For LOST IN LOS ALAMOS Beta Readers Only - Please Do Not Share.
Wrapped Around An Axel
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“Don’t stand there with yer undies wrapped around an axel! Just git the heck in here!”
“I just need to get my Jeep back on the road!”, Scott replied.
Alvin T. Bordois, exasperated, jabbed a finger toward Scott through the open cab door and spoke with the exaggerated head movement in sing-song cadence with an extra dose of country. “I ain’t gonna git out there in this weather and help you til I know I can help you. Now git in here and warm up a few! Please.”
Scott turned away back toward the Jeep so he could mouth, “Fuck!”, turned around and crossed to the truck cab and awkwardly climbed up into the purple monster.
After the truck had backed up so the cab windows were even with where Scott was standing, the passenger door had clicked and Scott heard the compressed air of hydraulics, the huge door swinging smoothly open. The open door revealed an interior lit up with the warm glow of gauges, LED’s, soft headliner lighting, and the toothy smile of a short, taut-tendoned and wiry man perched way forward and up as high as his hand-crafted tuck-and-roll leather captain’s chair would go.
Alvin T. Bordois was fifty-two and sometimes looked older, often younger, depending on whether he was smiling or pissed off. His face was brown and weathered, though, and because he was all sinew and no body fat to be found except the slightest little roll above his chrome Peterbuilt belt buckle, he tended to look older than his years. Unless he was smiling. He fancied himself a good ‘ole country boy and spoke the part, even though the door’s address said he hailed from Oberville, Ohio. It suited him, though, as if he had been misplaced when he was born, maybe from a miscalculated rotational pull of the earth, maybe from his mother marrying the wrong man, maybe from a great grandfather stopping too long, seduced by the easier living of the Ohio River Valley, on his way southwestward toward a more speculative and harder-won fortune.
As it was, the Southwest is where most people figured Alvin would be from, given the dark, almost burnt coloring of a chollo, or mixed South American Indian. The Creole was in him, though, along with a lean Scottish streak and other origins, all of which Alvin insisted being secretive about in order to cultivate his “personal mystery”.
A straw, sweat-banded cowboy hat sat down low on his furrowed forehead, bowed toward the front from a constant pulling down on the brim and trimmed with a small eagle’s feather. With his left hand he pulled a small chrome lever on the console and the door began to close behind Scott, who had clumsily climbed into the cab, tapping the slush out of his Merrells on the door jamb in his ascent. Once seated, Scott reached to pull the door handle.
Alvin stopped him with a, “Nahp! Got it.”
With some apprehension, Scott stared at the door as it closed with a whoosh and solid click, and the darkening, whitening world disappeared.
“What is this?”, he thought as he turned back to the truck driver.
“Name is Alvin T. Bordois!” Alvin said, pronouncing his name as ‘Bor-dwah’ and sticking out his right hand across the seat gap, two turquoise and silver rings shining brightly.
Scott looked down at the proffered hand.
“Yeah,” he mumbled, then covered with, “Scott. Nice to meet you.” Scott shook Alvin’s hand, taking note of the man’s aggressively firm grip.
“Thanks for coming... Uh, back for me? Did you back up this thing a long way? Why?”
Alvin tipped his head sideways, a sly smile pinching his wan cheeks upward. “Looked like you could use a little help. Ain’t that right?”
Scott looked up ahead through the windshield, way up the hill where the truck’s high beams illuminated the outline of the Tunnel.
“You backed up all the way through the tunnel? How’d you know I was stuck here?”
Alvin tilted his head just a bit more and nodded, glancing up the road and back to Scott, past him to the Jeep on the shoulder. “When I passed you a bit ago, you seemed to not be gettin’ on so well, and with the shutdown, and well, not seein’ you come up through the tunnel, I figured somethin’ happened with you.”
“How’d you know, though? Seemed to me you were rolling at pretty good speed past me,” Scott asked, confused and remembering his anger.
“Oh. Yeah, right,” Alvin understood, nodding. “I pulled ‘er over just east ‘a the tunnel to wait fer you.”
Scott inhaled big breath, present enough now to take in undertones of tobacco and deodorizer. He glanced to the console for the ashtray, found none, his gaze taking in the dash with a tin of chewing tobacco secured in one of twin cup holders below, a travel mug in the other. He panned upward to the rear view mirror to find not a mirror, but a video screen on a mount with the snowy scene toward the downhill dark of the lonesome road, the air freshener hanging next to a small wooden cross, suspended with rough twine. Scott’s eyes narrowed as Alvin watched him. Then with a small snorting laugh, Alvin asked, “So, Pardner, what’s up with yer ride? Too icy? Can’t get back on the road?”
Scott turned back to Alvin, searching his face for duplicity; a plan; the true reason he’d taken the trouble to back up all that way in the dark and snow and... And what?
“Where’s the trucks and cars? And what do you mean, ‘shutdown’?”
Alvin leaned back in his seat, chin up. He pushed his hat back on his head to reveal a lighter shade of deeply-lined forehead.
“You didn’t know?” He laughed, then got serious when he saw Scott didn’t know. The years of a mountain slid down Alvin’s face like a lava flow as he looked into his left side mirror. “Yeppers, there was doozy of a pile-up back a mile or so. Pretty bad. Crossed the median. People... hurt.” A slice of pain ran through Alvin’s voice and face before continuing. “So the troopers shut down traffic down there and then there up yonder past the Eisenhower comin’ down west.” Alvin brought his eyes back to Scott. “You were on your own lonesome here.” Alvin then smiled again.
“‘Ceptin’ for me!” He slapped Scott on the shoulder. Scott winced, not from pain, but from the invasion of his personal space - a social no-no back in the beach scene. This was but a whisper of the invasion of his personal space he would experience before this journey came to its ending.
Sensing Scott’s aggravation, Alvin said, “Okay, so why isn’t yer ride back on the road yet?”
Scott glanced out the side window where the Jeep could barely be seen and said, “Ice under the tires.”
Alvin scooched up on his seat to see past Scott. “Ain’t she a four-by-four? Thought I saw the badge.”
Scott straightened in his seat and turned to Alvin, reluctantly delivering his answer. “Uh, yeah, I guess so...”
Alvin turned to look Scott straight in the eye. “Well, either she is or she ain’t.”
Scott’s body tightened from the focus and his mouth began to dry. “The four-wheel-drive isn’t working.”, Scott said, swallowing. Inside, Scott took an express elevator way up into his head as he used this statement to deflect Alvin’s closeness.
“Ok.” Alvin allowed as he searched Scott’s eyes for the source of his forcefield. “I figured somethin’ wasn’t workin’.” Alvin switched gears. “But where ya headed?”
Scott did not want to talk anymore. He felt that if he divulged his destination to this other person, he might be held to it.
“I’m gonna just go up to where I can turn around and go back the other way.” There, he said it. Now he could give up on this doomed quest before he was past the point of no return.
“Okay,” Alvin said, a “but ya got a few hours before they git the road back down there opened...”
“... so might as well wait right here where it’s warm before we git you turned around. Want some coffee?”
“A few hours?!” Scott didn’t want anything - anything that he could owe Alvin for - but the sound of a slug of warm java was too much to refuse as Alvin reached behind into the sleeper cab and brought out a super-size thermos. With one hand, he opened an airline-style tray that magically appeared out of the center console. He poured some of the strong, steaming liquid into a paper cup for Scott and refilled his own travel mug.
“There ya go! Thor’s thunder and lightnin’ in a eco-fangled paper cup!” Alvin proclaimed, handing the cup to Scott.
The coffee smelled wonderful to Scott, but he was conflicted as he gingerly grasped the hot container from Alvin. He was used to making his coffee into a desert in the many LA bistros his generation frequented and he irrationally glanced around for any sign of his usual almond milk creamer and stevia sweetener.
“That okay with you?” Alvin asked.
“I was hoping to get turned around right away and get going,” Scott responded.
“I mean the coffee. You drink coffee?”
“Yeah. I, uh, drink...” Scott sniffed the wafting aroma. It was unlike any coffee he’d smelled. He took a sip. It was sweet but strong with the flavor and smell of caramel. He sipped again, captivated.
“Special brew. From down there in El Salvador. Got family there,” Alvin said as he watched the younger man closely. “They ferment it a bit and have these special beans, or so I been told.”
Scott blew on his coffee before taking another sip. “It’s, like, really good.”
Alvin took a swallow of his own. “So, where you headed, he asked again?”
Scott looked up over the rim of the cup just below his nose, head bent down to the cup. “Back down the mountain.”
“Nah, I mean where were you headed?”
“Oh, where was I headed?” Scott repeated.
“No, uh, Rocky Butte, then Los Alamos, I guess,” Scott said, quietly.
“You mean, New Mexico Los Alamos?”
“You a scientist or somethin’? Or a reporter? Or you work for the government?” Alvin probed.
Scott finished a gulp of coffee, then laughed over his cup. “No. No. Nothing like that.”
“Well, must not ‘a been too important so’s you can just turn around and head back to California ‘cause of a little snowstorm, hey?”
With a start, Scott looked up at Alvin. “How’d you know I was from California?”
Alvin laughed, “Come on! Yer plates! So, what’s yer story?”
Scott lowered his cup, eyes on the remains in the cup, thinking. Alvin waited, watching.
“I guess it was important. But I’d probably just be in over my head if I go down there.” He paused, then quietly continued. “I told a friend that I’d help her out with a problem she was having.”
Alvin leaned back against his door, facing Scott. “Huh. Friends is a pretty precious commodity, in my book. Yer friend gonna be okay if you don’t come through?”
“I’m sure she’d understand,” Scott replied, a bit too quickly. “I don’t even know if I’d be any real help anyway. And besides, it’s not the best timing for me. And this shit storm out there and all...”
Alvin waited a few moments for more from Scott before saying, “So, we’ll git you back on the road and turned around in a bit here. That good fer you?”
Scott nodded into his coffee a moment and then mumbled the words, “Yeah, that’s good for me. Thanks.”
“Sure thing. Just do yer friend a favor and give her a call that you’re not gonna make it there as soon as you get phone reception.”
Scott looked up at Alvin. “Call her?”
“Think that’d be a good idea?”
“You mean before I get home?” Scott asked, fear entering his eyes.
“Yeah.” Alvin’s head tilted with an expression of curiosity.
Scott shifted his gaze toward the road ahead, then around further to his right, his jeep in shadow, out of range of the truck lights. In his mind, he watched his earlier imagined conversation with Betti drifting slowly out of reach like a life ring on water, the rope of absolution trailing with it into the dark waters.
“More coffee?” Alvin asked, bringing Scott back into the truck cab from wherever he’d gone.
“Sure, just a little.”
As Alvin poured more of the delicious nectar, he began, “I had to make a choice like yours once. Heck, more than once, but one time that sticks out an’ that I always remember when I’m worryin’ about what I should do about somethin’.” He capped the thermos and reached in back to stow it. Scott slid back in his seat, smelling the coffee and looking out the windshield to the road ahead.
“Yeah, but I’m not worried about anything. I’m good,” Scott countered.
“Well, that’s a good thing. A real good thing,” Alvin said, smiling. He took a sip and looked out ahead along with Scott.
“Back when, that one time I remember, I was in a pretty tough spot where I had to choose goin’ on ahead or do the thing that made sense and turn around. Anyone would’a done that. Had plenty’a reasons and people rightly tellin’ me not to go on, too. ‘Come on home, Al’, they said. ‘Git yer ass back here’, they told me. Well, what am I gonna do, go against all that there conventional wisdom?”
Scott glanced at Alvin, “That would not be the thing to do, I would guess.”
“Well, I’ll tell ya, though, I was headstrong as a mule within sight ‘a the barn after a two-day ride in summer heat, but for once I thought I better listen to the wiser minds, if ya know what I mean.”
Alvin told Scott his story. It captivated Scott’s attention. It had a surprise ending. And it would both propel and follow Scott toward his destination, fortifying him when he was faint-hearted.
Later, Alvin stood outside the driver’s side door in a sheepskin-lined coat and his red alligator cowboy boots with inch-and-a-half heels. He still barely cleared the roofline and didn’t have to bend down to see into the Jeep. He’d brought out a foot-long MagLite with him and it was aimed down at the ground.
“Should we give it a try again, this time in Neutral? Before we have to drag ‘er up onto the road with a chain?”
Scott sat in the driver’s seat with the window open. He put the transmission into Reverse again. Alvin watched patiently. Scott then pulled up on the low gear lever only to grind the gears. He let it go, then tried again. Same thing. Without looking at Alvin, he said, “Yeah, it won’t go into gear. I don’t know what’s wrong.” He tried again, wiggling the lever a little bit, trying different positions to no avail.
“Hey, yeah, what about tryin’ with it in Neutral?”, Alvin suggested.
“I don’t think that’s what you’re supposed to do and I don’t want to risk going over the edge.” Scott then moved the shifter from Reverse to Park and then back again to Reverse, pulled up on the lever again and heard the grinding again. “Crap.”
“Hmm...”, Alvin ventured. “Sometimes the gears aren’t lined up to go right from Reverse. Humor me, Buddy. Give it a try in Neutral.”
Scott sighed, pulled his shoulders in and rubbed his hands together and blew on them. With a bit of sarcasm, he sang, “Okay-dokey...”
Alvin moved back from the Jeep a couple of steps. With the engine still running and his foot stomped hard on the brake pedal, Scott put the transmission into Neutral, then reached to the lever and pulled up. It went into gear and gave the slightest movement forward. It startled him and he let out an “Oh!”.
“Hey! That’s just great, partner!” Alvin encouraged. “Now put it into Reverse and let the engine idle speed take it back all slow and easy.”
Scott looked out at Alvin as if he was suddenly aware of his presence for the first time, the slightest light of a smile in the older mans’s eyes.
“K.” Scott clicked the shifter into reverse and the Jeep tires miraculously bit and slowly took it back away from the edge of the drop off. With the slightest touch of his foot to the gas pedal and his body twisted around to look backward, Scott turned the wheel, angling the Jeep to parallel the road before he came to a stop, headed upward, letting out his breath after holding it for so long. He was sweating inside his parka.
Alvin had walked alongside the Jeep out on the road while it was moving. He said, “Now you can put it back into Neutral and take it out of four-wheel. If you need it to take off up the hill, that’s how you’ll get ‘er goin’ again.”
Scott complied and left the engine running. He put it into park, set the parking brake, tested to see if it would move on its own, then opened the door and stepped out, facing the other man.
“I, uh... I don’t know what to say.”
“Thanks’ll be just plenty,” Alvin said, a big grin on his face.
Scott looked back down the hill into the darkness, then back to Alvin.
“Thank you, then. Thanks a million. You know, for everything.”
Alvin bowed his head before looking back up at Scott with a sideways tilt. “Some say good deeds never go unpunished. Well, I don’t subscribe to that news, ‘cause I believe virtue and such is its own reward and I seen it time and time again. I know it’s a tired old phrase, but seems to work for me.”
“Yeah, I guess, maybe," Scott agreed.
Alvin nodded and said, “That’s right. Okay, better get going, hey? We both gotta make up some clock time an’ miles.”
After shifting his flashlight to his other hand, Alvin offered his hand. Scott shook Alvin’s hand. He was acutely aware of the touch of the other man’s hand, the rough grasp belying a strange sense of security for Scott. “Take care, Alvin. And, really, thanks again.”
Alvin gave Scott a little salute with the MagLite as he turned to go back up to the warmth and light of his truck, leaving Scott to stand for a moment, looking back up the hill and the tunnel entrance lit up by the truck’s headlights. He turned around toward the jeep but before getting in, he looked down the hill once more.
“Well, let’s get going, then,” he said aloud to himself, sitting down into his seat and closing the door.
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