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Monday, June 25, 2007

Short Story: Flawless Tangos


“Beep-Beep! Beep-Beep! Yeah!” an appropriate Beatles’ song plays on the car radio amidst the long traffic jam on I-65. On the day before Thanksgiving, an unending trail of cars, minivans, SUVs and semis are piled up like dominos waiting for a push.
The snow started around noon. It’s 3 PM now and six inches of fresh wet snow lays packed firmly on the highway. With the thousands of vehicles struggling hopelessly to the far reaches of the Midwest on a holiday eve, and at this juncture, twenty-one miles south of I-80/94, the choices north branch to love ones in Ohio and Michigan to the east, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota to the west. The snowbound vehicles nearly touch each other in many places along the 50-mile long chain of metal and humanity and unfortunately have intermingled too closely in a few spots, like shy, inept dancers stubbing each other’s toes while in a slow waltz for the first time. Neither feels it is their fault the other can’t dance.
Sam sits in drive, a glazed over look on his face. The destination of Minneapolis is implausible by 6 AM tomorrow. In coming back home from Indiana University, he has never felt emptier in the fruitlessness of this journey. It’s the final holiday season to drive back from campus in the 79’ Regal, that has survived 275,000 miles of abuse and typical college neglect, and to see his folks, who are in the crutch of a midlife crisis over Caribbean cruises, European vacations, expensive vehicles, mortgage rates and IRA planning. All apart of growing up and older, moving forward and planning a future, Sam surmises apathetically, watching large flakes pelt the windshield without foreseeable end or remorse.
In the past five years, making his way through an accounting major via switching from marketing and political science, flunking a few courses, working at Chili’s, tending bar, drinking after work too much and dating a few intelligent, beautiful, if emotionally-detached from reality, women, who just never worked out, he felt sapped by all the time spent and hollowness left inside. The highway of his life kept slowly trudging forward like the clouded skies producing typical Indiana weather.
His high school friends at other universities, most of them closer to home at the University of Minnesota, will be more difficult to find this holiday. The cock-and-bull stories have waned in excitement and entertainment value from his bright-eyed freshman year when they all charmed. Sam will still see the old stalwarts: Jim, Tommy P., Jessie, Becka and Hog. They will go out to the Mall of America and drink till the closing time of 1AM at the 4th floor, five-dollar-a-head watering holes. Sam will play double-dee for the group, since guilt finally has won out over the binge drinking and frequent blackouts in his final year of school.
They will laugh, dance and toast and horseplay throughout Friday and Saturday night. Hog will moon some old couple out of the back of the Ninety Eight’s rear window on I-694; Jessie will flaunt her perfect chest in a snug red top with cleavage exposed, but just to leave some frat guy anxious and excited, yet unfulfilled as always; Jim and Tommy P. will argue over sports teams past, present and beyond, as they have since 5th grade at Thomas Edison Elementary; and Becka will be Becka. The quiet blonde girl that takes two beers to turn into a bounce-me-off-the-wall and throw-away-the-key all-night, party girl. Strange how life changes for those two nights of the year. Or so it seems to.
In the past ten minutes, the wall of cars has moved 500 feet. Mile marker 239 approaches. The Honda ahead is from Iowa. It has been in front of him since Lafayette. The wipers click by in delay mode. Eyes close for a prolonged second under the overcast, snow-filled sky.

“The National Weather Service has issued a blizzard warning for the northern Illinois and northwest Indiana…Twelve to eighteen inches are expected in northwest Indiana and ten to sixteen inches in northern Illinois… Travelers should seek shelter and lodging as soon as possible. Winds will increase throughout the night to forty miles per hour. Temperatures will fall near zero degrees with wind chills nearing sixty below. State Road--,” Sam pushes in the CD on the player. Damn. He selects a track and the first chords of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” begins to play.


Diana peers backward through the rearview mirror for a moment as the rear wiper sweeps off the heavy snow. The handsome guy behind looks annoyed. Probably heard the dreadful forecast. Only one mile to go, she gratefully thinks. A bit of relief comes in the form of a brief smile. But sadness weighs inside, for others, who have long journeys ahead in an unrelenting snowfall.
Diana hopes Grandma Johnson does not go to too much trouble. She will. As grandmas do. Once again this year at Thanksgiving, Diana drives to her new home in Lowell. Her mother and father died a little more than a year ago in a car accident on I-80 heading back from Purdue after dropping off their only child at the dormitory for the start of the fall semester. It’s been hard ever since. The last close relative is Mary Johnson. Her once close high school friends are scattered about and Iowa no longer feels like a home.
The quiet little engineer is what her snobby roommates, Yvette and Maria, at Duhme Hall call her. Toiling away for hours on Calculus, Statics, Thermo, Optics and her blow-off course, Cost Accounting, she is expecting all A’s in three weeks, after finals. Then off to Indianapolis for a mechanical engineering co-op with General Motors at their Allisonville plant.
She ponders back to when mom, dad and herself watched the Oklahoma-Nebraska game and ate homemade pizza; or when dad checked over the MG or Cadillac Seville, while she watched intently over his shoulder the mechanic’s magic he applied to every vehicle he ever touched. Or Mom dressing her up for Sunday school and church at St. Thomas Aquinas, where she fidgeted and squirmed in her dress on the pews. ‘Cute as a button’, the little old parishioners commented every Sunday in the vestibule, as Diana blushed. Their vacations to the Grand Canyon and quick trips up to Las Vegas afterwards sparkle again in her thoughts, captured in pictures forever kept in her heart.
A single tear flows down her cheek. More flakes drop on the windshield. A heavy gasp of air from the semi exhales from beside her. Bump. Bump!!!

She looks over her right shoulder to see that the guy behind her has hit her Civic. She stops the car, puts it in park, unfastens her seatbelt and proceeds to get out of the car. He is all ready out.
“I’m so sorry, I got in a daze and bumped into you,” Sam apologizes in a rush. Diana instantly warms to this.
“It’s ok. Probably there isn’t even a mark,” Diana adds.
“Yeah, but I shouldn’t be such a goof. I’m from Minnesota and should know better how to drive on this stuff.” Sam looks down into Diana’s brown eyes and sees true innocence and striking beauty in that brief moment.
“Well I used to be from Iowa, but I still can’t get the hang of snow driving. First snow, anyways. You know how people are, they forget after seven months without it,” Diana tilts her head up slightly towards Sam and feels something too.
“Maybe you’re right.” Then, they both glance awkwardly down at the bumper that has a softball size dent in it.
Sam hesitates, then says,”I feel so bad. Hey, I could buy you a cup of coffee at the next exit and we can handle this?”
“I am getting off there anyways,” Diana says.
“I thought you were from Iowa?”
“I was. My folks passed away---”
“Oh, I’m sorry---”
“Hey! Lovebirds!” A rude middle age man yells from behind Sam’s car. “Move your ass! The highway is all ready a winter fucked-up wonderland!” He revs the engine in park on the 99’ Corvette, while the window shoots up.
“Ok, Ok,” Sam places his hand out in an easy-does-it manner to the old prick. Diana looks over at the angry man with a small bit of contempt painted on her face, but them turns back to Sam, unflustered once again.
“Well, I’ll meet you at the next exit. There’s a Grandma’s close by to the right.”
“Sure, I’ll be there. You don’t have to pay for a thing. I’ll take care of you.”
Diana blushes slightly, “You will?” Sam stumbles out, “I mean--”
“I know what you meant.” she smiles.
“What’s your name?”
“Sam.”
“Diana.” They shake hands for a prolonged second. The snowflakes seem to stand still. A piece of the hidden sun finds the interstate around them in a spotlight. The remaining souls sit in idle, while they proceed onward.
They both head back to their cars and make the long journey one mile down the interstate. It takes twenty minutes to drive to Grandma’s restaurant.

In the nine hours of chatting at the restaurant, many things are decided forever by the couple. A future planned via an interstate mambo on snow. The blizzard, the holiday blues, the loneliness and the fears vanish under a cup of Joe or two bought for Diana Johnson Walker by Sam Walker.
And all the snow and growing wind on a jammed interstate dance floor could not stop their flawless tangos for the next 68 years.
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