Coffee was an acquired taste that I never quite managed to acquire. Something about the flavor never sat right in my mouth. Yet here I was having a cup of it in the fifth roadside diner I'd been to in three days. It wasn't that I needed the caffeine or that I wanted to get used to drinking muck, it was simply a means to an end. Waitresses in these places seem overjoyed when you compliment them on their coffee, as though they personally ground the beans with their own two hands, boiled some water and then filtered the water through the coffee using an ancient Chinese method that was handed down to them through generations of oral tradition in their family. Never mind that the 40 year old percolator was right there in sight or that the coffee had the consistency of runny mud. I drank it because it was a conversation stimulator with the waitress. Compliment her on her coffee and you'll end up hearing her life story and the stories of half the people in the town.
I was travelling across the midwest doing "research" for a series of essays on life in Middle America. Completely unoriginal and derivative, but I'd gotten a writing deal after some of my stories had gotten a very warm response in the local paper. I'd written them about growing up an angry white liberal male in the heart of Urban Sprawl, Kansas. They were willing to spot me on my journey as long as I kept feeding them material. Eventually they'd catch on that the only changes in each story were the specifics. Don't get me wrong, the tale of the midwesterner drowning in a sea of wheat and grass, hills and empty land, it makes for a nice story three or four times. The longer I was on the road, the more their stories seemed to run together. <a man's name> owns a farm about 20 miles down <a road name> and they found <a mineral> in the soil on his farm that's been killing his crops and he's too poor to have it removed. <a woman's name> lost her husband a few years agoin a car accident. Since then she's been trying to raise <number between 2 and 7> kids on Social Security and what she can earn <a menial household task> for her neighbors. <a teenager's name> ran off to <nearby major city> to be a <a liberal arts field of study> major, but came back when the farm started doing poorly. Stories of domestic abuse, of poor crops and dying cattle and struggling to get along because they didn't have anything else they could do. There were happy stories too, stories about newborn children and families where the kids went off to become successful but still help take care of their parents and the farm monetarily, but those stories were never as interesting as the one's about the slow meltdown of Middle America. It's hard to pin down when I became jaded about small town life. I'd heard enough stories about hard times and miserable life out on the plains that they all ran together.
This had been one of my life's ambitions. Drive across the plains, learn about it's people and their plight, and tell their tale from an outsider's perpective. I don't know that I necessarily counted as an outsider. I'd grown up in the midwest, spent all of my life there. The difference between me and them was that I grew up in Urban Sprawl, non-religious and liberal. For some reason I thought I could look beyond that and tell their story. What started off as a journey to learn about the people around me was turning into a discovery of self. The driving time between towns was typically spent recording my ramblings about what I'd been told over lunch by an old man at the diner I'd been to, conjectures as to what causes a person to do this or that, and where I thought it would all lead. Sometimes I would just put it out of my mind and spend the drive with my windows down and the radio blaring.
This afternoon I had no interest at all in talking to random strangers in a small town in the middle of Bumfuck Nowheresville, so I set my cruise control for 35 mph and just crept along a barely maintained county road. My iPod must be inhabited by some karmic beast who derives great pleasure in choosing the most inappropriate times to force me to relive the past. I found a message in my voice mail the day before from Lynn informing me she was pregnant. As much as she'd gone on and on in the past about wanting to settle down and have kids, she sounded more terrified than anything. I couldn't bring myself to return her call. It'd been nearly a year since I'd last heard from her, a tearful drunk dial where she wanted me to convince her somehow that everything was going to be alright. We ended up talking until 3 am about random silly things. She promised she'd call me later that week to make lunch plans, but I never heard from her. Typical of our friendship these last several years, she decided that she was too vulnerable to let me within an arm's reach of her. Of course I had to learn about that later through mutual friends, but I'd already figured that much out on my own. Life moved on. The world still turns without her.
Music has always had the power to drag me backwards through time, often kicking and screaming in protest. The phone call had started me to thinking, the night haunted me with flashbacks, and now the iPod was continuing the self-torture. When I started this tour of the plains, I'd convinced myself to leave the past at home, buried and lost to time. Out here I was a new man starting a new life as a writer of factual fiction, of life and death and all the wonder that comes between the two. My failed attempts at love were supposed to be lost in time. It seems like every time I've managed to escape from my past, fate shows up to play a game of This Was Your Life. If only I could hate her, we could both move on. It started with our song, then it just pulled up one song after another that reminded me of her. If she hadn't called me, I'd have thought nothing of it. If if if. Maybe maybe maybe. So much of my life has been lived within the constructs of possible pasts and possible futures. I'd left my old world behind in hopes of getting away from that.
The phone rang again. I pulled over to the side of what was quickly becoming a dirt road, not sure what to do. Frozen, I couldn't even bring myself to see who was calling me (or even reaching my cell phone out in this technological backwater). I just sat and stared at it until the call went to voice mail. Then a second. Then a third. After the fourth, they gave up. All the while I continued to sit there, a knot building in my stomach as I tried to convince myself to just see who was calling. I'd come out this far into the world to live out one of my life's dreams. Life wasn't supposed to catch up with me out here.
There's a lot more to it, but I want to stop posting this private and come back to the story later.