Harlan and Grace
The place was empty except for the two of them in their booth and an old man sitting at the counter reading a newspaper. And there was no music. Harlan liked that. Not even a little radio wafting from the kitchen. You could hear the wind howling outside, which was somehow comforting to him. The waitress, who had fading red hair, came over and took their order and was short with them when Harlan asked if she could maybe turn down the thermostat. “Appreciate it,” said Grace, fanning herself with her menu before handing it over to the woman, who didn’t answer whether or not she was going to see to their request, but just looked Grace up and down for a moment and then walked away. It seemed to cool down by the time their food came out, though. Harlan had to put on his coat, but Grace seemed comfortable. “I guess it’s settled.” She bit into her orange slice. “I’m a clairvoyant. You gonna eat your garnish?” He paused, buttering his piece of toast, and nudged his plate toward her so she could take his orange. He then gestured at their surroundings, the diner, with his butter knife. “You’re saying you saw this coming?” “Well, more like I said I wanted bacon and eggs, and foop, this place appeared.” “Ask and you shall receive,” said Harlan. “First a baby, now a diner. What will she do next?” She picked a bit of pulp out of her teeth and put a hand on her belly, proud of herself. “Oh, I forgot. What about pie?” Harlan looked over his shoulder toward the counter where the waitress was folding silverware a few seats down from the old man who was reading the newspaper aloud to her. “Excuse me, ma’am,” said Harlan. The waitress showed the old man an index finger and then swiveled around, her eyebrows raised. She wasn’t particularly pleased about being summoned so soon after she’d just come around and asked if everything tasted good. “One piece of . . . ” He looked to Grace. “Blueberry,” said Grace. “Pretty please.”
The waitress got up and went around behind the counter. A few minutes later, she showed up at their booth with the slice of pie and a pot of coffee. Harlan handed her his mug. “About how long would you say it is to Leadville?” “Two hours in good conditions,” she said as she poured the coffee. “How far along are you two?” “We’ve been on the road for—what?—about eight hours now?” said Harlan. The waitress looked at him like he was stupid. “No—her, the baby.” “Seven months,” said Grace. “Still a little ways to go.” “Well, you don’t want to get stuck in the weather. You know it’s snowing up there?” “We’ll be extra cautious,” said Grace. The waitress shrugged, then left. Harlan didn’t feel much like pie. He took a single bite, then crumpled up his napkin and put it on his plate, which still had some scraps of egg and bits of hash brown on it. He sipped his coffee and watched Grace enjoy her dessert. “I have to warn you,” he said. “I’m not good with parents.” “My parents are different. They’re nice.” “It’s me that’s the problem. I’ve met a few of my girlfriends’ parents in the past. Never went well.” Grace stopped eating. She started poking her fork around at crumbs as if she didn’t want to have to look up at him. “I’m sorry,” he said. “About what?” She reached over and took his plate, removed the napkin off the top, and started on his leftovers. He’d hurt her in these small ways, almost always accidentally, and she’d forgive him every single time, almost before he could realize what he’d done. He looked at her, thinking this, but didn’t know how to say it out loud. “Why don’t you put that hat of yours on, and go outside and get us some gas,” said Grace. “Yeah. Okay.” He slid out of the booth with his jacket and his Stetson—the black one that he never got to wear except for when it was cold or some kind of special occasion—and started for the door but then came back and went down on one knee. Grace paused with her fork in midair and slowly turned toward him, her eyes looking about at the empty diner and then at him, like she really couldn’t believe what he was about to do. He kissed her. “I’m sorry,” he said with his face close to hers.
But she looked at him like he had something in his teeth. “You already said that. You can get up now.” “Oh, sure.” He quickly rose, only then realizing how it must have looked.
It had started to snow outside. The wind was gusting and throwing the snow up into circles before it had a chance to stick to the ground. Harlan leaned against the rear side of his truck as he filled the tank, the sleeve of his henley pulled out of the cuff of his jacket and gripped around the metal handle to save his fingers from the cold. He rested his eyes as the numbers whirled on the pump. The hose hummed with gas, and the truck softly panged and clicked every so often, its various pieces of metal still cooling after all the time it had taken them to get through New Mexico. He didn’t hear anyone approaching across the parking lot. No footsteps. Maybe a whispery shuffle accompanied by a hollow clank or two. He didn’t think anything of it—the wind. But when he opened his eyes, there was a hooded figure of a man hunched over the trash can. Harlan looked around the quiet parking lot and the huge darkness surrounding it trying to find signs of where the man might have come from, but the lot was empty, same as before. “Any luck in there?” asked Harlan. The man’s hood flipped off as he straightened out, an empty gallon milk jug in his hand. “If there is, it’s fucking mine.” His face was dirty, bearded, and tanned, but underneath the travel-worn griminess, Harlan could see, he was young, around Harlan’s same age. The man brought the open mouth of the jug to his nose and then quickly pulled it away, wincing at something that must have soured inside. He dropped the jug back into the trash, took a step forward, and stood there, his hands on his waist, looking at Harlan’s truck. “’71,” said Harlan. The man didn’t seem to hear, despite Harlan saying it loud and clear. The man was going back and forth in his mind about something. Harlan let out a little, nervous laugh. “Got it used in ’74,” said Harlan. “Pretty good price.” He was talking merely to give the man another opportunity to respond—anything, a two- or three-word sentence of small talk that would ease the fear that rose in Harlan’s chest. He glanced at Harlan, opening his mouth like he was about to ask him for something. The tank wasn’t full yet, but Harlan didn’t want to be tied to it when he said no to whatever it was that the man wanted, money or cigarettes maybe. He was about to let go of the trigger and
leave the tank just short of full, but before he could, the man, seemingly aware of all this, closed his mouth and simply looked at Harlan, like he was embarrassed for him. Then the man turned and walked away. It seemed more and more like a fuck-you as he got farther away across the parking lot, through the snow-filled air, headed back to wherever he’d come from—the dumpsters it looked like. And then, Harlan saw it. Actually gasped. There were letters scrawled in black across the back of his jacket: THE WALKING DEAD 1/9. The nozzle kicked off in Harlan’s hand, startling him. His eyes were still trained on the back of the jacket as the man left the white light of the parking lot lamps about to disappear into the dark behind the restaurant. Harlan left the nozzle stuck in the gas tank and followed after, not knowing what he would say but having this powerfully immediate feeling that the man might vanish into thin air if Harlan lost sight of him. “Hey, hold up for a second!” Harlan yelled and put up his hand to shield his eyes from the blowing snow. The man stopped as Harlan reached him just around the corner of the restaurant, but he didn’t turn around. “What do you want?” asked the man. His words were barely audible over the wind and sounded as if they were directed at the empty field, not at Harlan. Harlan had to think for a second. “What are you doing out here? Middle of nowhere, this hour of the night.” The man turned around to face Harlan. “I’m minding my business. How about you?” His eyes glinted pale blue and were bright bloodshot, probably burnt from being out on the shoulder of the road all day. Harlan’s eyes began to water just looking into them. “Fair enough,” he said. “Are you hungry?” “Do I look like a beggar?” “You don’t.” Harlan blew into his hands. “I saw the back of your jacket.” The man betrayed his abrasiveness for a moment. His face opened, and he couldn’t help but smile in wonder at Harlan; it was amazing, the two of them bumping into each other off the side of this desolate highway. Maybe it was a sign of something. But then after a few moments of looking at Harlan, sizing him up, the man’s vulnerability was gone, turned into something else. “Well, hells bells.” He mocked Harlan’s West Texas accent. “I’ll tell you what, cowboy. How about you give me a ride?” “No, I can’t do that.” “I didn’t even tell you where I’m going. For all you know, you’re headed there too. ”
“Where are you going?” “Aspen.” “Yeah, that’s not where I’m going,” said Harlan. “By the looks of your truck, you are. I ain’t asking to wear your hat or nothing. I just want a ride.” The man hurried over his words like he’d been drinking. Harlan put a hand on the top of his hat to keep it from flying away as a gust of wind came through. “The looks of my truck?” “There’s no snow on it, and it’s got Texas plates. You’re headed north. And if you’re headed north, you’re headed toward Aspen.” “I can’t give you a ride. I’ll get you something to eat though.” “Why are you so hung up on buying me dinner? If you want some hanky-panky, then why don’t you just go on down to the dancehall and try buying some feller a drink.” “All right,” said Harlan. “I’ll see you later.” He turned and began to walk back around to the front of the diner. “We’ve got a live one, folks.” The man giggled and followed after. “Come on. You can’t take a joke?” He grabbed ahold of Harlan’s shoulder with a powerful hand and slowed him up. “Don’t be so sensitive. There meat loaf on the menu?” Harlan shook off the man’s grip and continued walking. “I can take a joke. I just don’t have the time at the moment.” “Of course.” The man walked beside Harlan and made a show of straightening up his posture, holding his hands together behind his back. “Come to think of it. I really would like something to eat.” Harlan stopped. He put his hands on his hips and looked at the man with raised eyebrows, waiting for him to speak, as if he were admitting that the man had called his bluff; Harlan wasn’t ready to walk away just yet. The man smiled, pleased. He eyeballed Harlan. “I’m just wondering what it is you’re trying to get out of this exchange.” “It’s not an exchange. It’s a gift.” “What you just said don’t make no sense.” “Well, I’m not too worried about it making sense to you,” said Harlan. “Are you sure you don’t want turkey?” “Nope. The meat loaf.” “Okay. Wait here,” said Harlan and started to walk away. “Extra gravy,” the man yelled. “One vet to another, I appreciate it. And think about that ride, okay?” Harlan looked over his shoulder but didn’t stop and yell back to the man to correct his mistake. He was cold, and he was already far enough away; the wind was loud enough that he could pretend he hadn’t heard.
If he was going to be honest with himself, it felt good, though, to be recognized by someone who had seen the same things that he’d seen. He didn’t want to ruin that by telling the man the truth. The bell hanging on the hinge of the door jingled as he came back into the warmth. Grace was gone from the booth, and the waitress was standing behind the register, her eyes on him like she thought he was hatching a plan to run off without paying. “And a meat loaf dinner to go,” said Harlan. “You ever see those signs that warn tourists not to feed the wildlife?” She stood there just long enough to see Harlan flummoxed, and then she vanished through the doors to the kitchen. He took a deep breath and said “white trash” under his breath. Then he took out his wallet and saw he didn’t have enough cash. “Harlan, my dear.” Grace cradled her stomach, one hand under and one hand over, like a running back, as she made her way around a Wet Floor sign coming out from the washroom. “Who was that you were talking to outside?” “You have a twenty, Grace?” he asked just as the waitress reappeared through the kitchen doors. She looked down to the regular and rolled her eyes, didn’t even try to hide it. “No,” said Grace in a hushed voice as she pulled out a tattered little roll of bills from her change purse, what looked to be all ones, and handed the money over to Harlan. “You don’t have any money?” Harlan counted out what he’d had in his wallet, plus eleven dollars from Grace, trying to do the math on the tip for the total plus the meat loaf, and losing track of what he was doing because he couldn’t help but hear the roof creaking and the cook clanking pans in the back. He could feel the crusty waitress and the sad old man looking down on him and Grace waiting for him to do the simple math of their bill. It made him feel like a younger version of himself, angry. He just handed all of it over to the waitress. Grace pressed her belly against his hip and looked up at him with her brown eyes. “Harlan?” He still hadn’t answered her question. “It looks like we’re going to have to give someone a lift,” he said as he fumbled for a toothpick from the dispenser and watched the waitress close the register and then slip a surprisingly large wad of bills into her apron for her tip. “A hitchhiker? Are you insane?” “He’s not a hitchhiker. He’s a marine.” “I didn’t know those two things were mutually exclusive,” said Grace.
“We got to talking, and he mentioned he was trying to get to Aspen. That’s on our way, right? Is that really that insane?” He was mad at himself for giving the waitress too much money. “It’s out of the way when there’s a snowstorm, and you’ve got a pregnant woman in the truck.” Grace put a hand on his chin and turned his head toward her. “Where’s he going to sit?” “You’re not that big.” “Don’t.” She turned away from him and took a seat at the counter. The waitress set a brown paper bag down before Grace and then strode off with an air of vindication, happy that the two were having a fight. “Ready to go?” Harlan put a hand on Grace’s shoulder and reached over her for the bag. “What’s this?” asked Grace, looking to the bag. “This might have been information worth bringing to my attention.” “You were in the bathroom.” “Harlan. God, you don’t think of nobody but yourself.” “I don’t think of nobody but myself? I’m buying a veteran a warm meal.” “No, that’s just how you’re spinning it. The fact of the matter is, I don’t have a winter coat, and you’re spending the last of our money on a stranger that you just met in the parking lot.” She went past him to the door. She touched the glass and hung her head, like her heart wasn’t in whatever they’d been arguing about anymore. He came up behind her and carefully touched the small of her back. “Didn’t you say your parents were going to give us some money once we got there?” “But that’s not for sure,” she said. “Harlan, we haven’t planned out any of this . . . ” She trailed off. “What are we going to do?” “What are we talking about here? This road trip to your parents’ house or the baby? Because we’ve still got time on both counts,” he said, failing to make the words sound optimistic. Without turning around and reconciling the fight or coming to any conclusion about whether or not they were going to give the man a ride, she pushed the door open and went out into the cold. Harlan stood there for a moment, stunned, watching her get farther away. She held herself against the wind and looked around at the night like she’d already let the whole thing go. She didn’t hold a grudge, and at the same time, she wasn’t going to turn around and wave for him to follow her out. It was one of the things he was discovering he liked about her.
Harlan looked back toward the waitress and the old man, who both quickly turned away trying to pretend like they hadn’t been watching. “Thank you,” said Harlan, completely forgetting for a moment that the waitress had been rude to him. “All right,” said the waitress, taken off guard by his sincerity. “Drive safe.” Outside, Harlan looked around the parking lot for the man, but he seemed to be gone. Figuring maybe he was behind the restaurant, that’s where Harlan started to wander. “He’s in the truck!” yelled Grace, annoyed at Harlan’s obliviousness. Harlan wheeled around, and sure enough, through the truck’s windshield, covered in a thin layer of snow, there was the man’s dark figure sitting in the passenger seat. Harlan went up to the driver’s side and noticed a ratty old hiking backpack that had been thrown into the back of the bed. It was lying on top of the tarp Harlan had the luggage tied down under. Grace came over behind Harlan as he opened the driver’s side door. The man was in the middle of taking the last pull from a plastic pint of whiskey, his head cocked back and his grizzly neck exposed, eyes closed. He swallowed, grinned, looked at the empty plastic pint after taking it from his lips, and then looked out the door like he was getting ready to spit out something offhand and sarcastic at Harlan. Then he stopped, his eyes trained on Grace over Harlan’s shoulder. “Oh, gosh. I must be in your seat.” He yanked at his seat belt, which he already had fastened. “Look at me trying to steal the safety belt from a pregnant woman.” Harlan and Grace watched him fumble about with the plastic pint in one hand and the unyielding buckle at his waist. He suddenly seemed little more than a schoolboy. “Sometimes that one’s a little fussy.” Grace went around to the passenger-side door and opened it up. “Here.” She reached over him, her stomach on top of his lap, and gave the seat belt buckle a try herself. The man put his hands up in the air like he was being held at gunpoint. He uncomfortably caught Harlan in the eye. “Really starting to come down out here.” Harlan didn’t respond. “I saw you forgot to take the nozzle out—didn’t want you to drive off and blow everybody to smithereens. And then I thought, I might as well sit in here out of the cold.” Then to Grace: “I’m actually not really much of a drinker, for the record, ma’am. I got this bit of whiskey here just to keep me warm.” Grace grimaced, pushing down on the seat belt button with her thumbs, finally getting the two pieces to let go. “You don’t have to
explain yourself to me.” She came up from leaning over him and extended her hand. “Grace.” “Oh, hello. I’m Colton.” They shook hands, and then he went to slide his legs out of the truck, but Grace was still standing there in his way. She pointed. “Don’t be silly. Scoot on over to the middle.” Colton awkwardly looked over at Harlan standing on the other side of the truck, not knowing which one of the two was the boss. “We’ll give you a ride, and you can help us with some gas money,” said Grace. “Of course. I’ve got a few bucks, I think.” Colton slid over to the middle. Harlan put Colton’s food down on the bench seat and came around to help Grace with the door. “You all right?” She brushed a strand of hair that had flown in front of her face back behind her ear. “Yeah, I’m wide awake for some reason.” Inside the truck, Harlan flipped on the scanner as he waited for the engine to warm up, the wipers intermittently squeaking back and forth, as Colton, sitting in between him and Grace, ripped open his to-go bag like a kid on Christmas morning, inadvertently elbowing Harlan in the ribs in the process. Harlan was hoping to hear something about the weather on the CB radio, but there wasn’t any talk. He turned it off. “No utensils.” Colton held up the dismantled brown paper for them to see, and then stuffed it down between his legs and onto the floor. He had the tinfoil pan open and was eating with his hands before either Harlan or Grace could offer to get out, so he could maybe run back inside for a fork and knife. Scooping up mashed potatoes with the slabs of meatloaf, taking big hurried mouthfuls, shoving fistfuls of green beans into his mouth, letting out involuntary “Mmm’s”: Harlan was about to tell him slow down, nobody’s going to take it away from you, concerned that Colton might choke, but then figured he should simply let Colton enjoy his meal. By the time Harlan put it into drive and they pulled out of the parking lot back onto the two-lane highway, Colton was almost finished eating, and it was 12:16, officially Thanksgiving. The glow of the diner shrank in the rearview mirror, and the shape of the mountains rose until there was barely any view of the sky.
The road coiled up through a canyon, and Harlan looked out his window at the sidewall of rock shooting past him, built up like a shoddy set of stairs, dimly red and marbled with snow. Their headlights reflected on a sign that said FALLING ROCK. He drew in his breath, about to ask Colton about the “1/9,” but Grace broke the silence a moment before he could find the right words.
“You must have been hungry,” she said. “I was, yes, ma’am.” Colton let out a belch. “Excuse me. I owe you and your husband a big thanks.” “Oh,” said Harlan, about to correct Colton’s assumption, but trailing off, thinking it best to let it go. Colton was waiting for Harlan to continue, though. “What?” Colton took a pack of cigarettes out of his breast pocket. “You mind if I smoke?” “In the truck?” said Harlan, incredulous. “He was going to say, we’re not married,” said Grace. “Go ahead, smoke, but you’ve got to give me one too.” Colton looked at Harlan as he slowly offered the opened pack to Grace, again not knowing which one to listen to, and ultimately siding with Grace. “It’s going to get awfully smoky in here,” said Harlan. Colton reached back into his pocket. There was the clack-shing of a Zippo flipping open. Harlan sneaked a look over at Grace as she leaned in with a cigarette in her mouth, a cupped hand ready to protect the flame. He hadn’t seen her smoke in something like three months. Colton flicked the flint wheel. He flicked it again and again but got only sparks. “Harlan’s got matches,” said Grace. “There’s a lighter in the dash,” said Harlan. “I don’t want to wait for it,” said Grace. Harlan let out a breathless sound of exasperation as he crammed a hand into his jeans pocket. “Sorry to bother you,” said Colton. Harlan looked at Colton out of the corner of his eye and couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not. “It’s no bother,” said Harlan. He handed over the matches and then again glanced over at Grace as Colton went to light her cigarette. She breathed in, and the tip glowed a bright orange red; then she leaned back in her seat. Smoke bloomed out into the air. Was she doing it to spite him? Harlan tried to decide whether he’d feel more ridiculous pulling out his own pack of cigarettes and asking for a light, or continuing to sit there, pouting and fighting the urge to. Grace put a hand on the dash and leaned forward to look at Colton. “Skiing in Aspen?” “No,” Colton shivered and put a hand to the top of his jacket. “No.” “Let me guess.” She squinted, trying to size him up. “You’re going to see an old friend.” Colton paused in the middle of bringing his cigarette to his mouth. He turned toward Grace and then put his hand with the cigarette back down in his lap. “How’d you know that?”
“I’m insightful,” said Grace. “And you’re surprising her? It’s a her, isn’t it?” “Are you two having fun with me?” Colton looked to Harlan. “Should I smile? Am I on Candid Camera?” “Am I right?” asked Grace. “Yes,” he said, amused. “I didn’t mention that to neither one of you.” He thought for a moment, still amazed. “I’m surprising her, yeah.” “That’s romantic,” said Grace. “We’ll see. But wait—huh—that’s really something.” “It was an honest-to-god guess,” said Grace. “She does this to everyone,” said Harlan. “Sees right through ’em.” “I could tell you were nervous, not like you were nervous around us, but that you were thinking about where we were taking you. You wanted to get out when I got the seat belt off of you—didn’t you? I could tell you just needed someone to tell you to stay.” “Yeah, still, how’d you get all that from me being a little jumpy? I was hiding it pretty good,” said Colton. Grace cracked her window and let her cigarette butt get sucked out into the wind. “So, what’s she like?” Colton handed her his cigarette butt, and Grace took it and let it out the window the same way. “Oh. I don’t know. I don’t even know if she’s still in Aspen, but I saw on the map how close I was, and I figured I’m in the area, I might as well knock on her door and see if she’s there.” “What if she has a boyfriend?” asked Harlan. Colton didn’t respond, and Grace looked over at Harlan like she couldn’t believe he’d say something like that. “So you’re just passing through, then? Where’s the final destination?” asked Harlan, trying to change the subject. “Oh, well, California maybe,” said Colton. “That’s a place that people go.”
After coming up through the canyon, the road leveled off. It seemed, at this higher elevation, the storm had stalled against the peaks and was proceeding to dump all of its contents out into this valley. Harlan flipped on his high beams, but the extra light only made things worse: the brightness reflected off all the moisture in the air and back at their windshield. They’d just have to take it slow. He could only see a little ways down the road and a little ways off into the surrounding pines, but it was good enough to press on.
It was at some time during this stretch that Colton folded his arms, put his head back on the rear window, and fell asleep between the two of them. They came to a fork in the road where there was a sign for Leadville. Grace sat up and pointed for Harlan to go the other way, 82 West. They went by a few dark houses and then a dumpy motel with not a single car parked out front, the neon blue VACANCY effulgent through the snow. Harlan flipped on the scanner hoping to hear something about the road conditions now that they were in a slightly more populated area. Grace sat up and looked across at him like she was worried about waking Colton but didn’t say anything. Colton continued to sleep, undisturbed by the radio sounds. The scanner searched as they climbed a long, broad hill and came to Twin Lakes. The wind was coming across the body of water, and the snow momentarily let up enough so that they could see the mountains they were going to have to pass through up ahead, serrated and crowded together, rising up like teeth. “All units, code five; all units, code five,” came a noisy voice from the radio. “Twelve, code five, go ahead,” said another voice. “Suspect party, showing physical as white male, five-ten, one-eighty, dirty blond and blue, break—” “Go ahead.” “Out of Monte Vista. Breaking and entering. Suspect is thought to be hitchhiking north.” “Go ahead.” “Last seen wearing a green army jacket and a backpack.” “Copy. Confirm.” Harlan shut the scanner off, and they sat there listening to Colton gently snore for a few moments. “There’s probably at least a hundred hitchhikers out on the road in Colorado tonight,” whispered Grace. “With an army coat, blue eyes, and a backpack?” The road left the side of the lake and began to switchback up the steep mountainside of pines. “He was probably just trying to find someplace to sleep. Can’t blame him for not wanting to freeze to death,” she said. “I know it.” “We can’t exactly hit the brakes and ask him to get out on the side of the road.” “Yeah,” said Harlan. He was quiet for a little while. “You didn’t even want to give him a ride in the first place.” “What does that mean?” Grace raised her voice.
Colton abruptly sat up and unfolded his arms. “I was just going to jump in the shower.. . ” He searched the cab left and right, trying to figure out where he was. Neither Harlan nor Grace explained that he’d dozed off but simply stared ahead and let Colton collect himself. Visibility got worse as they climbed up toward the mountain pass, and it became all but impossible to figure out where they were on the greater mountainside. Their headlights reached only about fifty yards up ahead before hitting what seemed like a solid wall of white. All three of them were looking out the windshield, paying close attention to what little they could see of the road, but no one spoke up about the worsening conditions. Harlan was just going to come out and say it; the matter of Colton having a warrant out for his arrest aside, the road was getting too dangerous for them to continue. Colton was sitting forward in his seat. “What’s that?” asked Grace, referring to the back of Colton’s jacket. “First Battalion Ninth Marines,” said Colton. “The battalion I served in Vietnam; it had the highest casualty rate.” “In the whole war?” asked Grace. “In the history of the marines,” said Colton. “Ninety-three percent.” “Oh, my God, that’s more than nine out of ten,” said Grace. “I couldn’t have said it better myself,” said Colton. “I’m surprised he didn’t ask me about it.” Colton looked to Harlan. “Oh, yeah, I’m trying to keep my eyes on the road here,” said Harlan. “That’s all anybody I meet who’s been in the service ever wants to talk about.” Harlan turned on the windshield wipers. Big fat snowflakes smacked the glass, making it hard to see. “On my last cruise, I told myself if I made it home, I’d never set foot in mountains again,” said Colton. “Look at us now. I guess these mountains are different though.” “Yeah,” said Harlan, seeing this as his opportunity to come clean. “I was a reporter over there.” “Oh,” said Colton. He looked ahead as if he were thinking about everything that the two of them had said to each other over the course of meeting, trying to remember where the idea of Harlan being a marine had come from. “Who with?” “Mostly marines,” said Harlan. “You weren’t with them,” said Colton. “Who were you a reporter with?” “The El Paso Times,” said Harlan. Colton coughed, and it sounded like something hard that had been clogged in his throat had dislodged. “The El Paso Times?” he asked, rais-
ing his voice and still clearing his throat. “You went all the way over there to Vietnam for the readers of El Paso?” “Yeah, well, I freelanced a bit too.” Colton laughed. “Oh, you freelanced too?” “I’m sorry,” said Harlan. “I should have mentioned I was a reporter right off the bat. I didn’t mean for you to assume... ” “What? That you were a marine? I could see from the start that that was one thing that you surely were not.” “Well, just from the way you put it before, I didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.” “No, I didn’t have anything against reporters over there. Some of my buddies did, of course. Called boys like you traitorous cowards, but not me. I personally think it takes all kinds. Leave the dirty work for the men. Somebody had to write the story about what was going on over there, and it should be a sensitive type. I bet you were good at it. You’re the type of boy we could use more of.” “Boy?” asked Harlan. “That’s right.” “You’re riding in my truck,” said Harlan. “Don’t call me boy.” His voice quivered. “Okeydoke,” said Colton, somewhat delighted by getting a rise out of Harlan. “I won’t call you boy, if it bothers you so much. I’m sorry,” he said very softly. “See. Sensitive.” “Hey,” said Grace. “That’s enough.” She sat up in her seat. “Harlan, slow down.” Harlan realized that his whole body was tensed up, and his hands were clinching the steering wheel. Staring wide-eyed into the whiteout, he’d fallen into an imagined argument in his head, defending the role of the press in the war and forgetting for a moment that he was driving. And now he was looking out at the opaque, textureless world flying toward him, and his brain was unable to find any certainties, the centerline, and the guardrails to orient the truck’s position on the road. He lurched, feeling like they were about to fly off a cliff. He took his foot off the gas and braked, leaning over the steering wheel, finally making out a guardrail and then a faint line of trees to confirm the truck’s relative position and motion still safe on the road. But he didn’t put his foot back on the gas. He let the steep pitch of the gradient absorb their momentum, and Colton and Grace started looking around wondering what gave out. Harlan flipped on the emergency lights and pulled over on what little shoulder there was that wasn’t taken up by snow.
“This isn’t safe,” he said. He sat with his hands on the wheel, waiting for their reactions. “I’m sorry, Colton. We shouldn’t have given you a ride.” “Wait, no. Where’s he supposed to go?” asked Grace. “It isn’t safe. I don’t know. We need to turn around,” said Harlan. “Do what you have to do,” said Colton. Harlan started a three-point turn. “No, Harlan, we need to get over this mountain so we can drop Colton in Aspen.” Harlan didn’t respond. He cut the wheel and backed up and put it into drive and started down the mountain. “I can’t believe you,” said Grace quietly, as if she was too angry to speak louder. “He’ll be in no worse situation than he was when we found him,” said Harlan, talking as if Colton wasn’t sitting next to him. “We drove him into a blizzard,” said Grace. “So you agree that the conditions are unsafe,” said Harlan. “It’s all right,” said Colton, uncomfortable in between the two having it out. “You got me closer to where I was trying to get to.” “See,” said Harlan. “You’re just going to hang him out to dry? Just because you got into a stupid argument? You’re a liar,” said Grace. “You don’t keep your word.” “What promise did I make?”
The way down seemed to take longer than the way up, and the weather conditions didn’t improve with the descent like Harlan had thought they might. By the time the road leveled off and they returned to the curve around Twin Lakes, the dramatic view of the mountains behind the lake and the lake itself had vanished behind a wall of snowfall. “There’s a rest stop here at the lake, or there’s where 82 hits 24 a little ways down the road,” said Harlan. “Right here is fine,” said Colton. Harlan turned into the rest stop, little more than a long parking lot running parallel to the edge of the lake. It was empty and unplowed, with at least a foot of snow all the way down to the little building that housed the restrooms, where at least Colton could maybe get out of the cold. The last thing Harlan wanted to do was get stuck trying to get across this one-hundred-yard stretch, but letting Colton out in front of the little rest stop building seemed to be something of a compromise. The fuzzy streetlight above the entrance to the building looked like a halo through the snowy air. They slowly rolled into the parking lot, Harlan testing the truck’s traction by tapping the gas, feeling the steer-
ing, and listening to the crunching sound of the tires compacting the snow. He pushed down on the accelerator and the truck powered forward, easily cutting through the snow, which seemed light and powdery, as far as Harlan could tell through the feel of his truck. They pulled up to the front of the building, and Harlan saw a snowdrift piled up against the entrance, like no one had come in or out in some time. The truck hadn’t come to a stop yet, and Grace flipped on the ceiling light and looked over at Harlan, her hair a thick mess around her frightened face. “Just a minute. Oh, no,” she said, like she had realized that she had forgotten her purse back at the diner. “What?” asked Harlan. But he already knew. “I’m all wet down there,” said Grace. “Jesus Christ,” said Colton, the most alarmed of the three. “You’re not saying what I think you’re saying, are you?” Grace lifted her waistband and tilted her head trying to see past her big belly down into her maternal pants. “Yeah, I think this is it,” she said. “I’ve been feeling funny the whole drive.” “What? Why didn’t you say something?” asked Harlan. “Don’t yell at me. I’ve never done this before.” “Okay, okay, let’s not panic here Goddammit,” said Colton. “Let’s think.” The outburst silenced Harlan and Grace, and they looked to Colton for his plan. “Let me out,” he said. “No,” said Grace. “You’re coming to the hospital with us.” “Where’s the nearest hospital?” asked Harlan. “There’s one in Aspen, then there’s one in Leadville,” said Grace. “Leadville it is.” Harlan went to put it in drive. “Coming to the hospital with you?” The idea seemed to genuinely terrify Colton. “No. No way. I can’t be around a hospital. Look at me. I’m a walking, talking curse.” Harlan didn’t listen. He threw it into drive and came down on the accelerator, and the engine revved, but they didn’t move. “Son of a bitch.” He gave it more gas, turned the wheel this way and that way, and then threw it in reverse, but the wheels just slipped and spun. “See, this is exactly what I mean,” said Colton. “This has nothing to do with you,” said Grace. “It’s just bad luck.” “Same difference,” said Colton. “I’m going to call an ambulance.” Harlan picked up the receiver and turned the radio up to its limit. “Break, emergency.” “Certain sins can be forgiven in this age, but others only in the age to come,” said Colton. There was a moment of pause. “What’s that?” asked Harlan. “The Bible,” said Colton.