The bell on the door jingled lightly as Savannah flipped the sign from “Open” to “Closed.”
The sign fluttered slightly in the warm wind, and Savannah smiled knowing that Spring would soon segue into Summer.
Summer on the Lakes filled her with gratitude that she lived this life.
She closed the door behind her and turned her attention to the tables inside ‘Read & Respite,’ the coffee shop she’d owned and operated for the last three years. The tables–mismatched ones purchased from thrift stores–fit the environment she’d worked so tirelessly to create. Shades of white and beige on the tables, chairs and bookshelves; local succulents and flowers in vases scattered throughout the room; a coastal vibe that never ventured into kitschy.
She’d already let her two part-time employees leave earlier in the day, so Savannah had the shop to herself.
The crowd had been light today, but she knew that business would increase in the next few weeks. The last day of school approached, vacation season had arrived, and locals and travelers alike would soon flock to the small Michigan town.
Savannah couldn’t imagine doing anything else with her days, but she knew that the shop–this life–was a godsend, a luck of her birth.
Thank goodness for Aunt Kristin.
She looked upwards as she often did at closing time, remembering her aunt yet again and sending a silent prayer to her in thanks.
Savannah started working at Kristin’s coffee shop when she was just 14; she’d immersed herself in lattes and cappuccinos and espressos, proudly earning the barista title just a year later. When she graduated from high school and her friends and classmates got ready to leave the state for college, Savannah stubbornly told her parents she had no desire to leave the town or the coffee shop. They wanted her to consider something more “stable,” while her friends encouraged her to “chase after her dreams” miles away from home.
A lot of arguments, many goodbyes, and a few business classes later and Savannah had squashed the demands from her family and friends. Time had settled things down.
She considered what she needed to do before heading home and decided on the task of reorganizing the flavored syrups area and then putting out the new stock of Summer novels she’d received earlier in the day.
As she moved to the counter her eye caught a flutter at the front door, then heard a knock.
Her regulars knew closing time, but she often opened the door for a customer desperately needing a caffeinated pick-me-up or for a member of the shop’s book club who hadn’t received their monthly selection yet.
She moved to the door and was greeted by a stranger. He smiled and cocked his head to the “Closed” sign.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” the man, close to her own age, greeted her as she opened the door. “My van’s broken down, and I need to find a mechanic.”
Savannah looked to the road in front of the shop and a cream-colored van stationed just feet from the path to her front door. Steam spewed from its opened hood.
She looked from the van to the stranger, and he gave a crooked smile.
“Yeah, not how I wanted to spend my evening.”
Savannah stepped out onto the sidewalk and pulled her cell phone from the back pocket of her jeans. She looked up the number of an old high school friend who ran an auto shop just a few miles down the road, then handed the phone to the man.
“This is Joe,” she said. “He’ll take care of you.”
“Perfect,” he answered, gesturing to the van. “I’m not quite sure what’s up with it. I always get her in good shape before heading out for the next few weeks. I must have missed something.”
Her interest piqued, she asked: “You here on vacation?”
“I’m kinda always on vacation. It’s my job,” he answered, pushing his brown hair off his forehead. “This your shop?”
“Yeah,” she smiled. A smile always escaped her when telling someone she owned 'Read and Respite.'
“It’s nice,” he said, turning his attention to Savannah’s cell phone. “Can I call him on your phone?”
She nodded, told him to explain that he was at Savannah’s shop, and watched as he began dialing.
He looked like someone who took control of things.
The seating arrangements outside the shop had been another addition Savannah made when she took over the shop from Kristin. Rattan sectionals with cushions and wrought iron tables created a conversational space; when the weather was nice, customers sat there until the sun went down, reading and sipping on drinks. Tonight, a late May evening, had been one of those occasions.
She sat down as the stranger talked with Joe in mechanical terms; she didn’t understand much of any of it. She tried not to look at him during the conversation, but his laughter held her attention. Despite his broken-down van situation, his manner hinted at a “let’s take this in stride” sort of attitude.
She liked that.
“Nice guy,” he said, handing her the phone. “But it looks like I’m stuck here until morning. Joe can’t get here until then.”
He chuckled and waved his hand in dismissal.
“It’s fine,” he said. “The van’s my home when I’m on the road. Another night here won’t put me back too far. As long as you’re okay with the van staying here overnight?”
At that moment Savannah had to decide whether to trust the stranger or not. He’d be spending the night on her street, after all.
“Yeah, of course,” she stammered, then looked him in the eye. “What exactly do you do?”
“I guess we should start over and meet each other formally, as I’ll be your neighbor for at least a night,” he said, holding his hand out to shake Savannah’s. She wiped her hands on her apron. “My name’s Dixon. I’ve got a YouTube channel where I vlog, and I’m on Instagram, TikTok, all that good stuff. I was about to get started on my Summer road trip.”
A job, on the road? Living in a van?
She looked back at her shop, the light from the kitchen area shining through the windows as the day began to darken, and counted her lucky stars again.
“That’s a real thing?” she laughed, a little sarcasm seeing into her voice. “What’s the word? ‘Influencers’? I thought you guys were figments of the internet’s imagination.”
“Aww, Savannah,” he looked at her with a slight smirk. “A sense of humor. I like it.”
“We just don’t get a lot of viral superstars up here on the Lake,” she smiled, running a hand through the long ponytail hanging down her back. She suddenly felt a tad out of her element. Flirting wasn’t usually in her repertoire, but this felt like flirting.
“It’s totally a real thing,” he answered. “Not always profitable or traditional, but it’s real.”
He looked back toward the building, nodding at the wooden sign hanging from the awning over the front door entrance that declared the shop’s name. As if he’d just realized what he stood in front of.
“Could I trouble you for something to drink?” he asked. “It can just be water.”
“I was just cleaning up, but it’s easy enough to put another pot of coffee on,” she raised her eyebrows toward him, walking to the door and opening it up for them both. “Unless you don’t drink coffee late in the day?”
“I drink it any time of day or night,” he answered, turning around in a circle as he walked through the door to get a good look at the interior of the shop. “Coffee is much needed in my line of work.”
“Early morning adventures, or long days that require a lot of caffeine,” he said with levity, settling himself down at the stools in front of the shop’s espresso machines and glass-domed cake stands. She gestured toward the plate that had a lone scone under it, inviting him to take it. “I guess coffee’s your line of work too. Obviously.”
She laughed lightly, then moved behind the counter. The espresso machine and french press had already been cleaned and shut down for the night, but she often used the traditional drip coffee machine to brew a quick cup for herself. Or for the few customers who claimed they didn’t need “fancy” drinks.
“Straight black? Cream, sugar?” she asked, holding up the coffee pot for Dixon to consider.
They grew silent as she measured the dark roast grounds into the filter, and filled the top of the machine with the right amount of water for two cups. It began to gurgle and soon its scent began to cascade into the room. Savannah pulled whole milk from the refrigerator, then a saucepan from the cabinet behind her and began to heat the milk on the shop’s stove. Still working in silence, the milk began to steam and foam slightly.
She looked to Dixon, who sat on the stool watching her intently.
“This is your thing, isn’t it?” he asked. “I can tell. You love it.”
“I do,” she answered honestly, turning the temperature down on the milk and bringing it to the coffee maker. She divided the milk between two large clay mugs, added coffee to each, and stirred. She added a dash of cinnamon to each, and set Dixon’s mug in front of him.
“Lazy cafe au lait, with a little extra touch on top,” she said, pushing sugar in his direction as well. “You can sweeten it if you need to.”
He smiled and sipped from the mug, ignoring the sugar.
“So, tell me about this place,” he said. “Coffee and books together?”
Savannah sat next to him on an adjoining stool, holding her own mug of coffee, and peered at him questioningly.
Not many men her age seemed interested in knowing her story. To be fair, most men her age were either vacationers who had their own lives in order already with families or girlfriends, or friends she’d known since she was in elementary school.
His casual grin told her it was okay to share with him, and she began the story of spending her teenage years with her aunt in the shop. Of deciding to stay in town after graduation, despite everyone else’s protestations otherwise. Of losing her aunt to cancer the day after Savannah’s 20th birthday. Of finding out that Kristin had left the coffee shop to her. Of changing the name from ‘Respite Coffee Shop’ to ‘Read and Respite’ and doing all the hard work to make it successful. Of why she loved it so much.
She talked in a rush, words spilling over each other. When she stopped to take a breath after sharing, she looked at Dixon a bit sheepishly.
He shook his head.
“Seems like maybe you needed to get that out?”
“Everyone in my life knows the story, but it’s nice to tell someone new. I guess I need to reassure myself sometimes.”
“That you’ve done the right thing? Taken the right path?”
She wondered if Dixon himself had a story. Had an uncomfortable path? Had a sense of victory?
“Yeah, I suppose,” she answered, realizing her mug still sat full in front of her. Dixon’s, on the other hand, was almost empty. She decided she needed to change the subject.
“What about you? How did you become a guy in a van?”
“You make that sound a bit crazy,” he choked on his last sip of coffee. “Although I guess it sorta is.”
He began to tell Savannah his story. Of growing up in Grand Rapids, then attending the University of Michigan for two years. Of buying the van after saving everything he earned for years at a local restaurant. Of breaking up with his girlfriend. Of having to convince his parents that he wouldn’t become homeless. Of becoming the face and voice behind “Ever On the Road,” and surprisingly finding success online. Of the places he’d seen and the people he’d met in the last three years.
His words didn’t tumble out like Savannah’s; he took his time, giving her moments to interject between episodes with questions or “hmmmm”s.
“I’m doing a Summer series that will take me all the way to Oregon,” he said. “I try to find little known destinations and unexpected adventures. I’ve got some cool things planned.”
“Except that you got stuck in this little town just a few hours after getting started?”
“Well, it’s little known and unexpected,” he stated, ducking his head to pick at the scone he’d taken from the dessert display. Savannah wondered if he felt like he’d revealed too much.
He pushed himself up from the stool and looked to Savannah.
“I’m sure I’ve taken up too much of your time,” he said. “Are you about to head home?”
“We closed at 7, but it always takes me a while to finish up,” she answered. “I was almost finished when you got here.
“Good,” Dixon nodded, and reassured Savannah that he’d keep it quiet on her street overnight.
“You’re sure you’ll be okay?”
“Believe me, I’ve slept in places much more uncomfortable than this,” he said. “After you’ve had run-ins with bears and nosy Southerners, you can handle anything. And, besides, I’ll have coffee waiting for me in the morning.”
“Yes, you will,” she answered, smiling shyly and walking out the door onto the street. She turned the sign to “Closed” once more and walked with Dixon to his van. “We open at 8, but you can pop in earlier if you need to.”
Dixon looked at her expectantly, as if he had a question on the tip of his tongue.
“What?” she asked, sensing it.
“Is this the life you’ve always wanted?” he wondered aloud. “You don’t feel the need to venture further? To see new things?”
She hesitated slightly, but knew without doubt her answer.
“I like hearing about the places you’ve been, but that’s not me,” she said. “I love this thing I’ve carved for myself. It feels safe, even though it’s not always easy. I feel content here.”
Dixon gestured in understanding, if not agreement.
“And what about you?” Savannah asked. “Don’t you ever want to be settled? Spend more time in one place?”
“There will be plenty of time for that, when I’m old,” he chuckled. “For now, yeah. This is my dream.”
They looked at each other, both creating their own imagined scenarios in their heads.
Of two people working together behind a counter, the hissing of an espresso machine narrating their day.
Of two people hiking a wooded trail, the sound of birds and the rustling wind overhead.
Of two people riding in a van down an empty road, their inside hands holding each other tightly and their others feeling the breeze from the rolled-down windows.
Of two people sitting in a chair outside a coffee shop, talking about life and books and love and dreams.
Savannah looked to Dixon and waved an uncertain goodbye.
“See you in the morning,” he said.
“I’ll have the coffee ready,” she answered, and turned to walk to her car around the corner.