Road to Virginia
Times were uneasy in Texas. Jobs had become scarce due to the 1986 oil price collapse. Reagan's promise of new jobs hadn't "trickled down" my way. Many Texans, like myself, had to leave the great state to find work elsewhere. Me? I was heading to Northern Virginia - in my fully loaded 1985 Toyota pickup, to work as a carpenter for Wells and Sons Builders.
After a late-night going away party, I somehow managed to get on the road by mid-morning. I was headed northeast on Highway 31 toward Corsicana, one hour into the first day of a 1500-mile trip from central Texas to Northern Virginia. I planned to split the 27-hour drive into two 10-hour travel days and one 7-hour day so that I would arrive in Clifton the following Wednesday to meet Jeff (my new boss) before he left for the day. To save money on hotels, I planned to camp both nights in my little brother's two-person pup tent that he abandoned so many years ago that I doubt he would remember owning it. How does the saying go? One man's trash is another man's treasure?
The weather was ideal for traveling - clear skies - temperatures in the mid-sixties - and calm winds. I left Austin wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes, anticipating a hot afternoon.
From my rear-view mirror, I could see the top of the new plywood container I had built to store the personal items I would need while living and working in Virginia. I designed my new travel box to fit tightly in the bed of my pickup between the wheel wells, toolbox, and tailgate. I screwed the sides and base together and reinforced the edges with 2x2 pine, except for the lid, which was connected on the front end with two strap hinges and on the tailgate end with two heavy-duty hasps secured with padlocks (not shown in the image below). For extra security, I used carriage bolts to fasten the lid's hardware to the base since the rounded heads would make them difficult to remove without access to the nuts on the inside. Once I assembled the box, I applied three coats of polyurethane to seal the wood.
After I loaded my new travel box into my truck's bed and filled it with gear, I covered it with a canvas tarp to protect it from the weather. Inside the cab, my guitar and ice chest claimed the passenger seat, and a stuffed bear named Clarence sat beside me.
At Corsicana, I continued east on HWY 31 through Athens, Murchison, and Chandler, then stopped for gas and ice in Tyler. With a full tank, I headed north on Highway 271 through the Piney Woods region of Texas. After passing through Gladewater, I found a shady roadside park next to a forest of pine trees and stopped to make lunch from groceries I had brought from Austin. As I ate my ham sandwich and Cheetos, I began thinking about my ancestors who settled in this region of Texas in the 1800s. They could have walked or ridden a horse on this very ground. Little did they know that paved roads and freeways might one day exist so that some desperate descendent could drive across the country to find a job pounding nails.
After about five hours on the road, I arrived in Mount Pleasant, where I continued east on I-30 toward Texarkana. The afternoon sun was low in the sky. I originally planned to stay overnight in Hot Springs National Park, but I would not arrive there before sunset, making it a questionable choice - trying to set up camp in the dark is never a good plan. I decided to drive for another two hours, then try to find a park closer to the freeway.
At Texarkana, I crossed the state line into Arkansas and continued east on I-30. Before long, I spotted a sign on the side of the road: IRON MOUNTAIN CAMPGROUND Exit 78. That's perfect, I thought. It is only about 45 minutes away. I could set up camp and eat dinner while there was still daylight.
At Caddo Valley, I exited I-30 and drove north on Highway 7 - about 10 miles - to the Iron Mountain Campground. I checked in at the office and secured a wooded campsite near the lake.
After sunset, temperatures began to cool sharply under the clear Arkansas skies. While there was still daylight, I pitched my tent, rolled out my sleeping bag, put my pillow at the head, and then zipped the tent's flap to keep the bugs out.
I created a small fire to heat a can of beef stew for dinner. When it was ready, I removed it from the fire and placed it on the campsite's picnic table, then threw a couple of extra logs on the fire to help fight the evening chill. I unpacked a loaf of wheat bread and butter, along with a knife and spoon, and enjoyed my fine meal with a cold beer from my ice chest. I was beginning to feel a little better than when I left Austin earlier in the day. The food and beer were bringing me back to life. After dinner, I stoked the fire again and grabbed another brew from the ice chest. I unfolded my camp chair near the campfire and sat down to warm myself from the effects of the frigid air and cold beer. The campground was dark and quiet - not surprising for a Monday night. I broke out my guitar and strummed a few chords, but my heart wasn't in it. Without getting up from my chair, I propped my guitar against a lantern post and began gazing into the mesmerizing embers of the small fire. I wonder what is happening back in Austin.
What the Hell am I doing? I thought. I'm driving halfway across the country to find work (which was not guaranteed) with no place to stay and very little money in my pocket. If one thing goes wrong, I'm screwed. What if Jeff's company decides they don't want to hire me? Would I be able to find another job somewhere else? What if I can't find a place to live? What if my truck breaks down, and I never get to Virginia?
I stood up and began pacing in front of the dwindling fire. "Perhaps this is some sort of test," my soliloquy began. "Maybe I was meant to embark on this adventure, so I could discover something about myself, I couldn't have figured out any other way, so that when I returned to Texas (someday), I would have an epiphany like, Ah! That's why I moved to Virginia!"
It had been a long day. After nearly 8 hours of driving, it was time to shut up and go to sleep. Tomorrow will be better, I thought. I'm tired and past due for rest. I stowed my guitar and crawled into my sleeping bag but couldn't sleep. All I could think about was how I was heading away from the security of my home in Texas toward the uncertainty of no home in Virginia.
In the middle of the night, something rustling in the bushes woke me up. It is probably an armadillo (if they have armadillos in Arkansas). I listened for a while longer and eventually drifted back to sleep.
At dawn, I woke with a restored spirit and was eager to continue my journey to Virginia. Remarkably, I revived some coals from the previous night's fire and broke out my aluminum coffee pot for some hot joe. While it brewed, I rolled up my sleeping bag and tent and stowed them into my travel box. I had coffee and cold cereal for breakfast, then aimed toward the park's showers to get cleaned up for the day. When I returned to my campsite, I poured the remaining coffee into a large to-go cup, packed my coffee pot, and headed out of the park.
I looked at my watch. It was 7 a.m. Good, I thought. I'm getting an early start. Before getting back on I-30, I decided to cap off my tank with gas and call Jeff - before I left Austin, he had asked me to call him each day while I was on the road. I assumed he wanted to assure himself that I hadn't reexamined my options and returned to the comforts of my home in Texas. I found a payphone and dialed the number Jeff gave me.
"Good morning, Wells and Sons Builders, This is Melissa. How can I help you?"
"Hello Melissa, may I speak to Jeff, please?"
"I am sorry, Jeff is away at the moment. Is this Matt?"
"Yes, how did you know?"
"He said you would be calling. We are all looking forward to meeting you, Matt."
"Well, I am looking forward to meeting you too. I am about 30 miles from Little Rock, Arkansas. I should be arriving in Clifton sometime tomorrow afternoon."
"That's great, Matt! I will tell Jeff you are on your way. He will be happy to hear the news. Drive safely!"
"Thanks, Melissa. See you tomorrow."
That was a good chat I had with Melissa, I thought. A little encouragement from a voice on the other side - I'm not sure I needed the reassurance, but it sure as Hell didn't hurt!
I was on the road again, heading east on I-30 toward Little Rock. From the driver's side mirror on my truck, I watched the road stripes vanish one by one below the horizon as they logged the familiar years of my life into history.
At Rockport, I passed a sign: HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK - NEXT EXIT. Someday, I thought.
As I got closer to Little Rock, traffic thickened and became stop-and-go. Tuesday morning commuter traffic. Drowsy people driving to work with their to-go coffees and fast-food breakfasts - something I hope to be doing myself soon if I ever get to Virginia. In Little Rock, I took 440 to bypass downtown, then picked up I-40 heading east toward Memphis. As I proceeded east from Little Rock, traffic returned to normal.
While passing through Brinkley, I observed a line of storms developing in the distance. It was too early to determine the storm's intentions, but I continued to monitor its progress as I continued east.
On steep grades, my truck strained from the weight of my tools and gear. I designed my travel box to be as light as possible, but it was still heavy for my little 4-cylinder pickup once loaded to the top with gear. Deciding what to take on my trip was not difficult - I didn't have much storage capacity. I created a list of essential items that I would need to survive, and if there was any room left, I added any non-essential items that might help me feel at home while living 1500 miles from Texas.
- Clothes (five pairs of 501 jeans, two pairs of shorts, ten T-shirts, two flannel shirts, two sweatshirts, one insulated vest, one jacket, one pair of work boots, two pairs of tennis shoes, underwear, and socks, and a pair of cowboy boots)
- Ice Chest
- Coffee Pot
- Camp Chair
- Sleeping Bag
- Jam Box Radio
- Fishing Gear
- Musical Instruments (Guitar, Flute, Glockenspiel, Bongo Drums)
- Books (Rand-McNally road atlas, a dictionary, and a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)
- Circular Saw
- Drills (3/8 and 1/2 inch)
- Levels (4 foot, 2 foot, and torpedo)
- Hammers (framing, trim, and sledgehammer)
- Framing Square
- Tape Measures (25-foot and 50-foot)
- Speed Square
- Chalk Line
- Razor Knife
- Screwdriver Set
- Ratchet Set
- Carpenter's Pencils
- Wire Cutters
- Coping Saw
- Tin Snips
- Leather Nail Bag
- Leather Work Gloves
I reckoned that any other personal items or tools I needed could be purchased when the paychecks started rolling in.
When I reached West Memphis, the storm clouds had darkened, and the wind began to blow hard from the north. As I crossed the Mississippi River into Tennessee, the weather intensified. Daylight had turned to darkness, and the rain was blowing sideways. Visibility was near zero - I could barely see past the hood of my truck. I slowed to a crawl, turned on my headlights, and slowly navigated the freeways through downtown Memphis. Suddenly, a roaring diesel truck appeared behind me. "Whoa!! What the Hell is this guy doing? Doesn't he see me?" I hollered. At the last minute, the driver switched lanes, almost clipping my right tail light, and a wave of water slammed against my windshield as the 80,000-pound 18-wheeler plowed past me on the flooded roadway. "Tennessee drivers play rough!"
All I could think of was getting off the freeway until the storm passed, but I didn't know Memphis and wasn't about to leave the certainty of I-40. I recalled the wisdom of a truck driver I once knew. If you keep moving, you'll drive through the storm, and the skies will clear on the other side. I didn't know if I believed that was always true, but in this case, it was. When I reached the other side of Memphis, past the Wolf River, welcomed blue skies began to appear on the horizon. I continued east on I-40 until the rain ended, then found an exit near Arlington to stop for gas and a burger. I was relieved to have survived the blinding rainstorm and the wake of that reckless mother trucker. After lunch, I removed the canvas tarp covering my travel box to check for leaks. Everything was dry. I resecured the tarp to my travel box and continued east on I-40 toward Nashville. Temperatures were much colder after the storm, and the skies were clear and dry. My goal for the day was to reach Knoxville or beyond and search for a campground to stay the night. I should be in that area by six, I thought.
The road between Memphis and Nashville was long and monotonous - miles of scrubby trees and flat terrain. As I drove east, I began thinking about the carpentry experience that had somehow qualified me for my new job working for Wells and Sons Builders and wondered what I would be doing on my first day at work. I didn't know much about Wells and Sons Builders, except for the fragments I retained from the two short phone conversations with Jeff. I recalled he was excited to hear that I had extensive deck-building experience. There must be deck work in my future, which sounded good to me. I preferred to make first impressions using skills I already knew rather than try to prove myself on unfamiliar or arduous work.
On I-40, headed east, I passed a road sign: Jackson Next Exit. Before I left Austin, I had calculated that Jackson, Tennessee, would be the midpoint of my trip to Clifton, VA. It wasn't quite "the point of no return," but it felt a little like it. I couldn't very well return to Austin without giving Virginia a solid try. What would my friends think of me if I returned to Austin without evidence that I had crossed the Virginia state line? More importantly, what would I think of myself for not trying? It didn't matter because I wasn't turning back. What would I do for work? Go back to work as a phlebotomist? No. Move back in with my old girlfriend? No way! (I think she was ready to move on.) Stick to the plan! Stay the course. I was a carpenter on my way to Virginia to work as much as it took to pay off past-due bills, no more and no less.
I drove on I-40 through the middle of Nashville and stopped for gas in Cookeville. While filling my tank, I realized I would be crossing the Eastern Time zone and essentially lose an hour of daylight. I had been driving for about 7 hours. I located a KOA in Baileyton, about two and a half hours away, and decided to make that my goal for the day. I would arrive late but hoped to have enough light to set up camp.
The terrain was becoming hilly as I proceeded east toward the Appalachian Mountains. There were long stretches along I-40 where the road inclined or declined, and my little fully loaded pickup felt the pain.
I stopped for gas at a convenience store in Knoxville. When I entered the store, a beautiful young woman with black hair and deeply tanned skin welcomed me. She seemed too pretty to be working at a Stop-n-Shop. While I browsed the store, I discovered an attractive blonde stocking shelves with groceries. A few seconds later, another gorgeous woman appeared from a back office, wearing a University of Tennessee tank top. What are the odds that three beach babes were working at one crummy gas station? Maybe this is where the Baywatch chicks work in the off-season, I thought. I wondered if this was one of those hidden camera shows and I was the subject of an elaborate joke. But I continued as though I hadn't noticed their beauty, or maybe I was always surrounded by this much glamor, and that one more gas station fully staffed with supermodels was just another day for me. Hmmm. Maybe Knoxville is far enough? Perhaps I could get a job somewhere around here? No. Something is wrong. I better keep heading down the road. If three educated beauty queens can't find a better job than this, there must be fewer jobs in Tennessee than in Texas.
I bought a bag of ice and a six-pack of beer to pair with my ham sandwich dinner. Before getting on the road, I adjusted my timepieces to reflect Eastern time. It was getting late, and I still had over an hour of driving ahead of me. After passing Dandridge, I left I-40 and took I-81 northwest toward Baileyton.
By the time I reached the Baileyton KOA, there was barely any light left in the sky, and after checking in at the headquarters, it was completely dark. I wore shorts and a T-shirt, but the air was chilly, so I put on my coat. I drove to my campsite and used the headlights of my truck to set up my brother's old tent one more time. It was too late to think about a fire. I had the ham sandwich, chips, and two beers for dinner and climbed into my sleeping bag. But I couldn't sleep - thinking about the next day's activities - meeting Jeff and others at Wells and Sons Builders. I relaxed a little and finally dozed off__.
I was on a train, traveling from somewhere to somewhere. An old couple was sitting across from me, and a young woman, holding a sleeping baby, was sitting on the seat beside me. The old gentleman wore an orange flannel shirt, overalls, and work boots. His wife was wearing a long black flowery dress with low heels. They seemed like decent folks, and they both wore big smiles. "Where are you folks from?" I asked. "We are from Morristown. We got a little house near the lake," said the old man. The woman nodded, with a smile still plastered on her face. "What is the fishing like in the lake?" I asked, trying to make conversation. "Well," the old man began, "When I was a boy, my grandmother used to fry up a big batch of chicken for Sunday dinner. We had mashed potatoes with gravy, corn, peas, and hot rolls. Sometimes she would bake an apple pie for dessert. My aunt and uncle lived just a few miles away and would join me and my mom and dad and two sisters. After dinner, my grandma would play the piano and we would all gather around and sing. It was a fun time. I always looked forward to Sundays."
"Are you going to answer that boy's question, pa?" his wife interrupted.
"What question, ma?"
Suddenly, the train car's wheels squealed on the track and startled the sleeping baby. The kid began to scream bloody murder as though poked with a sharp stick. The woman eventually calmed the brat, then looked at me and said, "Would you like to hold our baby for a while, sweetie?"
At 2:45 a.m., I woke up shivering from the cold - bewildered by my dream - and couldn't go back to sleep. At 3:30 a.m., I decided it would be best to retreat to the warmth of my truck, get back on the road, and continue my journey to Clifton. I packed my tent and gear and was out of the KOA park by 3:45. I stopped for gas in Baileyton. While my truck was filling up, I went inside the store to buy cigarettes, a large coffee, and a package of donuts for breakfast. "It is mighty cold outside," I hollered to a gray-haired feller standing behind a cash register. "Colder than a snowman's pecker, if ya will," said the old shopkeeper. I smiled, paid the man, and gave him a nod as I walked out the door.
By 4:00 a.m., I was back on I-81 headed northeast toward Bristol, Virginia. It was a big day for me, the most important day of my life so far. I was finally going to connect with my new employer and, with luck, find a place to live for the next six months.
Yep, six months. That was how long I had verbally committed to this venture. It was my way of keeping one foot back in Texas. In thirty years, I had never lived more than a four-hour drive from where I had grown up. I didn't want my life to change, but I had no choice, and I was sad and scared because my gut told me it could be years before the Texas economy recovered.
It was 4:45 and still dark when I crossed the Virginia state line. I was over 5 hours from Clifton, but I had plenty of time to meet Jeff before he left the office at beer-thirty.
At Wytheville, the sky began to lighten. When I reached Roanoke, the sky was bright, but the sun was still low and cast intermittent mountain shadows on the freeway - a weird effect for someone who grew up in coastal plains. There were still three donuts left in the package, but I was out of coffee and getting low on gas. I stopped in Lexington to fill up and get another big coffee for the road. The scenery was spectacular. I would have loved to stop and hike in the Shenandoah National Park, but there was no time for that.
Those girls in Knoxville all had dark tans. There must be a lake or an old quarry nearby where the locals go to soak up the sun. Or maybe they spend lots of hours in tanning beds. I should have worked up the nerve to ask, but their loveliness scared me stupid.
I continued northeast on I-81 through Staunton, Harrisonburg, and New Market and stopped in Woodstock to cap off my tank and walk around a little. After three days of mostly driving, my legs needed some circulation, and my keister needed a break. There was magnificent scenery all around. "If Northern Virginia is like this, we're not going to have a problem, right Clarence?" I said as I patted his little furry white stuffed head. "I'll take your silence to mean that you agree...What?...Cat got your tongue?" I could always count on Clarence to see things my way.
Past Strasburg, I veered east on I-66 toward Front Royal and Washington, D.C. I was about an hour away from Clifton and was getting butterflies at the thought of meeting my new boss.
While cruising east on I-66, I crossed over the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, drove through Markham and Haymarket, and exited onto HWY 29 in Centreville. I drove east on 29, a couple of miles, through Centreville, then headed south on Clifton Road. I was less than 5 minutes away! When I arrived in the tiny town of Clifton, I stopped at the historic Clifton General Store to get my bearings. A little brass bell rang above my head as I opened the old wooden entry door to the store. A pretty woman behind the counter welcomed me as I walked in. I located a Dr. Pepper in a bin full of ice and set it up on the countertop alongside a copy of the Washington Post.
"The weather is colder than I thought it would be here," I said to the woman behind the counter, baiting her to ask where I was from.
"Where did you come from?" she asked.
"I am from Austin, Texas. I left there on Monday morning and here I am, two and a half days later, in Virginia."
"Oh wow, my husband and I are also from Austin. We have lived here for over a year and now we own this store."
"That's amazing! I have been in Virginia for only five minutes and I have already met two Texans," I said. "I will be working as a carpenter for Wells and Sons Builders. Have you heard of them."
"Oh yes, their office is right around the corner. You can't miss it."
"Well, I'm sure I will see you again. I should go meet my new boss. Thanks for the directions...oh, by the way, my name is Matt."
"Welcome to Virginia, Matt. My name is Holly and my husband's name is Larry. We'll see you soon."
I drove a quarter of a mile down Chapel Road and parked in front of the small office building where Wells and Sons conducted their business on the second floor. Okay, this is it, I thought. Without wasting any time, I marched up the stairs to their office and walked in. The room smelled of fresh paint and new carpet. Their office was small but not cramped. It had a large room at the entrance with three desks cleverly arranged to give each occupant ample workspace. There was a private office at the far end with a lockable door and a large banner over the windows that faced Chapel Road that read, Quality is the True Measure of Value. Three men were hovering over a set of blueprints spread open on one of the desks, and a young woman was sitting at a desk closest to the entrance.
"You must be Matt," she said with a smile.
"I am, and you must be Melissa," I said.
"I am, and I am happy to see that you made it okay. Hey Jeff, This is Matt from Austin," she said.
Jeff left the blueprints and walked towards me with a big smile and his hand extended.
"Hey Matt! It is good to finally meet you in person," Jeff said while shaking my hand.
"It is good to meet you too, Jeff," I said.
"Matt, I want you to meet Bob, the owner of the company, and Clint, the vice president," Jeff said.
"We're glad to have you join us," Bob said.
"Yes, and we have heard lots of good things about you," Clint added.
"Well, it is good to meet you all too," I said.
"Have you found a place to stay?" Jeff asked.
"Uh, not yet. I'm hoping to make some phone calls today before it gets too late," I said.
"Well, I don't want to hold you up. Let me show you the project we have picked out for you," Jeff said.
Jeff showed me some blueprints for a two-story addition to a large home in McClean, Virginia.
"These blueprints are yours. Can you start working tomorrow?" Jeff said.
"I would like to. I hope to be able to find a place to live this afternoon."
"Good. I will meet you at the jobsite tomorrow and get you started."
"Thanks, Jeff. See you tomorrow."
Okay, I've confirmed my employment. Now, I need to find a place to live. I thought as I walked down the stairs to my tired little Toyota pickup; it had been working hard these past few days. I drove back to the Clifton General Store parking lot to look for ads in the rooms for rent section of the Washington Post. There were two that were nearby and in my price range. I called the first one - no one answered. I called the second ad - it wasn't available.
It was almost 5 o'clock. It will be getting dark soon, I thought. And people probably wouldn't want to show a room to some stranger after dark. I remembered passing a roadside park on I-66 a few miles from the Centreville exit. I could probably spend the night there, I thought. I drove back down Clifton Road to Centreville and stopped at a convenience store along the westbound feeder of I-66. I bought some ice, a six-pack of beer, and a Mars bar for dessert after another ham sandwich dinner.
I continued on the feeder until I reached the roadside park. The parking lot was filling up. Knowing nothing of the area, I found a spot under a bright street light for security. You never know what happens in a place after the sun goes down. I kept my engine running to stay warm while I ate my dinner. I opened a beer and pulled out my road atlas to find McClean. Not too close, but not too far either. Starting work before having a place to live did not seem like a good idea. All my belongings are in a big box in the bed of my truck, and my guitar and a stuffed animal are in the front seat. I don't want to show up at a construction site like this. I'll call Jeff in the morning and tell him I must spend the day looking for a room to rent before I can start working. I hoped that would be tomorrow. As for tonight, I'll be sleeping upright on the driver's side of my truck.
After sunset, temperatures dropped sharply. I tried turning off my engine and wrapping myself in a blanket, but I couldn't sleep. It was too cold. There were lots of vehicles in the roadside park at 10 o'clock. They all had their engines running. Maybe they were travelers from other states looking for work, like me (and homeless, like me). I started the engine again and set the heater on high. It had been a long day, and I was exhausted. After my truck warmed up, I turned the heater down and fell asleep.
I was startled by the slam of a car door at 2 a.m. and woke up disoriented and confused. Once I regained my senses, I noticed the exact vehicles still parked around me with their engines running nonstop. It was too early to wake up, and I was still incredibly sleepy. The drone of trucks traveling on I-66 never ceased. Before long, I drifted back to sleep.
I woke up again at 6 o'clock feeling rested and rejuvenated. The sun was not up yet, but it wouldn't be long. The sky was beginning to lighten. It had been two days since my last shower, and I was past due. There was a state park not too far away. Maybe they will let me use their facilities. I left the roadside park and headed to the nearest 7-Eleven for hot coffee, a package of chocolate cupcakes, and a fresh Washington Post. I called Jeff while I was there. He understood, and we agreed to meet on Friday.
I arrived at the state park around 8 o'clock, just in time to be the first customer. I walked in the door to the park's headquarters and saw a young man wearing a ranger uniform sitting behind a high counter.
"Good morning," I said.
"Good morning, How can I help you?" he asked.
"This may sound a little strange...I don't need a campsite. All I need is to take a shower."
"The entry fee is $8, no matter what facilities you use," he said.
"Even for just a quick shower?" I asked.
"I'm so sorry, if it was up to me it would be okay, but those are the rules," he said.
"I understand. Have a good day," I said as I walked to the door.
"You too," he replied.
It would have been nice to get cleaned up, but there was no way I would pay $8 for a shower when I barely had two nickels to rub together.
I left the park and found an old-style gas station in Centreville with small restrooms accessible outside the building. I grabbed a bar of soap, a razor, a toothbrush, a towel, and a clean shirt from my travel box, then headed to the sink in the Men's room for what my mom would have called a Spit Bath. I felt refreshed after getting cleaned up and was ready to make some phone calls. I opened the newspaper to check on the ads. There were no new ones, only the two from the day before. I jotted down the number of the ad where no one answered and found a payphone to make the call. A woman's voice came over the phone.
"Hello. My name is Matt and I am calling about your ad in the paper for a room for rent? Is it still available?"
"Hi Matt, my name is Sue. Yes the room is available. It is $300 per month. Can you tell me a little about yourself?"
"Sure, Sue. I am single, 30 years old, and I arrived yesterday from Austin, Texas to work as a carpenter for Wells and Sons Builders out of Clifton."
"Wow, Austin! You have come a long way. Do you have any pets or kids?"
"No pets and no kids. Just me."
"My husband Jack and I live in a house located in Woodbridge, Virginia. Do you know where that is?"
"I have a road atlas that will get me to the town. I may need some more refined directions when I get closer."
"Where are you now, Matt?"
"I am in Centreville."
"That's not too far, but it might take you about 45 minutes to get here."
"Okay. I am on my way. I have a little blue Toyota pickup."
"We'll see you soon, Matt.
I got back in my truck and navigated back to Clifton, then drove east on Chapel Road to BUTTS CORNER and took 123 south to Woodbridge. I hope this works out. They seem like good folks. Their house was on the end of a cul-de-sac. I parked in front and rang the doorbell. Jack and Sue both answered the door.
"Matt?" Sue asked.
"Yes, and you must be Sue and Jack."
"Come on in and have a seat," Jack said.
"Do you want something to drink?" Sue asked, "We have some fresh iced-tea that I just made."
"That sounds good to me. I haven't had tea since I left Texas."
"Yeah, Sue said you were from Texas. How many days did it take you to get here?" Jack asked.
"It feels like it has been forever, but I only left Texas this past Monday. I camped out in state parks for the first two nights and slept in a roadside park in Centreville last night. I'm trying to conserve on cash." I said.
"Do you have a job yet?" asked Jack.
"Yes. I hope to make somewhere between $500 and $600 a week."
"That sounds like a government job," Jack said, smiling.
"I wish," I said. "Before I left Texas, I landed a job with a builder located in Clifton. I will be working as a carpenter on a new project in McClean, hopefully tomorrow. I plan to work as many hours as they will allow."
Sue brought everyone tea from the kitchen and sat down in a chair next to Jack. We chatted for a while about our lives in Texas and Virginia. Jack and Sue were artists during the week, and on weekends, they sold their works at various craft shows up and down the East Coast, from Key West to Maine. One of the reasons they wanted a roommate was to have someone watch the house and feed the dog and cat while they were away.
"Matt, I think you are a good fit for us, but we need to interview some more candidates before we make a decision," Jack said. "Do you have somplace to stay for a few days?"
My heart sank.
"Well, right now you and Sue are my best friends in Virginia," I said.
Jack and Sue shared a look.
"We don't have a choice, Sue," Jack said. "We're going to have to take a chance on Matt."
"I agree. Welcome to Virginia, Matt!" Sue said with a big smile.
"Thank you both!" I said, trying to fight back a tear.
"There's just one more thing," Jack said as he pulled a hand-rolled cigarette from his front pocket.
"Do you smoke?" Jack said, smiling.
"Uh...Yes," I said, smiling back.
Jack lit the crooked smoke, took a big puff from it, and passed it around the room. Before long, we were ALL smiling.
Jack and Sue showed me around their house. It was a single-story home with a basement, effectively making it a two-story. There were three bedrooms upstairs. Mine was in the back left corner of the house, next to the bathroom. Sue's office claimed the room across the hall on the front-left corner. The remaining bedroom was a guest room - the MASH Room - decorated to the last detail with MASH paraphernalia. The kitchen, dining room, and living room completed the upstairs floorplan. Jack and Sue's room was in the basement. It was a large area with a private bath. Their sleeping area was in the back corner behind a room divider. They converted the space in front of the divider into a cozy living area. Shelves filled mostly with record albums covered the full-length wall on the front side of the house. There were two comfortable chairs - Jack and Sue's - separated by a table and lamp on the wall between the divider and shelves with a coffee table in front. There was a third chair on the opposite end of the coffee table. The three chairs had a good view of the TV, VCR, and stereo on the far wall near the base of the stairs. It was the perfect space for winding down after a long day.
"Do you need some help unloading your truck, Matt?" Jack asked.
"Sure. It won't take long. I don't have that much stuff."
I grabbed my ice chest from the front seat, and Jack picked up my guitar case and smiled when he grabbed Clarence. I shook my head and smiled back.
"Everyone likes Teddy Bears, Matt," Jack said with a nod of approval.
We unloaded everything from my truck, brought the travel box upstairs, and set it on its edge against a wall in my room. The fresh-cut polyurethaned plywood added a smell of "new construction" to my faraway home. Sue showed me around the kitchen and bathroom and pointed me to their phone in the kitchen.
"If you need to make a call, feel free. I'm going to start making dinner. Would you like to have dinner with us tonight, Matt?" Sue asked.
"That would be wonderful. I have been eating ham sandwiches for the past three days."
I called Jeff to let him know I had found a place to live and would meet him on Friday morning at the job site in McClean. I went back to my room to unpack my clothes and take a much-needed shower. It felt good to be clean after so many days on the road. I took a moment to look around my new living quarters. Perfect, I thought.
That evening at dinner, we shared more stories of our lives while enjoying wine and beer.
"I love that you guys like MASH. It is my favorite TV series," I said.
"Yes. We love MASH, as you might have guessed after seeing our MASH Room. I have every episode on VHS tape and you are welcome to use our space and watch them all when we're out of town," said Jack.
"I will definitely take you up on that," I said.
Jack and Sue began clearing the dishes from the dinner table.
"Matt, I heard you talking to your friend about meeting him in McClean," Sue said.
"Yes, how far is McClean from Woodbridge?"
"It isn't that far, but the traffic will be terrible. It may take you a couple of hours to get there," Sue said.
"Then I should be on the road by 5:00, since I need to meet Jeff at 7:00."
"That would be a good plan," said Jack. "By the way, Sue and I are headed to North Carolina tomorrow. We will be gone by the time you get home. There's a Little Ceaser's pizza joint not far away with a video rental place next door. You are welcome to use our VCR."
"Thank you. How long will you guys be gone?" I asked.
"We'll be back on Sunday afternoon," Jack said. "And we'll be leaving again next weekend for another show. Will you be around to feed our pets?"
"Yeah, I don't know anyone in this neck of the woods. I'll definitely be here," I said with a smile.
With that, we said goodnight, and I headed to my room for my first night's sleep in Woodbridge, Virginia. I prepared my thermos and work clothes for the next day's work and climbed into bed.
Jack and Sue are the perfect roommates. All I need to do now is make money, I thought while lying in my warm bed. I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. and drifted off to sleep.
Quality is the True Measure of Value?