Mile by mile, the country unfurled before mein bright morning light, throughout golden afternoons, under the pastel-colored skies of evenings. Once, just outside of Cleveland, when the sky was lavender and the clouds pink, I pulled to the side of the freeway to watch until darkness smudged the colors into night. Land rushed up, then fell away; rushed up, then fell away. I became intimately aware of the lay of the land, felt the rise and fall of it in my stomach as I drove up and down steep hills. I deliberately pushed everything out of my head but what was before me. Still, every now and then a quick thrill raced up my spine in the form of a thought: I am my own again. Sorrow that lay pooled inside me gave over to a kind of exhilaration in those moments; the relief was stunning.
Though impermanent. One night, I checked into a motel at around ten o'clock. Next door, I heard a couple making love. Their sounds were sloppy and slightly hystericaldrunk, I thought. I turned the radio up loud, ran a bath, and while sitting at the edge of the tub unwrapping the absurdly little bar of soap, I felt the weight of my loss move slowly back into me. After I dried off, I sat before the television and marveled at the drivel that passed for entertainment. I turned it off, finally, then sat at the side of the bed and stared out at nothing. I picked up the telephone and dialed my home number. I heard the characteristic tones, then, the number you have reached has been disconnected. I hung up, closed my eyes, and took in a deep breath. Then I knelt at the side of the bed and pushed my face into my hands.
Late in the afternoon of the third day, I pulled over to a frozen-yogurt stand near the center of a small town that looked particularly attractive to me. A tall, early-thirtyish man waited on me. He was beginning to bald already and had a distressing complexion. But his eyes, as though in compensation, were a brilliant blue. "That'll be a dollar sixty-five," he said, handing me the raspberry cone I'd ordered. I pulled two dollars from my wallet and handed them to him, then took a lick of the yogurt. "Delicious," I said, and smiled at him. He smiled back, hesitantly, then fussed with the register for a long while as I watched, first in mild annoyance, then in sympathy, finally in utter fascination. Eventually, the man turned and called to someone in the back room. "Louise?" he said, apparently too softly, for then he called a bit louder, "Louise?"
"WHAT?" she yelled back.
The man straightened the paper hat on his head. "Could you come out and help me?" he asked. "Please?"
Louise came out to the cash register, scowling. She was wearing a maroon sweat suit and was massively overweight. She wore her hair in a high ponytail. It was beautiful hair, thick and auburn-colored; I concentrated on it while she concentrated on me. Finally, I looked at her face. "Hello," I said.
She jutted her chin at me. "How you doing." There was mischief in her eyes.
"Was that you yelling back there?" I asked.
She grinned. "Yeah, that was me, whistling while I work." She jerked her head toward the man. "This goes on all the livelong day."
"Oh, well," I said. "That's all right."
"Easy for you to say." She turned to glare at the man, who studied his shoes. Then she fixed the register and stomped off.
"Okay!" the man said. "Says here I owe you thirty-five cents!" He handed me the change.
I thanked him, then, laughing, said, "Though I think you could have figured that out on your own."
He looked doubtful.
"Oh, come on," I said. "Don't you think we're getting way too dependent on these damn machines?"
Excerpted from The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Berg. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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