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South of Flag

by Aaron H. Gilbreath
  

“You ever seen snow like this in March?”

“No,” the young man said, “I’ve never seen snow.”

Curtis, some thirty years the boy’s senior, turned from the window with furrowed brows. “Never seen snow? Son, where you been living?”

“Phoenix.”

Bowl-legged and built like a pork roast impaled on two bent toothpicks, Curtis cast a playful grin. “Well, that ain’t much of an excuse.”

Steven crossed his doughy arms and looked out onto the crystalline motel grounds. He had left Las Vegas a day earlier than his friends so he could spend the last Friday night of spring break alone in Flagstaff. He had only been to Flag once, and that was in summer for a single night. But this morning when he awoke, he found this—snow piled so high he couldn’t see his muffler.

Steven watched a couple trudge past the glass. One clung to the other for support, her face aimed down to shield it from blustery drafts. “The plan was to be home by tonight,” Steven muttered. A sullen, almost cosmic resignation pressed into his face, like marks left after a night spent sleeping on a wrinkled sheet. “But I know I’ll end up crashed in a snow bank if I try to drive.” Steven hated sounding so helpless, but there was no way around it. Physically demanding and treacherous situations always made him feel inept. “Does Flagstaff have an airport?”

Curtis laughed. “Not one worth mentioning.” The upper half of Curtis’ jeans were worn felty white in the shape of his thighs, and his pant legs, where they fit around his leather work boots, were sodden with moisture. “What kind of wheels you got?”

“Wheels?”

“Car.”

“Oh,” Steven said. “A four-door Intrigue.”

“Little Japanese? Yeah, they ain’t much built for this stuff.” Curtis looked him up and down. “And you’re headed to Phoenix?” He felt sorry for the kid. Thick around the middle, much like himself, the boy dressed like someone twice his age: tucked-in collared flannel, pleated khakis and brushed leather shoes. And what would have passed as wonder on someone else’s face, on Steven’s resembled the horror of a cornered squirrel caught in the crosshairs of a rifle. It reminded Curtis of how his youngest son looked when Curtis picked him up from jail for shoplifting the first time. His kid was a derelict, but at least he could handle snow.

“I can give you a lift.” Curtis straightened his mesh cap, fished a bandana from his back pocket and wiped his nose. “Tell you what. I’ve got a rig out back. We’ll load your little car up and drive you as far south as we need to to get past the snow.”

“Really?” Steven’s relief was tempered by a flash of rationality. He studied the stranger’s body. Though a tiny black Bowie knife hung from a belt loop beneath his belly, the man’s voice was gentle, gravely but soothing. He knew his father would decline such an offer, but this guy was also puffy and well past middle age, someone who, despite Steven’s lack of muscle, he could likely fend off. “You sure you don’t mind?”

“Not at all.” Curtis stuffed his hanky back in his pocket. He could see misgivings in the young man’s eyes. “I don’t have a load to haul so I’m all freed up. So go call your folks or whoever, tell them the deal and meet me here.”
 

After paying the motel bill, Steven met Curtis in the lobby with his suitcase, and together they slogged through the parking lot. Fluffy layers of powder crunched underfoot. Frigid bits of slush fell into the space between Steven’s shoes and heals, soaking his socks. Steven’s uncertain steps caught the trucker’s eye; the boy seemed to walk as if each moment the earth might slip out from under him. Curtis’ job took him through some of the country’s harshest weather, and a Missouri childhood had trained his feet for snow and ice. He only wished there was something solid, maybe a handrail, something other than his arm, for the kid to hold onto.

Curtis’ words emerged in puffs of vapor. “This is her.” A dull blue tractor, still imposing without a trailer, sat parked across two spots between sedans and minivans. “She’s a tow-er and a go-er.”

Steven stood before the truck shivering. His red flannel had lightened to a bubblegum pink from all the falling flakes, and the snow turned his meticulous, parted hair into a pile as tangled as a blob of beached kelp. Curtis thought the kid resembled a sad cat who’d just been forced to take a bath. “There’s a spare coat inside if you need it.”

As Steven opened the door, a tiny orange and white beagle, ears as long and floppy as its tongue, leapt from the cab and plunged into the snow. Like a mole tunneling beneath topsoil, the dog ran half-sunk across the lot, its tail sticking with periscope stiffness, until it heard its name. “Parker. Come here Parker.” Curtis slapped his knees, and like a remote control car, the pooch raced right to him. “Parker, this is Steven. Say hi.” The dog left long snotty smears as he sniffed the stranger’s clothes. Steven tried to pet the dog, but in his frenzy, Parker was as impossible to contain as the puffs of breath.

Unlike the dog, Steven struggled into the cab. His plump legs strained to reach the stepladder’s lowest rung, fat fingers fumbled with the safety rail. When he finally wedged his foot on the slick metal, he still had to jump to reach the cab.

Curtis called up from the ground. “You get comfortable while I load your car.”

Parker settled on Steven’s lap, coating his khakis with wet hair. He tried to brush off the fuzz, but it only stuck to his hand, so he wiped it on the floor. While his friends were walking dogs as kids and tossing string at kittens, Steven was feeding his goldfish. It sat in a bowl on the mantel in front of a painting of the south Texas plains, and the fish, for all it did, was really nothing more than part of the décor.

Steven pet the pooch and wiped more hair on the floor. The cab was already dirty. Lined with faux wood and covered almost entirely with soft greenish-blue carpet, the cabin had the tacky feel of a truck stop café. It smelled of cigarette butts and oil filters, musty, like the import auto mechanic his dad went to.

It was the owner’s little touches that imparted a trace of humanity. A little doggy dish and fleece bed sat by the heat vents on the passenger side floorboard. A mini state of Missouri calendar hung from the driver’s sun visor. And on the walls surrounding Steven, taped together like a Cuban refugee flotilla, were photos. Steven spun around to check them out: Curtis dangling his legs off a dock beside a shrimp boat; Curtis and two young boys fishing at sunset in what looked like a swamp. The funniest featured a group of wild-eyed men in paper birthday hats holding Curtis horizontally across their chests and pouring beer on his head.

Curtis climbed in and flipped some switches on the roof and central panel.

“Thanks again for doing this.”

Curtis waved Steven off. “It’s no sweat.” The engine shuddered to a start. Pistons pumped with the force of a galloping bison and shook every spring in the seat. “Ever been in a rig before?” Steven shook his head as Curtis spun the big steering wheel; it looked like a lock on Hoover Dam, and Curtis had to spin it a lot to evoke the slightest response from the truck. “I think you’ll like it. It’s fun being the biggest thing on the road.”

Steven watched as Curtis mumbled into the CB. “Is that like,” Steven said. “Do you always have to do that?”

“Nah.” Curtis tapped a small computer installed on the console. “This tells the company where I’m at at all times. I only CB to say hey to some buddies.” He held his hand out with a mischievous grin. “Want to try?”

Afraid he’d foul it up, Steven took the tiny mouthpiece and pulled the curly cord taut. But he just sat there, looking around, holding it to his mouth. “What should I say?”

“Anything. Tell them ‘This is Stevie G-bie heading south of Flag on seventeen.’ Or ‘Elvis has left the building.’ That’s a fun one.”

Steven laughed as he repeated Curtis’ lines into the CB, but the smell of wet dog kept wafting from his hands and sleeves and it irritated him. In the truck, there was no way to wash it off.
 

The two barreled down the vacant interstate. Beyond the hotels and fast food restaurants of the town’s expanding edge, the hills were covered with stunted pines, thin, black, and as densely packed as a box of charred matchsticks. Solid white poured from the hills and across the highway, obscuring lane lines and concealing the shoulder under tall piles. The few cars that braved the road crept by at a tarantula’s pace. And where overnight their tires had cleared the snow, ice turned the asphalt to a slick, glistening enamel.

“So tell me,” Curtis said, “how’s a young man get to, what, twenty-two…”

“Me? Twenty-one.”

“Get to twenty-one without seein’ snow? Your family never came up to ski or go sledding?”

“No.” Steven shook his head like a dog shaking off shampoo. “Never. They hate cold weather. My mom’s from Michigan and never wants to see ice again. And Dad is, I don’t know, just not interested.” He pulled a book from his bag, a novelization of Cabeza de Vaca’s wanderings across North America, and picked at the worn pages. “We always went to warm places for the winter.”

“Well, don’t feel too bad,” Curtis said, waving his arms across the length of the windshield. “Now you can see what you missed out on.”

Without thinking, Steven said what had become his stock lines. “I’m glad we never went skiing. I much prefer being too hot than too cold.” But as the words came out, he questioned whether they had ever been true.

Snowflakes zagged past the windshield, and the tinny hum of engine noise mixed with Parker’s licking and smacking. Steven studied the passing scenery, letting his breath fog the glass in pulses that swelled and retracted between each rise of his chest. He started to wish he’d never left Vegas early.

Through the orange curtain behind them Curtis pulled out a twist of rawhide, Parker’s favorite chew toy. Steven caught a glimpse of a dim rear compartment. “Is that where you sleep?” He saw a bunk, mini-refrigerator and TV. “It looks very comfortable.”

“Not when you’re always the only one in it.”

Parker snatched the rawhide and began pawing it by Steven’s feet. “So when you’re not driving where do you live?”

“Twin Oaks, Missouri. My wife has a house there. Boys live out there, too.” He dragged his fingers over his bushy mustache. “Jeff and Terry. Capital t for trouble.”

“Do your sons live with you?”

“Live? They barely spent the night when they had their own rooms. Nah, my boys are all growed up, marrying age. Oldest works at one of those chain office supply stores in St Louis, the other lives in the state doing God knows what. Hopefully something legal.” Curtis flipped on a lamp and pointed to a photo above Steven’s head. “That’s them right there, years ago.”

Two toddlers in denim overalls stood around a dinner table. Steven ignored the boys’ crooked teeth and bad haircuts and found something nice to say. “Solid group.”

“And that’s my gal Beatrice. Sweet Miss Bee, I call her.” He winked. “If I’d met her thirty-five years ago I would’ve found myself a desk job.” The largest of the six photos of her showed a thin, salt-and-pepper haired woman posing on an iron bridge in a jogging suit, flexing wrinkled biceps.

“Guess a job like this always keeps you on the road.”

“That and a crappy marriage.” Curtis winked. “Yeah, Sweet Bee’s great, not a brute like my first wife.” A quick breath whistled through his mustache. “My ex and me was always at each other’s throats. Made each other nuts. That’s why I liked driving long haul: escape. But my sons never saw me. Then when she and me divorced, the kids moved in with her and I saw them even less.” Twin tire tracks cut the snow in parallel sets, mapping where cars had made their slow way to and from Flagstaff. He looked over at Steven and tugged his cap. “Guess there’s no making up for it now.” Steven glanced at his book, then out the window, not knowing what to say. “How about you. You live with your girlfriend?”

“Oh, no, with my parents in Phoenix, actually.” Hearing the words out loud made Steven feel five years old. “To save money on rent, I mean, while I’m in college.”

“College, hey, that’s great. What’re you studying?”

“American history. My Dad’s a history professor, Mexican-American War era in particular.” Steven waved his hands in the air. “It’s his big thing.”

“So that’s what you were you doing in Vegas, research on the history of strip clubs.”

Steven wondered whether he was supposed to explain that it was a vacation or laugh, but by the time he realized Curtis was joking, his opportunity had passed. “It was my first time there. My friends and I drove two cars up, got a nice hotel room, lots of cheap shrimp cocktails. It’s spring break, so we decided to do everything: blackjack, slots, poolside margaritas.” He glanced quickly to his left. “And a strip club.” When Curtis asked how much money he was down, Steven squeezed the novel in his hands, bending it across the cover as if trying to make it snap. Much like his Aunt Connie who smoked to calm her nerves, Steven was always reading. In lines at the bank, at the DMV, at a doctor’s appointment, he was never without a book. Even when he wasn’t studying, he was reading something. “It’s a complete waste of money, really, which my dad and I argued about before I went.” He brushed dog hair from his palm. “But still, somehow, it was sort of fun.”

Curtis slapped Steven’s shoulder and laughed. “That’s how you know it’s fun.” He turned on the radio and leaned his right ear toward the console as three rowdy announcers described a series of plays. When they finally announced the score, Curtis booed and slapped his thigh. “Damn. My Cardinals are losing. Again.” He kissed his index finger and tapped an air freshener of the team insignia. “I got money on this one. You like baseball?”

“A friend’s family took me to an ASU game once, but they had to explain half of what was going on.”

Curtis turned off the radio and marveled at this odd young man sitting in his passenger seat. “How about fishing? Probably not into fishing either.”

Steven shook his head and shrugged. “I always liked the idea of it, but my dad wasn’t into that sort of thing.”

Steven’s dad loved American history the way Coronado loved gold, and although he was a professor, he didn’t enjoy teaching. He liked speaking, discussing military strategy; he only became a professor to escape high school students’ constant need for babysitting. He preferred being with books.

Steven pet the dog with firm, agitated strokes. My hand already stinks, he thought, so let it stink some more. “Because he gets winter break, we visit a different Mex-American battle site every year.” Steven ran his hand across the book’s yellowed pages so they made a fluttering sound. “Let’s see. We went to Veracruz, Mexico when I was twelve to see where U.S. forces fought back Mexico’s Coast Guard and Marines in a twenty-day siege. We spent winters in Coahuila and Nueva Leon visiting Buena Vista, Cerro Gordo, Monterrey, big battles. All over Texas, of course. Plus, where else, Mexico City.” He laughed to himself, but the awkwardness of it made Curtis look over. “You don’t know how weird it is to spend Christmas in a subtropical climate.” Yeah, Curtis thought to himself, that would be weird. “I’ve seen more cactus decorated with tinsel.”

“Hey,” Curtis said, feeling bad for the kid, “at least you’ve traveled.”

Steven’s fingers wrapped around the door handle. His toes curled like withered ferns inside his shoes. Passenger cars crept past them, but Steven felt like he was hurtling through space. Speeding. Careening. The road looked so much like tempered glass that he couldn’t understand how their tires could stick to it.

When Curtis looked over he found Steven’s brows furrowed, the kid staring at his feet. “Speed making you squeamish? I can slow her down.”

Steven moved his eyes from the floor to the speedometer. “No.” It registered at less than the posted limit. “You’re fine. It’s just me.”

Steven tried not to think about how easy it would be for the truck to slide off the road into a fat Ponderosa; instead he thought about how he wouldn’t weigh one-ninety if his dad had taken him to a ballgame or fishing. Cholesterol and diabetes were concepts Steven learned at a time when his friends were discussing bra straps and how to steal home plate. Freshman P.E. class marked the beginning of an embarrassing period. Though there were fatter kids in his high school, Steven still felt ashamed when, in front of all his classmates, he couldn’t complete more than three pull-ups or run a mile in under fifteen minutes. A medical friend of his father’s wrote a note to permanently excuse Steven from P.E., but turning it in was almost more humiliating than floundering in front of the class.

Curtis lowered the window and stuck his arm out to test the air. “Not to sound preachy, but fishing and football, people need that sort of stuff, especially kids.” He patted his belly. “Take it from a guy who sits on his keester for a living: the older you get, the harder it is to keep the old machine running smoothly.”

Although it had been five years, Steven still wished he had finished that P.E. class. He never told his dad this because he knew what his dad would say: minds pay the bills, not bodies. Steven knew his way around a library and could write a book with all the historical facts that were stored in his head, but if he ever got lost in the woods, or got stuck alone in a snowstorm, he would end up a news story: “Phoenix youth found dead of frostbite in his car. Rolls of fat weren’t enough to keep him warm.”

Curtis pointed to the photos of the swamp. “That’s why I still hunt. Teaches you self-reliance, how to think on your toes and with your wits.” He gently nudged Steven’s shoulder. “And how to handle snow.”

Steven drew a deep breath. “Yeah.”

“That’s why I took my kids outdoors as much as I could when they was little. My mistake was I didn’t take them damn near enough.” Curtis pulled a cigarette from a crumpled pack, but with Steven beside him he thought better of lighting it. “After the divorce, their mother ran the show, and she let them do everything. Let them stay up all hours, let their rooms turn to pig sties, let them live there into their twenties without jobs, things I never woulda stood for.”

Curtis rubbed his hand across the windshield even though there was no condensation obscuring his view. His oldest son graduated high school on time, and after a stint in the military found steady employment. His youngest son, though, left school without so much as a GED. He may not have seen his sons much, but he heard about their problems. He knew how Terry hung out with Jesse, the town drunk’s son, how they’d stolen cars, got arrested for shoplifting, cut too much class. Whenever Curtis was back in Missouri he took his boys fishing, until one spring when, after collecting the rods and some sandwiches and sodas, Terry refused to go. That was years ago. He hadn’t seen Terry since.

“I may not have seen them much, but they never did without.” He tapped the wheel with this finger. “But you do what you can, when you can.”

Steven stroked Parker’s matted fir until his hands were gloved in fuzz. He listened to the pistons chug and the giant tires pulverize snow. He didn’t know what to say. “Were they,” he mumbled, but changed his mind mid-thought. He felt impelled to fill the silence. “Are you and your new wife planning on having children?”

Curtis laughed. “Nah, not again. One go-round was enough.” Curtis sensed the boy’s discomfort and turned to meet his hazel eyes. “Obviously your folks are doing something right. You turned out pretty good.”
 

Steven let out a deep breath and stared out the window. Though he was glad to be inside where it was warm, the land, cloaked like a bride in lacey white, was undeniably beautiful. The hills along the highway, he thought, would make a nice postcard. And the clouds, smeared across the sky like smoke from Mexican cannons at the battle of Veracruz, were something he could imagine sitting and watching all day.

“So,” Curtis said, “now that you’ve seen it, what do you think?”

“The snow?” Steven scratched his nose. “I think I can live without it.” Curtis gave a humored stare, and Steven sensed that this wasn’t the answer the man had hoped for. “I mean, it’s definitely pretty, but it’s nothing I’d like to get involved in beyond this.”

“Oh come on now, it ain’t all bad. Here.” Curtis eased the truck onto the powdered shoulder and parked atop a small burm. “Let’s have a look see.”

Parker leapt to his feet, pressing his claws into Steven’s thigh to stare out the window. “Oh, I’d rather not,” Steven said. “The sooner I get home the better.” But like a doctor injecting a patient too scared to know what’s good for him, Curtis insisted. He swung open the door, letting frigid gusts drive the heat from the cabin, and left Steven alone in his seat.

A large meadow surrounded by bluffs and pines stretched east from the highway. Through the open door, Steven watched Curtis step through the powder. Parker scrambled off the ladder and shot like a sheepdog into the untrammeled field. He pawed at hidden stones, ran in broad arcs, his ears shimmering like willow boughs in a windstorm; every so often he stopped to dig through the snow to sniff at the exposed earth. Curtis watched from the shoulder with a smile across his face. The sight of a happy dog never failed to please him.

Steven’s book fell on the floor as he craned his neck. Part of him wanted to close the door to keep out the cold, but he pulled the lever and swung out his legs. He slid on his butt down the slippery ladder, pulled up his collar, and with one hand on the grill, inched his way toward the meadow.

Thirty seconds of exposure left Steven’s body shivering, turned his hands red, poked his skin with the force of countless pins. But through little breaks in the clouds, fleeting patches of solar warmth passed over him and countered the chill.

Steven fixed the waist of his pants in a way that Curtis couldn’t see it was elastic. He stomped his feet, testing the consistency as he stepped into the field. “It’s so grainy. Almost like gravel.” He glanced back at Curtis. “I thought it’d be different.”

He crept into the open space, further and further from the truck, and as he stepped, the soft white crunch was interrupted every few inches by something hard beneath the surface. He imagined himself tripping on a rabbit hole, slipping into a frozen pond, taking a face-full of icy shards. Yet he stepped further, cautiously, and when his toes banged another hard spot, he gathered the courage to clear a section of snow. Parker ran over to investigate and dug beside him. Together they scraped and pawed, clearing snow like an archeology crew, until they found the culprit: a cowpie, rock-hard, frozen to the earth.

Steven wondered if he should touch it, wondered what diseased microorganisms waited to attach to him. Parker barked, and Steven tapped the pie with his knuckle; it was more like a serving tray than a turd. With an awkward grunt, Steven hurled the cowpie past the wily dog and laughed as Parker leapt into the air, tongue dangling from his mouth, and ran in a senseless circle. As Parker sniffed the pie, Steven pelted him with a handful of snow. Again the dog leapt, raced around the meadow, then ran back to Steven.

The smell of cigarette smoke mixed with the sharp scent of pine, rising in a plume from the road where Curtis was leaning against the truck watching the action. “I’m afraid it’s going to freeze my fingers,” Steven yelled.

Curtis called through cupped hands. “It gets easier as they go numb.” Holding the cigarette in his teeth, he packed a wad of snow and threw it at Steven. It disintegrated in the air. And when Steven lowered his arms from his face, they both laughed, and the snow seemed to swallow the sound.

Curtis found a large, forked branch on the shoulder and tossed it into the meadow. “Throw him this. He’ll love it.” Steven had to wrestle the branch from Parker’s mouth, which coated his fingers with slobber. But instead of playing fetch, Steven stood the branch in the snow and tried to punt snowballs through the branches like a football end zone. Parker barked, and whenever the snowballs hit Steven’s shoe they exploded, sending gritty particles showering his face and clothes, and Parker.

Steven’s prim clothes were disheveled. Pant legs sponged moisture into dark, growing rings. Mud splattered the dark leather uppers of his shoes. And his shirt, once crisp and red, was decorated with deep wrinkles and pine needles. After a few punts he quit brushing himself off.

Curtis’s spent cigarette sizzled when it hit the ground. He grabbed his Wilson official NCAA composite leather football from the sleeping compartment and stepped into the meadow. Alright, he said to himself, someone’s got to show this kid how to punt.

  

Aaron H. Gilbreath is a sun-chapped, pinto-fed Zonie. He's written essays, articles, and fiction for places like High Country News, Men's JournalMississippi Review, High Desert Journal, Saranac Review, Backpacker, and Poets & Writers.
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