A winter’s day

Kevin Smith drew in a breath of air so cold it burned his lungs and pivoted his hips, driving the shovel into the accumulation of powdery snow covering his back walk. The standing temperature hovered somewhere between ‘too damned cold’ and ‘freeze your balls off in an instant’, but he was glad the air was that cold. He’d been born in Carswell’s Corner, and knew that if the ‘Alberta Clippers’ that had moved through overnight hadn’t generated the snow, it would have been ‘heart attack’ snow. It took something approaching hurricane-force winds to cause that stuff to blow, but once it had landed, getting it to move took serious effort. Shoveling it was something anyone with sense dreaded. A scoop of that dense white crap the size of the ones Kevin was now slinging out of the way with ease could task even him.

Another scoop flew, and Kevin stopped to survey his progress. He was just over halfway down the walk, but the real task had yet to be addressed: digging out around the his car and his wife’s SUV, then clearing the short lane from the family parking space to the alley. He could see the alley beyond the vehicles, still unplowed and as free of tire tracks as if it where a country field.

The scraping rattle of a snowplow drew his attention. Could the city street department be coming to take care of the street out front, or even the alley? He focused on the sound, listened closer, and shook his head. No, the city was doing what it always did after a snow storm of any magnitude, it was plowing the streets on the ‘right side of the tracks’ first.

Carswell’s Corner had once been a hub of manufacturing. It had been founded as a place farmers all over southwestern Iowa could bring their harvests. Small manufactures followed, and those had grown to be large companies. All those goods, needed access to the rest of America, so one of the railroad had stretched out a tentacle of steel to proved that service. When the manufactures had gone bust in the Great Depression, the rail line had stayed, but the harvest wasn’t enough to keep it in town forever. Before Kevin was born, the railroad had abandoned the line. He still had memories of it from his childhood, but those memories were of rusted rails standing on rotting ties set in a weed-choked right-of-way. A scrape company had eventually bought the line, tearing it up and hauling away anything of value when Kevin was in junior high.On the East, or ‘right’ side of the old right-of-way was where the ‘leaders’ of the town lived. These were the oldest families in Carswell’s Corner.

Kevin dropped the shovel to the sidewalk and took another scoop as he reflected on how his town worked. What was left of downtown Carswell’s Corner was also located East of the old tracks, but the town’s few bars were located West of the former rail line. West of the tracks was also where the old manufactures had stood, and where the people who worked in those plants had dwelt. Their descendants still lived there, and like their ancestors, they too got the short end of the proverbial stick when it came to city services.

The city still owned the power lines that ran through town, and as surely as the Sun would rise in the morning, after one of the thunderstorms that routinely rolled across town, the first places to get power restored would be East of the tracks. Streets on the ‘right’ side of town were repaired and resurfaced far more regularly than those on the other side too. Everyone living West of the tracks complained about these and a thousand other slights done to them, but to little effect. The town council was voted in ‘at large’, with no real requirement that they represent a particular part of town. So, with the generous backing of the ‘leading families’, the city council served as a rubber stamp to whatever those influential people wanted.

Kevin stopped again as the rattling scrape of the snow plow grew in volume. Turning, he saw the orange hazard lights of a plow strobing off the snow-covered limbs of the trees across the street from his house, then caught a glimpse of the plow itself as it rumbled past.

“About fuckin’ time you assholes showed up!” Kevin muttered as he turned back to his own snow removal. The big plows like the one that had just passed couldn’t navigate the narrow allies so common in his neighborhood, so he’d still be fighting his way through any drifts that might have formed overnight. But at least once he got to the road, it should be just another slick, messy drive to work at the Big Box.

It took Kevin almost an hour to get all the shoveling done, and before he left, he poured himself a final mug of coffee in the hope that it would warm him after the frigid temperatures outside. Hannah, his wife, was up, and she moved to give him a peck on the cheek which he turned into a proper kiss by putting an arm around her waist. That moment of shared intimacy helped warm him more than any coffee ever would. When their lips parted, his wife asked the one question any practical inhabitant of the Midwest would ask on a day like today.

“You think that cars will start?”

“Yeah, it’s cold, but nothing special. Unless your Jeep’s been having trouble turning over, it should start fine.”

“No, it’s been starting without any problems, I was just worried about your car.”

Kevin drove the family ‘hand-me-down’ car, an old four-door sedan that had hauled his family everywhere. With the boys away at college, and their daughter in the Army, there was no need for such a large car. His wife, who worked at the state college the next town over, had a real need for something that could handle winter roads. That’s why she had the newer Jeep while he made do with a car that had seen better days.

“Oh, I’m not worried about that old monster! I think the air would have to freeze solid before that thing refused to start.”

His wife cocked her head to one side as she looked at him, a clear indication that she wasn’t as confident as he was, but said nothing. He smiled at her, gave her a quick kiss on the lips, and letting her go, stepped back.

“We both need to get around, so I better get my lunch packed and get on my way.”

Kevin moved to the fridge, pulled out the covered plastic dish of leftover rigatoni from the night before, and retrieved his lunch cooler. A fork from the kitchen drawer and a cooled block from the big upright freezer in the corner finished joined the dish, completing his preparations to leave. Hannah was busy spreading butter on her toast, so Kevin didn’t interrupt her.

“See you tonight.”

“Yeah, you too. Take care.”
“This from the woman who’s got twenty miles of two-lane roads to drive! You be careful…love you.”

“Love you too.”

After the time spent in the house, the air seemed even colder than it had while Kevin had been shoveling. In typical fashion, the lock on the car door was stiff, and it was a struggle to get the key to turn. The interior of the car, which had soaked in the chill from the air around it all night long, felt even worse. He shoved the key into the ignition, stepped down hard on the gas peddle, and muttered his usual prayer before trying the car on a day like today.

“God, please let this pile of junk start.”

The starter groaned, then began to spin the engine over. There was a loud ‘chug’ as the engine tried to start, another period of relative silence as the starter cranked away, then the engine coughed, sputtered, and began firing regularly. Kevin gave the steering wheel an affectionate pat. “Thanks, old son. I should have known I could count on you.” he muttered to the car, happy to have it respond when he needed it to.

After letting the engine warm up enough to settle into a steady idle, Kevin flipped on the headlights and slipped the car into reverse. The headlights showed no tracks beyond a few animal tracks, probably made by one of th feral cats that haunted the neighborhood. He eased the car into drive and turned the defroster on. He knew the air it blew would be just as cold as the air outside, but it would serve to keep the air near the front windshield moving and (hopefully) keep the moisture from his own fogging the view too badly.

Near the end of the alley, Kevin saw the only sign that another human was up and about in the pre-dawn darkness: a pair of broad tire tracks leading out of Bill Carstairs’ garage. Bill liked to describe himself as a ‘redneck’ because he drove his huge pickup with dual rear wheels. He too worked at the college, but his job in the ground department meant he was probably already hard at work clearing sidewalks and parking lots for the students. It was a good thing he’d already left, because while the city plows had scraped the snow off the road, that snow had been left behind in a broad mound across the entrance to the alley. Even with Bill’s passage, Kevin had to speed up as he exited the alley to be sure he didn’t get stuck.

The road was worse than Kevin had imagined it would be. The new snow had mostly been moved off the pavement, but the slush that had been on the road since shortly after the first snowfall was still there. Unfortunately, the sub-zero temperatures had frozen it solid, and all the snowplow had done was to smooth off the rough surface it should have had. Kevin hit the first patch, and found the car slipping and attempting to fishtail.

“Steady, old son, steady. Don’t go trying to pass yourself.” Kevin whispered as he got the car under control. A light coming up a side street ahead brought his attention back to the world outside. As he watched, a car came to a ‘rolling’ stop at the stop sign, then pulled out onto the road in front of him going the same way.

Well, it tried to pull out. Whoever was driving it tried to accelerate too quickly, hit a slick spot, and as Kevin watched, the car executed a quick, complete spin before slamming into the snow berm along the roadside.

“Holy shit!” Kevin swore as he slowed down to come to a stop beside the car. He saw that both front wheels had been lifted as the snow had compacted under the front bumper, leaving neither of them in contact with the pavement. As he watched, the visible wheel spun, and he heard the engine gun as the driver tried to back out of his predicament. Kevin put on his emergency flashers and climbed out of his car to see if he could help.

Coming around his car, Kevin got his first really good look at the trapped vehicle. It was an Audi, an A6 no less, and either a new one, or nearly so. What the hell is a car like that doing around here? He wondered as he approached the drivers side window. It came down, and Kevin was surprised to recognize the man behind the wheel. It was Nick Patterson, oldest son of the Patterson family and his former high school classmate. The Patterson’s were as close to a founding family a town like Carswell’s Corner could have, and they had the money to prove it. Nick had also had the attitude to prove it. He’d been one of the ‘jock’ crowd that made sure everyone knew they ruled the school, and Kevin had gotten on his bad side more than once. Now, though, Nick aimed his friendliest smile at Kevin.

“Kevin Smith, is that you? Man, I’m glad to see a familiar face! Can you give me hand? I hit a slick spot and the car got away from me. I need to get going…got places I’ve got to go…”

Maybe Nick wasn’t as dense as Kevin had believed him to be, because he slowly stopped talking as he saw Kevin’s face split into a grin that had nothing to do with friendship. Kevin pulled his cellphone out, opened it, and dialed. Nick might have been smart enough to know Kevin wasn’t going to respond a friendly approach, but he wasn’t smart enough to keep his mouth shut.

“Umm, Kevin, who you calling? I just need someone to get out in front of my car and give it a shove, help me get it out of this snow.”

“Well, Nick, I’m calling for some help. I’m calling the police to report that I saw a man driving recklessly run his car into a snow bank. You can be sure they’ll come down here and give you all the help you need. I mean we can’t have a car obstructing traffic or the snow plows if they decide to come back now, can we?”

“Hey, wait a minute! I wasn’t driving recklessly, I just…”

“Nick, you need to learn to shut you mouth. I saw everything you did from two blocks down. Hell, you didn’t even stop for the stop sign, then you come barreling out of a side street like you were racing…by the way, why were you coming out of a side street, in this part of town, at this time of the morning?”

“I’s none of your business, but I was just down here to see an old friend!”

Kevin hadn’t tapped the phone yet to make the call, but he did now as he addressed his old nemesis. “Yeah, Nick, and who are you going to see at 4:30 in the morning?” A thought occurred to Kevin. “Wait….Lori Leleki still lives down here, doesn’t she? Are you still hitting that? Shit, I heard you and the rest of the football team passed her around like a sex toy. I can’t imagine your wife’s going to be happy to find out you’re still screwing the biggest slut in Carswell’s Corner. Is that why you don’t want me to call the cops?”

Nick wasn’t smiling now. His face had first gone pale, then blotched an unhealthy reddish purple. Now he screamed his anger at Kevin. “Don’t you even think about calling the cops, you little son of a bitch! I’ll bury you, you hear me, I will bury you!”

Kevin put his phone to his ear, heard someone on the other end, and spoke to them. “Yes, officer, I’d like to report a traffic accident I witnessed. A driver ran a stop sign, lost control of his car trying to make a turn, and he’s now stuck alongside the road.”

“Where are you located at, sir?”

“Let me see…I’m located on the 1200 block of North Sixth, north side of the road, about two houses down from the corner of Sixth and Oak. Can you tell whomever you send to hurry, the driver is threatening me for stopping to report that accident and I’m afraid he might decide to follow through on those threats.”

“Sir, if you could get in your car and lock the doors, a car should be there shortly. Don’t get into a confrontation if you can avoid it.”

Nick, who had been listening to the exchange, decided that this was the perfect moment to prove his stupidity. “I told you, damn it, not to call the fucking cops! I’m going to get out of this car and beat the shit out of you!”

“Did you hear that officer? I’ll get in my car now, but could you tell the officer responding that this guy is acting like he’s high or something…seriously, this guy is acting like he’s on PCP or something.”

“I heard it, sir, and I recorded it too. Now, get in your car, one of our officers should be there in less than a minute.”

“Thanks, and tell the responding officer I’m be the person in the car with the emergency flashers on. I don’t want to be confused with the really dangerous person, after all.”

“Yes sir, and thanks for being a responsible citizen.”

Kevin fought to keep from laughing as he replied. “No problem, sir, no problem at all. I’m just glad I could help put someone truly dangerous behind bars.”

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