By Sean Dietrich
This story is not mine. But I’m going to tell it anyway. And our story begins at night.
Nighttime in the countryside can feel eerie to city folk. They aren’t prepared for that level of quiet. Many city dwellers have never seen so many stars at once. It makes them jumpy.
Don was feeling jumpy. This was the wrong place to have his car break down. He had hours left to travel, and this was the Georgia boonies. He was about to have a panic attack here in the middle of nowhere. He tried calling a tow truck, but he had no cell reception.
He slammed the phone onto the dashboard and used colorful expletives often heard in barroom brawls and major motion pictures.
He was exhausted, hungry and scared. What he needed was rest. So he crawled into his backseat and curled into a ball. He had never noticed how comfortable the backseat of his Nissan was. It actually wasn’t bad provided you didn’t mind having seat-belt receptacles jammed into your vital organs.
He awoke the next morning to lumbar muscles that were sore, and a neck that was kinked with the charley horse from hell. His stomach was rumbling like a bowling alley.
He stepped out of the car, caffeine deprived, headachy, famished and disoriented. He checked his phone. Dead battery. He’d tried recharging it, but it wouldn’t work unless the car was cranked.
This just kept getting better and better.
Don looked in all directions, but there were no vehicles on this dirt highway. So he started walking. Before long he was covered in sweat, foot blisters and he was half lost.
Finally, in the distance, salvation cometh. He saw a camper. It sat perched on a sprawl of acreage with cattle grazing near it. In the yard were cheap lawn ornaments, gaze balls and a satellite dish.
A saintly old woman answered the door. She was slight and smelled like Virginia Slims. He explained everything to her and she reacted the way all grannies would. She covered her mouth and said, “You poor thing.”
She invited him in. She doted on him. She fed him a huge sandwich, cookies and a heavenly host of other delicacies that all elderly women all learn how to prepare in Elderly Woman Cooking Class 101.
The lady didn’t have any coffee, but she did have Swiss Miss hot cocoa. She served it to Don in a decorative Christmas mug even though it was not Christmastime.
The trailer was crowded with old-lady junk. And she had a lap dog named Pete who was friendly, and used a litterbox just like a cat. A TV was playing 24-hour news in the background. There were porcelain figurines everywhere.
When Don finished using her phone, he was about to leave, but he could hardly keep his eyes open. He fell asleep on her sofa.
When he awoke several hours later he was covered in a flannel blanket. She refilled his mug with more cocoa.
“You sure live a long way from civilization,” Don said, sipping his Swiss Miss with freeze dried marshmallow pellets that were the same shape and flavor of extra-strength Tylenol.
“Oh, I live here so I can watch my girls,” the woman said.
“My girls.” She gestured out the window to the cows. “Wanna meet my girls?”
Don saw a congregation of heifers loping up the hill toward the camper. He blinked a few times to make sure this was really happening. Because for a moment Don wondered if he were dying and this was a convincing hallucination that accompanied clinical brain death.
“Sure,” he said.
The lady led him outside. She had named the cows. She stroked them and spoke to them like toddlers. Dozens surrounded the trailer, groaning in low moans, waiting their turn for affection.
Once Don got over the weirdness, he petted a few of them. And he was really beginning to fall in love with this old lady’s spirit.
The woman offered to give Don a lift to meet the wrecker. For the trip she insisted that he bring along some sandwiches and his mug of hot chocolate.
On the ride she told him all about herself. About how she’d beaten cancer, and about how she’d lost a husband to the same disease. She told him about how difficult life can be, and about how the most beautiful parts are sometimes the worst ones. Mostly, Don just nodded and listened. Sipping.
The woman dropped him at his car and offered to wait with him, but Don said he’d be fine. He thanked her for her kindness, waved goodbye and watched her tail lights disappear into a cloud of pink dust.
He spent the rest of the day getting his car fixed, dealing with mechanics and draining his bank account. He was about to leave for the interstate when he noticed something sitting in his console. The coffee mug.
He decided to return the cup to the woman since it was the polite thing to do. He aimed his car toward the desolate dirt highway and tried to retrace the path back to her place.
He drove through hours of backroads, acres of peanut fields and miles of fescue pasture. But he found no trailer. No cows. No satellite dish. And no old woman.
Don was convinced he was losing his mind. He still isn’t sure he hasn’t.
Either way, he still has that mug. He still uses it, even after all these years. He describes it as a nondescript coffee cup. Hand thrown pottery. Red and white.
With an angel painted on the outside.