Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Topography

R. L. Burkhead


The first flakes of the season fell two inches each hour as temperatures plummeted across the northern plains and into Middle Tennessee.

10:00 a.m. 30°F

Leaning back in the chair, head up, and trying not to blink, he squeezed the small bottle of eye drops until they started falling. The first few splashed on his forehead and right cheek, but a couple landed in his eye. He cleaned the liquid off his face with his right shirtsleeve and tossed the empty bottle in the wastepaper basket.

That’s good, he thought, and he rubbed the back of his neck with his left hand and continued to type on the keyboard with the other. Ten in the morning, and I’ve already got a headache from staring at this computer.

He stood up in his bathroom stall-like office on the fourth floor of the university’s library, looked away from the bright monitor, and slipped a small pack of salted sunflower seeds into his pants pocket.

“I need a break,” he said, and he opened the door, walked out into the fiction room’s long corridor, and moved toward the ceiling-to-floor windows. “Where did all this come from?”
Monster snowflakes fell like fat raindrops, and they must had been doing so for some time since the parking lot and its many cars were covered under a thick layer of the stuff. The once-naked tree limbs were draped in white, and he felt that the maples and oaks were inside an oil-based painting with colors of white and silver and opal.

Excellent, he thought—knowing what was waiting for him at his home over a county away: a Rubbermaid snow sled. For seasons, he had tormented the many adolescent boys in his hilly subdivision. With each snow, he would drag his sled to the top of the great hills and blast past kids who struggled along on trash can lids and rusty metal sleighs. I’m going to kick some serious junior high butt.

Then he watched as mini-vans and cars, as well as trucks and SUVs, filled the side streets that connected the university’s dorms, classrooms, and administration buildings.

“Crap!” he yelled, and he ran back to his stall.

With the door swung open behind him, he banged on his keyboard until his e-mail program opened, and he started typing a message to his boss: “Hi Dean: I live in a rural part of Wilson County. Skinny blacktop roads. Slow tractors and speeding teenagers. That sort of thing. If I have any hope of making it home to get tonight’s party ready in time, I’ve gotta go now. I’ll record today as a vacation day or something, but I gotta get out of here. I’ll be in touch via e-mail from home. Take care…”

He slipped his cell phone off his belt and punched his wife’s number in, receiving a loud tone with the message “Warning: Servicing Not Available!” on its small display.

Figures, he thought as he jammed the phone back on his belt and called his in-laws from his office phone.

“Hello,” the voice said.

“Hey Jack, it’s me. Have you heard from your daughter today?”

“Not since she dropped off the boy this morning.”

“Have you looked outside over the past couple of hours?”

“No. As soon as Noah got here, he fell asleep, and we went back to bed, too. I just got out of the shower.”

“Well, it’s snowing like a maniac, and I’m coming home early. Sort of glad. This will give me plenty of time to get things ready for tonight.”

“What did you decide?”

“Oh, I had a huge cookie made up. I put it on the counter this morning. She should see it first thing when she walks into the kitchen after work. I love it that their birthdays are on the same day. I called the pizza order in yesterday, and it should arrive about six o’clock. I got her the black pearl necklace, and on the way home, I’ll grab Noah’s present. I found him this huge bulldozer. It’s over a foot long. Better go, Jack. I need to get on the road.”

“Wait, her mom wants to talk to you.”

“Hey,” he said, turning off his monitor.

“We’ll be over between five and six,” she said. “Listen, I reached her college roommate after all, and she is planning on being there.”

“Great. I finished painting the spare room a couple days ago. So, if she wants to spend the night and visit with Hadley that will be perfect. See you soon.”

As his computer was shutting off, he put down the phone and turned on a small radio; and while he gathered his things, the forecaster forecasted: “An overnight low of 15. Morning clouds tomorrow. Some sunshine could help road surfaces a little, but not gonna see much improvement at all with high of 28. Temperatures plunge tomorrow night. Most of you will see single digits maybe down near zero at the Cumberland Plateau.”

10:15 a.m. 27°F

With each breath, the frosty air from his lungs traveled toward the front of his 1996 Ford Thunderbird and swirled when it hit the windshield. He shivered as he cranked the big V-8 and revved the engine. While the motor warmed, the radio played the school reports: “We want to update you on some closings. About every county is closed out there. Metro schools are closing early today, and they will be closed tomorrow, as well as those in Robertson, Cheatam, Williamson, Wilson, and Rutherford Counties.”

Gonna be some day, he thought as he joined the chain that stretched along campus and across town.

On a sunny day with a cooperative crowd, the construction at the Stones River Bridge was a twenty-minute experience, and he accepted that he’d be there longer this morning with the flakes tumbling across the front of his vehicle. As his car crawled down the congested stretch of Murfreesboro Road toward the bridge, his clutch foot was thankful for the automatic transmission, and he scanned through the radio stations, commercial after commercial.

They sure know when they have a captive audience, he thought. A man standing at the entrance to the bridge pulled and tugged a chain that extended four feet away and ended as a noose around a brown and black German shepherd’s neck. The man wore a military overcoat and navigated the crowd with a sign that identified him as a Gulf War veteran.

Continuing with the radio buttons, he paused when he heard the musical introduction used by the helicopter skycam traffic report: “Lots of volume and slow moving traffic. Interstate problems everywhere. Northbound 65 at Metro Center Boulevard, we have a crash there. Traffic’s backed up well past the 40 split at that location. Eastbound 24 at Whites Creek Pike, we have an accident. Southbound 65 at Harding Place, another crash. An injury collision also 40 eastbound at Old Hickory due to several jack-knifed tractor-trailers. Traffic’s at a standstill, and that’s due to the icy conditions.”

“Poor bastards,” he said. “Glad I’m not going into Nashville.”

11:15 a.m. 26°F

After clearing the bridge, he flowed with traffic out of town, but instead of following the others west along Murfreesboro Road, he merged with Interstate 840, by-passing Music City. The entrance ramp appeared slick as he followed it. Out of habit, he looked over his shoulder at the emptiness and blended with the falling snow, and he let his car slip into the archeology of the grooves made in the slow lane by his fellow travelers. He liked being on the interstate, and he allowed his automobile to reach 40 mph for the first time that morning. He rolled the window down halfway and turned on the heater, enjoying the feeling of the cool air on his face and the heat on his feet.

“When we get the roads cleared,” a voice said through the radio, “we will run our mega-plows. The five mega-plows are larger than normal plows and cannot be used until the snarl of traffic is relieved. In Middle Tennessee, the Department of Transportation has 222 salt trucks and 144 saltwater trucks working right now. They are equipped with 50,000 tons of salt and over 500,000 gallons of saltwater. We’re going to be fine.”

“Uh, huh,” he said, and he turned down the radio and looked at the vehicles all around him. Some were sitting alongside the road: they idled, waited, and pushed exhaust fumes into the air. Others were ditched—abandoned; and those vehicles appeared to him now as huge humps of snow.

When the semi-truck approached from the rear, he knew it was too late to do anything except look toward the passenger-side window. The roar of a speeding truck filled his car, and it was not alone. The vibration and hum entered through his window along with a combination of snow and ice and slush and dirt—all smacking him up side his head, jamming into his left ear and spilling into his lap, down his back, and onto the passenger seat. As the truck zoomed past and leapt forward into the ever-reducing visibility, it left a thick layer of sludge on the Ford’s windshield. He rolled up his window and put his wipers on high, revealing a Chevy, and he had to pump his breaks to prevent a collision.

Shit, he thought. Where did all these cars come from?

Wherever they came from, they were with him now: in front, passing alongside, and coming from behind.
After two country songs and a promotion on how to prevent hair loss, the announcer broke into the broadcast: “Metro police are telling us that if you have a non-injury accident, they will not be able to respond. Exchange insurance information. You’re on your own for the next few days, folks.”

This person’s killing me, he thought as he led his car into the passing lane. Thirty miles an hour is too slow for this highway. Alongside the Chevy, he saw a woman with an out of style haircut screaming into a cell phone, and he felt his back end wobble. He slowed and returned to the right lane, to the comfort zone of the grooves, thinking maybe thirty miles an hour is okay, after all.

Looking into his rear-view, he watched as others attempted to maneuver the passing lane, but their slipping and sliding forced them back into the right lane as well, and he heard a trucker on the radio say, “When it’s this bad and the tires start spinning, you gotta pull off. It’s gut instincts.”

“Sure,” he said, and he removed his cell phone from his belt, opened the top, and read the out-of-service message on the display, saying “whatever” while tossing the phone over his shoulder toward the back seat. Hadley, he thought, honey I hope you’re okay.

His daily trip along I-840 that took fifteen minutes was now tripled, and he put on his right turning signal a good mile before the Highway 109 cloverleaf exit appeared.

“The trick to getting up hills,” the voice on the radio said, “is to keep going, keep the momentum going.”

I’m so glad you told me that, he thought.

Even though he was in the turning lane for the exit, he left his blinker on in case someone behind wasn’t paying attention, and he determined that while the exit ramp speed was forty miles an hour, he should do a little extra—realizing that there was a lot of clover on this leaf, and his rear-wheel drive had no drive on this ice. He goosed the gas pedal and as he was to go into the turn, the woman who had been in front of him merged without looking and tapped her brakes: her four-wheel-drive vehicle crawled and scratched up and around the circle.

Swearing, he followed best he could, traveling too close to her out of fear of slowing down, and as they reached the tip top of the ramp, just before level ground, still on the incline, he watched as the lady came to a full stop, looked over her shoulder at the long stretch of snowy nothingness, punched her accelerator, entered the highway, and continued forward.

He was forced to stop behind her, and so was the import pickup behind him, the mini-van behind the pickup, the Corvette behind the mini-van, and so on and so forth, all the way to the bottom.

Then, he felt his Thunderbird slither back.

In reaction to his turning the steering wheel all the way from the left to the right and flooring the gas the entire time, the Ford promised momentum before continuing in the wrong direction, and as he was preparing to sign his snowy surrender papers, he remembered one last thing. With his right thumb, he pushed a small button on the gearshift between the two front bucket seats, and once more he jerked the wheel left and right and floored the gas pedal. This time, the overdrive was no longer enabled, and the car’s lower gears spun the back tires with a greater jerk. All of the gauges on the dashboard redlined, the car vibrated and shimmied forward, and he thought, I still have 12 more payments on this car. I can’t burn it up now.

He saw the drivers all standing outside their immobile vehicles, and he thought, It wasn’t my fault. I knew we should’ve kept going at the top. I swear.

12:22 p.m. 26°F

For many miles, he was alone.

He glided on the long, white, swooping curves through the countryside, and he became an expert in the curvature of the land and of the pain that ran throughout the deep muscles in the back of his neck. Relax, he thought, breathe, and he rotated his shoulders, helping the pain dissolve as it traveled the flat triangular muscles of his shoulders and upper back. Eventually, he approached the traffic, and each hill presented the same challenges: giving the car enough gas to climb the hill—preventing it from sliding backwards, and once at the top, slowing enough without putting the car into an all-out slide into the car in front.

Up ahead, a few cars pulled off the highway, and there she was: the lady from the interstate.

Hell no, he thought, and he punched the gas pedal. The Ford spun, but it moved forward, and with him in the on-coming traffic’s lane, he slipped and slid beyond her, savoring her dwindling image in the rear-view.

Before him, the highway’s intersection with Interstate 40 forged a huge arching monster.

For a dozen years, commerce had used the highway as an unofficial Nashville by-pass, pushing goods north and south even though the exit’s truck stop had long since closed.

With a glance, he guessed that he was screwed. He knew he had pushed the car and its bald tires far already, and this next stop might be the last.

The incline branched into four lanes, two each way, and those in front of him were packed, bumper-to-bumper all the way to the top of the hill where the interstate’s exit spliced into the highway. He shook his head and watched the scrambling motorists make sudden, abrupt moves. Reaching the back of the pile in the right lane, he pumped his breaks with quick stabs until his car paused, and he felt the Ford slide backwards until it stopped with the back tires on the edge of the road.

Frustrated faces squinted out of the frosty windows in the cars next to him, fellow travelers with their out-of-service cell phones clutched in their hands, and those same hands were white-knuckled when the cars ahead of theirs began to fishtail. Their raised eyebrows and constant shifting in their seats reminded him of his numb behind and the random, painful twinges that tickled up and down his right leg. He fiddled with the radio until he came upon an interview with a snowplow driver: “Hydraulics shut down. It won’t even crank,” the man said. “They got more trucks on the way. Everyone needs to sit around and have some fun. I’m glad you boys showed up because these people have been stopping and wanting to know why I’m sitting here and not pushing no snow. So, they’re getting upset. They need to bear with us a little while, and we’ll get ‘em took care of.”

He let the automobile in front of him go an extra car length toward the top before he hit the gas. The back of the Ford slid to the right, and he compensated with the steering wheel, taking the car out of overdrive at the same exact moment the lower gears inching the auto forward and up.

“Put it in second,” he heard a woman in a black limousine next to him yell at her driver. “Put the car in second gear. Do you hear me?”

He was relieved not to be traveling with that woman, and he looked in his rear-view to see the lady from the interstate about ten cars back.

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s a good place for you. Keep your butt back there.”

At the top of the hill, he looked to his right at the interstate entrance ramp that was now a semi-circle of steel as one eighteen-wheeler after another filled the ramp that swung and plunged. The drivers were standing around, drinking coffee and chatting, and he felt that they seemed to be in good spirits, realizing that no one was going to meet any deadlines today. The Dell computer factory was to his left, and all of the restaurants, gas stations, and liquor stores that sprung from the fields to prey on its shift workers were full to capacity. Amid the snow and the gridlock around him were many miserable people: cold, tired, frustrated, hungry. Some of the restaurants sent employees with hamburgers and cheeseburgers to those idling, and he screamed some sort of loud squall as he waved his hands out the window, his belly growling.

“All I have left are two hamburgers,” a kid said.

He told the boy he would take one, and he squirmed around the front seat, trying to pull some change out of his pocket.

“I thought they salted the roads this morning,” he heard one of the kids say to another.

“Doesn’t look like they salted much,” the other one said.

He handed three one-dollar bills out his window, the two exchanged what was in their hands, and he spent the next twenty minutes listening to bad radio and eating cold beef.

3:30 p.m. 22°F

Eventually, the highway intersected with Lebanon Road, the secondary route that flowed from the countryside, through suburbia, and into Nashville. While not as packed as Highway 109, this narrow road’s low shoulders demanded respect, too, and it was littered with abandoned vehicles in both directions. And so, he moved along toward home, wondering how best to reach his rural community: from the Mount Juliet side along Nonaville Road or from the other side, through Hermitage.

Definitely the Hermitage side, he thought. Longer trip, but less hills.

With time, he passed through Mount Juliet and drove beyond Nonaville Road. The first thing he noticed about The Peanut Jar toy store to his left was the large pink and blue electric words DOLLS, TOYS, GAMES, PUZZLES, INFANTS, and CRAFTS. They ran across the front of the store’s roof, and their lights reflected off the icy crust that entombed the store’s slogan located just under the block letters: “a warm & friendly place 2 play.”

The snow flowed from the roof and covered the wooden bench in front of the store, the newspaper stand next to the bench, the cobblestone sidewalk under it all, and the parking lot that extended to the road and to his car. His comfort speed of three miles per hour allowed him to gaze at the store. While the OPEN sign was turned off, he could see through the large windows at the people inside. Knowing that Noah’s yellow bulldozer was there forced him to stomp his breaks, and the back of his Ford swiveled until the car was sideways in the middle of the street. He let go of the pedal, and he felt his eyes open wide until he returned to a natural position. With the car bumping along in the snow, he thought, I’m sorry son. I’ll get you a birthday gift soon, promise.

“Shit,” he said as he saw the long string of domestics and imports that were stacked up in front of him. “A wreck. And, I forgot about this hill.”

He stopped his car behind the last in line and waited, wondering. As the cars moved, his wheels spun in place, and no combination of taking the car in and out of overdrive and turning the wheels would push it up the slick grade. Instead, he slipped the car in neutral and let it roll backwards and into a gas station.

“I’ve lived in Nashville eighteen years, and I ain't ever seen it like this,” a voice said through the radio.


“Shut up,” he said as he turned it off and backtrack his path in slow-moving inches.

Well, it’s not as if I have a choice, he thought. I don’t have enough money for a hotel room. Hadley’s at the hospital working, and Noah’s at his grandparents’ house. Wherever I’m headed this evening, I’m gonna be partying alone.

He tried with little success not to think of Nonaville Road with its inclines and arches, curves and culverts. He remembered the first time he saw that road a decade earlier during the days when he courted his wife, riding in her 1968 metallic black Mustang and gripping the side of the seat—wondering which breath-holding curve they would miss. And as his own Ford now approached that same road, he thought about the day they bought their home in the Horseshoe Cove subdivision, smack dab in the middle of it all.

“I’m doomed,” he said aloud as he felt the back of the Thunderbird slide during the turn onto that slim, slick road. “I know it.”

One curve after another, he felt as if he were inside the metric system: not sure of the distance, but knowing that he was making progress.

Maybe, he thought. I still have to make two bad curves and one big-ass hill.

He crept into the on-coming lane to pass a car that had stopped in front of him a few feet before the first curve. The first one navigated and the trees out of his line of sight, he saw the red glow from the many taillights, all the way to, around, and up the second turn and the hill.

It’s dark, he thought. When did it get dark?

To his right a group of boys stood in the front yard of an old house with white siding, and they threw snowballs at one another while two small children built a man of snow in their image. At his left, the parking lot of the Church of Christ, a small humble structure, was empty and glazed over with snow and ice. In front, the red taillights blinked on and off like a knot of tangled Christmas tree lights on the living room floor, and a few of the travelers were out of their cars—riding their charley horses around in no particular direction. And he watched as, one by one, the wanderers returned to their automobiles, spun around in the middle of the street, and drove toward and beyond him in a direction that they did not want to go, toward nowhere. As the last in the caravan approached, he rolled his window down, motioned, and leaned his head out the window.

A mini-van coasted to a stop, and he thought that he could almost see the passengers through its fogged windows. The figures moved about like ghostly specters, and the muffled music that escaped the metal was familiar, vaguely.

He watched the driver crank down the window, and then he asked, “An accident?”

The smell of tomato paste and hot cheese whooshed out and scratched at his nose, and his stomach rumbled; and he watched the images transform into earthly forms, the lyrics blend with guitar strings and piano keys.

“Nope,” a tired-looking woman said. “The hill’s too big. They’re telling everyone who doesn’t have four-wheel drive to turn around. Can’t make it.”

“Thanks.”

“Good luck,” she said.

Sitting alone in the darkness, he turned up the heat and flipped on the radio: “My lunchroom custodian went over to Gallatin Road to a store and got bread. Our lunch was late, but we had ham-and-cheese sandwiches, fruit, and milk. My teachers helped prepare that.” A second later, another voice spoke: “In all, sixty Metro school buses are either stranded or stuck with students on board. We have sixty-nine thousand students in our district schools.”


* * *


5:51 p.m. 22°F

Standing in the dark at the entrance of the Church of Christ driveway and holding his driver-side floor mat, he watched his breath float away, and he looked at the children across the street in time to see one of the larger boys hit one of the smaller ones in the back of the head with a hard snowball. The painful screams whistled through the trees, forcing the snow and ice to break away from the fragile limbs, and a violent wind blew through the darkness, rocking his car, pushing over one of the kids, and hurling snow dust into his face, which he was able to partially cover with the mat. While thanking the warmth of his scarf, a 4,220-pound Bobcat roared behind him, forcing him to swing around in one continuous involuntary movement.

“Hey pal,” the face from the cab said. “What are you doing?”

The face was aglow with lights radiating from the engine temp and fuel gauges, as well as from the voltmeter and warning indicators, and his huge white teeth grinned in the night with the Kubota engine revving.

As he was about to pull away his scarf and string together his best collection of swear words, the face in the cab asked, “Do you need help?”

“I live up there,” he said, and he pointed to the curve. “My subdivision’s at the top. I’m gonna ditch my car in the church parking lot and walk home, but I need to get deep enough in the drive so the back end won’t stick out. The snow’s so high that I thought I better clear some of it away before I plowed into it. I was going to use this to scoop the snow.”

He held up the mat.

“Well, hell,” the face said, teeth still showing. “I’ll clear a path.”

“I’d appreciate it.”

He stood, shivered, and watched as the face maneuvered the Bobcat and its huge black scoop up and down the church parking lot, clearing out a path all the way to the building. Searching for his keys, he found the sunflower seeds crammed in a pocket, and the taste of the salt forced his stomach to make a rumbling, throaty, menacing sound, like an angry hungry dog. And he remembered his son’s dog Luke, and his son, and his wife, and their birthdays, and his empty home. On the way out of the lot, the face asked, “How’s that?”

“Fantastic,” he said. “Hey, somebody told me the hill up there is too slippery to attempt. Before I ditch, do you mind taking a look?”

“Not a problem,” the face said as he sipped from a hot steaming cup, positioned the machine toward the hill, and chewed his way down the road, revealing bits and pieces of blacktop behind him.

He watched the face make the curve, and as the Bobcat swiveled and pointed upward, the scoop kneaded into the packed ice and snow, clearing a partial path.

“What the hell,” he said as he jumped into his car and slammed the door. “I can always slide down and ditch.”

He buckled in tight, not sure where he might end up, and as his car moved forward, he goosed the V-8 and glided around the second curve. Looking up with his bright lights on, he saw a patch of blacktop and when he reached that portion of the incline, he punched the mighty motor once for a moment, and he felt the automobile propel upward. Coasting once more, he crested the hill and saw the thick white ice shining all around him in the glow from a single light post, fueled by his homeowner association dues. The Bobcat and the face’s teeth were off to his left, and to the right, there it was: his subdivision. Before he could enjoy his victory, he realized that the entrance was filled with many junior high kids who were throwing snowballs and flopping about on thin circular sleds. Several older boys were on four-wheelers, pulling still more kids on sturdier sleds, and everyone paused and watched as the Ford turned toward them. Unwilling to give up and unable to control the car with any accuracy, he blasted his horn and hit the entrance.

“Move or die sons of bitches,” he yelled. The snowballers jumped to the side, and the four-wheelers took off, dragging the other kids behind. Slope after slope, deep into the subdivision, he chased them down and up two huge hills and beyond three culs-de-sac.

And with that, he whipped his car into his cul-de-sac’s entrance, giving the car plenty of gas and being thankful that his was the first house. The Ford moved toward his home with unsettling speed, and a flip of the steering wheel sent the car into the ditch by his brick mailbox.

Close enough, he thought as he turned the engine off, flatlining the gauges and needles, silencing the radio.

6:10 p.m. 20°F

He pushed his way across the driveway and through the front yard, his feet crunching into the deep snow. Triangles of light from the poles split the darkness every fifty yards or so through the subdivision, and neighboring children—mixed with the occasional parent—cast silhouettes. He balanced his weight and navigated the four slippery steps to his front door by grabbing the flagpole that extended from his porch, and he leaned his left shoulder on the front door and wiggled his numb digits until the correct key protruded.

The frozen moisture around the door’s edges crackled and broke as his hard tug opened it, and stale air pushed past him in the entrance.

Inside, he shut the door and let his jacket fall to the floor. Then his gloves and scarf. The room was dark, and he stood motionless for a moment, inhaling and exhaling. Neither hot nor warm, the temperature was at least more tolerable than the outside, and he appreciated the lack of a wind chill factor. A red light emitted from the front of the above-range microwave in the shape of “6:12” in blinks. He pushed his left shoe off first, and when the tip of his left sock pushed against the back of his right shoe, it slipped from the snow, leaving his toes wet and cold.

Perfect, he thought, and he yanked the shoe off, let it fall, and fumbled through the dark for the hall light. So much for the big shindig. One of the bulbs in the two light fixtures hanging from the hall ceiling popped and went out, but the other bulb’s sixty watts radiated enough energy for him to navigate to the kitchen and the phone.

Beep beep beep. Beep beep, beep beep.

“It’s me,” he said into the cordless phone while jacking up the heat via a small digital wall pad in the hallway and walking into the kitchen. “Have you heard from Hadley? Yeah, I expected as much. We’ll have the party some other time.” The cardboard box on the counter reminded him of a medium pizza, and his growling stomach yanked him across the kitchen and forced him to lift the lid. The words Happy Birthday Hadley & Noah formed a half-circle at the bottom, and the rest of the cookie contained chocolate stars and moons. “No, I haven’t talked to her yet, but I am thinking of eating their cookie. It’s looking good. I’m sure she’s okay. Heck, she’s a nurse. After the war stories she tells me at night, a blizzard doesn’t worry me. How’s Little Bit? Yeah, you have a lodger, for at least tonight. Give him a birthday hug for me. I’m in the ditch out by the front yard. All right. Good night.”

He ate the biggest star on the cookie, closed the lid, and slid the box into the refrigerator.

Beep beep beep. Beep beep, beep beep.

The fridge hummed and the bright light released from its innards forced him to squint as he listened to his wife’s cell phone ring and ring and ring. The rings continued as he evaluated the uncooked and cold food.

“Screw it,” he said. He clicked the phone off, pushed the door closed, and rummaged through the cabinets for his bottle of Jack Daniels.

The ringing of the phone forced him to abandon his search.

“Hi,” he heard her say with the clanking of glasses and forks to plates in the background, and he thought he could hear, no, he knew he heard, laugher and the faint sound of a sports program on a television. “Was that you who called? Where you been? Why didn’t you call today? I’ve been worried.”

“As soon as I saw snow this morning, I hauled my butt home,” he said. “I tried calling, but the cell phone has been out all day. Where are you, birthday girl?”

“I can’t believe I’m not with my little boy on our birthdays. I feel so bad. Hey, I guess we’re lucky that we didn’t plan a big to-do, huh? Oh, I’m at Ruby Tuesday’s. A bunch of us decided to grab some dinner. They’re only serving appetizers, but we’re struggling through them.”

More giggles, and he heard her take a gulp of something.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said while entering the bedroom. “You’re not gonna try to drive home, are you?”

“Not sure. I might carpool with a girl who works in the front office. You know, strength in numbers, and all that.”

“Don’t,” he said on his way to the living room, holding his pillow and dragging their blanket behind him to the couch. “The whole world is iced over. Stay there. You have to work tomorrow anyway. Sleep anywhere. You’re better off at the hospital, trust me. Hey, hold on a second.”

He slipped his trousers off and dropped them to the floor, and after unbuttoning the top two shirt buttons and the ones at his wrists, he pulled his dress shirt over the top of his head and threw it across the room.

“You there?” he asked as he walked down the hallway and into the bathroom.

“Yeah,” she said. “What’s that sound?”

“Huh?” he asked as he aimed for the toilet. “I don’t hear anything. Must be something wrong with your cell phone. Hey, I spoke with your parents a few minutes ago.”


“How’s our little boy?”

“He’s fine. He’s not coming home tonight, that’s for sure.”

“I think that they’re having fun with him.”

“We’ll see how they feel about that after tonight.”

“I’m sure they’ll be fine. I spoke with Mom about a hour ago. She sounded like she was okay.”

“It’s a good thing,” he said as he flushed and walked back to the couch. “Hey, where’s that bottle that I had in the cabinet?”

“The baby bottles aren’t in the cabinet.”

“No, not the baby’s bottle. My bottle of Jack.”

“Oh, I was cleaning the other day, and it was almost empty, so, I threw it out. What are you doing tonight?”

“Not much,” he said, and he pulled off his socks and collapsed on the couch. “Well, finish your dinner and be safe, honey.”

“Okay, and you have fun, too.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Aren’t you going sledding? I would.”

“Hell no. I’ve slid enough today.”

“Goodnight,” she said, laughing and adding an, “I love you.”

“Love you, too.”

He moaned as he stretched out along the couch and jammed his toes between the leather cushions. After a couple of turns of his head, the feathers inside the pillow shifted into an acceptable shape, and he raised the left side of his body, then the right until he was swaddled inside the blanket. The glow from the television brightened the room a little, but it left flashes of darkness as he flicked from channel to channel. The satellite service could not penetrate the clouds, and after a few clicks of the remote, he shifted the television to his local channels, faded with snow.

“That’s right,” a newscaster said. “It was hard to tell who was moving and who never would move.”

“Real funny, jerkweed,” he said, switching to another station, turning the volume down low, and dropping the remote.

With glassy eyes, he stopped trying to watch television, shivering one last time before sinking deeper into the feathers and leather with a weatherman providing the background noise: “Colder temps are going to be moving in and affecting us, so get ready for that. Take a look at Channel Seven’s Magic Eye Radar. You’ll see that the precipitation is over. We still could have a few flurries, but the dryer and colder air continues to move in. Don’t look for any more accumulation for now. A couple other locations to look at: seven inches Antioch; six inches Red Boiling Springs. Seven in White Bluff. Six in Franklin. Six in Mount Juliet. The big story now turns from the snow to the cold air that continues to push into Middle Tennessee.

***

Roy Burkhead is a writer and editor in Nashville, Tennessee. After earning an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, he created the Writer's Loft at Middle Tennessee State University. Roy spends his days writing for the corporate world while trying to stay awake long enough at night to write fiction.

© Kathy Rhodes

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012