Sitting in a stalled car during a blizzard did not enhance Jana’s sense of independence. She regarded herself in the rearview mirror. “This is so typical,” she said. “Just as I’m making my escape.” She could barely see ten yards in any direction.
Snowflakes the size of feathers swirled by the millions and then drifted crazily to earth, as if a pillow fight were taking place far above.
She calculated that she was about three miles off the interstate, which she had left by her own decision. She’d thought that moving somewhere would be better than staying on the parking lot that was I-25. Reports said a tractor-trailer had jackknifed miles ahead. Whatever had happened, the southbound traffic was stopped as far as Jana could see. She had pulled out the map and seen that the exit she’d just passed hooked up to a highway that could, given some connections, get her to eastbound I-40 eventually. So she’d nosed out of line and taken the shoulder back to the exit.
But state highways were not the first priority for snowplows, and, even loaded down with a large suitcase and boxes of books, the little Dodge had slid off the road, making a frightening clunk as its front axle hit something metal and immovable. In a few seconds’ time Jana was facing not the road but a sloping pasture, while on the radio Judy Collins broke into song—an a cappella version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
The car’s engine had died on impact, and the lone soprano voice rang out with sudden force into the silence.
Jana felt compelled to comment: “I hate holidays. My life would work just fine if it weren’t for holidays.”
She had just survived Thanksgiving with Dad and his wife. Until a few moments ago, she had been gratefully alone and headed across the country, toward Christmas. She wasn’t especially looking forward to Christmas either, but the threeday drive that stretched between the two holidays had become a reward of sorts, long miles to herself in the middle of a season that imposed upon her its lame music and impossible expectations.
Judy was singing plaintively for snow and mistletoe and “presents on the tree…” Jana shut off the radio and tried to restart the engine. It came to life, but the car wouldn’t budge backward or forward. Too much snow, or something major broken underneath.
She looked at her cell phone, which was fully charged, imagined Barbra answering the call back at Dad’s place.
Barbra’s face would come alive with concern as Jana described her situation. Barbra’s was not the face Jana wanted to imagine, so she called AAA instead. It didn’t matter, because the phone wasn’t getting a signal.
Well. She could be stuck here for hours. She wrapped her scarf around her head and pulled up the hood of her parka before stepping out into the storm. A brief examination of the car didn’t show her anything; it was in snow up to the floorboard.
After packing CDs and their player and her new ski sweater out of sight in the trunk, she locked up and headed back toward the interstate on foot.
Either she didn’t pass any houses, or the snowstorm prevented her from seeing them. The temperature had dropped, and panic began to wiggle into her thoughts as she trudged through drifts and fought the wind. Maybe I should have stayed with the car. It couldn’t be more than a few miles, could it? She did her best to look up through the veil of white. Ahead of her, light poles and power lines stitched a ragged seam toward the horizon. At least they could show her where the road was, and the road would get her somewhere.
She walked with her eyes nearly shut because the snow was blowing into her face. She couldn’t help but remember a more gentle snowfall she’d observed just a few days ago at Dad’s place. From her bedroom, which still smelled of fresh lumber, she’d looked through the large window that faced the woods and wished she could find more joy in the white-flocked pines.
She wished that the peacefulness of snow and the leisure of the holiday were taking place somewhere else, not in this fully loaded A-frame on six acres in the Rockies. It wasn’t home, just Dad’s place—and Barbra’s.
Barbra was nice enough, but she was one of those things that were not supposed to happen. Decent people found a way to live out their commitments. A considerate person did not reinvent himself at age forty-six by acquiring a new home, a new business, and a new wife and leaving the first life and wife behind. Supposedly, Dad did not leave Jana behind. He built her a nice room, after all.
Now all she wanted to do was get to Atlanta and Mom, and not even for the sake of Christmas. Mom had bigger concerns.
Her last letter had sounded hopeful—the chemo seemed to have done its job, and now there were radiation treatments to endure. But all this was good news.
Jana looked up again, away from her feet and into the icy wind. She wasn’t sure, but maybe that was a gas station or restaurant coming up. Large rectangular forms loomed in a cluster, and thin bluish lights rimmed what looked like the front of a building.
It was a small truck stop, toasty and well worn, its floor smeared with tracked-in mud and snow. Jana felt that she had walked into a movie from thirty years ago as she glanced along the snack bar at men in winter jumpsuits hovering over coffee and plates of meat loaf. One waitress, fortyish, worked behind the counter, and another, younger woman checked the tables and booths. A skinny man wearing a stocking cap sat at a separate counter near the door, where customers paid for gas or items from the few aisles of merchandise. Jana walked up to him.
“Could I use your phone to call triple A?”
Without looking up, he motioned to a pay phone next to the shelves of motor oil. She used her calling card and got through to some office and the voice of a flustered dispatcher.
When Jana described her situation, a second opinion was called for at the other end of the line. After a minute or two, the dispatcher picked up the phone again.
“Ma’am, we can get somebody out there in about four hours.”
“It’s a snowstorm, and all our trucks are out. You’re on the list, and we’ll get somebody there as soon as we can.”
She plopped into a booth at the window. The snow was coming down as thick as ever. She ordered coffee and chocolate cake and tried to consume them slowly. Four hours to sit here.
She opened the small backpack that served as a purse, hoping she’d brought something useful—and regretting that she’d left her music behind. Her magazines were in the car too. The paperback she’d been reading was the last thing she’d thrown into the backseat that morning. Her journal, at least, was at the bottom of the bag, always with her. She put it on the table, then decided to just clean out the bag. She had nothing better to do, right? An address book and week-by-week calendar, a little pack of tissue, cough drops, the ever-present bottle of ibuprofen, hand lotion, her makeup bag, and her billfold. The billfold bulged—not with money, unfortunately, but with receipts and various notes to herself. This could occupy a half-hour at least.
She emptied the billfold and spread out the mess in front of her.
In the midst of ATM receipts and folded-up Post-its, two ticket stubs lay before her. From the Ferris wheel and the Imax theater on Navy Pier back in Chicago. That glorious latesummer day, one of her last pleasant days with Gary.
“Oh, I thought I got rid of all this.” Their breakup was almost two months behind her now, but memories of Gary still flashed by with no warning. All it took was for a particular song to come on the radio or for Jana to pass a certain restaurant or for old ticket stubs to tumble out of hiding.
He would be the perfect companion for today’s troubles.
He’d be putting quarters in the old jukebox over there and telling her not to worry. Gary wasn’t the worrying sort. He wasn’t the plan-ahead sort either…or the long-term commitment sort. Gary was excellent in areas of having fun and spending too much money. In fact, Jana remembered that he still owed her forty dollars. She gulped coffee and glared at the snow.
Maybe she should swear off men of all kinds. They were just defective somehow—like cars that are built with some glitch and must be recalled. Gary was wonderful in some ways but not enough in the ways that counted most.
And Dad was acting out his midlife crisis in a most unoriginal way. He used a lot of group-therapy talk these days. (Why not? He’d met Barbra in Denver at some conference about reclaiming life’s positive energy.) With great intensity he’d explained to Jana about the past hurts and invalidated dreams that had crippled him until now. Yet he seemed to forget with ease that he had lived his entire life in Chicago and been married to Jana’s mother for twenty-two years.
Now Jana had lived as many years as her parents’ marriage had lasted. Her father would do what he wanted to do. And hardly a year after he left, a mammogram revealed a growth in Mom’s left breast, and the biopsy confirmed it as malignant. So she had moved to Atlanta to live with her older sister and get treatments at nearby Emory University Hospital. Meanwhile, Jana, who had graduated back in the spring, kept looking for a job but without much luck. She remained alone in the Chicago apartment she and Mom had shared after the divorce and before the cancer appeared.
So when both parents had left you, you’d broken up with your boyfriend, and you had no job or money, well of course the thing to do was go have a Happy Thanksgiving and then top that off with a Merry Christmas.
During the next three hours, an assortment of people gathered at the truck stop and slowly filled the tables and booths.
Jana heard phrases here and there, about “zero visibility” and “sheet of ice”—enough to assure her that she might just spend the rest of her life right here, an anonymous, carless young woman. After a while, the waitress came over and leaned down to speak quietly. “I’ve got a huge pot of chili. Would you like a bowl on the house?”
Jana didn’t know what to say.
“Hon, you’re gonna be here a while.”
“The roads are that bad?”
The waitress straightened up and nodded. She indicated some men at a nearby table. “When Harvey parks his rig to sit it out, you know it’s bad.” Her nametag read “Beverly.”
“Chili sounds good. Thanks.”
Beverly headed back toward the kitchen. The woman’s sudden kindness made Jana feel weepy. She swallowed the tears and told herself not to get emotional. She was just tired—that was all. She opened the journal and pulled out the Thanksgiving card Mom had sent from Atlanta. It was a rich gold foil with raised burnt-orange and crimson leaves gleaming on its surface. Inside, Mom had drawn little Christmas angels and holly branches next to the words “Can’t wait to have you here for Christmas! Love & prayers, Mom.”
Love & prayers. Jana touched one happy angel. Mom talked more about prayer these days. She made every next step with a prayer—that the treatments would work, that she wouldn’t throw up too much, that the insurance company wouldn’t make all this more difficult.
Opposite Mom’s handwriting was someone else’s. “Dear Mary Georgianna, It will be so good to see you! May the Lord bless your Thanksgiving. Love, Aunt Cheryl.”
Ah yes, for the duration of her Atlanta stay she would once again be Mary Georgianna. She’d gone by Jana since ninth grade, and Mom hadn’t called her by her full name in years.
But her southern relatives saw her so rarely that she remained in their minds sweet little Mary Georgianna.
I’m making a pilgrimage from New Age freaks to Holy Rollers. Aunt Cheryl’s reference to “the Lord” was not a mere holiday sentiment. Mom’s Atlanta relatives were very tight with “the Lord.” Jana wasn’t sure which would be more uncomfortable, seeing Mom sick or being evangelized by Aunt Cheryl.