A toaster, a mechanic, and romance—all elements from one writing prompt, combined into a story.
This morning she saw her reflection in chrome as she buttered toast. A double chin? She tilted her head to view the mirror from another angle. Here was the twenty-year-old, wedding-gift toaster, presenting her with perfectly crisped bread and a reminder that gravity worked against her.
She took her breakfast plate and coffee mug, sat down at the computer, and attempted to write. Ah, but she was dried up. Writers’ block—the platitude problem—add that to the reminder of her status—middle-aged novelist, wannabe author. No, she argued, I won’t succumb to writers’ block. She began to type:
Long ago, a girl went for a run on her college campus. She didn’t particularly like running, but since she’d begun the new year with a resolution for good health, here she was—and as she passed the school maintenance building, there she saw him. The boy leaned against a Chevy truck parked halfway in the shop, the shop’s roll-up door unfurled halfway. Unfurled—here was a word with symbolism, because the next moment would roll out a certain future for both girl and boy.
The girl noticed not the late sun creeping into the shop, nor did she suppose the shop door hung as it did for wanting of shade. What she saw was him, sunning himself beside the Chevy’s tailgate. He drank a Dr. Pepper and lifted his green John Deere hat in a gesture that urged her shyness to dissipate. She said hello, then jogged up the road without another word, though she did look over her shoulder at him once.
The next morning, this boy crossed the street from the shop where he worked as a mechanic, fixing the university’s staff vehicles, along with a fleet of forklifts, tractors, and maintenance trucks. He entered the campus market where the girl worked as a morning barista. She steamed milk and poured lattes; cups stacked in a line. A flash of green passed into her view, and she looked up. He said hello. Asked her name. That’s when the line of cups overtook the counter, and she noticed not as the coffee-shop manager walked over and began pouring her lattes.
Boy and girl conversed.
It became a daily ritual. He came for a coffee, and at the sight of the green hat, she would peek at her reflection in the chrome of the industrial espresso machine. She’d reapply lip gloss. Then she’d peek from behind a line of paper cups, and they’d exchange a few sentences. Nothing notable, but always something. She’d stop her work and greet him. The boy might talk about the weather or say, “I’m going to Reedley next weekend,” or “My friend Ryan, he farms apricots.”
And the girl—for whom graduation approached, and by the time apricot season arrived, she’d be moving home—one morning said to the boy, “Here.” And with that simple gesture, the boy then unfurled her hand-written note. He stared at the girl’s phone number sprawled across the page.
She stopped here to sip her coffee, for she was writing her own love story, and she’d forgotten about the toast that stood cold on the plate.
This very year, as her twentieth wedding anniversary approached, she’d made a mental note to buy a new toaster. The chrome was scuffed and showed its age, like the skin on her face showed its forty-plus years.
Back to story-mode—grateful for having peered into the toaster’s chrome—she’d evaded writers’ block. Next, she typed:
The boy spoke with a drawl and worked hard, grease under his fingernails from turning wrench as a mechanic. The girl? She spoke almost-fluent French and Spanish and studied literature, and her mother hoped she’d marry a congressman.
Her fingers hovered over the keyboard. She’d skip this part.
Drinking cooled coffee, she thought about how, at age twenty-three, she’d considered following him overseas. Moldova? Sure—wherever it was on the globe—she’d go with him there. He’d yearned to be a missionary overseas. And when he’d determined to drive a truck, a big rig, and transport steel over the Grapevine or over the Rockies, she’d thought, yes, we’ll travel the world and be together.
She married him. A new apartment filled with wedding gifts they opened and arranged, like the toaster and embroidered tea towels. But they’d soon pack every item into a moving truck. They attributed it to the elusive search for post-college jobs, but perhaps it was a bit of the expectations projected on them.
Financial-aid loans beckoned. She worked scooping ice cream at night and sub-teaching most days, while his skills as a mechanic earned a decent living but required working six days a week. Their dreams of traveling funneled into a few camping trips and two long drives to Idaho in search of an affordable place to call home.
But it never was about traveling, it was about being together. Here they were—in Iowa, not Idaho—twenty years later. Changed in many ways, but the same boy and girl that met in 2002.
She didn’t feel like typing now. Stories tend to curve and build, and while she loved so many aspects of theirs, remembering sounded like work.
Like the years they worked to carve out respect and find community. At times they crushed one another with self-serving words, like all humans do when frustrated or confused.
She remembered the mechanic job that placed him atop a rock-crusher machine, monitoring for hours, rock crushed to become asphalt. Ninety-degree summer days, he sat there, and she worried he’d fall asleep in boredom and teeter onto the conveyer belt, as the hazards of the job warned. Boulders shredded into gravel. Some of the hardest days contained moments when she chose fear instead of faith. And that was just the first year of marriage.
In the twenty years, God, who penned and orchestrated creation and taught her to lean not on her own understanding but on wisdom from above, the Light of the World, Jesus, kept pressing into the story. How? She remembered the box with scraps of reminders, Bible verses she’d scribbled down to take hold of the Light.
Behind her a lamp snapped on and illuminated the room. She hadn’t realized she’d been sitting at her desk lit only by the computer’s glow.
“Hey,” he said—her husband, that boy. “Good to see you up and writing.” He bent and kissed the top of her head.
She stood to embrace him.
The boy’s fingers traced the girl’s face.
“You’re beautiful,” he said. “More and more beautiful every day.”
Her laugh was sharp, incredulous, so she softened and released a meek, “thanks,” to resist arguing or dismissing his words. They held each other for a minute or two—the past newly recalled, unfurled—and she saw this boy afresh in the series of images—eager missionary, handsome groom, industrious mechanic, proud new father. The son-in-law who joked endearingly with his mother-in-law for a healthy decade, then honored her memory by taking up her recipes and Christmas traditions after her cancer battle and death. He was also the dad who taught Sundays, middle school youth group. The leader of projects at work, the stand-out, the expert, the listener.
Beyond those adjectives and nouns, she recalled again how patient he remained during times she’d been self-absorbed. How he proved logical when she was flighty, and wise when she lacked discretion.
She looked up at him and said, “Every day, I love you more.”
Perhaps he thought she said it because he called her beautiful. Well, that was pleasant to hear.
But she knew—as a writer knows—beauty exists in the mix. A story contains characters, setting, plot, conflict, resolution. The characters, if youthful, may discover one day they’re not. A protagonist that’s stupid or selfish transforms, gains a new perspective—otherwise to read a novel would not be satisfying.
He didn’t read fiction much, though she always put books in his hands and would say, “You’d like this one.” Or she’d coerce, “Try reading The Hobbit, at least.” But what he loved was when she took time to write her own fiction. He liked for her to think and to hope and create.
She sat down at the computer again and thought of the scuffed toaster. How might her wrinkles and opinions continue to deepen and differ? She didn’t know how long the toaster would crisp up bread, fine and golden, but she was glad her reflection in its chrome hadn’t ended in despair. It had propelled her toward gratitude. And toward examining grace.
As for writers’ block—it would be tricked into the past tense. She opened a document, the novel she began outlining last Tuesday, and determined to type 500 words before standing to stretch.