Monday, September 1, 2014

Milesburg, Pennsylvania

I awake from a restless two-hour sleep to find the bus has stopped in a rest stop somewhere along I-80 in the middle of the night. The Greyhound engine is turned off so I know this is more than a cigarette break. The driver announces on the speaker that this is a thirty minute meal stop. Most of my fellow travelers go back to sleep as soon as the driver turns off the overhead dim lights. I step off along with a couple of others who stand just outside the bus smoking their cigarettes. The darkened parking lot gives only a feeble idea of the amount of semi trucks parked for the night. Dim lights make a just a few visible and a billboard just off the exit of the interstate advertises that this is one of the biggest truck stops along I-80. I walk in the direction of the billboard more to avoid the second hand smoke than to read the billboard in full, and find dozens of semis, their cabin lights turned off and a few old and rusty trailers abandoned at the edge of the parking lot. I take a closer look at the billboard and notice that the diner boasts that they serve the best chicken gumbo soup this side of the Mississippi. A sudden piercing cold wind coming from the north is enough to convince me to cozy it up with a hot bowl of soup.

The Bestway Diner is nothing more than a highway restaurant passing as a Diner. At first sight there’s nothing to distinguish itself from all the other places like it along these interstates that I’m traveling through. There’s a notice board by the entrance full of notes and post-its, left no doubt by travelers and truckers who passed through this place. Somebody is looking for their lost puppy who run away from their R.V. A picture of the dog, named Oscar, doesn’t make for easy recognition. An ample reward awaits whoever finds it. I start shivering at the thought that the puppy probably had no chance of surviving trying to cross this busy stretch of I-80. Next to it, I notice someone has left a love note to an unknown. The handwriting is not as easy to read but I gather that whoever wrote it fell in love at first sight for a girl in the Diner who was also passing through. He’s making his intentions clear and if she ever comes back and reads the note he’s begging her to call him on his mobile phone. I wonder how many prank calls he got and if she ever came this way again. And what are the slim chances of that happening and she will stop by the entrance and look at the dozens of notes posted on the notice board, to find his.

I sit in the counter and look at the menu plastered on big bulk letters on the wall, more out of curiosity than anything else. I notice the big clock on the wall next to. It’s past four in the morning but a bowl of hot chicken gumbo soup is just what I’m craving. At the end of the counter sits and old style stoneware black steel pot, with the gumbo soup steaming and fuming from the edges of the lid. The waitress approaches me, gives me a big aide smile. She’s in her early fifties with crooked front teeth and heavy makeup on but what catches my eyes is the glare coming off her bright red lipstick. It seems to be out of character with the rest of the Diner and its baseless brownish color of the chairs and tables and the faded white of the walls. She is as sympathetic as she is tired and sometimes I can’t really distinguish between both. What she asks me what I’m having, I finally make sense of the fact that the Diner boasts having the best chicken gumbo soup this side of the Mississippi. Her southern accent is so intense that for a second or two I forget that I’m somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania.

I order my soup and look around the Diner with its Western style chandeliers and low wattage lights almost inducing sleep. I sit alone at the counter while a few Greyhound travelers sit on the tables sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups. Outside it’s still pitch black and if it wasn’t for a sole lamp post on the parking lot, the Greyhound would be hardly visible.  A few reading lights are turned on in the bus and all of a sudden a young woman in her early thirties emerges from the bus with a young kid, maybe five or six years old by her hand, and head to the Diner. The kid is holding a teddy bear close to his chest and as sleepy as he is, his eyes automatically it seems, light up as they come in the Diner and he sees a small key chain teddy bear on the small gift shop. His mother rushes him to the bathroom as the waitress serves me my steamy soup which I eat slowly while blowing at it to cool it down a bit.

When the kid emerges from the bathroom with his mother he comes by the counter and looks at the pastry display case and asks his mother for a chocolate chip cookie. The mother fumbles her pockets for change and gives in to the constant pleads of her son. The waitress gives him a giant chocolate chip cookie almost as big as his face and that puts a smile on his face as big as the cookie. A trucker comes in the Diner, cleans the rheum in his eyes and ticks in his shirt. The kid and his mother head to the exit as the trucker is caught up in reading some of the notes up on the notice board. As they pass the gift shop, the kid asks his mother to buy him the teddy bear key chain for his collection to which the mother says maybe next time. The kid is on the verge of crying when the trucker takes his own similar key chain from his pockets, removes his keys and hands the key chain to the kid. The mother says that’s not necessary but the trucker insists and the kid seems so happy that the mother gives in and thanks the trucker.

The trucker sits on the counter and the waitress gives him a big smile. They stand talking for a few minutes while I finish my soup and talk in such a low pitch that I can’t, even if I wanted, understand what they’re talking about. But as I stand, watching them by the corner of my eyes, there’s no denying that these two have something special going on, just by the way he keeps looking at her with loving eyes and how she keeps touching his hands gently, stroking them softly. Not wanting to disturb them I just leave a $5 bill on the counter and head to the bathroom. When I come back in, the waitress is handing the trucker a Styrofoam food container and a coffee thermos. They kiss each other gently on the cheeks. The trucker heads to the exit and stops at the notice board and writes a little note on it. The waitress calls out to me as I’m  making my way out and hands me my change with the same big, warm and welcoming smile she gave me when I came in. The diner is now empty. I stop by the exit to look at the notice board, curious to see what the trucker has written: “I love you honey. See you next month.” I look back at the waitress who is now clearing the tables and still carrying that contagious smile.

Back on the bus, pretty much everyone is asleep as the driver starts the engine. A few wake up with the roar of the engine running and look out the window, but noticing we’re still not moving, quickly shut their eyes and go back to sleep. I look outside as the overhead presence lights on the bus are turned off and see the trucker in his cabin, ready to drive off. He drinks from the coffee thermos and opens the food container to find a note inside. He reads it and smiles in the direction of the diner.

It’s still dark as we roll pass the I-80 overpass. I take my jacket and roll it into a pillow shape and press it against the window to rest my head. There’s nothing to see out the window, as the night seems to drag on and the dark seems to be getting darker still and silence takes over my thoughts. Two seats in front of me sit the young woman and his son. I can see by the reflection in the window that she’s asleep, but the kid is wide awake and playing with his teddy bear and key chain. He seems to be making movies in his head, voicing them with his imaginative mind, the teddy bear and the key chain locked in a deadly battle for supremacy it seems and for the love of a fair princess who is being kept captive far and away. I’m so taken in by this impromptu fairy tale happening in front of me that I don’t even notice that the night has finally been replaced by the first light of day coming from the far off horizon to the east. 

1 comment:

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