Like many before her, Adelina Antonescu was a Romanian teenager seeking summer employment and a sense of the real America when she took a job selling tourist crap at South Dakota’s Wall Drug.
She was part of the June wave — the crush of young Eastern Europeans with little grasp of geography that washed over the country every year, landing in middle-of-nowhere water parks, aging resorts and roadside attractions as temporary help. They learned CPR and how to dip a corn dog and when not to look a trucker in the eye.
In some ways, it was the real America. Most of America is nothing — mile after square mile of eagle-sky nothing. Wall Drug at least had a dinosaur to punctuate the landscape: an 80-foot tall apatosaurus with light bulbs for eyes.
“Apatosaurus,” she wrote to her mother in her first email home. The creature’s long green neck was the closest thing she’d seen to a skyscraper since she’d arrived.
“Robot cowboys,” she wrote in the next email, attaching a video of the animatronic cowboy band plucking out “Greenback Dollar.” “My favorite thing!!!”
In truth, their buggy eyes, always-open jaws and the one eyebrow that moved gave her an uneasy feeling. She didn’t like to be alone with them at night, even if they were trapped behind glass.
She could feel them watching her as she folded bandanas and re-arranged the beef jerky.
She thought about getting in a car, any car. The whole country was out in the parking lot: Virginia, Florida, Nebraska, California. There was room in those minivans. She would just have to pick one. They might not even notice for a while if she was real quiet.
That was America, right? Hitchiking? Adventure? A near miss with a serial killer?
Two million people a year pulled in to the Wall Drug parking lot; one of them had to take her.
And those robot cowboys could brush their own teeth.
This story is for Jon Gordon.