The Runner-Up Story From the 2012 Hillerman Short Story Contest
Of all the questions he had bouncing around in his head at that particular moment the one which insisted on being addressed immediately was this: Do I continue at this dangerous snail’s pace or just pull on over and hope for the best? Either choice presented its own set of problems, the first revolving around slick curves on these dangerous mountain roads, not to mention the random overconfident oncoming driver who was almost daring Mother Nature to trip him up, or even worse, those with their mighty 4-wheel drive charging up from behind him. Because there was no seeing anything until you practically hit it, not in these conditions.
But simply pulling over somewhere safe (wherever that might conceivably be) and waiting it out almost seemed as if you were just asking for it, as if you were throwing in the towel and passively leaving it all to blind luck, and blind was definitely the operative word here. Besides, he’d always considered himself a take-charge kind of guy, a steady force in a panic if not exactly heroic, and since he was already in a state of forward movement, albeit slow and extremely deliberate, he thought it best to continue as such and not risk any change – change seemed like a bad idea. And who knows, this could all end just around the corner, up beyond the next bend in the road, on the other side of the valley.
So he crept along, not so much a choice but as a concession to the laws of physics, two hands melded onto the wheel, two eyes tethered to that slick patch of asphalt just beyond his front fender where the road ought to be and, somewhat miraculously, continued to be.
Hard to believe that only a short time ago – half an hour, forty-five minutes tops – he had been sitting comfortably in a roadside diner finishing off a burger and sipping a coke, thanking his lucky stars that he had gotten through that rough patch back near Tucumcari. Out there on the interstate, out on the open road, there was nothing to block the north wind and when you add a lot of snow to the mix you suddenly find yourself in a pickle, and you pray to God that there is not even one trucker pulling eighteen wheels out here among you that is late on a delivery and who gobbled a handful of caffeine pills before he threw that rig into drive. The truckers were cocky enough, they sure didn’t need any additional challenges to prove their manhood while at the same time providing more drama for all the rest of us. He knew, he’d seen it before, just outside of Amarillo on I-40 a few years back and some of those fools appeared out of the icy mist like spewing whales on roller skates, spraying all that crud straight onto his windshield and into the beating path of poor overworked wipers, then passing him on the left like the climax to some kind of ridiculous boast.
And yet this wasn’t the open road, these were the high roads leading into the Sangre de Cristo mountains which cut through valleys surrounded on all sides by tall protective pines. Still, somehow, the wind managed to howl and the snow blew.
What he wouldn’t give to be back at that roadside diner in that cozy corner booth, dusting off a slice of pecan pie, absorbing the mindless chitchat and the piped-in mariachi muzak and all the assorted clinks and clanks – to be warm, content, and absolutely safe.
Why had he been in such a hurry?
Why was he always in such a hurry?
The satellite radio, essentially ignored during the initial stage of the ordeal, was set to the Real Jazz station and presently a mellow version of Summertime by Chet Baker quite annoyingly wafted throughout the Elantra. He had no way of knowing that for the rest of his life upon randomly hearing this particular tune, by Chet or anyone else – yes, even the spirited Lambert, Hendricks & Ross version, his hands would get sweaty and he would be pricked by tiny needles of expanding dread.
From out of nowhere a pick-up truck materialized and blasted past him and sure enough this guy was moving at a healthy clip with his oversized tires and his secured chains and most importantly with his knowledge of every bend in the road. No doubt a local who had seen it all before and this storm probably didn’t register much at all in his hierarchy of troubles, just a tiny blip dinging his inner radar, and obviously the man had someplace that he needed to get to and that was that.
He took his eyes off the road for only a second to watch those red tail lights quickly disappear in the twisting swirl of the rear view mirror. Damn. He would have liked to maybe just pull on over and join the guy regardless of wherever it was that he so badly needed to get to – hey, I’m destination-flexible, handy with a snow shovel and steady if not heroic in a panic! He would have hopped right on in, warmed his hands in front of the steady blast from the dashboard heater, and forgotten all about his own private tribulations.
Now in this sudden twilight he felt all alone, abandoned and sad.
But those feelings were swamped by raw gut-wrenching adrenaline when he jerked the wheel and pulled his car back onto the road narrowly avoiding a steep plunge down into a ravine. This was no time for feeling anything but wide awake and focused – anything less and down you would most assuredly go, down, down, down, until you reached the icy riverbed and your object in motion would meet an immovable force and come to a sudden violent stop, and that was a change that you sure didn’t want to initiate.
It was odd though. Try as hard as he might his attention was being nudged away from the matter at hand by distant echoes reverberating inside his head, a familiar voice being heard saying don’t stop here, you can’t help him now.
It was a feeling of déjà vu, a flash of remembrance, but his mind couldn’t quite get a handle on it. He blinked his eyes quickly as he refocused his attention on the treacherous road and tried to get a grip.
It was getting prematurely dark and a now new light shone through from just up ahead. He braced for another car to come passing by but there was only the one light, not two. In fact it seemed to emanate from a stationary point, from the front porch of a little adobe casita, and he tapped the brakes and coaxed his vehicle onto the gravel drive way.
Don’t stop here, you can’t help him now.
The warning still faintly rattled around in the outer regions of his brain but in the interest of his own self-preservation he ignored it. Maybe he couldn’t help him (whoever him was) right now but the truth was he was more concerned with his own salvation at the moment.
Once he got out of the car he could clearly see that the dwelling was not actually a home but more of a country store. At least an OPEN sign hung from inside the window which, despite the falling darkness, he took as a welcoming portent. He could smell the pinon smoke but not actually see from where it came, so thick the snow still fell, and he looked back from where his car had come and the road appeared almost impassable now, a white tunnel of accreting ice fading off into the heavy gray dusk and then into nothing.
Despite his dire circumstances he did feel a pang of apprehension as he stepped onto the porch and prepared to open the door. Without question the proprietors and anyone else that he discovered abiding inside would be surprised to receive a customer or any kind of visitor at this late hour and in this never-ending blizzard, perhaps they might even be settling down for a nice quiet supper, and he was not much for such interruptions, whether receiving them or, in this case, giving them. Surely they would understand that he was but mere wandering soul in search of a temporary sanctuary, lost and cold and in need of a little respite until either the storm blew over or a sympathetic elf dropped by and whisked him away in a sleigh.
He stepped to the door, gave it three pleasant knocks, then turned the knob and went in.
Inside the light was muted but the warmth and the rich familiar smells of native New Mexico made him feel at ease. He gently stamped his shoes on the welcome mat which read Hope Lives Here and then scanned the room with squinting eyes as they adjusted to the dimness. Music played softly from unseen speakers, the tranquil meanderings of Native American flute, and his footsteps made the wooden floor creak and groan.
He waited a moment for some kind of a response but his inquiry was met with silence. His initial pang of apprehension coalesced into a more pointed concern, that of unlawful entry and trespassing.
“Are you open?” he asked again, this time a little louder and directed toward what looked like a counter stuck off in a corner from where an old iron cash register assumed a gargoyle-like perch.
“We’re always open,” a man’s voice cheerfully replied from somewhere behind him and he almost soiled his undies. He turned with a spastic jerk and with disbelieving eyes he saw the old gent now, sitting at a small table near the front door. He had walked right past him.
With some effort the old man stood up and approached him.
“You look like you could use something… a hot meal, a hot bath, a hot cup of coffee?”
Still somewhat unnerved he began to mumble something in the affirmative and reached to accept the old man’s knotty handshake.
“Well two out of three wouldn’t be so bad but right now all I got is the hot coffee,” he said with a chuckle. “I suspect that on a day such as this one out of three will be okay with you? It’s on the house.”
The old fellow shuffled toward the counter where a fresh pot could always be found.
“The name is Gabe,” he offered as he wiped clean a ceramic mug. “I’m from Woody’s neck of the woods, Okemah, Okay, a good day’s drive back the other way down the Mother Road. Just an old truck driver passin’ through… liked what I saw so I thought I’d stay awhile. Or for however long it took.”
<>p>Having filled the mug with fresh brew the old man turned to address his visitor.
“So what neck of the woods do you call home?”
And so they chatted for a spell while the grateful refugee sat on a stool by the counter and sipped his coffee. It was an enchanting blend that tasted of nut with a hint of chocolate, and the more he drank the more it intoxicated him but in the opposite manner, removing the blur and causing all to come into great focus, like a series of slides proffered by an optometrist – another sip, another slide, and then finally, voila – true clarity!
The store was filled with an eccentric hodgepodge of artifacts and curiosities, some for sale but most only providing excellent fodder for conversation. A clay sculpture of two hands finding one another, enjoined, holding on for dear life. Figurines of Catholic saints, mosaic bowls and turquoise pots. A row of colorful Kachina dolls, eyes closed, mouths shut as if under a vow of silence.
“No hurry – you stay as long as you need. Just know that I’m here for you.”
So who did this guy think he was? Some kind of self-professed mystic man, a wannabe Native American shaman?
“And you’re here for me too.”
And with that the old fellow grinned and winked.
The refugee looked out the window where the winter storm had only moments ago raged. But now the wind had died down and the visibility improved and he saw the blinking lights materialize in the distance, and there was a large semi-trailer truck twisted in the snow and a man lying there beside it.
Don’t stop here, you can’t help him now.
But he had stopped.
Clarity – the memory crystallized in his mind.
And that voice… the voice of Karla.
He turned back to face old Gabe.
“You mean I’m… I’m…”
“No. Not you.”
When he turned once again to face the confusing scene outside the window he saw that every one of those Kachina dolls’ eyes were wide open, then winking. The window was now open as well and the sun was shining and birds were singing and there was an arm reaching inside and so instinctively he reached for it and squeezed her warm revitalizing hand.
The assembled doctors had all witnessed small miracles before, given enough time most do, and the honest among them were willing to admit that there are forces at work out there that lie beyond our control, so when out of the blue he finally responded by clutching Karla’s hand they weren’t that shocked, just pleasantly surprised. Those forces are in fact unknowable, but they might possibly conjoin the grace of a creative force with the stimulation of a few stubborn brain cells within that tiny hovel where hope still lives, and a sudden jolt of light and love can reanimate almost anything.
In time he learned of the wretched state of the interstate that day, of the pile-up that occurred just outside of Tucumcari, and of Karla’s urgent warning. They had succeeded in pulling over to the side but behind them they could hear the screeching brakes of other vehicles and then the inevitable crunch of grinding metal upon metal.
Still, he had stopped, he had offered help, and he never knew what hit him, what dragged him almost fifty yards down hard pavement, what left him pinned beneath hot ticking engines and burning rubber and then catapulted into a supernatural journey.
Maybe one day he’d feel the need to tell Karla all about it, when it felt right and he knew that he’d absorbed enough of the lesson to perhaps begin to understand it. And when he sensed that she was ready to hear it. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t, maybe he’d just sit back on those not-so-rare occasions when folks pontificated on their own opinions regarding death and the possibility of some form of afterlife. Maybe he’d just sit back and smile, recall all those winking Kachina dolls, and let those folks have their say.
Noble K. Thomas is a financial planner residing with his wife Lou Ann in Edmond, OK. He also operates the independent music label Medicine Park Recordings. A few of his previous writings are currently available as ebooks at amazon.com/author/noblethomas. In the early 1980s Thomas attended the University of New Mexico and considers the Land of Enchantment a second home.