Eric had been driving through Pennsylvania since dusk and had crossed into Ohio about two hours ago. It was 2 AM and pitch black outside as he approached Columbus. He flicked the ash from his Marlboro Light out his cracked window and mopped a greasy swatch of orange-brown hair back across his forehead. He hadn't stopped to eat, drink, or relieve himself since he'd left Malvern and the strain of the road was getting to him. With a gulp of cold coffee and one last puff from his cigarette he rolled his window up and refocused.
His eyes glanced over the console on their way back up to his dirty windshield, and to Eric's chagrin the gas needle was hovering just above E, shimmying ever so slightly as his Omni wiggled and jammed down the highway. He began scanning the horizon for travel plazas where he could buy gas and freshen up for the next third of his journey. It wasn't long before he saw Exit 122 and soon after a sign for a Flying J Travel Plaza. Eric exited I-70 quickly, anxious for a break.
After pulling up next to a pump, Eric dragged himself out of his car and waited with the gas nozzle in hand, just in case of a backfire, as his Omni usually shuttered for a minute or so after he'd shut it off. Finally jamming the nozzle into the hole, Eric smiled as he envisioned a steamy hot shower. After that he would indulge in the luxury of a late-night truck-stop feast. ESR tapped his foot as he waited for the pump to start. Half a second later, he almost had a heart attack.
“Sir, our pumps are prepay now so you have to pay inside first,” an unseen speaker blared at him.
Startled, Eric jumped back, dropped the nozzle on the ground, and bumped the Omni's gas door shut with his ass. His heart beat furiously and he trembled uncontrollably. Heeding the cashier's friendly greeting, Eric picked the nozzle up and shoved it back in its holster and made his way to the store's entrance. He was not pleased with having to prepay, not pleased at all. And he intended to share this with the clerk. He marched up to the front checkout and drew himself up to his whole 5'6 and glared.
“Do you know who I am?” Eric demanded, his voice like a teapot about to blow its top.
The cashier, a lean young man of about 20 with longish dark hair pulled back in a pony tail with three days of stubble and sky-blue eyes, looked at him and stifled a chuckle. “No,” he said. “I don't.”
“Well that's your first mistake,” Eric said before he paused to look at the clerk's name-tag, “Shawn.”
Shawn bit his cheeks to keep from smiling and made direct eye contact with Eric — or tried to, since Eric's eyes were all over the place at this late hour. “I'm sorry about that, sir. What can I help you with tonight?” he asked.
“You can start by putting thirty five dollars in gas on pump thirteen,” Eric said. “And then I'll take three of these motor oils, five of those bottles of trucker pills, and one of your hot showers in the back,” he finished, grabbing and throwing the items on the counter.
Ringing, Shawn watched to make sure Eric didn't pack anything in his pockets during the sale.
“Will this be cash or credit?” Shawn asked.
“Credit,” Eric answered with gusto. “On my VA Software credit card!”
Eric produced a blue credit card with the familiar Tux penguin logo in the right hand corner and gave it to Shawn. He stared at the ground and tapped his foot while the transaction went through. He yawned and looked off into the distance at the showers, where he would soon bathe himself after days of sweaty travail. That last eight hours of driving had really clenched the odor. Eric idly noticed one of the doors had a Linux sticker on it and smiled, bemused. He'd take that room for luck.
“Just sign here,” Shawn said after handing Eric his card, a receipt, and a cheap pen. “Would you like a bag?”
“No, no, no, no bag tonight,” Eric said as he signed the receipt and gathered his purchases up in his arms and began hobbling toward the door.
“Sir, wait up!” Shawn called after him.
Eric turned and raised his eyebrows. “Yes, what is it?” he said.
Shawn held out a small, full plastic bag. “You forgot your shower bag, sir.” he told Eric, who was now standing at the counter again, negotiating a hand free from his motor oil and speed pills.
“Remember to lock it from the inside,” Shawn told Eric as he deftly placed the bag on top of the motor oil. “Enjoy your stall, man.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Eric said.
◇ ◇ ◇
Eric sauntered slowly to the shower rooms in the back of the Flying J trucker mall, thinking about how nice a long, steamy shower would feel. He opened the door with the Linux sticker on it and took a towel, wash rag, soap, shampoo, and several small tea lights out of his shower bag and set them on the sink. Humming Ride of the Valkyries, he disrobed and began lighting the candles, thinking of sudsing his sloping shoulders and running soap through his naughty areas. His humming grew more intense.
Standing naked in the candlelight humming, Eric closed his eyes and envisioned summer waterfalls in the Germanic countryside. In Eric's fantasy pure Teutonic waters lapped at his thin, pale chest while Swabian maidens giggled as he spat water at them. His hands reached forward past the shower curtain, turning the faucets, and water began spraying from the shower head. He stepped inside. His humming filled the shower and he was lost in the Black Forest, wild with the secrets of Germany and Open Source.
He ran his thin bar of soap across his limp body as the warm water washed over him. A German maiden stepped under the hidden waterfall with Eric, eyes sparkling in the candlelight. Eric soaped his buttocks and stood ready for her in the warmth and darkness. Wagner thundered in the magic cavern and he extended his hand, full of the magic energy of the motherland — and soap — to caress his young valkyrie's face. He reached out, ever so slowly, savoring the moment...
And touched a thick blanket of whiskers.
“What the fuck!” Eric yelled as he opened his eyes.
Standing at the other end of the shower was none other than Richard Stallman, leader of the Free Software Foundation, in his dripping wet altogether with a look of anticipation on his shaggy face.
“I was wondering when you'd realize I was here,” he said. His voice was high pitched and monotonic. It rang in Eric's ears.
“What,” Eric yelled, “Are you doing in my shower twenty minutes outside of Columbus?!”
“Please, Eric, calm yourself,” Richard said. “I thought we were getting along.”
“We were,” Eric said, “Except for that nasty little problem of you always saying that Free Software is better than Open Source.”
Richard looked at Eric with puppy dog eyes. “Fine enough to have a truck stop rendezvous?” he pleaded.
“Look – no – not until you tell me how you knew I would be here,” Eric said, pointing at Richard. “Was it you on Match.com all along?”
“Match.com?” Richard said, looking puzzled. “If you're cruising for ass online you should not use Match.com. It is not Free.”
“Then what are you doing here?” Eric said, ignoring Richard's capital F. “Columbus is a little out of your territory, don't you think?”
“I could ask the same thing of you,” Richard said. He noted that the shower was still running warm water all over Eric's backside as they spoke. “But I am down here speaking to the Central Ohio Linux User's Group about the GPL.”
Eric said, “I'm on a little road-trip to Kansas City,” He dropped his hands to his hips. “And I took this room because I saw the Tux sticker on it.”
“Ah!” Richard exclaimed. “I knew I should have used a gnu sticker! Any old bum will take a room with a penguin on the door.”
Eric noticed the gleam in Richard's dark, beady eyes from the low amber light of the candles. And just then, in the middle of their silence, Flying J's muzak came on. Richard and Eric both looked up, waiting to catch the tune. It began softly but suggested a faster beat. Then, slowly, the sound came into focus — it was Hung Up, the first single from Madonna's new album. Both Eric and Richard's heads bobbed in sync with the beat and their feet began tapping along. Eric's hips started swaying as well.
Eric was the first to break out of the song. “Look, I have a bottle of Jäger in my Omni. There's not much room in there, but–”
“Don't worry about how much room there is,” Richard said, stopping Eric. “Let's just enjoy this song first and worry about the rest later.”
And that's exactly what Eric and Richard did while Madonna gave way to a string of other muzak hits and the tea lights burned out. Eric had a long night ahead of him before he embarked westward to Kansas City in the morning.