11 December 2013
Jonas felt his hands getting numb. Too much driving with a balky heater left the cab of the truck warm only in name. The truck, like the man, was getting old. With age came the pains that took up residence in the bones. They waxed and waned, but never quite left. Good news that always made Jonas grin was that he owned both the truck and his bones. Nobody but God could take them away from him now. The old man had no idea that God was thinking the same thing.
Jee-sus, I don't wanna die alone,
Jesus, oh, Jesus, I don't wanna die alone,
My love wasn't true,
Now all I have is you...
The words spilled, tinny and faint, from the radio on the dash. Jonas sucked in a lungful of cold Nebraska air to say "No, sir, Mr. Cash I don't wanna die alone neither. Nothin' good to come of that, I reckon." Highway 26 stretched out under the dead January sky. The snow stuck to the windshield had the glow of pearly ashes. The wipers had gone on strike miles back, working in fits and starts. Jonas thought he might stop soon to brush the glass clean.
He drove on, drifting into a daze. The truck stayed straight. Not hard to do out here where the flatness was damn near end all and be all. No traffic for what seemed like hours, unless the snow snakes whipping across the road counted. Not much in the way of animals except for the rare bird or two that telegraphed across the sky. He thought he saw an antelope, once, but it was too far away to be sure.
The featureless gray of the clouds made a riddle of time. The light came from everywhere and nowhere but it did seem to be getting fainter. His belly grumbled, as if to confirm his suspicions about the lateness of the day. There was a thermos jammed into the passenger side seat, wedged in the crease between the back and the upright. It was half-full of tepid coffee leftover from the last century when he had left his trailer, perhaps for good. The only food in the truck was half a cheese sandwich and a almost new box of beef jerky laying on the dash.
Jonas. sighed and belched. The sandwich, entombed in a crumbled paper bag along with a crushed empty beer can, lay down on the opposite floor board. He could not reach it without ducking so far down he would lose sight of the road. The thought of it made him really tired. He surprised himself at how lazy he felt. Unusual for a man that had near wrecked his body working hard, hard, for most of his adult life.
The ache in his knees and wrists never let him forget. But he had to eat something. The plains stretched out for miles around him, empty, lonely, with no signs of hospitality anywhere in sight. It could hours, or never, until he might find a place to stop, get warm and fill his belly. Resignation wheezed out between his chapped lips. He reached out for the beef jerky. Setting the box on the seat beside him, Jonas slid one of the strips out of the pack, fumbling with the plastic wrap.
The jerky filled his mouth, salt mixing with grease and a low tang of rough chilies. The meat was blood warm from having sat on the defroster. The warmth momentarily threw the old man, reminding him too much of a punch to the mouth he took one night long ago, in a bar the name of which had faded from memory. Blood and two teeth, shiny on the winter gravel and looking garish in the neon of the sign. He grinned and laughed to dispel the ghosts. "Hell, man," he cackled, "that fella's fist looked ten time worse!" His voice got swallowed up by the close air.
He swallowed hard. It was getting dark. Crinkles on the horizon told him that Wyoming was getting close. Or was it Colorado? Smile collapsed from his face, and sadness took its place. He knew now he had lost track of where he was, and sure as hell was not turning around.
Light drained from the sky. Wind buffeted the weathered truck, shoving it gently from side to side in the lane. Jonas cut on his lights and sent up a prayer. Miles ahead, the temperature was dropping further. The clouds unfolded into rain. Night fell, and with it black ice lay claim to the road.