Winter Road Song

Night falls. Gage and I stand in the dark. Highway traffic dwindles to a trickle. A dribble of vehicles is still visible, strung out bulbous bead-like on a giant necklace. Each bauble is distant, removed from any other. The odds of being picked up are negligible. The straightaway on which we’ve planted ourselves works against us. And the cold. The bloody cold. We could surely use even a witch’s tit to warm us.

Cars and trucks zoom past. They don’t care to see us. Probably think. “Hell, not stopping for those bums. Not worth my time.”

We are an unknown quantity, itinerant entities carelessly planted between towns. We cannot provide a reasonable accounting of ourselves. I know this is what they are thinking. I’ve thought it myself when I was with car, with more than the little I have now.

“They don’t see us,” Gage opines.

Understatement is his forte. He’s bulky, overt. I wonder if even I would pick him up?’

He’s not so much intimidating as uncomfortable. People feel badly when they are around him. He wears stained pants, too short for his six-foot frame. His ankles show through thin, ripped nylon dress socks. He’s unshaven.

Neither of us are sparkling examples of men capable of caring for themselves.

“It’s a good thing they can’t see us too clearly, Gage. We’re a mess.”

“Who would leave two humans out here in the wilderness? It’s not fair.”

I shake my head, think, ‘most everyone.’

We are alone with ourselves.

Just as I am about to stupidly suggest that we step off the shoulder and have a snooze on the small slope adjoining, an old pickup slows down, pulls to a stop.

“Need a lift?” the elderly driver asks. “Heading to Nanaimo if that suits you.”

“Anything that gets us away from here will suit us,” I chime in. “Thanks.”

I jump in quickly and drag Gage in after me. It’s a tight squeeze. Gage slams the door shut, the old man punches the gas hard and slips onto the empty highway.

The old man’s smoking. That camouflages our smell. A small mercy. Gage and I haven’t had a ciggie in days. The smoke’s inviting. I see his packet of smokes on the dash. I want to push our luck and bum one. I suck the second-hand smoke in a little too obviously.

“Help yourself,” he offers. “The lighter still works.”

“Thanks.” I grab the cigarette package, pull out two, hand Gage one, press the lighter, plunk mine into my mouth, wait, retrieve the lighter, light Gage’s, then mine, deeply inhale, blow a ring.

“One of life’s real pleasures,” I say.

“Tried quitting a bunch of times,” the old man says. “Every time, I got the urge to kill. Or at least got really angry! An odd feeling, like I was being asked to give up the only thing I cared about. My right to do what I liked, eh!. Wife eventually left. Hated the smoke. Hated me even more when I was trying to quit.”

“Never had a wife,” Gage tosses in unexpected communication as we barrel on through the night. “Always wanted one. Never got close! Never!”

Gage rarely talks about himself. This revelation is news to me. We are both past the age when we might expect some change in our lot. Whatever the future holds for us, it will bring nothing new. We have seen all we can expect.

I glance at the old man. He once had what Gage had always wanted. I don’t like to consider what I might want, that is, beyond what I get. I sit in the cab, ripping through the night, warm between the wizened old man and my corpulent friend. At this moment, I have exactly what I want. There’s nothing to disappoint me if I simply remain satisfied in this consoling moment.