Brenda and I had been driving back in separate cars to North Dakota in the middle of the night after having visited her parents in Iowa. It was probably the worst rain storm I had ever been in, and we simply could not see the road. She was ahead of me and had pulled off on some back road. We found shelter at a really cool deserted gas station with a covering and waited out the storm.
And there was this old-time black-and-white photo I remembered looking at long after all this…and in it was a woman looking to the photographer. Her look…her emotional intensity…was startling…riveting…fascinated me.
From out of these two experiences came this story.
This story was originally published in Black Sheep #40, the February-March 2002 issue.
© F. P. Dorchak, 1995
Rain crashed down in severe, impenetrable sheets as if the anger of the gods were being visited upon me. It was deafening, thunderous. I punched through it, tears blinding me. A midsummer night’s dream, I mused. Some dream, indeed. It’d been some time since I’d last been through Iowa, a lifetime ago, for all practical purposes, but all I know is that whatever I did, whomever I was with, it all paled in comparison to her. I’ve never met anyone like her—before or since—and though we barely talked, had never really even held each other, I never stopped thinking about her.
This, of course, didn’t sit well with my girlfriend at the time, but, as I said, that was a long time ago….
Maybe the gods aren’t angry…just sad. Like me.
I remember that midsummer’s trip as if it were yesterday. I was with Grace. We’d been making a marathon drive back from her parents’ home and it had been raining hard then, too. We’d taken two cars, because I’d met her directly from a business trip and we were driving back to North Dakota. It was somewhere between midnight and three in the morning when the rain slammed down so hard we could barely see, and since Grace was in the lead I followed her as she pulled off onto some obscure back road that wasn’t on any map. We pulled off and found shelter beneath an overhang to an ancient gas station. We sat there for some time—I had gotten out of my car and gone to hers. It could have been a beautiful setting…could have been quite romantic…if it hadn’t been for our fight just before leaving her folks. We’d been dating for about two years then and Grace had brought up the idea of marriage, but not just marriage—marriage and children.
Why do people always feel the need to bring more souls into the world?
I may be a bit unconventional—or unreasonable—but I feel that there are quite enough bodies already populating the planet, thank you. Anyway, don’t get me wrong, I loved her…then. I wasn’t so averse to taking her as my wife as I was against having kids. I was young, still a bit wild, and had no intention of being tied down to a family let alone children. Anyway, we’d left her folks under somewhat strained circumstances. She’d even snapped at me that maybe it was a sign we drove in separate vehicles. Things weren’t going well and let’s just say they didn’t get any better.
So, I’m in her car, the downpour still mercilessly pounding the countryside, and we just sat there. The sound of the rain was curiously soothing for all its furor, even hypnotic. The night hung thickly over us like a heavy blanket—and the fact that it was three in the morning was even better. Have you ever been awake at that hour? I mean, really awake and experienced the fact that others—most really—were still tucked away snugly in their beds, dreaming? It’s quite cozy, like living film noir. At any rate, Grace broke the silence first. She wanted to know what I wanted out of life. I told her I didn’t know that I was just busy living it. Well, didn’t I want to live it with someone? Of course I did, I told her, it’s much more fulfilling and enjoyable when you can share things with one you love. Don’t you love me? she asked, of course I do, then why won’t you marry me—it’s not about marrying you, Grace, it’s about the kids part, the kids’ part? what does that have to do with anything—everything, dammit, I can’t explain it, but it’s scary and there’s too many people in the world and why are you trying to pressure me I thought we’d been through all this already….
It wasn’t long after that that Grace burst out of the car and into the downpour. I went after her, of course, to find her standing and sobbing out in the middle of the muddy road we’d just come on down. I tried to hold her, but she wouldn’t have it. I felt my life ripped apart—after all, I loved her—I didn’t want her to go, but something wasn’t allowing me to accept her proposal. Then I looked to her and saw she was staring at the building we’d parked alongside. It was kind of funny, because I, too, got caught up in whatever was going on at that moment. We were parked between some of those old-time gas pumps and the building. Slowly, Grace began to walk away from me. Again I followed. Totally ignoring our vehicles we went to the building. Above the awning, or roof, we’d parked under, was a sign we could barely make out through the downpour: “Blondie’s” it said. Instantly intrigued, we forgot about our problems. Grace got to the door first. She reached out for the screen-door handle and pulled, then worked the inner doorknob, which opened into a darkened interior. A dry, darkened interior. We both just walked on in….
It was the strangest experience I’ve ever had. There was an immediate calmness that befell us—and a deep, emotionally powerful…something. I don’t know what it was, I just know that I immediately felt like crying. I looked to Grace, but she was already looking at me. I couldn’t tell if those were tears in her eyes or remnants of the storm.
We just stood there, looking at each other.
This time it was my turn to make the first move. I flipped on a light switch. Partial lights flickered on. I broke away from Grace and began to take in the place. It was an old-time gas station-restaurant, like in those old forties movies I love so much. Even had that musty, nostalgic, smell and creaking floorboards. I immediately fell in love with the place. But where was everyone? Sleeping? Then why was the door left unlocked? I mean, back-country Iowa or not, most businesses I knew didn’t leave doors unlocked overnight.
“I’m gonna look for a bathroom,” Grace mumbled and went off in search of one.
I walked about the room, listening to the rain not only pounding the building, but my soul…and found myself falling deeper and unaccountably deeper in love with the place. It really was quite quaint and I immediately wished we’d found this under different circumstances. Grace was in the rest room for some time, so I sat down at a table in one corner of the room where I felt particularly drawn to. There were old, polished-but-quite-worn-out wooden tables, two of them…a Wurlitzer…display cabinets that were now empty, but could have at one time or another been home to candy, pies—whatever—but, what really piqued my interest was an old calendar tacked up on the adjacent wall. It was dated 1944—I remember that—and there was this picture of a woman on it, but over her picture was tacked an old black-and-white photograph. “Vargas Girl” had been scratched out beneath the calendar’s picture, and beneath that was scrawled “Blondie.” I smiled. Someone else was in love…at one point, anyway. Someone had stood where I now sat and had put up their wife’s or girlfriend’s picture over this Vargas Girl. I reached up and removed the black and white and looked at it. Though a bit faded, I was instantly shocked by the emotional intensity of this woman. She was quite attractive, and was staring out across the boundaries of time…at me…pleading. She wanted something, but what? The longer I stared, the more I wanted to kiss her, to hold her. She seemed lonely…desperate. I placed the photograph on the table before me and folded my hands beneath my chin. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from her and just…stared. Into her eyes. Large and dark. I wanted to feel what she was feeling at the time of this picture, feel her thoughts, her lips, her—
“What are you looking at?”
Grace had returned and to my utter amazement I had all but forgotten about her. Embarrassed, I pushed away the picture.
“Who’s this?” Grace asked, picking it up. “She’s pretty.” She put the photograph back on the table. “Did you find anyone?”
“No. It seems a bit weird, but I think whoever owns this joint forgot to lock up. Lucky us.”
“Yeah,” was all she said, turning away.
Grace walked off toward the checkout counter, but I remained seated. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the beautiful face in this picture.
What had this woman’s life turned out like?
Had she fought with her boyfriend? Her husband? Have children? I was caressing the edges of the picture when Grace called out to me.
“Nolan, could you come over here, please?”
Reluctantly, I got up and did as requested. “What?”
“What should we do? It’s still pouring outside, I’m cold, I’m hungry. No one’s around—”
“—well, that’s not exactly so,” came a voice from behind us. Both of us turned to find a woman standing in a bathrobe, arms crossed, at the entrance Grace had used for the rest room. “You’re welcome to wait out the storm, here, if you’d like.”
Grace and I looked to each other for a long moment. “Y-your door was open, and—” I began, when the woman again interrupted.
“Some of us tend to get complacent out here, especially us few remaining optimists. The offer still stands. I’ve got coffee brewing in the back.”
Just then we smelled the rich, elevating aroma.
“I hope we didn’t wake you,” Grace added.
“Oh, no, it wasn’t your fault. I haven’t slept…well …in a long time…and when you used the bathroom the pipes…they have a life of their own, if you know what I mean. Why don’t you both have a seat—or stand, as you prefer, I know you’ve probably been on the road all night.”
The woman disappeared into the rear.
“Guess she lives here,” I said, as I directed Grace back to the table.
“There’s something weird about her,” Grace said, sitting.
“I know, I felt it, too.” Once again I reached for the photograph.
“She’s very pretty, isn’t she, the woman in the picture?”
Startled, I hesitated in my answer. I felt embarrassed, like I’d been caught in an affair. “Y-yes, she is. I keep wondering what her life must have been like—”
Two cups of coffee were place before us.
“She was my grandmother,” our mysterious woman said, continuing, “She and her husband started this place.”
“Is that who tacked this up there?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, looking to the calendar, “it’s remained up there all these years—until you took it down.”
“Oh—I’m-I’m so sorry—” I said.
“That’s okay,” she said, smiling warmly, which actually kind of unnerved me, “you didn’t know. Sometimes change is good, you know? Do you mind if I sit with you?”
“No, go right ahead, I mean, we barged in on you,” Grace said.
I looked to our coffee and found they each already contained the cream and sugar we both took in them.
“Thank you for the coffee,” I said.
The woman smiled.
It almost seemed like another me, then. Another life. As I now try to navigate through this downpour I recalled all the other times I’d been through here between Cedar Rapids and Grand Forks. I’ve been through countless rain storms, always searching for that one, unmapped road, and never have I found it. But I feel closer each time I come out in search of it…feel irresistibly drawn to it, like metal to a magnet. I’ve tried to explain this feeling over the years, but eventually just gave up. I tried to explain all my failed relationships and lonely nights…my failed employments…but in the end gave up, merely trying to cope. A pipe dream. That’s all it was. A futile attempt to keep my life going in spite of all the failures I’d created: never staying at one job long enough to get on a first name basis; never staying in relationships long enough to consider marriage—and always wondering how Grace’s life turned out. Always wondering if maybe, maybe I should have taken her offer….
But that magical night remained with me forever.
As that woman sat at the table with us, I felt something about her reach out to me—like her grandmother’s photograph. Once or twice under the table, I felt her leg brush against mine. I said nothing, thinking it just one of those unseen beneath-the-table moments, but I felt her touch on several occasions, and soon became extremely uncomfortable—not because of the contact, but because I wanted the contact—and found myself irresistibly attracted to her. This went beyond any purely physical attraction, because—and don’t get me wrong, she was beautiful—but it went deeper. Like we knew each other on some level I couldn’t explain—and didn’t necessarily want to. I was enjoying this mysterious bond, but was also hoping Grace wasn’t picking up on it. But within a short while, I found myself doing the unconscionable: I found myself trying to touch this woman as I sat before my girlfriend. I’d place a foot just so, a leg or hand in a certain position.
I couldn’t believe what I was doing!
And all along this woman showed no hint of our hidden interplay, carrying on a perfectly normal conversation with my girlfriend and me. Then it happened. After all the coffee this woman had been serving us, Grace got up to again use the rest room. As soon as Grace had disappeared into the dark, the woman turned to me. She never said a word, but my excitement grew. I shook with anticipation…and, yes, embarrassment.
She smiled. Gently took my hand.
Oh, her warm, soft skin…the feeling as we finally held hands out in the open was indescribable!
Gently and lovingly, she caressed my skin. I felt as if I’d known her forever. I pictured us making love—not a mere fling, but feral, passionate love.
I took in everything about her…her expressive yet not overly full lips…the wisps of loose hair about her quietly beautiful face…the depth and loving of her intense scrutiny. The softness of her touch…and of how profoundly her touch moved me.
I don’t know how long we carried on like this, but gradually my uncomfortableness gave way to pure, uninhibited adoration. She lifted my hand to her beautiful lips and kissed and nipped at my fingertips; turned my hand over and kissed my wrist.
I nearly died!
I squeezed her hand…took it within both of mine and kissed hers…realizing that at any moment Grace would return. I tingled with bizarre excitement and reached for her face—what was I doing? We came in closer. I could feel her warm, moist breath upon my skin. She parted her lips to meet mine…her eyes hypnotic and yearning. I closed my eyes…
And our lips touched.
It was electric, like a spiritually arching jolt. We both locked in this unbelievably metaphysical kiss that lasted an eternity—when she broke away. I heard Grace’s approach and hurriedly wiped my mouth, but the woman didn’t. Again, she smiled.
“Miss—oh, I guess we never got your name—the light burned out in the bathroom—”
“I’m sorry—I’ll fix it immediately—”
“Oh, don’t bother now, it’s no big deal, it was only the dark, you know. I don’t think I’ll have to use it again, anyway. We should probably get going,” Grace said, as she turned to look out the windows.
I suddenly realized that the rain had let up enough that it no longer battered the building like boulders. I looked to the woman beside me, who was already looking at me with searching, painful eyes…eyes that literally scared me, because I felt I’d seen them before. Her face had somehow changed as well…into a deeply terrifying way I couldn’t explain. It was like she was beginning to emaciate…but it was an emaciation I found I was very much attracted to—
“Nolan—what are you doing?” came Grace’s sudden, fierce outcry.
Immediately terrified, I looked to her.
“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
To my utter astonishment, I looked to the tabletop—and found myself clutching this mysterious woman’s hands.
My blood chilled and I shot to my feet, quickly yanking back my hands.
Grace stared at the both of us. She said not one word, but inside I knew every thought that raced through her mind: is this what he’d been doing while I was away—how could this be?, we’d never even met her before…maybe marriage wasn’t such a good idea….
Still without a word, Grace turned. The look of hurt that had been on her face tore my soul from my breast. As I reached out for her, Grace never turned around, but thrust an upraised hand before me like a pissed-off traffic cop. I was stopped by the force of her silent command and stared back. Grace quietly opened the door and went out into the night. I again made a move toward her when the woman grabbed me.
“Please…,” she begged.
Images flew through my mind…us living happily together…us again making love—but they were more than mere images…they were as if I had actually lived them for one long, luxurious, moment.
I took the woman’s hand into my own and gave her my own pleading look. I didn’t want to leave her and I couldn’t explain it.
What the hell was going on here? How could I do such a thing in front of my girlfriend—a woman I could have married? How could I feel such emotion for a woman I’d never before met?
Grace started her car. Gunned the engine.
“I…have to go—I don’t know you. Don’t you see? I don’t know you, yet want to stay with you. Can you understand me? I can’t. I have to go…with her.”
I broke free, and rushed from the building, out into the storm.
Once outside, Grace had already left…her taillights disappearing into the darkness and rain. Quickly, I got into my car, brought it to life, and left the pumps. As I spun out into the rain and mud, I looked into my rearview and froze. The building that we had taken refuge in had melted from sight. I’m not saying that the rain had again become so thick that only yards from it it had been made to appear that way—no, what I’m saying is that as I looked into my rearview I actually saw it melt into nothingness as the rain pelted it.
And so I’ve thought about it all these years and still come up with the same questions. Had she been a ghost? Had it all been a hallucination? Had we ever met before?
No, I’d never seen that woman before in all of my life.
Every map, every person I’d ever talked to had no recollection of that road, or building. Of that woman. No folklore, no legends, no nothing.
So what’d happened?
Something had to have occurred, because Grace had seen her, too, had seen us holding hands, for chrissakes. Grace’d never stopped after she’d gotten into the car that night, except for gas, and when she had, I stopped, but she turned and gave me that same murderous glare and silent command. It was over. I didn’t even try. We both knew this was the end. No longer had it been about kids, if it ever really had been. I let her go and watched as her taillights again left me for the darkness.
Ever since I’ve failed at everything. I got fired from every job, never had second dates, and after a while, not even firsts. Got evicted from apartments—lost my mortgage—you name it. I finally admitted to myself what I needed to do. I had nothing holding me back anymore, so where was the harm? I’d gotten into my car, filled it up, and headed into rainy oblivion.
And here I am.
I’ve gotten pretty good, over the years, of driving in the nearly undriveable. Learned the Iowa back roads pretty well. But I’m tired. I need to find what was, all those years ago. If I can’t, well, I don’t know what I’ll do.
So the rain pounds down upon my windshield, cursing me for all I’ve done, and not done. Bursts of thunder and lightning jar my senses. I take one more turn up ahead, and slide down a small hill into a dip. The rain seems angrier here, and I have to slow down still more. I look to the speedometer and see that my speed barely registers.
Why am I even driving?
Because I need her.
I’m exhausted. I peer ahead, looking for a place to pull over and uncover the sleeping pills…so many, many, of them…beneath my crumpled jacket on the front seat. I briefly look at them.
Enough of everything….
When I spot something up ahead.
I get closer and try to make it out—and what do I see?
An ancient gas station.
A roof covering gas pumps.
I break, and my car slides into a muddy and crooked stop before the pumps. I get out, deafened by the roar of the rain, wincing from the force of the storm, and stand there…looking to the building.
I can’t believe what I’m seeing!
And there’s a light on.
Legs weak and shaky I approach the screen door. It’s solid, all right. Grasping the doorknob, I open it. I enter the room and see a shadowy figure slumped over at one of the tables in that far corner. Her head hangs low.
I am without words as I approach, for I know it’s her.
Sure, I’ve aged some, as I know she has, but what’s right is right. I get to the table and see an old black-and-white photograph still lying on the table where I’d last left it. I look to the woman who still sat in the same chair I’d left her in. I place a hand to her shoulder—cold at first—but soon feel warmth. She lifts her head…and I come around and sit beside her.
“I’ve waited for you for so long,” she whispers, in a wavering, tortured voice. Tears drain down her cheeks.
Heart in my throat, I look into her eyes and see the same woman I’d seen all those years ago. Exactly the same. I’m not sure how I know this, or how much I believe it, but it makes sense. She isn’t a ghost, at least not in the conventional sense—no…she’s a wish….
“I’m Blondie,” she whispers, “I’m the woman—”
“I know. The photograph.”
“It’s hard to explain,” she says, “but I’ve always loved you…just as you’ve always loved me. We’re two people of the same hunger. Both of us wanted something neither had, but reached across time to find. There are other…lives…we all live, some in dreams, some not. When you looked into that photograph, you created all of this—”
“But how could I? We got here before I found the picture—”
“Desire has a way of warping time. I can’t explain it myself, only know my want…as do you. However it happened we know the reality of the outcome. Can we live in more than one reality? I don’t know. I only know that I didn’t want to live in the one I had been in up until that picture. I had to leave. The moment you read my need…desired me…you took me out of that life and brought me into this one. That’s all I know, all I care about. I’m no longer where I was.”
Again, that warm smile.
“Your choice. You still have that choice—”
“No…I don’t. There is no choice—can’t you see? I’ve always been with you since that moment—everything else I’ve ever done, or tried to do, has left me; never had I anything since I left you.”
She smiled and we both knew.
Why try to know and explain everything? Why not just live in the moment and leave the explanations to Who or Whatever runs this crazy ride.
I reached out to Blondie and took her hand and immediately felt a lifetime younger—older?—who cared. We were together and I would never, ever again abandon her. We had both found what we so desperately sought—and it was just that—we both needed to need it…desperately.
The rain continued to pound, relentlessly, but it wasn’t angry, not in the least. And as our building and pumps melted away…as did my car and the remains of my previous life…I realized that there had never been any anger in the rain—only tears of joy.
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