August 9, 2011
. . . what he notices about his life is precisely the absence of things, what is gone rather than what is still here. More and more of him exists in the past; so much of him has already happened.
— Maud Casey, American fiction writer
The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, 2011 edition, starts tomorrow. The campus lies along Route 125 between Ripton and Hancock, Vermont, about 425 miles from where I live. With stops for rest and refueling (the car once, me more times than that), the trip can take me nine hours, and I arrive cranky and exhausted. My off-campus rental starts today, and if I can snag a free night somewhere around the 300-mile mark with frequent lodger points, I break up the trip that way.
After a restless night, I was up at 5:00. Unwilling to haul my coffeepot in from the car and acquire the four tablespoons of half-and-half I absolutely need (the “free breakfast” touted by the hotel is not available until 7:00, and usually offers a bitter brew with a powdered abomination called “coffee creamer”), I was packed, checked out, and at McDonald’s by 6:00.
I took my coffee and Egg McMuffin to an alcove where I couldn’t hear the Fox News emanating from a flat screen TV above the condiment counter. The only other customer in the place was there, too, a man probably in his late 70s who was drinking coffee and reading a book called Ugly as Sin. (I looked it up on Amazon later — it’s about “why they changed our churches from sacred spaces to meeting places” and “rails against the post-Vatican II aesthetic” that author Michael Rose finds has created a “nonchurch.”)
I got out my notebook and my prayer journal, where I make my morning mandalas. As I drank my coffee and did my contemplation, I periodically looked up, and more than once found the man looking at me. Presently, another man came into the restaurant, someone the Ugly as Sin reader knew. They talked about an upcoming summer fair, lamenting that there are no discounted tickets for seniors. This means you have to pay the whole $15, and you don’t even use the rides. And the VFW chili booth won’t be there this year, nor St. Lucy’s subs. They can’t get people to take over from the old timers who just can’t do it anymore, because they’re tired, or dead even.
The second man moved away to a table then, and I got up for my second cup of coffee. When I sat down again, I noticed that the first man had closed his book. When I looked up again, he smiled at me. The next time, he said something about the weather. I said I was looking forward to cool nights and balmy afternoons in Vermont, where I was headed to a writers’ conference. We made some more small talk, and then I went back to my notebook.
I finished my second cup, and my Egg McMuffin, and began to gather my things. Once again, the man was looking at me.
“You look like a lady I used to know,” he said. “You look exactly like her. Unfortunately, she is no longer with us.” He sighed. “I miss her.”
We wished each other well. In the car, I drew my mandala book out of my bag again. I wrote “man in McDonald’s in Colonie, New York, 8/9/11″ in the purple ink I use for my fiction writing. Then I headed north again.