Trinity’s breath puffed through the knit wool of his scarf in little white clouds, crusting into ice on the outside and clinging uncomfortably to his face like sweat. The snow crunched underneath his boots, loud in the quiet, as he trudged along the empty road. He could hear the engine in the distance long before he turned with his thumb out and walked backward as he waited for it to appear over the gentle swell of hills. His thumb wavered when he saw the drab olive green, his throat tightening. But in spite of the military-style camouflage and a gun rack in the back window supporting two hunting rifles, he immediately realized it was nothing more than a battered Chevy pickup. As it rolled past him, oversized studded tires churning up snow, Trinity expected it to keep on going. But the truck slowed to a stop several hundred feet on, one red brake-light glowing, the other covered in duct tape.
Trinity ran, awkward in the deep snow, with his backpack slapping his shoulders. The driver had leaned over to roll the passenger-side window down a few inches, an old man with bright blue eyes and a beard like Santa Claus—if Santa Claus was partial to Army jackets and deerstalker hats and had an NRA sticker on the back of his sleigh.
“What on earth you doing way out in the middle of nowhere, son?”
The man chuckled. “Where ya headin’?”
The old man’s eyebrows raised in incredulity. “I can take ya as far as the Hi-Line. Head toward Havre, y’kin get U.S. 87 down to Interstate 15.”
“That’d be fine, thanks,” Trinity said, aware his own accent had modified to mimic the old man’s. He slung his backpack into the back of the pickup between stacked bales of hay and climbed up into the passenger seat, grateful for the heat blowing gustily out the air vents.
Neither spoke for several miles, Trinity content to simply watch the bleak scenery roll past from the comfort of the warm cab. Steel-gray clouds slid between the crags and ridges of nearby mountains, the line between ground and sky blurred.
“Don’t get much traffic out on these back roads,” the old man said. “’Specially this time of year. Been out there long?”
The old man nodded, and didn’t speak again until they came up behind a snowplow blowing a fan of white powder up onto a bank already over six feet high. The truck crawled behind for miles, the only two vehicles on the deserted road.
“Hope y’re not in any hurry,” the old man said laconically.
The old man laughed. “‘Sir.’” He glanced at Trinity in amusement. “You a military man or just polite?”
“Well, you ain’t young enough and I ain’t old enough for ‘sir.’ You just call me Jack.”
They nodded at each other in acknowledgment and slipped back into silence. Whatever concoction the old man was mixing with his diesel to eke it out stank like burning fat, pungent even inside the cab, but Trinity was warm, and didn’t care. Clotted snowflakes began to spin against the windshield, white puffs melting instantly against the warm glass. A few flakes soon became many, and many became a flurry so thick even the snowplow in front of them was nearly obscured. Jack grunted.
“Sorry, son. I got cattle to get feed to before this gets too bad. Don’t look like you’ll be makin’ it to Havre today. There’s a little place just a few more miles, I kin drop ya off there to wait for this to let up. Better chance a’ catching a ride there than freezing your butt off out here.”
The wind had picked up, gusting frenzied eddies of snow into the air, eerie in the headlights as the sun set. Jack pulled into a deserted parking lot in front of a clapboard diner. The peeling hand-painted grinnin’ bear café sign was barely visible while the neon Coors logo over the door glowed garishly through the haze of blowing snow. The only other vehicles were an elderly four-wheel drive Jeep and a Peterbilt tractor-trailer rig, with stylized horses and half-naked women air-brushed on the sides. Trinity got out and retrieved his backpack from the truck bed.
“Good luck,” Jack said cheerfully and drove off, eager to catch up with the snowplow now totally vanished into the storm.
Trinity stamped as much snow from his boots as he could on the wooden steps before pushing open the door into the café porch. Enough melting snow still clung to his jeans to soak him clear to the knees. He peeled off his knit cap now crusted white, static electricity making his hair stand on end, and shook his arms out of the down jacket. Inside the café, a woman wearing a quilted vest over her waitress’s uniform stood behind the counter watching the Weather Channel on an overhead television bolted to the wall. The weatherman gestured at a brightly colored weather front sweeping a blizzard down through Alberta and Saskatchewan to engulf the northern states as far as Salt Lake City in the west to Sioux Falls in the east. The scene cut to a reporter in a fashionable camel-hair coat far too light for the wind he was having trouble keeping his balance in, hundreds of cars behind him stalled on a major highway. A lone customer at the far end of the counter nursed a beer and picked at the remains of a sandwich while watching the weather report morosely. He lifted his Cenex baseball cap to run a hand over a balding head and said to the waitress, “Might as well gimme another, Carlene, I ain’t goin’ nowhere real quick. Global warming, my ass.”
The waitress looked up as Trinity draped his jacket over one of the counter stools. She was in her late fifties but when she smiled, even as a perfunctory greeting for a stranger, it softened her face with a wistfulness of lost youth.
“Just coffee, please,” Trinity said as she reached for a stack of menus squeezed in between napkin holders. He shook from his damp hair the water dripping into his eyes. “Is there a pay phone here I could use?”
“Through there,” she said indifferently. “By the men’s room.”
The adjoining room was deserted and dark, the security shutters over the bar closed and locked, the blackjack and keno machines switched off. Two huge speakers bracketed a raised corner platform, microphone stands lined up beside the wall. Between racks of pool cues, he found an old-fashioned coin-operated box with a rotary dial rather than push buttons, lovingly restored and polished. He didn’t need any coins, dialing the unlisted number he knew by heart.
“Four seven five, eight three two, zero five,” he said, keeping his voice low.
“One moment.” He didn’t recognize the tinny classical music playing while he waited on hold. They’d finally gotten around to changing the tune. About time, he thought; he was sick of Vivaldi.
A woman’s voice cut off the music. “McGraff.”
“Four seven five, eight three two, zero five,” Trinity repeated quietly.
“You’re cutting it pretty damned fine, Ben. You were forty minutes from being in violation, you know that?” Her cigarette-and-whiskey voice might have been sexy, if he didn’t know what Mrs. Clarice McGraff looked like. Or feared her.
“Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”
He heard the tapping of computer keys over the line, imagining the inaudible signals bouncing off satellites thousands of miles above his head pinning him to a map like an insect on a specimen card. It took several seconds before McGraff said sharply, “You’re not in Spokane.”
“No, ma’am. I’m not.”
“You’ve drifted way off your authorized route, Benedictus. A few more miles, and you’d be setting off alarms all over the country. Where the hell are you?”
He looked around the café, searching for a clue. “I’m not sure.”
“They aren’t going to hold that job for you much longer. You don’t show up in the next twenty-four hours, you’ve lost it, gone.”
“I understand, ma’am.”
“You’re not going to make it.” Her irritation carried well over the line.
“No, ma’am. I’m not going to make it.” No excuses, he knew, but couldn’t help adding, “Bismarck’s Cognident kicked my ticket. By the time they got their security system updated, my bus had gone. The cops took me as far as the Montana side of the border, so I’ve been trying to hitchhike to make up the time. But I won’t get much farther now anyway, not in this weather.”
“God damn it.” He didn’t expect any leniency regardless of circumstances. And some hapless minimum-wage ticket clerk at a remote North Dakota Greyhound bus station was about to receive an unpleasant phone call from Washington. “Why didn’t you call in immediately?”
“This is the first landline I could find.”
“Right.” He could tell she didn’t believe him. “So what the hell are you doing coming so close to the Canadian border?”
“I got turned around after Glendive; ended up near Medicine Lake before I figured out where I was. Only ride I could get was headed toward Glasgow.”
She said nothing for several moments. “Don’t even think about it, Trinity,” she said ominously.
He didn’t pretend not to understand. “I’m not, ma’am, I give you my word.”
“Your word?” Her voice dripped disdain. “Let’s run a spot check instead, okay?”
He glanced around, but the waitress and her customer were still engrossed in scenes of jackknifed eighteen-wheeler rigs, people shoveling snow from sidewalks in Rapid City and kids in Boulder building snowmen. He stripped off a fingerless glove, revealing a small circular tattoo in his palm no bigger than a quarter, and held the phone in his left hand, then responded to the familiar interrogation in a monotone of “yes” or “no” until she ran out of questions.
He listened to the hiss of the telephone line as he waited, certain she could read his mind as well as his biometrics through the microchip implanted in his palm. “You can take your hand off the phone now.” He did, shifting it back into his untattooed right.
“You listen to me, Trinity. I don’t give a shit about you, or those idiots in Homeland Security who foisted you off on me. I’ve had to sweat blood to keep this program operational, and so far, it’s a statistical success. It had damned well better stay that way. The departmental budget review is next month. You fuck my program up, I’ll fuck you over nine ways from Sunday, I give you my word, you got that?”
“Yes, ma’am, loud and clear.”
He heard her exhale in impatience. “Right. Seems you’re in some godforsaken shithole called Redemption, population less than two hundred, not counting the cows. And since it looks like you’re going to be stuck there at least a few more days, I suggest you keep your head down and stay put until you’re told otherwise. I’ll talk to the DSD head office and see what I can reorganize in the meantime.”
An odd wave of relief made his legs feel weak. He wasn’t going back to prison. Yet. “Thank you.”
“And Benny . . . ?”
“Be a good boy and don’t ever push your contact deadline this close again.” She hung up before he could say anything. He replaced the phone back on the hook and thrust his hand back into his glove, ignoring how much he was shaking. Even from hundreds of miles away, McGraff could still scare him.
By the time he sat down at the counter, his coffee was tepid. He emptied a small bowl with a dozen half-and-half containers, poured them all into the remainder of the coffee and drank it. The waitress picked up the round pot of coffee from the machine behind her.
“Need your cream warmed up?”
“Please,” he said, not looking up as she refilled his cup. “And could I have a cup of hot water?”
“Just hot water?”
When she placed it in front of him, he ignored her bemused interest as he squeezed ketchup from the red plastic condiment bottle and stirred it into a makeshift soup. She set a basket of plastic-wrapped crackers beside his cup. “It tastes better if you crumble a few of these into it,” she said with a wry smile.
“Don’t mention it.” She glanced at the man in the Cenex hat. “We all got our problems.” She started to move away.
“Miss . . . ?” When she glanced back over her shoulder, he said, “Do you know if there’re any motels around here? In walking distance?”
She laughed. “You have money enough for a motel?”
He smiled back. “If I give up such luxuries as eating.”
She shook her head, poured the last of the coffee into his cup and took the now-empty coffeepot into the kitchen. When she returned, she slid a plate piled with steaming vegetables, mashed potatoes, and turkey slices swimming in watery brown gravy in front of him. He looked at her in surprise. She shrugged.
“Like he said, none of us is going anywhere in a hurry. Don’t expect there’s gonna be much of a dinner rush, so you might as well have it as me throwing it out.”
“If you’re passing out freebies, Carlene,” the Cenex hat said, “how ’bout a slice of that blueberry pie?”
“If you’re still hungry, Harry, I’ve got some nice mashed turnips and calf liver just going to waste.” But she cut three slices of pie, handing one to Harry, and setting the other two in front of Trinity. “Mind if I join you?”
She cut the tip off her pie and ate it slowly while he tried not to wolf down the first hot meal he’d had in days. “Where you from?”
He looked up warily, swallowing a mouthful of turkey and carrots before he said cautiously, “Florida.”
She snorted her incredulity. “Why on earth would you want to leave the beaches and sunshine to come all the way out here in the dead of winter?”
“I had a job offer in Spokane.”
“Mmm.” He washed down the mashed potatoes and gravy with another gulp of coffee. “I should have been there yesterday. It’s gone now.”
“You don’t seem too broken up over it.”
He shrugged. “There’ll be another.”
Pushing a mop in a Spokane jail was pretty much like pushing a mop in a Tallahassee jail, hardly what his grandfather had envisioned for him when he’d invested in Trinity’s Ph.D. degree from Stanford. The old man still hadn’t forgiven him for choosing liberal arts over medicine and rejecting the family’s surgical practice, when he’d suddenly died of a heart attack from an overdose of too much foie gras, Cognac, and unfeasible demands from narcissistic film stars. Thank God his grandfather was already dead, Trinity thought. This would have killed him.
“Half the country out of work, and there’ll be another, just like that? You’re an optimist for someone living off ketchup Cup-a-Soup.” When he didn’t answer, she said, “Look, you’re welcome to crash here. It’s free at least.” She followed his glance at Harry. “He’s got a sleeper in his rig, color TV, frig, coffeemaker, all the comforts of home, which for Harry, it is. I live here, upstairs. I keep my doors locked and I sleep with a loaded shotgun.” She smiled at his startled blink. “So you’ll be safe from any grizzlies.”
“Grizzlies . . . right,” he said.
She chuckled, finished her pie, and took the empty plates to the kitchen to run them through the dishwasher. Outside, the wind continued to rattle the window glass and throw down a steady blanket of snow, glowing in the darkness. His stomach now comfortably full, he sat in a booth with his backpack wedged behind his back. He’d removed his boots, his socks damp, and had draped his jacket over his knees for warmth. He stared idly out into the night, listening to roof tiles groan under the weight of the snow. Harry and Carlene sat companionably drinking beer and watching an old rerun sitcom, canned laughter tinny and shrill.
The television made a loud pop as the lights went out, the picture vanishing to a white pinprick.
“Ah, shit, there they go again,” he heard Carlene say. His eyes not adjusted, he listened to her shuffling in the dark, then held his hand to shield his eyes as a flashlight shone in his eyes. “You okay over there?”
“I’ll go kick up the generator for ya, Carlene,” Harry said, his words slurred with too much beer.
“Nah, I wouldn’t send a dog out there when it’s like this. You leave it for the morning, it’ll keep. The Grinnin’ Bear is now officially closed, boys. You go on home, Harry, I’ll see you for breakfast.”
She handed him a couple more bottles of beer and held the door open for him as he staggered out into the snowstorm, closing it as the freezing blast of snow blew into the café. They both watched Harry wade through the hip-deep bank, falling facedown once, the snow cushioning the bottles to keep them from breaking. Harry clambered up into his cab, struggling to close the door in the wind. He managed, a small reddish light in the cab making it seem warmer than Trinity was sure it was.
“Safe and sound,” Carlene said. “You wait here a minute.”
He wondered where she expected he was likely to go as she clumped upstairs, flashlight casting wavering shadows on the walls. He could hear the floorboards creaking as she walked overhead, and when she returned she handed him a pillow and a worn patchwork quilt, the fabric soft with age. It smelled like lilacs.
“You can sleep here or on the pool table, take your pick. No hot water in the gent’s, but the sink in the lady’s leaks, your choice,” she said, and handed him the flashlight. “You shouldn’t be too cold down here tonight.”
“I’m very grateful, ma’am, thank you.”
She smiled, her teeth reflecting the light off the snow. “Nice to see good manners still exist. Your mother must be proud of you.”
She wasn’t, he didn’t say. His mother had died in self-imposed exile two years ago, politely shunned by neighbors and ostracized by society friends afraid of the taint by association. He hadn’t been allowed to say good-bye to her, didn’t even know where she was buried. No, it hadn’t been his mother who taught him how to behave himself. If she had, she might have lived longer and been happier.
Copyright © 2007 by Lee Jackson. All rights reserved.