Prayers to the Open Road

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8

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The sun was shining, the billboard across the street read, “Call This Number For Salvation,” and I lost my car keys to the grate on the side of the road somewhere on the border between Oklahoma and Texas. It slipped between my fingers to tumble into the sewers along with my last shred of patience, and I cursed the heat that made my hands sweat so much.

I looked up and blinked into the sunlight on the horizon, causing spots of color to enter my vision. It was just as well that I’d lost the damn keys, really. I turned back towards the car, which had been making strange puttering noises for the last twenty miles, and kicked a front tire.

Across the road stood a small diner with a red neon sign above it. Cal’s Diner. A tumbleweed danced in front of it, then bounded off to the left. When I pushed open the door, a small bell chimed above it, causing the man behind the counter to glance at me. He had a friendly sort of face, with slight creases, betraying his age. Tied around his waist was a red checkered apron.

“Hey there,” he greeted and waved at me, cleaning rag in hand. “What brings you in today?”

“Car broke down,” I lied. “I’m stuck across the road.”

He clicked the pen that had been hanging from his shirt pocket and scribbled a number down on a spare napkin. The man slid it across the bar towards me. It was for a tow truck.

“Thanks.”

The phone that had been sitting in my pocket was hot to the touch, and I wondered if it might short circuit, given my current luck. It took the towing company a full five minutes to explain they could take me to get my keys replaced, but they were about an hour and a half out from where I was. My only option was to wait.

When I turned around, the man was waiting for me to speak.

I coughed and stuffed my phone back in my pocket. “They said it would be about an hour and a half.”

He gestured towards the bar in front of him. “Might as well have a seat then,” he said and flashed a smile. “My name’s Johnny, by the way.”

“Gina,” I replied. The barstool squeaked as I slid onto it.

Johnny whistled to himself as he resumed wiping down the counter, stopping only to ask, “Where you coming in from?”

“Started in Oklahoma City,” I said. “Aren’t you supposed to take my order first?”

He pulled a small notebook from his front shirt pocket and flipped it open. “Always like to make a little conversation first,” he said with a wink. “What can I get you?”

“Just a cup of coffee.”

Johnny fiddled with objects behind the counter idly before pausing and turning back around. “You wanted a cup of coffee, right?” He held up a filled coffeepot.

“Yeah.”

Johnny shook his head. “Memory ain’t worth a damn anymore,” he said as he tilted the coffeepot. Hot liquid poured from the spout, steam curling off the top as it landed in the mug. “There’s a good chance I won’t remember much of this conversation, to be perfectly frank with you.”

I frowned and wrapped my hand around the mug. “Doesn’t that ever worry you?”

“If you ask me, there’s only three things you gotta worry about in this life,” he said. “The here.” He put up a finger. “The now.” He put up another finger. “And the forward motion.”

As his third finger went up, I thought I caught a bit of sadness in his expression.

“Profound,” I said. I raised the mug and took a long sip. Despite the heat outside, the warm coffee felt good.

Johnny ignored my comment.

“Oklahoma City, huh?” he said. “Long way to come.”

I shrugged. I’d lost track of how far I’d traveled several days before, when the miles started to blur together in my head. The lines on the road and the trees passing by and the signs telling me to slow down and speed up—they meant nothing to me anymore. They were just the background of an empty life.

He eyed me with suspicion. “You look like the kind of person who’s runnin’ from something,” he said. “Get a lot of those in here.”

I jerked my hand and the mug came down on the counter with a clatter. Some of the coffee spilled out of the top and ran down the sides. “Don’t know what you’re on about.”

“You got any folks back home?”

“None of your business,” I said between gritted teeth.

“Anyone you can call for a ride?”

“Buzz off.”

“Well, at least I tried,” Johnny said. “You end up on the side of the road in a ditch, ain’t my problem, I guess.”

“Why do you even care so much, anyway?”

“I don’t know,” he said. Johnny threw his hands up in the air. When he brought them back down, they landed on his sides with a smack. “Doesn’t everybody need somebody to care?”

He was right. I did.

“If you really wanna know, I don’t have anywhere to go back to, okay?” I said and slammed my fist down on the counter. The fingers of my other hand curled around the edges of the counter, causing my knuckles to turn white. “My whole family’s a bunch of screw-ups. Only decent person was my aunt, and she died a year back.”

In the quiet that followed, there was nothing but the "drip, drip, drip" of the coffeemaker behind the counter. Johnny glanced down at his apron and swallowed thickly.

I cradled my forehead in my hands. “I got nothing,” I said. My voice, previously at a near-yell, was now just barely above a whisper. “All I can do is keep moving forward.”

When I looked up again, Johnny was holding out a small, brown book.

“Here,” he said. “I want you to have this.”

I ran my fingers over the stitched cross on the leather cover. It was a book of hymns and prayers.

“I used to be lost like you,” he said. “Ran away from home with nothing but twenty dollars and this book to my name. I don’t know if I really believe in all that stuff, but...it helped. In some way, I guess.”

A smile tugged at the corners of my lips as I flipped through the pages. “Thanks,” I said and sat up from the barstool. The crumpled twenty I’d given him sat untouched on the counter, and I pointed to it. “Keep the change.”

Johnny smiled back as he took the bill. “Take care, Gina.”

As I walked out of the diner and into the searing light of day, I could feel the weight of the book in my jacket pocket. And if I listened real close, I could hear whispers of my aunt’s voice singing me to sleep at night as a kid. Goosebumps sprouted on the skin of my arms when I heard it, and I found a peace I hadn’t experienced in years.

The tow truck hadn’t come yet. Instead, waiting outside my car was a woman dressed in a blue maintenance uniform. I wrinkled my nose at the stench coming off her clothes.

“Hey,” she said as I approached and dangled a set of keys in front of me. “Found these while I was cleaning the sewers.”

I reached out and took the keys from her, then curled my fist around them; they weren’t getting away from me this time. “Thank you.”

I unlocked the car and got inside. The door slammed shut, the engine started as I turned the key in the ignition. Then I drove on with that little book of hymns resting on the dashboard, watching over me as I sang my prayers to the open road.

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