Hoot and Marla are on their way to Niagara Falls. Hoot's sister, Betty Sue, has talked Hoot into letting her come. She has brought along her boyfriend, Nick.
Hoot is driving the black Monte Carlo he bought last week for $800. Everyone is to chip in on the gas.
"All-my-x's-live-in-Tex-as," Hoot sings along with the radio, "that's why I hang my hat in Tennessee!" He taps his hand on the steering wheel in time to the music.
Hoot loves George Strait. Not as much as he loves Elvis though. Hoot is an Elvis Presley look alike. He's never traded on it or anything. But he can sing and play the guitar, too. Marla nearly dies when he sings, "Love me Tender." He's that good.
Now, as he sings, Hoot dusts the dash with his middle finger. Then he smacks the fuzzy blue dice hanging from the rear view mirror and they bounce back and forth.
For the last hour Nick has cracked his knuckles and studied the road map. The map is from triple A and so detailed Marla feels even she could get them to New York with it. But Marla isn't interested in any road map.
She has come on this trip strictly to be with Hoot. Instead she is sitting in the back seat with Betty Sue who has filed her long red nails ever since they left West Virginia. That was seven hours ago.
They have already come through Cleveland and are heading East on I-90. Hoot says Erie is their next stop. Marla is glad. Several hours ago they ate the bologna sandwiches she packed and she is hungry.
She pulls a tortoise-shell mirror from her purse and looks at herself. She pats her face with a tissue to take the shine off. She dabs some Paris Pink on her lips and blows her blond bangs off her forehead. She wishes it wasn't so hot. Hoot has the air-conditioner off. He says it saves on gas. Marla puts the mirror away and turns back to the billboards and signs.
That's how she is keeping busy. Reading billboards and signs. For what seems like hours now they have traveled past vineyards.
"Bob's Winery five miles ahead," Marla reads aloud in a monotone as they pass a billboard featuring a giant glass of bubbling champagne. She brightens, "Oh, let's stop!"
"Bob's Winery! Three miles ahead!"
They come to the exit for Bob's Winery. Marla's eyes light up. A neon sign is flashing "Bob's Winery Here."
Hoot doesn't even slow the car. If anything, he speeds up. Marla closes her eyes and tries to imagine what a winery would be like. But even trying hard, she can't.
Now she fluctuates between reading signs and staring at the back of Hoot's head. She would love to touch his soft black hair but doesn't. He hates having his hair touched. He carries a comb in his back pocket and won't let one hair get out of place. Marla catches Hoot's eye in the rear view mirror. She smiles but he doesn't let on that he sees her. More and more lately he doesn't let on that he sees her. Sometimes she wonders if she is invisible. One day she was in the IGA and he looked right past her.
Between his long hours at the fire station and his singing gigs they are lucky to be together every other week now. When the idea for the trip came up, Marla was glad. This could be an investment in her future.
Betty Sue is busy highlighting certain passages in a True Story Magazine with a lemon-scented marker.
The air is heavy with HaiKarate. Hoot's. Marla loves smelling it on him. Especially when he is beside her on the blue shag carpet of her apartment watching Days of Our Lives. Hoot isn't hot or cold on any of the stars. But, Patch and Kayla are Marla's favorites. They are so much in love it hurts Marla to watch them. Something always happens to keep them apart. Patch is so open with his emotions it makes Marla want to cry. Marla can't imagine Hoot ever acting over her like Patch does over Kayla. Sometimes she wishes she wasn't so crazy in love with Hoot. She isn't so sure his feelings for her are all that deep. Particularly these days. He seems so preoccupied.
Suddenly Hoot slams on the brakes and Marla and Betty Sue are nearly thrown into the front seat. A flat-bed truck has come to a complete stop on the highway in front of them. The driver of the truck is an old man who seems to have missed his exit and is starting to back up toward them.
Without pause, Hoot passes, laying on the horn and giving the old man the finger.
Hoot and Nick get into a big discussion of fishing for bass. Marla knows for a fact all Hoot knows about fishing for bass is what he has read in the Outdoor Journal of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia which he reads from cover to cover. As far as Marla knows Hoot has never been fishing and he lives near the river.
"I want to be a pro at it when I do go," he said to her once when she complained that he should be fishing not reading. He is the only person Marla knows who wants to read about everything. Just the week before he read a dozen books on the Falls.
"Hand me one of them Cokes, Marla," Hoot says now and she takes the lid from the red and white plastic cooler at her feet, opens the can and hands it over the seat. Her older sister, Shirley Jean, says Marla lets Hoot boss her too much. Maybe she does. But she wants to marry Hoot so bad she will do almost anything he asks to please him.
It was the invitation to her class reunion that really got her thinking. She is the only girl from her class who is still single. Her mother laughs and says she's only 23 and why worry. But she does.
She has heard Hoot laugh and say that the life of a firefighter isn't one for a married man. He says the job is too dangerous. But, Marla doesn't buy any of this. If there's any danger it's in Hoot's head.
The Chesterville fire truck hardly ever leaves the station except when Hoot drives it up to the IGA for groceries. That's how she met him. In the express check-out. They'd struck up a conversation over a can of Chefboyardee Ravioli which was on special and exactly what they'd both come there to buy. That was last summer. They have been seeing each other off and on ever since.
Marla is hoping when they get to the Falls they can be alone. That somehow there will be a turning point. Something tells her this trip is more than just a simple trip. She's brought along a bottle of Andre Champagne and two plastic champagne glasses from K-Mart just in case.
At the Falls they plan to get two rooms. She will have to bunk with Betty Sue. But somehow or other she plans to get Hoot alone.
Hoot is interested mainly in the Elvis Presley Museum. Marla doesn't care about seeing a living room lamp from Graceland or the first dollar-bill Elvis ever made. But she would never tell Hoot that. Elvis is more than Hoot's idol. It spooks Marla to think about it. How much Hoot is like Elvis. Down to how he lifts his lip when he sings. Even his mother's name is Grace.
Hoot and Marla's relationship has developed mostly in Marla's apartment on Main Street over top of Charlie's U-Call-We-Haul Trucking Company in the few hours she isn't working the McDonald's drive-thru. That's how she was able to come on this trip. She takes every hour she can get.
Earlier, as they were loading the car for the trip, Marla mentioned riding the Maid of the Mist. And visiting Tussaud's Wax Museum. Charlie, from U-Call, said George Burns looks real and Marla wants to see for herself. Hoot didn't say one way or the other. All he said was he heard you got wet riding the Maid of the Mist.
He was in the middle of telling Nick about the Elvis Museum and how they were about to see the largest private collection of Elvis memorabilia in the world. Nick wasn't even listening, just tossing suitcases into the trunk as fast as he could and blowing bubbles with a wad of Juicy Fruit.
In Erie they gas up at a Sunoco and then Hoot parks over to the side of the station and they all go to use the restrooms. On the way back they get ham sandwiches out of a machine and Marla buys herself a Zagnut and gets a Zero for Hoot. He loves Zeros. They are hard to find. She decides to buy two.
Nick stares at Marla as they get back into the car. She is wearing a red halter top with her navy shorts and her new leather sandals. She has the best tan she's ever had. She's been twenty times to the tanning bed. She just hopes she doesn't get skin cancer for being so vain.
Hoot has never noticed that she is evenly tanned all over. She notices everything about him. He only gets a tan on his face and arms. He never wears shorts. She is surprised he will wear muscle shirts. But he does. He has one on now and she loves him in it. It is red to match her halter top. She has asked him specifically to wear the shirt.
In the front seat Hoot and Nick are arguing over the route they are taking. Hoot says he bets there is a more direct route to Buffalo. He said they probably didn't need to go through Cleveland at all. He accused Nick of wanting to go through Cleveland just to say he'd been there. Nick has people in Euclid.
Marla doesn't care which route they take. She just wants to get there.
She has brought enough clothes to stay two weeks but they only plan to be gone for four days. The trunk is packed full and Hoot even has one suitcase tied on top of the Monte Carlo.
Shirley Jean, who used to work for Reynolds Aluminum, has lent Marla all of her clothes. They both wear a size 7. Her mother has said to enjoy being small because the women in her family tend to pick up weight when they have babies. Marla doesn't particularly like babies. She isn't sure she wants any for herself.
"I bet if you marry Hoot and he wants a dozen kids you'll probably jump right in and have 'em," Shirley Jean teased Marla as she folded clothes for the trip. Marla just smiled.
Shirley Jean is dating a man called Eddie from Virginia. He drives over almost every week-end. He has a boat back in Virginia and he has offered to take them all out in it. Hoot can't swim. She thinks this may be why he always turns Eddie down. She can swim and has been begging Hoot to go.
Eddie is the opposite of Hoot. He started getting his tan early at a tanning bed too and now is golden brown. His brown hair is streaked with gold and much of the time he visits Shirley Jean he wears only swimming trunks. He has a 14K gold chain around his neck and wears a nugget ring. Marla has asked Hoot to wear a gold chain but he refuses. She bought him one for Christmas but he took it back and got some flannel shirts with the money.
Betty Sue has been massaging Nick's neck over the seat. Marla is sure they have an intimate relationship just by the way they act when they're together. At least Nick has told Betty Sue he wants to marry her. He has talked about going to Cleveland to look for a job. He is laid-off from his construction job. He is a welder, a good one he says, and can get work anywhere. Hoot says Nick is all talk. Marla wonders.
Hoot pulls into a roadside park. The Monte Carlo is starting to heat up. Betty Sue and Nick disappear laughing into a grove of trees. Hoot appears agitated as he swings out of the car and puts the hood up. He leans against a tree to smoke.
Marla sits in the car for a minute before getting out to lean against the tree with Hoot. She moves over and kisses him. He kisses her back. But for only a minute.
"Hey," he says, looking over his shoulder, "there's people around." She sees one man at the far end of the park. Otherwise they are alone. She puts her arms around Hoot again and he pushes her away, this time Marla loses her balance and nearly falls.
Just then a semi pulls in not far from them and the bearded trucker that gets out looks Marla over from head to toe. He smiles and winks. Hoot has his head under the hood of the car and doesn't see.
The thought that he wouldn't care if he did see makes Marla's breath catch in her throat. It is at that exact moment that she knows for sure what she has suspected all along. Hoot has no intention of riding the Maid of the Mist. Or visiting the Tussaud's Wax Museum. Or marrying her. Not now. Not ever.
A cold wind whips across the parking lot and Marla shivers. She reaches into the back seat for her sweater and notices the brown bag with the champagne. She takes it from the car and heads to the rest room. Inside the cubicle she stares at the Andre Champagne and the two plastic glasses for a moment before pushing them through the lid of the trash can. They hit the metal bottom with a loud clatter.
She unwraps a Zero and eats it as she walks back to the car.
"How far have we got to go?" she asks as Hoot closes the hood of the car.
"Not far," he says. He slides into the car, turns on the ignition and the radio at the same time. "Wasted days and wasted nights," Hoot sings loudly, nearly drowning out Freddy Fender.
Betty Sue and Nick smile as they get into the car.
Nobody notices Marla as they head down the highway. She is ripping the brochure for the Elvis Museum into the tiniest pieces and is letting them blow, one by one, out the window and into the hot air.