It was raining really hard. So hard that it was difficult to see more than a few feet in front of the car, and traffic had slowed to a crawl along the highway.
Spotting a sign for a truck stop, I pulled off Interstate-65 and steered into a parking place in front of an illuminated Flying J’s. I’d been driving for three hours — trying to get back to Nashville after spending Easter with family — but the rain was relentless. $3.69 gas and a Dunkin’ Donuts? I’d found my salvation.
With a bag full of my comfort food, a can of Diet Coke and my tattered copy of The Great Gatsby tucked under my arm, I settled into a booth inside the truck stop to wait out the storm.
I’d only been reading a couple of minutes when an older man — maybe in his mid-60s? — slid into the seat across from me.
“This seat taken?” he asked and as I glanced around me I realized the tables surrounding us were packed full of people seeking dry entertainment.
“Oh, no,” I said. “Go ahead. ”
He settled into the seat across the table from me and pulled out a bag identical to mine, filled with donuts.
After quickly finishing off two from his stash he looked up and me and gave me a toothy grin. “Happy Easter.”
I gave him a warm, closed-mouth smile. “To you too.”
“What a way to spend it, huh?” he went on. “It’s a little wet out there.”
I laughed quietly at his understatement and turned my head to look out the window next to us. Torrents of water washed through the parking lot and people — their clothes already soaked through — were running from their cars toward the building.
“Now what’s a girl like you doing spending Easter in a place like this?” he asked me, gesturing around him to the several truck drivers enjoying cheap, unhealthy meals and joking with others like themselves.
“Are you saying I don’t seem to belong?” I teased him.
“Just saying you look the type to spend this day in a church. Or maybe with family. Not talking to a stranger.”
“Mmmmm,” I hummed noncommittally. I had, in fact, not spent my Easter in a church. “My mom used to tell people I never met a stranger. Said I could get onto an elevator at the ground floor and get off of it at the fourth floor with five new best friends.”
He smiled at me. “Not trying to offend you, dear, just thinking that you remind me of my daughter when she was younger.”
“Where’s your daughter now?”
“Oh she’s all grown up now,” he said. “No time for her old man unless it’s giving me a hard time.”
I smiled at him and leaned back in my seat, silently inviting him to continue.
“She says I’m a skeptic. Hard on life, wary of people.” he let out a heavy sigh. “She says I’m not happy, that I don’t have any faith.”
“And what?” he asked.
“Well, is she right?”
“Oh hell I don’t know,” he said and sighed heavily, leaning back in his seat, mirroring my stance. I just kept my eyes locked on his, letting him take his time. “I don’t know if Heaven and Hell exist. There’s a billboard on up I-65 here — around mile marker 43 – that insists that they do. Reads ‘Hell is real’ in big bold letters. It’s directly across the highway from an Adult Bookstore with this bright, glowing sign that says, ‘Come see what heaven is like.'” He paused and chuckled under his breath.
“It’s a sight to see — heaven right across the street from hell? And then there we are, speeding down the highway right in between the two and we have a mere split second at 70 miles per hour to decide which one is telling the truth … ” He trailed off and looked up at me.
“I just don’t think faith is something you have to go to church to find. I see so much every day as I drive. I cut back and forth across the country and I see so many things and meet so many people who are going through different stuff. Oh I don’t know, I think she probably used to be right, that I wasn’t too happy. But now … ”
Faith isn’t something you find in a church, he said. And staring at this man — a complete stranger to me — I believe that he knows what he’s talking about. Faith is something that is inside of you. Something that is about goodwill and giving and understanding and friendship and acceptance and forgiveness and tolerance and love. Especially love.
“And now?” I asked him, breaking him from his thoughts and me from mine. “Are you happy now?”
He didn’t say anything but a slow, shy smile spread across his face and gave away what he couldn’t put into words. He was happy. Even if just a little bit.
As if on cue, the rain seemed to let up minutely and a tiny ray of sun flickered through the storm clouds before being swallowed up again. But it was enough. Enough to make us believe that no matter how rough the storm, it will eventually pass.
Happiness is sort of an amazing thing. Happiness is the trump card. Always. It grows exponentially, it expands when you think it can’t possibly grow anymore, when you’re already on the verge of bursting. Even a tiny sliver of happiness always triumphs over what seems like insurmountable sadness, the way even a weak beam of light can always destroy darkness.
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
Over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.”
– Mary Oliver