Tuesday, June 17, 2003

A Cup of Coffee in the Rain
Madison, Virginia

Today, the omnipresent rain botches a field trip. At 6:15am, I am at home drinking coffee. At 6:45, I am showered and dressed. At 7am, another graduate student in my geology program calls me on the phone. ìGood morning, itís Brooke,î she says. ìIím in front of your house.î

I look out the window. Her silver car isnít visible. ìAre you sure?î

ìYes. Maybe not. Whatís your number?î


ìOh. I think Iím up the block.î

I haul my gear out to the car.

We drive out of DC. Brooke greets the Kennedy Center as we pass it on our way over the Potomac. In Virginia, we roll smoothly west along the pavement, while inbound traffic is stalled for miles. It starts raining as we cross the Fairfax County line.

The dayís destination is the field site where Brooke will be doing her thesis work, the Quaker Run shear zone. We near it after close to three hours of driving. The rain is coming down thick and steady. I look up from my National Geographic and make the suggestion that it might be a nice time to get a cup of coffee and wait for the weather to pass.

We turn and drive to the town of Madison, Virginia. At the recommendation of two construction workers, we find a small pharmacy and lunch counter. Painted on the glass door is MADISON DRUG. When we push open the door, a piece of paper taped to it flares upwards. It says ìFORD F-150 GREAT DEAL CHEAP.î

Inside on one of the lunch counterís stools, there is a stack of The Madison Eagle's latest edition. Headline: ìMCHS Takes Academic Cup for 7th Year.î Madison is on its twenty-second continuous day of precipitation. We sit at one of two square tables, surrounded by Hallmark cards, Dr. Schollís inserts, and candy bars. The tables are topped in green Formica, and edged in a chrome strip with four raised ridges. Between the ridges, there is an encrustation of dry ketchup. On top of the table are: a battered salt shaker, a dusty pepper shaker, a napkin dispenser, a sugar canister, and a menu with the lamination peeling off.

ìHelp yaíll?î

ìCup of coffee; is that possible?î

ìIt is possible.î

We sit. The waitress brings two ceramic mugs of hot coffee. A little stainless steel carafe of cold milk is set between them. I pick up the menu. Coffee is only 10¢. So is a Coke! They offer a pimento cheese sandwich for $1.95, chips for 45¢, and ìnabsî for 40¢.

ìBrooke, whatís a ënabí?î

Tootsie pops are another item on the menu: a quarter each. A cup of ice water would cost you another dime.

The front of the drugstore faces Main Street. Four plate glass windows show the continually falling rain. By my reckoning, each window measures four feet by six feet. Each one presents twenty-four square feet of the same grey skies, the same vertical dashes of rain. There is a building of brown bricks across Main Street. Next to it is a telephone pole, heavy with plaits of cable coming from four directions. Beyond the wires is an Ailanthus tree, its fronds drooping under the weight of droplets. The inside of the windows displays a butterfly collection in stained glass: each insect sculpture hanging by a gold braid to a transparent suction cup. Below them: a green plastic watering can, with a magic marker inscription that reads MADISON DRUG.

I read about Indiaís Untouchable caste in National Geographic. Brooke reads a historical novel called Maya. I sneak peeks at my surroundings. Above the lunch counter is a white sign with black plastic letters. SANDWICHES. HOT SOUPS. ICE CREAM SPECIALS. Below the last is the cryptic message ìGive your tongue a sleigh ride.î

Three customers come in. A child pokes around behind the counter, asks what each cabinet holds. One woman discusses the effect of the rain on her husbandís employment.

ìHeís worked one day in the past week.î

ìIs that so?î

ìThe tractor keeps keeping bogged down in the mud.î

I look up at the window; the clouds are still shedding. Brooke is edgy. Iíd be happy to sit here all day, but itís her project. Grey dashes in the air. We decide to head for the field regardless. We drove all this way, after all. Then we decide to bag it all and head back to the university. Weíd be soaked before we even reached the outcrop, after all. Despite wasting six hours of gasoline, it would be wiser to wait for better weather.

We stand at the counter to pay for our coffee. The total bill is 22¢.

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