Signs of entering Wisconsin.
Highway construction stayed the same after we crossed the state line. Flatlands of crops stretched out for miles, unaware of which Midwestern state they occupied. But I observed remarkable thematic changes in the road signs.
While Illinois emphasized its eclectic range of injury lawyers, insurance options and pest-control experts, Wisconsin was noteworthy for guns, God and gouda. Billboards proclaiming the virtues of all three were erected alongside the interstate’s golden cornstalks, greeting us every few miles as we continued driving north.
My favorite signs were thematic mash-ups. Like “Jesus Has Your Back,” aptly positioned with a fluorescent arrow pointing the way to a 24-hour gun shop. “Visit Tommy Gun at Gouda’s Italian Deli” was another entry in the category, and a tempting proposition to boot.
“A question for you,” I said to my husband, driver of our northbound Mazda.
“You see the corn and soybeans on the side of the highway. Do you think they mind the signs that are planted alongside them?”
“What do you mean?”
“Not just the messages, though maybe the crops can read those, and perhaps they approve or disapprove, who can say? But more to the point: the signs encroach on their sunlight.”
“You’d see the only cloud on a sunny day,” he said, laughing. “Who cares about these silly billboards? But they do remind me of one thing: that I wanted to get a snack.”
I wasn’t so sure, though I did agree to the pit stop. We bought cranberry gouda and chocolate-almond bars at the Mars Cheese Castle, and raced each other back to the car. Calories burned: likely under fifty. Calories consumed: probably ten times that.
As the sun arced westward, I took a cheese-induced catnap. It was a welcome respite from the constant reading of signs, though I knew, in the back of my mind, that they were still there.
At an office park on the outskirts of Milwaukee.
On a misty morning jog through an office park adjacent to our hotel, I spotted three corporate deer and two corporate beehives.
Posted signs stated that the path was off-limits to those not employed by the corporate owner. I looked over my shoulder at the office tower, rising high above the greenery with a low-slung parking structure attached. The building was an anonymous steel-and-glass headquarters of an international distributor. None of its human employees could be spotted along the wildflower footpaths or well-groomed running trails. Long lines of cars approached from the highway, took the office-park loop, and turned straight into the caverns of the parking garage.
I wondered what jobs the deer and bees had been able to score.
Playing twenty questions.
A game, you suggested, and why not? I had nothing else to do but ride shotgun and keep you pointed in the right direction, and Google navigation effectively managed the latter point. Being on the last leg of our cross-country trip meant that we had to spice things up.
“Twenty questions, but our way,” you said, a glimmer in your eye. We’d be playing for pride, the only currency worth reckoning. I assented with glee.
The state capitols and river towns of our roadtrip informed your opening gambit:
“Why no major city on the Susquehanna, river of Binghamton and Harrisburg?”
Clever, but I countered:
“Why do you think those aren’t major cities?”
You conceded the point, with a sly smile, and accelerated into the left lane.
My turn. I looked out for cops, worried about your speeding, and considered how best to approach the game. I decided on another geographical question, this one with a straight-factual answer:
“What city once had the most millionaires per capita, and was made famous for being where President McKinley was shot and died?”
Buffalo was the correct reply, though there were multiple stumpers hidden in the phrasing. For one thing, it was my personal opinion that neither millionaires nor McKinley were true claims to fame, unlike Buffalo’s real pride and joy: The Wild Wing. You made a few wrong guesses, frustrated.
We lobbed each other a few gimmes, just for the sake of marital harmony:
“Who is the all-time top-selling pop star from Canada?”
And I returned the favor, asking:
“What was the greatest 80s television show set at a summer camp?”
Opinions diverged around the Canadians; Neil Young or Joni Mitchell probably, though Leonard Cohen was a sleeper candidate. But we united for “Salute Your Shorts,” definitely, without question. On the rural road, we had no reliable internet to determine the right answers, which made the game more fun.
I stroked the top of your knee, watching the billboards pass by. Seeing ads for casinos, truck stops, wineries and flea markets, I absentmindedly queried:
“Do these signs target the same drivers?”
You paused, checking your blind spot, then responded vividly. You imagined a trucker scoring big at blackjack, converting his winnings into fine wine and indulging his taste for midcentury modern.
Three points for you, I said, granting you one for the correct answer, and two for poetic originality.
You smiled, your hand tapping the wheel while “Brown Eyed Girl” played. We were making good time and had been on the road for two weeks with no major fights or speeding tickets. All we had to do was find an eastbound exit with a diner and a motel, sleep well, and continue driving in the morning. Then we’d be home.
About the artist...
Emily Madapusi Pera is a writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Her poems and stories have been published by Tuck Magazine, Litro, Dissident Voice, Storgy Magazine, A3 Review, and Scout & Birdie, among others. She is a native of Chicago.
Want to see more of Emily's work?
Check out her work from past issues:
Everything You Don’t See from Issue XXII: 1000 Words
Images for the Afterlife from Issue XIX: Lost & Found
On Meeting My Brother's New Girlfriend from Issue XV: Sisters
On the Death of a Small Creature from Issue XIII: At First Sight
Betray: Defining the Unwanted Friend from Issue XI: Diving In
Indiana from Issue X: Home
Erasure Poems from "Pointed Roofs" by Dorothy Richardson from Issue IV: Be Kind, Rewind
Café Mysteries from Issue II: Messy
Three Poems from Issue I: First Impressions