A backroad somewhere along the Suwannee River. The world was covered in bald cypresses, live oaks and beards of Spanish moss. And I really had to pee.
I had been driving all morning through the Twenty-Seventh State. We are moving this week. These are my last 24 hours as a Floridian, which is almost surreal. Tomorrow my home state will no longer be my home.
My urinary pains were getting worse with each passing mile. Ever since Lake City I had been doing the ceremonial dance of the loaded bladder.
I finally found a gas station tucked in the sticks. It was an old joint with rolling-number pumps, a rusted tin roof, and plywood on some of the windows.
“Here?” said my wife. “You’re stopping here? This place looks like a tetanus farm.”
I hopped out of the car before I could answer.
In front of the station were old men. They were seated in fold-up lawn chairs, chewing the fat. Their caps bore the logos of heavy equipment brands.
Inside, the woman at the counter looked to be comfortably in her eighties. She wore cat-eye glasses á la 1959, and I could smell the unmistakable scent of Opium perfume my granny used to wear. She was in a rocking chair, reading a “Woman’s World” magazine with her non-smoking hand.
“Do you have a bathroom?” I asked.
I was jogging in place.
She adjusted her hearing aid. “Huh?”
“A bathroom,” I said. “It’s urgent.”
“Bath. Room. Please.”
The woman moved about as quickly as a semester of veterinary school. She took her sweet time digging behind the counter while my bladder swelled to the size of a football.
Finally, she gave me a key with a Ford hubcap attached to the chain and sternly told me to bring it back when I finished. I smiled at her and tried to imagine a world where a man would steal a bathroom key with a hubcap attached.
On my way to the john, the old men on the porch stopped me.
One man said, “I wouldn’t go in that bathroom if I were you.”
The men just laughed.
And as much as I would have enjoyed hearing the punchline of the joke, if I didn’t hurry we were all about to witness the failure of a very weak urethral sphincter.
So I raced to the rear of the building and fiddled with the lock. But because this is me we’re talking about, the doorknob was rusted over. I had to kick the door, Starsky-and-Hutch style.
When the door opened, I found a dark room about the size of a water heater closet, and I could hear flies buzzing. Suddenly, I had a bad feeling about what I might find once I flicked the light switch.
Sweet baby Jesus.
It was bad. This bathroom was—and I mean this in the nicest way possible—the Fifth Circle of Hell. Do you remember the movie “The Exorcist”? Just imagine Linda Blair with severe digestive problems.
I couldn’t do it.
I found the old men on the front stoop again, this time they were choking on their own saliva with laughter. And I believe they were laughing at me.
“We tried to warn you,” they said.
“That bathroom hasn’t been cleaned since the French and Indian War,” added another.
“If it were me,” said one guy, “I’d go water a tree.”
The old men pointed to the woods.
So I tore off toward the trees, clutching my bladder in both hands. Except, of course, I couldn’t get to the trees because there was a barbed-wire fence standing between me and the untrammeled forests of the Alligator State.
“You gotta climb over the fence!” one of the men shouted.
So I crawled over the razor-wire fence and felt it snag the seat of my blue jeans until the back leg of my jeans tore, exposing me to the world. Soon, I felt a draft of cool air on my bare fundaments.
The sound of elderly laughter bounced across the woods.
Anyway, after I took care of business, I walked back to the car. By now the old men on the porch were purple-faced and practically rolling on the floorboards. They were at that age where laughing and coughing fits go together, so it sounded like they were having mutual strokes.
“Had a little problem hopping the fence, did ya?” said one wiseacre.
“Someone needs to do something about that bathroom,” I said, “it’s horrible.”
“Tell me about it,” said one old guy, “but it came like that when my wife and I bought the place fifty years ago.”
I’m going to miss you, Florida.