Authors: Curtiss Ann Matlock
Tags: #Christmas Romance
MIRACLE ON I-40
Curtiss Ann Matlock
A Crisp December Evening
It’s the time of day when the coral sun gives way to a satin starry night. The huge letters of Gerald’s Truck Stop have started to glow bright red in the darkening desert sky along Interstate 40, which cuts right through Albuquerque, New Mexico. The sign serves as a beacon for weary truckers trying to get in as many hauls as possible before Christmas Day, and for frazzled families making the long trek home to Gramma’s house, and for footsore mothers needing respite at the end of a long day of searching out the perfect gifts. Big eighteen-wheelers chug in and out of the wide fuel bays, while minivans and sedans stop at the gas station, and speakers up above each reverberate with Christmas carols.
The fluorescent lights of the restaurant shine out from the wide windows, promising warmth from the scene inside. Steam rises from the coffee maker, and the bubbling punch machines give off a rather cheery yellow and red glow. Lights twinkle on the small plastic green tree at the end of the counter, and brightly colored pi
atas hanging from the ceiling sway a bit whenever the front doors are opened.
A short, thick man in a white apron and with sleeves rolled up to reveal blue tattoos comes through the swinging kitchen doors, bearing a tray of pie slices. This is Gerald, the owner and somewhat compulsive pie maker. He goes to the lighted glass dessert case and puts the slices inside, saving one slice, which he plunks in front of a rather forlorn man sitting at the counter puffing on a cigarette. The man looks startled. His wide eyes follow Gerald, who sweeps on back through the kitchen door without an explanation. The man looks down at the pie, up at the swinging doors, and back at the pie again.
The hands of the Pepsi-Cola clock on the wall read five-twenty, and there’s a bit of a lull before the supper rush. In addition to the man at the counter, three elegant elderly ladies chat and laugh in the big corner booth, four truckers sit at a table talking low, and several other men eat alone, one a man in a suit who reads a paper, the other two robust truckers thoroughly enjoying their meals in the complete comfort of men use to eating alone.
There is only one waitress in evidence. She lifts the full pot of hot coffee from the Bunn machine and, swirling the contents, passes by her customers to refill cups. She casts repeated glances out the window, in the manner of watching for someone.
This waitress is a young woman, but not as young as she once was. Her hair is thick and wavy and the color of honey, and her eyes that particular green color of cactus in the spring. She is a pretty woman, like a thousand other pretty women, until she smiles. She has a smile so brilliant and so genuine that it actually, for brief seconds, arrests the recipients and causes them to stare. She smiles a lot, having learned that her ability to smile, even through her tears, is her greatest strength, the thing that has enabled her to not only survive but to enjoy life.
Lacey is the name printed on the small white tag above her left breast, and this is the story of a special Christmas in her life. It is a Christmas that she makes a choice to face wounds from the past and to hope in forgiveness. She doesn’t know how much her choice, which seems comparatively small in the scheme of things, will have an effect on those around her.
Right that minute, Lacey has paused at a table and is smiling at a big, rough looking man wearing a Harley Davidson ballcap and a bushy gray beard. In a voice that yet bears traces of down-home, she asks, “More Coffee, Web?”
Web Connor, not a man given to much smiling, has to smile back at her, of course, although he shook his head. “No thanks. I gotta get goin’ if I’m gonna make Okie City tonight,” he drawled and began to slide his hefty frame from the red vinyl seat. “Gerald outdid himself on that dried peach pie today.”
“I’ll tell him you enjoyed it.” Lacey picked up the bills he left atop his check. “You have a safe trip, and I’ll see you again soon,” she called after him as he wound his way among the Formica-topped tables to the door. Then she realized he’d left way too much money. “Web! Wait! You left this extra twenty.” She waved the bill in the air.
The big man turned and called back gruffly, “You think I haven’t noticed how you always get me the biggest slice of pie and make sure my steak’s done just right?” He raised a hand. “Merry Christmas from me and Milly.”
Lacey stood there and watched him push through the door and walk rapidly away toward his tractor-trailer rig he drove for Outtman Trucking. Turning slowly back to the table, she tucked the twenty dollar bill into her apron pocket, where it seemed to burn a hole. She blinked back tears as she gathered the dirty dishes from the table.
She paused and looked out the window, peering hard, but it was getting so dark now that she saw mostly her own reflection.
She breathed deeply and thought: Thank you, Lord, for people like Web. Thank you for Christmas. It’s just a darn good idea.
Smiling to herself, she began to clear the dishes and to hum along with the jukebox.
I’ll be home for Christmas...oh, yes, I will...if all goes well
As Lacey rounded the counter with her load of dishes, the swinging doors burst open, and a middle-aged woman with a youthful air, curly blond hair, reindeer antlers on her head, and the name Jolene embroidered in large letters above the chest pocket of her blouse, came through the door. “Doin’ okay out here?” she asked, turning to adjust her antlers in the mirror that lined the wall back of the counter.
“Doin’ fine. Not a creature stirring,” Lacey said and glanced at the clock. Five-thirty-three. She was to get off at six, having worked yet another ten hour day, in order to get all the tips possible—although it was beginning to look like it might turn out to be a slow night. It was just as well. She was tired, and very thankful that this was her last day for two weeks.
If all went well
Every time thoughts rose up of what could happen with her plans, she imagined a radio dial in her mind and switched herself to a different channel, one where only happy and hopeful thoughts played.
She looked back at Jolene. “Someday you’ll have to teach me your trick for keeping all the customers away from your tables and sittin’ at mine.”
“It’s a secret I shall never reveal,” Jolene quipped. “I employ it only when I’m tired and feeling generous—you need the tips more than I do.” Casting Lacey a saucy smile, she danced away to the jukebox.
Lacey idly watched the older woman and wondered what it might be like to not have to constantly worry about money. But Jolene had no children. Lacey wouldn’t trade places with her, not for an instant. Well, maybe for an hour, in which time she would get a manicure and pedicure. Lacey had never in her life had either, and she thought about this as Glen Campbell’s voice sang out from the jukebox about Santa coming to town, and Jolene wiggled her hands in the air, her Christmas red fingernails catching the light.
Changing the channel on her thoughts, Lacey hummed along with the music and stacked dirty dishes in the pan to go back into the kitchen. She looked out the windows again and reached into her apron pocket to feel the folded wad of bills, letting anticipation steal over her.
“Does that guy always slide his cup back and forth like that?” Jolene asked when she had danced her way back behind the counter. She inclined her head toward where a lanky J. B. Hunt driver sat alone.
Lacey nodded and slipped the funnel from the coffee machine. “He has ever since he came in.”
“Glad he’s over there. If he was any closer, I think I’d scream at him.” Jolene reached into the cabinet and plunked a box of coffee filters on the counter. “What is it? Your eyes are lit up like Christmas trees...like you have a secret.”
Lacey couldn’t help smiling broadly as she discarded the used filter. “I’ve made enough in tips to get Jon the remote-control car he wants for Christmas—the exact one. I’ve been putting off buyin’ any other model, hopin’ I could get the real thing.”
“That’s good, honey. And how are the kids? Are they getting excited about the trip?”
“Anna has a cold, and yes and no to excitement.” Lacey rinsed the funnel. “I didn’t bother with a tree this year, since we’re not goin’ to be home, and the kids were none too happy about that. Jon said he didn’t want to go, if we couldn’t have a tree at home. But on the whole, they both see the trip as an adventure. They’ve told everyone—and I mean everyone, including the UPS delivery man—that they’ll be ridin’ across country in a big eighteen-wheel truck. And they started askin’ all kinds of questions about their grandparents and what things were like when I was a kid.”
“Did you tell them about the problems between you and your parents?” Jolene asked.
“I tried,” Lacey said, jamming the coffee maker back together. “But every time I lost my nerve. I was afraid of prejudicing the kids against their grandparents or makin’ them disappointed in me. They’re both two young to understand it all, and I don’t want Jon to think his grandparents didn’t want him.” She sighed.
“I ended up simply sayin’ that Grandma and Grandpa didn’t know we were coming, and it was to be a surprise. If things don’t go so well, then I can explain more. Maybe.” She didn’t really know how she would explain if her father rejected them.
“I guess it would be a pretty touchy subject,” said Jolene, shaking her head. Then, “So, are you all set for the trip?”
At that moment, the front double doors opened, and along with a whoosh of cold air came a family of four. With some disappointment, Lacey watched them head directly to the restrooms.
“I have a few last minute things to get tonight,” Lacey said, remembering to switch on the coffee maker. “There’s Jon’s car, and nose drops for Anna, and new underwear for me. Why is it that women’s panties don’t seem to survive more than five launderings these days.”
“You could go without,” Jolene suggested, studying a broken fingernail.
Lacey glanced at the clock and felt her stomach tighten. “I sure wish Pate would show up, or call. He said he’d pick us up at the house at six in the morning, but I was expecting to hear from him today sometime, just to make sure.”
“If Pate told you six tomorrow mornin’, he’ll be there at five to,” Jolene assured her. “He’s as punctual as the sunrise.”
Jolene regarded her thoughtfully. “Pate’s a lot like my Frank. You could do worse.”
“Oh, Jolene. It’s not like that with us. Pate’s more like a father to me.”
“What do you think Frank is to me? Like a father and a lot more. Older men can give you what younger ones never can—in more ways than one, if you get my drift.” Jolene gave a knowing look. “It’s a thought.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Okay-- don’t get touchy. I’m just giving you the benefit of my own vast experience.”
There could be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Jolene had far vaster experience than Lacey, but Lacey refrained from speaking the comment. Jolene, and a few others, often said that Lacey didn’t know the facts of life; Lacey thought that she knew them only too well, and managed to rise above them.
The man at the counter waved his check at them, and Lacey moved to the cash register.
“Uh...that cook gave me a piece of pie.”
“No charge then.” She thought he was a very sad-faced man, and made the effort to give him a particularly warm smile.
The man gazed at her, as if he didn’t comprehend.
“He does that--- gives out free pie when he feels like it. You liked it didn’t you?”
“Uh...yes. It was very good.” He came close to a full smile, unable to help himself.
“Now maybe you’ll order one again.”
“I don’t think so. I’m on my way to Louisiana. I don’t have plans to come back this way.”
“That’s okay. If you ever do, you’ll order the pie, and you can tell your friends about it, too.”
“God bless you for your trip home,” Lacey said, impulsively. He seemed to need it.
He looked a little startled, and then he smiled a small but true smile and turned toward the door, drawing his coat up around him. Lacey watched him for a long minute, then swept a gaze around the parking lot, bending to peer as far as she could in each direction.
People all coming and going, all with their own pocket full of hopes and dreams and needs, she thought.
The family of four had emerged from the restrooms and chose a booth in Jolene’s station. Their expressions had lightened, no doubt reflecting anticipation of delicious food. Jolene looked from them to Lacey, sighed deeply, and got a tray to carry water glasses. Then she pointed discreetly at the door. “Mmm, he’s a sight to warm a woman’s heart...all yours, you lucky gal,” she whispered as she took up the tray and started away.
Lacey saw the sight to warm a woman’s heart was a customer they all knew as Cooper pushing through one side of the glass doors. A tall, lean man, he came through the door without opening it all the way, his head tilted downward just enough to conceal his eyes with his cowboy hat.