Reading an Old Letter
by Charles C. Cole
Thirty years ago this month, I finished my last night shift at a job in central California and drove east for over 66 sleepless hours. There was no reason to pull over except for biological needs and gasoline. This was not a tour, but a huge leap to get my life back on track, on the east coast. Just west of Pennsylvania, at dusk, I finally pulled off Interstate 80 into a nondescript hotel in Youngstown, Ohio to recharge before the last leg of my journey.
I collapsed onto the bed, fully dressed, and noticed my body trembling, my eyes hot and seemingly stuck open, so I grabbed a quick detoxing shower. No change.
I’d bought a bag of apples for dinner at a local grocery store. I was saving pennies to finish my interrupted undergraduate degree. Hopefully, frugal living meant I wouldn’t have to work full-time while studying full-time. A mistake I’d made before. The bag remained unopened.
I grabbed the remote and turned on the TV to drown out the sounds of highway traffic - and for company. The pretty white-haired lady in the frilled leather jacket on the small screen was selling jewelry that was supposed to manage your mood. I took off my glasses and stared at the popcorn-textured ceiling, trying to manage my busy mind.
I fell asleep and dreamed, not surprisingly, of driving. The road was one-lane red clay and washed out. I followed the pickup in front of me, up and over a steep grassy hill. On the flat top, people dressed like hippies were picnicking and wandering around sandstone monuments like those in Garden of the Gods Park.
I stepped out of my car, wearing my old Air Force uniform, to ask for directions. My car immediately started rolling back down the hill. A woman screamed. I jumped on the hood, grabbing the wipers and woke up. In retrospect, it was amazing I hadn’t fallen asleep at the wheel under the blanket-like Wyoming night sky.
All the lights in my hotel room were on, even the fan in the bathroom, which I’d forgotten about. Though nearsighted, I could just make out a white classic mustang, a twin of the one I was driving, zooming down the highway on the TV. I gave my thumbs-up approval and closed my eyes.
“Hey,” said a familiar, too-loud male voice, “are you tired of the direction of your life? Are you looking for meaning, for purpose?” I nodded instinctively. “Then wake up! Yes, you!” I grabbed my glasses and sat up.
The man on the screen resembled an older version of me. Grayer, weathered, and wearing an all-white suit. The resemblance was uncanny.
“Take back your life!” he continued, looking right into the camera. Everything was said with the urgent utterance of a televangelist. “Choose the path and walk with integrity, and you cannot go wrong!”
I reached for the remote to mute his wee-hours enthusiasm.
“Wait! Hear me out!” he pleaded. “We only have tonight! Before you put this conversation in a box like those kitchen items in the back seat of your car. I am reaching to you across time because, where I am, time is an illusion.”
“Okay, okay,” I mumbled, not knowing why I was talking to the TV. I guess I didn’t want him to yell at me.
“You’re going back to school. Good. You’re moving back home. Good. But there will be many distractions. Focus on finishing.” I saluted.
“As for writing,” he continued, “marriage and parenthood will come first, but there’ll be plenty of time.”
“Are you really talking to me?” I asked.
“Are you listening?” he asked.
“If this is a dream, it’s very realistic.”
“Unlike the dream of your car,” he agreed.
“This is not a convenient time for a mental breakdown. I’m in the middle of nowhere.”
“In the car,” he explained, “when you were driving around Chicago, you asked for reassurance.”
“Reassurance that my car wouldn’t break down!”
“That may be what you said, but it wasn’t what you meant.”
“What do you want? I have to get back to sleep.”
“Write this conversation down. Stick it in an envelope and open it in 30 years.”
“Why? You haven’t said anything I couldn’t find in a fortune cookie.”
“You’re going to find a job. You’ll marry a Maine girl. Your marriage will be fine. You’ll even finish that fantasy novel you started while in the military. The end of 2020 is going to look worse than it turns out.”
“Can you be more specific, about anything?”
“God is real.”
“Now I know I’m dreaming.”
“Remember: you chose the Air Force, the computer job, finishing your degree. You never asked if it was the right decision. You followed an impulse, and it was the right one.”
“Thanks,” I said, aiming the overdue gratitude at me.
“I wish I could talk you out of buying that used car or letting your cat out at night. But what matters is this: you and your wife will be there for your parents. It’s a big deal that you’ll always be proud of.”
“How will I know my wife when I meet her?”
“Will I be happy the way my life turns out?”
“Will you visit me again?”
“Will I remember tonight?”
“No, that’s why you have to write it down.”
“Who’s the president in 2020?”
“I almost believed you until right there. Okay, what’s the purpose of life?”
“I gotta go. Write this down and seal it in an envelope. Read it thirty years from now.”
Thirty years later, following an impulse, I opened a taped box of Boy Scout neckerchiefs. This letter was included. Did it really happen? I don’t remember. Could it have been a story I’d written? Probably. But then, where on earth did I get the notion that Donald Trump would be president? No idea. Is there a God? Hopefully. Do I love my wife? With every fiber in my being.
Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole