Ridin’ Dirty

In Issue 63 by John Schafer

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He tightened the half-inch screw into the wooden floor of the truck. It held the false front in place. The last two screws would wait on the Chinamen. He reached up and grabbed one of the wooden slats that ran the length of the Penske’s interior wall and pulled himself up; it bowed, but with a boost from his legs he was vertical before it gave. He walked back to the end of the truck and stepped onto the lift gate. He peered back in. No way you could tell. They would have to get in and they never did. They never even opened the door. He hit the button, and the lift gate started down smoothly; it was meant for heavy skids when you had a pick-up or drop at a warehouse that had no dock. At three hundred and thirty pounds he figured he qualified. The gate settled onto the asphalt; he stepped off and folded the lip back onto the body and pressed the button again. It rose and tucked itself under the end of the truck. He stepped to the tailgate, rested his forearms on the cold rusty steel and again looked down its twenty-eight-foot length. Then he looked to the sky; it was overcast, and the temperature was dropping. He shook his head, brought his gaze back to the interior of the truck and stared hard, like a parent getting the truth from a child. No way you could tell. He exhaled and set his chin atop his forearms. Goddamn Owen, he thought. Goddamn.

A few minutes later back in the cab behind the wheel, he popped a Twinkie in his mouth and was on his way to feeling better. Then he thought of his blood sugar, which made him think of the DOT, which made him feel like a sorry-assed son of a bitch. Sorry he had diabetes, sorry that the Department of Transportation was no longer going to let him drive, sorry that he was going to lose his twelve-dollar-an-hour job. His anger burned. Jesus, twelve bucks an hour, no overtime, no holidays. He could barely pay his rent and feed his girls on that! Forget about health care or a decent car! Christ on a fucking cross! It felt good to have the anger replace the pity, but that door closed as quick as it opened. It had been three years since he’d lost his wife to his skinny best friend, one more thing he should have seen coming. He had his girls every other weekend and a month in the summer, as long as he paid. Well, he couldn’t pay without a job. It was 600 a month for the girls and the same for his shabby two-bedroom apartment in the Falls. He could have scaled down to a one bedroom, but the girls had just turned twelve and needed a room to themselves. He turned right onto Genesee, spinning the big wheel smoothly. He drove the damn truck like it was on rails. He saw the Buffalo Airport up ahead on the left. He eyed the remaining Twinkie sitting on the bench seat next to him, the remnants of its partner sticking to the paper like a chalk outline. He plucked it out and popped it in his mouth. It seemed he only felt better these days when chewing; so, his jaw worked and he wondered for the hundredth time if he’d done the calculations correctly: seven and a half feet of length, eighteen inches of width. He swallowed and gave a nod, hell he could probably fit three more if he had to. You rarely saw a fat Chinaman.

An hour later he had four skids loaded and was passing the airport again headed for the freeway. It was thirty miles to the border and another ten to St. Catharines, Ontario, where he would drop two of the skids at the GM plant. Oakville was another half hour east on the Queens Expressway to a manufacturing facility for the last two skids, then back down to highway 403 for the long haul up to Brantford where he would pull behind the Big Bear convenience store and load the Chinamen. Once he’d secured the false front with the last two screws, he’d collect his money from Cho and then get over to Brant Printing to pick up the load for delivery to UPS and FedEx in the states. He had to keep his focus. He’d done this run five days a week for the past ten months through spring thunderstorms and winter whiteouts. He could drive it in his sleep, and he had to keep it just that way. If it went beyond that in his mind, it would show on his face, and if they did nothing else at the border, they were damn sure to look you in the eye. Monday and Tuesday were small load days at Brant; he had charted the last four months of pick-ups and he’d never had more than five skids. The truck held ten, and anything less than six were placed at the back end, near the big door, easier for the forklift drivers to get at. He secured them with a 4x4 aluminum smart bar that extended and attached to the inside walls of the truck, pinning the skids and preventing them from sliding when he braked. It worked well, nothing slid, and nothing got crushed.

Highway 403 is a four-lane that skirts the city of Hamilton. As Owen steered the truck, he tried to keep his mind clear. So, he thought of his girls Janine and Jane and how much he loved them. He thought of their mother and how much he had loved her. Then he thought of the day that had changed his life, of rushing into the house a half hour after he’d left to retrieve his wallet, seeing Tim’s bony ass pumping up and down on his wife, how he stood and watched as if he’d hit the pause button. Mute. Frozen. He remembered what Tim had said when he’d rolled off and they both saw him filling the doorway.

“Shit.” He looked sad when he’d said it, lying there his cock glistening, like a man who didn’t want to say it. Sheila had said nothing, and he the husband, the father, had done nothing.  His wife had calmly gotten dressed and stepped past him to leave. Owen could not remember where she had gone.

He reflected on where the end had started, flipping it over in his mind: the weight gain, ten pounds a year over the twelve of his marriage, the sleep apnea, the steel mill finally closing after years of slowdowns and layoffs, losing the only job he’d had since high school. He stopped the rumination. No. It was done. It was gone and wrong and this was it.

He went back to the calculations. Seven and a half feet of length, eighteen inches of width. Four Chinamen at seven thousand a piece, twenty-eight grand. Enough to buy another car and get a decent place to live. Maybe get on one of those TV diets that deliver the food to your door. A year to be with his girls, get healthy and start a new life. He guided the truck into the left lane and passed an eighteen-wheeler. Out of Hamilton and its suburbs, the highway cut through open land, farm fields, creeks and woods. He took it all in through the large expanse of his windshield. It looked dormant, the leafless trees, tilled fields and stunted grass all sprinkled with a dusting of snow. He moved the truck back into the right lane and settled in for the twenty-mile ride to the exit. His thoughts eased, and he took a hand off the wheel and made a tight fist, his middle knuckle peeking out shyly. It was no wonder she had said nothing. Owen frowned and returned his hand to the wheel, then exhaled. He refocused and looked for his raptors, and as if on cue he saw the first.

They sat on road signs, fence posts and in the trees that bordered the highway, hunched up against the dropping temperature. He had started to count them back in June; there were seven that sat on this twenty-mile stretch between Hamilton and Brantford. He had gradually become enthralled with these birds of prey and had even gone to the library in Niagara Falls to study up on them. Owen had come to consider them his flock. Of course, he had learned they did not flock, other than having mates; both species in this area of southern Ontario, the Rough-legged and the Red Tail, were loners like all raptors essentially were. He liked that aspect of their character almost as much as he liked the word “raptor,” which conjured up all kinds of dark images of swooping and fighting and danger, images that had always been as foreign to Owen as they were exciting. The hawks looked fierce and sleek and were a wonder when gliding above the fields and woods that bordered the blacktop. Often, when running early, he had pulled his truck over, and leaning back against the big front end, watched them glide against the blue sky. They were smart enough to adjust to the changing times, climates and conditions, and when they figured out the four-lane highway could provide what once cost them precious energy, they had parked themselves as if staking out a cafeteria, waiting on the inevitable carnage the speeding autos and trucks would reap. He still spotted them through the big windshield, soaring, but their flight looked more like exercise or pleasure than the careful reconnaissance of a hunt. He admired them greatly.

The natural world had never interested Owen, and his forays into it were limited to walleye fishing on Lake Erie. He went out in a tiny boat with his father, a huge genial man with a head the size of a Hubbard squash who had considered it a rite of passage. Owen, an early teen, had considered it a cold, wet, boring pain in the ass. He did not like fish, not the way they felt, smelled or tasted. His first catch was his last, and when asked to go on subsequent outings, he declined. He went to the movies instead. It was dark, dry and warm and the extra-large tub of buttered popcorn was bottomless. His father had died in the boat a few years later, floating for two days on a foggy Lake Erie until spotted by a commercial fishing vessel. His father keeled over stiff, his fishing rod still clutched in his hands. The fishermen had to use a net attached to a winch to haul his four-hundred-pound bulk aboard. As they hoisted his body over the gunnels, his fishing line dragged behind, a small, dead walleye being pulled along. The fisherman had shaken their heads at the huge body dragging the little fish, both wide-eyed. Owen had been seventeen.

They had never been close, and he did not know why. His father had been grossly overweight and didn’t seem to mind, and his size had never cost him anything but his life. But times had changed, the mill had closed and moved to China, and Owen’s size was now costing him all he knew and cared for. He saw no irony in the fact that to reverse his fortunes he would import Chinese. He was in raptor mode. Build a road through my hunting ground, I’ll hunt the road. Move the mill and I’ll move your people. He liked that and smiled, riding smoothly on his own air currents as the pavement sped beneath.

Ten miles later, after counting his third bird, he saw the squad car's rack lights flashing ahead and instinctively touched his brakes. The big truck kicked off cruise control and the diesel immediately dialed down. The black and white Ontario Provincial Police cruiser was parked askance, its nose pointed to two o’clock, its rear end sitting on the white line at the edge of the blacktop. The driver’s side door was open, and the officer stood in front of the squad looking down with his hands on his hips. Owen slowed, the automatic transmission dropped to low, and the engine groaned loudly. As he passed, Owen first looked out his windshield then his passenger side window. He caught a quick glimpse of the bird, one of his birds; it sat on the edge of the gravel shoulder near the grass, one wing draped down like half of a feathered cape. He swung the truck off the road to the far edge of the shoulder and brought it to a stop. With the truck leaning over toward the ditch, he hit the switch for his four-way flashers, pulled the parking brake, opened the door and swung down. He walked back quickly and was slowed by the policemen’s voice.

“Don’t come any closer. It’s hurt.”

Owen stopped a dozen feet from the raptor. It sat a foot and a half high, and its broad white front with its brown dashes was fluffed against the cold. Its curved beak was partially open, and when it tried to lift the broken wing, its serpent-like tongue jutted out. Owen could hear it emit a faint croaking sound over the din of the passing cars. The bird’s dark eyes had a look of fierceness edged with confusion. Its yellow feet and black talons gripped the gravel and grass like clenched fists. Owen pulled his gaze from the raptor and looked at the policeman who was looking at him. He was tall and wore a crew cut under his trooper’s hat. His ears were red from the cold and his face was chapped.

“Can I be of any help?” Owen asked.

“No, I don’t believe so. I have the wildlife rescue personnel on the way. I don’t want him crawling off into the ditch and freezing to death.”

The officer glanced down at the hawk and expelled a lung full of frosted air. Then he looked back to Owen.

“The best thing you can do is move along and be careful pulling out with your truck, eh?” Owen nodded and looked back to the bird. Its red tail was partially fanned, and when it opened its beak, it gave a light squawk. The animal peered at Owen and cocked its head; the eyes were sharp, and the confusion looked to have given way to anger. Owen made himself turn, took a step, then turned back.

“Do you know what happened?”

The officer shrugged.

“It was probably on the road picking up some carrion and didn’t aloft quick enough. Hit the windscreen, I’m sure. If he’d hit the grill, he’d still be in it. I get two or three a year.” He looked past Owen to his truck. “Thanks for stopping, but you better get on now.” Owen gave a nod and took a last glance at the raptor, which was staring out to the field. Then he ambled back to the Penske and climbed up and in. He started the diesel and switched off the emergency lights. His hands were cold, so he cupped them around his mouth and blew into them as he checked his mirrors. Then he dropped the shifter into drive, head checked and lumbered off the shoulder, the box shifting and adjusting on the frame. He stayed in the right lane and checked his passenger side mirror. The last thing he saw was the raptor, its broken wing caped downward, looking up at the trooper.

The snow had started to fall as he exited the highway, big flakes the size of quarters. Now, as he rolled down the East Brantford Street toward the Big Bear convenience store, peering through the windshield was like looking into a Christmas globe that had been shaken. Owen turned on his headlights. He had been down this street on the industrial side of Brantford two hundred times over the last ten months. He’d found the store in a strip mall that was fronted by a large parking lot, a perfect place to park the truck, stretch his legs and wile away an hour. It beat the hell out of sitting in the drafty warehouse at Brant Screen. He had met the owner, Lee Cho, on the first day he’d stopped in; he was Owen’s height, thin as a blade, and his black hair looked like it had been cut by placing a bowl on his head. His eyes were as dark as his hair. That first day Owen had bought some candy and perused the magazine rack under Cho’s watchful gaze. Within a week they were greeting each other with first names and holding polite conversations about family, sports and the state of the economy in western New York. Cho would study him pensively as Owen gave verbose responses to his questions concerning the U.S. economy in general and how it affected him and his girls. Cho would nod and frown sympathetically. Often after these sessions walking across the parking lot to his truck, Owen would glance back over his shoulder to see Cho gazing after him through the store’s front window as if assessing his walk.

It was on a Friday a few months later as Owen helped his new friend stock a shelf with toilet paper that Cho had asked him, “If he’d like to make some good cash money.” Owen had quickly said, “Sure,” without a thought, adding that he did not have a permit to work in Canada. Two minutes later Owen said, “No,” just as quick and thoughtlessly. Cho had nodded saying he understood about the risk, his hairless hand patting Owen’s thick shoulder. That was when it had started. The consideration worked on him like an IV drip. That night he considered and dismissed the proposition a dozen times during the hour and a half ride back to Buffalo. The next week it was not mentioned as he and the store owner went back to their usual banter. But it was in his bloodstream, flowing from I can’t, to I shouldn’t, to I could. A month later the DOT dropped the rock on him. Two months to the day after Cho’s initial proposal, alone in the store, Owen had asked him if it was still feasible. He remembered that Cho had not seemed the least bit surprised.

The parking lot lights were on in the deepening twilight, illuminating the falling snow, which had picked up its intensity riding a north wind. Owen crept the yellow truck down the side of the building and carefully swung left into the alley that ran behind. He shut off the lights. With a line of dumpsters on the right and the building to his left, it looked like a tight fit, but he had stepped off the width a week prior and knew he had six feet on either side. He came to a stop behind the store and shut off the engine. In the dim light of a lone streetlamp, the snow fell on the windshield melting on impact, leaving thick lines of water running down the glass as if it were weeping. He felt for the two screws in his pocket, grabbed the screwdriver from a compartment beneath the dash and flipped on the switch for the cargo light in the back, then exited the cab.

Before he could knock on the back door, Cho had cracked it open and eyed him. Then Owen stepped into the pale light of the stockroom, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves of canned goods, paper products, soda, bread and boxes of candy. Cho gave Owen a nod and handed him a large white envelope. It felt smooth and thick and Owen’s hand trembled as he brought it to his chest.

“Just as we agreed, for four,” Cho said softly. “Twenty-eight thousand U.S. There is a parking lot across from the airport. A McDonald restaurant. Drop there and you have satisfied your obligation.” Owen nodded.

Cho then stepped to the door of a small bathroom, opened it and said something low into blackness, and four people stepped out of the dark into the dim. Three men eyed him and the fourth, a girl, stared at the floor. They were all dressed in jeans and tennis shoes with windbreakers over T-shirts; they clutched small backpacks to their chests. A rank odor followed them out: a mix of sweat, urine and mildew. The men looked to be in their twenties, and all were of slight build. The girl was a diminutive young teen, her long hair pulled into a ponytail. The men stared at him cautiously as the odor engulfed them all; Owen’s eyes narrowed and his throat constricted as he fought the urge to turn away. He looked at Cho who did not seem to be bothered by the stench; he only eyed him, the envelope still clutched in his hand. Owen finally stuffed it into his coat’s interior pocket, and Cho broke his gaze.

“Any of them speak English?” Owen whispered.

“No, this will not be a problem,” Cho answered.

“Tell them anytime they feel the truck come to a stop they can’t say a word. They need to be perfectly still.” Cho looked to the men and spoke rapid-fire Chinese. They nodded and so did the girl, her eyes still fixed on her feet.

“You will hear nothing,” he said confidently.

“Okay, give me a minute to roll up the door and then send them out.”

Owen stepped back into the alley thankful to be in the fresh air. The snow was coming in sideways on the wind, the flakes were smaller and icy, and they stung his face as he walked the length of the truck. At the back he unlatched the big door and gave it a shove up and it rolled open. It looked like the gaping mouth of a cave as the snow blew around it. He turned to summon the Chinese, but they were already standing there, single file with packs on their backs. This startled him momentarily; he recovered and pointed to the handrail on the side near the door. They climbed up, the three men first, and as they did, Owen caught a glimpse of the girl through the blowing snow; she was pretty and the snow clung to her hair and eyelashes, giving her an angelic cast. Owen offered her a hand up, but she ignored it and quickly followed the last man. Owen followed, assisted by the adrenalin coursing through him. As he led them to the front of the box, the small dome light on the roof bounced off the wood floor making it look slick. At the false front, he pulled the unsecured end out two feet; the wood and tightened screws creaked in the cold. Owen pointed to the gap. The first man quickly shifted his pack around to his chest, turned sideways, and with a shuffle step disappeared into the space behind. The rest followed suit with no prompting. Owen then let go of the wood, and it snapped back to meet the Penske’s interior wall, perfectly flush. He dug in his pocket, pulled out a wood screw and screwed the top corner tight to the wall. Then he dropped to a knee and secured the bottom corner to the wood floor. He stood, stepped back and took it in. He stared at the false front, looking hard, trying to picture the four Chinese on the other side in the eighteen inches of space. He could not. His eyes swept the seven-and-a-half-foot width of the box. Nothing. It was perfect. He sniffed. He couldn’t even smell them. He turned and walked to the end of the truck, grabbed the strap hanging off the end of the door, stepped onto the lip and pulled it halfway down. He carefully slid to the rail and lowered himself to the alley. He reached up, got hold of the strap and pulled the door down with a loud bang. He pushed down the handle and latched it.

At the driver’s door, he thought to say goodbye to Cho, stepped over to the back door and turned the handle; it was locked. He climbed into the cab. Inside he fired up the diesel and switched off the work light in back. The windshield was covered in a thin layer of icy snow; he turned on the wipers and it was swept away. He took the envelope from his inside coat pocket; in the lamplight through the cleared windshield, it glowed. He opened it. Inside were five bundles of tightly wrapped hundred-dollar bills, five of which had 5,000 written on the brown bands. A sixth had 3,000 written on the paper strap. He smiled, slid the money back in and returned the envelope to his pocket. He rubbed his face with both hands and took a deep breath. Then he released the parking brake and slid the shifter into drive. He would wait on the headlights till he turned out at the far end of the building. As the truck crawled up the alley, he flipped on the defroster and realized he had been holding his breath. He let it out and took another. He had no sensation of the steering wheel, the seat beneath him or the pedals at his feet; he felt only his heart banging against his ribs. He had a crystal clear thought then and put voice to it:

“Damn, Owen, you’re ridin’ dirty.”

Fifteen minutes later he was backing up to dock number one at Brant Screen Works. The snow had slowed as he gently came to a stop against the rubber bumpers. This would be the first test. He cut the engine, set the brake and climbed out. As he walked to the dock door, he could feel the envelope of money rubbing against his shirt atop his heart. His senses seemed heightened, the cold air stung the inside of his nose, his mouth was dry, and for the first time in forever he had no appetite.

Inside the warehouse, Noah, the forklift driver, was already on his machine. He was Afro-Caribbean and always wore a colorful knit cap. He waved to Owen who returned it. He bent, unlatched and opened the big door; it came up with ease and he turned to Noah.

“How many we got today?” Noah fired up his forklift and the pungent odor of propane wafted over.

“Only three for you today, big man,” Noah said with a smile. Owen nodded and his gut tightened as Noah glided by with the first skid. The front end of the lift entered the truck and the driver set the chest-high skid on the wooden floor. As he backed out, Owen studied him. He whisked by and scrunched up his face while rubbing his arms.

“It’s cold, man” he said.

“Yeah, it’s dropping,” Owen agreed and broke his stare. Satisfied, he headed for the office to get his paperwork for the load. The office was brightly lit and crammed with reams of copy paper, telephones, a desk-top fax and copy machines covered with a thin layer of warehouse dust. It was overly warm and smelled of printer ink and natural gas backed by a hint of perfume. Margo, the shipping clerk, was at the end of her shift and had one phone to her ear and another lay on her shoulder. She was a short, wide-hipped woman of fifty with frizzy bottle-blonde hair and a face coated with makeup. She waved to Owen, pointed to a stack of papers on the desk and continued with her conversation. Owen stepped to the cluttered desk and glanced down at the stack of paper with his manifest on top. He paged through and signed two different sheets, one for UPS airfreight, the other for ground. He picked up the stack as Margo hung up the phone and returned the one on her shoulder to the desk.

“I tell you, Owen, I need a raise, I been stickhandling around problems all day.” He handed Margo the two copies he’d signed.

“Sorry you’ve had a tough day,” he said. She took the papers and forced a smile.   “Almost done. You’re a little late, eh?”

“Oh, it was snowing hard out by the lake, I took my time,” he lied.  She nodded.   “Well, you’re all set, then.”

The phone rang and Margo rolled her eyes and picked it up. “Shipping.” Owen put the paperwork under his arm and stepped for the door. “Owen,” Margo called, Owen turned, and she was pressing the receiver to her shirt. “Have you lost weight, hon?” she asked with smile. Owen shrugged and grinned sheepishly.

“Maybe a bit,” he said.

“Well, I can tell, it looks good,” she added and went back to the phone. He stepped out of the office. Noah went by on the lift and gave him a thumbs-up. Owen walked to the dock and set his paperwork on a stack of boxes. He took an aluminum smart bar from a bunch standing in the corner and stepped into the back of the truck. Noah had set two of the skids on the end near the door and the third centered behind both. He attached the jaw snaps of the bar to a strip of metal on the interior wall, then extended it and stepped to the other side and did the same. The bar’s four inches of width pressed against the skids waist-high. He looked out and saw Noah working at the far end of the warehouse restacking empty skids. He stepped to the front of the truck and stood, listening to nothing but his own shallow breathing. He walked back, ducked under the smart bar, stepped out onto the dock, rolled the door shut and latched the big handle. He picked up his paperwork and exited the warehouse. He did not feel the cold as he made his way to the cab. He felt light and lucky, like a foreigner in his own life. As he took hold of the door handle and looked back toward the dock, he let a breath go and said, “Halfway home.”

The snow picked up on the highway, and Owen tucked the Penske between two eighteen-wheelers, and guiding the wheel he felt the full envelope rub against his chest over his heart. As he headed back south with his headlights bouncing off the back of the semi ahead and the snow cutting sideways through the beam, it looked and felt surreal, as if someone else were driving to some snowy destination that had no end.  He did not like the feeling and turned on the radio searching for an update on the weather. Unable to tune one in, he settled on a classic rock station out of Toronto. His girls loved classic rock, especially ACDC and The Eagles, bands that were huge when Owen was in grade school. He smiled thinking of the girls dancing around to “All Night Long” or singing into their hair-brush handles to “Hotel California.”

The smile dissipated on the recollection of his first foray into dancing. It was at the senior prom, a function his former friend Tim had cajoled him into attending.  He had even found Owen a date. Izzy Bloom was a short, portly girl with a pug nose and big brown eyes. She had grown up next door to Tim and was rumored to be borderline mentally handicapped. Tim assured Owen she was just shy. This turned out to be an accurate assessment when Owen on prom night stood awkwardly in her parents' living room as her mother attempted to talk her out of the bathroom that she had locked herself in after getting dressed. She finally came out, red-faced and on the verge of tears. Her father, a pear-shaped city bus driver, instantly made both Izzy and Owen potent vodka drinks that were polished off in no time. This calmed Izzy, and after a second drink, her parents quickly snapped some pictures and led them to the door.  As they stepped out, Izzy’s father pressed a flask into Owen’s hand saying, “I want her to have a good time. Give her a nip every now and then.”  Owen, on the first date of his life, nodded and slipped the flask into the interior pocket of the rented tux.

In the back of Tim’s father’s Cadillac, Owen offered the flask to Izzy who took a healthy pull; Owen had done the same and they smiled at one another.  Once at the dance and seated, after a few more sips of the vodka and some perfunctory conversation, Izzy had asked him to dance.  He obliged, and soon they were up slowly circling in a two-step rhythm. She smelled of Aqua Net and perfume, and for the first time at any school event, he closed his eyes and relaxed. When the ballad ended, Owen and Izzy kept dancing for a few beats, reluctant to give up the first-time feeling. When the lead singer belted out the opening line to “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” and the band came alive, Owen froze, unable to comprehend a next move. His mother had taught him to slow dance but had never considered up-tempo. Surprisingly, Izzy caught the beat and started dancing. Owen, his temperature rising the longer he stood still, followed suit. He tried to move with Izzy, to mimic her style, which surprised and impressed him. After thirty seconds of fumbling around, he found her. They danced and laughed and sweated, the flask bumping lightly against his chest. Owen kept his eyes on hers, and after the song ended, they danced to two more. They walked off the floor winded and smiling. Owen returned to their table as Izzy went to use the bathroom. Sitting there, he was suddenly glad he’d let Tim talk him into coming. Izzy came back looking fresh, and they shared another drink from the flask and a light laugh. She asked him to dance again, and he said yes but had to use the bathroom first. A few minutes later in a stall, he had taken a handful of toilet paper off the roll and mopped his face as he unzipped.  He heard a group of classmates enter, laughing uproariously. “Did you see Stanski? Him and that retard!” The boy caught his breath. “Christ, he looked like a berserk walrus!!” They broke into another round of laughter. Owen had dropped the matted tissue in the bowl and put his hand to his chest pressing the flask to his heart. He’d waited, listening to more ridicule until the group had left.

He followed the semi in front onto the west-bound ramp of the QEW. He had danced no more that night and never again. Izzy had been confused and disappointed, and she finished the flask. Later, he’d had to carry her to the front door after she had thrown up in the back of the Cadillac. He wished now he would have ignored the cruel classmates and danced right through their laughter and meanness. But there was no going back, no more than there was fifteen years after that dance when he’d walked in on his ex and Tim, or right now for that matter.  He was sick of being the goddamned victim, whether actual or perceived, and this was his first move against all of it: the fat, the diabetes, the DOT, classmates and best friends. It was his time now and this was his goddamned move; it had taken him long enough, but here he was. And it wasn’t just for himself but for his daughters too: They would see a man from now on, not some sad sack constant casualty, they’d remember, and it would influence their own choices in the future. They would see a raptor.

Ten minutes later he was slowed to a crawl. The snow was coming in off Lake Ontario to his left, and he moved to the center lane and found a station out of Buffalo. Eight to ten inches were expected with heavier accumulations near the lake, which made his decision where to cross easier. The two choices: The Queenston/Lewiston Bridge was the way he’d come in; thirty miles northeast of Buffalo it had only three truck lanes. The Peace Bridge had twelve lanes for trucks and deposited you directly into Buffalo proper; it usually was a longer wait, oftentimes backed up across the bridge and into Fort Erie, Ontario. The last twenty miles of approach rode the shore of Lake Erie and was a renowned snow belt. He had thought to go the Peace Bridge; it had no X-ray and was much busier, which usually translated into less scrutiny. But he did not want to eat more time crawling through a white-out. He had to get to UPS air before it closed at nine o’clock. If he missed it, the freight would sit on the truck all night, and there would be a world of shit tomorrow. He’d be out of the current snow in a few miles when the QEW pulled away from Lake Ontario, then he’d cut south on highway 405, cross over the lower Niagara River and enter through the Queenston/Lewiston port. He’d go back the way he’d come. Hell, nobody X-rayed in a blizzard.

An hour later he banked onto highway 405; it had taken twice as long as usual. A few miles after clearing the snow and getting back up to speed on the QEW, he had stopped because of an accident. When he had eventually crawled by, it looked nonlethal, just a heavy-duty fender bender. Highway 405 is a dark road, a four-lane that connects travelers to the first bridge to the U.S. west of Toronto. On weekends and holidays, it is jammed with Canadian shoppers headed for the lower taxes and deals at the Prime Outlet Mall in Niagara Falls, and on those days, there can easily be an hour wait just to get to customs. During the week it is unlit and virtually empty. He covered the blackness of the seven miles easily with the snow falling through the beam of his headlights like confetti at a hero’s parade. As he drove, he repeated aloud, soft and steady, “Just business as usual. It’s just business as usual.” Engulfed in the darkness of the highway, this calmed him, and as he saw the glow from the island of lights a mile ahead, he eased his grip on the wheel.

He slowed to twenty miles an hour as he exited Canada and rolled onto the bridge. Halfway across, he could see the border station lit up and free of traffic. High above the river with Lake Ontario seven miles downstream to his left and Niagara Falls ten miles up on his right, it felt like his time and his moment. The wind had died, the snow fell straight down, big flakes into black swirling water.

There were three truck ports left to right and Owen chose the first. He slowed and lumbered beneath the green light. When he was directly across from the elevated office window, he shut the truck down and lowered his window. He could see a silhouette sitting on the other side of the tinted glass. He took out his passport and pulled the top sheet off his paperwork and set both on his lap. He looked once again to the window, then dropped his eyes to the white box fixed beneath: A square ten-by-ten-inch plate, its face a mass of pinholes; it recorded everything that was said. He moved his gaze forward and watched the big flakes descend and melt atop the truck’s hood. He shifted his eyes right and spied the customs building; it was a two-story structure with a massive parking lot fronting three inspection docks; the lot extended for an acre past the far side of the building. There was a double-wide drive on the near side leading to a back lot and the X-ray truck.  Just as he had thought, he saw no signs of it in use and suppressed a smile. Once again, he glanced out through the two feet of night to the office window. Nothing. His eyes shifted to the left onto a large white sign screwed to the building that he’d read a hundred times. Its bold, black printing warned the reader that they must declare, under the penalty of imprisonment, fine or both any currency exceeding ten thousand dollars. He forced a yawn and brought a fist to his mouth. He felt the thick envelope move against his chest. The cab was cooling, but his neck and underarms were starting to warm. The agents could keep you waiting indefinitely until they finished a phone call or a game of solitaire on their laptop; Owen had seen both. They acted more like border lords than agents, and you just had to take it. He turned his head and looked through his passenger window at port number two. He heard the window slide open and swung his head back. He picked up his passport and manifest sheet and offered it out the window. The agent took it with a laconic look.

“Citizenship?”

“U.S.”

“Where do you live.”

“Niagara Falls.”

“Who do you work for.”

“Just A Minute Courier, out of Cheektowaga.”

“What are you carrying.”

“Printed material for UPS ground and air, from Brant Screen up in Brantford.”

“Did you purchase anything while in Canada?”

“No.”

“Any weapons or contraband?”

“No, sir.” The agent glanced at his passport and manifest. He was a heavy-set African American in his late fifties, and Owen had dealt with him at least thirty times.

“A minute.”  The window slid shut. Owen watched the snow fall and went over it again: Once he was clear, it was up to 90 then the 290 to the airport. Drop the Chinese in the McDonalds parking lot, then over to UPS air, unload two skids, then back on the highway ten miles to UPS ground to drop the final one, then over to the office to park the truck, remove the false front, break it up and bury it in the dumpster. Then home. His thoughts morphed to a new cognition, so fresh it made him narrow his eyes as if a bright light shone through the windshield. Should he disassemble the front and keep it to be used again? He had never considered a second run. Now his mind clicked like a conversation via text:

no never

but this was going so well

no, it was one thing to change your life, another to be a smuggler, not again

but it had taken hours to construct the false front and make it a perfect replica

no

but the body he’d been saddled with was not any more unfair or wrong than running chinks

but how fair is prison

no, never again

just consider it

no

So deep was his internal debate that when the window slid back open, Owen flinched. He looked at the agent, who now wore steel-framed glasses low on his nose. He was extending his arm, Owen’s passport in his hand and the manifest folded lengthwise tucked inside. The snow fell around the blue sleeve of his uniform. Owen tracked up his arm to his face, the bored countenance in place like Rushmore. He took the passport and paper.

“You’re going to have to pull over and go inside. Your entry number is incorrect. Call your broker and see the desk.”  The window slid shut and Owen nodded dumbly to it. He sat staring at his passport, which looked like it had carnivorously latched onto the white piece of paper sticking out of both ends. He slid the paper out, unfolded it and saw the entry number above the bar code circled in red, the word inside printed next to it. This had happened before; sometimes the shipping clerk transposed or missed a number when they copied it onto a form before faxing it to the broker, who would then register it with customs and fax back the corresponding manifest. Owen slid the paper back inside the passport and set it on the seat. He started the truck, switched on the lights and pulled away. He glanced at the clock on the face of the radio: 7:40. Sure it had happened before, just never with a load of Chinese. His underarms and neck had gone from warm to hot. “Damn it.” Wouldn’t it just figure? He took deep breaths as he pulled the truck over to the parking area and maneuvered so it faced the exit and cut the engine. He peeled off his coat and set it atop the paperwork and then stuck his head partially out the window and sucked in the frigid air. It helped. He still had plenty of time. He rubbed his face with his hands, his palms were damp. He took a final deep breath, expelled it. “Just business as usual.” Then he grabbed his coat and paperwork and climbed out. Halfway down he saw the money envelope sticking out of the coats inner pocket; he took it out and slid it under the seat against the red metal box holding emergency flares. Then he locked and shut the door. As he headed across the lot to the customs building, icy wind was blowing down from Canada. He held his coat to his chest, the paperwork trapped underneath. Jesus that wind could blow.

A half hour later, with his coat lying bunched at his feet on the hallway floor, Owen stared at the fax machine, waiting. He looked from the cubbyhole that held the machine and the phone, to his left, through the locked door and into the dark office. He shook his head, turned and leaned against the wall. He’d used the phone, talked to the agent on duty, got the number straight and now waited for the new manifest to be sent. The office had closed at six. This is what happened when someone did not do their job: the driver standing, the clock ticking. His legs felt stiff, and he bumped off the wall and stepped deliberately down the hallway toward a bank of windows that overlooked the port of entry. He was very warm and ran his forearm over his dewy brow; they must have jacked up the heat in the building, he thought. At the windows he pressed his forehead to the glass, the smooth coldness feeling wonderful. He looked out and took it all in: the snow, the lights, the few cars and trucks rolling through. The scene looked detached and dreamy, as if once again he was looking into a snow globe. He felt a tingling sensation around his mouth and scratched at it. He dug his phone out of his pocket, flipped it open and pressed Fred’s number; he was the owner and did not suffer a driver running late. He answered on the first ring.

“Go ahead, Owen.”

“Hey, Fred, well, they messed up the manifest and between that and the snow and an accident, well, it’s eight-fifteen and I still haven’t cleared.”

“Where you at?”

“Queenston/ Lewiston.”

“Good that you didn’t go Peace Bridge. The Q’s snowed in from the falls to Fort Erie.

Nothin’s movin’.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Hopefully you’ll get out of there soon. Nothin’ we can do about the weather.”

“Okay.”

“Just remember, slow and steady wins the race.”

“Yeah.”

“If you get to Air a few minutes after nine, go around back, they’ll offload you.”

“Alright, just wanted to give you a heads-up.”

“Copy that. Ten-four.” Fred hung up and Owen, surprised at his benevolent tone, stared at his phone. The illuminated numbers on the face seemed to blur into one another; he ran the back of his hand over his eyes to clear them. Unsuccessful, he tilted the phone toward the windows to catch the light from the parking lot, and as he did so, he heard the beep of the fax machine and started to move down the hall.  He closed the phone, took one step, then a second, his right leg giving out on the third, and he felt himself pitch forward, his momentum dropping him onto his right shoulder, his phone skidding away on the waxed tile like a puck on ice. Confused and irritated, he attempted to right himself but could find neither the strength in his arms nor the purchase for his left foot, his boot tiptoeing the tile. He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling, the long fluorescent light tubes reminding him of the light sabers in the Star Wars movies; they moved and swerved and slashed keeping the galactic enemies at bay and Owen smiled. Then all was dark.

He woke to lights, too many lights, and he squeezed his eyes shut. Faint greens and blues with streaks of white soared against the inside of his eyelids, like fluorescent raptors. He felt wholly comfortable. As faded voices rose, a sting in his thigh opened his eyes and he attempted to roll over. He heard a distant chorus of “no’s” as if being uttered through syrup, was guided back to his supine position, and again he pinched his eyes closed, the blue, green and white raptors swooping in once more. He reached for the sting in his thigh. His hand pressed firmly to a cool rounded surface, he grasped it and felt its cylindrical shape. Turning his head, he felt his cheek rested on a course sheet. He opened his eyes, and when they cleared, a stethoscope swinging like a pendulum came into focus. He fixated on the round end of the stethoscope, back and forth, tick-tock, his eyes following it like a cat with a metronome. A lopsided smile spread his mouth, and he heard the voices clear and precise.

“Should you give him another?” Owen felt two fingers pressing on his neck, which caused no discomfort; they felt reassuring.

“No, he’s coming back.” And he was, his senses recovering in increments like switches flipped in a fuse box. He was elevated in a hallway, and his pants were undone, and he felt coolness on his exposed thighs. He dropped his eyes from the stethoscope and fixed them on the aluminum railing of the gurney; he clinched it tightly. He eased his grip and watched the blood flow return to his blanched hand. His throat, so tightly constricted that he could not swallow his own spittle, was loosening and that felt freeing.

“Can I sit up?” he heard himself ask. His voice sounded otherworldly, and it felt odd being detached from his voice. He received no answer and was about to ask again when he heard an even reply.

“Certainly, but let’s do it slowly, shall we?”

“Okay,” he croaked. With a set of hands on each shoulder and with a push from his elbows, he sat up and instantly felt nauseous. A group of customs officers stood near, their blue uniforms and badges making them look officious; their concerned countenance belied the image. He had never seen them look anything but bored and ambivalent. It was as if they had just posted admission into the humanity, these androids of the border; he fixed on their faces. It was not until the older man with the stethoscope touched his shoulder that Owen looked at him. His mustache and head of silver hair were neatly trimmed, and he wore a sweater over corduroy pants. He had deep blue eyes that matched his sweater and a calming gaze that backed his voice perfectly.

“How do you feel, my boy? Is your throat loosening, your confusion dissipating?”

“Yes, some,” he said, his voice coming around.

“Good, good.”  The man gave him a gentle smile and looked the least bit relieved. “You gave everyone a bit of a scare.” Owen cleared his throat and took a breath.

“Sorry.”

“Quite alright.” The man lowered the rail of the gurney and once again pressed two fingers to Owens neck and concentrated for a moment.

“Excellent” he intoned, “let’s get your trousers up then.” Owen leaned back and with the help of the older man and one of the Custom agents, he pulled up his pants and buckled his belt. He gave the agent a smile of gratitude and it was returned; he had never seen an agent smile. The older man gently guided Owen a quarter turn so his legs hung off the side of the gurney. “Quick exam,” he said.

“Who are you?” Owen asked.

“Sorry, I’m Doctor Stewart. Your name?”

“Owen Stanski.”

“Well, nice to meet you, Owen.” They shook lightly, and as they did, he heard a customs agent speak to the others.

“You two head back.”

“Right,” they answered in unison with what sounded like relief. As Doctor Stewart checked his reflexes by tapping below his kneecaps, Owen eyed the two agents that remained. They both stood at the foot of the gurney, one was middle age with dark hair and three gold stripes on his upper sleeve. The other was early twenties, red-haired and stood just behind and to the side of the older officer; he held a portable defibrillator unit in front of him with both hands, like a kid with a large red lunchbox. He looked shaken.

“Chin up, please.” Owen raised his chin and the doctor spread his eyes with a thumb and forefinger and flashed a pen light in each. Finished, he took a half step back and laid a soft palm against Owens forehead.

“What happened?” Owen asked. The doctor took his hand from Owen's head and folded his arms.

“Well, Owen, you fainted. I imagine you had a seizure, and by the time someone found you,” the doctor glanced at the customs officers then back to Owen, “you were slipping into a coma.”  Owen nodded dumbly.

“Jesus,” he said softly.  The doctor nodded with understanding.

“Indeed, someone above.”

“Is there anything we can help with further?” the middle-aged officer asked. The doctor gave him a wry grin.

“Perhaps a sandwich for Owen here, would there be one about?”

“I’m sure I can find one.” The officer turned and started down the hall, but after a few steps he stopped and looked back at the young officer holding the defibrillator. “Come on, bring that,” he snapped. The red-haired officer immediately fell in behind the older man and they briskly made their way down the hall. Owen watched them go. Then he looked back to Doctor Stewart.

“He sounds mad?”

“Oh no, not you, son.” The doctor’s eyes flicked down the hall after the men, then came back to Owen.

“You see, when they found you, they thought you had suffered a cardiac infarction. So, they were about to use the defibrillator paddles when I happened by.”

“Happened by?” Owen said confused.

“Yes, just that. They had given me some rot concerning my passport and sent me into these offices. Having never been, and there being no signage, I easily got lost and happened by. You were on the floor, shirt ripped open, and the officers about to apply the paddles.” It was then that Owen was cognizant of his shirt being wide open, his drooping chest and his wheelbarrow sized midsection, hairless and pale, reflecting the overhead light. He gathered his shirt and held it closed.

“Your buttons were strewn all over the floor.”

“Did they use those things?”  The doctor frowned.

“No, thank God. I came over by sheer habit, having been a practicing physician in Toronto for the past forty years. I stopped them immediately, had a look, deduced you were in a hypoglycemic episode and treated you as such.” He shook his head, and a troubled look turned his eyes dark. “You were quite far along really, very advanced, had already worked your way through a seizure, about to go comatose, I suspect. A state you may not have recovered from.” He paused and took a breath. “So, I retrieved my bag and administered a one milligram syringe of glucagon, and you did not respond, so I administered a second, which is unusual, but here we are.”

The doctor gave him a satisfied smile revealing a perfect set of dentures. Owen shook his head in amazement.

“Thank you,” he said, adding, “what if they would have used those paddles on me?” The doctor winced.

“Well, more than likely they would have shocked you into the next life, and I would be attending the rehearsal dinner for my granddaughters wedding in downtown Buffalo as we speak, a bit sadder for all this, of course.” He motioned to the gurney and the hallway. Owen’s eyes widened as he considered the doctor’s assessment.

“Thank you. Can’t thank you enough,” he said softly.

“My pleasure.” The doctor leaned in conspiratorially. “Haven’t had this much excitement since team Canada beat you Americans in overtime for the hockey gold in the last Olympics. Sometimes we retired guys need something to do, eh?” His eyes were full of mirth, and he chuckled.

“So, let’s get some food into you, and then we can have a talk. Hungry?”

“Starved.”

The older agent returned with a sandwich wrapped in cellophane and a diet soda. He led them to his office and provided Owen with a dark blue triple XL Border Patrol T-shirt, apologizing as he handed it to him for the destruction of his own shirt. He left them in the office after laying Owen’s cleared manifest, passport and cell phone on the desk. As Owen ate the sandwich, the doctor took him in.

“You are a very lucky young man,” he said. “How is your limb function, feeling everything okay?” Owen washed down the sandwich with a gulp of diet soda, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“They seem to be okay.”

“Good, very good. How about your mental faculties? A seizure can produce many subsidiary issues, memory, coordination, some people even lose their ability to do simple arithmetic.  Tell me your full name.

“Owen Aaron Stanski.”

“Your birthday?”

“June fourteenth nineteen seventy-eight.”

“Your address?”

“2242 Shale Court apartment two-B, Niagara Falls, New York.” Doctor Stewart nodded.

“Your long term seems fine. What time did you arrive here at the customs office?” Owen stared at the doctor. He cocked his head and looked at the wall to the left of the physician. He thought hard, the answer seemed near, as if hearing a voice somewhere in a house but behind every door opened was an empty room. Finally, he gave up, shrugged and looked back to Doctor Stewart with a coalescence of irritation and wonder.

“I don’t know,” he said. The doctor nodded and slid the manifest out from under Owens phone. He studied it.

“This fax came in at eight-eighteen, it is now,” he turned his wrist and glanced at his watch, “eleven-ten. Using those times, how long have you been here?”

“Two hours and forty minutes give or take.” Owen did the math and the doctor smiled.

“Close enough for government work as they say.” He took a beat, and his eyes grew serious. “I assume you are aware of your condition.”

“Yes, I am.”

“I won’t bother with a long lecture on the hazards of the disease. You must get your diabetes under control because it can lead to amputation and even death if you do not. You must keep food with you and monitor your blood glucose level. Do you have a primary physician?”

“No,” Owen answered, and the doctor frowned.

“Health insurance?” Owen shook his head.

“America, such a great country, so shortsighted,” the doctor said sadly. He then reached into his back pocket, produced his wallet, took a card from it and with a pen from the desk wrote on the back. He handed the card to Owen. “My home phone is on the back. Call me next week. I still have many friends working on this side of the border. I shall make some calls. We’ll get you seen.” Owen took the card and was immediately overwhelmed, his eyes misted, and his voice caught in his throat. The doctor patted his shoulder and gave him a smile.

“It’s quite alright, my boy. I can’t very well save a life and not help preserve what I saved.”

 “Thank you for everything,” he said trying to clear his eyes. The doctor gave his shoulder a final pat and stood.

“You are very welcome. Now I must be on my way. I’m sure there are people wondering just where the hell I am with this storm.” He slipped on his parka and Owen stood. Doctor Stewart turned and opened the office door. He zipped the coat halfway and pulled on fur-lined leather gloves. He gave Owen a final confident look. “You’re going to be fine,” he said. He turned and was about to step out when he turned back with a grin. “Since you have been my patient, I shall leave you with what I have told every patient since my residency. It is the very first thing I was taught in medical school back in Ottawa.” The grin had evolved into a smile and his eyes were bright.

“Do no harm,” he said, then gave a definitive nod and left.

Owen leaned against the desk and stared at his feet, his mind blank. Then he thought of Fred and picked up his phone, flipped it open and saw that he had called twice, the last being an hour and a half prior. He closed the phone; no sense in bothering him at this hour when the load wouldn’t get there until morning. He slipped the phone into his pocket with Doctor Stewart’s card. He left his hand in the pocket and stared at a spot on the wall in front of him. He felt as if he were leaving himself out of something. It was a frustrating feeling, and he felt irritated. How could he leave himself out of anything? It made no sense. He thought harder, trying to corner the feeling and making it come around. But the harder and more intense his scrutiny the further it moved and the more oblique it became. Then it flitted away completely leaving him empty and discouraged. He shook it off, and as he did, the middle-aged customs officer entered the office carrying Owens coat and a small box of animal crackers. He set both on the desk.

“Brought you something else to snack on,” he said, gesturing to the crackers. His eyes dropped to the floor as he considered something. Then he looked up with a single shake of his head. “We deeply regret what happened, what nearly happened, and I assure you, Mr. Stanski, there will be an internal investigation.

“Owen.”

“Owen,” the officer echoed.

“Well, okay,” Owen said benevolently. His tone seemed to disarm the officer, who must have been used to anything but compassion in his line of work. He looked around the room uncomfortably. Owen watched him and then put aside all the wasted time, attitude and ambivalence he’d suffered over the last year and remembered the words Doctor Stewart had left him with just minutes before. He could start here, he thought. “Listen, everyone makes mistakes. Let’s just hope what happened will teach someone to do no harm in the future, officer?”

“Free, Jim Free.” He then looked at Owen not as a customs officer, but as one man looks to another when something fair has been offered. “Thank you, Owen. I’m sure it will do just that.”  Owen nodded and then yawned and rubbed his face with his hand, suddenly exhausted.

“We have a small barracks room with a couple of cots. You’re welcome to crash for a few hours. The snow has moved past and it’s dumping on Buffalo now, and the temp here has dropped below zero. You’d just be crawling over ice the next thirty miles anyway. I imagine you missed your drop, so you’re welcome to get some shut eye,” Officer Free said. Owen thought for a moment; he was tired and would rather not crawl through a lake effect blizzard if he didn’t have to.

“All right, Jim, I’ll take you up on that.”

“All right, Owen. Let’s get you settled,” he said with a smile.

Owen pushed off the edge of the desk, picked up his paperwork, phone, coat and the animal crackers. Then he followed Officer Jim Free out of the office.

He woke at three-fifty. The cot creaked as he sat up and pivoted, placing his sock feet on the waxed linoleum. He eyed the bottle of water and animal crackers next to his feet. He reached down, picked up the water and drank deeply, the plastic crinkling loudly. He reached for the box of crackers, picked out two and slid them in his mouth and chewed, the fog of sleep lifting as he did. He drained the water and stood. He slipped on his boots, straightened the blankets on the cot and looked around the room. It was dim and quiet. He stepped up to a desk, switched on a lamp and wrote a thank you note to Officer Free. Then with his coat over his arm and the box of animal crackers clutched in his hand, he stepped out of the room and into the hallway blinking under the fluorescent onslaught. He quickly got lost in the maze of hallways, the manufactured light bouncing off the windows of the dark offices. He eventually spotted an exit sign and followed its red arrow down a hall to a staircase. He descended two flights, stepped around a corner and came upon the exit door. He put on his coat and slipped the box of crackers into his side pocket, and as he did so, he could feel the cold permeating the door. Frost had gathered on the inside of the door jam and the hinges. He zipped up and put his hand on the handle; it felt frozen. As he pressed, then pushed, he could hear the miniature fissures crack and give. Then he was outside, and the subzero air was burning the insides of his nostrils. The sky was clear, and the moon was down as he made the long walk to the parking lot, six inches of frozen snow crunching under each step. Owen buried his hands deep in the pockets of the coat and hunched his shoulders. He felt his cheeks start to burn. He hoped the truck started. It was certainly below zero; he’d spent his life here and could figure temperature the way a shoe salesman knew foot size.

The truck was encased in frozen snow. It looked like a hulking igloo aglow under the tall parking lot lights. He scraped away snow where he thought the keyhole would be, caught the edge and dug the rest out.  He inserted the key and turned it, the lock popped, and he released a plume of frozen breath in relief. At least the lock wasn’t frozen. He squeezed the handle and pulled; a crack appeared outlining the frame of the door. He pulled again and the door opened a few inches, the dome light in the cab coming on, which was another good sign. He yanked the door, and it reluctantly opened as pieces of ice and snow cascaded onto him. He plunged his hand into the gap between the cab and the handhold, and a large chunk of frozen snow popped out. He jammed his boot into the step on the gas tank and pulled himself up. Inside, he immediately shut the door and the dome light switched off. The cab was still and frozen. The light filtering through the snow and ice on the windshield cast the interior in a blue pall. It felt like an ice cave. Owen rubbed his hands together vigorously and inserted the key into the ignition, held his breath and turned his wrist. The diesel groaned laboriously for one revolution, then a second, and after a third he turned the key off. He sat there breathing in oxygen so cold it hurt his throat; he expelled a large plume. Then he quickly turned the key again and pumped the accelerator closing his eyes as he did. Owen did not let up, and to his surprise the engine fired and the whole cab shook. He worked the accelerator pedal as he engaged the key, it died, but he hit it again and it fired, the cab bucking and shaking like a covered wagon. Ten minutes later it was still rumbling and missing, but it took less effort to keep it going.

The digital thermometer in the dash glowed minus five degrees as he kept steady pressure on the gas pedal. The steering wheel had a coating of frost as did the shifter, and thick coats covered the interior windows. He knew he would be there a good while working the pedal before it would idle on its own, and he could get out and begin the work of clearing the windows, the grill and the lights. Once he had that done, he would get some breakfast; he knew a place just over the bridge in Grand Island. He could let the truck idle out front while he ate and watch it through the front windows. UPS air did not open till seven.

Another fifteen minutes and the truck was still missing and sputtering, but it did so with no assistance. Owen, his hands numb, reached under the seat for the snow scraper. Four feet long with synthetic bristles on one end and curved hard plastic on the other, the wooden scraper was as thick as a broom handle. He thought of switching on the defroster, but it would be useless, blowing freezing air onto frozen windows. He opened the glove box and took out a pair of canvas work gloves, not much for warmth but better than nothing. Then he exited the cab and went to work, methodically clearing the windows, windshield, mirrors and grill of snow. Then he started to work on the ice. It was tough; the glass had all been defrosted and sweating when he’d parked, so when the subzero front had moved in, everything had been encased in ice.

At times it felt an inch thick. The diesel ran, the cab shook, and he scraped. The driver’s side window was first, then the mirror, carefully. Then he hoisted himself up onto the step, and holding the mirror frame with one hand, he did the best he could on the driver side of the windshield. His shoulder ached, and he could no longer feel his hands, face or ears as he walked around the front of the truck to the passenger side where he repeated the process: window, mirror and then as much ice as he could from that side of the windshield. His upper torso was heating up and he panted out frosted plumes. The truck was idling steadily, if not smoothly, and Owen thought he may be able to turn on the defroster. He stepped to the front end and went over the big grill once more. The dinner-plate-sized headlights were covered in a thick milky ice, and he decided not to scrape them; he did not want to risk shattering one.

The sun did not rise until after seven this far north, and he would need his headlights no matter how diffused the beam. He walked to the driver’s side and looked up at the windshield; he had managed to clear a spot two feet square in front of the steering wheel, but he needed more. Climbing back up, he went at it again. His left shoulder burned as he puffed out clouds of frozen nitrogen like a smokestack. When he cleared as much as he could reach, he flipped the scraper like a baton and brushed away the ice particles. He then lowered himself and took in his work. He had cleared another foot. He would let the defroster work the rest.

Opening the door, he slid the scraper under the seat, reached for the handhold, got it, found the step and pulled himself up. As he did, he saw white against red, like a flash card. He stopped, lowered himself slowly, stepped down and looked closer, a white envelope tilted back against a red metal box. Catching the soft light of the parking lot lamps, the envelope looked benign. Owen squinted as if it was injurious to see, then he tilted his head and raised a hand to his mouth; frozen canvas to numb lips. Then quick as a reflex, his eyes went wide and his hand dropped. He could not breathe, as if the arctic air had frozen solid in his lungs. His pulse ramped and his hands, then his arms started to shake. He looked to the box of the truck, then back to the cab, lit up, the engine running smoothly now, the envelope below the seat glowing like an apparition.

He bolted for the back of the truck, lost footing and toppled face first into the snow. He righted himself and rushed to the back. He clawed the snow off the steel latch, but encased in ice, he could not lever it up. He ran back to the cab and grabbed the scraper. Frantic, he tried scraping the latch, but the curved plastic could find no purchase. He bashed at it and the plastic end cracked in half. He continued driving the wooden handle again and again into the ice-encrusted latch. He could not feel his arms or hands or the air he breathed as he desperately chopped away. The wood snapped leaving him with two feet of broken handle. He kept smashing. Finally, the ice cracked and then chunked off. He got under the handle and heaved up repeatedly. Nothing.  Finally, he put his shoulder into it and the latch popped up. He levered it the rest of the way free. But the big door did not spring open, the lip having frozen to the steel tailgate. Owen retrieved the scraper handle and attacked the ice seal. He hammered till he could hammer no more, the assault echoing through the empty lot and spinning out into the frozen night. Then turning, he dropped to his knees sucking air he could not feel. He threw up the sandwich, animal crackers, water, cutting a jagged hole in the snow in front of his knees. He spat thickly, stumbled up and spun back raising the broken piece of wood with both hands, ready to bash the sealed door again. He eyed the customs house, the three-story block building, its windows lit like the eyes of the world. He held the wooden spear aloft. The universe frozen. After a very long time, he lowered the wood, his eyes never leaving the government building. Eventually he turned, dazed, and leaned back against the tailgate, and shaking uncontrollably, clutching the broken scraper, he wept.

He cried until the tears had frozen on his face, his eyelashes heavy with icy crystals. When he was able, he blindly made his way to the cab, crawled up, shut the door and turned on the defroster. He lay his forehead atop the steering wheel and wept like a newborn, huge spouting gulps of anguish, his chest heaving, his throat engorged. Finally, there were no more tears, just a pathetic exhaustion. He felt his ears and cheeks burning as they thawed, his eyes, wet and heavy, drooped. He hung his arms over the wheel on either side of his head, and still wearing the canvas gloves he passed out.

He woke to the engine roaring, his heavy-booted foot having slipped on to the accelerator. He moved the foot and the roar quieted. He pushed back off the wheel blinking heavily. The windows were running with water, and the lights from the parking lot beamed through, soft and steady; it felt warm and safe and for a moment his mind was clear, nothing in, nothing out. A free easy emptiness. Then he swallowed and the feeling slid away forever. Panic jumped him once more, and he gripped the wheel with both hands fiercely.

“No, No, No!” he screamed staring at the dashboard. The digital thermometers minus six glowed back as if to affirm what he railed against. The windows wept, the thermometer glowed and without hope and with no where to turn, Owen turned to himself. Slowly his face dropped, as if it had been fashioned into stone. He thought, sitting there in the truck cab, the defroster blasting, that he had never had so clear an ideation in his life: Everything stripped away, no varnish of the future, no stain of the past. No ambiguities. His thoughts had merged with the night, crystal clear and dark. The moon was down. By the time he touched the brake and slid the shifter into drive and the truck rolled out of the parking lot and onto the highway, he knew what he was going to do.

He drove, ink-black sky filling the top third of the windshield, below, white as far as the truck’s milky beams shown. A plow had cut one lane down the center of the two-lane highway, a dull white trail spotted with black holes where salt had bore through. Banked on both sides, the depression of the median undetectable, it looked like a logging road cut through arctic wilderness. Owen focused on the single lane, a trail leading him to another life.

Up rises, down low hills, atop overpasses. The huge, round mounds of the waste management fill looming to his right; fields of drift to his left, the vast parking lot that encircled the outlet mall, the structure of the mall looking like an abandoned village from the ice age. He drove with a concentrated intensity he had never known, as near a tabula rasa clarity that had ever existed for him, would ever exist. So fixated he almost missed the last exit before the bridge; he cut right sharply, his back wheels slewing. He slowed through the foot-deep snow, staying on the road by picturing the asphalt clear and lined beneath him. At the bottom of the decline, the ramp intersected with Buffalo Avenue. He sat at the stop sign, an abandoned gas station to his right; ahead past the avenue and a double lot, the river was dark and moving.  It was the very edge of town. The once prosperous Niagara Falls middle-class waterfront playground: restaurants, motels, bars now abandoned like a mining town after the rush. The thick felt of fresh snow covered all manner of detritus, jagged foundations, rotten wood, litter and weeds, making the approach to the river look smooth and promising. Owen turned left and made his way slowly down the avenue, the potholes filled by the snowfall causing the box and cab to rock gently. He leaned forward, his chin near the wheel. Dilapidated houses to his left, a few holdouts with a light burning, refusing to believe the American dream had come and gone. A mile down a twenty-four-hour convenience store still catered to the near extinct neighborhood; he pulled into the empty lot next to the building and shut the truck down. He could see the glow from the front window seeping around the corner, a torn flap of awning hanging like a piece of skin.

Five minutes later an extra-large Styrofoam cup of hot water steaming in each hand, he followed his own boot trail back to the truck. He set one tall cup on the end of the tailgate and walked the width to the other. He poured the water on the ice seal where the lip of the big door met the truck bed. Halfway the cup was empty, and he stepped to the other end and worked his way back to the center. Emptying the second, he tossed the cups in the snow. Then extending his arms, he locked his elbows, and with palms out, stiff-armed the door just above the seal; with the impact the ice gave, he quickly walked to the other end and repeated the move. He undid the latch and the door sprung open a foot.  Back in the truck, he maneuvered out of the parking lot and continued down Buffalo Avenue.

Another mile and the fence surrounding the abandoned marina appeared on his right; the chain-link held the snow and it looked like a six-foot white wall encircled the property. Owen slowed on his approach, cut the headlights and turned in. He crawled along the side of the building using only his running lights to guide him. He rolled down his window and turned the heater fan off. He could not hear the gravel under the foot of snow. He turned in behind the building, staying tight to the back. He shut the truck down and grabbed a flashlight from the glove box. He had just enough room to open the door and squeeze out. He made his way to the back of the truck, stopped and listened; nothing but the sound of moving water a hundred feet away. He eyed the river; it looked like a half mile wide strip of rippling asphalt. On the other side were the sparse blinking lights of Grand Island. He looked downriver; the lights of the bridge were suspended over the water like a low-riding constellation. He dropped his gaze to the near bank and made out the boat ramp cut into the river’s edge. Next to it, he could see the old pier covered with snow, the cement pilings sticking up above the river’s surface like squared-off periscopes. It ran fifty feet out, and Owen remembered boats being tied to it in his youth. He followed the pier back from the water and figured where it met the gravel. He turned, placed his palms under the door and shoved up. The springs responded and the door rose. Owen climbed into the back and pulled the door halfway down then switched on the flashlight. He pointed the beam up the box. Everything looked perfect; the skids had not moved. The false front betrayed nothing. He moved past the skids and unsnapped the smart bar and laid it down on the floor against the wall. He stepped to the front, placed the flashlight between his knees pointed up, reached into his coat pocket, withdrew the screwdriver and undid the screws holding the top corner. Then he set the flashlight down, kneeled and unscrewed the bottom. He then moved to the center and did the same. Then he stepped to the freed end and after tucking the light high up under his arm, grabbed hold and pulled. It easily opened the screws on the fastened end creaking, the wood cracking.

Owen steadied himself, took a breath and stepped around the false front and through the gap. He followed the light’s beam and saw the three men huddled, arms around one another as if taking shelter, their heads dipped and meeting in the center. The girl lay outside the circle, on the floor, her knees tucked under, her arms wrapped around her upper torso as if protecting her heart, her head hanging, hair unbound obscuring her face. He cut the light and leaned back against the front of the box his knees weak. His ultra-focused clarity dissipating, he started to hyperventilate, his upper body rocking. He bent, cupped his gloved hands tight around his mouth and huffed into them, the canvas rough against his face. After a full minute of rapid puffing, his respiratory distress settled, and he straightened.

“You can do this. You can do this,” he chanted into the freezing air.

And he did.

He pulled the men’s bodies apart; they were stiff but malleable, like hard rubber dolls. One by one he dragged the men by their ankles to the tailgate. Then he climbed down, pulled them upright by their shirts, leaned forward and laid them over his shoulder, like a boney sack of flour. Then he walked to the river. He bypassed the boat ramp with its slick descending slope and found the edge of the pier. Six feet wide and covered with snow, he stepped carefully making sure to stay on the wood near its edge atop the pilings. At the end he kneeled and laid the bodies on the pier. Then he gripped at the ankles and pushed, sliding the bodies off into the six-mile-an-hour current: head, then shoulders and upper torso slipping in soundlessly, and finally the white tennis shoes. The bodies bobbed, dipped, went under, came up and then were swallowed by the black water. Four miles down, now at twenty-five miles an hour, they would meet the falls, swept over and sucked down, caught and crushed in the current and swirling whirlpools of the lower Niagara. Braced and pummeled, clothes torn off, they would make the journey six miles to the town of Lewiston and then another seven until they passed Youngstown and Fort Niagara to be deposited into Lake Ontario, discovered eventually, bones broken, skin blanched a dull white, human driftwood.

Only the young girl remained. Owen did not drag her. With one forearm under her bent knees and her upper back resting across his bicep he cradled her. Her lightness amazed him. He laid her gently on the tailgate, climbed down, and cradling her once more, he followed the now well-worn trail to the pier. Walking out, he dropped his eyes to her face, with her hair hanging back he could see that she had closed her eyelids tightly when death came, as if to hold onto the last bit of warmth behind her eyes. He thought how she would never sing into a hairbrush or have her heart broken at a dance. He stopped short of the end, brought her face closer and holding her tight, wept. Forty feet out over the water, with the frozen girl in his arms, the sounds he made merged with the river. He laid his hot cheek against hers so cold. He whispered through his sobs that he was sorry, the dead girl having no choice but to listen to something she would never hear.

About the Author

John Schafer

John Schafer is a writer and actor who was born and raised on the North Side of Chicago. He was a member of the Latino Chicago Theater Company and earned a degree from Illinois State University. As an actor he has appeared in a number of films and television shows. His screenplays for The Unconcerned and Bruised Orange have been produced. His short stories and essays have appeared in Guernica, Amor Fati, Medium, Short Story, The Kiss (WW Norton 2018), Palooka, Tangent, The Ponder Review and The Writers Compass among many others. He lives in Northern Virginia.

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