Lorelai followed a warm breeze across the square, letting her nose lead her to where a vat of deep-fried cheesy goodness awaited. She stood in line patiently and then eagerly dunked the sizzling cheese curds into a paper cup of ranch dressing and munched away, blotting the grease off her chin with a flimsy paper napkin or two.
The big story of this year's Lazy Hazy Days Festival was that Taylor had accidentally booked two barbershop quartets. The four elderly gents swathed in sapphire sparkly vests were currently posed next to the gazebo singing "In the Good Old Summertime." Quartet Number 2, college-age guys dressed in traditional red-and-white stripes, were singing "Seventy-Six Trombones" as loudly as possible over by Miss Patty's.
The Banyan boys, being entrepreneurial for once instead of malicious, were selling ear plugs. They appeared to be making a killing based upon how many townspeople were shouting "What?" at each other.
Lorelai finished up the fried cheese and wandered over to the Lemon Shake-Up booth for something to wash down the grease.
Another breeze blew past her but this one carried a hint of dry leaves, apple cider, and melancholy. Fall was coming but there was no longer a little girl beside her, holding her hand and dancing with excitement at the thought of the coming school year. There wasn't even an eager young woman standing next to her, anxious to load up on highlighters at Office Depot. Rory had a life of her own now and was perfectly capable of taking herself to purchase whatever school supplies she craved.
A shiver chased across her shoulders even though the sun was still bright and warm. Lorelai couldn't ignore the fear that this was what her life was going to be like from now on. Having to stroll through festivals on her own. Making due with whatever time her daughter could spare. Realizing that even good friends like Sookie had families of their own and couldn't always find time for her.
It seemed that even her dreams had grown up and left her. The Dragonfly had been running successfully for over two years now. With that goal conquered and her child all but grown she restlessly wondered what else was left to do.
For one brief moment she'd thought she had it all figured out. Luke had materialized in her life at exactly the right time. At his request she'd held still and the future had glimmered in front of her. Finally she'd found her partner in life and he wanted to buy her big houses and fill them up with children. Or plants. She would have accepted either but secretly she was hoping for the kids.
But that had all gone away, faster than a man could say 'I have a daughter.' Or not say it, actually.
Lorelai tossed the empty lemonade cup into the trash with more vigor than was necessary. She shoved her hands into the back pockets on her jeans and hurried through the crowd to the other side of the square for no reason other than to keep moving.
She'd had break-ups before. Plenty of them. More than any one person should have, probably. She knew how they were supposed to go but this one was refusing to play by the rules.
During those first few weeks in May she'd walked around like a shock victim, numb and disbelieving. She couldn't accept that it was over. She couldn't stomach even thinking about what she'd done. But soon anger came and burned away the fog of disbelief. A red-hot flame of fury sizzled through her as she remembered how he'd refused to share his life with April. She seethed as she recalled the way he'd just stood there on that final night, watching her go.
Eventually the anger dissipated and she figured the worst was over. But then the sadness set in. An ache settled into her chest, much like she imagined arthritis crept into hips and knees. It was there when she woke up and there when she went to bed. Occasionally she forgot it in the midst of work or a really good movie or during one of Rory's infrequent trips home, but it was always ready to flare up again. She hurt and there was no Advil or Aleve to give her eight full hours of relief.
Having reached the edge of the square she paused and turned. Against her better judgment her eyes locked on the diner. She could picture every table inside and every knickknack nailed to the walls. She could almost smell the individual aromas of French fries and BLTs and coffee coming together to make up the unique fragrance of the diner that could never be replicated.
Enough, she told herself roughly. This was exactly the sort of maudlin thoughts she should already be past. She made her eyes look away. She ordered her legs to move.
She saw that Kirk had a long table set up in front of the church. Orange extension cords crisscrossed everywhere, running to a computer and printer. She made her way over to him, glad for a distraction.
"Hey, Kirk," Lorelai greeted him. As with most Kirk schemes, this one had her curious. Cautious, but still curious. "What 'cha doin'?"
"Affordable marketing," Kirk told her immediately, launching into his spiel. "In twenty characters or less you can get your message out to the world. For only $5 you can take your passion to the streets."
Lorelai didn't even try to choke down her laugh. This was Kirk, after all. "How do I do that, Kirk?"
"Bumper stickers." Kirk held up a blank one. "Picture it, Lorelai. You want to gloat about having a kid at Yale? Put it on a Kirker Sticker. You want people to follow you to the Dragonfly? Here's a sure-fire way to do it. Whatever you can dream, it can go on a Kirker Sticker. They're an absolute bargain."
Lorelai was counting on her fingers. "I don't know Kirk. 'Dragonfly' is eight letters already. I'd have to be pretty creative with the editing to fit a whole marketing campaign on a bumper sticker."
For a moment Kirk seemed stumped. "I see your point." He thought for a little bit longer. "I'll make you a deal. Two for $9.50."
"Let me think about it," Lorelai said, trying to let him down gently. She waved and moved away from his table.
On the way to the agricultural tent she bought herself a bag of kettle corn. She stuffed it in her mouth while admiring all of the tomatoes and zucchini she'd never eat. She talked a bit with the Man Who Would Be Troubadour, congratulating him on the purple 'Grand Champion' ribbon he was sporting for his squash.
She exited the tent and spent some time licking the salty stickiness left on her fingers from the caramel corn. Then slowly ― inevitably ― she made her way back over to Kirk's table.
"I'll take a bumper sticker," she sighed and handed a $5 bill over to him.
"Kirker Sticker," he corrected, waving one that said MY GIRLFRIEND'S HOT under her nose.
"Here. Fill out the form completely. Make sure it's legible. Nothing profane. And nothing about Taylor," Kirk hastened to add. "I've lost a couple of sales because of that," he grumbled.
Lorelai took the pencil Kirk offered her and squatted down by the table. She stared at the blocks where she was supposed to compose her message. She gave herself a moment to change her mind. That didn't happen so she printed out the words.
"Make sure I have your complete name and contact information."
"Kirk, it's me. And I'm right here."
"I need your information in case I have questions about your order," he insisted.
She rolled her eyes but filled out the form completely. Gingerly she handed it to him, keeping her gaze lowered, hoping her cheeks weren't flushing.
"It'll take about ten minutes," Kirk began to drone, but he stopped abruptly as he read her message. "Uh, Lorelai, are you sure about this?"
Kirk frowned at her and then frowned at the form. Then he looked over at the lockbox, where he'd already stashed her money.
"I won't tell anybody," he promised her. "Except Lulu, of course."
Lorelai chuckled wryly. "I'm going to put it on the back of my car, Kirk. It's not going to be a secret."
"Oh," he said, taken aback. "I guess that's true."
While Kirk typed her message into the computer she walked over and sat down underneath a maple tree, watching the townspeople enjoying the festival. After several minutes she heard the printer chugging out the bumper sticker, and several minutes after that Kirk called her name.
"Now if you put a nice coat of car wax on your bumper first you'll be able to remove that without too much trouble," he advised her, handing the sticker to her.
She read the bold message spelled out on the rectangle held in her hands. Panic briefly squeezed through her insides. "Thanks," she told him, "but I'm not going to want to take it off." She held it tightly in her hand as she walked away.
"I'm not responsible for any damage to your car's finish!" he yelled after her. "Read the disclaimer on the instruction sheet!"
At home she backed the Jeep into the drive so that the back bumper was facing the house. She gathered together some old rags and a sponge. She squirted some dish-washing soap into a bucket and took it outside where she uncoiled the hose.
Her plan had been to wash the car but she'd forgotten how much work that involved. She ended up just soaping the back and rinsing off the rest.
After using the rags to dry the Jeep, she carefully peeled off the protective layer on the sticker and centered it on the bumper on the driver's side of the car. The instructions said to use a squeegee but she didn't have one. She used a credit card to squeeze the air bubbles out instead.
Then she stepped back to view the results, ignoring the anxiety pounding in her heart.
I MISS LUKE
The sticker itself couldn't have been more than 4"x 10" but it seemed to swallow up all of the Jeep. The white background nearly glowed against the dull beige of the old car. The stark black letters shouted out her message.
She couldn't argue with what it said, though. Miss him she most certainly did.
Most of the time she tried not to think about how many different ways she missed him. For one thing she missed the guy who'd kept her fed for so many years. She missed the burgers and the boysenberry pie and ― Oh, dear Lord ― the coffee. How she missed the coffee. And she missed the fellowship of the diner itself, of being able to walk in at any hour and chat and gossip with half the town.
In addition she missed the Luke who had been her friend. She missed his dry wit and righteous rants and sensible advice. She missed hearing his snarky comments about Taylor and the never ending vendetta against Bootsy. She missed his unspoken support. She missed knowing that he was just always there.
Her knees unexpectedly wobbled, her mouth went dry, and she sat down abruptly on the grass. She'd had a moment of fiery recollection of the Luke who had loved her. In her mind she saw him in a rapid collection of scenes: reaching for her, caressing her, looking oh-so-pleased as she lost herself amidst his glorious ministrations. She could see him silhouetted against the gray light of an early morning in her room, when his bare back suddenly became his bare chest as he came back to bed, unwilling to leave her. In her ear she could hear his gruff whisper. She could feel his lips moving against her skin. She could feel his breath as he told her he loved her.
She pulled up her knees and her forehead bowed to meet them. That was what she missed most of all. She missed that man who'd told her he was all in. She missed the guy she believed in and depended on and trusted and loved. Instead of missing him less she missed him more with each day that passed.
And now that sentiment was spelled out in large black letters across the Jeep's bumper. She didn't know why she'd felt compelled to bare her soul. All she knew was that it felt somehow right to have her heart's yearning displayed on her bumper.
The Jeep sat right where it was until Monday morning when she nervously climbed into it to go to work. Throughout the twelve minute trip her eyes kept darting to the rear view mirror. Although she felt like she was dragging a billboard behind her she saw no evidence that anyone else took notice. At least no one was jumping up and down in the streets, pointing at her.
No one said anything at the Dragonfly either, but Sookie brought her some sort of incredible chocolate torte mid-morning and patted her arm lovingly. Michel answered the phone without being threatened. Several groups of maids scattered throughout the day when she walked the halls, casting sympathetic looks her way.
On Tuesday she was off until noon and used the time to run errands. She kept her head up determinedly as she drove around town. Miss Patty gave her a hug and told her she was very brave. Taylor doubled her coupon on a bag of marshmallows even though it wasn't double coupon day. Babette called her 'Toots' and told her there were a lot of other fish in the sea ― although not many had an ass like Luke's.
By Wednesday she was no longer shocked to see the patch of white and the easy-to-read letters. The message whispered instead of screamed. It now seemed like it had always been there, just another part of the car, just another part of her. It was comforting, somehow, to see the admission spelled out. It was soothing to have it out in the open and not locked away where it hurt.
Thursday evening Lorelai left the Dragonfly just as the sun was preparing to set. Her mind was busy with supper preferences, trying to weigh the pros and cons of yet another pizza versus the infinite variety of Al's Pancake World. She didn't notice the way the setting sun picked out the dust motes in the air or made the whole landscape look like the sepia frames of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She was halfway down the steps before she perceived the man leaning against the old Chevy pickup truck directly in front of her.
Her foot froze in mid-step. She stared at him and forgot how to move. Or breathe. Or think.
It had been months since she'd seen him this close. Her heart squeezed itself almost in two while she registered the gaunt appearance of his face. He looked weary and she was sure there were extra lines of worry dug in around his mouth. The incongruous black hat did him no favors, pointing out the new gray in his hair and those mixed in with the stubble on his cheeks.
And yet he was still so perfect he stole her breath.
He pushed away from the truck and uncrossed his arms from where they'd been tight across his chest. His eyes darted to her face and then away several times. For a moment she was convinced he was going to speak, to explain his visit, but instead he briefly inclined his head towards her before moving around to get in the truck.
Lorelai clutched at the railing when the truck's motor caught. The driver's side window was down and when he drove past her he turned to look at her, his eyes trying to give her a message she didn't understand. Slowly the truck bumped away down the drive.
Luke eased the truck away but the tires still managed to stir up the late summer dust. The last of the sun's rays and the red from the brake lights burnished the new patch of white stuck to the old Chevy's bumper.
I MISS YOU TOO
Her purse dropped to the step. Her red high heels went flying as she kicked them off her feet. Hope splashed over her like a forgiving rain. Lorelai leapt down the remaining steps and ran as fast as she could towards the driver who was waiting for her at the end of the lane.
Author's Inspiration : One day on the way to work a shiny tan SUV pulled beside me, easing over into the left-turn lane. On the rear of the car I spied a homemade bumper sticker. "I Miss Luke" it simply stated. I instantly turned into a blubbering fool, surely becoming as big of a threat to other drivers as blind old Mrs. Lanahan. It's been at least three years since I spied that message but I still wonder about the woman driving the car and her Luke. I hope she had a happy ending too or at least has learned how to live with her loss. I thought it was finally time to honor her with the story she unwittingly inspired.