The snow had started early that morning, and the wind was bad and so was the cold. Still, he’d been waiting on the radio all day. ‘You sure?’ dispatch said when he responded. ‘They’re talking shutdown on 65. Plus, she’s at the dirty dog.’
‘Her card clear?’
‘Yeah, I ran it.’
The pickup was going north to Chicago, four hours straight up through the storm. But he needed the job. ‘We’ll get there,’ he said.
He drove one of the service’s smaller cars, a black Crown Vic. He got the engine running, scraped the windshield, settled into the leather seat that took his bulk with a creak and a soft release of air. Then he was out into the gray, swirling day, aiming for downtown Indy and the Greyhound station.
The pickup was a girl, seventeen, eighteen, blond hair in a tight ponytail, backpack slung over her shoulder. He got out, took the pack, nestled it in the popped trunk. ‘What you got there?’ the girl asked, pointing to a gleam of polished wood peeking out from the folds of an old quilt. Earlier, he’d wrapped up the clock, tucked it between the spare and the wheel well, so he could deliver it that night. ‘Cleaning house,’ he murmured. ‘Out with the old.’
She went around to the front passenger side.
‘You’d be more comfortable in back?’
‘I’ll watch the snow,’ she said. ‘At least it’s pretty.’
He got on the highway. The girl talked about how boring the bus up from Tallahassee had been. She should’ve taken a pill, conked right out. But then she’d probably be snoring in that station, waiting out the storm like everyone else. More than an hour she’d tried to get a car on her phone.
‘The amateurs aren’t out today,’ he said.
In less than a year, business had dropped by half. He’d looked at getting on the app. But they were screening harder now. He was lucky the service even kept him on.
Five miles up 65, they hit traffic barrels and a state trooper waving everyone off to the exit. They got on the county road, passed a semi jackknifed in the ditch.
‘Uh oh,’ she said.
‘Some of these truckers, rate they hire them, it’s bumper cars out here.’
She let out an abrupt, high-pitched laugh. It startled him, and the road briefly shuddered under his hand. But she only yawned and leaned against the window. He thought of his daughter. Same age almost. The girl was carefully made up. But her hair was greasy, cheeks hollow. She’d been on the road more than Tallahassee.
‘I was down Florida way once. Neptune Beach. Honeymoon,’ he added, surprising himself by volunteering this. ‘You get your time in the sun?’
She smiled at him, tight and quick. ‘Hey, sorry if I . . . Maybe some music?’ Before he could, she reached over, turned on the radio.
An AM station came on. ‘You have wallowed, you have bathed yourself in sin and –’ He jabbed at the button. Top 40 roared on.
The girl seemed satisfied, hummed along. He focused again: the centerline disappearing, reappearing under the snow snaking across the road, the drifts piling against the slat roadside fences, miles of stubbled corn, Hackelman, Gas City, Banquo. The heat slowly drained out of his cheeks. Getting caught on that preacher station. But he liked their admonishments, the way they accused you, beat you up some before they told you to come back in.
He’d last spoken to his wife seven months ago. Three weeks before that, he’d moved out in a rush, just stuffed anything into the trunk of the Crown Vic. She’d come to his by-the-week apartment for the clock, a mantelpiece, real walnut, given to her by her dad, an heirloom meant to pass down. He’d said he didn’t have it. They’d screamed at each other. Now, he was bringing it back to her. He could still come back in.
Next to him, he heard the girl softly snore. She’d slipped out of her coat, had it pillowed against the window. He remembered the night of his daughter’s seventh grade dance. Back then, he’d driven one of the service’s stretches. He’d put on his uniform, cap and everything. Listening to them laugh and gossip over the Cokes he’d stocked in the little fridge, he never knew he could be so happy. Underneath her white T-shirt, one of the girl’s nipples was poking out. He reached to nudge up the heater. She let out another snore, stirred half-awake. He blinked, looked back at the road.
A pickup coming around the bend ahead blasted its horn. Its back end fishtailed. The truck began to spin. He stepped on the gas, yanked the wheel to the right. The truck slid by them, went off the road, and thumped into a snow drift. The Crown Vic hit the shoulder. He gripped the wheel hard, didn’t brake. The car jerked back onto the road. He eased them to a stop. The radio played distantly. He felt his heartbeat in his fingertips.
‘Shit,’ she said, hyperventilating, ‘shit, shit, shit . . .’
‘You all right?’
‘I’m, yeah, shit, I’m . . .’
He turned off the ignition, stepped out into the brittle cold. ‘Be right back.’
A gaunt old guy in tan overalls was climbing down from the truck. He walked toward the man, clutching his keys. The world began to lean sideways, that old, queasy feeling. He saw himself smashing his fist into the guy’s wind-chapped cheek. He squeezed harder. The keys’ teeth bit. Slowly, the world righted itself.
‘Want a tow?’ he rasped out. ‘I’ll call it in. But they’re probably working overtime.’ What he couldn’t do was a report, another strike on his record. He’d maneuvered them all out of a wreck. He might have drifted over the line, too.
The guy glanced up and down the road. ‘Let’s see I can’t back it out first.’
She was out of the car. She came up beside him, huffing breath into her hands as they watched the truck churn its tires in the drift. But the old guy got it out, climbed down again to inspect. Big, ugly dent in the front bumper. Shit. Next would be insurance. The road started to slide out from under him.
The old guy looked at him, frowned – and the girl stepped forward. ‘Day like this,’ she said, ‘you’d think we wouldn’t be rushing. But I haven’t seen my little boys in, what, three weeks? I guess you take any dumb risk.’
The guy tucked his hands up under his armpits, seemed to consider. Then he said, ‘I was out after hot cocoa for my Lucia. Certifiable. How old your boys?’
‘Three, seven, little monsters.’ The girl smiled, somewhere between flirting and consoling. ‘Fetching hot cocoa in a whiteout, you must be in the first blush.’
‘Going on forty-one years,’ the old guy said.
‘She don’t even have to put you on the leash!’
‘That’s about it.’
The girl laughed again, but this time beautiful, silvery, like wind in the branches of an iced-over tree.
Back on the road, he took it slow. The snow had turned fat and steady, splotching the few passing headlights orange. ‘Thanks for that,’ he said. ‘Back there.’
‘You steered us out of one bad development.’
‘I need to apologize. Customer safety is job one and –’
‘Enough on that.’ She wrapped her arms around herself, shivered. ‘I can’t listen to men play humble. You saved our butts.’
He drove some more, felt more words pressing out. ‘Three and seven, huh? What are their names?’
The girl – but he guessed now maybe she wasn’t – hauled her coat back on. ‘Carter and Braydon. Monster one, monster two.’
He laughed, but she just shivered again. They went on in silence. His thoughts jumped around, still scattered by the close scrape: His daughter, at seven, running around in a snowstorm, tongue poked out, giggling her head off. Neptune Beach, his wife’s hands, cool lotion on his sunburned back, rolling around on that motel bed, not caring about the burn. The nights he’d slept in the back of the Crown Vic, his sweat getting into the seats. And that blinding bright day, downtown Indy, three years back, the idiot who’d broadsided him, totaled the Lincoln he’d once driven. He’d shoved away the airbag, the mangled door, tumbled across the wildly tilting street. Then he was yanking the driver out of his car, hitting and hitting him, the other man’s face turning something strange.
‘Hey,’ the girl said, ‘you hungry?’ She reached up, batted the little cardboard pine tree hung from the rearview. ‘Think that’s a diner open back there. Shit, I haven’t had a real bite since Florida. And we could use a break, right?’
They’d just passed through Morocco, making good time, maybe getting ahead of the storm. But he turned around in a driveway leading to a tumbledown grain silo.
‘Sure,’ he said, ‘a little breather.’
The diner was empty except for the waitress and the cook, who were both sitting at the counter watching some baseball movie. ‘Anywhere,’ the waitress said. He and the girl took a booth. She ordered a hot meat-loaf sandwich, mashed potatoes, clam chowder, orange soda. He asked for coffee, a chef salad. ‘Cholesterol,’ he explained.
‘I like a man eats a steak,’ the girl said.
‘Yeah, screw it, steak and eggs,’ he said to the waitress. ‘Medium, over easy.’
He unclipped his tie, undid his top button. Some situation, eating with a client. He couldn’t stop seeing her as a girl. ‘You put people at their ease,’ he said. ‘I can tell.’
‘That’s nice,’ she said, smiling as she sucked on her orange soda. ‘Thank you.’
‘It’s a good trait to have. One of the best.’
Daughter, he wanted to say. My daughter. Instead, he waved at the TV. ‘My dad used to be an umpire. Minor leagues, all over the Midwest. Called a thousand games.’
‘Oh, yeah, was he fair?’
‘Well, we liked him better when he was on the road.’
‘I wouldn’t do it,’ she murmured. ‘All those folks screaming at you.’
Yes. Exactly. All of the idiots blasting their horns, playing with their phones, never looking, never even thinking where they were going. And they let these people keep on, deadly weapons between their hands. It got into you. How many scrapes had he seen? How many wrecks? Had to get out somehow. She’d listen. The warmth of the words gathering – he must have been blushing again. He’d just start telling her.
Outside, the snow was falling only faintly now. They watched it.
‘Maybe I should’ve rode it out down in that crappy bus station,’ she said.
‘This holds up,’ he mumbled, ‘we’re maybe an hour out.’
‘Man, best thing I’ve heard all day.’
The waitress took away their plates. He insisted on paying. ‘To make up for that close scrape,’ he said. She thanked him, said she had to step out, make a call. She wanted to check in with her sister, her boys, tell them she was almost home.
After Gary, the roads were cleared and salted. The Skyway was open, and they had it to themselves, the whole stretch arcing way above the grimy plants and slumped bungalows. A buoyant feeling came upon him. He was excited for her and her family, that moment she came through the door. He’d linger a minute just to see that. With 65 plowed, he’d be back in Indy in time to catch his wife after dinner. He could find the road back.
They came off the Skyway, down to the city proper. He glanced over at her. She blinked several times, as if seeing him for the first time. He thought again of his daughter, just about to go to nursing school, studying to take care of people. When he was younger, he’d wanted to be a firefighter, even took the course, worked volunteer for a year. But the driving – you were always sitting, getting too fat and slow to go up a ladder, still getting home exhausted, all that rage stalled out, stifled, always delivering other people, never arriving yourself. Everyone who got injured, got maimed out here – maybe his daughter would one day take good care of them.
‘Excuse me,’ the girl said, ‘could we pull off here?’
‘Sure. Gas station? Need the bathroom?’
‘Maybe just take this exit.’
He turned off the highway and on to a frontage road with a car wash, a big hardware store, a Chinese buffet. ‘Turn in here,’ she said. The parking lot of a closed down bank, its windows all papered over, scaffolding around all four sides. But the sign for the bank was still lit up bright blue and green. He stopped in the middle of the lot.
‘You don’t want to be dropped here, do you?’
She shook her head, kneaded her hands in her lap. ‘Listen,’ she began, ‘I’m just trying to get home to my kids.’
The heat came back into his cheeks.
‘I’ve only got thirty bucks on me. And this ride is, what, three hundred?’
‘But your card cleared,’ he said in a strangled voice.
‘I called and cancelled it back at that diner. Everything else is maxed out.’ She laughed. The silver was gone. ‘I was hoping we could work something out.’
He looked in the rearview, saw his tire tracks in the fresh snow. On the frontage road, a powder blue Chrysler with rusted fenders moved silently, gray exhaust following. She touched his leg and held her hand there.
‘They’re far away,’ she said. ‘They don’t see. No one sees driving by.’
He put his own hand lightly on top of hers. He followed the progress of the Chrysler. Finally, it disappeared. He looked down, his hand on top of hers, nearly twice the size, her dry, chapped knuckles against his sweating palm.
‘What do you like?’ she said. ‘Just tell me.’
‘No, I –’
‘It’s okay. I knew what I was getting into.’
He wanted to say something, to reassure her, a girl, a young parent. But he couldn’t even look her in the eyes. He picked up her hand, gave it back to her, took his own away. He reached up and put the car into gear.
‘You don’t have to pay.’ The words came out hoarse, ragged. ‘I’ll tell dispatch it was because of that close scrape. Customer accommodation.’
He’d have to fill out an incident report. It’d been his call to drive today, and now he’d have to tell dispatch he’d nearly wrecked. After that, he didn’t know what.
‘I can’t tell you what it means,’ the girl said. ‘I’ve been traveling so long.’
‘I’ll take you home,’ he said.
He merged back onto the highway. After a few miles, she told him to exit into a neighborhood of vinyl-sided bungalows, told him which turns to make. He still wanted to tell her something good. But the memory that rose up: the night he’d come home from driving, wrists, back, head aching, found his daughter emptying a bottle of ketchup all over the new carpet, his wife on the phone in the other room the whole time. How could he explain to her? The world had taken a very long time to right itself.
‘I drove a guy home from the hospital once,’ he began. ‘Him and his girlfriend. He’d been in a coma for three weeks, motorcycle crash. I guess he wanted to go home in style. I told them, ‘Don’t worry about the tip.’’
No, no – not that. Why that?
‘Bet they appreciated it,’ she murmured and told him to pull up to a bungalow with two separate driveways, two front doors. The left half was dark. The right had a light on. He put the Crown Vic in park. Out of the car, it was face-hurt cold but pristine, the kind of clean feeling you got after big snow. He took her backpack from the trunk.
‘Thanks again for lunch.’ She cradled the backpack. ‘You didn’t have to.’
‘For that close scrape,’ he said again. Some reassurance – he could at least give her that, tell her there was always a road back. They stood in the cold another moment.
‘Drive safe,’ she said, walked to the front door, and went inside.
He paced the length of the car, snow squeaking under his shoes. He listened for voices, someone running up to greet her. Instead, there came a dull thunk – something falling, being dropped. Immediately, he stepped toward the door, keys in his fist. But then he stood frozen, rage beating uselessly through him.
He stood in the cold until it was a dull, distant thrum. Then he popped the trunk again, took out the clock, set it on the front step of the bungalow. He got back into the Crown Vic, slumped in the seat, leather creaking under him, engine idling through his bones. He dropped the car into reverse. Then he just sat with his foot on the brake. Minutes went by. He just sat there, holding tight to the wheel.
Image © Chris Waits