Since we’d left L.A., we’d slept in single story motels where strangers loudly walked and congregated outside our bedroom windows. Margie’s friends lived on a quiet lot and, for the first time in days, we felt secure enough to sleep with the curtains open and the moonlight created a spotlight on Margie’s sleeping figure. The room was illuminated with a bright glow and I found myself face to face with the dark side of a moon shadow. Margie slept like a corpse. Not in the peaceful “is she dead or sleeping?” way, but flat on her back with her arms folded across her chest like a cliché. Making matters worse, her nightclothes were a softer, more expensive version of my own. If I squinted and used my thumb to cover her head, I could visualize my funeral where someone thought it fitting that I spent eternity dressed in flannel. We were three nights into a thirty-day trip, and it was easy math to calculate that I had twenty-seven scary nights of sleeping with that next to me.
Our hosts were very gracious and did everything in their power to make us comfortable, but they kept their house the temperature of a meat freezer. As a result, I woke up with no feeling in 30% of my extremities. I lived in a natural desert where an overcast day was considered the depth of winter. Still, I ran my furnace 360 days a year. I wasn’t used to northern homes that, as a matter of efficiency and practicality, kept the heat isolated to the main living areas. Bundling up, I went to the kitchen and was greeted by a 20-degree temperature change. Every heat-producing unit was on full power. Burners were glowing. Fires were burning. Radiators were steaming. Appliances were working overtime. Even foods passively sitting on the countertop were slowly cooking from the intense temperature.
Not only did Anne and Jay prepare us breakfast, but they also made sandwiches, baked cookies, sliced fresh meat, and boiled over two dozen hard-boiled eggs. We walked out to the car with armloads of food. It was awkward to take so much and give nothing in return, so we offered them a bottle of red wine stored in the car overnight. Although its alcohol content had saved it from completely freezing, it was still uncomfortably cold to touch, and was probably a good bet to say that it had spoiled. But, Jay was gracious, accepted our gift, helped pack the car, and, with a straight face, wished us luck on our quest documenting restroom keychains.
I was learning things about Margie that I wasn’t sure I wanted to know: She had a weird obsession with licorice, an enormous vocabulary of synonyms for “hurry up”, and didn’t seem to know the difference between a co-pilot and indentured servant. “I want a soda and one end of the licorice rope placed in my mouth. Chop Chop,” was quickly becoming the tag line of the trip. Margie had an attention to detail that I would have found impressive in anyone who wasn’t ordering me around. Sandwiches were to have no crusts and all remnants of the peel had to be removed from the Clementines. She was pleasant, until something went wrong. If through some fluke in the shelling process, I was holding the yolk and white of the egg in separate hands, I had not only “shelled it wrong” but had also “ruined it.” I could have driven the car and been the one in control, but, given the choice, I would much rather hear, “Give me the yolk, you’re touching it way too much,” than “You’re going to kill us both if you keep driving at that speed. Step on it.”
After Logan, we’d entered the uncharted stage of our trip. We had only mapped our route through Utah. Our course became a series of impromptu decisions. The road we settled on, zigzagged over the Idaho/Wyoming border. I was thrilled with this development. Margie was nervous. Thankfully, we were finding plenty of keychains to photograph; otherwise, she would have had us back on the interstate “in a jiffy.” On the Idaho border, hanging next to a sign stating an inalienable right to refuse service to anyone, a key attached to a mini hairbrush unlocked both the padlock and bolt lock that secured the bathrooms. At the Minnetonka gas station/market/café and pelt shop in St. Charles, Idaho, a twisted coat hanger held the key. In Afton, Wyoming, the proprietor of the Philips 66 handed us a two-foot stretch of industrial chain link attached to a key and bragged, “In the future, I am going to use a giant elastic cord that wraps around the building. The minute you let go of it, it snaps right back into the drawer. That’ll stop ‘em!” His scorched-earth policy seemed extreme and unfortunate for anyone caught in the path of the shard of flying metal as it made its way back to the drawer. We’d set out to capture a charming bit of Americana and that was what we got.
I gauged that the temperature outside was somewhere in the range of below zero. At every stop, Margie would spend twenty minutes persuading our subjects to pose for a photograph and, when they agreed, signaled that it was time for me to leave the warmth of the car. In 1/60th of a second, I would snap the picture and circle back to the passenger seat. Our routine gave Margie the human interaction that she was craving and enabled me to perfect my method of shooting pictures while moving at a steady trot. We had no business being outside. I wanted to stop working after the hairbrush. Margie wanted to keep moving until we hit Iowa. Fortunately, half way through our day, a friend called and offered us free use of her cabin near Jackson. Margie heard that it wouldn’t cost anything and I thought it would be safe. We each had our own reasons why we couldn’t turn down the offer.
The cabin had been empty for three months, but Beth kept it fully stocked. The cabinets were full of wine and her closets were full of clean warm winter clothing. Most importantly, she had two separate bedrooms. For the first night since we left, Margie and I could have our own space. I could sleep in my underwear and she could imitate a corpse all night long, both without worrying how it affected the other. Like greedy kids in a fairy tale who had stumbled upon an open house in the woods, we helped ourselves to the wine, clothing, laundry machines, and finally her beds that were all just right.