For LOST IN LOS ALAMOS Beta Readers Only - Please Do Not Share.
The Wrong Way Down A OneWay
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Interstate Seventy is a spectacularly interesting bit of American Highway history. In Colorado, it was cut through the middle of the state, intersecting the Continental Divide. Traveling it in mid-winter can be treacherous.
The Jeep Cherokee was supposed to have four-wheel-drive, but Scott Loader never had a chance to put it down on all fours, living in the land of perpetual sun, sand, and stars. He didn’t know if it even worked. As the snow pummeled the Jeep and built up a bed of slush on the semi-filled highway, Scott began to doubt his ability to go on and began wondering where the next exit might be.
Maybe he should just turn around, he thought. Who could blame him? What did he think he was doing, anyway?
A vision of the view from his balcony in Santa Monica, California came to him, sun glinting off of the ocean stretching invisibly to Japan. He could feel the tepid breeze off the beachfront across the Pacific Coast Highway from where his mobile home was perched in stair-step succession up the bluffs with other manufactured and individually personalized homes. Forget the landslides that might threaten to swallow the homes from their non-foundational moorings during a rare torrential El Niño front, he already missed his little place and the golden handcuffs of Southern California weather. And the stunning, perpetually active and bronzed girls who littered the beach community like gleaming and hard-polished shells. Those girls. Scott’s heart hurt with just the thought of missing the procession of endless beach beauties in what he called “his own front yard”. It was not as though he actively pursued any of them. Just the idea of such an abundance of healthy female beauty and the potential opportunities made his blood pump and fueled his spirit with an enthusiasm for life and what it might hold for him, personally and specifically. He couldn’t put a name to it, really. He marveled at its attraction to him.
The Jeep slipped sideways and it brought him from his reverie, whipping the steering wheel instinctively into the slide. When he had the jeep back under control, Scott realized he was holding his breath, glanced over at the drop off into a gorge on his passenger side, and breathed out, giving sound to the breath for emphasis.
It was a world away from that seemingly idyllic life back on the coast. And he was just getting started on the journey. Just what had he fucked up in offering his help?
“I should really say, ‘How many ways did I fuck my life up with this thing?’”, he said aloud, staring at the heavy snowflakes speeding toward him at warp speed. Scott’s fingers were wrapped around the Jeep’s steering wheel so tight that it would take a welding torch or the Jaws of Life to wrench them off. His body was beginning to experience that kind of fatigue that comes from being so wound up in focused concentration and control that he might have looked like he could bend steel with just the force of his mind and stare. He exhaled again. The Jeep slid again as soon as he relaxed his grip, returning him to his previous rigid state.
“Was that a sound?”, he thought, angling an ear toward the center of the car where the transmission was. “The Tranny?”
What Scott didn’t need was another problem with the Jeep. And, well, he just plain didn’t need another problem in general.
The Jeep had it’s own special history that made it impossible to give it up. After his old plum-colored first Jeep began threatening to drop transmission gears onto the road he was driving daily to Malibu Ranch, he had to get another vehicle. It didn’t make sense to buy a new car - not on his freelance income after having left the comfort of a low-level IT job at a posh, Calabasas private school.
The first Jeep was a product of problems stacked up during a long downward spiral into the Suckhole of Life. The Suckhole of Life being that opening in the funnel of personal status where you’re fighting gravity, slipping down the sides of the social safety net built into life as you become enmeshed in mistakes and challenges that result in self-focus, self-centeredness, and Me-osity. Scott, like many people, thought that he was the only one that could fix his life, solve his problems, and thereby isolated himself instead of reaching out for help. He didn’t need someone else knowing and seeing the shit-stain in his shorts. As he got closer to the suck hole, it got harder to look upward to the solutions and toward escape from the hole, as the fearful draw to look down to see the hole looming below becomes stronger and as he slipped closer and closer to it as the funnel neck narrowed. He couldn’t see that the way out was to reach up and go outside himself, help another person, or ask for help himself.
God, he was a stubborn S.O.B., he thought. Apple. Tree. Me.
The sound of an airhorn shattered Scott’s thought process as a purple and chrome semi emerged from his blindspot and threatened to clip him in back.
Scott yelled, “Asshole!”
But when he checked the lane tracks ahead of the Jeep where the slush was thin, he could see that Jeep was dangerously over the yellow line. Fighting panic, he began to correct his position, gingerly pulling the wheel to the right. The semi was coming on fast - too fast. The Jeep front end slid right, toward a drop off above a stand of white-trimmed pines that opened up into a meadow, the jagged, black-rim cut of a creek running through the rough whitened oval. Even in his panic, Scott’s eyes and mind registered the quiet postcard beauty of the tree-lined and snow-muted green space.
In that moment of opened space in time and place, Scott wanted to be there. It was representative of his mind’s depiction of sanctuary, of solace, and a place where mistakes and regret and people could not follow him; where he was untouched by his past and present and where the future did not yet exist.
Instead, he was on his way to a place and destiny not of his choosing. That wasn’t really true. All the while, he was as yet unaware that he would finally come to understand his part in the calamity that was to come.
Scott managed to wrangle the Jeep over just in time for the truck to pass him way too close, the trucker scowling at him through the lower visibility window on the passenger side of the truck, Alvin T. Bordois Trucking painted in script below the window with the ubiquitous curvy woman silhouette in chrome below Mr. Bordois’s phone number followed by his city and state of origin.
The truck finally passed, showering the Jeep’s windshield with ice and water spray, the loud chunking of it crowding Scott even further onto the thin ledge of control. He gathered his concentration into his arms and gas pedal foot and forced his vision to broaden. The road and elements tamed. He let out his breath, glanced again quickly to the right but the clearing was gone, left behind.
~ ~ ~
Colorado had held special meaning to him that he clung to and earlier in the sunny morning as he crossed the state line, he wished aloud that he could spend more time there. But maybe it was just the pull of his memory of being on the highway that ran through the mountains and verdant canyons on the way to Estes Park for solo hiking the summer before his marriage. Before the Weight.
Winding down, into, and up from Green Valley, following alongside the cascading river and elusive sunlight that shone brightly here and was shaded there by mountain wall, the four-lane that became two-lane in places held his attention with a sense of movement away alternating with the anticipation of traveling toward a place that erases all memory of having been somewhere else before.
His time in Estes Park was filled with both loneliness and aloneness, as well as a seismic relief from the high-wire tension of his life back in Los Angeles.
“It’s probably what made me convince myself marriage would be a good idea.”, he thought, ruefully. “Yeesh.”
Altitude Affects Attitude, as it’s said in high mountain communities. After hiking for four days, he felt as though there were no obstacles he could not overcome. The first two days, though, were spent gasping for high-altitude air as he lifted each foot in succession as though he was wearing concrete shoes, slowing to a funeral procession pace the nearer he came to the modest summits he began with. But by the time his lungs and limbs stopped burning, he felt like he had “Le Clés du Royaume”. Scott was on top of the world. He hadn’t really counted on the locked-and-loaded psyche of his wife-to-be who, as it turned out, had it in for him from the get-go.
~ ~ ~
There should have been only one. Why would Scott have thought there would be another immediately on its heels? Wasn’t one enough? After all of the turbulence and stress of the first one, to have a second Denver and points-beyond-destined semi tractor-trailer sneak up on him like a cruise missile was enough of an affront to his reverie that Scott’s initial reaction was one of indignation. That quickly changed.
He barely had time to register the plethora of running lights outlining the passing freight train on tires before his outrage shifted into panic. To his disbelief, the Jeep, weighed down as it was with belongings for a ten day trip into the unknown, began to levitate on the slush as the backdraft of the just-passed leviathan lifted it up and pushed it sideways against forward inertia and against his arms cranking the steering wheel in impotent defiance of the backend swing outward toward a launch off the edge the world.
~ ~ ~
It wasn’t as though Scott was a stranger to drifting. Growing up in Wisconsin next to a lake, driving lessons at age fifteen included sessions out on the ice, way out past the plowed roads and ice shanty villages where the residents, mostly male, would find refuge in six by six foot cubicles with wood runners. They had radios tuned to Packer games on Sundays and fresh, hot, hamburgers with caramelized onions and fat drippings run out by snowmobiles from the lakefront supper clubs back at the shoreline during Jamboree weekends. The centerfolds of girlie magazines adorned the huts of single men and men whose wives were loathe to brave the frigid cold and smell of walleye, bass, and if they were lucky, northern pike pulled out of eight-inch holes cut with hand-cranked augers, the fish hung on the walls until they could be scaled and filleted out on the ice.
Out in an open space of foot-thick ice that alternated between a surface of white, accumulated snow and the scarred, glossy gray of clear ice, Scott’s dad switched seats with him. Once Scott was settled and the bench seat of the 1962 green Ford Fairlane wagon was adjusted from his dad’s long lean legs, Art Loader just nodded forward and said, “Go!”. There was no traction to just ‘go’, and Scott put too much into it, uselessly spinning the tires and was sternly corrected.
“What. You think you might want to back off or what?”, his dad asked, looking sideways at Scott.
Scott glanced over at his dad and then down at the speedometer. It said they were going fifteen miles an hour but moving only inches. He let off the gas and finally recognized the sound of the tires spinning on the ice only as a disappearance of it. Then the tires bit on a sweep of dry snow and the Ford shot forward.
“Oh!”, Scott exhaled, as the wagon fishtailed, continuing forward.
“Crank into it.”, Art said, calmly. “You feel it’s going right but you steer into it.”
Scott overcorrected, stepped on the brake pedal and the back end swung left.
“Don’t brake - you don’t use brakes unless you have to. Just back off the gas until it’s headed where you want.”
Scott lifted his foot from the pedal, reversed the wheel, and the car began to straighten out. Sweat soaked the neckline and armpits of his waffled thermal undershirt. They slowed as the wagon’s body slid forward at forty-five degrees to the front wheels. The rear end came back to parallel and Scott hesitantly applied the brakes until the Ford rolled to a gentle stop.
“You think you can take us out a ways without crashing?”, Art asked, deadpan.
Scott surveyed the lake out across the wide green hood and there was nothing in sight except for two iceboats far off to the left of the island, their left runners up, cutting through the air like figure skaters with their legs lifted as the boats silently glided as twins at over sixty miles an hour.
“There’s nothing to crash into.”, Scott replied, still searching for what might become his Titanic moment.
His father just said “Huh.”, chest and head rising up and falling once, a half smile protesting against his long, square jaw as he pulled a cigarette from his pack of Camel Filters. The cigarette perched in his crooked fingers, he lifted the flap of one of the two buttoned front breast pockets of the dark cobalt blue Standard Oil service station jacket, tucked the pack in it, then switched to the other pocket and lifted out a thick steel lighter pinched between the fingers of his other hand.
Scott decided to go for it and the Ford cautiously gained speed, little shifts to the side keeping his attention taut in a line as straight as he could make it. He glanced at the gauges again and he was speeding along at over ten miles an hour now.
“Gun it.”, his dad said
Scott said, “What?”
“I said gun it.”
“I’m... not... If...”, Scott stammered.
“Hell.” Art said, out of patience. He lifted his right leg over the transmission hump and stomped on Scott’s foot that was nursing the gas pedal. “Steer!”
The Ford’s rear end shot out and around as Scott spun the wheel to counter the slide, the correct, innate, physical reaction as if it were a foregone hereditary or genetic conclusion that Art Loader’s son would have the same capacity and facility for handling a car as Art did, having driven midget racers and stock cars in his early adult years.
Finally coming to rest miraculously facing forward, his dad commanded, “Go again.”. Off they went, Scott doing donuts all over the frozen lake in the family station wagon while his dad sucked on his Camels, one after the other, causing Scott to get a contact nicotine high. The more he spun, the more he understood the physics at work and soon was controlling every spin, drift, and slide, always resetting his line in a forward direction, to which his dad rewarded him with another half-smiled, “Hmh.”.
~ ~ ~
The Jeep kept sliding toward the shoulder. Despite Scott maintaining the correct angle to pull out of the slide, his margin shrinking with the steep incline. Sweat colored his green Stussi T-shirt beneath his open North Face parka, his breath short, stopped, then quick as he passed the white shoulder line. Then it happened.
The front tires locked up and hit a patch of solid snow underneath the slush, whipping the front end to the left and then just kept going. Scott found himself in a full rotational counter-clockwise spin like the international space station out of control, the white Jeep become a Tilt-O-Whirl ride, the G-force anything but fun.
One-half rotation. As he came around to the rear, Scott did not want to see what he saw. Like hindsight in realtime, through the windshield were a line of trucks coming up upon him like a stampede of cows the size of houses. But that was all he had a chance to register as the shoe box-shaped Cherokee swung further around until he was facing the drop off the shoulder and surefire oblivion, the windshield wipers keeping time to the disco spin he was in.
More airhorns, headlight flashes in the now waning light as Scott recorrected the spin to get the Jeep to come around to the front again, pumping the brakes now in an attempt to lessen either any impact or flight into the thin air of the missing earth to the side of the road. The Jeep oversteered and swung back to face the right toward the edge of the road and stayed that way, the inertia carrying it forward sideways and closer and closer to the drop.
Scott had a fleeting thought of God. But it was such a cliché that he dismissed it instantly, not wanting to succumb to such a spiritually needy reaction. He would get out of this. In fact, the Jeep had begun slowing rapidly and when it left the shoulder and onto the edge of the drop off, pointing downward toward the darkening forest below the grade, the resisting gravel and dirt which had been hardened from the cold caused the Jeep to come to rest with a jolt.
His heart was beating hard and fast underneath his ribs that ached with tension. The line of trucks, having been forced to slow down a bit, lumbered quickly past him, slush and snow and wind shear buffeting the car, threatening to launch it further into the void. It was all so loud and Scott just wanted them to be gone.
And then they were. All of them. He was alone on the road - well, off the road, actually. Dark was dawning fast. Scott tried to think amid the remembered roar of the trucks passing.
He let out a quiet, “Shit.”. Then, looking around back down the empty road, he asked, “What to do?”. The engine roughly idled and snow fell on the windshield. He turned the wipers off. The windshield began to fog up so he turned up the defroster fan, and then twisted the headlights stalk. There was nothing but a hazy blackness ahead of him, so he opened the driver’s door and leaned out.
He could see from the headlights’ reflection that the front wheels were still on firm ground. Looking at the rear wheels, he could barely make them out and had get out to walk toward the road, dragging the toe of his Nike along until he found the edge of the pavement a foot behind the rear end of the Jeep. He thought that at least the back end was off the road for when more vehicles came up behind him. But none did.
Scott carefully climbed back into the Jeep behind the wheel and put it in reverse, his left foot heavily on the brake until he slowly gave the Jeep gas.
Nothing. The rear wheels spun on the now icing slush covering the pavement and sidled sideways downhill and just a few inches forward and downward toward doom.
Aaa-ahh!”, Scott yelled. Frustrated, he looked ahead over the hood and down into the forest below, straining to make out any lights or signs of help to be had. Then he shifted his eyes to the dash gauges. He had only a quarter tank left. He tried backing up again, listening and feeling for any sign of the traction he needed to pull back out onto the road. If anything, the ground under the rear tires was becoming more slick. He let off.
Scott finally remembered that the Jeep did, indeed, have four wheel drive and he fumbled with the low gear lever, not a clue about how it worked. He managed to get it to click into four wheel neutral, but that was it - no light came on or other indication that it worked. He shut the engine off, twisted the headlight stalk to the off position and sat for a moment, then turned on the overhead light, looking around the interior for some sort of inspiration or saving solution, but all he saw were reminders of how ill prepared he was for this journey.
He finally succumbed to the necessity of bringing his phone into the equation. It represented the initiation of a coming defeat that would be as welcomed as it would be detested. He woke up the phone. No signal. “Couldn’t have written it into this script any better,” he thought.
Anger coming on like one of those trucks, Scott got out of the Jeep again, tripped on the door jam, and he fell out face forward, instinctively launching out his phone hand to protect the phone and he came down hard on his elbows in the slush and ice and snow, his face already reddening, words formed in his mouth that couldn’t come out because they were competing for purchase in his mind with the pain and cold and wetness.
“Uh!”, he grunted, and the idea of God presented itself again for just a fraction of a second.
“Yep,” he thought, “that’s a fucking standard response.”. Then he managed to stand up, wet and angry. He wanted to yell out but there was no one to yell at or to. He wanted to kick something. “Fuck! Me!”, he yelled into the coming night.
It was time for a little interior monologue, he thought.
“Why. Me.”, he began, not even a question as much as a statement. “Yes. Yes. Yes. I agreed to this. Yes. But fuck me, I shouldn’t have. No, I should have. I needed to. But I sure as shit don’t need this shit. Didn’t bargain for this.”, he continued, looking around at his situation. His feet were getting cold as the temperature fell rapidly along with the darkness and he stomped them on the ground a few times. He should have gotten back into the Jeep, but he didn’t want to. He was tired of being in it. He was tired of going in this direction. Scott looked toward the highway for a turnaround through the median.
“That’s it, I’m done with this.”, he finally said aloud. “Good!” But still, he was alone on an incline headed east toward the Eisenhower Tunnel somewhere up ahead and once on the other side of the Divide, it might be too much of a downhill grade to justify - rightly - going back on his promise.
It began snowing harder. A biting wind whipped up and around Scott as he stood on the shoulder looking into the void. He brought up his phone again, sure that there would be a signal on it. Living day after day in the metropolitan LA cellular grid, there was always a signal. Why shouldn’t there be one here? Of course, the the sun was always shining back there as well. Still no signal and the cold had caused the phone battery to drop down to the Low Battery indicator. He’d have to plug it in as soon as he got moving again. But that was the thing, wasn’t it?
Scott tried to assess his situation. His car was headed toward a catastrophic drop down the mountain slope; it was going to be pitch black all the way up and down the interstate soon; there was absolutely no traffic in either direction; he had no phone signal. Scott thought it was like time and space had come to a stand still and he had been placed in the vortex of making a decision without any viable choices.
“Where are the trucks?”, he wondered, noting that his feelings about the eighteen-wheel Klingon ships had made a u-turn and instead, wished for their presence, signaling life and motion of some kind. But from where he was standing, it was starkly cold, dark, silent, and wet.
His interior dialog went on something like this:
“What am I going to do? Where’s the trucks? Why did I agree to this? I want to be home! I want to be warm. I want to get laid. Betti will understand. Where’s my beanie? How am I going to get the Jeep back on the road?”
Then he had a phone conversation with Betti, making her say the things that would let him off the hook:
Scott: “Wow, Betti, I’m really bummed, but I just don’t think the Jeep’s going to make it there, much less to New Mexico.”
Betti: “Oh, gosh. I don’t want you to put yourself in any trouble for us.”
Scott: “No! No, it wasn’t any trouble. I really want to be there for you. I’m trying to find a way it’ll work.”
Betti: “No, you get someplace safe from that storm, then head back home when you can. I’ll send money for a hotel and expenses as soon as I can.”
Scott: “Well, I’ll try again in the next month. Would that work?”
Betti: “Don’t worry, Scott. We’ll figure something out. God will find a way. He always does.
“Shit!”, he said aloud, thinking, “She’ll bring the God thing into it.” And with that, he looked around at the bleakness of his predicament. And it got to him.
His breathing came fast and short, a tourniquet around his chest. His mind went to the races with thoughts of hopelessness and catastrophe. Anger welled up into his throat. It always went there and he felt its constriction, shut off from salvation of any kind through the reasoning of voice and language and the thoughts of his overly facile mind.
Vague but angry images from childhood and adolescence time-warped in the moments he stood there on the road to either Denver, Rocky Butte, and ultimately, Los Alamos, or back home to sunny California. If there was another living soul there to lay witness, they would see him standing perfectly still, frozen, except for his chest rising in and out. But they could not help but feel the anxious storm gathering and the blackness of a lost night; a lost purpose - a lost life - swirling into Scott’s upper orifices, inflating his emotional aura like an aneurism primed to explode, flooding his being with the images and hurts of his childhood and after, the shame of his father coursing throughout his core.
Scott pressed the knuckles of the thumbs of his clenched fists into his eye sockets and cried out in desperation. He let his hands fall down to his sides and took in a big breath.
“That’s it.”, he repeated, fuming. “I’m really done with this.”
Then he heard it. A beeping sound. He looked at his slush-covered phone. Not it. He glanced into the interior of the Jeep, the overhead lights spilling out around him. Not there. Scott chanced a look up the road and saw a distant orange glow through the snowfall. Like firelight in a fog, the glow blossomed, brightening, and Scott could not understand what he was seeing. Then the light source broke free of the snow and fog and apparently, the Eisenhower Tunnel. The low, knocking sound of a diesel engine rose up against the beeping as a semi backed up very slowly down the road, running lights lit up like a strip club.
“What the hell?”, he thought.
The big truck rolled backwards in a perfectly straight line down the middle of the slow lane the wrong way, it’s headlights breaching the dark tunnel ahead and halogen backup lights illuminating Scott and the white Jeep like the spotlight of a coast guard cutter on drug smugglers in a night squall at sea.
The snow and slush crunched and squashed out under the heavily-loaded tire treads as the rig arrived, coming to a rumbling stop in the nowhere of Scott’s predicament.
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