By Bernard Kronik
Nothing’s ever free. I scale off down the ramp and park in a handicapper. Other than an old van in a corner the lot is empty. Another beverage is the last thing I need anyway.
The coffee is where I can’t miss it, between the restrooms and by the water-fountain. There’s a tin urn on a square table, cups and lids in stacks, sugar and milk. On a folding chair sits a slim woman in a sleeveless dress and visor. I look for the coin-can with pictures of kittens or kids but there isn’t one. The woman is upper middle age with red hair in a ponytail, and her face is smooth. She looks content, faithful. She smiles and rubs her neck as I run-hop into the men’s.
I come back out wiping my hands. They feel cool as the water dries. The morning is hot and perfect. I pause and look at the high hills above the valley, the patchwork pine-and-hardwood slopes.
“Have a cup” the woman says. I flinch and take a giant step towards my car.
“No thanks,” I say. To coffee, to conversation, everything.
“It’s free,” she says.
“Nothing’s free,” I say. She looks hurt, rubs her neck again and bobs her head.
“It’s sore. I slept wrong. Would you mind?” She lifts her ponytail. There’s a peanut-shaped mole on the spot she bares, and the skin there is pink and hairless. She turns her head to make it easy.
I look around. We’re alone. I could do it, no problem. Overhead a heron flies, black against blue-yellow sky. A truck jake-brakes somewhere. I smell diesel.
She looks over her shoulder and smiles.
“No way,” I say, but I fill a cup of coffee and dump in a ton of sugar.
“That’s better,” she says. I dig in my pocket.
“It’s free,” she says. “Honest.”
“You make that sign?” I ask.
“When it rains I cover it with plastic,” she says. “That way I don’t have to make a new one.”
Back on the thruway I drink her coffee. It’s strong stuff and so sweet it hurts, but that’s my fault. Too much or too little, always the problem. When the sugar-buzz fades I try to get back to normal, but I’m no good at seeing things as they are. Never was.
For a hundred miles everything looks like pink skin, a brown mole, a print dress. Then the rain comes.
Bernard Kronik lives and works near Boston.
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