The minutes and the miles clicked by.
I was heading home from a week-long business conference in a distant city.
I disliked flying, so I had decided to cover the distance by car. I somehow thought that I preferred the romance of the open road to the hustle and bustle of airline travel, with the Place-your-keys-in-the-plastic-tub-and-walk-through-the-X-ray-machine-again-please-sir, and the crying babies, and the long delays, and the ears popping at high altitudes, and the Here's-your-tiny-packet-of-dry-roasted-peanuts-sir, and the waiting for luggage to emerge from the luggage-go-round. So I drove. Now I was regretting that decision. For all its annoyances, airline travel does have one big advantage: it's faster.
It was just after midnight, on a warm night near the end of the summer, and the temperature was fine: warm enough that you could drive with the windows down and the wind blowing back your hair, but not hot enough to be uncomfortable or cold enough to be chilly. It was a great night for driving. The trouble was it got boring pretty fast.
All I had in the car by way of audio entertainment was a radio. This can be a big problem for the distance driver, because just when you've found a good station, you start getting too far away from it to pick it up. I spent a lot of the drive trying to listen, through the static, to all-night talk shows, where people call in with their strange, personal problems.
I was bored and tired and hungry. I passed many truck stops, each time thinking, "I should stop and get some coffee or something... well, maybe at the next one." As I passed each truck stop I felt more interested in just getting home than in stopping. But with each passing opportunity I felt the stab of hunger more intensely, the argument growing increasingly convincing with each lost chance. Finally, as I drove past a stop without stopping, I made a resolve: I would grab a bite at the next opportunity.
Mile after mile clicked by. No more truck stops appeared. Now that I'd made up my mind, it seemed as if I'd lost my chance. The hunger now became worse than ever. Finally, in desperation, I bounced my car up onto the exit ramp for a town called New Fargo. Here I could perhaps find something.
I drove about on narrow winding country roads through a dark and rolling landscape. There was no sign of civilization. I thought, "What have I done? Will I even be able to find my way back to the interstate?"
Just as I was about to give up and go back the way I'd come, I surmounted a hill and saw a brightly lit coffee shop. The neon signs on its roof proclaimed things like "Never Closes" and "Breakfast Anytime". A large coffee cup was sculpted in pink neon on the side of the wall. The roof was slanting and angular, and I could see clean tables and one or two happy customers through the huge plate glass windows. I parked my car.
I found myself seated in a vinyl booth holding a menu. The tabletop was of smooth pink plastic, decorated with brown kidney shapes and black boomerangs. I read down the menu. The choices were numerous, spanning several pages of fine print. I concentrated on the breakfast department.
I looked up to see a waitress gazing at me. She had approached without a sound, and stood at tableside waiting for me as I regarded the menu.
"Ready to order?" she asked.
She was very attractive, standing there in her blue and white waitress uniform. She wore these huge, dangling earrings. I figured she was about 27 years old. She had nice legs.
"Um... yeah," I stumbled. "Um... I guess I'll have the French toast, with, uh, a side order of hash browns, and coffee."
She carefully noted my request on the pad and departed, smiling at me but saying nothing. I noticed as she left that her nametag identified her as Rachel.
I looked around. The coffee shop was almost empty. There was one old man at the counter, and a young couple in a booth near the door. Another waitress was leaning against the counter near the old man, smoking a cigarette.
I leaned back and closed my eyes. I was very sleepy. I sat there, not moving, not thinking. I entered that state of being half awake and half asleep, the feeling of falling asleep. My breathing was slow and heavy. I felt very relaxed. Even the growling of my stomach was less intense now, perhaps because it knew food was on the way. I was drifting into sleep, drifting away, sleep, sleep, sleep...
Clunk. The plate of French toast clattered on the table. Clink. The smaller plate of hash browns clattered less severely on the table. Sploosh. Coffee sloshed out of the pot and into my cup. I rubbed my eyes and looked at Rachel. She was smiling down at me.
"Wake up," she coaxed, in a sweet, mothering sort of voice. "You know, you look cute when you're asleep."
I mumbled something incoherent.
"Do you want maple or blueberry syrup with that?"
"Maple," I mumbled.
Rachel disappeared and returned shortly thereafter with the syrup. I accepted it and poured it generously onto my French toast. Rachel glided soundlessly away.
After I had polished off most of the food, and was feeling awake again, Rachel came back. She refilled my coffee cup, and then sat down in the seat across the table from me. I gathered up the last of the slightly underdone hash browns with my fork and stuffed them into my mouth. As I chewed, she said, "Where are you from?"
"Washington," I replied with a mouthful of potato.
"Kind of far from home, aren't you? Are you going back or heading out?"
"Going home," I said, as I lifted the coffee cup to my lips. "It's only another hundred miles or so."
"That's a long way for someone as sleepy as you are."
"I'm OK now that I've got some food in me."
"You know, I've been thinking about moving up there. I really hate this job, and it's terrible living out in the sticks like this."
"Why don't you?"
"Oh, I don't know. I guess I'm just a little afraid. I don't even know anyone up there."
I made a sort of grunting noise, and ate the last bit of the French toast. There was a long pause in the conversation. She stared at my receding hairline. I stared at her enormous earrings.
"Don't those things hurt?" I said at last.
"What, these?" She cocked her head to one side and removed one of the earrings.
"Yes, they must weigh a ton."
"Oh, they're not so bad." She handed it to me. I was forced to admit that it was lighter than it looked.
I noticed that the male half of the young couple near the door was looking towards us with impatience. "I think they want some service," I whispered.
Rachel craned her neck around, then stood and went to their table. I concentrated on my coffee. After a few minutes, I saw the young couple depart. Rachel, standing by the cash register, shouted after them, "Come again!" Then she returned to the spot across from me.
I finished my coffee. "Well, I guess I should hit the road. How's about my check?" Rachel frowned as she probed about in the pocket of her blue and white waitress uniform and produced my check. Then she stood up, and disappeared into the kitchen.
I placed a ten dollar bill on the table beside the check, which covered the food and included a healthy tip. I stood up. Then I sat down again, and wrote my name and phone number on the paper placemat.
The last hundred miles flew past. I felt much better, with food in my stomach and coffee in my brain. I started to receive decent hometown radio stations, and could find good music to drive by.
At last I unlocked the door to my apartment.
There was only one message on my answering machine.
It was from Rachel.