Authors: Ray Garton
Doug continued, trying to sound cheerful: "We'll stop, stretch our legs, have some dinner and find out where we can get some chains that'll fit. Okay?"
Adelle was rubbing her eyes with her knuckles; either she hadn't heard him or she was ignoring him.
He drove on, slowly and carefully, and after a while the traffic began to thin out. As they reached the mountain's summit, the freeway became less crowded and Doug was able to pick up speed a little—not much; he didn't want to push his luck—and the atmosphere in the car seemed to thin just a bit.
Below the mountains they'd just scaled, the small town of Yreka was nestled in a hilly valley and Doug felt much safer to be driving on flatter ground. A gentle glow—from the town, Doug supposed—rose above the tall trees up ahead to the left and it was such a welcome sight, so pleasant to look at, that he almost missed the sign to the right of the freeway:
• • • RELIEF AHEAD • • •
SIERRA GOLD PAN
FAMILY RESTAURANT - HOME COOKING
VIDEO ARCADE - TRAVEL STORE
GAS - DIESEL
FULL SERVICE - TRUCK & AUTO
• • • NEXT EXIT • • •
Doug relaxed a little; it was exactly what they needed. "Okay, that's where we're going," he said, nodding toward the sign.
Jon sat forward again: "
! I been there! Dad took me once when we—"
"Please, Jonathan," Adelle said, teeth clenched, "not in my ear."
Doug smiled, trying to loosen things up a bit. "Everybody just hang on a few more minutes. We'll all feel better after a...after—"
A tan Bronco roared past them on the left, its fat tires kicking up slush.
"Sonofabitch!" Doug growled. "Who the hell do they think they—just because they've got four-wheel drive, they think—I mean, there's still ice all over the damned ro—"
"Doug!" Adelle slapped her hand on his thigh and dug her fingernails in.
Jon made a pathetic, frightened sound in the back seat.
The Bronco swerved in front of them without warning.
Doug's entire body stiffened and he barely caught in time the urge to slam his foot onto the brake when he saw the Bronco's brake lights glare like angry eyes.
The Bronco began to fishtail as Doug feathered the brakes and—
—the small space between the station wagon and the Bronco was swallowed up in an instant and—
—Doug's foot pressed down hard and—
—the Bronco's brake lights winked off as the tan monster began to speed away ahead of them, but—
—it was too late.
The whole planet seemed to lurch as if torn from its orbit as the station wagon spun round over the freeway, a long clumsy top hissing over the snow and ice, zigzagging at first, the steering wheel taking on a life all its own, jerking from Doug's hands, which had grown slick with sweat, and—
—Adelle screamed, then Cece and Dara, and Doug cried out, too, like a child with a deep voice, as—
—the car tilted, ploughing through the snow to the right of the freeway as—
—an overnight bag was launched from the rear of the station wagon, clubbing Doug on the back of the head so hard that his vision vibrated blearily for a moment, until—
—the car struck something with a cry of torn metal and something under the hood began to hiss like a provoked snake and, for several minutes after the car had stopped moving, Adelle continued to scream and scream...
The Sierra Gold Pan Truck Stop was usually a chaotic mess in the thick of winter, but on this night it was busier and more crowded than it had been since the infamously brutal winter of 1969 when the snowfall had been so severe that half of the roof on the Ten Pin Bowling Alley in Yreka, just eight miles north, had caved in and power had been down in the area for three days straight.
A line of trucks clogged the truckers' entrance and the auto parking lot was overfull with cars parked in NO PARKING areas, double parked, and still others illegally parked on the road in front.
The secured truck lot in back, which held two hundred trucks, had already taken in fifteen more than that and there were trucks parked haphazardly across the street and in turnouts along the road on the other side of the freeway, their lights glowing and engines idling as the drivers walked through the snow to the restaurant for coffee and some warmth.
A snow plough crept through the auto lot, zigzagging through the maze of cars as it scraped ice and snow from the pavement, its orange light spinning dizzily on top.
A lone trucker, shoulders hunched and stiff arms sweeping back and forth at his sides to fight the cold, opened one of the glass doors that led into the building's foyer and stepped into the crowd of people sitting around with arms folded and heads down, waiting for a seat in the restaurant or just...waiting...waiting for the roads into Oregon to open... waiting for a free payphone so they could make a call...
The building was shaped like a U. The foyer opened into the travel store, half of which was lined with shelves of gifts, souvenirs, T-shirts, sweatshirts, jewelry, jeans and boots, the other with automotive goods and electronics—citizen band radios, car stereos, portable televisions and hand held video games for bored travelers; in the back, a cooler held sodas, fruit juice and wrapped sandwiches and the register in front was surrounded by shelves of potato chips, candy and pastries. To the left and around a corner was the restaurant, which had two coffee counters, one of which was in a section designated for professional drivers only. In the other direction and around another corner was the fuel desk, where truckers paid for their fuel and any parts and repairs they purchased. Beyond that, a laundry room and showers, free to truckers who purchased fuel and available to others for a deposit of five dollars. Also at that end of the building was the video arcade room, a bank of pay telephones and a lounge with a television for waiting truckers. At the end of the hall on the other side of a locked door, a staircase led to the management offices, all darkened and closed for the night.
On this night, the restaurant was so full that some of the people who just wanted coffee stood at the windows and stared out at the snowy parking lot as they sipped; others simply left their names with the hostess and wandered around the store or browsed through the magazines and paperbacks on racks in the adjoining corridor. The din of voices coming from the restaurant almost completely drowned out the twangy country music coming from the speakers mounted in the ceiling. But even the voices and the music were topped by the sudden sharp cry of a female voice and the thick, ceramic shatter of stoneware plates.
"Son of a bitch!" Jenny Lake hissed two seconds after her ass hit the wet floor. Her legs were spread before her, knees bent, as if her uniform—frilly white blouse, tight black miniskirt over black peti-pants and black stockings, which had earned the restaurant the nickname "Panty Palace" among the truckers—weren't humiliating enough. Bits of the three plates she'd been carrying surrounded her and the floor—as well as her shoes—were covered with spaghetti and meatballs and biscuits and gravy and liver and onions. Her behind was planted in the middle of the puddle of water in which she'd slipped; it was cold through her nylons and she could feel her skirt becoming soggy and clingy. "Damn, damn, dammit!" she gurgled quietly through her teeth. This wasn't the night for it, it just
Jenny's eyes rolled to her hand, which was spread flat on the tile floor, and saw beside it two feet in officious white sneakers. They were Dina's feet. Jenny looked up to see Dina standing with her hands on her thick hips, elbows jutting as she looked down with disapproval.
Dina Bonnick was the assistant manager in the restaurant. Dina Bonnick was widely despised. She was a petite woman in her fifties—
in her fifties—with a tiny wasp-like waist and shapeless, rather lumpy, legs; she had a pale, withered face that was always too heavily made up and silverish hair that had been done in a strange outdated beehive sort of arrangement. She, of course, did not have to wear the uniform required of the waitresses and wore, instead, bright flower print dresses and beige stockings that were invariably wrinkled around her knees.
"Did you slip?" she asked in her quiet, pinched voice, after which her thin lips pressed together, emphasizing the wrinkles that branched out from them on the top, bottom and from the sides.
"Yes," Jenny said, getting up, "I slipped. I thought we were supposed to warn each other when there was water on the floor." She began to pick up the jagged chunks of broken plates and toss them into the trash.
"Those were orders, I take it?"
"Yes, they were orders."
Dina nodded. "They'll have to be deducted from your paycheck, you know." She cocked a penciled brow and leaned her head back just a bit in that way she had, almost as if she were daring Jenny to disagree.
"Yes," Jenny said, eyes closed. "I know."
Dina left and went back to one of the coffee counters where she'd been sitting, where she
sat; she never actually
anything, she just sat at the coffee counter sipping coffee...watching.
Jenny turned to go back to the kitchen window and give the cook the orders again when she nearly ran into Kevin, one of the busboys.
"Sorry, Jenny," he blurted, stepping back, his fingers twitching nervously at his sides.
?" she snapped, sounding more harsh than she'd intended.
"The water. I spilled it. I'm sorry. Really. I was gonna clean it up right away, but...well, I...I'm sorry."
She shrugged, feeling a little sorry for the boy. He was taller than Jenny but seemed, somehow, shorter now. His boney frame seemed to have shrunk. His forehead was wrinkled beneath his head of wiry brown hair and his lower lip was tucked between his teeth. "That' s okay, Kevin."
He smiled nervously.
"You might want to get a janitor to clean up
mess," she said, gesturing to the floor.
"Yeah, yeah, sure." His head bobbed frantically. "Yeah, I'll do that."
He turned and ambled away clumsily and Jenny went to the window and, once again, turned in the orders to one of the cooks, a stringy haired guy in his early twenties named Arnie Hamilton, who still had an acne problem and who made her very uncomfortable because he always stared at her breasts as he spoke to her.
Her bones ached, her head felt as if it had been clubbed and her feet hurt from the walk to work through the snow in the heavy awkward boots Grace Tipton, her landlady, had given her for Christmas. She was sick to death of taking orders, of putting up with the travelers' impatient remarks and put downs and the truckers' leering come-ons. She longed to go home to her little girl, to her bed and her electric blanket. But she'd just started her shift and it would be hours before she could do that. Shawna, her daughter, was home with Grace, who was probably settling down on the sofa now with a cup of tea to watch a movie or one of those damned tabloid news shows she loved so much.
Outside the foggy windows, it was still snowing hard: big fat flakes cut through by the headlights of still more cars making their way into the dirty slushy parking lot. The falling snow was rather hypnotic as it danced and whirled in the icy wind that, in the warmth of the restaurant, Jenny could watch without having to feel; in fact, for a moment as she stood there, she forgot that her feet, her head—her whole body—ached, and just watched the flakes, a ware of nothing but her weariness... her miserable, leaden weariness.
Shawna loved the snow. She was probably staring out the window at the snow, too, about then, her splotchy grey face close to the pane, arms wrapped around Wendy, her doll, which was missing almost as much hair as Shawna...
'Table twelve," the hostess said breathlessly as she whisked by Jenny from behind, and suddenly the snow lost its soothing spell and the clatter and din of the restaurant returned as if someone had turned on a radio at full volume.
Table twelve was newly occupied by two large middle-aged men with snow clinging to their dirty hair and boots. Both were truckers; each had a log book on the table before him. She got two menus and went to the table.
"Coffee tonight?" she asked.
"One coffee, one hot chocolate with lotsa whipped cream," one said flatly, opening his menu.
The other looked up at her and smiled beneath an impossibly bushy mustache the color of nicotine stains and said in a gravelly voice, "Aw, c'mon, honey, smile. It can't be that bad."