Monday, March 17, 2008


Jeanne was looking at the pickup turned over in the frozen grass about twenty feet off the highway and so she didn’t see the patch of black ice until she hit it. The pickup’s headlights were still on. There was a highway patrol car parked on the side of the road just below it. She could see the officer sitting inside. Why was he just sitting there? Jeanne wondered, as the Cadillac hit the ice and glided off the road.

Fucking hell.” The car was heavy and going about seventy miles an hour. The entire road had become a skating rink. She couldn’t stop the slide until the tires hit the gravel on the shoulder of the road and caught and then, good and spooked, she slowed down to a crawl. She was stuck in some kind of freak storm, because it was March and she’d had the air conditioning on not a hundred miles back. Climbing into the mountains, it had started to rain and then hail. Now the snow was falling in fine flakes that blew and drifted and made it hard to see the road. Jeanne had no experience driving in snow. Roy should be driving, but he was asleep in the passenger seat, sick with the flu since yesterday, and so here she was, creeping along a treacherous road in the failing light. Besides the flipped over pickup and the patrol car, she hadn’t seen another vehicle in an hour.

The snow was billowing now, engulfing what was left of the day. It boiled up over the road in great gouts, and her brain, deprived of other stimuli, tried to resolve these shifting flurries into things that couldn’t be there: a child’s Big Wheel, a lion crouched in the oncoming lane, a giant humanoid shape shambling toward her. It was like dreaming, the way her eyes played tricks on her with these phantom shapes in the snow. Barely able to make out the road, she could feel the ice when the tires lost traction and the car skated sideways before catching again. It was all more than a little unnerving, so when the lights of a truck stop loomed out of the whiteness, she was more than ready to get off the road. Still going slow, Jeanne pulled up to the main building and shut the car off. Through the snow she could make out a couple of semis parked nearby, but there was no one at the pumps. Inside, a lone cashier was cleaning the glass that covered a selection of lottery tickets. Otherwise the place seemed deserted.

The cashier looked up from her work and greeted Jeanne. “Some whiteout, huh?”

“I couldn’t see a thing,” Jeanne said. “Except for an accident a ways back, I haven’t seen anything but snow in a while.”


“A red pickup hit the ice and flipped over. It didn’t look like the vehicle suffered a lot of damage, but the police were there, and they weren’t doing much, so maybe there was nothing to do.”

“A red pickup? Did it have chrome bumpers?”

Jeanne frowned. “I think it did have chrome bumpers, now that you mention it.”

“No—” The cashier’s face was stark dismay. “Jesus, are you sure?”

“I’m not sure,” Jeanne said. “Who—?” The woman was already around the counter, pulling on her coat.

“My boyfriend,” she said, and she was gone. A puff of snow blew in the door as it swung closed behind her.

Jeanne watched as she disappeared into the snow. Should she have offered to help? She didn’t want to go back out in that for anything, and she couldn’t forget Roy. She couldn’t leave him out in the car, not sick like he was. She looked around the deserted store. There was a restaurant area off to the left, but it had only stools to sit on. That wouldn’t work. She walked past the aisles of merchandise into the back. There were public restrooms off to the right, and a hallway to the left with a sign above it that said, “Drivers’ Facilities,” and a smaller one below that that said, “Professional drivers only.” It might be a long night. She’d have a look around and she what she could find. Maybe there was a place back there where Roy could lay down and rest until they could get going again.

Jeanne heard the sound of a tap running, and as she rounded a corner, she saw a short woman in high heels standing at a sink surrounded by washers and dryers. The woman called out without turning around, “Hey, Tammy, I’ll be right out. I’m just getting cleaned up.” She shut off the tap and tugged the hem of her short skirt down her thighs. She adjusted her tank top.

“Um, Tammy’s gone.”

“What?” The woman spun around. “Where’s Tammy? Who are you?”

“She thought her boyfriend might have been in an accident, so she left. I’m Jeanne.”

The door adjacent to the laundry area opened just then. A man poked his head out. He had on a Nascar ball cap, which he wore folded up into itself so that it sat high on his bald pate. The bill was rolled down on the sides, which were decorated with yellow and orange flames. There was some indeterminate signature in yellow across one side.

“Chi,” he said, addressing the woman at the sink, “I need to eat something. You cooking?”

“Sure,” Chi said, “just as soon as I figure out what the hell’s going on.” The guy in the ball cap withdrew behind the door. Chi turned to Jeanne. “You say Tammy’s boyfriend was in an accident?”

Jeanne explained the overturned pickup, the black ice, the whiteout. “Damn,” Chi said, shaking her head. “I’m on my own here, then, and right now I’ve got to cook that dude some grub. What about you—you hungry?”

“I am,” she said, and she was. Since he’d fallen sick, Roy couldn’t stand the smell of food, so Jeanne hadn’t eaten anything solid since yesterday. “But first I’ve got to get my boyfriend out of the car. He’s sick with the flu. Is there somewhere back here where he can lay down?”

“Down the hall there’s a couple of rooms with fold-up cots in ‘em. Put him in one of those.” With that, Chi headed out front while Jeanne went to find a place for Roy. She opened the first door and discovered a room with a cot, but there was a man sitting on it. He was wearing only a towel.

“Oh, hey—you looking for a shower, ma’am? That’s down the hall.” Jeanne apologized for disturbing him and backed out of the room. At the next door, she knocked quietly before opening it. Inside there was a cot, which, it appeared, no one else had yet laid claim to.

Satisfied, Jeanne went out to the car. Roy wasn’t happy to be woken up. “What are you doing?” he barked. “Why did you stop? I told you not to stop.” She helped him stand up, explaining that the roads were too bad to keep going, so they were going to have to stay here for a bit.

“Fucking Chirst, Jeannie! Can’t you even drive a car through a few mountains? What the hell are you good for, anyway?” She apologized as she helped him get into an upright position beside the car. He stood there swaying, smelling of sour sweat and greasy hair. “Damn women,” he said. “Can’t rely on them for anything.” She led him into the truck stop and back to the room inside. He settled onto the cot and lay there shivering. She looked around for something to cover him with, and, finding nothing, finally took off her coat and draped it over him. She left the door open so she would hear him if he called out for her.

Jeanne crossed to the restaurant area. Nascar hat guy was sitting on a stool at the counter, watching Chi cook something on the grill. As Jeanne approached he looked her up and down. She’d forgotten how she was dressed—in one of those tops that Roy liked her to wear, tight and cut low. Nascar hat’s gaze lingered for a long moment on her breasts.

Chi leaned over the counter. “I’m making him some eggs,” she said. “What are you in the mood for?” Jeanne looked up at the short menu posted above the grill.

“Maybe she’s in the mood for one of your special coffees,” Nascar hat smirked. “I’m always up for one of those, myself.”

“That special is over for the day, hon,” Chi said, without looking around.

“Special coffee?” Jeanne said, “What’s that?”

“About fifty bucks,” Nascar said, still smirking.

“Fifty bucks, huh? Is it made with coffee beans that have passed through the digestive tracks of small African cats?”

Chi barked laughter. “No, not exactly.” She put a plate of eggs and hash browns in front of Nascar hat, shooting him a meaningful glare as she did. He put his head down and began shoveling eggs into his mouth. “Your toast will be another minute.” She turned to Jeanne. “What about you, sweets?”

“How about an omelet?”

“Cheese and mushroom okay? Two eggs or three?”

“Three, please.”

“You just sit yourself down while I get that together for you,” Chi said, turning back to her grill. Jeanne didn’t want to sit down yet. Her body, tight from sitting behind a wheel for ten hours, was just starting to loosen up.

“I’m going to get myself a coffee from over here,” she said. The dark liquid she poured from the urn smelled fresh and good. She was adding cream when the man with the towel came up behind her. He was wearing jeans now, with a sweatshirt and sneakers.

“Your husband sounds pretty bad in there,” he said. “His breathing is rough. Maybe you should look in on him, make sure he’s not about to kick it.”

The thought of Roy dying left Jeanne strangely unmoved. “Boyfriend,” she corrected him. “I’ll go see.” Jeanne grabbed some Gatoraid from the cooler on the way back into the Drivers’ Facilities area. She made a mental note of the price, adding it to the price of the coffee.