The world had shifted on its axis and it had become fall. All was falling; the leaves, the sky, our spirits. We went to the truck stop for chicken and gravy, biscuits and companionship. It was a Sunday tradition.
The windows were steamy. The giant percolators pumped like a stainless steel heart. The world outside had become gray and cold, forbidding. Inside, the warmth was palpable. It filled our stomachs, fed our souls. We were content.
I swiped my sleeve on the window and peered into the drizzle. About forty yards away, a soldier was walking beside the highway. The trees behind him were gray, their branches one continuous motion, as if children holding hands and swaying on the playground. The asphalt was gray, fading into the gray ground. He was gray, almost indistinguishable from the landscape except for his walk. Quickly, evenly, he strode, as if with purpose, as if he had a destination in mind, as if the rain did not hinder him. The warm room disappeared. It was as if my spirit joined him, as if I had left the white coffee mug with my hands wrapped around it. I felt his legs, strong and tired; I felt the rain, soft and cold on his face.
He was quiet, solidly, determinedly quiet. He was so quiet it would have taken a drill sergeant's order to make him find words. It was a quiet from the core of the earth, from time itself, from all time. There was a rhythm to his loneliness. He marched to a far-off cadence. There were days, I thought I heard it, in the distance, just barely audible -- the command to rise, to march, to rise, to march.
I sipped my coffee slowly, looked around. No one else had seen the soldier. The windows were still steamed over and even the portal I had wiped dry was once more obscured. It was as if this soldier never existed. But I know he did. I felt his longing in every cell of my being. I have spent a lifetime following this soldier, sending up prayers for him, listening for the cadence, sipping coffee.