It was 2 a.m. and maybe two below zero on a Christmas morning as I stood outside of a trailer in a small town in eastern Arkansas getting dumped again.
"I was fifteen when I met you," Jenny was saying. "Can you believe that? That's five years we've been doing this."
"It was a nice party," was all I could think of to say.
She stared at me. The anger drained from her face. "Go home," she said. "I'm done. I'm out. I'm too old for this. Just go home."
"Don't you want your Christmas present?"
She laughed. "Well that wouldn't be very fair, would it?"
She stalked up the steps and slammed the trailer door closed, and I thought about that real nice girl I'd dumped a couple months ago to get back with this one. She had been safe, that was the problem. Going to school to be a nurse. Funny. Smart. Nice. But this one who was probably hopping into couch (couldn't afford a bed) with that reject from the Cure guy inside the trailer while I stood outside shaking; we had history. We'd taken turns dumping each other for five years. Every time Halloween rolled around, I'd start getting phone calls late at night, letters. Things would pick up by Thanksgiving. Then, some time in January when the holidays were over, we'd stop seeing each other. Sort of like family. But you always knew you'd see them again next year.
Halloween, that said it all. Every time Halloween came around, here she came, out of the clouds, riding across the moon and we took turns riding each other around town, and sweeping up the year with each other.
So I got in my car and shivered back to my father's house and waited for dawn. The road was white and smooth with ice. It had been raining for about a week, and then the temperature dropped below zero, burying everything in a crust of ice. The town was like an old shoe covered in white dust. It didn't fit anymore. So, when the family started showing up, I said my hellos and my goodbyes, and headed back to the other side of the state where I went to college, under the pretense of beating the storm which was heading for the same place I was.
I was muttering along with "Wish You Were Here," flying down the road, about an hour from school. I lit a cigarette and was waiting for the next verse when I hit the ice and was suddenly going backwards. My car slid off the interstate, along the side of a gulley for twenty feet, crossed the gulley and slammed into a tree on the other side. The impact of the tree caved in my driver’s side door. My car bounced off and finally stopped, the radio still playing. I forced my door open, climbed out and inspected the damage.. It seemed okay, except for the door. The engine hadn’t even died. I got back in. Everything was crazy inside. All of my tapes had been scattered; trash and things I’d forgotten were even in the car were all over. I couldn't find my cigarette, but I didn't really care.
A man in a truck pulled up on the shoulder above me.
"Storm's coming," he said. "You alright?"
"Yeah. I'll limp along to the next town."
He eyed the car. "I don't think you'll get far in that. I can give you a ride."
"Nah, I'm alright."
He took off and I got back to it.
I edged the car back up the muddy incline to the road. No one was in sight. It was starting to snow, then. I noticed for the first time a thin white layer of ice on the road. Hind sight: that's when you can look back and see that you've shown your ass.
I nudged the car onto the icy road, and as soon as the rear tires left the rocky mud of the shoulder, the rear end swerved around completely to the other side of the road. I tried again from the opposite side of the road, edging the car slowly onto the pavement, and again, my rear end slapped around like a rubber chicken. I decided to stay on the shoulder of the passing lane, where the bumpy, frozen mud clods afforded me a sort of control; they barely allowed my car to move, therefore it couldn’t go crazy.
A couple yards later I noticed a police car pacing me in the slow lane. I stopped the car, and she waved me over so I hopped out, and trotted across the interstate.
“Don’t ever do that again,” she said.
I stared at her.
“Someone might’ve hit you. Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m just trying to make it to the nearest town,” I said. “Atkins.” It was more of a question than a statement.
“Road’s closed,” she said.
“I’ll just find a truck stop or something,” I said.
She looked at me real hard for a second, then pointed at my car. “You’re not going anywhere like that, you’re just grinding your rear tire. Axle’s probably broke.”
I looked at my car. The rear passenger side tire stood out a good thirty degrees away from the car. I was reminded of my sister‘s front teeth, when we were kids. They had a gap she could stick her finger between.
“I can make it to the next exit,” I said. "Long as I stay on the shoulder, where it's slow."
“Get in the back,” she said.
I opened the door to the back seat and got in.
“And don’t close it, just pull it to, or you won’t be able to get back out unless someone lets you out,” she said a second after I closed it.
She called a tow truck, and I watched the back of her head as she stared into space with a sullen, calm look on her face, a hard look, somewhere in between self reliance and a hangover.
“You trying to get to your parents’?”
“Fayetteville. I'm a student.”
“Bad time to drive.” She stared back into space. I wondered if she wrote poetry.
The tow truck finally came. “I’ll talk to you at the station,” the cop said and left. I watched her until she was out of sight and crossed the Interstate. There were two men in a flat bed tow truck. One was a tall, obese man with long, curly brown hair and a round face. The other was thin and nervous looking. They looked like they wanted to invite me home for dinner, but they were afraid I'd fart in front of their dog. I didn’t trust them. Just because my car was totaled, didn’t mean I wanted it scratched.
“Let me get some things out first,“ I said, just to have something to do. I grabbed my backpack and fished my cigarettes out, then I messed around inside the car for a minute. I still thought I could make it to the nearest town if they'd just let me go. It was embarrassing, these people taking over my life. When I ran out of things to fiddle with, I climbed out and stood beside my car and watched the two men haul it up onto their truck. They climbed in and looked at me. I looked back.
The thin one leaned out. “Guess you're riding with us.” I squeezed between them in the cab. The truck was dirty and cluttered. There was a pack of Marlboros sitting on the console. They were listening Iron Maiden loud, which I suppose is the way to listen to them.
“Let me get one of them Marlboros from you, Tony,” the thin one said.
“Ain’t got no more.” I glanced at the pack on the console which looked nearly full.
"I've got one." What the hell. I dug mine out and offered them around.
“Thanks,” they both said, nervously, and we rode the rest of the way without speaking.
Outside, the frozen ground coasted by us slowly. I could smell oil burning with a hard edge of cold.
They dropped me off at the police station in Ozark, which is a hill pretending to be a town.
“Hungry?” The same cop said when I got inside. I couldn’t see the name on her badge.
“No, thanks,” I said. She led me through the station to the kitchen. I never knew police stations had kitchens before. An old man was leaning against a counter, sipping a cup of coffee, wearing baby blue jail issue clothes faded with age.
“Get him something to eat,” she told him, and left me.
“Turkey.” He said.
“What?” I said, offended. He fixed me a plate and sat me down at a card table in the corner.
“I got you turkey and ham. Hope sweet tea’s alright,” he said.
"Yep," he said. I wondered what he’d done. DUI, maybe; he had a sort of shaky look about him.
After I ate, the cop showed up again.
“Looks like you’re gonna be here for the night,” she said. “I called your parents. Got any money? Cause if you don’t, we can make arrangements.”
I said I did and we loaded up and she dropped me off at a motel. All of my luggage was underneath Jenny's presents in my trunk, so I left them.
The room was clean and decorated in varying shades of beige with a light greenish-grey carpet. The bedspread had dull flower patterns on it.. I tossed my backpack on the bed. There was a TV against one wall but it didn't work. I sat on a chair by the window, watching the snow fall, and thought about some things. Danger, that's what it was all about. Jenny was wild. Jenny was sexy. Jenny liked to be spanked. Jenny came after me with a knife one time and tried to castrate me when I called her a whore. There was something in her eyes that could make a man kick a hole in the sky. It wasn't love. It was sex. A formless hormonal lust that she floated in like the dead sea.
While I was thinking, I was trying to light a cigarette, but my hands were shaking like a Parkinson's sufferer. I got up to go to the bathroom and discovered that the toilet had overflowed because the pipes had burst. I laid towels out. There was a can of potpourri spray sitting on the back of the toilet. It reminded me of Doug, this mulleted looser Jenny used to hang out with. Once, she'd dragged me to his trailer to do whiffets. Everyone sat around listening to Tool taking hits. When we emptied a can, we tossed it to the side and grabbed another one from the pile of cans. I was afraid to do the whiffets, because I didn't want to put Doug's towel in my mouth to inhale the gas. Who knew where it had been.
Every so often his grandmother would get up and stand outside the door, listening. No one could hear her but Doug. He would shush everyone, jerk the door open and placate her.
After we'd run through a dozen cans of potpourri, Doug took Amy, his girlfriend, into the other room and Jenny laid down on his bed. Her hair flayed out like a halo and I wanted to cry. She told me about how she was gang raped by five high school football players at a party the year before, during our off season.
"Who was it?" I asked.
"You wouldn't know them, they were black guys."
"I know some black guys," I said.
"They're really big guys," she said.
Doug and Amy came back and Jenny led me into another room. She laid on the bed and I stared at her for several seconds.
"We have to be quiet," she said. "Or Doug's grandma will throw us out. Leave your clothes on in case she comes in."
I got into bed with her but all I could think about was those guys.
"Nevermind," she said.
I got up and stood over her. "Can I stay in bed with you?" I asked.
She flashed me that smile, like a dark lake at night that I knew I couldn't swim.
I decided to hike out to the truck stop next door. I was getting hungry again.
In between the hotel and the truck stop was a parking lot the size of the red sea, covered with ice. There was a small hill before the parking lot, which I slid down. I stepped tentatively onto the frozen waves and immediately slipped and fell flat on my back. I staggered to my feet, accomplished two steps, then fell again. Very slowly and very carefully I managed maybe ten feet across the ice. I could see someone I took to be a trucker, dressed in jeans, overweight, in a tee shirt, standing by the door of the truck stop. I took a step and fell. From the ground, I could see him laughing. I glared at him till he went inside. I rose, took a few more steps. The ice was so thick that when I fell, I hardly cracked it. I fell again. When I looked up, there were two men laughing. I quit looking up. After I'd made it about halfway, mostly on my hands and knees, I risked another glance. The men were gone. Probably gotten bored of watching me fall down and gone back inside where it was warm.
I finally made it to the truck stop tired, bruised and so sore I could hardly bleed, just as they were closing the Subway. I stood and dripped on the tile floor, watching the employees wipe down the sandwich making station. I bought a couple of Cokes, some peanuts and things and a tee shirt to change into. It said "Road Kill Cafe," on the back, and had a list of animals commonly spotted lying dead on the side of major highways, with suggestions on how to prepare them as food. It was gray.
I went back outside to face the parking lot again. I looked down at myself. I was dressed very nicely, actually. Slacks, nice leather shoes, a button-up shirt and a long, black leather duster. I was dressed to meet the parents, except now I was covered in mud, wet and miserable; my slacks stained and ruined, my shirt the same. If I were a betting man, I would’ve bet on the other man.
I made it back to my room and collapsed in the nearest chair. I nibbled peanuts, lit a cigarette and attempted to bring it to my lips. I still couldn’t seem to find them. I was still too nervous from everything that’d happened. I stripped off my wool sweater and put on the tee-shirt then I stared at the walls.
The phone rang. I stared at it for a few seconds, then carefully picked it up. It was Melissa, a girl I hadn’t talked to in over a year. The last time I’d talked to her was to tell her I was in love with Jenny.
“How’d you get this number?” I asked, suddenly terrified.
“I called your father’s house to wish you a Merry Christmas. He said you were in a wreck.”
“The police must’ve told him where I was,” I said. “Yeah, I was in a wreck.” I didn’t believe her. Obviously this was some sort of trick.
“So are you okay?”
“I’m fine, how are you?”
“I’m good. So what have you been up to? Still going to school?”
I had to hold the phone with both hands, I was shaking so badly. Melissa always had a sweet voice, I kept thinking over and over. Calm. Boring.
“You sure you’re okay?” She asked.
I told her what had happened.
"It's for the best," she said. "Maybe you should lay off, and just be single for awhile. Take a break."
"You know," I said. "I was a real dick to you."
"Yeah, you were."
Two days later they reopened 540 and my friend Eric braved the interstate with his 4 wheel drive to pick me up and take me home. He'd been stuck in another town behind me with two of our friends. My room mate's sister was stuck further along the road. We'd all toughed it out until the interstate was drivable again.
I chatted the whole way about my plans for the coming year, how I hoped to be more sociable, try new things, learn to dance. Eric dropped us off at home, and my room mate and I stumbled up the stairs. Our apartment was freezing. The power was off. The snow storm had knocked out power to half the state, as well as large portions of Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, even up to Kansas.
My room mate walked over to our stove and turned it on.
"Gas," he said.
"Crank it all the way up," I said.
We stowed our things, and when the apartment got too toasty, we opened the sliding door, brushed the snow off of our balcony chairs and propped our feet up. The trees were thick with ice, their branches round and smooth.
"How long before you get your car back?" He asked.
"Said it'll be two, three weeks all told. New rear axle, new door. Maybe they'll fix that crack in the windshield, though."
"Yeah, probably. Insurance covering it?"
"Well that's all right then."
The road below us was lined with dark groves worn into the snow. A car came by too fast and screeched into a tree, knocking ice off of some of the branches. We could hear the thud echoing between the buildings. The driver climbed out and looked around.
"Wow," Steven said.
"Yeah. Hey, I never asked, how was your break?"
"Fine. Nothing to speak of."
I went inside and returned with a couple beers. When I got back, the driver had gotten back in her car and was trying to back it out.
"She having any luck?" I asked.
"No. Fucking weather."
The heat from the stove wafted out over us. I handed him a beer and we sat there a while, watching.