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Free Coffee

By Bernard Kronik


The homemade sign greets travelers at the entrance to the rest area. Free coffee, exclamation point.  Block letters in blue marker, schoolhouse neat on white cardboard.

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. 

 
Photo: Thunderstorm courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via Wikimedia Commons.

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