work and back until she and Brad aged
further north up Woodward into Birmingham.
Clara “knew” that the Anthropologie on the Magnificent Mile was just one store in an open air mall masquerading as an urbane experience. But there are storefronts that are advertisements and there are storefronts that are simply stores. Sure, most of the people coming into Clara’s Anthropologie were Naperville moms out on a weekend with the girls who didn’t buy anything, waiting instead to buy what they saw on Clara’s displays at their own Somersets. Clara and the moms had an unspoken contract, an understanding that they were all engaging in private performance art shows: them as self-possessed city dwellers and Clara as an artist, as someone who did more than drape $300 chunky Merino wool cardigans over whatever weird pine needles corporate had sent.
“Whatever, just drive to the Mobil.”
“I don’t know how much gas each square means. We’ve been on this one square for a few miles now.”
“Yeah and you wasted some moving from the gas station into the Meijer-proper parking lot.”
“We can’t park in a gas station.”
“I don’t care. Just get me out of here.” Clara buckled her seatbelt and tried to petulantly sink back into her seat, struggling to extend her legs under the dog’s weight.
“You would rather be stuck on the side of the road in Ionia?”
“Yes, get me the fuck out of this parking lot.”
Brad put the car into drive. It was 2.4 miles to the Mobil station. If Clara were really in the mood to ruin things, she’d point out that driving down this stretch of the M-66 was a microcosm of Michigan: closed, closed, closed, Little Caesars, closed.
“It’s, like, just one more mile after this bridge,” she mumbled.
As they followed the bend of the road off the bridge, the sky lit up with neon lights. Was Clara hallucinating? They’d been driving for several miles with nothing but headlights and the occasional traffic-light-cum-four-way-stop, and suddenly, some sort of funky skyline. Clara’s eyes focused. It was like a mirage, but instead of turning out to be nothing, it was worse. It was nothing nothing. She knew this wasn’t the cause for the outage, and yet:
“Is that a—”
“Yeah, I think so,” Brad said as the Ferris wheel came into focus.
“A fucking fair?”
Periwinkle chicory weeds grew tall around the guardrail that separated the car from the downward slope that led to the lot. The wet grass looked as neon as the lights against the sweaty asphalt.
Clara clenched her jaw. Out Brad’s window, she could see two boys in Detroit Lions shirts chasing each other around the minivans in the fairground parking lot and throwing bang snaps at each other, tormenting and thrilling each other with the pops of light.
Garbage cans grew tall with pop bottles and half-eaten elephant ears as families exited and entered the fairground gates. Somewhere beyond those gates, perhaps near a ring toss and a pile of teddy bears, stood a weekend reporter with a loudly patterned blouse holding a Fox 17 microphone to mouths, all of which would say: Personally? Their favorite part of the fair is the farm animals and funnel cake and, “you know, just seeing everybody out together on a day like today.”
And on they drove, past the enthusiastically lit signs that advertised “The Miracle of Life” farm animal birthing show, a Journey tribute band, and the “World’s Largest Free Fair,” past its glorious neon and noise.
Inga Oliveira lives in São Paulo and tweets from @_thotology.