He bolted upright out of the dream. Soft light from the window suffused the bedroom walls, early morning sun reflecting off snow. The comforter had slid partially off the bed and he felt cold. His shoulder ached. Then once again the ringing blasted in his ears.The phone rang once more before he could lift the receiver.
“Yeah,” he mumbled, still clearing the fog of sleep from his head.
“Did I wake ya?” his father' s voice asked through the earpiece. There was a worried edge in the old man' s tone.
“That' s okay,” he replied, after a pause.
“Well . . . I got some trouble out here.”
“Trouble? What' s wrong?”
“You know that spotted heifer? Started calving last night. I checked' er this morning and something' s hung up. The calf' s not coming.”
“There' s a foot showing. That' s all. An' I called awhile ago and Doc Grimsley' s outta town.”
“Who? Oh, the vet.”
“And I was wondering . . . when do you teach that class up to the college?”
“What time? Three-thirty.”
“Maybe you oughta come out. I think we' re gonna have to pull that calf.”
“Yeah . . . sounds like it.” He paused, trying to focus everything in his mind. Trying to assess the situation. Then, “How much snow did we get last night?” he asked.
“Well, now. There' s another problem. It ain' t the snow, it' s the ice. It started with freezing rain and we got power lines going down. The electric' s been off here for an hour.”
“Yeah? Well. Okay. Give me a few minutes to eat and shave. I' ll be there.”
“Take it easy on the roads. Don' t know what you' ll run into.”
He replaced the receiver in the cradle and paced back through the bedroom straight into the bathroom. Standing in front of the toilet bowl, he could feel a cold draft drifting up against his naked calves. He washed his hands and threw some water on his face, then stepped back into the bedroom. The dull ache in his shoulder was growing stronger, and he reached up and rubbed the puckered shrapnel scars. Damn, he hated cold air!
* * *
Stepping down off the back porch, his overshoes crunching the icy crust, he should not have been surprised by the world that met him. The chill, bright white silence. The layer of snow like granulated salt topping the ice-glazed landscape. Spirea bushes bowing to the ground. Limbs drooping leadenly from all the trees, some broken and dangling, some lying below. The rays of sunlight keen off the crystals.
He took a few steps toward the garage. The cold air stung his nostrils. The snow was no more than an inch deep, but the walk beneath was solid ice. Luckily he' d pulled the car in last night.
The old Chevy Bel Air started with no trouble, and he cautiously backed it out into the alley and pulled ahead toward the street, the rear wheels spinning at the slightest overacceleration. As he swung onto Twelfth Street, the car spun out and slid across the lanes, the tires nudging the opposite curb. He muttered to himself, righted the vehicle and edged on ahead. All along the way, the scene was the same—limbs lying broken, overhead lines drooping precariously. At least, he mused, the traffic was sparse.
When he reached the highway heading north, he was relieved to see that it had been plowed. But the glassy ice patches on the blacktop still looked treacherous. He held his speed down to 20 miles per hour. When he came to the steel bridge across the river, he slowed a little and nearly coasted across. It looked as though it had been dipped in clear, shining syrup and dried hard.
He remembered driving this highway every day last summer when the heat had baked the foliage brown and dust-coated the weeds in the ditches. Driving on the way to the nursing home where, standing in the small room by the air conditioner, the cold air freezing the metal in his shoulder, he would look into his mother' s face, hoping to see some remnant there of recognition. Some momentary retrieval of the linkage to “son.” But the quiet process of the malignancy had kept doing its work, honey-combing her memory, appropriating every last familial connection. Until, near the end, in one last mocking gesture, it would leave her a babbling infant, holding out her arms to the white-uniformed aide and crying, “Mama!”
He looked in the rearview mirror and saw a red pickup truck coming up rapidly. It caught up to him as he reached the first of the rolling hills, then began to tailgate him impatiently.
He slowed further as he approached the next crossroad and signaled right, edging over to allow the truck to pass. It sped by with a roar, fishtailing as it steered back into the right lane, and vanished over the next hill. On these roads he wouldn' t chance that speed on a bet. As he passed the crossroad, he looked both ways and saw the telephone line running beside it had snapped. The snow on the roadway was still unbroken.
He held his speed steady and topped the next rise and there down below was the red pickup, slid rear end first into the steep ditch. The driver' s door was open and a man in a jean jacket and Levi' s was climbing out. It didn' t appear anyone was hurt. He contemplated the mishap as he drew even with the truck. A heifer in distress, he told himself, should take priority over a damn fool any day. He continued on up the next rise.
Why Do We Exist?
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Literary Fiction, Noir, Pulp Fiction, Short Stories