One-hundred and sixteen miles south of Chicago I pulled off the highway to get a cup of coffee. I stood beside the Prius in frigid air which told me that I’d already traveled a hundred miles or more out of a mild Missouri winter.
A thin man in a heavy flannel shirt darted past, with a hood pulled snug over his ears. His eyes shifted to me as he came even with my car then forward towards his own vehicle just as rapidly. From where I stood, I could not hear the highway noise. In fact the whole parking lot wore a shroud of silence.
I walked into the building wondering why the faces of every other customer held nothing but fatigue so close to Christmas. In front of the coffee machine, I contemplated the half-inch of tepid sludge in the dirty pot. To its left, an automatic cappuccino machine boasted of caramel and vanilla. I thought at least that might be hot, though filled with chemicals. I took my chance.
The cashier ran one hand through a swathe of greasy hair just before I handed him my five. The crumpled bills he placed on the counter sat between us for a few minutes while I debated whether to put them in my wallet. In the end, my fear of offending him won out and I gingerly lifted them, folded them on themselves, and shoved them in the outer pocket of my purse.
I told him Merry Christmas and backed away, yielding my spot to a woman with no upper teeth and a fistful of quarters to pay for a package of donuts.
Outside the wind had raised. A Muslim couple held the door for me and I couldn’t help thinking the woman’s head scarf made sense this time of year. Thank you so much, I said, and the man nodded. In a soft voice he told me to have a good day. The woman said nothing but flashed a radiant smile with dark red lips and blindingly white teeth. I carried her cheer to the car and buckled into my seat, pushing the start button.
Emmy Lou Harris flooded the cabin. I sat for a few minutes listening with my eyes closed, head leaning against the steering wheel. When I looked around, I noticed several people peering into the car. I flicked my hand up, mouthing something unintelligible. They exchanged a glance but walked away. I put the car in reverse and pulled out of the lot, heading for I-55 and points north, where my son waited. Close to the city I came upon a toll and tendered the grease-stained dollar bills. The attendant shook her head but handed me back two quarters. I drove on before she could voice her disdain.
It’s December 23rd, 2016. Eight days remain of the thirty-sixth month of My Year Without Complaining. I’m writing from my son’s desk, in his apartment in Evanston, Illinois. We have a full holiday planned. I’m tired, but I’m here. I made it. Life continues.
To hear Steve Earle and Emmy Lou Harris singing “Goodbye”,