By Dave O’Leary
The acoustic guitar hummed a faint tune when he hit a bump in the road, and Ray hummed along with it and thought about the Guinness he had cooling in the back of the van. It was for the holiday, certainly, but also to celebrate later the leaving from where he’d been, the love, if that’s what it was back there, the possibility of it to come. But no, celebrate wasn’t the right word. It wasn’t to honor or commemorate either, and to simply remember would be too soft and passive. He couldn’t decide really what it was. Maybe just an excuse to get drunk. That was, after all, the whole point of the holiday, a release, an escape. He looked in the rearview. There had never been any love or the making of it on or in between or behind those seats, the space now taken up by all his possessions, his suitcases and boxes and lamps, his books, the acoustic guitar that was still resonating a little. The van was a vehicle that had once seemed ideal for possible road trips like this, shared ones though, excursions and weekend getaways with hands held while driving and the inevitable non-hushed, frantic sex he’d imagined such traveling would involve, but it was now just a residence, a mobile version of the apartment he’d left that morning.
He was heading west from Midwest on I-80 in Iowa at the moment and making good time. When he passed Davenport a little ways back, he said it for some reason, “Davenport.” Perhaps because he never thought he’d be there, but now he wasn’t there of course and driving by doesn’t really count as being or having been somewhere anyway. Perhaps he’d said it because it might easily have been a destination, the transition from Illinois into Iowa, but it was early yet and he was rather hoping to reach a little further, to make it to the other edge of the state where he planned to pull over and sleep in the van even though it was mid-March, St. Patrick’s Day, and there were still bits of snow on the ground. His initial plan had been to stop wherever his energy ran out, to simply head west until something gave, his head, his heart, his will, and he thought that most likely might have been Iowa City or Des Moines, the obvious places on the map where it would be easy to find accommodations, but during his investigations and planning, when he’d looked at his highway maps and visualized the openness of the road, he’d discovered a small town near the border, right at the end of the interstate where his options were only north or south, and he’d set that as his destination for this first day of the trip, the first day of his move west and away from those who knew him. It was the name. And it was silly, he knew, like picking a racehorse for such, but when he saw it there on a map two weeks ago, he couldn’t get over the stupidly symbolic nature of it, the idea that he was leaving an almost love to spend the night in Loveland, Iowa, population 35.
He glanced back and quickly forward again, “Home is where the suitcase is.” The guitar hummed a little again as if in answer. It was a droning sound, a kind of lament maybe, a tune mostly made up of the open A string and the occasional accent of other notes, a hint of the high E ringing in there unwavering but faint. And home is where the guitar is too, he thought. Ray smiled at that and tried to make up his mind if he was running with his things from things that weren’t working out and someone he couldn’t have or if he was choosing his own destiny, leaving the almost love behind and seeking all the things he’d ever want, reaching for them, making them happen. Another idea came to mind then. “Home is where the heart is.” No answer from the guitar, but it was another thing that had him confused in this moment. It was the thing. Where exactly was his heart? Was it back there still? Here in the van? He hoped it might be up there, out there, ahead of him somewhere so he said the name of the town, “Loveland,” as a kind of reassurance to himself that he would make it there, that he would be, if only temporarily, a resident in such a place.
He was tired from a little under five hundred miles of driving though. A quick break was needed. Coffee was needed so he pulled off at the next exit and found a diner, parked, considered having a Guinness, a kind of coffee in itself, as a celebration of sorts for making it this far, for being now somewhere in the unknown, somewhere making his way, a new way, a new start, a new life wherever he was and where no one knew him. That was too much though. He was just a guy driving on a highway with a bunch of stuff, nothing special really, and besides, there were no holidays on the open road. There were just miles forward and back, and today was just a Tuesday, a gray March day like any other, so he decided against a beer for the moment. He went into the diner and got a booth. There was country music playing, something unknown but not unfamiliar, the kind of song one might tap an idle finger to while looking at a menu and then completely forget when it was done. At the other tables there were a few families and a few couples but no one else alone. The waitress came over. She had blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her nametag read, “Susan.” She said, “Hi, how you doin’ tonight?” as she set a glass of water and a menu on the table. “Can I getcha anything to drink?” “I’m sorry. Can you just give me a sec?” “Sure thing, hon. Take all the time you need.”
He sipped the water, tapped his fingers. At the table next to him was a woman helping her son color on the back of the placemat. The family at the next table—mother, father, two little boys—was eating quietly. There was a couple in the corner booth leaning forward, eyes locked. Lips would be too but for the table between them. It reminded Ray of a similar moment not long ago with his almost love. There were drinks, a kiss, a window with a sunbeam in the late afternoon. There was hand holding across the table and then glasses were empty and she had to go home, somewhere Ray could not follow. “Let’s stay a little longer.” “Okay.”
She was married, not happily but not quite unhappily either, and it stood between them sometimes, and it was there in the fading sunbeam and a Bryan Adams song on the café radio, but they clung to the moment sipping from the empty glasses. She would be late. She would need to make an excuse, something obvious and mundane like working late or maybe meeting a girlfriend for coffee, someone her husband didn’t know well. She texted something, but Ray didn’t ask exactly what. And it didn’t matter anyway. She was there with him. She’d chosen to be. There was a reply of some sort and then they put their phones away, paid, left. On the way to her car they held hands again, his left, her right, fingers intertwined, squeezing lightly every few steps, wringing just a little more from the moment, and they talked about where and when to go next time. He pushed for a happy hour, one with drinks and music, maybe a place with no sunbeams. “How about Tuesday?” She kissed him on the cheek, “Okay,” and then she was gone, off to sleep in the same bed as the man he knew of only as a concept, her husband.
He stood on the sidewalk for a while next to where she’d been parked and after her car turned left a few blocks up the road he watched all the other cars driving in the same direction. It seemed like everyone was turning left up there, even the bicycles and pedestrians. Everything followed her as he wanted to. A police car turned that way as did a man walking his dog, a beagle. It barked once at something he could not see. He lingered a little more. Given the time, her husband must already have been home when he got the message and replied, and Ray imagined her getting there and telling him that nothing special had happened that day, maybe she’d chosen the late work excuse, just a day like any other really, and then asking of his. Maybe they each had a glass of wine with dinner and another with TV afterward. Maybe she rebuffed his advances later in bed while thinking of Ray. Maybe not. He always paused at that thought to clear his mind, always took a deep breath. There had been no declarations between them yet, no promises of any kind, but he knew they were approaching something, and it was a good road to be on. It was leading to a happy hour after all and who knew what else? Tuesday? Okay. A van turned left up that street, a beer truck did too. A woman on a bicycle. A group of kids, one of them bouncing a basketball. The numbers were adding up as he stood there. Another cop car, this one with lights flashing. Perhaps there’d been an accident. He thought about Tuesday then. It had initially had the ring of tomorrow, of being just up there, right there, the drinks within reach, but it was five days away. It hadn’t seemed like much when they’d agreed on it, but for all that was between them in the moment it might as well have been five months, or maybe 500 miles, and the road they were on together did go straight for a little while, perhaps through a few more sunbeams even, but it turned left up there and went where he couldn’t see, couldn’t follow, to some whole other existence for her at a place off the edge of some map. And so, it was then that he decided to leave, to head west with her warmth still on his hand, the moisture still on his cheek, to give up rather than lose. She’d lingered. She’d kissed him. They’d made plans. Maybe that was enough. “You make up your mind there, hon?”
Ray looked up. Susan wasn’t smiling, but she didn’t have the disinterested expression of a waitress at a highway diner either. She looked rather comfortable, almost like they might be at a party at her place and she was being the polite hostess offering to get something for a guest. “Uh, yeah, can I just have a coffee, black. And I won’t need this.” He held up the menu. “You got it. One coffee.” She then checked on the silent family, and the father nodded to her questions. She dropped Ray’s menu at the stand by the door where she told an elderly couple waiting to take any table they liked and then she went to the coffee station, poured a cup, placed it on a saucer, brought it back, “Here you go.” The coffee was steaming. “Thanks.” “Let me know if you need anything else.”
He nodded and wondered what it would be like to work in such a place. Sure, there would be local regulars, people visiting from their homes nearby, but many of the customers would be one timers, passers through, people on their way to or from somewhere or nowhere, people starting, ending, pausing lives. They would have their own stories, some of them interesting, some not, and they would most likely forget this place when they left even if the meal was fine and the service good. He looked around trying to discern which of the other customers were travelers like him but got the feeling he was the only one. He liked that. He liked being somewhere in Iowa where he technically lived for the moment but where no one who knew him knew he was.
Susan was dropping off food for an old couple at the table closest to the door. They said something and she laughed before making a circle of the dining room and then disappearing into the kitchen. Working here, should he stay, he would get to know her, maybe even befriend her. They’d watch the people come and go on their way to live out lives in other cities, towns, states, maybe even countries. They’d pass the days in a place that was not a destination, a stop that was just an exit number on a highway, a little west of somewhere and a little east of somewhere else. There was a map of Iowa on the wall. He looked at it, squinted, but was sure this place wasn’t marked. Loveland probably wasn’t either and all the better really, all the more to the point. There was a line for the highway of course. It was blue and looked like a river from where he was sitting, and he followed it west through Iowa City and Des Moines all the way to the state border where it simply stopped as if that were the end of the known world.
That gave everything the air of an adventure, of soon stepping into the beyond, and he had indeed felt that way when he left in the morning, but as he sipped the last of his coffee the emptiness of his cup began to fill with doubt. Maybe this was all a mistake, this being here on the road to who knows where over there at the edge of the map. Maybe he should have declared his almost love rather than hint at it around secret drinks and the furtive holding of hands, the whispered messages into his voicemail telling him she was on her way or wishing him a good night. Yes, he should have. Married or not she’d chosen him in some moments. They’d planned a happy hour. There could have been more. There could have been hours, hours in the plural, maybe a weekend or two. The kisses could have turned into other things. Life doesn’t present such chances often. Almost loves are a rare thing, and here he was some five hundred miles away thinking about being nowhere, almost fantasizing about it as if that were a good thing, as if it were a substitute, but of course, there was no substitute. He missed her now, needed her, pined for what almost might have been, and so husband be damned, he would go back. “Katherine,” he whispered in confirmation imagining he was leaving her a message. He liked her full name, not Kath, not Kathy. It took more time to say. It lingered, made it seem like she might be out in the van waiting for him. Katherine. It was actually the first time he’d said her name since leaving that morning as he’d been avoiding it because he thought it might lessen his resolve, which it appeared to be doing. He said it again, but this time it came out as more of a question, “Katherine?” “Susan. Refill, hon?” He looked up at Susan smiling at him now, “Uh, yes, please. And I’ll take the check too.” She poured right to the top of his cup. “Don’t worry about the check. Just a coffee. You take all the time you need here.” “Uh, thanks.”
She went off to refill the other tables, to collect their plates, box and bag their leftovers, gather the bills and coins left for her. More people came. She greeted them, took their orders. Some smiled. Some were silent. They all would leave. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine Loveland but could not. How could one? He placed a ten on the table with the cup still half full and was saddened to see that as he got up to go, as he walked past the hostess stand, as he looked back one last time before exiting, Susan, the waitress, the hostess, the resident, was nowhere to be seen. He’d thought to thank her again with a nod and a smile, but realized as he stepped outside that what he really wanted was the goodbye, the thanks for stopping in, the drive safely to wherever, the come back any time.
He opened the side door of the van and grabbed a Guinness and some crackers, got in the front seat. He sat drinking quietly, slowly, building resolve and giving in at the same time. The lovers from the corner booth exited the diner holding hands. They got in separate vehicles and left heading in the same direction, not toward the highway though. They went north to someone’s home or maybe a hotel, and he didn’t see it, but he imagined them turning left somewhere up there, both of them, one following the other, to a place they both knew. He would never have that with her, with Katherine. And sure, it was one reason why he left. The other was her husband, of course. He called her Kath, which was really why Ray had always used the full name. He said it now though, “Kath,” but it didn’t fit, not as he knew her anyway, but he could see how it might if he were able just to peek around that corner and into her house as they drank orange juiceand coffee with eggs in the morning. Maybe as they grilled burgers out back with friends he didn’t know, maybe the one was there, Rachel, the one who was always the excuse when it wasn’t work. Did Rachel know about him? Did she use Kath too? He saw Susan then over by the far corner of the building smoking and alternately checking her phone or looking at the sky. She was beautiful in that moment. She was in her place, and he thought to get out, maybe offer her a Guinness as a thank you for the free coffee and strike up a conversation about life there, maybe see if they were hiring, maybe pause a little longer here, somewhere new, somewhere nowhere. Maybe it was as good a place as any. Here. Home is where. And really such a place, Loveland, wasn’t a destination. It was only a place one happened to be, a place just up and around the bend that remains unknown until it isn’t, and it would always be there where the road went straight no more, where one had to turn, but Susan soon stamped out her cigarette, twisted it twice under her foot, and put her phone in the pocket of her apron. She straightened her dress, tightened her ponytail. She went back in. He said her name out loud, “Susan,” and there was no question about it. She was there and she always would be.
Ray finished the beer and put the empty in a plastic bag behind the driver’s seat. One was enough in the moment. He started the engine. No, this wasn’t the place, not in the now anyway, not in the permanent sense. It was just a brief stop along the road, a turn, an exit off the highway only when needs be, so maybe it was like Loveland then. It was nowhere and everywhere, and for a guy with his stuff passing through, maybe the timing of such things, the moments when they mean something, could be chosen. He got back on I-80 West and kept the radio off preferring the hum of the tires on the road accompanied by the guitar which seemed a lower register now, a little sadder but more powerful, urgent even, a kind of pulse expecting the high accompaniment of a saxophone or maybe a violin or an oboe at any moment. He had lived there for a little while, somewhere in between somewhere else, only about an hour but it would stay with him. Refill, hon? He pushed the van up over seventy energized by the caffeine and the stout and eager to make up time toward the end of the known world where left and right were his only options, north, south, up, down, but no going back, filled up, no, nourished, even saved, he thought, by the brief residency, the home where no one who knew him knew he was.
About the Author: Dave O’Leary is a writer and musician in Seattle. He’s published two novels and has been featured in, among others, the Daily Drunk, Versification, and Reflex Fiction. His new collection of poetry and prose—I Hear Your Music Playing Night and Day—was published in May 2021 by Cajun Mutt Press.