Panic stabbed at his midsection just as the beam from his headlights picked up the city limit sign. He had forgotten the reports he needed to make tomorrow's presentation! Yanking the car onto the shoulder of the two-lane blacktop, he whirled about and tugged his briefcase out of the back seat. He thumbed the latches and scrabbled through its contents in the dim glow of the dome light until he found a folder marked "Projections — T. Landon." Heaving a sigh of relief, he snapped the briefcase shut and pulled back onto the highway.
It was Thursday, so this must be Plainfield, he thought. When you're on the road five and sometimes six nights a week, all the towns start to look alike: one not-so-major highway crossing another with a few houses and businesses huddling for comfort near the intersection. Like most small towns in west Texas, Plainfield boasted a court house, a football stadium and a Dairy Queen. And a single decent motel, which was why he made this town the terminus of his Thursday route.
He saw the motel sign just ahead. Along with a truck stop and the inevitable handful of convenience stores, the motel had one of the few signs still lit in Plainfield at this hour of the night. He rubbed his eyes. It had been a long day. But then, lately, all his days seemed long. He sighed. With any luck at all, tomorrow's presentation would go well; he'd be able to convince the auto parts store that the cost savings generated by his computer system would justify the five-figure price tag. If he could put this deal to bed, the month would look pretty decent.
Goodness knew he needed a good month, after the last one. The brass hadn't exactly said anything, but he knew the guys in the other territories were closing the lead he'd opened on them earlier in the year. Not only that, but Karen had told him during last night's phone call that the dentist said Bethany was going to need braces. Then there were the lease payments on the Suburban, and the costs for daycare, and tuition payments to Westside Christian Academy, and ...
He rubbed his eyes again. The tendons in his shoulders twisted another notch tighter as he drove into town.
The waitress brandished the coffee pot and aimed a questioning look at her. She nodded quickly, then resumed her study of the stained Formica counter top on which her elbows rested. Without conscious thought, she added artificial sweetener to the freshly-poured coffee and swished the spoon listlessly about in the cup.
How could that creep do this to her? And why? She had been the dutiful wife, hadn't she? Even though she made more money than he did, she had agreed to move so he could take the managership his company had offered. Sure, it meant she had to travel more, but she thought their marriage was worth it. Nor did she complain when he spent all day Saturday and most of Sunday on the golf course. "I'm making contacts at the country club," he'd told her. "It's important to my business." Fine. After all, he needed some recreation. He worked hard — no doubt of that.
It began to bother her that they didn't talk much. Before the wedding, such thoughts never crossed her mind. In fact, he told her once that he liked the fact that he didn't feel pressured to entertain her or make chit-chat. She thought it was a compliment. But as their marriage entered its second year, she wondered if she'd made the right inference. Not only did he not feel obliged to entertain her, it seemed he didn't feel obliged to acknowledge her existence, much of the time. This didn't feel to her like the familiar, companionable silence of well-accustomed friends. This felt like the silence of two strangers seated face to face at an airport.
And then, two months ago, the bombshell: he moved out. No, there wasn't anyone else, he told her. He thought their lives were going in two different directions, that's all, and it would be better this way. Just like that… Adios, baby — no hard feelings, huh? Don't forget to forward my Sports Illustrated. Have your lawyer call mine and we'll do lunch.
How can that creep do this to me? she asked herself, sipping at the tasteless coffee.
He pulled into the covered drive in front of the small motel office and switched off the engine. Thumbing the headlights and the electric door lock, he got out of the car and leaned against the glass door of the office. Going inside, he could smell stale cigarette smoke and hear the muted clink of silverware and coffee cups in the motel diner. "Hi, Betty," he greeted the middle-aged, tired-looking night clerk. "‘Lo," she returned, placing the registration card, a pen and a room key on the counter. "Must be Thursday night," she said, as she did each time he came here.
"Yeah, I guess," he grinned halfheartedly, completing the ritual. Quickly he filled out the registration card and scooped the room key into his pocket. "Say, Betty, how late does the diner stay open? I didn't get a chance to eat."
"Open till midnight," Betty shrugged, "or whenever the folks stop showin' up, whichever's earlier." She glanced at the rattling electric wall clock. "Not but ten-fifteen, and they're pretty busy tonight. You got plenty of time."
"You bet," she replied, turning back to her Reader's Digest.
He pulled around behind the motel, located his room — thankfully on the ground floor this week — and went inside. He tossed his briefcase on the bed, switched on the air conditioning unit, and hung his garment bag on the wall bracket beside the sink. Pulling the door shut behind him, he headed toward the diner.
Her head was down, studying the bottom of her coffee cup, so she didn't see him come in. She didn't notice him until he spoke to her.
"Uh, ma'am? Excuse me, but can I sit here?"
With some difficulty, she forced her attention back to the present. "Pardon me?" she said, raising her head to find the source of the question.
The eyes looking back at her were deep green, set in a lean, attractive face. His collar was loosened, his tie the proper width and design to be stylish. He looked tired, and she knew that he was a few years older than she was. She glanced around the room, then back at him.
"All the other seats are taken," he explained with a weary wave, "and this is the only one left. Are you waiting for somebody?" he asked, motioning toward the empty stool to her left.
She gave a harsh little laugh. "Not by a long shot. Have a seat."
He sat down and attracted the attention of a waitress. "Bring me a glass of iced tea and a grilled cheese sandwich, please." The waitress made a few quick marks on her pad and whirled away.
"Thanks," he said, turning back to her. "I just got in, and I was running so far behind I didn't get to eat yet."
"Don't mention it," she shrugged, and looked away.
As he sipped his tea and waited for the sandwich to arrive, he stole glances at her from the corner of his eye. She was obviously a professional person, judging by her dress. His guess was she was traveling on business, much like himself. Odd that he hadn't run into her before. She sipped at her coffee without looking up, occasionally stirring a few strokes with her spoon. Her elbows were on the counter, and her head hung low between her shoulders. He could understand that: anybody from anywhere else who was spending Thursday evening in Plainfield was going to be tired. From her looks, he guessed she was like him — someone who was willing to get out and hustle; to do whatever it took to get where she wanted to go. Why else would a nice-looking young woman be in Plainfield on a Thursday night — alone?
"Here you go." He looked up. The waitress was plopping his sandwich down in front of him.
"You bet. Want some more coffee, hon?" she continued, pointing toward the woman's near-empty cup.
"Uhh ... Yeah, sure. Go ahead," she said, pushing the cup toward the waitress.
By degrees, she again became aware of him, sitting on her left and quietly consuming his sandwich. When she knew he wasn't looking, she studied him from the corner of her eye. Polite. Quiet. Tired. Probably spent all day on the road, just as she had. She found herself wondering about him: where was he from? What was his life like? Had he ever bulldozed a marriage?
Unaccountably, she found herself wanting to strike up a conversation with him. Perhaps it was the darkness inside her, longing for a little glimmer of light — however artificial and fleeting. Perhaps the loneliness was reaching critical mass. Or maybe she was looking for a way out. Out of where? she wondered briefly, as she opened her mouth to speak.
"Pretty exciting place on Thursday night, huh?"
He glanced at her, smiled apologetically and held up a finger as he finished chewing and swallowed. "Yeah, I guess so. You and I must have the same travel agent."
She chuckled and nodded as she took another sip of coffee. "Well, this is the only place in this part of my territory where you don't have to bring your own light bulbs. I'm usually here on Wednesday, but this week we've been closing some deals, so I had to juggle my schedule a little bit."
Just as he thought! A fellow salesperson! He thought of handing her a business card, but for some reason hesitated. "Where you out of?" he asked instead.
"Fort Worth." His eyes held hers for the merest moment, then he looked away, taking another bite of his sandwich.
What's going on here? he wondered. He was far from unwilling to talk to her — and that worried him, just a little. There was something extra behind the words, the glances. Something that made him nervous — or excited. He wasn't sure which, and maybe that was what was bugging him. She wanted to talk. Did he want to listen? And if he did, what else did he want to do? This wasn't about quotas or sales projections or prospect lists. Or about braces, tuition and household expenses. This was the unknown, the untried. This was something different. Was it escape?
Her eyes flickered over his face, then away. He felt his chest tighten ever so slightly.
"I'm with the Lomax Corporation. We sell --"
"-- business application software," he interrupted. "I'm with EBN."
"Oh, yeah!" she grinned. "We co-opped with you guys on several deals last year."
"‘Course our national account guys got all the best plays, like always," he groused.
"Same here," she agreed. There was a silence.
"I hope there aren't any loud jerks in the room next to mine, like last time," she said, finally.
There. It was out. The implicit next question lay on the counter between them, waiting to be picked up. She wasn't sure why she'd made the invitation, and wasn't sure she wanted him to accept. But for some reason, even the conversation of a stranger seemed better tonight than the familiar, heartbreaking silence of the last two months. And an embrace — any embrace — seemed preferable to the unanswered solitude which had been her only companion in all that time. Her life was already hell. Why shouldn't she take a little comfort where she could find it? He didn't even have to know her name...
His mind froze, then raced off in a hundred directions at once. He knew the next move. She'd made it so simple. All he had to do was casually ask, "Which room they got you in?" The rest would follow, like water down a drain.
He had a sudden sense of teetering on the edge of a knife. On one side was the familiar drudgery of the known world. On the other was … what? Ecstasy? Adventure? The thrill of the mysterious?
Or just another lonely human being, looking for a quick fix?
He took a slow drink of iced tea, emptying his glass, then set it down and stared thoughtfully at it for several seconds.
"Well, it seems pretty quiet here tonight," he said, at last.
She nodded, looking down at her coffee cup. "Yeah, I guess so."
"I gotta give a presentation in the morning. I guess I better get outta here."
She gave him a quick smile as he rose to leave. "Good talking to you," she said, still not sure whether she was disappointed or relieved. "Knock ‘em dead tomorrow."
"Thanks," he said, tossing two quarters onto the counter beside his empty plate. "You take care."
"Oh, I will." She turned back to her half-empty coffee cup. She didn't look around as he made his way toward the cashier stand.
He didn't look back as he paid and left.