Short Story / Writers / Writing

William Cass – Road Crew

Road Crew

By William Cass

 

 

If I told you I wasn’t dreading that Saturday morning, I’d be lying. I sat with three other people, all of whom had arrived after me, on hard plastic chairs in a small, brightly-lit anteroom between the main police station entrance and the jail itself. The officer that had checked us in was at a metal desk behind a little window in the wall doing paperwork, maybe regarding the personal belongings we’d left with him.

We all took turns not looking at one another: three males and a female. By his clothes and hair and manner, I figured the man next to me to be an executive of some sort. He was about ten years older than me, maybe forty, forty-five, and wore roundish, horn-rimmed glasses. The other guy, I took for a logger. He was surly-looking as they come. He might have been about my age, though it was hard to tell with the cap, the whiskers, and those veiled eyes. The girl was perhaps twenty-two. If I’d seen her at a party or a bar, I would have looked twice.

The clock was the only thing on the wall; it said 8:35 when another officer in a blue uniform and brown jacket came in. He was wearing a gun in a holster, mirrored sunglasses, and chewed on a toothpick like some television cop. He leaned through the window and took a clipboard from the other side of the wall. The officer at the desk looked up at him once and then returned his attention to his papers.

The new officer moved the toothpick in his mouth and studied the clipboard for a while. Then he said to no one in particular, “A shoplifter, two DUI’s, and a cannabis lover. Nice intimate group this morning.”

The officer at the desk smiled but didn’t look up from his work. The second officer looked at each of us steadily for a few seconds. “All right,” he finally said. “I’ll be your guard. Let’s go out to the van.”

We followed him outside where a plain white van with government plates sat idling at the curb. He opened the back and we climbed in, two of us on bench seats on each side. He didn’t lock the doors. Another officer with muscles and a neat crew cut sat in the driver’s seat. Our guard got in the passenger seat next to him, and we pulled away.

There wasn’t much to look at. In the van, besides ourselves, there was a box of orange vests, a box of orange hardhats, a box of white trash bags with a few of those squeeze devices for picking up debris, and a cooler. Our guard poured himself steaming coffee from a tall thermos up front. Low country music played on the radio. Other than that and the rumble of the van, it was quiet.

We stayed on surface streets until we got on I-90 going west. We drove for quite a ways on the interstate out of Spokane, out past Cheney and the college, past Tyler where my parents had their little farm, and beside the long fields that continued, really, until Ellensburg. There was nothing to see out there either. It was November, and most of the fields had been turned under.

 

Every now and then, we passed a fence with a small sign framed with bicycle streamers that identified a crop: potatoes, wheat, corn. Signs designating empty fields. I snorted a little laugh and shook my head. The logger glanced up at me sullenly. I looked back outside and watched the big shadows of clouds creep across the fields.

The heater was on. Our guard smoked cigarettes and drank coffee.

Once, the girl whispered, “I guess trying to bum one of those from him is out of the question.”

No one said anything then or for the rest of the ride. It was close in there.

 

At Sprague, we turned off on a county road that fronted the interstate. We passed some farmhouses. On the front porch of one, an old lady sat looking out past us and past the interstate. I thought that she’d probably built that house thinking she’d only look at the county road the rest of her life. But things had changed, hadn’t they? And not necessarily for the better. There was almost no traffic.

Maybe ten minutes later, we turned off on Route 23, a two-lane blacktop going north, to where, I have no idea. Soon thereafter, we pulled onto the shoulder and stopped. Our guard came around back and let us out. He handed each of us a vest, a hard hat, one of the pick-up devices, and a dozen or so trash bags. He slammed the doors and lifted a hand to the driver who was watching in the side mirror. The driver shifted gears and drove off up Route 23 continuing north. Then we were standing there on the side of the road, the five of us under the white light of an endless sky, pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

 

Our guard took the toothpick out of his mouth. “All right,” he said. “Here’s how this works. It’s pretty simple. Two of you on one side of the road, two on the other. One from each pair goes off up the highway about fifty yards or so where I can still see you. Put everything you collect in a bag and work towards each other. Cinch up your bags when they’re full and leave them on the shoulder as you go. Find a scrap of two-by-four or something like that, set it next to a bag. When you reach your partner in the middle, we move ahead and do it again. Not a bridge party, so save the gabbing. My pal in the van is dropping lunch off up a ways. We eat when we get to it. Understand?”

We all nodded. “Sure,” the girl said, and we all looked at her. “What do we do with these extra bags?”

The guard shrugged. “Stuff ‘em in your pockets, down your pants, carry ‘em. I don’t care. Let’s get started. You and him over on that side.” He pointed at the girl and the logger.

So, that’s the way it went. The girl and the logger crossed to the other side, and then he and the executive went off up the highway on opposite sides with the guard trailing them. The girl and I started moving along slowly, picking up trash from where we were across from each other. The guard stopped after a little while and stood on one shoulder. He lit a cigarette. The other two kept going a ways, then started working back towards us. There wasn’t much trash on that lonely road, so it wasn’t hard. Just walk along and pick up something when you came to it, look out over those turned under fields, breathe the cool air. The guard stayed in between us. When we got to him, we made a pile of any bags that were full, then walked ahead and did it again. At least traffic wasn’t an issue. I’d been afraid we’d be on a busy road where people in cars would look at us and maybe shout things. I’d seen crews like ours on roads like that and had been embarrassed for them.

 

We’d worked for about twenty minutes, leapfrogging several times, when the van passed us coming from the other direction. The driver blinked his headlights at our guard, but when he drove by the girl and me, he didn’t acknowledge us at all.

The girl looked over at me after he’d passed and said, “This a goddamn C.H.I.P.’s rerun, or what?”

I shook my head and laughed. “Got me,” I said.

She took off her hardhat and wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist. I could see that her eyes were blue like my old girlfriend’s. I looked after the van that I could just see turning left down thefrontage road in the distance. When I turned back, she’d moved off ahead of me.

 

The morning heated up some. I’d worn a sweatshirt and thought of taking it off, but didn’t. The fields were all pretty much the same, no mountains in the distance, we hadn’t come far enough west to reach the gorge, just flat blue sky and a few clouds. After another hour or so, we crossed a stream. Later, we passed a field of new grass, maybe rye, on my side of the road. One of those big automatic sprinklers was rolling slowly through it, ticking, shooting graceful arcs of water. We passed several long gravel drives, but I didn’t see any houses. A few of the fields had hay rolls sitting still in them. Some crows flew by overhead.

Once, when we’d come together and were walking ahead to a new spot, the executive asked the guard, “We get a water break or something?”

The guard shook his head. “In the cooler.”

They went ahead of the girl and me. Before I went off to my side, I said, “Maybe he thinks he’s at the country club.” She just smiled.

I don’t know what time it was when we reached the cooler and stopped for lunch; I’d left my watch in my apartment. The sun was already beginning its downward slide towards the horizon. The cooler was just sitting on the shoulder a little ways from another gravel drive I couldn’t see to the end of. I figured the driver had chosen that spot for the convenience of using the drive to turn around, but I didn’t know. There was an old rusted plow off to the side of the drive.

The guard opened the cooler and gave us each a paper bag and a bottle of water from inside. “More water inside if you need it,” he said. Then he went off by himself, leaned against the old plow.

There was a little gully below the shoulder. The executive, the girl, and I sat on the road side of the gully, but the logger crossed to the other side of it and sat against a fence post. We all took off our hard hats. I sat on mine until the guard hollered, “Don’t sit on that. Don’t sit on the cooler either.”

Inside the bag was a bologna sandwich on white bread, a sack of chips, and an orange. We ate in silence for a while until the executive said quietly, “Not exactly filet mignon is it?”

The girl and I shook our heads. The logger just looked off up the road and chewed.

“Guess we can’t complain,” the executive said. He took a long swallow of water, sighed, then added, “Not much to look at either.”

She and I shook our heads again. The three of us looked around: just the fields and the road and the endless sky.

The executive looked at me and said evenly, “I’ve got you for one of the DUI’s. Am I right?”

I nodded my head slowly.

He said to the girl, “And you, sweet thing, are the other?”

She shook her head for a third time. She blew out a breath and rolled her eyes. “You don’t want to hear about it.

“Sure,” I said. “Tell us.”

She looked back and forth at each of us. A small plane went by overhead, very high in the sky. “Well,” she said, “all I can say is don’t trust someone when they tell you that it’s safe to buy a little weed from the girl down the hall. Even if she’s a sorority sister. She might turn out to be a narc.” The sound of the plane dwindled away. “So,” she said to the executive, “What’s that make you?”

“Guilty,” he said. “Guilty as sin.” He looked over at the guard. I thought he was talking loud enough to be sure that the guard heard. “Stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life. 11:30 at night, buying light bulbs at the convenience store down the street from my house, and there’s a line at the cashier. A line at damn near midnight. I’ve been in the place hundreds of times and never a line. I’m very tired, it’s been a long day, worked late.” He held up his hand. “I’m not making excuses, but I’m exhausted. I just want to get home, but I’ve told my wife I’d stop, get the damn bulbs. So, I just get this crooked hair, put them inside my sports coat, and walk out. I even have a vague notion I’ll go back in the morning and leave some money. Cruiser stops me as I’m turning into my driveway. My wife comes to the door pulling her bathrobe around her.” He shook his head and looked away. “Christ Almighty.”

The girl put a wedge of orange in her mouth. She chewed it slowly, looking at me. I fiddled with my lunch bag, but there was nothing left in it. “Well?” she asked me.

If it had been anyone other than her, I wouldn’t have answered. I hated to talk about it. But, I said, “Since we’re bearing our souls, I’ll just tell you it was over a young, brown-haired woman, and she wasn’t worth it.”

She nodded and narrowed her eyes. “I thought you were the shoplifter,” she told me. “Go figure.”

 

We were all quiet for a while then, finishing our lunches, thinking I guess. Something had changed. For one thing, we weren’t total strangers anymore. I felt both better and a little uneasy. Maybe we all did. Maybe that’s why the executive finally said, “All right, cowboy, how about you?”

We looked across the ditch at the logger. I thought that even the guard might have been gazing his way behind the sunglasses. The logger just grunted and gave us a smirk.

“Come on,” the executive said. “Why do you have to be such a pain in the ass? We’ve all gotten ourselves here. I’ve been walking up and down that damn road with you all day and I can damn near taste your discontent.”

“Just putting my time in,” the logger said slowly. “Same as you.” He looked directly at the executive until he shook his head and looked away. I’d thought the logger’s voice would have been deeper.

But now the silence became a little different. Perhaps it had thickened. The girl stretched out and put her head back on her hard hat. She closed her eyes, perhaps just to be doing something. That seemed like a good idea, so I stood up and walked across the road from them and the guard. I put my hands on my hips and closed my eyes myself. I felt a cloud cross the sun. The last thing that the executive had said, he’d almost shouted. I was certain he hadn’t done that for the benefit of the guard. I felt lousy. I thought about my father who I had to call from the police station after the second DUI. I couldn’t get a hold of anyone else. Thirty-four years old, three in the morning, and my father driving in from the farm. But this day would end. I’d already turned over a new leaf. To begin with, I’d burnt her photographs three weeks earlier.

 

The cloud passed, and I felt the sunlight on my face again. I looked down the road in the direction we’d been working. In the distance, a pickup truck approached. It took a long time to reach us, but I could hear it begin to downshift before I could see that it was faded green and carried only a driver. It slowed more than it needed to as it passed us, and the driver, an old, squat man in a maroon chamois shirt and a feed cap, studied us carefully. He turned in at the long drive and paused idling until our guard sauntered over to him. The old man rolled down his window and they talked quietly for a few minutes. The whole time, they both looked us over. Then the old man ground his gears and crawled up the long drive.

The guard started back in our direction, but before he reached us, there was a boom and a hiss. The guard ducked, perhaps from instinct. The rest of us watched the old man’s driver-side back tire go flat, heard him swear, and watched him climb out of the cab, walk back, and kick it.

The guard said, “What the hell?” and went over to the old man. The girl sat up; the other two stood up. The guard and the old man stood looking at the back tire. They spoke, but we couldn’t hear what they said. The old man gestured up the drive. I heard the old man say with exasperation, “Maybe a mile, probably better,” but that was all.

Some time passed. I could see the guard considering. He took the toothpick out of his mouth, scratched his neck with it, and tossed it in the gravel. I guessed it was probably two o’clock, maybe later by the sun. A train went by in the distance, way over on the other side of the interstate and parallel to it. I listened to it go off in the direction of Spokane. The guard shook his head, then waved us over, whistling.

“‘What the hell’ is right,” the executive mumbled. But we walked over.

The old man was on his back under the bed fumbling around. Behind those sunglasses, the guard said, “Here’s the deal. Fellow blew a tire, as you can plainly see. Has a spare, but his jack’s in another truck. So, we’re the jack. See?”

The old man slid the spare tire out from under the truck, then climbed out after it holding a tire iron. He stood up brushing himself off and looked at us briefly. He had gray-green eyes, short white hair like stubble, cauliflower ears. He said, “Grateful for the help.”

He knelt in the gravel, popped off the wheel well, and loosened the lug nuts. None of us said anything; we just all watched him and listened to him grunt. I looked at the executive. He shrugged, as if to say, “Trash or this, what’s the difference?” I guess I agreed with him. I guess we all did.

Eventually, the old man loosened all the lug nuts. No one had offered to help him. He set the tire iron next to him. He looked up at the guard and nodded, a thin bead of sweat above both of his thick eyebrows.

The guard loosened his holster and tossed it on the ground. He said, “All right.”

We all took a spot, bent down, and got a grip, the guard and the logger on either side of the old man along the frame, and the rest of us on that side of the rear bumper.

The guard said, “One, two, three.”

We all lifted. The bed went up. The old man slid the tire off quickly while I gritted my teeth and looked at a line of trees on the rise I hadn’t noticed before, willows or aspens, I supposed. The girl groaned next to me.

I heard the old man lift on the spare, then after a moment mutter, “Christ!”

I looked down and saw that he had the tire facing the wrong way. The guard seemed to be struggling more than the rest of us. He told him, “Take it out of there! We’ll set the damn thing down!”

His words trembled and so did his arms. The old man pulled off the tire, and we set the back bed down. As we did, the guard’s shoes slid in the grave, and his right one slipped under the tire rim. It came down on his foot. We all heard the bones break. It was awful. The guard hollered and fell over with his head tossing toward the cab-end of the truck. For some reason, he held his left knee. His sunglasses had come askew, so that one eye was exposed but closed in pain.

“No!” the logger cried, and knelt beside the guard. He looked once at the rest of us and shouted, “Lift! Get the damn tire on! Now!”

We did, as the logger carefully moved the guard’s leg and foot out of the way. This time, the old man slipped the tire on correctly and hand-tightened the lug bolts in less than a minute. Even with one less person, I hardly noticed the weight. We set the bed back down, and the old man cinched the lug bots down frantically with the tire iron while the rest of us stood over the guard and the logger. The guard had tipped over towards the gully and still clutched the same left knee. All he did was grimace, but it was a grimace so full of shrieks that I closed my eyes hard to the white light. When I opened them a moment later, the logger was on the guard’s side running his hand gently along the toe end of the boot on the guard’s injured foot. The guard called out once.

The logger moved up to the guard’s left shoulder and nodded up at us. He said, “Let’s get him up in the bed. Careful.”

The executive knitted his brows. “Who the hell are you?”

The logger said, “A nurse.” He said it as if someone had asked the time. “Get both legs, but get the bad one under the knee only. Don’t touch that foot.”

The nurse put his hands under both the guard’s armpits. I got under the bad leg, the executive got under the other, the girl got under his waist, the old man lowered the tailgate, and we lifted on no particular cue. The guard was now crying quietly, making absolutely no sound.

Somehow, the sunglasses had righted themselves on his face. We lifted his butt up onto the tailgate, the nurse climbed up behind him and we slid him along the bed until he was fully inside, his head almost to the cab.

“Close it,” the nurse said.

The old man did, and the nurse took off his vest. He folded it and slid it carefully under the guard’s head. Then he took off his jacket, which was denim and fleece-lined, and laid it gently across the guard’s shoulders and chest. He leaned over and whispered to the guard, “You’ll be all right.”

Then he hopped down onto the gravel and said to the old man, “Drive directly to the nearest hospital. Where’s that? Sprague?”

The old man nodded. He said weakly, “Sort of. It’s a clinic.”

“All right,” the nurse said evenly. “Listen, bring him there and have them do whatever they can to stabilize him. Then have them call Holy Names Hospital north of Spokane and transport him there. Have Dr. Luther Jenkins paged in Orthopedics or have him called at home. Jenkins. Tell them to explain what’s happened and have him come as quickly as he can. Do you understand?”

The old man nodded. He looked very scared. The guard continued to grimace and catch his breath and hold his knee with both hands. The old man got in the cab, started the truck, backed out into the road spraying gravel, and roared off towards the frontage road. The flat tire and tire iron sat next to the guard’s holster on the drive.

We all walked out into the road and watched the truck disappear towards the interstate. The sound of it was gone before we could no longer see it.

“Well,” the girl said. “What now?”

“Now we wait,” the executive said. “What else can we do? We sit and wait.”

The girl said, “I’d kill for a cigarette.”

The three of us moved back to where we’d had lunch and sat down again. The nurse went over, dropped the tire iron in the wheel well, and pushed it and the flat tire to the side of the drive. He wrapped up the guard’s holster neatly and carried it over. He sat down on the cooler and set the holster next to it. We all sat there in a kind of daze. We didn’t look at one another, just at spots in the distance, I guess.

After a few minutes, I blew out a breath and said, “Good Lord.”

The girl said, “I heard somewhere that there are over two hundred bones in your foot.”

The nurse said, “Well, he busted some.”

Now we all looked at him. He had his forearms across his knees, his hands folded together, his head down.

“You want my vest?” I asked. “You can have my sweatshirt.”

He shook his head. It wasn’t terribly cold, though a breeze had come up and the sun had dipped some more to the west. The nurse buttoned his long-sleeved plaid shirt at the collar and took his cap off. He played with the crease in it for a while, then put it on again, and went back to sitting the way he’d been.

“I guess they’ll send someone for us,” the executive said. He addressed the nurse. “Someone will probably contact somebody from the clinic in Sprague.”

“Something like that for sure,” I said.

“How long have you been in nursing?” the girl asked.

To whatever he was studying, he said, “A long time. Or I was.”

The girl raised her eyebrows to me, and I made a little shrug. We all knew there was plenty left for him to say, but after several moments of silence, we knew we weren’t going to hear it.

The girl tried again. “I guess it takes a while to heal a bunch of broken bones like that in your foot. Must be pretty tricky. Painful.”

The nurse nodded. So did the executive and I. We all looked in our own directions again. After a while, it became still enough that I thought I could hear the rolling irrigation we’d passed several fields away. I thought I could smell mint faintly on the breeze; my father had told me someone had tried growing that out towards the gorge.

Finally, the executive said, “I was hoping we’d be back in time to go to my son’s basketball game. We were hoping to get there early. It would not be a good thing for me to meet my wife there, have to walk up and down in front of the bleachers looking for her. Have people whisper and such. Small, tight knit section of the community like ours.” He was muttering by this time. “Certain standards.”

“I have a party to go to,” the girl said.

Neither the nurse or I said anything. I was thinking I might rent a movie, and old musical or something, make popcorn, maybe have one beer. I felt like drinking some water, but I didn’t want to ask the nurse to get off the cooler, so I stood up and crossed the road again.

 

The fields there were east-facing, a low line of clouds drifted like fog where they met the sky off in the distance. I picked up handfuls of small rocks, tossed them slowly one by one at a hay bale out in the field, and wondered about things. I wondered whether the old man’s pick-up had been a half-ton or three-quarters. I wondered how they went about fixing an injury like the guard’s. I supposed they could give him something for the pain. Of course, I wondered about the nurse. I wondered about how things can happen that throw you off track, or back on, or onto a new track, and whether you had as little control over most of them as it seemed. I wondered if my old girlfriend was settled yet in California. I tried not to wonder again what had gone wrong, but I did.

At one point, an SUV drove by going away from the interstate. I turned around in time to see a little boy in the back seat wave to me. I lifted a hand in return. Then I turned around and picked up some more stones.

The afternoon’s light was falling quickly. Behind me, I heard the girl say, “Well, we could go pick up some more trash.” The executive laughed and the girl said, “Who picks up these bags, anyway? I’ve seen them before on the side of the road for weeks.” The executive said, “Someone does.” The girl asked, “Why’d they pick this godforsaken place, anyway?” The executive told her, “Just another piece of public road. Checking it off a list.” And the girl said, “No, I mean to live.”

I tossed rocks for maybe another thirty, forty minutes before I heard a vehicle coming down the old man’s drive. I turned around; the others were already standing. I crossed the road and joined them. We watched the headlights approach down the long, gradual hill. It was another pick-up, red, smaller and newer than the old man’s. About fifty yards away, I could see an old woman driving. I came back across the road.

She turned out of the drive and stopped next to us. She stayed in the cab, but leaned over and rolled down the passenger window so she could speak to us.

“I’m Pete’s wife. He called from Sprague and said the sheriff’s department is sending someone out for you. Told me to let you know they should be here anytime.”

“All right,” the executive said. “Thanks.”

She lifted something from the passenger seat and handed it through the window to him. “I just made these cinnamon rolls. If you’re hungry for something.”

The executive took the paper plate, which was covered with cellophane. The sweet smell lifted from it immediately. I looked in at her. She was short and square. She wore an identical chamois shirt to her husband’s. Her gray hair was pulled back under a blue bandana that had a white pattern.

“We appreciate this,” the executive said.

She nodded, then leaned over the wheel, looked in her rear view mirror, and backed beyond the drive. She shifted again, turned into the drive. She stopped and rolled down her own window. “One more thing,” she said. “I had a nephew in Iowa who did some time in prison. For whatever it’s worth, he turned out fine.”

We nodded, at least I nodded, and so did she. A blush spread over me. She ground her gears again and started up the drive. You could see dust in the red of her tail lights. The sun was just above the horizon, sky there bruised purple and orange.

The nurse said, “We should have tossed that tire in her truck.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the executive assured him. “The old guy’ll stop and get it.”

He peeled off the cellophane from the rolls and broke off one for each of us. Even the nurse took one. They were warm. The frosting dripped onto our hands and fingers, which we licked off, it seemed to me, happily. We stood there in the gravel eating the warm cinnamon rolls as darkness began to truly fall. Before we’d finished, we could see a van’s squared off headlights approaching from the direction of the interstate.

The nurse slid the cooler and holster up to the edge of the road. The girl put all the leftover trash into one of the plastic bags, tied it off, and leaned it against our last pile. Then we stood together watching the headlights come along piercing the gloaming until they swept across us. The same driver from the morning got out. Standing in front of us now in his shirtsleeves, his muscles bulged.

“Which one of you is the nurse?” he asked the girl.

“Me,” the nurse said.

The officer studied him for a moment, then said, “Thanks for taking care of Dale the way you did. And thanks for helping get your friend to come out to the hospital. They took Dale there in an ambulance from Sprague.”

The nurse nodded. He reached down and handed the officer the guard’s gun and holster. The officer set in inside on the passenger seat and said, “The jacket yours?”

The nurse nodded again.

“It got left in Sprague. We’ll drive it out to your place tomorrow.”

“Fine,” the nurse said.

The girl asked, “Is he all right?”

The officer shrugged. “Don’t know yet. Let’s get you home.”

We loaded things in the back, then climbed in. The driver turned around and we headed back towards I-90. It was pretty well full dark by then, the fields dark, the road ahead dark, dark inside.

 

 

No one spoke until we were pulling into the police station back in Spokane. Then the executive said, “Well, I think I’m too late for my son’s game. Probably better that way, anyway.”

The driver pulled up next to the same curb we’d left from that morning where the policeman that had checked us stood waiting under an overhead light holding four plastic trays stacked on top of one another and a clipboard. The driver turned around and said, “All right, my partner will square you all away now. Take care.”

We climbed out into the bright glare, and the van went away around the curb.

“You wait outside to meet all the crews when they get back?” the girl asked.

The policeman shook his head. “Want to get you on your way.”

He quickly took turns having us sign out the possessions we’d left with him and then opened the front door of the station.

The executive asked, “We don’t need any paperwork or anything?”

“You’re all set. They’ll send you something in the mail.”

Then he was gone. On one side of us was the waiting room, which was still lit and empty. On the other was the parking lot. A small gray car sat at the front of the lot just out of the building’s light. A young dark-haired man sat at the wheel smoking a cigarette. He wriggled a finger self-consciously.

“There’s my ride,” the girl said. “I guess that’s it then. See you around.”

She walked over to the car and got inside. Her friend said something, laughed, then handed the girl a pack of cigarettes. They backed out and the girl lowered the pack into her lap. She was facing us. She waved, but didn’t smile. I could see a mauve dress draped over the back seat as they passed.

The executive coughed once, then held out his hand to me. I shook it. He did the same to the nurse, who shook it, too. Then he walked out into the parking lot. The nurse and I watched him start a big, black car and drive it slowly out of the back of the lot.

It had gotten colder. Standing there, our breath came in short clouds.

“Well,” I said. “I guess you and I are in the same boat. You hoofing it somewhere or using public transportation?”

“Think I might take the bus.”

“Northside?”

He nodded.

“You live out there?”

“No.”

I nodded myself. We were looking at each other. “You going to check on the guard?”

“Thought I might.”

“Mind if I come along?”

He shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

We walked to the corner and sat on the concrete bus stop bench. There was a street lamp above us throwing weak yellow light. The nurse was hunkered down, shivering. If I could have, I would have put my arm around him just to warm him a little. But, of course, I couldn’t.

Instead, I said, “Those cinnamon rolls were about the best I’ve ever tasted.”

“Yes,” he said. “They were.”

Thankfully, the bus came along in a few minutes. It was almost empty. The warmth from inside wafted over us as soon as the doors hissed open and the big bus driver smiled down at us.

We found seats side by side near the front. I sat next to the window and looked out it. We passed a little strip mall with a Chinese restaurant, a carpet store, and a chiropractor’s office. Only the restaurant was open, a few cars in front of it, the light from inside mostly red.

“So,” the nurse said, “she had brown hair and she wasn’t worth it.”

I turned quickly away from the window. He had green eyes. I said, “There’s more to it than that.”

“There always is,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me some of it, then I’ll do the same.”

I heard someone in back snoring softly. The bus drive began to hum.

“All right,” I said gratefully. “I will.”

 

William Cass has had sixty-six short stories accepted for publicaiton in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies, including the winning fiction selection in the The Examined Life Journal’s recent writing contest.

 

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