Page 27 of Paper Towns

“One more time,” Lacey says.

“I’m the gas man,” Radar says. “After I start the fill-up, I run inside while the pump is pumping even though I’m supposed to stay near the pump at all times, and I give you the card. Then I return to the gas.”

“I take the card to the guy behind the counter,” Lacey says.

“Or girl,” I add.

“Not relevant,” Lacey answers.

“I’m just saying—don’t be so sexist.”

“Oh whatever, Q. I take the card to the person behind the counter. I tell her or him to ring up everything we bring. Then I pee.”

I add, “Meanwhile, I’m getting everything on my list and bringing it up to the front.”

Ben says, “And I’m peeing. Then when I finish peeing, I’ll get the stuff on my list.”

“Most importantly shirts,” Radar says. “People keep looking at me funny.”

Lacey says, “I sign the receipt when I get out of the bathroom.”

“And then the moment the tank is full, I’m going to get in the minivan and drive away, so y’all had better be in there. I will seriously leave your asses. You have six minutes,” Radar says.

“Six minutes,” I say, nodding my head. And Lacey and Ben repeat it also. “Six minutes.” “Six minutes.” At 5:35 P.M., with nine hundred miles to go, Radar informs us that, according to his handheld, the next exit will have a BP.

As I pull into the gas station, Lacey and Radar are crouched behind the sliding door in the back. Ben, seat belt unbuckled, has one hand on the passenger-door handle and the other on the dashboard. I maintain as much speed as I can for as long as I can, and then slam on the brakes right in front of the gas tank. The minivan jolts to a halt, and we fly out the doors. Radar and I cross in front of the car; I toss him the keys and then run all out to the food mart. Lacey and Ben have beaten me to the doors, but only just barely. While Ben bolts for the bathroom, Lacey explains to the gray-haired woman (it is a woman!) that we’re going to be buying a lot of stuff, and that we’re in a huge hurry, and that she should just ring items up as we deliver them and that it will all go on her BP card, and the woman seems a little bewildered but agrees. Radar runs in, his robe aflutter, and hands Lacey the card.

Meanwhile, I’m running through the aisles getting everything on my list. Lacey’s on liquids; Ben’s on nonperishable supplies; I’m on food. I sweep through the place like I’m a cheetah and the tortilla chips are injured gazelles. I run an armful of chips and beef jerky and peanuts to the front counter, then jog to the candy aisle. A handful of Mentos, a handful of Snickers, and— Oh, it’s not on the list, but screw it, I love Nerds, so I add three packages of Nerds. I run back and then head over to the “deli” counter, which consists of ancient turkey sandwiches wherein the turkey strongly resembles ham. I grab two of those. On my way back to the cash register, I stop for a couple Starbursts, a package of Twinkies, and an indeterminate number of GoFast nutrition bars. I run back. Ben’s standing there in his graduation gown, handing the woman T-shirts and four-dollar sunglasses. Lacey runs up with gallons of soda, energy drinks, and bottles of water. Big bottles, the kind of bottles that even Ben’s pee can’t fill.

“ONE MINUTE!” Lacey shouts, and I panic. I’m turning in circles, my eyes darting around the store, trying to remember what I’m forgetting. I glance down at my list. I seem to have everything, but I feel like there’s something important I’ve forgotten. Something. Come on, Jacobsen. Chips, candy, turkey-that-looks-like-ham, pbj, and—what? What are the other food groups? Meat, chips, candy, and, and, and, and cheese! “CRACKERS!” I say, much too loud, and then I dart to the crackers, grabbing cheese crackers and peanut butter crackers and some of Grandma’s peanut butter cookies for good measure, and then I run back and toss them across the counter. The woman has already bagged up four plastic bags of groceries. Almost a hundred dollars total, not even counting gas; I’ll be paying back Lacey’s parents all summer.

There’s only one moment of pause, and it’s after the woman behind the counter swipes Lacey’s BP card. I glance at my watch. We’re supposed to leave in twenty seconds. Finally, I hear the receipt printing. The woman tears it out of the machine, Lacey scribbles her name, and then Ben and I grab the bags and dash for the car. Radar revs the engine as if to say hustle, and we are running through the parking lot, Ben’s robe flowing in the wind so that he looks vaguely like a dark wizard, except that his pale skinny legs are visible, and his arms hug plastic bags. I can see the back of Lacey’s legs beneath her dress, her calves tight in midstride. I don’t know how I look, but I know how I feel: Young. Goofy. Infinite. I watch as Lacey and Ben pile in through the open sliding door. I follow, landing on plastic bags and Lacey’s torso. Radar guns the car as I slam the sliding door shut, and then he peels out of the parking lot, marking the first time in the long and storied history of the minivan that anyone anywhere has ever used one to burn rubber. Radar turns left onto the highway at a somewhat unsafe speed, and then merges back onto the interstate. We’re four seconds ahead of schedule. And just like with the NASCAR pit stops, we share high-fives and backslaps. We are well supplied. Ben has plenty of containers into which he can urinate. I have adequate beef jerky rations. Lacey has her Mentos. Radar and Ben have T-shirts to wear over their robes. The minivan has become a biosphere—give us gas, and we can keep going forever.

Hour Five

Okay, maybe we are not that well provisioned after all. In the rush of the moment, it turns out that Ben and I made some moderate (although not fatal) mistakes. With Radar alone up front, Ben and I sit in the first bench, unpacking each bag and handing the items to Lacey in the wayback. Lacey, in turn, is sorting items into piles based on an organizational schema only she understands.

“Why is the NyQuil not in the same pile as the NoDoz?” I ask. “Shouldn’t all the medicines be together?”

“Q. Sweetie. You’re a boy. You don’t know how to do these things. The NoDoz is with the chocolate and the Mountain Dew, because those things all contain caffeine and help you stay up. The NyQuil is with the beef jerky because eating meat makes you feel tired.”

“Fascinating,” I say. After I’ve handed Lacey the last of the food from my bags, Lacey asks, “Q, where is the food that is— you know—good?”

“Huh?”

Lacey produces a copy of the grocery list she wrote for me and reads from it. “Bananas. Apples. Dried cranberries. Raisins.”

“Oh.” I say. “Oh, right. The fourth food group wasn’t crackers.”

“Q!” she says, furious. “I can’t eat any of this!”

Ben puts a hand on her elbow. “Well, but you can eat Grandma’s cookies. They’re not bad for you. They were made by Grandma. Grandma wouldn’t hurt you.”

Lacey blows a strand of hair out of her face. She seems genuinely annoyed. “Plus,” I tell her, “there are GoFast bars. They’re fortified with vitamins!”

“Yeah, vitamins and like thirty grams of fat,” she says.

From the front Radar announces, “Don’t you go talking bad about GoFast bars. Do you want me to stop this car?”

“Whenever I eat a GoFast bar,” Ben says, “I’m always like, ‘So this is what blood tastes like to mosquitoes.’”

I half unwrap a fudge brownie GoFast bar and hold it in front of Lacey’s mouth. “Just smell it,” I say. “Smell the vitaminy deliciousness.”

“You’re going to make me fat.”

“Also zitty,” Ben said. “Don’t forget zitty.”

Lacey takes the bar from me and reluctantly bites into it. She has to close her eyes to hide the orgasmic pleasure inherent in GoFast-tasting. “Oh. My. God. That tastes like hope feels.”

Finally, we unpack the last bag. It contains two large T-shirts, which Radar and Ben are very excited about, because it means they can be guys-wearing-gigantic-shirts-over-silly-robes instead of just guys-wearing-silly-robes.

But when Ben unfurls the T-shirts, there are two small problems. First, it turns out that a large T-shirt in a Georgia gas station is not the same size as a large T-shirt at, say, Old Navy. The gas station shirt is gigantic—more garbage bag than shirt. It is smaller than the graduation robes, but not by much. But this problem rather pales in comparison to the other problem, which is that both T-shirts are embossed with huge Confederate flags. Printed over the flag are the words HERITAGE NOT HATE.

“Oh no you didn’t,” Radar says when I show him why we’re laughing. “Ben Starling, you better not have bought your token black friend a racist shirt.”

“I just grabbed the first shirts I saw, bro.”

“Don’t bro me right now,” Radar says, but he’s shaking his head and laughing. I hand him his shirt and he wiggles into it while driving with his knees. “I hope I get pulled over,” he says. “I’d like to see how the cop responds to a black man wearing a Confederate T-shirt over a black dress.”

Hour Six

For some reason, the stretch of I-95 just south of Florence, South Carolina, is the place to drive a car on a Friday evening. We get bogged down in traffic for several miles, and even though Radar is desperate to violate the speed limit, he’s lucky when he can go thirty. Radar and I sit up front, and we try to keep from worrying by playing a game we’ve just invented called That Guy Is a Gigolo. In the game, you imagine the lives of people in the cars around you.

We’re driving alongside a Hispanic woman in a beat-up old Toyota Corolla. I watch her through the early darkness. “Left her family to move here,” I say. “Illegal. Sends money back home on the third Tuesday of every month. She’s got two little kids—her husband is a migrant. He’s in Ohio right now—he only spends three or four months a year at home, but they still get along really well.”

Radar leans in front of me and glances over at her for half a second. “Christ, Q, it’s not so melodratragic as that. She’s a secretary at a law firm—look how she’s dressed. It has taken her five years, but she’s now close to getting a law degree of her own. And she doesn’t have kids, or a husband. She’s got a boyfriend, though. He’s a little flighty. Scared of commitment. White guy, a little nervous about the Jungle Fever angle of the whole thing.”

“She’s wearing a wedding ring,” I point out. In Radar’s defense, I’ve been able to stare at her. She is to my right, just below me. I can see through her tinted windows, and I watch as she sings along to some song, her unblinking eyes on the road. There are so many people. It is easy to forget how full the world is of people, full to bursting, and each of them imaginable and consistently misimagined. I feel like this is an important idea, one of those ideas that your brain must wrap itself around slowly, the way pythons eat, but before I can get any further, Radar speaks.

“She’s just wearing that so pervs like you don’t come on to her,” Radar explains.

“Maybe.” I smile, pick up the half-finished GoFast bar sitting on my lap, and take a bite. It’s quiet again for a while, and I am thinking about the way you can and cannot see people, about the tinted windows between me and this woman who is still driving right beside us, both of us in cars with all these windows and mirrors everywhere, as she crawls along with us on this packed highway. When Radar starts talking again, I realize that he has been thinking, too.

“The thing about That Guy Is a Gigolo,” Radar says, “I mean, the thing about it as a game, is that in the end it reveals a lot more about the person doing the imagining than it does about the person being imagined.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I was just thinking that.” And I can’t help but feel that Whitman, for all his blustering beauty, might have been just a bit too optimistic. We can hear others, and we can travel to them without moving, and we can imagine them, and we are all connected one to the other by a crazy root system like so many leaves of grass—but the game makes me wonder whether we can really ever fully become another.

Hour Seven

We finally pass a jackknifed truck and get back up to speed, but Radar calculates in his head that we’ll need to average seventy-seven from here to Agloe. It has been one entire hour since Ben announced that he needed to pee, and the reason for this is simple: he is sleeping. At six o’clock exactly, he took NyQuil. He lay down in the wayback, and then Lacey and I strapped both seat belts around him. This made him even more uncomfortable, but 1. It was for his own good, and 2. We all knew that in twenty minutes, no discomfort would matter to him at all, because he would be dead asleep. And so he is now. He will be awoken at midnight. I have just put Lacey to bed now, at 9 P.M., in the same position in the backseat. We will wake her at 2 A.M. The idea is that everybody sleeps for a shift so we won’t be taping our eyelids open by tomorrow morning, when we come rolling into Agloe.

The minivan has become a kind of very small house: I am sitting in the passenger seat, which is the den. This is, I think, the best room in the house: there is plenty of space, and the chair is quite comfortable.

Scattered about the carpet beneath the passenger seat is the office, which contains a map of the United States Ben got at the BP, the directions I printed out, and the scrap paper onto which Radar has scrawled his calculations about speed and distance. Radar sits in the driver’s seat. The living room. It is a lot like the den, only you can’t be as relaxed when you’re there. Also, it’s cleaner.

Between the living room and the den, we have the center console, or kitchen. Here we keep a plentiful supply of beef jerky and GoFast bars and this magical energy drink called Bluefin, which Lacey put on the shopping list. Bluefin comes in small, fancily contoured glass bottles, and it tastes like blue cotton candy. It also keeps you awake better than anything in all of human history, although it makes you a bit twitchy. Radar and I have agreed to keep drinking it until two hours before our rest periods. Mine starts at midnight, when Ben gets up.


Tags: John Green Young Adult
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