Rest Stop Angel
SHORTLY AFTER FOUR O’CLOCK on a late October afternoon, the sun dipped behind the tops of the trees, and the temperature in the shade dropped into the high 50s. Leah considered putting on the sweater her mother had made her bring along and decided, for the time being, that the long-sleeved blouse she was wearing would suffice for another half hour.
She put the sweater out of her mind and got back to nursing her resentments.
The gravest of them was at her mother — both her parents, really — for insisting that she come here, to an isolated rest stop 23 miles from town on a seldom-traveled state highway immediately after school let out on Friday. Her mission was to pass out flyers encouraging people to come to their church on Sunday.
Talk about a hard sell, she thought. The church practiced an unflinchingly austere doctrine, insisted upon by a demanding and wrathful God. Almost no one in town wanted to go to the church, so why should anyone else want to? But the pastor insisted, her mother obeyed, and here she was.
Next on the resentment list was the fact that she couldn’t drive herself out here. She was nearly 18, after all, would be in six months and a few days. But her mother didn’t trust her to stay in place and dropped her off, saying she’d be back at six o’clock, when it would be nearly dark.
And, indignity of indignities, no cell phone so she could at least talk to her friends as the interminable minutes ticked by with no one pulling into the rest area. Two cars had driven in during the 45 minutes she had been here. One of the drivers had declined her offering, and the other had taken a flyer in such a way as to indicate it would be in the trash at the car’s next stop.
She was moving on to the next resentment — that she’d barely make that evening’s football game by kickoff — when she saw a car turn off the highway and start along the loop leading to the facilities at the rest area. She drew back against a tree and tried to be inconspicuous. They had taught her not to approach people as they were on their way into the facility and perhaps in a hurry. They should be approached going back to their cars instead.
A sleek, bright-red convertible of a make not sold in their town stopped in a space close to the building. A man in his early thirties, clean cut and neatly dressed in a purple shirt and tight-fitting tan khakis, hopped out and walked deliberately into the men’s room. A few minutes later, on the way back to the car, he was walking more slowly and casually.
She stepped out of the shadow of the tree and got to him just as he reached the car, which had plush leather seats.
“Excuse me,” she said. “We hope you can join us this Sunday to share the word of the Lord.”
She extended a flyer.
He took it, glanced at it, then took a long look at her. He had penetrating gray eyes, and for the first time in her life, Leah felt that a man was looking into her soul.
He smiled, a slightly crooked, winning smile.
“You doing this by choice?” he asked.
“We all take a turn,” she said.
“I’m sure you do, but that’s not what I asked. Do you really want to be here, or would you rather be somewhere else?”
She lowered her head and looked at the ground.
“I thought so,” he said. “Football game tonight?”
“You have a boyfriend on the team?”
She shook her head. It wasn’t by choice, though. She had been trying, thus far without success, to catch the eye of Jason Taylor, who played defensive back.
“No matter,” he continued. “But, you know, you don’t have to live like this. There are places in the world, like San Francisco, where you can live any way you like, as long as you don’t hurt anyone. And nobody judges you. Well, almost nobody.”
That touched a chord. Her parents had already arranged for her to go to a small college in the Central Valley that was affiliated with their religion. A counselor at the school, taking an interest, suggested she should apply to one of the state colleges. Without telling her parents, she and the counselor had put together an application to San Francisco State. She thought about San Francisco every day but didn’t know how she would ever get her parents to go for that.
“How would I get to San Francisco, anyway?” she asked.
He looked at her again. It was a kind and sympathetic look.
“I’m headed to San Francisco,” he said. “You could come with me.”
“Don’t make fun of me.”
“I’m not making fun. I’m serious. It would be a public service to get you out of this.”
She stared at him, her mouth slightly open.
“I’m leaving in a minute, though,” he continued. “So you have to make up your mind.”
He got into the driver’s seat of the car and scrutinized a notebook and map.
She stood there, her sense of injustice coming to a boil. Not that she’d actually do such a thing, but it would teach her parents a lesson if she took off for a while. And she had $60 in cash and an ATM card in her purse. She could get by for a bit.
He started the engine.
“So long, then,” he waved.
She dropped three dozen flyers on the concrete and ran to the passenger door of the car.
“This is serious?” she asked.
She climbed in.
He backed the car out, took the loop back to the highway and turned onto it. Far away, another vehicle was heading toward the rest stop, but otherwise the red convertible was the only car on the road, and Leah was enjoying the wind through her hair and the feel of the leather seats on her fingers. It was a few minutes before she saw a sign that made her sit up.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “Isn’t San Francisco in the other direction?”