The kid’s already watching a show. He works here, and he doesn’t look happy about it. Outside, the snow falls off and on. It’s four in the morning. My phone’s going wild.

       A tattered sofa faces the TV, and we each sit at one end. The chip bag, by now, is empty, crumpled on the floor beside a tall potted plant. The plant’s leaves are plastic, furred with dust. On TV, something huge crosses the screen, a horror of gray fat in green water.

       I have no toothbrush, no bags. There’s no plan, just drive south, out of the dark and cold, swap Cincinnati for anywhere that sees sun in winter.

       Flying by the seat of my pants, my father would say. Taking off this way, it’s not like me. He’d be disappointed, my father, but he wouldn’t be surprised. He knew something about nights like these.

       The first message on my phone is Rachel asking, “Where are you?” The second: “Sam, are you there? Call me back.” There are five more I should listen to. One of these rings, I should pick up, but, watching TV in the lobby of a rundown Kentucky motel, there’s nothing I want to do less than talk to my wife.

I’d rather be in my room, but the TV doesn’t work. I tried the remote, pulled out the batteries and traded them for the alarm clock’s, but it wasn’t the remote. I unplugged the TV and plugged it back in, tightened the coax, and, when the TV still failed to bring a picture shimmering to life, I slipped on my shoes and made my way down the hall.

       The kid at the front desk was elbow-deep in Doritos. The bag crinkled silver and red around his arm. The hand in his lap was orange. So were the corners of his mouth. He wore a Santa cap with fur trim, a nod toward festivity. But, old as it was, threadbare with a limp and dirty cotton ball, the hat looked less like a Santa cap than a skinned rabbit turned inside out.

       He’d checked me in, this kid, but, now, he looked up at me like he’d never seen me before in his life.

       “My TV doesn’t work,” I said.

       The kid looked away. He was eighteen, nineteen maybe. He was fair-haired and fair-skinned, face so smooth it had probably never needed a razor. A birthmark the shape of New Jersey rode his left eyebrow like an unwise tattoo.

       “Which room?” he asked.

       I gave him the number.

       “Yeah,” he said. “That one’s on the fritz.”

       I’m not much of a TV watcher, but that night I longed to lie in my forty-dollar-a-night bed, pull the covers to my armpits, and veg out. I didn’t want to think about Rachel or her parents, how I’d left them opening presents on Christmas Eve, how the last words to my wife were gotta pee before I slipped out the door and into our car. I didn’t want to think about the fight waiting for me or the fallout when I finally answered the phone. All I wanted was a night alone in a room stale with cigarettes, TV busy with whatever passed for programming on Christmas morning.

       “I don’t mind switching rooms,” I offered.

       “That’s all right,” the kid said. “Don’t worry about it.” He stacked a couple of chips into a deck, then bit into them. He was high, or else he was very bad at his job.

       “I mean I’d like to move,” I said. “I’d like a room with a TV that works.”

       The kid swiveled his chair toward a computer screen and jiggled the mouse. He stared at the monitor a few seconds before informing me that nothing was available. I looked past him through motel’s wide front window to my lone car in the ice-laced parking lot.

       I returned to my room. I lay on top of the bedspread and watched the clock for an hour, the numbers marching toward morning. I left my room.

       In the lobby, the TV was on, the kid watching it. He was on his back on the couch, but, seeing me, he sat up. He smoothed the wrinkles from his pants, then returned his attention to the TV.

       It was still dark out, but already he’d unveiled the hotel’s advertised continental breakfast. A folding table displayed a dozen donuts in their plastic Kroger clamshell and a gallon of off-brand orange juice sweating in its jug. Pulp Free! the label read, in bouncy blue letters. A sleeve of Styrofoam cups stood beside the jug along with a roll of paper towels.

       I grabbed a donut, pulled a towel from the roll, and moved to the couch.

        “Mind if I join you?” I said.

       The kid shrugged. He turned up the volume on the TV.

Half an hour later, my donut sits uneaten on a square of paper towel on the arm of the couch. We’re tuned to PBS, watching a documentary on manatees. I’d heard of them but never seen one before. Manatees, it turns out, are these behemoths that cruise the Florida coasts. Picture a dolphin uglied up. Trade the smooth skin for a wrinkly hide, take a shovel to the bottlenose, throw on a few hundred pounds, and you’ve pretty much got yourself a manatee. The show calls them sea cows, says sailors used to mistake them for mermaids, which means, centuries ago, either manatees looked way better or sailors’ standards were impossibly low.

       Onscreen, a diver hangs underwater like a coat on a hook, a trail of bubbles percolating from his tank. A manatee glides by, a fat, gray turd, then the turd turns. At the animal’s approach, the diver extends a hand, and the manatee, God bless him, extends a flipper. Where a dolphin offers only a smooth curve of fin, the manatee’s paddle is toenailed. It’s an elephant’s foot, flattened. The manatee’s flipper touches the diver’s hand, and then the manatee swims on.

       I’m about to say something when I see the kid’s passed out. The remote’s slipped from his hand to the floor. I could grab it, change the channel, but I’m strangely invested in these walrus-faced animals, their gentle demeanors, their inquisitive, buckshot-black eyes.

       Then the documentary turns sad. The bubbly background music fades, replaced by something melancholy and orchestral. Manatees, I’m told, have powerful tails, but weak flippers. They move slow and rise, like blimps, to breathe. This means they’re all the time getting hit by boats. Next comes the footage: manatees with faces gouged by ships, tails macheted by propellers. In one shot, skin trails in streamers from a manatee’s back. The camera lingers on the animal’s sad eyes, and it’s like the Sarah McLachlan commercial for pets no one wants.

       The manatee is 45 million years old, the show says, and there used to be a lot of them. Now, there are 5,000 left, maybe fewer, with hundreds dead each year, fileted by props or gutted by hulls. Often, they’re hit by the very tourists and conservationists who come to swim with them.

       I consider this, swimming with a manatee. Nothing about it sounds like my idea of a good time: lowering yourself into water so cold a wetsuit’s required; dogpaddling through algae-slick springs; the very real possibility of running into an alligator.


       This is not an age of signs and wonders, so we take our signs and wonders where we can. I am rudderless, without direction, and the TV gives me one. And I think, why not? Why not enter freezing waters to see what all the fuss is about? It’s only Florida. I could be there in a day.

       I stand and walk to my room. I have no bags, I remember, and I return to the lobby. The kid’s awake. He stares out the window, watching the snow come down, fat flakes pedaling out of the sky.

       He looks a little like Toby in profile, and I think of other Christmas mornings, my brother and I as boys, scrambling to pass out gifts, this and the agony of Mom’s one-at-a-time rule. A present would be opened, passed around, admired, discussed. If the gift was an article of clothing, we were expected to model it before the next box was unwrapped. Friends pedaled past on new bikes, and, still, we’d be opening. Once, we broke for lunch.

       I don’t mean to suggest gifts in piles. Dad was a roofer, Mom’s work as a substitute teacher spotty and underpaid, and so our Christmases, like all of our holidays, were modest at best. I mean only to emphasize the glacial pace at which we opened, the deliberateness Mom imposed. We were being asked to savor the new things we’d been given, but also, I think, to appreciate what we already had.

       Only now, three decades later, my brother on the other side of the country and my mother below ground, my father who knows where and my wife probably crying herself to sleep, only now do I miss those mornings. Only now am I wishing there was a way back.

       If I could just get back there, I think, and it’s silly. It’s warmed up nostalgic bullshit, and I know this, and I don’t care—I want it anyway. I want everything easy as ribbons, safe as tape, predictable as tags and a tree with a star at the top.

       Memory’s a danger. Remember what’s lost and you lose it again.

       The kid on the couch looks at me, and any resemblance to Toby fades. The Santa hat hangs crooked on his head, like it’s come to life, swallowed one ear, and is working its way down his face.

       “I’m checking out,” I say.

       “You just got here,” he says.

       I nod.

       He looks confused, then insulted, then suspicious. He stands and moves to his place behind the desk. He shuffles a few papers over the surface of a wide calendar, the kind with perforated edges for tearing away each month when it’s up.

       “We don’t do refunds,” he says.

       “I’m not asking for my money back. I just want to leave.”

       He considers this. He pulls the hat from his head and his hair is short, sticking up all over, so blonde it’s almost white.

       “It’s a free country,” he says.

       I’m out the door and halfway across the parking lot when I hear the crunch of the kid’s sneakers in the snow.

       “Here,” he says. He’s got the donuts in his hands, the dozen minus the one I never got around to eating.

       “Take these,” he says.

       There’s a pop, and the container opens in his hands. I think that he means for me to extract another donut, maybe two, but then he’s wrestling with the thing, fitting the plastic pegs into their little holes. Lid secure, face grave, he hands over the stash. He wipes snow from his shoulders and goes back in. He has to. It’s his job. Me, I have nowhere to be except in bed with the woman whose calls I won’t take.

       I should call her. She won’t understand. How could she? But she’d know I was all right, that at least.

       I should call her, but I don’t.

       Through the motel’s big, frosted front window, I watch the kid. He’s back on the couch. The hat’s off and the TV’s on. I’m hoping to catch another shot of manatees crossing the screen, but now it’s news, a reporter in earmuffs talking into an oversized microphone, face braced against the cold.

       I wasn’t there the night my father left. I was at a friend’s house. So was Toby. We’d slept over, and the next morning Mom was there early to pick us up. She wore the clothes she’d worn the day before, and her hair was a helmet of red frizz. Toby and I were tired, drowsy in the backseat from a night of ghost stories and flashlight tag.

       Our mother watched us in the rearview, saying nothing. I caught her eyes, and then I knew.

       “Your father loves you,” she said.

       I started to cry.

       She was quiet through my crying, quiet long enough for Billy Joel to sing half of “Piano Man” on the radio before she said, “That’s enough.”

       Dad’s disappearance was a threat come true, and even Toby, at ten, was old enough to understand this as a thing best suffered without words. We didn’t speak of it, not for years, but went on with our lives, finishing school, marrying, finding work.

       It would be a lie to say, that morning in the car, that I made up my mind never to run out on whoever became my wife. Such decisions are made by grownups, promises attributed later to whatever mythologies memory builds.

       It’s true, though, that this, the running, is a thing I thought I’d never do. Certainly it’s nothing worth doing with no good reason. But what reason can I give? There’s been no miscarriage or mistress, no mismanagement of money. In short, no excuse.

       And this is why I can’t answer my phone. Because, when it comes, Rachel’s inevitable, all-consuming Why?, I can’t think of the first thing I’ll say.

       How, without sounding like a crazy person, do you tell your wife of ten years that it’s not her, not exactly, only that the thought of another day in that small, quiet house, another day in your small, quiet lives sets your heart hammering? That sometimes you wake up this way. That whole days go by and you can’t catch your breath. How to say?

       I pull my car from the space, out of the lot, down the street, and onto the interstate. In minutes, I’m all over the road. I cross a bridge black with ice, and suddenly the road is a carnival ride.

       There’s a shatter and a crash. I pull my face from the airbag and open my door to a snow bank. I close the door. The windshield’s busted, glass in my lap, dash glittering like a river.

       I will not be going to Florida.

       I straddle the median, a light pole tipped, car hood a memory beneath it. The pole’s a miracle, filling the median’s middle and out of the road so that at least no cars will crash because of me.

       The car’s still running. I pull the key from the ignition and my phone from my pocket. I should call 911, but there’s no rush. I’m not hurt, and there’s someone I need to speak to first.

       Already, I foresee a day when I’ll tell the story of the night I almost died. Maybe there will be children, and I’ll tell them how Daddy was about to do a stupid thing when fate stepped in, reminding him what’s important and what’s not. This, of course, will be more warmed-up bullshit, the story I tell others when I need to feel like life makes sense.

       And does it matter that fate stepped in, that ice made the choice for me, ice and a light pole? I’m not sure that it does.

       Rachel’s hello, picking up, is groggy, then wide awake.

       “Where are you?” she says, and I have to tell her I’m somewhere south of the river, that I’m okay but the car is not.

       “Don’t come,” I say. “The roads are ice.”

       But already she’s out the door.

       Through the hole where my windshield used to be and past the gray pole hugging my hood, I can see into the night. The snow’s slowed and the stars are lighting up like candles.

       I find the donuts on the floor, still snug in their plastic shell. I shake glass from the container, and the lid springs open.

       It’s only once I have a donut in my hand that I realize I’m trembling, shaking all over. I start the engine. I turn the heater to full-blast.

    Rachel’s still on the line, driving, not saying much.

    “Your parents must hate me,” I say.

    I’m wondering how long it will be before Rachel lets me make her dinner, how long before I earn my place beside her in bed.

    “I love you,” I say.

    “Let’s not do this,” Rachel says. “Let’s just get through tonight.”

    I bite into the donut. It’s gritty, much too sweet. In the distance, sirens. Above me, a sky stupid with stars.

    Tonight will take years to repair. Therapy, couples’ counseling, the works. It arrives in a rush, everything to come, but the thought doesn’t scare me the way you’d think it would. Because the thing I was afraid of, what I feared most—turns out, I’m not him.

    We don’t talk, but, through the phone, I can hear Rachel’s car, the motor’s hum and throb. And though, by now, the sirens are very close, it’s the hum I hear. That hum’s a tether, my wife reeling me in.

    “Still there?” she asks.

    I tell her I am.

David James Poissant is the author of Lizard Man, winner of the 2011 RopeWalk Fiction Chapbook Prize, and of a collection of stories and a novel forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Playboy, One Story, The Southern Review, New Stories from the South, and two volumes of Best New American Voices. He lives with his wife and daughters in Orlando, where he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.

Back to Freight Stories No. 8


David James Poissant

Black Ice