a short story
Reprinted by permission from Emergency Stopping and Other Stories, Bottom Dog Press, 2004.
Vande Zande now teaches at Delta College in Michigan's Lower Peninsula. He was born in the Upper Peninsula, where the long winters, he says, "helped me to see that people are at their best when they are helping other people.” Among other jobs, he has worked as a dishwasher, furniture mover, janitor, welder, projectionist, and maintenance man. "These jobs from the UP's spare job market,” he comments, "quickly taught me that the living a job provides can also be a kind of dying." In the story "Calling,” he borrows from his experience as a telemarketer — experience he gained during the summer semester at EIU when he was without a teaching assistantship and needed money.
Vande Zande now lives in Bay City with his wife, son, and daughter. In addition to other courses, he enjoys teaching developmental writing and reading. In 2002, Partisan Press released his Last Name First, First Name Last. March of 2003 saw the release of his chapbook of poems, Tornado Warning (March Street Press). He recently finished a novel that has not yet found a publisher, but comments happily that, "With no sense of logic, I am now starting another.” "Emergency Stopping" is the title story of his new collection, just released by Bottom Dog Press. —JDK
“I don’t think I was in too much danger this morning. A mom with two kids?” Jack Johnson returned. He looked around the bar. It felt odd to him to be sitting at a bar again, almost risky. Distracted, he didn’t think to blow on his coffee and burned his upper lip on the first taste. “Damn it! That’s hot. Why do you make it so hot?”
Max didn’t answer right away. Jack watched him move a handgun from the safe to its place under the cash register.
“Customers like it hot,” Max finally said when he released the weight of the weapon. “And I’m not just talking about the mom with two kids. It’s the whole thing. You do it around Flint, don’t you?”
Jack nodded. “I’ve gone as far south as M-59, but mainly I’m on 75 and 69. Got up toward Saginaw a few times, too. Sometimes I just end up going for a ride. Like last week, I ended up in Grayling and watched a guy fly fishing for over an hour. On the way home though, I did help a woman with a flat.” He looked out the front window through the neon twisted into the names of beers. The sky was growing lighter, and he realized he had never seen it do that while sitting on a barstool.
“Flint, though.” Max shook his head. “You stop for any car?” he asked.
Jack watched Max step over a few feet and feel around in the darkness under the bar. “I don’t stop if the car is empty,” he said.
Max pulled out a remote control and used it to turn on the televisions around the bar. He flipped all of them to a channel with a morning news program, but he kept the sound low. “I mean, you’re stopping for blacks, too?” he asked.
“I’m stopping for anyone.”
Max turned up the volume when he saw a visual to the left side of the news anchor. The image showed the chalk outline of a body and underneath in bold words Murder on the West Side.
“ . . . was pronounced dead at Detroit Receiving Hospital an hour after his arrival,” the anchor’s voice rose into the bar in proportion to the thumping of Max’s thumb on the remote control. “His wallet was found on one of the teens that police apprehended. It had six dollars in it . . .”
Max worked his thumb again, and the rest of the broadcast doppled away like sound past an open car window. He shook his head while reaching into his front pocket for his cigarettes. “Heard on the news that we’re raising more sociopaths than ever.”
Jack ran his open fingers across his bald head, a habit he’d developed when he had hair. “Look at your windows,” he said and made a sweeping gesture with his hand towards the televisions. “Watch that stuff long enough, you’ll believe we’re all out to kill each other.” He could hear Max’s wife moving around in the apartment above the bar, and he was glad because he knew she’d come down to make breakfast. Knowing she was coming helped him stop thinking about ordering a drink. Since he’d started talking to Max, his mouth had begun watering for something stronger than coffee. “Most people aren’t out to hurt anyone,” he said, but his eyes seemed to search for something on the floor.
Max leaned his weight against the bar. “Why’d you start doing this anyway?” he asked. He touched a flame to his cigarette and then watched it burn down the stem of the match.
Jack hadn’t planned to come into Max’s bar, but the diner where he usually ate breakfast had gone out of business. For the past two weeks he had tried to cook up eggs or oatmeal for himself at home, but he’d taken all of his meals on the road for the last twenty-eight years, and his small house was just too quiet. In it, he thought too much – thought too much about how alone he had let himself become. Still, he had no idea Max would ask so many questions. When Max had asked him what he’d been doing lately, he had absently told him the truth.
“You know, I know exactly why I started,” Jack began, his voice unsteady. “Could never get it out of my head . . . the image, the thing I saw.” The words came with difficulty for him. He was used to more of a script, a pitch. Talking about this now made it seem foolish, like a boyhood dream. He set his coffee down. “Selling that pool cleaning equipment took me all over mid-Michigan – mainly to motels and hotels though. I must have seen hundreds of cars, hell maybe thousands, broken down on the side of the highway. See people crouched under hoods, or going through trunks, or just kneeling next to jacked up tires – sometimes on both knees like they were in a pew or something. I never really thought much about them until about two years ago, after my kid sister finally had a baby.”
“That’s about the time you stopped coming in here,” Max said.
Jack wasn’t sure what had made him think of pews. He hadn’t been in one since he was a kid.
Max smirked while Jack stopped to take a sip.
“Up on 75, just past Miller Road, the highway dips into a deep curve, and there she was,” Jack continued. “This huge woman standing next to this rusted-out Caddy. She must have weighed two fifty. Her face was shiny with sweat. Probably wouldn’t have thought much of her at all, but she was holding this baby in her left arm. Little thing, maybe two months old. Christ, it had to have been ninety-five degrees that day, and there she is standing in the sun with that little baby all pressed up against her. No bottle, no cell phone. She was just swaying back and forth and bouncing a little, standing back near the trunk.”
He heard Max’s wife come down the stairs and into the bar’s kitchen.
“Paula? Could you throw together some scrambled eggs and sausage? Skillet’s hot already. Jack Johnson is out here. Just for breakfast.” Max shouted, but he didn’t look at Jack after saying the last part.
“Alright, give me a minute. I just got down,” Paula shouted. Words came through her throat as though going over sandpaper.
“The hood wasn’t even popped,” Jack continued. “She was looking at the cars going by, but you could tell she’d given up the hope of anyone stopping for her. Her eyes seemed kinda glassy and her lips were moving, like she was whispering to the baby or maybe praying. She didn’t even know enough to get out of the sun.”
Jack watched Max begin counting his starting cash into the till. He tapped his cigarette on the ashtray, and the cherry snapped off, but he didn’t notice. After a moment he looked up at Jack. “What? I’m listening. Go ahead.”
“Come on. I got a business to open up this morning. I can listen while I work. I am a bartender.” He took a drag on the dead butt, shrugged, and then dropped it into the ashtray. He began to fish for another.
Jack could hear his breakfast frying, but he no longer felt hungry. “Anyway, she’s always stuck in my mind. I mean, I didn’t stop for her either – just another of the hundreds of cars that went by in a blur. Could have helped her, too. I learned a helluva lot about fixing cars after all those years on the road. In that heat, that baby could have died. Might have. I thought about that all of the time.” Jack took another drink of his coffee.
“Don’t remember anything in the news about a woman losing a baby to the heat,” Max said. His tone challenged more than it comforted.
“That doesn’t matter,” Jack returned. “It’s just always stayed with me that I didn’t do anything. I just had to get up to that sale. Didn’t even get it.”
Max went to the doorway of the kitchen and looked in.
“It’s coming,” Paula said.
“Eventually all of my sales dropped off,” Jack continued, his voice almost ghostly. “Company tried to put me at a desk taking sales calls that the younger guys called in. The hell with that. I left, but I couldn’t give up the driving. Everyday I’d take long drives, and eventually I saw someone on the side of the road. I stopped, and I’ve been stopping for anyone for about three months now.”
Max shook his head, but he looked at Jack respectfully. “You got the time. You should take up golf. That’s what I’m going to do. Get out on the course and never have to see another face again. I’ve earned that.”
Jack could hear Paula scraping his food from the skillet onto a plate. He looked at the bottles lined across the back of the bar and still wanted a drink. A few belts would make him forget about this meaningless hole he had talked himself into. Having heard himself explain it, his stopping for people seemed childish. “Max, tell her to put that in something to go,” he said. He wouldn’t stop at the bar again. Not a place for breakfast he decided.
Jack opened the bar door and quickly closed his eyes against the brightness of the rising sun. Though his pupils were sensitive to the intense light, he could still feel the darkness inside of him. He felt himself longing for what Max had—the familiar, weathered love of a good woman. He found a dumpster on the side of the bar and threw away his breakfast. If he just had a drink, he knew he could get back to something he could understand. Then I could sit still for a few minutes without so much damn thinking.
He pushed himself off of the dumpster where he had slumped and opened the trunk of his car. Inside he found it packed with everything he needed: jumper cables, a jug of water next to a jug of coolant, five gallons of gas, an assortment of fan, alternator, and timing belts (including an adjustable belt), tire plugs, a quick fix aerosol can for flats, a four-way lug nut wrench, a small box of u-joints, oil, bottles of liquids that could stop radiator and crankcase leaks, transmission fluid and sealer, wiper blades, a spare battery, a hydraulic jack, a creeper, flashlights, a 12 volt trouble light he had ordered special, flares, a fire extinguisher, two thermostats, radiator hoses, a can of dry gas, and maintenance and trouble shooting manuals for several different foreign and domestic cars. He saw his red tool chest packed into the middle of everything like a heart. Just the sight of it made him feel better, and he began to remember the faces he had helped over the past months – all of the people back on the road because of him. He could fix most problems right on the shoulder of the highway. For those he couldn’t fix, he had telephone numbers in his glove box for the cheapest wreckers in most nearby towns. One mechanic in Flint even offered a ten percent discount to any customer who could recite Jack’s license plate number, and Jack could usually help people memorize it before the tow truck arrived. This winter he planned to buy a four-wheel drive truck with a winch because he guessed that most of the cars he’d be stopping for would be stuck in snow banks or down in ditches. A lot of people will need me he thought. He felt warmer and then realized that the spring sun had burned off the chill of the morning.
He closed the trunk and slid into his car behind the steering wheel. Opening the glove box, he found the small journal he had begun to keep. In it he recorded the cars he had stopped for. His early entries were short and simple, usually only giving the date of the stop, the time, the make of the car, and the problem, though lately he had started leaving room for brief comments. He read over a few. “Wasn’t the battery, was the starter.” “Guy had a poodle that growled at me through the windshield.” “Another guy stopped, too. Couldn’t help with the car, but he kept the old lady calm so I could work.” “Driver was a real looker and called me her guardian angel.” The last made him smile. Turning his key, he listened to his engine turn over and then idle down into a smooth churn. While he waited for the temperature gauge to rise some, he counted ninety-four entries in the journal. The number made him happy, and he shifted into drive and headed toward the interstate – just in time for the morning commuters.
He took side streets toward the highway and watched people leaving their families to go to work. Garage doors rose into rafters and cars backed down driveways. When he could see people, they were often men, and on all of them he saw ties knotted up tight against their throats, the ends swinging back and forth like pendulums. Still watching the houses, he noticed the faces of children pressed against picture windows. Their little eyes strained to watch their fathers drive away. Other children were strapped into the back seats of cars on their way to daycare.
This is what I should have done Jack thought Why the hell didn’t I have a family? Before he could sink too far into regret, he saw the sign for the on-ramp that would lead him up onto the northbound highway toward Flint. He felt suddenly better, somehow relieved.
As he made his approach, he hit the gas and got ready to merge into the blur of traffic. No other drivers shifted lanes to let him in, but he found accidental space and took it. Around him other drivers talked on cell phones while drinking coffee or fixing their hair. Others drifted in and out of lanes without the warning of turning signals – some weaving their way through at ninety miles an hour. Some were lone drivers racing down the carpool lane, but most of the drivers just stared ahead blankly, eyes fixed between the lines. When he had been racing to his own sales calls, Jack had never really noticed the other drivers. More than anything, they had just seemed in his way. Now he saw how everything about the morning commute was robotic. Men and women climbing inside machines . . . becoming machines. Maybe it’d be different if we all rode buses to work he thought.
Two miles later, coming over a small rise, he saw the dim red pulse of hazard lights on the side of the highway pumping weakly into the intensity of the risen sun. The hood was up on the stranded car, and a man stood on the driver’s side shaking his head. Suddenly the man’s foot reared back and kicked the door. Something in the kick made Jack sad, but he laughed at the same time. Slowing, he edged his way onto the shoulder and popped his trunk. He had the man on his way again in twenty-five minutes.
Driving toward the highway, he looked at the Christmas lights framed around houses and strung through trees in front yards. He’d laugh at some – so many lights, as if someone were trying to turn night into day. Some front doors glowed with slogans: Merry Christmas to All, Season of Love, Peace on Earth.
Despite the lights, the houses still lookedempty – no silhouettes passing by the windows or moving in the dull gray glow of the televisions. Jack wondered what his own dark house looked like from the street. Thinking back over the evening, he pictured his sister with her husband and their child. The little boy had teased him with a candy cane, but when Jack had faked a sad face, the boy had turned sympathetic and offered the swirl of sugar in earnest. “Please take it Unca’ Jack,” he had begged. The thought of it made Jack suddenly lonely, and he wondered if he should have tried harder to get married and have a family. The idea of going back to his lonely house haunted him. He’d had a sip of champagne at his sister’s, and its warming sting still burned in his throat. At a red light he thought about going to Max’s bar for a shot and to see who was left of the old night gang.
“One drink to celebrate the season,” he said, and his voice sounded unfamiliar to him in the still, cold cab of the truck. The engine had been running for over twenty minutes, but when he ran his hand across the vents of the dashboard, he could feel that the air breathing out was barely lukewarm. It’s got to be well below zero already he thought and then mapped out in his head how a quick turn onto the interstate would get him to Max’s ten minutes faster. A few seconds later, something like a gunshot exploded under his truck, and the front end lurched violently over into the other lane. Realizing he’d hit a gaping pothole, Jack steered the truck back between the lines. The pothole was one he had seen a road crew filling earlier that spring, but the freeze and thaw of winter had brought it back.
On the highway, a few intermittent headlights passed him on the other side of the median, but he was alone on his side. As if they were days from his life as a salesman, he watched the white dashes that divided the two lanes flit into the glow of his headlights and then disappear behind him in the darkness. If only I’d a met the right woman he thought maybe I wouldn’t be so damn lonely. He’d had women in his life on the road, but he’d never call any of them girlfriends. Still he thought longingly of one -- Carla, a woman he knew years ago in Saginaw that he had called any time he was staying in the area overnight. He had to pay her, but she always stayed afterwards and talked. He still could hear her voice, like something thick he could pull around himself and get warm. She was the only one he went to regularly – others in other towns he learned of from other salesmen, but he never went back to the same one twice. But he liked listening to Carla, and he wondered now if he had called her more for the talking than the sex. He remembered lying in bed next to her afterwards, when she would talk about her life – how her family had struggled in Georgia or about the bad men she’d met. Men with cruel mouths, knuckles, belts, lighters. He’d stare up into the darkness of the room and listen, and the darkness of her life made the darkness of his seem less so. One night during a bad storm she had decided to stay over in his motel. When he woke at three a.m. and found her sleeping on the bed next to him, he stroked her hair and thought that maybe he loved her. Thinking of her now, he wondered should he call her again, but laughed at the idea of starting a relationship at his age. Then he nearly cried. Tonight he wouldn’t be able to drive past Max’s bar without stopping.
As he slowed to ease the truck towards the off-ramp that would spiral him down, he spotted something moving on the edge of the highway. His headlights swept over, and Jack was surprised to see it was a man hitchhiking. The hitchhiker held out his frozen thumb, while his other hand was jammed inside the pocket of a black windbreaker. He was wearing a Detroit Tigers baseball hat. Christ Jack thought this guy’s dressed for golf. The hitchhiker smiled kindly enough into the high beams, but his hungry stare penetrated through the light, the windshield and into Jack’s eyes. Although the look made him uneasy, Jack knew he couldn’t leave the man abandoned on the highway – not on a night like this. He pulled over onto the shoulder, stopped, and shifted into reverse.
He drove backwards, looking over his shoulder. For a few seconds he saw nothing. Had the man just disappeared? Then he saw a silhouette jogging out of the darkness into the dim halo of the truck’s rear lights. The man’s face soon loomed in the passenger window. He tried the handle, but the door didn’t open.
Jack leaned over the seat and unlocked the door. When the door opened, the man slid in quickly and closed it behind him. Cold followed him in, and Jack shivered in it. The other man didn’t look at Jack or say anything, but stared ahead into the darkness, blowing into his hands and rubbing his arms. Jack could see dull red splotches on the man’s face where he’d probably been frostbitten.
“I can’t even feel my toes,” the hitchhiker said into the windshield as though he knew Jack’s thoughts. Frost fell from his mustache.
“I know, it’s cold,” Jack said, “Anywhere I can drop you off?”
“Drop me off? I’ve been waiting for you all night,” the hitchhiker said. He blew into his hands again and shook his head as though he were lamenting something. He stared straight ahead while rubbing his fingers together for nearly a minute.
“Look, if you know where you’re going, I’ll take you there,” Jack said.
The hitchhiker didn’t say anything. His eyes looked glazed over.
“Do you think you should go to the hospital?” Jack asked after a minute, thinking that the cold may have made the man delusional. Looking at his blank stare, he wondered if the man was mentally ill.
“Hospital? Last guy that stopped for me made it clear that I would have to pay for gas. Kind of an asshole. Not you, though,” the hitchhiker said, mumbling the last part. He blew into his cupped hands again for nearly a minute and then shoved them into his armpits.
“You might have hypothermia,” Jack said, uncomfortable with the long pauses. He could hear some fear in his own voice and cleared his throat.
“Christ, you are a saint. But you’re a stupid sonuvabitch, too. No offense, but you don’t even know what I’m going to do, do you?” He pulled his hands out of his armpits and began to clench and release his fingers. “Didn’t know if I’d get them to move again,” he said, smiling.
The sheepish smile bothered Jack, and he now felt something about the man wasn’t right. “Alright, listen . . .” he started.
The hitchhiker’s right hand slipped inside his jacket and then as quickly came out again.
Jack looked down at the gun clenched inside the other man’s fist.
“Gotta wait so long for anyone to stop anymore,” the hitchhiker said, shaking his head. “It’s almost not fair.”
“I don’t keep much cash in the truck,” Jack said. Something like brandy was flooding just below the surface of his skin. He felt hot and confused.
“Money? No, I don’t do this for money. I don’t even take the money. I just have to do it.” The hitchhiker paused for a moment and looked ahead into the darkness. “If I don’t, it’s hell.”
Trying to pray, Jack could only recall Our father who aren’t in heaven, hollow be thy name, but that didn’t sound right to him. Lost, he stared into the dim lights of the dashboard. Everywhere else was darkness.“I’m really sorry about this,” the hitchhiker said, looking down and rocking the gun slightly from side to side.
Jack looked for headlights anywhere ahead of him or in his rearview mirror,
but the highway was dead.
“What the hell were you doing stopping for me anyway?” the hitchhiker asked.
“I stop for people . . . people who need help. There was this woman and a baby . . .” Jack’s words trailed off. “I don’t really know why I stop.”