We were tucked into a couple of chairs at the corner diner. A wood stove burned hot in the far north corner. In the far south corner sat a gaggle of men swapping stories. The young ones wore blue jeans, fleece-lined jackets and baseball caps stained with diesel fluids. The older ones wore facial stubble, coveralls with red quilted-lining, and felt cowboy hats, also stained with diesel fluids.
A poster of a veteran leaning, head down, on the Vietnam Memorial Wall hung on wall near the register. All the other walls were covered with plaques of athletes from the Wapiti League, some dating back to 1976. Cross-country runners with David Cassidy hair-does and all-girl basketball teams, beneficiaries of Title IX and the mothers and grandmothers who earned it for them.
Across the table from me was a girlfriend. Her hair, once chestnut brown, now white as the snow covering the roof of the house my in-laws used to own. Twinkle lights dangled from the windows and eaves of the stores in this Alpine town; the Come hither look worn by local shops for centuries.
We first met here in The County, as the locals all call it. Years ago. Neighbors we were. We both had young’uns though hers were older by ten years. We had busy lives then, too. Her husband, a contractor, was traveling back and forth between The County and Japan. He was building log homes for the wealthy Japanese longing to be Westernized. You can’t get much more Westernized than The County.
There is one road in, same road out.
Unless you go the back way, through Lewiston, but that snake of a road can be awful in the best weather conditions. I only drove it once in all the years we lived in The County. Come to think of it, I didn’t do much driving at all when we lived there. Neither did my girlfriend. We walked most every place we needed to go. Town was three blocks away. The library two. The hospital two in the other direction. The bookstore and bakery rounding out courthouse square. The school, where Tim taught, just down the hill from the house. The radio station where I worked weekends was just one block off Main Street.
We went to the diner, planning to order hamburgers. Get the burger wrapped with bacon, her grandson had called out to us as we left his hillside house in the tall forest. Try the fajitas, her daughter suggested instead. But when we opened the menu, I saw it there, her favorite dish.
They have gizzards, I said.
They do? Where? she asked.
I pointed it out to her, there on the menu that offered fifty ways to fry your meal. So she ordered the gizzards.
The last time we had eaten out she’d ordered gizzards that night, too. She had me drive her to the local tavern just off Highway 395. I told her I’d never been in that place before. She said she and her husband came once in awhile, the food was good, she promised. I got the wings. They were good.
Somebody had stopped her that night, asked how her husband was doing. He’d started chemo that week. She was upbeat. They were going to fight this thing. They were going to beat it. A few weeks later we were sitting in Cloverleaf Hall, the place where The County fair folks display all their quilted and baked goods, listening to the preacher give a goodbye message.
My girlfriend peeled back the breading on the gizzards and talked about all that she has to do now, now that her husband is gone.
She was a student at the local community college when they met. He saw her walking across campus with her father, a very stately gentleman who at the time was a mucky-muck with Pan Am Airlines. The County boy determined right then that he had to woo this girl with the chestnut hair that hung to her hips.
They’ve been together ever since.
But alas, even the best romances end. It shouldn’t be so, but there you have it.
The cook wanders over to the table. A tall guy wearing a black t-shirt and an apron over his blue jeans. He pulls out a business card and a pen. He leans over the table and writes a phone number on the back of the card and pushes it over towards my girlfriend.
You need anything, you call, he says.
Anytime. I don’t care what time of day or night it is. You need something moved. You need something taken care of, call me. I’ll be there.
People in The County are like that. Neighbors in word and in deed.
New beginnings are supposed to be good things. They are the things we are supposed to look forward to. They are the thing we do look forward to every time the clock turns midnight on the 31st of December. Crowds get rip-roaring drunk and holler out Happy New Year to one another.
New beginnings offer us a chance at redemption. That’s what we tell ourselves. Everything is supposed to be better heading into a New Year. But what if everything good in your life is no longer at your side?
This will be the first time as an adult that my girlfriend will hail in a new year without the love of her life at her side. Their romance will live on only in memory now. Those memories burn bright like the fire in the corner, but even so memories make for cold companions.
New beginnings aren’t always all they are touted to be. Sometimes the best things in life are the old and the familiar.
Often the very best things about any New Year are the people already in our lives.The spouse who is devoted to us. The friend who prays for us. The neighbor who offers help, anytime.
These are the things I hope fill your new year.
These are who I hope to be in 2015.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain (Mercer University Press).