Wordcarpenter Books
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A short story

  by Steven Carmel

He knew it would get bad. All the signs were there. Rain fell in the darkness at a violent angle, the wind mean and hissing, the road potholed and winding. The drone of the windshield wipers knocked at his ear drums in the roar of the engine, the buzz of the cracked and lined road resonating down his hands getting him in the gut. He drove at top speed due east to the swing bridge where he would leave the safety of the island for the Trans-Canada Highway. He that calm of knowing a place, for him a stumbled-upon culture that had become his home base - his own house where he could keep his stuff. Tumbleweed had travelled the roads - that had no stoplights - around lakes and along shores, past barns decrepit and defiant against the west winds, pavement worn from angled descents and dangerous turns, that playground of Manitoulin Island where you never have to stop. But the morning darkness and slashing rain had transformed the pristine beauty of this vehicle utopia, the winds pushing his Jeep to the shoulder at every chance. The bad karma of the day was evident by the headlights in his mirror, a tailgater restless and rude. But it was the danger that angered him - his visibility already hindered from the wet spot right in front of his line of sight where his worn windshield wipers couldn't reach. The pick-up truck's headlights reflected in his three mirrors, the lights only a few feet from his bumper. At six o'clock in the morning with no traffic, they were the only two vehicles for miles. So with one hand on the wheel, Tumbleweed manoeuvred his mirrors to cut the glare, his tippy Jeep on the uneven roads being pushed around like a toy, and focused on the center line keeping his cool and speed, worried more about the falling temperature, the rain hitting his hood getting thicker.

When he finally arrived in Little Current at the bridge, the Ford finally blew past him, illegal and unnecessary. And then, just fifty feet in front of him, it parked at the water treatment plant, the guy getting out of his truck with the keys in his hand, hunched over, sleepily approached the door. Tumbleweed couldn't help himself: he lowered his window on the passenger side and yelled:

"That's just plain bad driving man! Bad driving!" It felt good because in the quiet of the morning he knew the guy heard him. His voice firm and understated, a detectable reverence in his tone.

"All tailgaters should be shot," he said aloud, then he shook his head when he thought how those words would make a great bumper-sticker.

The raindrops had graduated to watery snow that splatted against the windshield, the crosswinds adding velocity to impact. After crossing the swing bridge and the Goat Island causeway the trees cut down the wind, the smoothness of the new road now a pleasure to drive, dark into the heart of wilderness and mountains, the lines crisp and no traffic. Tumbleweed soon found his groove and pondered his life events leading up to his impending job interview. Yes, he could see the flow chart of his journey: the sign posts that lined his life path, defined by life-changing events that occurred casually and unexpectedly on some unassuming day; events that Tumbleweed still relived in his mind at night and in the forest on long hikes with his dog. They were still somehow kept fresh and untainted in his mind - he could still feel the emotions, tart and sharp, bitter and sweet. Being an empath, Tumbleweed connected with his past events with more hue and intimacy, his emotional body forever fueling the fire of pain and joy and regret, his internal retellings growing more speculative and imaginative from the original truth of the event - a solipsistic slipping away that yielded more fruit from the same event. Like a cow chewing its cud, Tumbleweed revelled in reliving his past, talking to himself in an animated voice, perhaps a mild embodiment of Tourette's. "But..." His thoughts again took him away on another past event that marked a change in his life's course, an experience that molded and solidified his world view and corrected his weaknesses. Tumbleweed would often be reminded of other times in his life and run off on long tangents, one foot still on the original thread, yet going deeper into his past, playing on the theme of the original event. These were the gravy moments, when the cud suddenly tasted richer - a rhythm of poetry that rang true in an ancient heart. But he ran with it, even as the snow pelted his Jeep as he drove deeper into the La Cloche mountain range.

Firmly he gripped the steering wheel as the road carved through the mountains, each corner taken with care, the bedrock naked liked jagged meteors. In the rising sun granite bedrock shone had a fresh layer of icing, the roads becoming slower, a frozen water slick taking shape. Being the first vehicle, his front tires hit the level plain of unfrozen ice threatening the front wheels with hydroplaning. But he had driven this road many times. He focused on the dip just before the apex at Willisville where the descent curved towards a steep ascent with a tricky angle. When he reached the Willisville ascent a pack of oncoming vehicles sped past on their front tires, stretched to the limit, holding the line and trusting him not to cut the turn to close, his visibility for a few seconds blinded by the slushy splat against this windshield. But past the Willisville Mountain Tumbleweed could cruise into Espanola and join the main artery to Sudbury and then south to Toronto, where he was confident he would get the job - his dream job. He sensed this could be one of those life-changing events when there was a door somewhat ajar, open enough to warrant interest and effort, the potential yield only sniffed at from speculation tainted by hope. The thought of this new job in the big city threw his imagination into realms of pure joy, which took him further away from the immediacy and demands of driving.

He sighed loudly. His windshield wipers just couldn't solve the wet patch on the glass in front of him so he stretched his neck to the side where his view was clear. For a moment he saw his shorn head, his haircut evidence of his momentary zeal a few days before when preparing for his interview. Long hair wasn't corporate he had said to himself. But he didn't want to get what he called the "little boy cut:" the same simple cut of short on the sides and floppy on the top he had when as a youth. That night his hair was thick and oily from wearing his toque in the house, the winter cold chilling his old country house. He had cut off his beard weeks before to grow his mustache for November Cancer Research, so now he looked too much like a hippie with his long hair but he liked his moustache. And in his mind the best way to wear a mustache is too expose the forehead completely. Something about that gave more space to the symmetry of where the mustache sat in proportion to his face. And since his hair grew too thick to slick it back shaving his head was the best option. Then he thought of his shears. And that was the end of his internal discussion: he plugged them in and shaved his head. But to Tumbleweed it was the most logical choice. Right afterwards he had a self-discussion as to whether he had been compulsive or not but he couldn't help himself always coming back to his logic, which was sound. He would go to the job interview very clean cut. He scrubbed his face and washed his scalp and rubbed moisturizer on it. When he did this he realized that it was the first time in 48 years the skin on his head had experienced skin cream. Immediately his scalp started to itch. He scratched and then scratched some more, his fingernails scooping old dermis off in a jubilee of scraping and scratching. He watched TV and scratched and rubbed until his entire scalped purred, as if radiating heat but cooled by a lingering breeze, the skin breathing for the first time. He washed his head again and repeated. This time his scalp sang with glee. That's when everything changed. Not only did the skin on top of his head rejuvenate, all his skin shined. And being such a keen investigator in these things he knew exposing his naked head to the sun would be the final ingredient needed to complete his masterpiece. He had to get this job in Toronto so he nurtured his appearance to its full potential.

But the three-week old mustache and the two millimetre haircut looked way too severe, too military. With his cheekbones and wrinkles and assorted scars, he looked too powerful. He tried it for a few days but it was too much. People were afraid of him. So that left the final option: shaving his mustache. Fine. So with the virgin white skin tanned and smooth and healthy, he finally decided to shave his mustache the day before the interview. Last night. The only thing was that he had a slight pimple on his upper lip and he couldn't subject it to a sharp razor. Not only that, as one of his principles he never cut the hair off his upper lip with a metal blade. He had once cut his lip with a blade and the pain had stayed with him. It was one of those moments Tumbleweed relived. This was the primary reason he had worn a goatee for the last twenty years. Or a beard. So for his job interview he couldn't muster enough to convince himself to compromise his principle and shave his upper lip normally. He took his shears and cut it off. He went over the lip thoroughly but it left the two millimeters of hair. At first it didn't seem like much but because his face was shaved with a razor there was a noticeable contrast. When he saw himself in the mirror he was struck by a thought: he looked like Heinrich Himmler. The uber-Nazi. It sent Tumbleweed into a fervor. "I have to shave it man," he said aloud, as he drove down the north side of the La Cloche Mountains, but he didn't. He couldn't take a razor blade to his upper lip.

So this was the result.

Tumbleweed was making good time. The sun was rising but the temperature was dropping, the storm worse on the outskirts of town. Then, just as he geared down to the city limits the roads turned white. The accumulation had reached the point of sustainability; the tundra was taken, the vehicle now at a disadvantage. He had a strict schedule to follow in order to arrive two hours before the interview, his laptop in the ‘sleep' mode with a half-dozen windows open of the company's website. All prepared. He would change into his suit in his Jeep and he would park in front of his sister's house near the subway. He had it all mapped out.

He snagged an Egg McMuffin and a coffee at the drive through and filled up with gas before turning onto the Trans-Canada Highway. Now nearing eight o'clock, he crossed the bridge and hit the highway, finding space in front of him and only one car behind him. He sped up and his back wheels spun, the Jeep momentarily swerving, his stomach tensing. The snow was thick on the highway, the lack of traffic still not able to pound the snow into slush. Tumbleweed drove just below the speed limit being careful on the wheel.

"This is too..." He couldn't find the words. "It's too..." He back wheels spun a bit more. "What am I supposed to?" "Man!" He suddenly feared that the two tires he just changed might be out of alignment. He remembered how the raised white lettering of the Goodyear logo faced the inside of the Jeep instead of outside. And then he remembered that there was a new apprentice at his mechanic's garage and how it was possible he had put the tires on backwards. For moment he froze. He looked in his rear-view mirror and for a moment relieved to see the polite space the car behind him was giving him. Then it happened again: he felt his backend slide. Just slightly but it was there. The snow was pushing his Jeep up.

"How am I?" He commenced rapid calculations, the time lost from the storm. He glanced at his speedometer: 70km/h. "How can I get...?" When the road opened to two lanes he kept right where the snow was thick as the road became steep as it curved past exposed granite bedrock.

"This is crazy!" he yelled to himself. He craved a swig of his hot coffee but couldn't afford to take his eye off the road. "Gentle. Gentle." For a moment he thought he was hydroplaning. He looked behind him and the car was at the same distance. The road curved and climbed, his Jeep plowing through four inches of snow. Then he felt it in his ass first: the Jeep slowly turning on its own, skimming on top of the snow, the sounds suddenly crisp and time slowing down. He gripped the steering wheel and pushed his lower back deep into his bucket seat, leaned forward to feel the pull of his seatbelt, straightened his neck and shoulders and then watched in amazement as he slid and turned across the passing lane and then crossed the center line into oncoming traffic. The turn accelerated the Jeep as the backend spun around, for a split second drifting completely sideways across oncoming traffic. He saw the wall of rock at the side of the road out of the corner of his eye, just past the deep ditch beside the shoulder. The Jeep whipped around so that Tumbleweed was going backwards as the Jeep hit the shoulder where he flew in the air, landing squarely on all four tires. It felt like it bounced into a fallen tree trunk. The impact threw Tumbleweed directly back into his seat perfectly square with the angle of the blasted vertical granite wall of rock. The Jeep was motionless and the engine revved and sputtered out. Stuck.

"I totalled my car." He wasn't even aware he had said it, a full Tourette's moment.

His hands stayed on the steering wheel as he looked around. Above him were his tracks through the snow, illustrating his tire ballet. He kept staring at the tracks because he couldn't figure them out. Ten feet above him was one main track showing precisely the edges of one set of tires, and only a bit of evidence of another track but only slightly, as if the front wheels had swept over the tracks left by the back wheels. He couldn't figure it out.

A car stopped and a man yelled through from his window: "Are you all right?" He nodded. "Are you okay?" said the woman driver. Tumbleweed opened his door and jumped into the ditch, snow covered rocks and shrubs. He was able to jump across the deep part and climb to the steep shoulder.

"Yes. I'm okay." He shook his head as if he had merely been a witness to the crash - as if he hadn't been involved. He looked at it as an outsider. For a moment the sounds around him were muted by the falling snow. "Amazing."

"We were behind you. You're so lucky. You went all the way across the road. We watched you. We thought you were going to hit that rock." He pointed to jagged edges of granite that stuck out from the blasted rock. Tumbleweed couldn't organize his thoughts. Seeing his Jeep wedged between rocks it occurred to him he might have seriously injured his vehicle.

"Are you all right?" The woman looked concerned. Tumbleweed nodded.

"Tow trucks? Do you know of a tow truck?" The words were jumbled, adrenaline evident in his voice.

"Yes honey. Let me called them on my phone." The passenger opened his door and stood with Tumbleweed on the shoulder's edge.

"You're so lucky." He looked closely at Tumbleweed, his eyes darting around from behind his spectacles, his favorite Nepalese toque covering his head. The woman called to him, handing Tumbleweed her mobile phone. "There. Talk to him." Tumbleweed told him whee he was and that he was in a ditch. 

"Have you called the police yet?" He swallowed, his forehead chilling.

"Uh, no. I called you first."

"Your phone says you're in Whitefish Falls." Tumbleweed looked at the woman.

"I'm using the phone of someone who has stopped to help me."

"I'll be there in 20 minutes."

Another car stopped.

"Are you okay?" Tumbleweed waved and nodded. "Yep. I'm okay."

The guy shook his head. "Amazing."

When he handed the woman back her phone he made an effort to look her in the eye and thank her. And then he patted the passenger on the shoulder and said another thank you. Then he climbed into the Jeep and turned on the engine. "The moment of truth," he said. Slowly it turned over and caught with a healthy roar; he closed his eyes and bowed his head, his mind swirling with the possible catastrophe. The police. If the tow truck came before a cop stopped he would try his best to convince him they didn't need to call the cops. Tumbleweed spent his time wondering how he was going to do this. A bribe? What words exactly should he use? What verb?

He did all this to avoid facing his biggest fear: he didn't think he had insurance. Since the vehicle was in his mother's name - so he could get cheaper insurance rates due to his ‘complicated' driving record. The words "five-thousand-dollar-fine" kept running through his mind. And what about the interview?

"I can't drive in this!"

But his fear was not only of the police and the possible fine but the cost of losing his Jeep. He was convinced the backend had to be smashed in. He might be euchred. "Possible euchre," he said. This was his biggest fear. It might cost him thousands. He would have to sell his house. "This could be it," he said. He should have stayed at home.

Just as he didn't want to face this possible catastrophe he at first didn't acknowledge the flashing blue and red lights in his periphery, but when the lights grew sharper he forced himself to look at the police cruiser from his Jeep in the ditch. It was inevitable. It's time to face my maker. Better to take the initiative and do this properly. He stepped out of the Jeep and with as much coordination as he could muster, he climbed the shoulder where the officer met him.


The cop looked closely at Tumbleweed. "Are you hurt?"

"No I'm okay." He turned to his Jeep. "I just slid across the road. I wasn't even going that fast." He knew this was the moment of truth. Looking at the cop in the eye - and he was waiting for it. The officer studied Tumbleweed and spoke to him with complete attention. Tumbleweed noted the cop's shaved head. Perfect, he thought. He must use a razor. Nice one man. Then he removed his toque.

"I called a tow truck." He nodded at Tumbleweed and then looked at the Jeep.

"Do you think she'll run?"

"Yeah well that's the question." Two bald-headed white guys stood on the shoulder in the snow storm, both aware of the peculiar feeling of the snow melting on a bald scalp.

"Have you checked the back?" He saw the cop glance at the shadow of mustache.

"Not really. The engine runs." Cars passed slowly watching the unusual sight, the Jeep neatly tucked between two granite outcroppings. "I hope it's all right man." The cop nodded. And then he felt it. In that moment a bridge had been built between them.

"Okay let me get your papers so I can get that over with before the tow gets here." Tumbleweed felt a rumbling in his stomach. Time to confront fate. Straightening his posture and taking a moment to enjoy and savor his shaved head, Tumbleweed retrieved his papers and handed them to the officer.

"You can wait in the car with me if you want. It might be warmer." Too claustrophobic. Major potential downside.

"I think I'll just hang in mine. It's warm enough." Then the cop did it. He let his eyes check out Tumbleweed's cranium. He wasn't sure but he thought the cop might have given him a "nice one" nod.

They each went to their respective vehicles. Tumbleweed cranked the heater and drank his coffee, aware that his secret was about to be exposed. His imagination ran with all that could happen, all the possible scenarios - the worst being handcuffed and having the Jeep impounded. And then the tow truck showed up. Massive truck, the driver very professional. Crisp mustache. Big man. Clear voice. Instructions were very clear.

"Turn the steering wheel all the way to the right and hold it. You have to hold it or your bumper will tear off. I'm telling you now because it won't be my fault when it happens." Serious eye contact.

"I'll hold it man." It took ten minutes to haul it up, incrementally with the steel cord, the Jeep almost vertical at one point. The tow truck driver was right: holding the steering wheel was tough. The entire weight balanced on the front left tire for a few minutes.

Just as they were finishing the cop returned. Every nerve in Tumbleweed's person went on high alert.

"I went through your paperwork and everything's okay. Here you are. You can take your papers back." He handed Tumbleweed his licence and registration and ownership. For the briefest of moments he almost confessed to the cop that he was driving his mother's vehicle and was uninsured. He regarded it as good manners.

"Thank you. Ah-"

"And here is the incident number, there." He pointed at the number on the piece of paper in his hand. "And this is my name and badge number. You don't have to contact your insurance if you don't want to." Tumbleweed considered asking the policeman how that could be so but instead he remained silent. To help prevent his potential confession Tumbleweed peeked at the exceptional landscaping of Constable Crawford's cranium. Very close shave.

"Okay." Eye contact. "Thank you." In the silence Tumbleweed again wavered, dueling within himself as to the undisputed nobility of such an act and yet also the undeniable foolishness of such an act. Altruistic selflessness can be hazardous.

Snowflakes melted on the bald heads, the cop an old pro at savoring the odd sensation. He stepped back from Tumbleweed respectfully, his hands on his hips, a slight grin with sober eyes, uniform flawless. Definitely flossed before work. But Tumbleweed respected that. He had once found work that he respected to that degree. For the cop it was a good look: crisp, fit, sharp and efficient - and fair. Tumbleweed knew that if he had his beard and long hair this moment would never have been - this unsaid mutual respect of self-presentation, a clear statement of hygiene and functionality; a statement of pride in one's natural look like the baby we all once were - a Buddhist monk wearing civilian clothes. But with boots. Always the boots.

And with Tumbleweed's Blundstones, his boots completed the lid.

Tumbleweed left the cop with a wave before he pulled out onto the highway and drove a coffee shop where he agreed to meet the tow truck driver. He paid him in cash and gave him a $20 tip.

"Where are you headed?"

"I have a job interview in Toronto."

"So you weren't driving west? Oh shit."

"I slid across. Yeah, I was going east." He shook his head. Again there was a new respect when he nodded, the look with the unmistakable shadow of a mustache having a major impact on how others treated him. No problem dude. We take care of our own.

"Was it in four-wheel drive?" My four-wheel drive isn't working properly. The Jeep shakes at 80km.

"No. Maybe I should have?" The nod again from the driver.

"I don't think I'm going to go to Toronto. It'll be rough around Parry Sound. I'll have to reschedule."

"Supposed to clear at noon," he said.

That's three hours. "No. I'm not going to drive in this for another three hours. I think my alignment's off."

"Up to you." The rig pulled away. There, alone with the heater on and feeling numb, the storm blew around him and he couldn't get the chill out of his bones. No damage. There was no rejoicing at averting financial disaster. Instead Tumbleweed felt fear. His tires had to be off. Second-hand from his neighbor, the apprentice at the shop must have put them on wrong. He had been helpless for a moment, vulnerable to possible death. If a truck had been coming... Tumbleweed ruminated for a long time until he approached his home when he took refuge in his final thought of his journey: that his semi-broken four-wheel drive had been somehow fixed when fate's backend smashed into the ditch.



















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