Signs often arrive when we're not looking for them
The venerable Ford F-100 pickup jostled down the rutted country road on its way to the paved two-lane leading towards Tacoma and the Trailways bus depot. Mary Ann’s feet worked the clutch and accelerator pedals, her right hand resting lightly on the knob of the floor gear shift. Mike’s gaze was fixed on the oversized mirror mounted on the passenger door. The waning light of the sun, low on the horizon, cast a peculiar tint to a cloud of dust that swirled up from the dry dirt road and mingled with pale gray exhaust smoke from the tailpipe. He focused on the mirror to avoid having to look at Mary Ann. Static from an electric storm somewhere accompanied Loretta Lynn on the truck’s radio as she sang “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)”.
The silence between the two was self-conscious and poignant. They knew this moment would come; its shadow hung over them for the five days since Mary Ann picked him up at the dingy bus terminal. It hovered nearby when they walked hand-in-hand by the creek that flowed behind her unpretentious farm house; it was there in her sitting room after dinner as they talked quietly; it lingered in her bedroom as they clung passionately to each other during the cool, breezy nights. The knowledge that Mike would have to go back to his base at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, was like a buzzard circling lazily over a possum splattered on the road.
Mike was a corporal on an Army vehicle maintenance team at Carson. He had been transferred a few months ago from Fort Lewis in western Washington state. It was when he was at Lewis that he had met Mary Ann. His unit had earned a weekend pass; while most of his buddies had opted to go to Seattle for two days of carousing, Mike chose a different tack. He rented a car, bought a cheap Kodak Instamatic camera and a spiral notebook, and set out on the county roads of the area, taking photos and recording his thoughts on the sights he drank in.
In the late afternoon, he discovered the small town of Eatonville in the shadow of the magnificent Mount Rainier. He felt himself drawn to the place. He stopped at the town’s cemetery, spent some time in George Smallwood Park near the Little Mashel River, and took pictures at nearby Murphy Falls.
Stomach growling, Mike pulled into the rutted asphalt parking lot of Guy’s Grille, a twenty-seat roadside diner on Highway 161 just outside of town. The menu was heavy on country comfort food: pot roast, meat loaf, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and peas. The only other customer, a short, skinny man with a ball cap, plaid flannel shirt, blue jeans, and cowboy boots, was cashing out at the register, putting the change in a wallet attached by a chain to his belt.
Mary Ann moved from the register to the booth that Mike had seated himself in. She smiled at him routinely, but found herself catching her breath. There was something about this man—his clear blue eyes, his easy smile, the fluidity of his movements-- which stirred her unlike any way she had been at first glance before. His voice was pleasant as he spoke his order. The way he looked at her gave her a shiver. She turned away to relay the order to the grill man, chiding herself for feeling like a schoolgirl. The bored cook noticed a smile on Mary Ann’s face and a splash of color in her cheeks that hadn’t been there a moment before.
Mike felt the electricity as well. He was not a skirt-chaser by any means. He had dated a few girls in high school, none steadily and none seriously. He never worried about finding a girl to settle down with; he approached that aspect of his life as he did most things. When his buddies asked him if he was ever planning to get married, he’d tell them with a smile that if the Army had wanted him to have a wife, it would have issued him one. Privately, he felt that if God wanted him to settle down, He’d find a way of letting him know.
Mary Ann brought his order out, asked Mike if everything was correct, and then tarried for a moment. Should she initiate a conversation? She didn’t want to appear forward, and yet, somehow, she felt he wouldn’t mind, or take it the wrong way. There was a magnetism about him that seemed to keep her rooted there.
“Are you stationed at Lewis?”
“Yes, ma’am. I guess the haircut doesn’t leave much room for doubt, does it?” He grinned that engaging smile again. “How long have you lived here?”
“Oh, just all my life.”
And so their relationship started. As she talked, Mike drank her in. Short, dark hair, lively hazel eyes, and a smooth complexion emphasized her good, wholesome appearance. Her body appeared young and firm and gently curved beneath the unflattering starched pink uniform. She had a sweet manner and disposition, unlike a lot of other women he had seen in the food service business, who had grown cynical and hard serving all manner of customers.
Somewhat to his own surprise, he asked her if she’d like to see a movie when she got off; definitely to his surprise, she readily agreed. After her shift ended, she went home to shower and dress while Mike continued his exploration of the town, picking up Mary Ann at her house and driving to the town’s only movie theater. They saw “Camelot”; weeks later, they both agreed that “If Ever I Would Leave You” became “their” song.
They parted with a gentle kiss good night at her front porch; the next day, Sunday, Mary Ann was off from the grill. She invited him to attend Mass with her. He was pleased but unsurprised that she was a Catholic, too. The more they talked, the more they realized they had much in common, and had similar viewpoints on life. After church, Mike suggested a picnic lunch at Smallwood Park. They found a quiet spot, spread a sage-colored blanket under a large oak tree, ate lunch, and then walked through the park, holding hands, talking quietly, and not feeling uncomfortable in the silences between topics.
When Mike dropped Mary Ann back at her home as he prepared to return to Fort Lewis, he got her telephone number and promised to call her as often as he could. He asked to see her again the next time he got leave, and Mary Ann told him she looked forward to it.
Their kiss goodbye was a little more passionate that night…
And so their relationship grew, closer and deeper. Mike called Mary Ann almost every evening, and he spent every leave in Eatonville, going to the movies, or dinner, or just spending the time at her home, talking, laughing, and, since that one special evening a few months after they met, making love. They both found they wanted to be with the other all the time—not in a white-hot, infatuated way, but in a mature and yes, loving way. They each came to feel that they had known each other a long, long time, and that their lives and interests fitted as smoothly together as their bodies did.
But then came Mike’s transfer. It could have been worse—he had heard a rumor that he would be transferred to Fort Bragg, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, while other scuttlebutt had his unit going to either Germany or into combat in Vietnam. Still, the distance from Colorado to Washington made weekend leave visits impossible. And now, his week’s furlough had drawn to an end. It was the first time they had been able to see each other since his transfer, and neither of them knew when they’d be able to be together again.
Mike stared at the big side-view mirror again, his thoughts racing as the lights of Tacoma shone on the horizon. He loved Mary Ann, wanted to marry her and settle down with her and raise a family, but what was he going to do? He knew she didn’t want to leave her home town, didn’t want to sell the family house she inherited from her parents, and didn't want to leave the Pacific Northwest. Mike didn’t blame her; he wanted to join her here, but his Army hitch wouldn't be up for another two years.
Could their relationship survive until he reached his discharge date? Was it even fair of him to ask her or expect her to wait for him? The doubts and questions tortured him almost as much as the pain his heart was feeling knowing, as the truck rolled down the city street towards the bus terminal, that he was leaving the love of his life and didn’t know when he’d see her again. On the radio, Tammy Wynette was hitting her stride singing “I Don’t Want to Play House”:
I don’t want to play house
It makes my Mommy cry
‘Cause when she played house,
My Daddy said “Goodbye”
Mary Ann pulled the truck into the parking lot of the Trailways station. They didn’t have much time left; Mike’s bus would board in ten minutes. Mike leaned over, held Mary Ann’s face in both hands, and kissed her tenderly and longingly. Mary Ann returned his kiss, and they sat there in each other’s arms for a moment.
Mike was the first to notice it. The Ford’s radio had been tuned to Tacoma’s country station. But suddenly, inexplicably, while the couple were kissing goodbye, the sound of Robert Goulet’s voice came out of the speaker.
If ever I would leave you,
How could it be in spring-time?
Knowing how in spring I'm bewitched by you so?
Oh, no! not in spring-time
Summer, winter or fall
No, never could I leave you at all
They pulled away from each other and shared a puzzled look. Mike glanced at the radio; the red needle showing the frequency the radio was tuned to was way over to the right side of the dial.
“Did you…” Mike began.
“No,” Mary Ann said. “Did your arm brush against the dial?”
They both smiled at each other and their hearts lightened. There could be only one explanation why their song would have played like that.
As Mike boarded the bus, he did so confidently. His questions had been answered.
After all, he had always thought that if God wanted him to settle down, He’d find a way of letting him know…
This story was inspired by an actual event as told to me by a friend.
© 2009, Kenneth M. Rhodes
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