In many ways, the town was like dozens of other coastal communities, a bit off the main highway, situated on the bluffs above the beach, the businesses all congregating at the end of a two lane road. For a few years, the town leaders had removed the signs that directed tourists from the highway, wanting to keep the community uncontaminated from outside influences. As it turned out, more visitors than ever traveled down the road, looking for the “secret town.” Eventually, the town leaders saw that tourists weren’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as the businesses serving the tourists reflected classical “North Coast Chic.” There was no need to fear; there was little land left to build upon, the downtown would remain relatively small; four or five restaurant choices, the Inn, a couple of bed and breakfasts, and the general store, featuring a single, self-serve pump dispensing generic fuel.

The one thing that made this town slightly different from the other towns was the small Traveler’s Rest Station, sponsored in part by the downtown Inn. It wasn’t much more than two remarkably clean restrooms, it was positioned just right, and it had a small fenced picnic area, with a great view of the water. The locals used it as much as the occasional traveler, with its convenient parking, shade trees, and cold, fresh spring water at the fountain. It wasn’t intended as a city park, but it certainly was used like one.

The morning dew had not yet left the grass, so the young man sat on the picnic table bench, watching the road as it dropped into the town. He had been there since sunrise, hitching a ride in a dairy truck, carrying the common soft-sided travel bag, a large gym bag, a smaller backpack, and a Moroccan red leather briefcase. The briefcase was obviously new or at least well cared for, and stood out starkly from the muted colors of the young man’s other bags. The briefcase rested on a flat two by six that formed the top of the fence surrounding the picnic area, the other bags lay on the ground, closer to the restrooms. The young man arched his back, stretching muscles that had cramped from sitting on cold damp wood. The sun broke through the moving treetops, causing the brass fittings and hinges of the briefcase to flash, sending wind inspired code to those who could decipher it.

The flashing brass was not noticed by the young man. His attention was on each car that broke through the line of evergreens on the ridge, each one bringing a look of expectation to his face. As the car wound down the ridge, the look would become studied, trying to focus on the make of the car, and the driver. Then expectation would turn to understanding, from understanding to resignation, from resignation to quiet watchfulness, and then the process would begin all over again, waiting for the next car.

All this was perfectly understood by the innkeeper. He had watched the young man from the moment he got off his delivery truck. The inn’s kitchen windows faced the rest area, and as the innkeeper resupplied his dairy pantry, he could see very clearly the young man, the briefcase on the fence, and the ritualized road watching. The innkeeper remained at the window, transfixed by the flashing brass and the watching.

“Who’s your friend?” the chef asked as she entered the kitchen.

“I don’t know, looks to be a hitchhiker, except he’s not hitching,” the innkeeper replied.

“Local kid? Doesn’t look like anyone I know…good looking, though. What’s he been doing?”

“Waiting, I think. Just waiting…I don’t think he’s local… I mean, he’d probably come over to say hello or make a phone call if he was. No, I think he’s been here before; he seems to know the layout and he’s picked the best spot for watching the road into town. No, he’s definitely waiting, and seems a little bit anxious, too,” the innkeeper noticed.

“Well, I bet he’s getting hungry, so let me get this kitchen fired up. The regulars will be coming in, and the breakfast rush will be on,” the chef replied with one eye on the huge wall clock, liberated from an early 1930’s schoolroom.

“Yep, worst thing in the world is to get between hungry people and food. You know, sometimes he looks just like a caged leopard, the way he paces. He walks like a cat. Soldier on leave? Or maybe he’s a courier; he certainly has the briefcase for it,” the innkeeper said as his gaze fell on the Moroccan red leather, contrasting with the whitewash of the fence and the restroom door.

The breakfast crowd had come, eaten, and gone. The kitchen was now changing menus to prepare for lunch. The innkeeper had been extremely busy in the late morning, checking out guests, and preparing for new ones. It was nearly noon before he had time to see if the young man still waited. Looking out the upstairs balcony, he could just see him through the tree leaves.

“He’s still there…watching, as usual,” he said to no one in particular.

Descending the backstairs into the kitchen, the innkeeper entered a room that had barely survived the breakfast onslaught. Pans, trays, and utensils still lay scattered, like discarded weapons on a deserted battlefield. Yet the general/chef ignored the disarray, and was now in the process of preparing for the lunch counterattack.

“He’s still there; did you notice if he went anywhere for breakfast?” the innkeeper asked.

“No, but I’ve been a little busy myself. Maybe he ate something before arriving. Maybe he’s a breatharian,” the chef said, laughing, while finely chopping a head of iceberg lettuce.

“You know, this kid is beginning to worry me; he hasn’t let up at all. He’s reacting exactly the same to that last car as he did the first car early this morning. Whoever he is waiting for is obviously very important to him,” the innkeeper said.

“Well, then…it’s obviously a girl, and my guess is the news is not good. She should have been there hours ago, or maybe she was supposed to be already here waiting for him. Didn’t you have a young woman check out early this morning?” the chef asked slowly, as she joined the innkeeper at the window, watching the young man watch the road.

“No, not this morning. But now that you mention it, there was a woman who asked about a room yesterday. I told her one was available, and she seemed satisfied, then she left. I expected her to come back with her checkbook or purse, but she didn’t. She was the right age, but I don’t know. She didn’t look like his type,” the innkeeper said as he slowly stroked his beard.

“Type? What do you mean ‘not his type?’ You don’t know his type; you don’t even know him! You can’t judge what might or might not be his choice in women!” the chef laughed.

“True, and she’s probably not even connected. But I’m not so sure about not knowing him. I think I’m getting to know him a little more as each hour passes,” the innkeeper said quietly.

The young man took a small break from the pacing, stopped in front of the briefcase, and, snapping both thumbs, simultaneously released both spring-loaded clasps. The case was new enough that it didn’t open smoothly; he had to use one hand to hold the bottom portion steady, while raising the top. Inside the case there were a few personal possessions, a large spiral-bound notebook still in plastic, and a few maps. On the whole, it was oddly empty. Almost everything in it could have easily fit in his coat pockets. In the top portion, there was an area for folders or business letters, and that too was nearly empty, except for the one carefully folded letter. The young man unsnapped the strap holding the dividers and removed the letter; holding it in both hands, he read it without unfolding. Going over the words and phrases from memory. Then he unfolded the paper, looking at the single sheet, he began to read it once more.

Dear William,

You can’t believe how excited I am to hear that you are finally on the way back home. It’s been such a long time, and I’ve missed you so much. I got your letter and I understand why you want me to meet you where we had that last picnic. I hope that you will understand when I tell you that I might not be there. It’s all so confusing. You must believe that everything that I’ve written has been true. But I haven’t written everything. I’m not the same person…things have happened that I haven’t told you. We’ve been apart too long. Sometimes I think that we can’t possibly know each other, that we can’t hold to past promises. We were such kids. Please believe that I loved you, and maybe I still love you. Maybe I’m just embarrassed that I don’t know you anymore, or you me!

I know this sounds like a Dear John letter. It’s not meant to be. It’s just that you expect me to meet you, and I have to tell you that you might not like what you see. Things are so different, yet we act as if both of us have been placed in a time capsule. I have to tell you that I’m very torn; sometimes I think that it could work because of the past. Sometimes I think it will not work because of the expectations and selfishness that comes with immaturity. I know this is hard reading in a letter. But it is a way to save us both from being hurt when we see each other. I’m giving you a chance to look at our relationship, too. I would understand if you failed to meet me.

If I came, would you be there?

I hope you liked my present; I sent it to your mother’s house for the obvious reasons. I know the color is a little bold for a briefcase, but you’ll get used to it, and it will be a real help when you go back to school. That is one future that you must follow up.



The young man folded the letter carefully and placed it in the open case. He unwrapped the notebook paper, picked up a pen, and started to write. He thought very carefully, pausing for several minutes before writing each line.

Dear Gayle,

I know too well how confusing things are. All I’ve done for the past few months is to try to find answers. It’s like I’ve entered into a long and dangerous tunnel. I can’t remember who I was when I entered, and for most of the time, things are so dark that I have no idea where I am in the present. I’m struggling now, just as you are. I keep thinking about the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel,” and how hopeful that phrase sounds.

I wish I could tell you where my heart has been. My real worry is not whether I love you, but whether I can be trusted to love at all. I am now broken. I’ve seen too much of life. The dark side, where things are twisted, where the innocent are guilty, and the righteous fear the truth. I’ve seen the look in a man’s face when he has nothing to believe in, nothing to live for. I didn’t want that face to be mine. It’s possible that the both of us can put the broken pieces together.

I know the difference between memory and reality. I also know about clinging to a lifesaver. I understand and share your fears. I can’t answer these questions, and I won’t deny that there are problems.



Writing slowly, pausing to watch each car as it crested the ridge, the young man finished the letter in about 45 minutes. When he was done, he didn’t tear it out of the notebook; he just replaced the notebook into the briefcase and closed the cover. Just then, three or four cars began the descent into town, and each vehicle in turn required his full attention.

“I wonder what it was that he was writing? He was at it pretty steady at it for a while,” said the innkeeper while standing in the open doorway. The owner of the general store had just finished a late lunch, and he was heading back to his establishment. The two men paused long enough to follow the young man’s gaze as two more cars crested the ridge.

“Yeah, I saw him looking in his briefcase earlier. Looks like he has some maps in there,” said the storeowner.

“Maps? How could you tell there were maps? We’re much closer here than your store, and I can’t see that he has any maps!” the innkeeper said incredulously.

“Well sure, and you’re not selling the finest line of birdwatching telescopes in your place, either. You can’t tell from here, but he also has a small cut on his right thumb, and he doesn’t wear a wristwatch.”

“I forget how small this town is. Lucky that we don’t have a traffic light or we would be reduced to watching it change. By the way, did you catch the color of his eyes?” the innkeeper said, with some exasperation.

“Hazel,” the store owner said without missing a beat, “…and they turn kinda greenish in the sunlight.”

The afternoon passed and the shadows began to lengthen. The fog bank that sometimes blankets the coast in the late afternoon had failed to appear for the last several days. The evening promised to be mild and the sunset spectacular. The young man had not moved out of the general area of the picnic bench, except to go to the restroom. He was vaguely aware of the weather, only to the extent that he noticed that it was unnecessary to put on a jacket. His bags remained unpacked and untouched. It was doubtful that he would notice the sunset. His interest in his surroundings was minimal. Several times during the day, a passing stranger would attempt a conversation. The young man would smile and answer questions with very few words, his attention directed to the coming traffic more than the present company. The overall impression was that he was polite, but very busy. By the end of the day, everyone in the town had quietly noted his presence.

“So, what you think? He’s got to be hungry, I haven’t seen him eat anything all day, and he’s barely had any water. I’ll take him a sandwich and tell him it’s for the road. I mean, he doesn’t have to eat it now, he could eat it later,” the chef reasoned.

The small gathering of townsfolk stood in the Inn’s lobby and looked out the front bay window, gazing towards the little picnic area and the young man. The general store owner and his wife, the innkeeper, the chef, several waitresses, and several more people from businesses further up the street.

“I don’t know; I just don’t think food is very important to him right now. If any of us goes over there, then he’ll know that we’ve been watching him. It just might make him uncomfortable,” replied the innkeeper.

“Well, of course we’ve been watching him; what’s the harm in that? But you’re right. He hasn’t bothered anyone and we shouldn’t bother him. Come on, let’s leave him to his business. It’ll be dark soon and he’ll have to make the decision to get a room or get a ride out of town. He certainly can’t camp out in our picnic area,” the general store owner said with some finality.

The innkeeper wasn’t sure that the young man would rent a room. And he wasn’t sure that anyone should force the issue. By tradition, the innkeeper was responsible for the maintenance of the rest stop, but technically it was the town’s property, with a stipend given to the innkeeper for his work. A few times during the year, he would have to say something to someone who was obviously using the spot as a campground, but that was rare. The place was just too public and under the watchful eyes of a half-dozen businesses. No, he wasn’t sure that he was going to tell the young man to move on.

Night fell and the young man stood his post as before. The cars were not coming over the ridge in nearly the numbers as during the day. But there was nothing in his physical demeanor that suggested defeat, or that he had given up hope. About three hours after sunset, a salesman stopped at the restroom and asked if the young man if he needed a ride. The salesman had no knowledge of the day-long vigil; it seemed to him that the young man was hitchhiking, so he volunteered a ride. The young man said yes and reached for his bag. And that was how it ended. Quickly and undramatically.

The salesman said that he would help get the rest of his gear, and within minutes, they were both heading up the ridge, climbing towards the highway. The young man still watched for the oncoming traffic, but none came. It wasn’t until the following morning that he realized his briefcase was missing. By that time, he was hundreds of miles away, and his heart and mind even further.

No one in the town noticed the departure of the young man. Just before midnight, the innkeeper walked over to the rest area, then he saw the briefcase still on the fence. He quickly turned and retraced his steps, fearing that if he ran into the young man, then he might have to say something. “Tomorrow, if he’s still here tomorrow night, then I’ll say something…tonight, I’ll let him be,” the innkeeper said, with more hope than conviction.


For all installments of “The Letterbox,” click here.