It was snowing like hell and I was in the middle of Ohio, so that was two bad things.
The snow had started the day after Thanksgiving and it hadn’t let up now for twenty-four hours. I’d gone to Toledo for a medical procedure, and was now on my way to Pittsburgh to conclude some long-outstanding business of a very personal nature- an easy five hours on any other day. But today was no ordinary damn day.
As the weak winter Sun lowered past the naked branches of trees lining the interstate, and the snow continued to blow against the windshield of my Studebaker, and the old familiar spidery tinge at the base of my spine started snaking its way north up my backbone. This could be fine, or I could be in trouble. The whole thing was a tossup.
I kept driving for a spell, taking the occasional sip of hot coffee from my thermos to help convince my eyes to stay open. I kept driving, and things kept getting worse. The highway was getting bad. They’d salted it, but the new snow was coming down too fast. By the time I passed Elyria, the world around me was an inky black void beyond the halo of my headlights, populated only with the swirling, dancing white flakes which crashed over the glass in a constant barrage before skittering every which way. Every so often there would appear the occasional twin pinpoints of red tail lights ahead, which would slowly grow and grow until I’d pass some big truck taking it easy on the bad roads, or sometimes some poor family in a wood-paneled wagon, the father’s knuckles white on the wheel, his wife making the whole thing harder by hollering at him the whole time. The kids would be in the back, frightened like their parents or not caring at all, reading a comic book. Kids.
I’d take it easy passing them, so as not to startle the old geezer into jerking the wheel and killing his whole family. I didn’t need any more blood on my conscious than I already had. Once safely past them I’d push the engine a bit more. It was a good heavy car, the Studebaker. It held the road well. But the brakes were worn, and I knew I had to watch it. I’d meant to get them replaced, but I’d been busy with my work, lately. Now here I was.
Another ten miles and the damn stuff was coming down worse than ever. I’d had to slow way the hell down just to stay on the road and not steer off into the ditches on either side. This was getting ridiculous. If I slowed down any more I’d have to put the goddamn car in reverse. I passed a sign for an exit that advertised hot food, and my stomach did a little somersault. I was almost out of coffee, too. As the exit neared I turned the wheel to get off. Bad choice. The wheels on the car turned, but the car keep going. I tried to steer into the skid but the back end started slewing to the left. I tapped the breaks, nothing hard- but I may as well have not. The Studebaker started doing a lazy spin across the double lane. I saw trees pass before me, then the highway behind me, then more trees, then the exit ramp, then trees again until finally the Studebaker pirouetted to a gentle stop, sitting crosswise across two lanes of traffic.
Luckily for me the road was now all-but deserted. I took a breath and shook off the spiders that had crawled up the back of my neck. I had to get off the road before a car came. The Studebaker had stalled during the skid, and I pressed the starter to get it going again. It churned, and coughed, and that was about it. I pumped the gas pedal a bit to feed the engine and tried it again. Cough. Gurgle. Nothing.
Something in my periphery caught my eye. Far off down the road two white lights had appeared over a small crest. Alright then. Time to get moving. I could see the long graceful slope of the off ramp right in front of me, making its graceful way down the low embankment until it met the straight rural road below the interstate. Right there at the junction sat as cozy a little diner as you could want, its neon open sign glowing, road-weary sedans and trucks parked in the lot. I’d skidded out right at the exit. So close, just a few feet.
I gave it a little more gas, careful not to flood the engine- and pressed the starter a third time. The engine gave a few turns this time. Good news, since the headlights down the road had now grown a helluva lot closer. I tried again but just got the same result. And again. Alright. The lights were starting to get awful near. This wasn’t working.
Out of habit I stuck my hand under the seat and pulled out the coal-black 1911, made sure the safety was on, and tucked it in my coat pocket before elbowing the door open. I put the shifter in neutral and got out into the freezing bluster. The lights were pretty damn close. I pushed on the door with all my might, and wound up with my bandaged face on the icy concrete as my shoes went out from under me. Beneath the car, I got a good look down the road. It was a truck that was coming- one of the big ones they used for hauling goods cross-country. Even if the fella driving somehow saw me in all this blowing crap, there was no way he could bring something that size to a stop in time. Not on this ice. The truck’s radiator grille would be chromed steel. The idea of trying to put a bullet through its engine block to stop it was nothing more than fantasy, especially in this weather. So I got back up and pushed again, digging the heels of my shoes in as best I could. I pushed for what seemed like a real long time, and then a miracle- the Studebaker’s wheels rolled maybe an inch. Then another. I dug in and pushed again. Each inch was a bit more momentum to get her rolling. I didn’t look up for the truck anymore. Looking wasn’t gonna make it slow down any. A foot now, then another. Only ten more to go. The car was rolling good now. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of my shadow stretching out, lit by the oncoming headlamps. I kept pushing. The sound of an air horn came out of the darkness. He’d seen me, but it was too late. I dug in and gave another heave and the Studebaker’s front tires slipped over the white line and onto the inclined pavement of the ramp. Gravity was on my side now. I kept pushing.
With a frigid gust of wind and a roar, the truck barreled behind me, missing the back bumper of the car by I don’t know how many inches. Probably not many. The sound faded and then the behemoth was swallowed by the night and gone like a phantom.
The Studebaker was rolling on its own now. I hopped in before it could get away from me and closed the door. The heavy hunk of steel rolled down the hill in silence, a Flying Dutchman with me pumping on the breaks the whole way. There was a stop sign at the bottom where the ramp met the road but fortunately no one was coming as I sailed through without stopping, bumping over the low curb of the diner’s lot and rolling to a gentle stop next to an old Packard.
I put the key in my pocket and glanced at the reflection of my face in the rearview mirror. This was going to be complicated. Maybe I could just wait out the storm in the car. By daybreak it would probably die down. But the car was dead, at least until I could look under the hood. That meant no heat, so after considering a moment I decided there really was no other option. I grabbed a scarf from the backseat, as well as a hat with a good wide brim, and did the best I could.
A gust of polar air swept across the parking lot as I trotted to the diner, making the radio aerials of the cars whip back and forth. I took the four steps in two and grabbed the door handle and pulled.